For those of you who are not qualified for Pro Tour: Kobe, or braving the Last Chance Qualifier tournaments, or simply attending out of the love for the game, thank you for clicking on the link, but this may not be the article for you. Japan is one of the most challenging tourist destinations that qualify for “places where you won’t be shot, we promise.” With Wizards of the Coast’s wonderful travel policy for PTQ winners, this will be the first chance for many to check out the Land of the Rising Sun. In order to make your trip to Kobe that much more pleasant, I’ll tell you the do’s, don’ts, and doables, as I give you the lay of the land. Some of this has been covered in my 2005 Worlds Survival Guide, so I’ll keep this short and dirty by pointing out the primary details. As always, I hope to tell you everything you absolutely need to know except what to play, how to play, and why it’s the right pick for the metagame.
2006’s Pro Tours have been in tourist Meccas to date. Believe me, Kobe isn’t a bad city. It has one of the best airports in Japan, and has a well-deserved reputation for boasting the World’s best (and presumably, most expensive) steak houses. If I were to be a stickler and nitpick over “Kobe Beef,” I would point out that the most well-known and famous variety, Matsuzaka-gyu, actually comes from neighboring Gifu prefecture, not Hyogo (the prefecture in which Kobe lies). But I’m not nearly that nitpicky. Don’t worry too much – it’s hard to go wrong with steak places in Kobe. Just avoid any place named Bronco Billy. And bring your credit card, they’ll take them here. (You’ll need it.)
But I’ve disposed with the city’s unique perks in the previous sentence. Compared to Hawaii or Prague, there’s nothing all that special about it. Kobe’s a working class city, like Manchester or Rochester. Aside from the beef, there’s nothing in Kobe you can’t do in any other Japanese city. I suspect Wizards picked the site due to ease of transportation and venue availability, not because of any specific local charm. So try to do something in your free time that’s quintessentially Japanese.
First of all, I strongly suggest picking up a travel guide. Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, Fodor’s… they release updates constantly. I won’t pick a specific one. Use whichever one seems most user-friendly to you. If you’re staying at a hotel, chances are someone at the front desk should have enough English to get you through the procedure. But if you have anything else planned besides playing Magic, you’ll want to try to communicate in a more detailed fashion, so get a phrasebook. There are a variety of map books out there, but the fact that most Japanese streets have no names will infuriate all but the most experienced trekker.
When you’re walking around, I strongly suggest carrying your passport on your person and not leaving it back at the hotel room. Japanese police officers regularly stop foreigners and check them for identification. If you don’t have it on you, you will have to return to your hotel room with the police officer and show it to them. That sort of situation has ruined visitors’ vacations before.
When you arrive, take the time to figure out how to get to the Shinkansen (bullet train) station, JR Shin-Kobe. From Shin-Kobe you can take a ten-minute ride on the bullet train to Kyoto. Kyoto is Japan’s second capital (holding the position from the eighth to sixteenth century) and the site of numerous museums, shrines, and temples. There are a number of excellent gardens, though Kyoto Station itself is ugly, being a giant, looming gray concrete hulk that draws a cloud over the city. There’s also an excellent central shopping district with a covered plaza. Kyoto’s Yellow Submarine hobby shop is an excellent place to buy singles and weird Japanese toys. (The Kobe branch is not that hot.)
My personal favorite pick for Kyoto sightseeing is Senso-ji, a Buddhist monastery nestled in the eastern mountains of the city. It isn’t a major tourist attraction, and climbing its 108 tall stone steps isn’t a good idea in the summer time. (Every year, an elderly pilgrim or two dies on the trek.) You could spend hours climbing up the grave-covered hill sites, turning back and gazing down at the sprawl below. October is one of the best times to see the city, though the leaves changing color aren’t all that exciting. (Japan has too many monoculture forests, much to my dismay.) There are many other choices, including Kinkakuji, the noble golden temple. But I prefer to head to the temples that aren’t wildly popular with the locals.
The bullet train in itself is a pleasant experience, hitting top speeds of over 200 miles per hour in the short stretch between Kobe and Kyoto. It’s one of those pleasures that you can grow to appreciate. It’s actually really tough to feel the sensation of the velocity at which you travel.
For those of you who are used to the security of a credit card in your pocket, be prepared to go into terra incognita. Ever the holdout, Japan has remained a primarily cash economy. So be sure to get some cash at the airport. The airport moneychanger rates are very reasonable, so don’t work hard trying to look around for a better deal.
As a modest tradeoff for the aversion to credit cards, you can rest assured that you can use large denomination bills to pay for anything. I paid the pizza delivery guy with a 10000 yen note (about 90 US dollars) and it was perfectly normal. Most train stations have two ticket machines, one of which can take 5000 or 10000 yen notes. The only thing you can’t do with large bills is use vending machines. (That could be significant.)
If you’re on a budget and need to eat, there are always good options. Convenience stores offer a great snack, onigiri (rice balls). Made with vinegar, and usually filled with something good, they’re filling, cheap and healthy. There’s a variety of o-bento – lunch boxes – that you can buy at convenience stores or supermarkets. Supermarket boxes tend to be of higher quality and better price, naturally.
(If you want to be offended, try the local spaghetti. It isn’t very good.)
I’m a big fan of Japanese curry rice. Japanese curries tend to be a little stronger and more uniform-tasting than Indian varieties. They’re usually served with rice, not naan.
If you’re a risk-averse traveler and don’t want to sample the local tastes, I’d advise finding a MOS Burger. The service is slow, but they’re the best reasonably-priced burgers in Japan. Rumor has it that MOS stands for Mountain, Ocean, Symphony. That’s something to contemplate as you nosh.
Drinking, like most other activities in Japan, isn’t cheap. If you want to try what the locals hanker for, there are a variety of different types of shochu – grain alcohols. Most of them don’t have too hard a kick. (Or so I hear.) They’re reasonable in comparison to sake, which is apparently something of an acquired taste.
The tournament venue is in a fairly accessible location, a fifteen-minute monorail ride from one of the city’s key stations. There’s a shopping mall next door, so there are plenty of places to eat and shop there, though it’s more typical shopping mall fodder rather than being packed full with local examples of cultural flavor.
If you’ve got any specific questions, feel free to ask in the forums.