Osaka, Japan’s third-largest city after Tokyo and Yokohama, is a definite visit when you’re in the Kansai region. There’s the Osaka Castle, the bustling Dontonburi Street, Universal Studios Japan; the list goes on. While it is my personal opinion that Osaka is more exciting by night, Osaka is also an excellent location for day trips. Nara and is less than an hour away to the east, and Kobe and Himeji are an hour or two away to the west.
Kobe holds the spot for the sixth largest city in Japan, and is the capital city of the Hyogo prefecture. It was one of the cities to open up for trade with foreigners in 1853 after the cessation of Japan’s isolation policy. It’s a city that retains both traditional and modern charm, it is a great add-on to an Osaka itinerary.
This day trip itinerary covers Himeji Castle in the morning, followed by Kobe Motomachi and Sannomiya in the early afternoon. After that, take a walk or bus ride to Kitano Iijinkan, the European quarters where the early foreign settlers lived. Return to Osaka in the evening for the specialty local street grub of grilled octopus dough balls (たこ焼き takoyaki), deep fried skewers (串かつ kushikatsu), Japanese savory pancakes (お好み焼き okonomiyaki), ramen (金龍 Kinryu), and a selfie with the Glico man.
Starting from Umeda station in central Osaka, both the JR Kansai Pass and Kansai Thru Pass allow convenient travel to Kobe and Himeji. Kobe is an hour west of Osaka, and Himeji is another hour west from Kobe. Purchasing a pass is recommended as you gain the value of the Kansai Thru Pass just by the trip from Osaka to Kobe and then to Himeji alone. For the Kansai Thru Pass, you may also ride buses, which may be convenient in Kobe and Osaka if you or your group prefer not to go around by foot.
In the morning, take the train through Kobe Sannomiya to Himeji or Sanyo-Himeji station. On the way, look out the train to catch views of the Port of Kobe, as well as the Akashi-Kaikyo bridge that links to Shikoku. The castle is a short walk away from the station. Also known as the White Egret Castle, Himeji Castle dates back to the 14th century and oversaw numerous warlord and shogun feuds over its development.
It is also famous for the tragic story of Senhime or Lady Sen, who married her first husband, Toyotomi Hideyori at the tender age of 7 and was widowed when he committed suicide in battle. She married the son of the lord of the Himeji Castle at the age of 20 and spent the best decade of her life there with her husband, son, and daughter. That was until her son died when he was 3 and her husband when he was 31. She subsequently became a nun and mourned her loss by praying every day, until she finally passed on at 70.
Back in Kobe Sannomiya in the early afternoon, walk through the main shopping street all the way down to Motomachi station. Kobe Chinatown is just around the corner. The pork buns (肉まん nikuman) from Roshoki (老祥記) are an absolute must-try. The juicy oily buns have a rich filling and a thin white dough layer. They are only 90 yen for one but many in the snaking line outside the store get 10 or 30 to go. Along the street are numerous Chinese family restaurants, as well as vendors touting Chinese snacks.
It goes without saying, that Kobe is famous for beef! There are some steak restaurants that specialize in Kobe beef such as the Bistrot Café de Paris, Wakkoqu, Steakland or Red Rock, but they could very much reduce you to having meals from convenience stores for the rest of your trip (the conbinis in Japan are actually pretty impressive!). If you’re really in the mood for some Kobe beef but can’t afford to shell out up to 10,000 yen per 100g for the good stuff, there is a pop-up store on the corner of the main square of Kobe Chinatown, just a turn away from the nikuman that serves up Kobe beef steaks or burgers on-the-fly. There are also some stands in Osaka’s Dotonburi that do the same for teppanyaki Kobe beef steaks.
After that, walk or take a bus to Kitano Ijinkan (異人館 ijinkan translates directly to foreigners’ residences) which is a historical district that still retains the foreign flair of the architecture of the early foreign merchants and diplomats’ mansions during the Meiji period. Some of the mansions are open to the public as museums and even restaurants, such as the England House, Yokan Nagaya or French House, and the House of Weathercock, to name a few.
After this, it is about time to head back to Osaka for an evening of merry-making. The hustle and bustle of downtown Osaka provide a great atmosphere especially during the night, when people revel in good food and drink.
If you have more time to spare or would like an alternative to the aforementioned activities, the Shin-Kobe Ropeway, also known as the Kobe Yume Fusen (神戸夢風船) or Kobe Dreamboat, is a fun way to view Kobe city.
One of the three services that elevates visitors up the southern slopes of the Rokko mountain range, it provides a stellar birds-eye view of the Nunobiki Waterfall and Herb Garden. At the top station, there is an observatory deck that provides an excellent view of Kobe city. A more interesting and fun way is to hike up from Shin-Kobe station, right through the waterfall and herb garden. The way up only takes 40 minutes, or 30 if you go past the garden. For the more adventurous, the same trail continues on to Mount Maya in the Rokko mountain range after passing the top station and observatory deck.
So the next time you’re in Osaka, be sure to include a day trip in your itinerary to visit beautiful, rustic Kobe and Himeji!