November 13th, 2014 was one of those perfect autumn days. Not a cloud in the sky, and in fact, it was so clear you can make out the skyscrapers of Tennoji and Namba looking out across Osaka Bay. No signs of haze on the horizon, a perfect temperature lingering between “cool” and “warm,” and I was even lucky enough to finish teaching early at one of my smaller schools. Why waste this gorgeous day sitting in front of a computer screen writing video game articles, other than the fact that its my job, of course?
Instead, I took the chance to undertake one of my personal favorite rituals: the Kobe, Japan Retro Gaming Hike, and I’d like to share it with you.
I save this hike for the days I’m feeling especially nostalgic, and today is one where that’s all I feel in my heart. For one, it’s fall, the season of nostalgia, so any New England bred human being knows that this means. Secondly, I just waxed through my favorite PlayStation-era video game intros in a time-warp article back to the late 90’s. And finally, I’m playing through Persona 4: Golden, a great game with a Japanese countryside setting that will touch anybody who’s spent ample amounts of time in the country.
Needless to say, my cravings for an older time needed an outlet, and this is the best way I know of to satisfy that.
The smaller school I worked at today, which is situated in the city of Kakogawa, runs along a different train line than the one I normally take, and it just so happens to have a stop a hairs walk away from Suma Beach, where our outing begins at roughly 11:30 AM.
Exiting the train from the Suma Station platform, to the immediate east is a mountain which seemingly jets out into the sea, Sumaura Mountain. Its base is the point where Kobe’s coastline makes a sharp bend and acts as a divide between downtown East Kobe and the more residential West Kobe. Eagle-eyed readers might be able to see our destination on top, a lookout point on the summit at Sumaura Sanjouyuen (roughly Sumaura Mountain Top Park), and it is here we will find our retro-arcade as well as other fun ways to lazily waste away a family afternoon.
Walking along Route 2 from the station takes about 15 minutes to the mountain path at Sumurakoen Sanyo Station. Around the base of a mountain is a nice park filled with gorgeous autumn leaves, which are currently at their peak in mid-November, and other statues and monuments, mostly dedicated to the 1995 earthquake which severely damaged the city. At the base, you can opt for a 350 yen ropeway ticket to the top or hike your way up.
Since we are all about “getting out” today, we’re truckin’ it.
It’s now 12:15 and we’ve finished the hike without stopping to rest once. Sweating like pigs, but we’ve made it none the less. I must be in better shape than I thought. Our first greeting of civilization at the top of this mountain is the Harima Ropeway Station and a lookout platform. However, this is not the lookout platform we are looking for. We still have another five minutes to the top, but this lower one I would say gives you the best glimpse at East Kobe as well as the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge to the west, the world’s longest suspension bridge.
Below the platform, you can take a short tram ride up, but we’ve already hiked for 45 minutes, what is another five going to do? Suck down that beautiful mountain autumn air, and let’s get it done! Almost there!
Ah, the summit. We have reached our first destination, and the peak at a whopping 260m. It’s not exactly Japan’s biggest mountain, but remember, this is a family park, so children have to get up here too. It’s also a wonderful place to catch the New Year’s sunrise if you want to chug up that mountain at 4 A.M. Not as bad as it sounds, really.
Behind the lookout building is a small, rickety set of sky-buckets which heads over to the children’s park, Sumaura Sanjouyuen, but we are more interested in what’s inside. This four story building does have the retro “Game Center” on the second floor, but let’s check out the upper floors first.
The third floor is home to a rotating cafe called Cosmos, but I have to admit I’ve never stopped to drink a coffee here. The rotating floor, which does give you a great view of the ocean and Kobe, gives me motion sickness, so I can never stay for too long. Instead, let’s hurry to the fourth floor, which is actually the roof. Here we find one of the best views in Kobe, and the only place where you can perfectly see both East and West Kobe and even beyond.
Across the long bridge is Awaji Island, the oldest island in the Japanese creation myth and also the first place to cultivate onions in the country. Nice place to go if you need to take a day trip off the main island of Honshu. Way in the south, you can see across the bay into Osaka and even Wakayama prefectures.
However, now we can check out the main reason why we are here. The retro arcade!
Sorry if I got your hopes up. It isn’t exactly the size of an Akihabara retro-arcade, but they have some really great stuff here. Street Fighter Alpha 3, X-Men vs Street Fighter, Puyo Puyo, Puzzle Bobble, and Aero City line up along the SEGA arcade decks. One thing you should know about Japanese arcades is that very few have the actual original decks to play. Instead, most of these SEGA machines are simply PC’s placed in an arcade cabinet, and what you’re really playing is emulation.
