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What Disasters Teach Us
Darron Davies Investigates a Surprising Institute
By Darron Davies
Special Correspondent
The Disaster Reduction Museum and the Human Renovation Institution is situated about 3 minutes walk from the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art.

Anyone familiar with the photographs of Shomei Tomatsu, or Miyako Ishiuchi, will be aware of how objects can speak for a tragedy.

This has particular resonance in Japan as Tomatsu's evocative images include a watch face frozen in time – it was only 700 metres from the epicenter of the
Nagasaki explosion, or a bottle that has been morphed into an animalistic shape.

Ishiuchi's recent photographs, of clothing and objects, held by the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, are equally moving. It is as if objects can speak, find new meaning in the face of an overwhelming disaster.

The same can be said for my visit to the Disaster Reduction Institute in Kobe. This Museum gives an informative, meaningful and at times poetic voice to the events of the Great Hanshin-Awaji earthquake of 1995.

What strikes me most on my tour is the sensitive presentation of objects: a melted shop sign, broken golf clubs, fused coins, a damaged flute, a dented harmonica. A manhole cover has been transformed as if into an abstract work of art.

I discover these in the Memories corner - they are beautiful in the way that they attract the eye, arresting insofar as they clash with the emotions, bringing home the everyday truths of that time in Kobe.

Simple facts speak powerfully: 109,906 damages houses, 144, 274 partially damaged houses, the deaths of 6434 people, 43, 792 injured. The earthquake struck at 5:46 a.m. on Tuesday, January 17, 1995.

The meaning of the disaster is palpable as you walk through the centre: a magnificent glass building that strikes you with its ironic form.

It isn't until I speak with an English speaking guide that I realize this state of the art building is specially built - its outer glass walls are designed to flex in the face of an earthquake, its decorative moat to act as a source of water in the event of a fire. Both interior and the exterior are true to the sobering facts of earthquakes.

Having seen a visual presentation of the disaster - more a sense impression than a documentary – I am led through a life-size diorama of a damaged street.
This is followed by a cinematic documentary. I am politely handed a headset so I can hear the presentation in English.

What moves me about each exhibit is the care in presentation, the sensitive attitude of staff - that personal touch.

I am met by two English speaking guides at different points. Each allows me space to see exhibits, patiently explaining. One man, with care and dignity, tells me of his experiences at that time. His stories are tragic and emotional.

Personal accounts on computer screens – many in English translation – document everyday stories: those of children, mothers and students.

What we assume to be secure was shattered at that time, heightened, made surreal.

Displays explore disaster prevention and recent worldwide disasters. I see models on liquefaction and contemporary building design. There are state of the art computer screens, childrens' drawings, personal accounts left by visitors on a message board.

One of the great questions in museum design is how to convey the effects of disaster. The Disaster Reduction Museum does this with dignity and sincerity.

Facts are balanced well: the trauma, the sobering facts, the positive recovery, and the harm minimization strategies – all within a personalized and shrine - like respect.

The centre also has a significant research, training and practical focus in the event of disasters.

The Human Renovation Museum, on the same site,
includes exhibits about nature, the "preciousness of life" and the human body and mind – a lovely counterbalance.

I leave with new understandings.

The following week I visit what is normally a quiet shrine in suburban Osaka.

Monks are chanting, wood is burning, people are gathering for a breakfast. It is January 17th and the 14th anniversary of the Kobe earthquake. It is a quiet moving ceremony.

I feel even closer to Japan – thanks, in part, to the Disaster Reduction Museum and the Human Renovation Institution.

The Disaster Reduction Museum and the Human Renovation Institution is situated about 3 minutes walk from the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art.


By train from central Kobe:

Approx. 10 minute-walk from Iwaya Station or Kasuganomichi Station of Hanshin Railway.

12 minute-walk from the southern exit of JR Nada Station
Approx. 20 minute-walk from the western exit of Oji Koen Station of Hankyu Railway

By bus

Kobe City Bus (route bus): approx. 20 minutes from Sannomiya Station.
Hanshin Railway Bus (non-stop) Approx. 15 minutes from Sannomiya Station.

By car

Approx. 8 minutes from Ikutagawa Ramp, Hanshin Expressway Kobe Route
Approx. 4 minutes from Maya Ramp, Hanshin Expressway Kobe Route
Approx. 10 minutes from Sannomiya Station (Hankyu, Hanshin or JR)


¥ 800 Adult for both Museums
¥ 500 Adult for each museum.


9:30 - 17:30 (admission until: 16:30)
9:30 - 18:00 from Jul. to Sep. (admission until: 17:00)
9:30 - 19:00 on Fridays and Saturdays
(admission until: 18:00)
Closed on Mondays

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Mr. Darron Davies, who serves as a special correspondent for The Seoul Times, is a freelance writer based in Melbourne, Australia. He is a photographer: and works as a specialist in education supporting creative teaching within schools :






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