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Exploring the Hidden Gems and Rich Heritage of Kobe, Japan’s Enchanting Port Town

The initial occasion I visited Kobe, it was an instant attraction. This harbor town, situated in the southeastern region of Hyogo Prefecture, Japan, forms the Keihanshin metropolitan area with Kyoto and Osaka, yet it maintains its own distinctive temperament. Since the inception of the harbor during the conclusion of the Tokugawa era, Western culture and imported commodities have streamed in, creating an exotic ambiance exclusive to this port town.

To orient oneself in Kobe, one must rely on the mountains and the sea. Osaka Bay and the Rokko Mountains face each other from the north to the south, forming a lengthy and slender city thoroughfare that stretches from east to west in Kobe. Even in the central core district, there is only a slender demarcation between nature and urbanity, tranquility and exhilaration. From the seaside to Yamanote, the incline gradually ascends, affording every pedestrian the opportunity to deeply appreciate the metamorphosis of the landscape. I can meander through the streets day and night, pausing at each enchanting bend. The areas are in close proximity, so one need not undertake excessive planning or fret about traffic. A city stroll may be embarked upon at any time. Experience an existence elsewhere whilst traversing. Simply tread the streets like a local and one shall reap abundant rewards.

Ikuta Shrine is situated in the bustling Sannomiya city and boasts an extensive history spanning over 1,800 years.

When discussing the central neighborhoods of Kobe, the Sannomiya area undeniably stands as the most renowned. The majority of individuals commence their journey in Kobe at Sannomiya Station. This transportation hub serves as the largest in the city and is encompassed by commercial establishments, restaurants, hotels, and more, rendering it the premier bustling street of Kobe. The urban area of Kobe is not vast in size. It is encircled by mountains to the north and the sea to the south. The downtown region is concealed betwixt the mountains and the sea.

Kobe is akin to a city adorned with myriad “enchantments”, not solely mountains and seas, but also shrines concealed within the bustling city. The appellation Sannomiya, in actuality, derives from Sannomiya Shrine. Although the shrine is not grand in scale, it has been deeply revered by the populace since ancient times. It is considered the patron deity of maritime safety and industrial and commercial prosperity. It continues to reside amidst the edifices of Sannomiya. Another shrine that is also highly venerated within the bustling thoroughfare is Ikuta Shrine, which boasts an extensive history spanning over 1,800 years. The name “Kobe” emanates from the fact that the imperial court once bestowed the title of Kobe upon the family who served Ikuta Shrine. The shrine of Ikuta Shrine is resplendent and still occupies a verdant oasis – Ikuta Forest – within the bustling city where land is at a premium. A constant stream of devotees arrives to beseech blessings for safe deliveries, love, and matrimony. During festivities such as the Shichi-Go-San Festival (an annual Japanese festival held on November 15th, wherein boys aged 3 and 5 and girls aged 3 and 7 don traditional kimonos and accompany their parents to shrines for worship), one shall encounter numerous parents escorting their children to offer prayers and capture photographs.

Adjacent to the glimmer and glamour, the deities always linger. And this is precisely why I have fallen in love with wandering through Kobe. The hustle and bustle of the city shall not disrupt the tranquility found elsewhere. One need only take a slight detour to reach the abodes of mountains, seas, and the gods. The vigour of the city is concentrated in a solitary area, sufficient for one to experience a warm connection with others and subsequently traverse the “enchantment” to escape at any given time.
The shopping street stands as one of the thriving focal points of Sannomiya. Whilst aimlessly strolling, one may inadvertently become entranced by the shops lining Sannomiya Center Street or Motomachi and unexpectedly amass numerous treasures. It is important to note that Motomachi Shopping Street spans a length of 1.2 kilometers and houses approximately 300 stores. Departing empty-handed proves to be a challenging feat. What sets it apart is that although Sannomiya Center Street is also an arched shopping street, it possesses a rare two-story structure. It may be regarded as a fusion of contemporary shopping malls and traditional shopping streets. Whether for individuals fond of shopping or leisurely strolls, shopping streets serve as splendid destinations. After all, they are sheltered beneath canopies, protecting visitors from the elements, and possess a more authentic ambiance compared to modern shopping malls. The shopping street showcases an assortment of Kobe-originated delicacies, confections, and other products. It also serves as a delightful means to comprehend Kobe through the sense of taste. The fashionscene in Kobe is also thriving, with numerous boutiques and designer stores scattered throughout the city. From high-end fashion brands to local designers, Kobe offers a diverse range of options for fashion enthusiasts.

