Kobe is a very special city in Kansai, and Japan in general. It is only an hour away from Kyoto, but it delivers a completely different appearance and atmosphere. It’s a destination where you can find the sea, mountains, Chinese culture as well as Western culture, and great modern architecture. Whatever it is you’re looking for – you will probably find it in Kobe.
It’s only a one and a half hour train ride from Kyoto – so fairly accessible. You can spend the day there and travel from/to Kyoto on a single JR train, or two Hankyu-trains. You don’t need to reserve seats or pay for a Shinkansen (the bullet train). It is possible go there with the Shinkansen if you happen to have a JR-Pass, but it’s really not necessary.
What makes Kobe so different from other Japanese cities?
The fact that Kobe is a port city has helped develop its population pluralism since the second half of the 19th century. It was well-known for being home to many Western residents coming for trade or diplomatic activity. Although not many remained in the city, nowadays as well, there are a few tens of thousands of non-Japanese living in the metropolises. Making up this, there are more than 17,000 Koreans, 13,000 Chinese, nearly 6,000 Vietnamese, and more than 1,300 Taiwanese. That’s without even mentioning the city’s Jewish community that has been living there since 1930. While Japan is known for its homogenous population, with only 1% of non-Japanese, Kobe is a noticeable exception.
Despite there being much to do in Kobe, it is surprisingly not included on any “must-see-in-Japan” lists. Speaking frankly, the fact that there might be fewer tourists in a given place is always an advantage. So, today I will introduce some of my very favorite places in Kobe (plus some vegan options).
So… what is there to do in Kobe?
Kobe China Town - Nankinmachi
Why go all the way to China when you can take a train to Kobe?
When Japan opened its gates for trade, back in 1868, many Chinese merchants came to settle in the city port of Kobe. The Chinese neighborhood developed and became known as Nankin-machi, since at that time, Nankin (Nanjing) was the Chinese capital. It’s not such a big neighborhood – but worth 30 minutes to 1 hour of strolling.
It might not be the largest Chinatown in Japan, but Nankinmachi is such a cool place to hang out. This Japanese Chinatown in Kobe has many things to offer: small shops and restaurants, but mainly a great atmosphere. I thoroughly recommend hanging out there in the evening, enjoying the red lanterns’ light.
Nunobiki Herb Garden + Ropeway
Oh, how I love ropeways! This one had a particularly gorgeous view: we could see all the way to the port. We got off at the last station and went down through the herb garden until we reached the mid-way station. Down between the stations, you can see various kinds of herbs, drink a beer, and forget about the world.
As my partner likes gardening (he’s a young grandpa), it was so fun seeing different species of plants everywhere. If the weather is good you can also lay back in a hammock and enjoy the mountain air. Not a bad place to spend some time.
Kitano was the foreign-residents’ quarter in Kobe, so there are many Western houses in this area. Seven of them are open to the public. You can visit them and see what life looked like in the late 19th century for foreigners living in Japan. Every house charges separately, or you can buy a ticket for some (or all) of them at the counter near the Trick Art Museum. We didn’t want to spend too much time exploring them, so we only went to the English-house and Uroko-no-ie.
They decorated the English House in a Sherlock Holmes style, which was very amusing. I couldn’t stand the temptation and dressed up as Sherlock (they offer a jacket and a hat to walk around in). It felt like enjoying Halloween without having to wait for the actual holiday.
The Uroko-no-ie (Uroku house) was very different, much bigger, and with many historical items, as well as modern art and paintings. Actually, it would be fair to say it was similar to a mini-museum. I also really loved the view from the third floor; it was truly stunning.
If you have more time, you can visit other houses as well. It is also fairly close to the ropeway, so you can walk there before or after enjoying the Kitano area.
Kobe Trick Art Museum
One of the most awesome places we visited! This art museum is filled with optical illusions and tricks, which you can enjoy and photograph. We enjoyed going from one exhibit to the other and realizing the trick behind each one.
Note: this place is not for people who take themselves too seriously 😉.
This four-kilometer bridge is the longest suspension bridge in the world! It opened in 1998 (after its foundations survived Kobe’s 1995 earthquake) and connects Honshu to Kyushu. The bridge crosses Akashi Strait and reaches Kyushu’s Awaji island.
You can take a closer look at the bridge’s construction if you go up in the elevator in Maiko Marine Promenade. The elevator will take you up to a hallway where you can have a good look at the bridge’s interior. If you want to know some more cool information about Akashi bridge, you can also visit the bridge’s exhibition center. It’s right next to the elevator.
Although not in the heart of Kobe – it’s definitely an architectural structure worth visiting.
Indeed we had to feed ourselves in Kobe too. That’s why we planned to stop by Vegan Café Thallo for a late-lunch. But surprisingly, while we were strolling, we noticed two more vegan/vegan-friendly places. These are the vegan places we discovered in Kobe:
Vegan Café Thallo
This vegan café is also gluten and sugar-free, so whatever food restriction(s) you have – it’s a great option. We tried the rice ball set and it was delicious. On the other hand – I didn’t like the coffee there, so I wouldn’t recommend it. There are also many vegan desserts, so you can try them too!
This place is a grocery store, and also a café. It’s not 100% vegan, but they serve a vegan option almost every day for lunch – just let the staff know. We accidentally passed by FarmStand and saw many vegan sweets and groceries. We grabbed vegan scones for the long (not really) ride on the ropeway – and they were delicious.
On a different day, we tried lunch here too – and it was really good! It was less than 1,000 yen (cheap!) and had a variety of vegetables, together with rice and miso soup. Try it out if you’re hungry around Kitano-Cho.
Shokuyo Café With Nature
We were on our way to the trick museum when my partner noticed a sign that said “vegan”. Seeing such a sign in Kobe, Japan was really exciting and unexpected! Unfortunately, the place was closed. Still, the sign had a lot of information. Apparently, the place is only open on Friday and Saturday from 11:30 to 16:00 (quite limited, I know) and offers organic vegan food.
Try it out if you happen to be around the area at these particular times.
I know, Starbucks is not a solely vegan place (although they do have soy-latte) – but this one is worth visiting! Its interior is like a Western 19th-century house, and combines old European furniture, old-looking sofas, chandeliers, and a general atmosphere of “old Europe”, if I may say so. It was really fun to sit there and drink a cup of coffee.
Kobe is a special and wonderful city! I’m sure you’ll have lots of fun hanging out there.