When people hear the name Kobe, the first thing that usually comes to mind is Kobe beef. And when I searched on the Internet, some sites told me that for Westerners, Kobe is not an attractive place to visit because one of the main tourist spots is an area full of Western-style buildings.
However, Kobe is much more than just beef and old houses; it’s a port city where old and new, Western and Asian, nature and city life all meld into one. At times I felt as if I wasn’t in Japan anymore, and at other times, I thought this couldn’t be anywhere else but Japan. It holds a sense of the Meiji era and even I found the Western buildings enchanting and interesting to see.
Here are 10 things that you could do in Kobe in just over a day.
Although this is considered to be a Japanese garden, it’s the only one I’ve seen that also contains a couple of Western-style buildings. It’s peaceful and not full of people, so you can take your time, enjoy the picturesque scene, and really get a feel of the Meiji time period. The only other visitors while I was there were seniors wanting to savor their obento lunch boxes in the quietness of the city.
Also in the north part of Kobe, this area is concentrated with Western houses and buildings from the Meiji era. The Kazamidori House, originally owned by a German trader, is the one closest to the tourist information desk. It is said that the rooster weather vane and the red brick walls are the symbols of the Kitano area. Inside you’ll see traditional German-style furniture and decor, with small detailing influenced by Art Nouveau.
The green building next to the German house is a former residence for an American Consul General. In the brochure, they recommend paying special attention to the bay window, the arabesque staircase, and the mantelpiece.
In total, there are about 15 buildings you may wish to spend time visiting. Some feature design and furniture, others house galleries such as the Kobe Trick Art Museum. It may, however, be best to pick and choose which houses to see since most of them require separate entrance fees, and especially if you’re limited on time.
Unfortunately, if the weather is not so great, as was the case when I visited, the ropeway will not be in service. Ordinarily, it will give you a panoramic view of Kobe and give you access to the gardens and cafes at the top. But you don’t have to get too disappointed if the ropeway is closed since you can still do a little hike close by and see Nunobiki Falls. There is a clear pathway that leads to a number of beautiful waterfalls making up the Nunobiki Falls. It’s a nice way to get out into nature without having to travel very far.
Many cities in Japan have shopping arcades (great for rainy days), and this one doesn’t seem all that different than the others. Having said that, I will admit I didn’t get to see every store, but there were a couple of places that stood out for me.
One was a small, easy-to-miss chocolate store called Ichiban Kan (Japanese only); the entrance is on a side street and the store is located on the third floor of the building. You may be able to find their signature chocolate-covered dried apples being sold in department stores throughout Japan, but at this main store in Kobe, you’ll find all their delicious combinations of different flavored chocolates with various dried fruits. They make a great gift for coworkers or family to share.
With the headquarters of the big Japanese coffee company, Ueshima Coffee Co., Ltd. (UCC), in Kobe, it’s no wonder that the city has a big coffee culture. In the Motomachi Shopping Street, you can slip back in time at Kobe Nishimura Coffee (Japanese only), a chain store with the bulk of their branches in the Kobe area. The first store was established in 1948 and it seems as if it tries to keep up that atmosphere. For something different, try their cashew coffee. It’s made with finely ground cashew nuts and topped with a bit of whipped cream, a combination that works very well. Although it may sound as though it would come out gritty with the nuts, they’ve managed to make it a very smooth drink that goes nicely with the mild sweetness of the cream.
Speaking of coffee, this brings me to my next recommendation of the UCC Coffee Museum. It’s located a bit farther from the city center, on the port island, but if you’re a coffee lover or are staying close by at a hotel on the island, you may want to pay a visit. Most of the exhibits have explanations written in Japanese, but there is the option of using your smartphone to listen to a commentary in English.
If you’re there at the right time, you may also be able to taste and compare two different coffees (the tasting ticket is included in the entrance fee). If you missed the tasting time, you can always head over to the cafe where you can buy a coffee from the country of your choice. For the connoisseurs, you may want to try the luxurious 2,500 yen per cup of coffee from France.
This small but unique museum is located just slightly east of the Motomachi Shopping Street. It features antique dolls from mostly Europe and some from Japan. Even if you’re not a fan of dolls, you may be interested in the horror movie-like chill you get from the dolls’ watchful eyes when you enter the exhibition.
Just one block from the Doll Museum is a small but famous shrine that people have been visiting since possibly the 1700s to pray for safe transportation and wisdom to make one’s business prosperous. Because this shrine was around when the port was opened up to foreign trade and settlement and saw the city becoming more abundant with merchants, the name “Sannomiya” was used in the names of many businesses and thus has become well known throughout Japan.
Located right next to the Motomachi Shopping Street is a whole street filled with red Chinese lanterns and decor, and the appetizing aromas of Chinese food. Although I did not get to try it myself, the gyoza in this area seems to get good reviews.
Kobe is known for its beautiful night scenery. One place to view this after dark is at the port area. The Kobe Port Tower and the Kobe Maritime Museum are lit up at night to create a wonderful view from the Harborland side. You can have dinner at the umie building while viewing this symbolic scene of Kobe.
If you leave Kobe without having Kobe beef, all your friends will be disappointed that you didn’t try this most famous brand of Japanese beef. It can get quite expensive, but I was thoroughly satisfied with a reasonable Kobe beef nabe (hot pot), also known as sukiyaki, in a small underground restaurant called Sakaeya at Sannomiya Station (Aji no Noren Wing).
For just 1,400 yen, I got to try Kobe beef in a filling sukiyaki, along with a bowl of rice and tsukemono (Japanese pickles). Make sure to dip the beef in the raw egg which makes the beef feel juicier and mellows out the bold flavor of the broth, not to mention it goes so well with rice.
So for those of you who have been told that it’s not worth it or it’s not exciting to visit Kobe, you might want to ignore what you have heard and take a trip out to see this city with character. You’ll get a sense of the Meiji mix of Western and Japanese, you can see some beautiful nature and city scenery, and do some shopping all in just over a day. You won’t run out of things to do in this overlooked city of Kobe!