In this City Guide we’ll introduce some of our top things to see & do in Kobe. It’s a lovely, vibrant and modern city less than an hour by train from Kyoto and Osaka which makes it perfect for a day trip. Most of these ideas you can do at any time of year and they would fit into a moderately fast-paced day in the city. If you’re a slower paced traveller like us just pick and choose the parts that most interest you or consider a second day in Kobe, there is more than enough in this surprising city to justify a multi-day itinerary.
Table of Contents
Things to do in Kobe
1. Earthquake memorial
In 1995 the city of Kobe what shaken and devastated by the great Hanshin earthquake, the port area collapsed but the country rallied to repair one of its major port cities and links to the outside world. A small section of the port in Meriken Park has been left as it fell as a reminder of what was overcome. There’s a small information and memorial area here but a much larger earthquake museum is located within the city.
Kobe’s Chinatown known as Nankinmachi was named after Nanjing the former Chinese capital and was developed by Chinese merchants who settled near the port after it opened to foreign trade in 1868. From Sannomiya station it’s only a short 10 minute walk south west to Chinatown. Nankinmachi is made up of two main streets with a central plaza where entertainment sets up at various times. On the day we visited the stage was set up for the Lunar New Year celebrations.
I can’t pass up Chinese street food, a lion dance and firecrackers so we probably spent longer here than we should have but well worth every bite.
3. Sip some Sake
A ten minute train ride from the city centre will have you in the Nada district famous for it’s production of sake. You’ll want at least a couple of hours if you come out here to explore the various breweries and sake museums which mostly have free entry and sake tasting. If you aren’t overly keen on the beverage there’s also an interesting array of other products produced using sake. The English language coverage here is better than in many other sake producing districts if you want to understand the production method and tradition around it.
4. A view of the city
The Shin-Kobe ropeway was on our plan for the Kobe day trip and I really wanted to get up there. From the photos I’ve seen and others I’ve spoken to the view is definitely worth it and I love a good rope-way. On any other day I think it would have been perfectly possible but with the crowds (and lets be honest the food) surrounding lunar new year I got a bit distracted in Chinatown and time got away on us.
The rope-way starts next to the Shin Kobe station so it’s easy to get to and it’s always worth getting a look at a city from up high whenever possible to orientate yourself. My preference is a convenient mountain but a tall building and in Kobe’s case the Port tower, are other options.
The rope-way will get you to the observation deck on top of Rokko mountain passing the Nanobiki waterfalls (somewhere else on my next time list) and Nanobiki herb gardens on the way. A round trip will cost you Y1400 or Y800 if you go after 5pm for the night views.
5. Meriken Park Area
The Kobe Port Tower is 108 metres high and contains three levels of public observation decks at around 100 metres high above Meriken Park. In total 5 levels are open to the public, the other two contain a cafe and restaurant. The elevation provides excellent views over Kobe city and harbour from a convenient central location.
The unusual exterior is covered in a red steel scaffold like structure and lights which make it a dramatic sight from outside both during the day and night.
The tower is open daily from 9am until 6pm with extended hours through Christmas and the summer time. Entry is Y600.
Also in this park area you’ll find the Kobe maritime museum and few unusual additions.
Not a hovercraft as I first thought, the Yamoto 1 is a a magnetohydrodynamic (MHD) driven vehicle which may be the only one you’ll ever see. Although the MHD has plenty of engineering advantages it only has a top speed of 15km/hr so it never took off commercially. Still this one was the first ever successfully operated in Kobe harbour in 1992 and another example of Japanese technical innovation.
Gardens are generally high on my list wherever I am but especially in Japan. Sorakuen historically belonged to a mayor of Kobe who donated it to the city in 1941. During WWII all buildings except for some stables were destroyed but the garden was rebuilt in a its traditional Japanese style and today is another good example and enjoyable walk.
Sorakuen is particularly convenient to Kobe city, take a 10 minute walk north (away from the harbour) from Motomachi station which is also the station closest to Chinatown. It’s easily combined into a day in the city.
7. Kobe beef
There are a number of excellent beef producing regions and farms within Japan but Kobe beef is famous world wide. If you’re a bit of a foodie, or just like to eat, you might want to include an experience of Kobe beef on your trip.
Kobe beef comes from a breed of cattle called Tajima-gyu that are farmed around the Hyogo Prefecture (and now the world), not only in Kobe itself. While there is substance to the rumours of daily massage and beer for the cows it’s the exception not the rule. There’s a reasonable chance that your Kobe beef won’t have grown up on a diet of the best craft beers in Japan but it’s equally likely to be delicious. The real test of true Kobe Beef is the marbling score and quality. Beef isn’t something I eat daily in Japan but when we have ordered it, it’s cooked medium rare and very tasty.
It can definitely be an expensive meal but there are ways to include it at a moderate cost so look around. The visitors centre in the train station are very helpful at marking out a range of options in your price range on a map.
8. Chinese New Year
Festivals and celebrations are always fun when you travel and we happened to be in Kobe on Chinese New Year.
Japan uses the Gregorian calendar rather than the Chinese Lunar Calendar but that doesn’t mean the Chinese New Year won’t be celebrated enthusiastically in Chinatowns across Japan. If you’re in Japan over the Lunar New Year and want your fill of Lion Dances and fire-crackers you’ll need to head to the nearest major Chinatown which are the historical port towns of Yokohama, Nagasaki and Kobe.
There are a variety of festivals in Kobe throughout the year but I’d like to be in town next time for Kobe Luminarie – a stunning light up around the city during December each year.
There is something in Kobe to interest most travellers and justify a day trip to the city. These 8 are my picks for a first time day trip but there are plenty of other options to fill a longer stay.
I’d love to hear from you in the comments below if you’ve been to Kobe and would like to share your thoughts and favourite places in the city.