The train line from mainland Kobe is a marvel of urban transportation. Opened in 1981, Japan’s first driverless, fully automated train pulls out of Sannomiya station, guided smoothly along elevated tracks that stand precariously over the bustling city streets below, across the bay to the Port Island.
The island, and much of the city, was razed to the ground in the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995 – which killed more than 5,000 people and destroyed more than 100,000 of Kobe’s buildings – and built anew in subsequent years. As the train proceeds, the landscape fills with skyscrapers. The Rokkō mountains come into view, looming menacingly over the city, peppered with smoke billowing from the dozens of narrow chimneys of the electronics, steel and shipbuilding factories.
Today, as well as housing the Port of Kobe, the man-made island contains hotels, medical centres, universities, a large convention centre and an Ikea store. There are also three government-funded RIKEN research institutions: the Advanced Institute of Computational Science (which is home to what was, until 2011, the world’s fastest supercomputer), the Center for Life Science Technologies, and the Centre for Developmental Biology (CDB).
At the entrance to one of the labs, a faded poster in a thin plastic frame shows the crew of the Starship Enterprise, a young Captain Kirk sitting proudly at the helm. Underneath is the famous Star Trek slogan: “To boldly go where no man has gone before.”