Additionally, Kobe is renowned for its culinary delights. The city is famous for its Kobe beef, a delicacy known for its exquisite marbling and tenderness. Many restaurants in Kobe specialize in serving this luxurious meat, allowing visitors to indulge in a truly unforgettable dining experience. In addition to Kobe beef, the city is also home to a variety of other culinary delights, including fresh seafood, traditional Japanese cuisine, and international cuisine from around the world.

When it comes to entertainment, Kobe has something for everyone. The city is home to a vibrant nightlife scene, with numerous bars, clubs, and live music venues to choose from. Whether you prefer a laid-back jazz bar or a high-energy nightclub, Kobe has options to suit every taste. The city is also known for its vibrant arts and culture scene, with numerous galleries, theaters, and museums to explore.

One of the most iconic landmarks in Kobe is the Kobe Port Tower, a striking red tower that offers panoramic views of the city and the surrounding mountains and sea. The tower is a popular tourist attraction and is a must-visit for anyone exploring Kobe. Another notable landmark is the Kobe Maritime Museum, which showcases the city’s rich maritime history and offers interactive exhibits for visitors to enjoy.

No visit to Kobe would be complete without a visit to the Kobe Harborland, a waterfront district that offers a range of shopping, dining, and entertainment options. The district is home to numerous shopping malls, restaurants, and amusement parks, making it a popular destination for both locals and tourists alike.

Overall, Kobe is a city that offers a unique blend of tradition and modernity. From its historic shrines and vibrant shopping streets to its world-renowned cuisine and iconic landmarks, Kobe has something to offer every visitor. Whether you are a history buff, a food lover, or a fashion enthusiast, Kobe is a city that will captivate your senses and leave a lasting impression.

Yamate: Kitano Ijinkan

A mere 10-minute stroll from Sannomiya, the epicenter of Kobe, to Kitano Ijinkan Street unfolds along an extended incline, a veritable test of one’s mettle. For an avid walker such as myself, it proves captivating, endowing a palpable urban solidity. As the undulating slope beneath your feet guides you through increasingly profound alleys, the landscape transforms, revealing the unadorned countenance of Mount Rokko, surreptitiously disclosed. Naturally, scattered throughout are vintage mansions, diverting attention sporadically.

The Edo shogunate enforced a policy of seclusion from 1639 until the intrusion of the American Perry Black Ship. Only in 1854 did the nation unbar its gates, resuming exchanges with overseas realms. Following Hakodate, Nagasaki, and Yokohama, Kobe inaugurated its port in 1868. Foreigners streamed in, and the original settlements adjacent to the port burgeoned. Consequently, a new foreign enclave emerged in proximity to Yamate, affording vistas of both harbor and settlement.

From the Meiji era to the early Showa era, this locale housed over 200 Western-style edifices, prominently accentuating their exotic attributes. Daily, sojourners from foreign lands amble here to gaze upon the sea, pining for their homelands. This begets the appellation “foreigner’s pavilion.” Post the rapid growth epoch of the 1960s to the 1970s, numerous foreign hotels succumbed to the inexorable fate of replacement by contemporary structures and apartments. The 1980s saw this precinct accorded building preservation status under the aegis of the Cultural Properties Protection Act, fostering the comprehensive transformation into a tourist-friendly milieu. Despite suffering substantial damage in the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake of 1995, the unwavering support of visionary individuals nationwide expedited the swift rehabilitation of over 30 surviving Ijinkan structures, ultimately rejuvenating into the current Kitano Ijinkan Street. Presently, 16 foreign museums beckon visitors. Periodic closures transpire for maintenance purposes.

On Kitanozaka Road, Japan’s inaugural Starbucks unfolds as a tangible cultural heritage. This white and verdant two-story wooden manor, named Kitano Storykan, echoes an American legacy. Kitanozaka culminates in Kitano-dori, extending from east to west. Arrayed along both sides are assorted foreign-style hotels. The British Pavilion, the Long House of the Foreign Pavilion (the French Pavilion), and the Bain House grace the south, juxtaposed by the Incredible Consulate (the former Panama Consulate), the Rhine Pavilion, and more on the north. Each building, distinct in style, regales its own tale yet harmonizes seamlessly with the thoroughfares of Kobe. Unquestionably, an architectural treasure invoking repeated admiration by enthusiasts.

In the radiant morning of late autumn, the mountain breeze in Liujia carries a faint chill. Beneath the clear firmament, flags from diverse nations flutter, inducing a sensation of translocation. While traversing, let thoughts meander. Envision yourself as a long-ago “foreigner” departing your hometown, lingering in such a tableau somewhat alleviates homesickness. This is the allure of urban perambulation. By meticulously sensing the pavement beneath your feet, one can authentically relive the vistas witnessed by preceding generations, akin to a field survey conducted in the city’s alleys.

