There are a lot of times where a familiar sight or sound in Japan makes me feel just a little bit homesick. Although these sorts of feelings are only natural, it’s much more pleasant if they can be negated or avoided. Either that or quickly bribed with an interesting manga or a trip to one of the major shopping areas in Osaka. Most of the times I’m able to indulge myself in one of my hobbies so that I forget what it is that has made me feel homesick. However, there are occasions where no matter what I do, I can’t get rid of the niggling feeling at the back of my head that tells me I shouldn’t be ignoring these strong sensations. The beginning of this month was one of those times. Holidays and family traditions are very important to me but most of them are well taken care of by the Japanese people who do their best to adopt different cultures and customs into their society. Christmas and the New Year are held in high regards in Japan and celebrated with just as much energy and spirit as any Western country would. But what about the Chinese New Year?
In my family, the Chinese New Year is just as important as the Western one. Well, perhaps slightly more important to some family members. During the Chinese New Year, which usually falls somewhere around the beginning or middle of February – or the first day of the first lunar month- and there are many age-old traditions which must be upheld by every family that celebrates it. This includes the extended family as well, no matter how large it may be. Not only that, but the Chinese New Year is not just a one-day thing neither. The festivities continue for as long as several weeks, allowing for plenty of celebration time, banquet dinners, the handing out of lai see (red pocket money), or lucky money (very similar to the otoshi-dama that is given to children during the Japanese New Year celebrations), and public performances. It is so popular in Canada – a country with a significant Chinese population – that a lot of companies allow their Chinese employees to take one or more days off in order to celebrate. Canada Post also issues limited edition stamps to mark the new animal year, some of which I have in my stamp collection back in Toronto. I myself probably place a greater significance on the Chinese New Year than I do the regular one which begins the new calendar year. It is because of this that I tend to feel homesick during a time of family togetherness and celebration. Plus I miss all the great food, my own share of the red pocket money, and the loud chattering which often turns into jovial bickering. Such fond memories…
Searching for a way to celebrate…
None of my family is within traveling distance where I could just pop in for a visit in order to leech some Peking duck, or my favorite sweet rice cakes (a dessert indigenous to the Canton region), off of them. But even without my family being accessible, I was determined to find a way to celebrate the Chinese New Year – one way or another. I reasoned that it shouldn’t be too difficult to find some location within the main Kansai area where a small Chinese community might exist. I didn’t expect it to be as large as the Chinatown in Downtown Toronto, but even a small little corner with a Chinese bakery and tea shop would appease my craving for a piece of ‘home’. Considering how there are gyoza (fried dumplings) on the menu of just about every ramen shop, I figured that the least I would find in my search was some Chinese food. So it was with great joy that I found Nankin-machi – a miniature Chinatown – located in Sannomiya, Kobe.
Nankin-machi fills up a sizeable area in the Sannomiya shopping district. It’s been around for approximately 150 years and contains 100 restaurants and shops. One of the newest shops that I found during a recent visit to Nankin-machi was a movie/music shop specializing in Hong Kong DVDs and Cantonese CDs. This was quite a lucky find for me because it means that I can now save on shipping and handling costs from ordering my favorite Hong Kong movies through the internet. Probably the most eye-catching lure of Nankin-machi are the old red buildings designed in the traditional Chinese style, right down to the brightly colored roof tiles. Most of the layout is composed of deep reds, oranges and yellows. And with red being considered a lucky and prosperous color, most of the paper lanterns and New Year decorations also concentrate on that end of the spectrum. All year round, Nankin-machi stands out as a separate entity from the rest of Kobe. This is partly because of the cultural differences, cuisine selection, and atmosphere. Once you enter this quaint little Chinatown, you’ll feel as if you’ve temporarily ventured into a small corner of China. As for the local cuisine, it is very different from what you may get in a regular restaurant serving Chinese food. The dishes incorporate the flavors and presentations of both Mainland China and Hong Kong. As you walk along the streets, you’ll be able to sample Chinese dumplings from the vendors on either side of you, if you can wade through the crowd to get there. Nankin-machi is an incredibly popular place with both Chinese residents and foreigners alike. Every time I feel the need to bask in some traditional Chinese music or stuff myself with dumplings and sponge cake – another absolute favorite dessert of mine – this is where I go. The difference between Chinese sponge cake and regular sponge cake is that the Chinese steam theirs which leaves it very moist and fluffy. I always make sure to buy enough sponge cake to snack on and some extra pieces to take home for breakfast the next day. Other traditional foods include shark’s fin soup, authentic fried rice, tapioca bubble tea (this fun drink originated in Taiwan in the 1980’s and is now extremely popular in Canada), Peking duck, and hot and sour soup.