Half the fun and experience of playing a classic arcade game is enjoying the art the company has chosen to decorate the cabinet with, something emulation can never replicate, and luckily this arcade is home to a few authentic “not-so” classics. Beast Busters, a machine gun game from SNK which I’ve never heard of, is decent, but there are better of its genre out there, and this Rad Mobile from SEGA has never actually worked I think. Just the car itself is cool.
The table arcade units house mostly Space Invaders Deluxe and a few other Namco classics, and there are crane games and other physical arcades for kids, but that’s it. Sorry if I got your hopes up, but at least you got to see some excellent views, experience the autumn mountain air, and… wait, what’s that?
SIKE! as we said in the 90’s, back when this game was popular. Sumaura’s retro arcade is home to one gem which always makes the hike worth it. Funny thing though is that you have to peddle a mechanical bicycle to play it, so you get your exercise after you exercise. Best let your heart-rate drop after your climb to the top.
Namco’s Prop Cycle is a classic, and maybe a few of you are old enough to have also seen it at your local arcade back in the states. It’s a fairly simple game with a few levels of difficulty and three stages to fly through. Your job is to peddle your air-bike through the sky and crash into as many balloons as possible within the time limit. Some give you points, others extend the time limit. Not exactly hard, but it’s a good work out and there’s always someone else’s high score to beat.
What is so wonderful about this game though is that it perfectly captures the spirit of early Japanese 3D arcades. The graphics have that early blockiness to them, but they are animated about as smoothly and pristinely as they come. I can’t think of a better example than this when showing off early 3D arcade graphics, other than maybe Tekken 3 or Virtua Cop.
Also, the game’s atmosphere is just gorgeous. Prop Cycle takes place in a fictional world where everyday has blue skies. The mixture of green grass, rocky cliffs, crystal clear water, and cute towns is especially Japanese in its aesthetic, and very Dragon Ball Z-esque now that I think about it, and it’s just the kind of place you’d like to take a family on a summer vacation. Even the arcade’s cabinet art captures that 90’s anime spirit too. Just lovely.
Check out the gameplay video below to see what I mean. Just a hundred yen to play!
Now that we’ve had our fun taking in the sights and dropping a few bucks on Prop Cycle, it’s time to head back down the mountain. Normally, I would hike my aging knees back down, but we are a little pressed for time. It is now 1 PM, and Ron has some writing to do…
…or I can take you to the second destination on our Kobe, Japan Retro Gaming Hike! First, we’ll get down from this mountain and hike it back to Suma Station. Normally, I would stop to eat a hot dog at Hansen’s, the best hot dogs in Kobe or possibly in Japan, but I am trying to slim down these days. Gotta fit into my tux!
We’ll climb these stairs and pass through Suma Station to the beach at about 1:30. Granted, it’s autumn, but every day at Suma Beach is nice for a stroll. The Beach Boys, post-Brian Wilson and Good Vibrations, even wrote a song about it, but it’s not exactly Mike Love at his best. Listen if you dare. In the summertime, it’s a great social place with makeshift bars and restaurants providing good drinks, food, music, and fun social times, but I prefer Suma Beach when it is quiet from September until June.
It’s a flat walk that only takes about ten minutes from one end to the next. Even if I don’t climb the mountain, I’ve made the walk so many times now, I know exactly where and when each of the landmarks is going to pop into view. The first rest area, the red fire tower, the palm trees, Suma Aquarium and its triangular roof, all the way down to the Suma Yacht Harbor on the end. Behind us, Sumaura Mountain vanishes in the distance.
After reaching the end of the beach at about 1:45, we cut through the aquarium parking lot and cross Route 2 via a footbridge. From the top, we can see Sumaura behind us, the last we will see of it, and in front of us, the exit ramp onto the Hanshin Highway. Our goal lies just below the highway, so we will come down and walk underneath. To the left, we have an Auto Memory shop which sells Minis, and I am far too large to fit into any of them! Yoshinoya, cheap and tasty beef bowls if you need a quick meal, and a unique McDonalds which has, I kid you not, McDelivery!
Thank goodness we do not have this in America!