Continuing eastward brings forth the Italian Pavilion. Ascending further, the Sakagami Ijinkan, Kitano Foreigner Club, Yamate Eighth Bankan, and Fish Scale House nestle at the mountain’s base. The Fish Scale House, the initial open-to-the-public Ijinkan in Kobe, derives its name from the roughly 4,000 fish scale-shaped clay slates adorning its exterior. It holds the distinction of being a national tangible cultural heritage of Japan. Situated approximately 150 meters above sea level, it claims the highest elevation among the Ijinkan. From here, a panoramic view of Kobe unfolds. The demarcation between mountains, sea, and streets manifests distinctly.

In proximity to the Fish Scale House, the Kazami Chicken House, a nationally designated important cultural property, stands prominently. As the former residence of German traders, its robust façade flaunts German-style red brick walls, with the Kazami Chicken atop the steeple serving as the emblem of Kitano Ijinkan. The Feng Jian Rooster, a rooster-shaped weathervane imbued with exorcistic symbolism, deserves mention. The NHK TV series “Kazami Chicken,” broadcast in 1977, triggered a tourism surge in Kitano Ijinkan. Adjacent to the Kazami Chicken House lies the Moehuangkan, distinguished by its fresh and charming yellow exterior. Once the residence of the U.S. Consul General, it now bears the mantle of an important national cultural heritage. From its second floor, one can survey the port town’s panorama.

Beyond the Ijinkan, Kitano-machi hosts an array of chic grocery stores, cafes, and restaurants, rendering it an ideal locale for ‘shopping and eating.’ The gastronomic offerings span diverse, exotic flavors, many rooted in traditions since Hong Kong’s inception. At ‘sone,’ a jazz restaurant near Kitanozaka, nightly sojourns offer live jazz paired with exquisite wine and cuisine. Annually in October, as part of the ‘Kobe Jazz Street’ event, artists from across the globe converge on Kitano. Undoubtedly, this serves as an additional manifestation of exoticism alongside architectural wonders.
Speaking of which, Kobe is veritably a haven for jazz enthusiasts. As a port town that first embraced Western culture, Japan’s inaugural jazz ensemble came into being in 1923, rendering Kobe the birthplace of jazz in the country. Presently, the essence of jazz courses through Kobe’s streets and alleys. Jazz teahouses and restaurants stand as standard retreats for Kobe denizens during leisure hours. Many establishments boast extensive collections of vinyl records, immersing patrons in unparalleled auditory pleasure. The year 2023 marks the centennial celebration of Kobe Jazz, amplifying the excitement of numerous activities. Undeniably, notwithstanding the weariness induced by Kobe’s slopes, the solace derived from jazz music over a cup of coffee or wine furnishes ample reason to adore Kobe.

Seaside: American Park, Harborland

A mere 10-minute amble from Sannomiya to the shore unveils a panorama embellished by the crimson Kobe Port Tower, guiding towards the sea. The aesthetically drum-shaped Kobe Port Tower, erected in 1963 and soaring 108 meters high, stands as the world’s inaugural tubular structure observation tower. In harmonious contrast to the contentious modernity of Kyoto Tower, Kobe Port Tower impeccably aligns with the city’s temperament, earning the affectionate moniker ‘the beauty in the tower.’
In clement weather, the 360-degree observation deck offers an all-encompassing spectacle of the port, streets, Mount Rokko, Osaka Bay, and Awaji Island. Notably, the nocturnal vista unveils the resplendence of Minato Town in its entirety. When illuminated at night, Kobe Port Tower radiates a brilliance surpassing its

daytime allure, seamlessly complementing the surrounding lights. From every angle, its allure is irresistible. During my recent visit, scaffolding crowned the tower’s summit. Reportedly, a renovation endeavor initiated in 2021 will conclude in spring 2024.
Adjacent to Kobe Port Tower extends not only the boundless sea but also a level lawn square. Cruise ships grace the port, exuding an openness exclusive to port towns. Strollers leisurely traverse the seaside, reclining on the lawn. This harbor green space, facing the Port of Kobe, is none other than America Park. For anyone within its confines, the sea breeze proves an elixir, dispelling accumulated worries and ushering in an instant sense of relaxation and joy. For individuals like myself, long accustomed to inland city life, this represents a welcome reunion with freedom.

