Welcome back to my current blog series on my hopeful return to Japan at some point in the year 20?? As you may have noticed, I have not specified or speculated on the year that I hope to continue my exploration of my spiritual home. And for the sake of history, it is important to drop a bookmark here – smack in the middle of 2020. As you should no doubt be aware, we are in the midst of a global pandemic. The likes of which we have not seen for over a century. Right now, here in Melbourne, we are experiencing a second wave of Coronavirus. In my last blog on this series, where I explored a visit to Nara, I talked of the closing of state borders in a bid to slow the spread. Since then, we have gone back into a full lockdown with an even tighter restriction on the cards. The whole point to this interlude in my blog is to set the scene. And point out that I have absolutely no idea when I will be able to safely and efficiently travel again. Nobody does. But, I refuse to give up hope – hence this series on Mapping Out Japan 20??
As mentioned, in my last entry I talked up the amazing city of Nara. A historical and culturally rich city only a brief train journey from either Osaka or Kyoto. Today, I want to take a look at another city that falls within the Kansai region – Kobe! Just saying the name invokes thoughts of the world-famous Kobe beef quickly seared on a hot grill in an Izakaya. Before I get giddy at the thought, let’s take a close look at the geography, history and attractions of Kobe. Should I put this city on my bucket list of places to visit upon my eventual return?
Let’s talk a little about the history and cultural significance of Kobe. It is the 7th largest city in Japan and sits on the northern shore of Osaka Bay – part of the island of Honshu. It is estimated that city of Kobe has a population of 1.5 million residents. Most notably, Kobe has a long history, and current status, as one of Japan’s most significant port towns. In terms of its history, the earliest recordings of Kobe’s existence date back to around 200 AD. That kind of history is the crazy old kind that blows the mind. Kobe has not escaped the ravages of time – a history that long is bound to have some crinkles. During the second world war, Kobe was bombed numerous times. While it escaped the fate of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, much of the city was destroyed with thousands of deaths.
Geographically speaking, Kobe is only 64km (75 by road) from the cultural heartland of Kyoto. What’s more, is that it is only 29km from Osaka – I cannot understand why I didn’t visit Kobe when I was in the Kansai region in 2016. I would be travelling by train which is my preferred and trusted means of transport. It takes 30 minutes from Kyoto to Kobe on the Hikari Shinkansen from Kyoto Station to Shin-Kobe Station. This train departs hourly. The other option is to take the JR Special Rapid Train on the JR Tokaido Line from Kyoto Station to Sannomiya Station. From Osaka to Kobe, you can actually jump on the Sanyo Shinkansen from Shin-Osaka Station to Shin-Kobe Station – a 15-minute trip. Alternatively, you can take the JR Special Rapid Train from Osaka Station to the Kobe Sannomiya Station, which takes around 20 minutes. So getting to Kobe from either of these cities is quick and simple making Kobe a great destination for a day trip.
I guess that the next step is to understand the scale of Kobe and how to get around the city and to the sites. Like any large Japanese city, Kobe has a reliable train network with Sannomiya Station being the busiest. It is located in the centre of the city and is about a 20-minute walk or 10-minute subway ride from the JR Shin-Kobe shinkansen station. As is the case in many parts of Japan, there is more than one railway company operating services out of Sannomiya Station. There is the JR line, a handful of local lines, a municipal subway and even ropeway and cablecar lines. Fortunately, many of Kobe’s best tourists spots are clustered along the waterfront and are accessible via the municipal subway. While this may all sound complex, the Japanese rail networks are among the best and most organised in the world. Ticketing is very straightforward and in most cases, ticket machines have English translations. On top of the railways, there is a city tour bus that operates on a loop and a day pass costs less than 1000 yen. Or, for just over 1000 yen, I could get a combined subway/tour bus day pass. So getting around Kobe either by rail, bus or on foot is pretty straightforward. Now that I know how to get around Kobe, here are some of the destinations I am interested in:
All right let’s just cut to the chase and talk about the famous Kobe beef. The beef is considered to be a prized Japanese delicacy and is sourced from Wagyu cattle. There are probably hundreds of restaurants in Kobe that sever the beef as either steak, shabu-shabu or as sukiyaki. Important to note that Kobe beef ain’t cheap – a steak can cost you several thousand yen. I haven’t taken the time to research the best place to eat the dish should I visit Kobe. I would probably take recommendations from those that have been before.