Right after the McDonalds, we come to our second destination, Book Off Super Bazaar, or Hard Off as it is sometimes called. Book Off is a chain of stores in Japan which sells used books as a much cheaper price than normal bookshops. It’s very popular for manga fans and college students looking for text books and practice exams. This branch though is a Super Book Off through, meaning they will buy anything! Golf equipment, snowboards, clothes, vinyl records, ancient cameras, speakers, manga, movies, and of course, video games!
While the newer games are over on the book half of the store, we are interested in the Junk Corner, where we will find our retro video games. Here we can find old controllers, consoles, light-guns, Donkey Konga bongos, and just about anything you need for your retro gaming collection! Nintendo 64’s and Super Famicoms will set you back a hundred yen (~$1), PlayStation One’s cost 200 yen (~$2), GameCube’s run for about 400 yen (~$4), and even an Xbox 360 is available for 1,000 yen (~$10).
Today is also the first time I’ve seen PlayStation 3’s in the junk section, and they range from 3,000 to 8,000 yen (~$30-$80) depending on the model and size of the hard drive inside.
What about the games?! Well, as you can see, there are buckets and buckets of them. Again, older and more valuable games can be found over in the book section, but the ones here run for about 100 yen each.
I think my secret has caught on because this used to be a bastion of some really rare stuff, including an ultra rare Hanshin Tigers GameCube which I ignorantly passed up at just 400 yen, but the selection these days is running kind of dry. Shop owners come and pick them up cheaply and sell them at an inflated price back in downtown Kobe, called Sannomiya.
You can find some cheap and great games here though. I see Chrono Trigger, Parasite Eve, Resident Evil 2, every Dragon Quest game, Mole Mania right on top of the Game Boy pile. All here, all super cheap. Keep in mind that some of these games, like Chrono Trigger, will set you back at least $70 for just the cart in the states. Not so in Japan! You better study up on your Japanese though.
I only have 152 yen in change in my wallet, so I’ll only be able to buy one cheap game to show off. More on that later.
After we check out from Book Off, it’s just a jump away to JR Takatori Station, the usual end to my ritual. It’s 2 PM, a full two and a half hours after we started, and I am happily satiated in my nostalgia.
However, we aren’t quite done yet because there is one more nerdy site to show off. Just because my sentimentality is satisfied does not mean I am ready for this lovely day to be over. One more stop past JR Takatori to the west is JR Shin Nagata station, home to Kobe’s old shoe factory district, until the earthquake destroyed it, and now a popular yet local shopping center.
Oh yeah, it also is home to this! (Yes, these were taken on a different day, but my phone was dead by this point)
This is Tetsujin 28, one of Japan’s original giant robot heroes! His anime was localized in America as Gigantor back in America in the 60’s, but his name directly translates into “Iron Man 28.” I’m sure you can guess where trademark issues arise with him.
Anyway, the manga’s author, Mitsuteru Yokoyama, was from the Shin Nagata area in Kobe, and this 18-meter (59 foot) tall statue is a symbol of the district’s economic recovery from the earthquake 15 years later, finishing construction back in 2010. Unlike many of the Gundams you might see on TV, which are taken down after a period of time, Tetsujin 28 is planted where he stands, a permanent fixture of the neighborhood. Plenty of festivals take place around his ankles, and he is believed to defend Kobe from natural disasters.
Seriously, typhoons always seem to find their way around Kobe, never over it. I think the statue does his job.
It is here we end our trip for the day at 2:30 and JR Shin Nagata station will get you back to downtown Sannomiya or anywhere else you need to go.
Back at my place, watching sumo with my phone recharged, we are going to do a little un-boxing of the 100 yen retro game I picked up, Ganbare Morikawakun 2Gou. I’ve never heard of this game, and I can barely read the Japanese thanks to the ridiculous font, but apparently, it also has a PAL release in Europe called Pet in TV. It is exactly as it sounds, as you raise a virtual pet, or robot I should say, on your PlayStation. After building him, you set him free in the 3D world and he learns and adapts to different obstacles.
It was a choice between this an a convenience store simulator. Close call, but I couldn’t say no to this box. Plus, it’s been there forever, and I couldn’t resist not buying it any longer.
Here is a gameplay video. Looks charming enough, but most likely, it will just end up in the retro closet with all the other junk I’ve bought from Book Off.
And here ends my little segment. Sorry if I trailed off in places, but I love my city. Granted, this hike isn’t anything official or well known. It’s just a personal hobby of mine I do every once in a while, but hopefully you can get a decent idea of how wonderful of a city Kobe is and how it is one of Japan’s best kept secrets, whether you love retro games or not.