One of Japan’s first ports to open up to international trade, trendy, cultured Kobe has made a practice of being on the cutting edge of Japan’s food, fashion and culture ever since.Wedged between the sea and the Rokko mountain range, there has been a port settlement of some kind at Kobe since ancient times, but this bright and breezy seafront city really came into its own after becoming one of the first Japanese ports to accept foreign trade after the end of Japan’s period of seclusion in the 1860s.
Kobe has been widely associated with sophisticated culture and fashion ever since, encapsulated in the Japanese phrase, "If you can't go to Paris, go to Kobe"! Despite the damage caused by the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995, many of the buildings built from the 1860s to 1930s survive, giving Kobe a unique, cosmopolitan atmosphere all its own.
What to do in Kobe
Kobe can easily be split into three distinct areas according to its natural geography: the port area, including several patches of reclaimed land; the narrow strip of land sandwiched between the sea and the mountains which houses the main downtown area of the city; and the Rokko mountain range, towering imposingly over the city from behind.
In the port area, take a stroll through Meriken Park, a pleasant waterfront park dotted with lawns, fountains, and modern art installations. Look out for the iconic red-painted steel structure of Kobe Port Tower as well as a memorial to the 1995 earthquake in the form of a section of damaged waterfront left unrepaired. Time your visit for December to coincide with the Luminarie, a dazzling winter lights festival commemorating Kobe’s recovery from the quake.
From the city centre, ascend the small but steep hills of the charming historical Kitano district to visit the Ijinkan nestling at the foot of the mountain range. These are former residences of foreign merchants and diplomats who settled in Kobe after its opening to foreign trade. More than a dozen of them remain as interesting little museums open to the public daily.
The night view from the top of the lofty Rokko mountain range is rated as one of Japan’s best: take one of three different “ropeways” (cable cars, including one just by the Kitano district) that whisk visitors from the edges of the city up to observation points at the top of the peaks and marvel at the glittering array of lights spread out below.
How to get to Kobe
Arriving in Kobe from Osaka, you’re spoiled for choice for transport, as three railway companies all run direct trains between Osaka and Sannomiya Station in Kobe in 20-30 minutes. They are JR (departing from Osaka Station) and private lines Hankyu and Hanshin (departing from Umeda Station), of which JR is the fastest of the three and covered by the JR Pass.
Although the bullet train does run between Osaka and Kobe and will shave another 5 minutes off your travel time, it departs and arrives in less centrally located stations in both Osaka and Kobe. For this reason it is usually better to use the JR special rapid service rather than the bullet train.
The bullet train runs between Tokyo and Shin-Kobe Station. Hikari bullet trains take about 3 hours and 15 minutes. Nozomi trains are slightly faster at about 2 hours and 40 minutes, but are not covered by the JR Pass.