Kobe has long been one of my favourite Japanese cities. When I lived in nearby Osaka, it was a place I regularly took overseas visitors for a day trip, because it was such a good contrast to Osaka and Nara. Back then, it was only six years after the 1995 earthquake, but this had the effect of presenting this shiny, rebuilt city to me. Thanks to being a port city, it also seemed more international than other Japanese cities I knew, and it had the bonus of the mountains just above the city centre with all kinds of different experiences to explore up there.
When I returned for a couple of days recently, most of Kobe was just as I remembered, and it was still amazing. It is so completely different to the more popular nearby cities of Kyoto and Nara that it’s really a place you just must see. I hope I can convince you with these five favourite experiences in Kobe.
(Quick tip, something I never knew before: you can catch a high-speed boat, the Bay Shuttle, direct from Kansai Airport to Kobe. Beats the traffic and is a great spot to start exploring the region.)
This was a brand new Kobe experience for me and it was (although it’s difficult to pick) probably the highlight. Up in the mountains north of Kobe, behind Mount Rokko, we were taken to the onsen village of Arima, and wandered up and down the laneways tasting local snacks and seeing other people enjoying time away from work as well. Towards lunchtime, we visited one of the hotels that make up the Arima Onsen itself and had the chance to experience a traditional Japanese onsen.
It was not my first onsen experience, but it was the first for my fellow blogger Kim-Ling, and she read my old post on the experience of taking off your clothes in Japan in preparation! Being naked in front of other people is not a very natural thing for us Aussies but along with our guide, Mariko, we managed to navigate the etiquette of correctly undressing and washing before we got into the hot waters. We had chosen the bath which was indoors but had incredible views over the valleys behind Mount Rokko, with trees completely ablaze in autumn colours. We could have happily stayed there all day.
But there was lunch to be had! The onsen resort included an amazing restaurant and we had a mini-kaiseki meal, which meant plate after plate of tiny amounts of incredible foods, each one more delicious than the one before. I felt thoroughly spoilt and would love to return.
On top of Mount Rokko
In past trips to Kobe I had been up Mount Rokko to the Nunobiki Herb Gardens (I have particularly fond memories of the Fragrance Museum! – such interesting smells!) but this time I was taken to the an entirely different part of Mount Rokko. You can actually reach it by ropeway from the Aroma Onsen, and it’s also connected back down to Kobe city via a cable car, just to add some interesting transport modes to the mix.
My favourite spot up here was the Rokko-Shidare Observatory, a complex which includes this enormous wooden sculpture which kind of looks like a giant tree but kind of doesn’t – in fact it’s difficult to describe:
Every part of it has a special meaning and it must be amazing in winter as ice freezes along the little strips of wood to make it even more spectacular.
Nearby is the Rokko International Musical Box Museum, which struck me as a rather quirky thing to have on my itinerary, and it was, but so great! It exists thanks to the foreign influences found more in Kobe than other parts of Japan (Mount Rokko itself was developed by an Englishman back in the early 1900s) and is housed in a loosely German-style building.
The museum includes a collection of any automatic-playing instrument you can imagine (and some you can’t), highlighted in concerts throughout the day, and also features tiny musical boxes with hundreds of different songs. I was able to make my own to take home! In the botanical garden next to it, there are even little birdhouse sculptures which have a music box inside, and you pull the string to hear it play.
Those who know me well know me as a semi-vegetarian. Basically, I grew up eating no red meat and I barely eat any red meat now (and pretty much always cook vegetarian at home). I could see this Kobe beef meal on our itinerary and I was nervous. I’ve eaten a steak just once in my life, and it was in Japan, by accident when some Japanese friends took me out for an expensive meal and a miscommunication led to me having a steak on my plate and no real way to get out of it. I wanted to avoid such a situation again and asked my guide about it a couple of days ahead of time; she assured me the meal would include lots of other foods and the beef would be only in very small pieces.
So here’s the huge surprise: this meal (and any similar meal you might find in Kobe) appears in my favourite five experiences! We were taken to one of the Mouriya restaurants and were well looked after by a fabulous chef. From the thin and perfectly grilled slices of garlic (my mouth waters just thinking of them) and all kinds of other small dishes and even, yes even for me, the wagyu beef, perfectly done – it was all delicious. It may not be a cheap night out, but it’s a very Kobe night out.
I had drunk sake more than once or twice (a lot more!) during my time in Japan, but I had quite honestly never given any thought to how rice was turned into this versatile alcohol. At the Shushinkan Brewery where they make Fukuju sake we met the sommelier, Masa, who took us on a tour to show all the steps which go into making sake. It’s much more complicated than I would have imagined, but I’m glad they’ve got it under control because the results are well worth tasting.
After learning about the process, I was able to taste several different kinds of sake produced here at Fukuju, and then to enjoy a meal (in fact, my last proper meal in Japan for this trip) in the restaurant on site. There are quite a few sake breweries in the Kobe area (good rice and water thanks to the mountains, apparently) and I highly recommend a visit.
It might sound morbid to have a museum dedicated to a disastrous, tragic earthquake, but it’s not like that. The Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake Memorial Museum existed in a smaller form when I lived in Japan but now has a really impressive multi-storey experience and it’s all about educating people so that when another bad earthquake hits Japan (as, sadly, is bound to happen) people are able to decrease the harm it does.
A visit to this museum starts with an escalator to its top floor and a very vivid sound and video show reenacting the horror and damage of the 1995 earthquake. I was choking back tears by the end of that and then as we descended onto floors giving more personalised information about the people affected, it got worse. I casually asked our guide where she had been during the earthquake, and she explained that she and her daughter had been buried by their home but rescued by their neighbours; her parents, who had been sleeping on the floor below them, were killed.
That was a sobering moment. But even without a personal connection, this museum is very worthwhile and truly absorbing. A bit like the whole of Kobe, come to think of it.
So you know: Universal Studios Japan, the City of Osaka, the City of Sakai and the City of Kobe all supported this trip to Japan, but as always, all my opinions are completely mine.