Chinese New Year festivities
On any normal day, Nanikin-machi is packed with tourists and local visitors. But during the New Year’s festivals, the streets are quickly swallowed up by more people than can comfortably fit within such a small space. There are many festivities that are organized by the Chinese community in Kobe. Some of the more popular ones include the lion and dragon dances, and various martial arts displays. The lively drums, cymbal, and gong make the lion and dragon dances an all-around favorite for spectators who follow the rhythm to the pair of performers who operate the lion costume. With the help of the performers, one at the head of the lion and the other at the rear, the lion is able to jump and spring to and fro, leaping around in an active dance that is enchanting to watch. Getting close enough to see what is going on can be difficult because of the crowds but if one follows the shifting patterns closely enough, it is possible to establish a viewing spot near the front of the roped off stage. Aside from the lion dance, there are kung fu and tai chi demonstrations carried out by local martial arts clubs. These are fascinating to watch as well because a lot of the moves require a great deal of concentration and discipline. The only thing missing from these performances are the firecrackers… but due to the dangerous nature of these, I haven’t seen them being used in a Chinese New Year performance since the early 1990’s. In the place of firecrackers, audio substitutes are used to mimic the sparking and snapping sounds.
Ten Ren’s Tea
In Nankin-machi, there is a world famous tea shop which I always stop by to stock up on authentic Chinese tea. Ten Ren’s Tea supplies high quality teas that are carefully graded and sold in bags or loose tea leaf formats. They sell green, jasmine, oolong, pouching, pu-erh, ti kuan yin, and white tea (which I have yet to try), as well as a few other popular herbal, flavored, and organic types. Ten Ren’s Tea has many locations in Canada as well, including a bubble tea counter, so whenever I pay them a visit for refilling my beloved jasmine and black teas, it feels like I’ve temporarily gone back home. The staff is also very knowledgeable about the teas that they’re selling so they can give some pretty good advice on which tea is the best for you. And if you’re still not sure, they’ll offer you a free cup to try.
Old Hong Kong Restaurant
There are plenty of delicious restaurants inside of Nankin-machi, but the most highly acclaimed one is a few minutes away from it. About an 8-10 minute walk from Sannomiya station is ‘Old Hong Kong Restaurant’. It was awarded the first prize for being the best restaurant in Kobe and boasts an authentic Cantonese cuisine which is on par with that of Hong Kong’s. The reason for this is because the restaurant hires highly skilled chefs from Hong Kong in order to uphold the standard of their dishes. Whether you have the appetite for a lunchtime buffet or a seafood dinner, this is the place to appease your hunger for some high quality Chinese food. Traditional Chinese dim sum (which includes assorted steamed dumplings, pork, seafood, vegetables, puddings, and other desserts) is served with tea during the lunch hour. So for 90 minutes, you can eat to your heart’s content, sampling all that this restaurant has to offer.
Thanks to the people of Kobe supporting this wonderful little Chinese community, I’ve been able to celebrate the Chinese New Year in this home away from home. Being able to watch the lion and dragon dances while listening to the nostalgic music accompanying it was really relaxing. Walking away from the vendors with my hands full of glutinous rice sesame balls (savory sweet desserts), almond flavored jelly (in a dish of course!), cha siu bao (barbecue pork bun), and siu mai (shrimp dumpling) really made the occasion all the more enjoyable. And, even though this next dish did not originate in China (and it still remains a mystery where it came from), I always enjoy a well prepared plateful of ebi-mayo (shrimps in mayonnaise and occasionally decorated with chopped up peanuts). I’d eat them three times a week if I could get away with it. But that would mean more exercising and that isn’t as much fun as eating.
For the souvenir shoppers, there are various goods from China available for sale. You can get yourself some traditional Chinese clothes, masks, statues, slippers, or small odds and ends that will serve as neat paperweights. I like the foldable paper fans with an interesting creature like a phoenix or dragon painted onto them. When not in use, they make a great ornament for display on a shelf. And if you’re daring enough to try on some of the Chinese garb, you can stop by the Kanteibyo Chinese Temple, which is the perfect backdrop for photos of an oriental nature, to take your picture with some friends. Or, you can opt out on the cosplay and just take the pictures. It all depends on just how adventurous you’re feeling.
So, if you haven’t already paid Nankin-machi a visit, now is the perfect time to do so. With the weather being cold and dreary or snowy, a hot bowl of ramen and some steamed dumplings just might make your trip through this Chinese area very warm and cozy. Even if you aren’t into the snacking, the pictures make for good email attachments to send to family and friends back home. You’ll also be surrounded by dozens upon dozens of people with the same intent in mind, making the experience a remarkable bonding one with the Chinese community in Kobe.