Back in January 1995, Kobe was hit by an earthquake known as the Great Hanshin Awaji Earthquake. Lots of death and lots of destruction. The Earthquake Memorial Museum was opened to commemorate the tragic event and to educate visitors about earthquakes. It features a large theatre that screens images of the earthquake’s destructiveness, a documentary on the recovery, information about the earthquake and interactive exhibits. I know that an earthquake museum doesn’t sound very exciting but I come from a place that gets next to no earth action so I find it fascinating. In the same area as the Earthquake Museum are a couple of other museums that are worth considering. The Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art is a modern and contemporary art museum. Also, there is the Kobe City Museum which is more of a museum recording the history of the city and the region.
Kobe Harbourland is a massive shopping district located on the very edge of the port area. It features a number of large shopping malls forming a single complex known as Umie – this includes Mosaic, South Mall and the North Mall. Like most harbour precincts now there is a large Ferris wheel and Anpanman Museum which is dedicated to a manga series. These kinds of museums are all over Japan. This area sounds very touristy and reminds me of the harbour area in Osaka that also had a large shopping complex and a Ferris wheel.
Gardens and Parks
Meriken Park is a waterfront park located in the port area. The park is the home of Kobe’s iconic contemporary architecture including the red Kobe Port Tower and the Kobe Maritime Museum. There is also a lot of areas with modern art installations and water features. While Meriken Park sounds very tourist-oriented, it is Sorakuen that has caught my interest. Sorakuen is a traditional Japanese garden located in the centre of Kobe – not far from Kencho-Mae Station. The garden was originally a residential garden belong to the former mayor of Kobe. Much of the original buildings that once dotted the garden were destroyed in the second world war. This garden is a gorgeous example of traditional landscaped Japanese gardens that are pristinely kept and picture-perfect all year round.
Ropeways and Cablecars
To the north and east of the city of Kobe is the start of the Rokko chain of mountains. There are three cablecar and ropeways services that operate regularly to take visitors up the edges of the mountains that stand above Kobe. Each of these travels up the mountains and pass observation decks, an observatory, waterfalls and garden. One even travels to the peak of the mountain range where you can find the Rokko Garden Terrace – this is a tourist complex with restaurants, shops and an observation deck. Day or night the views are going to be spectacular.
One of the best days of my last trip to Tokyo in 2019 was the time I spent in Yokohama with a fellow photographer from Australia. We met just outside of Chinatown and spent the afternoon shooting street photography. Being a port town, Kobe also has a decent Chinatown district that is not far from the harbour area of shops and attractions. The district is known as Nankinmachi and features two main streets that meet each other at a small plaza in the centre. This area is full of shops, restaurants and food stands to sell all kinds of amazing street foods.
Taking in all that Kobe has to offer, I am not so sure if this a destination that I am excited to travel to. As much as I find museums interesting, I would rather be out and about capturing images and documenting my own experiences. While I would love to be able to sit in an izakaya in Kobe and eat a $100 Kobe steak, I am not so sure that I want to go out of my way to do so. I am not a huge fan of the ocean and being a port town, Kobe doesn’t call to me. Kobe would appeal to a lot of people as it is a familiar modern city with a focus on tourism much like any other big modern city around the world. Harbour towns seem to have a formula for what they offer and who they offer it to. Shopping, tourist-friendly dining and an artsy district are great when you are on holidays – if you are after that kind of experience. I don’t think that is for me. If I were to visit Kobe, then I would only make it a quick side trip from Osaka or Kyoto – perhaps spend a couple of hours there to grab a meal and take a ride up to the mountain. This has not been the pursuit of a dead-end though as prior to writing this blog I didn’t know a lot about Kobe. And now that I do I can recommend it to people as a destination for the reasons I have described above. Fear not, there is still a long list of possible destinations that I want to explore with this blog – so stay tuned and happy travels. G