Harborland encompasses an expanse of approximately 23 hectares and was inaugurated in 1992. It is truly inconceivable that it was reconstructed on the former grounds of Japan Railways (JR) Minatogawa Cargo Terminal. It can be deemed a consummate response to the urban metamorphosis endeavor: in order to confront the vicissitudes of the industrial structure, as well as the heterogeneity and individuality of citizens’ lives. The trend of culturalization has been adroitly transmuted into a novel manifestation of commercial and cultural establishments, and the advantages of the seaside locale have been judiciously harnessed to engender a new cultural hub that diverges from the Sannomiya area and harmoniously unifies with the sea. This transformative feat was duly recognized by the Japanese Society of Urban Planning Ishikawa Prize, and the architectural design of the complex was also warmly received. In 1993, it was handpicked as one of the “Top 100 Urban Landscapes” by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism. Each time I venture here, I earnestly covet the denizens of this city who can wholeheartedly savor the bounties of the sea and the urban milieu in such an all-encompassing manner.

Moreover, a considerable array of statues, monuments, or edifices are dispersed throughout American Park. The Kobe Maritime Museum boasts an imposing roof adorned with the semblance of sails and undulating waves, a resplendent embellishment against the azure sea and firmament. The al fresco seating at the beachside Starbucks serve as the “VIP” perches for observing the ebb and flow of the tide. The Hydrangea Bell adjacent to Starbucks was established in 1990 for the inaugural Kobe Fashion Festival. In the Kobe Port Earthquake Memorial Park near Fountain Square, fragments of the American Pier, which succumbed to the ravages of the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake, still persist, diligently transmitting the lessons of the earthquake to future generations in their unadulterated state. The BE KOBE monument, erected to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the opening of the port of Kobe, stands beside the sea, beckoning sightseers to capture photographic memories. The term “BE KOBE” epitomizes the notion that “the allure of Kobe resides in its denizens,” born on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake. “BE KOBE” connotes the audacity to embrace novel ventures. Even if the entire city has been decimated by earthquakes, it can still be revitalized with the spirit of “BE KOBE”. At the southernmost tip of the park, five stone statues stand shoulder to shoulder, gazing out at the sea, bearing the name “Kobe Kaishui”, commemorating the establishment of the Kaishu Kaishu in Kobe by Katsu Kaishu, Sakamoto Ryoma, and other patriots. At the northernmost point, a colossal 22-meter-high carp monument looms, an opus created by the renowned architect Frank Gehry to celebrate the 120th anniversary of the opening of the port of Kobe – Fish Dance, under the supervision of Tadao Ando. Without a doubt, strolling through Meriken Park not only allows one to savor the panorama of the port, but also provides an overview of the historical tapestry of Kobe. It is unquestionably a maritime memorial bereft of boundaries. Such therapeutic vistas also constitute the elation of promenading in Kobe.

Adjacent to the western periphery of America Park, Harborland also serves as an expansive comprehensive commercial complex by the seaside, encompassing a shopping mall replete with an assortment of esteemed brand boutiques, the beloved Anpanman Museum for children, a restaurant transformed from a vintage red brick warehouse, and a grand Ferris wheel, among other attractions, facilitating an effortless realization of the freedom of seaside shopping.

When night descends, the Ferris wheel assumes a resplendent aura, with 120,000 LED lights perpetually morphing colors, casting kaleidoscopic neon hues upon the sea. When observed from Meriken Park across the waters, it is unequivocally the epitome of splendor in Hong Kong. Seated atop the Ferris wheel, one instantaneously ascends to a perspective elevated 50 meters above ground. Additionally, one can embark on a pleasure boat from Harborland to visit the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge. Viewed from the shore, the leisurely gliding sightseeing boats, the Kobe Port Tower, Ocean Park, the Ferris wheel, and the like coalesce to form an eternal poem encapsulating the visage of the port town. On the eve of Christmas, I strolled along the wooden promenade bordering the seaside, basking in the anticipation of the impending festive atmosphere. En route from one tableau to another, I frequently found myself ensnared by the captivatingimages before me. The interplay of light and shadow weaves a tranquil and vibrant tapestry of romance within the port town.

In the author’s perspective, meandering through Kobe is an inherently romantic endeavor. One may chance upon mountains, encounter the sea, glimpse fragments of history, and witness the everyday lives of Kobe’s inhabitants. These elements do not impede one another, nor do they wane with the passage of time. They endure, perpetually ensconced within their own “enchantments,” awaiting those destined to explore them firsthand. Through not only one’s eyes but also one’s footsteps, each facet of this diverse port town can be gradually unveiled, piecing together a vivid tapestry of life unlike any other.

At times, by slowing one’s pace, more scenery can be encountered. Each day as I traverse Kobe, I find this adage resonating more deeply within me. And I perpetually anticipate the next arrival even before bidding adieu.

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