5 places to visit in Kōbe, Japan

Before starting this blog post, I'll shortly introduce myself, because most of you might not know me. My name is Merete, and I work at taishō and SERAMIKKU. I have a master's degree in Japan Studies and have lived in the city Kōbe (pronounced with a long o), when I was an exchange student at Kōbe University a few years ago. Anyways, let's get to it!

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Japan has become a popular tourist destination over the past couple of years, and lately I've been missing - just like everyone else - traveling. Especially to Japan. Are you planing on visiting Japan as soon as possible? I have a few tips for what you MUST see in this homely and down to earth kind of Japanese city. Because Kōbe is to me something special, probably because of its historic past as one of the first Japanese harbours opening to European ships in 1868 (back when Japan opened up after a long period as a closed nation).

But enough about the history of Kōbe and more about what you HAVE to see here!

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Sightseeing in Kōbe

As the seventh biggest city in Japan, with a population of a little over 1,5 millon people, Kōbe can sort of be compared to Copenhagen population-wise. We are close to Japan's second biggest city, Ōsaka, in the Kansai area, so there's both a lot of people living in and around Kōbe.

There are activities for the whole family including a zoo, IKEA, Nitori (Japan's answer to IKEA), a bunch of malls, and beautiful, mountainous nature areas. There's basically a bit of everything here, and you can get around by train, bus, metro and shinkansen (bullet train) in and from Kōbe. And yeah, Kōbe is probably known by most for its famous Kōbe beef, which there are lots of chances of tasting here - you can't miss the commercials all over the city!

The city centre Sannomiya, Chinatown and mountain areas such as Mt. Maya are just some of the places on my must see list here. There is of course so so many other places to go, but here are my favourites.

1. Sannomiya, city centre of Kōbe

Sannomiya is the central part of Kōbe. Here you'll find the city's busiest train station, gigant shopping malls and buzzling citylife. In the summer, you can hear young musicians play guitar, and I absolutely love the liveliness here.

Visit the beautiful, red Shintō shrine Ikuta Shrine, go karaoke at Jankara or go shopping at Sannomiya Centre Gai Shopping. It seems like there are an endless amount of shopping opportunities here that blur together underneath the city. If you need some green grass, you can go to Kōbe's eastern park (higashi yūenchi) to enjoy an onigiri from the local 7-Eleven on the nicely cut grass.

There's plenty to do in Sannomiya. Don't miss going to Don Quijote, Japan's biggest discount chain where you'll be overwhelmed with sounds and neon colours. You'll surely be able to find a fun souvenir such as sushi socks or snacks with matcha flavour for friends and family. 


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2. Chinatown

Close to Motomachi Station (which is next to Sannomiya) you'll find Chinatown, also called Nankin-machi. A map gives you an overlook over the district, when you walk through one of the many entrances. At the small square, you can get a photo of the Chinese zodiac animals cut out in stone or the beautiful red pavilion

As expected, there's plenty of stalls with Chinese food here. Try a steamed Chinese baozi (nikuman in Japanese) shaped like a panda in a street food stall, a gyōza dumpling menu inside one of the indoor restaurants. Or try some karaage (fried chicken). Psst, you can make your own karaage by following one of our recipes (which will be translated soon).

Chinatown is one big street food stall, but when the Chinese New Year approaches - it's one big party. Try going through Nankin-machi on your way around Kōbe, and remember to look for Spiderman, who somehow found his way to Chinatown :-)


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3. Nature areas with mountains and waterfalls

Japan is known for her many mountains that insanely enough takes up 73% of the land area. Kōbe is just like many other Japanese cities surrounded by beautiful nature and mountainous areas, that luckily for tourists are close to the city centre.

If you wish to get a great view and see mountains, I recommend climbing Mt. Maya and Mt. Rokko, two mountains close to my old university in the northern part of the city. If you haven't come here to hike, why don't you take the cable car to the top? See prices, maps and time tables here.

For a great view of Kōbe closer to Sannomiya, I recommend hiking the small anchor mountain Mt. Ikari. At night time, the symbol of Kōbe - an anchor - lights up on the mountain. There aren't many hikers here, so maybe you'll have it almost to yourself.

Close to Sannomiya, Kōbe's shinkansen (bullet train) station Shin-Kōbe Station can be found. If you go underneath the station on a path that looks like it's only for private entry, you're on the right path to the waterfall Nunobiki. There are signs, but you might get in doubt, still. After only 15 minutes of walking, you'll arrive at the beautiful waterfall. The path continues up the mountain, where there is a small mountain café. A good sightseeing spot with a little bit of exercise. Remember to bring something to drink before you go, if you don't want to pay for overpriced vending machine drinks.

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4. Kōbe Port area

If you are looking for a souvenir or need some entertainment on a rainy day, I recommend going to the harbour area. There are several shopping malls such as Kōbe Harbor Land Umie with game arcades, a ferris wheel and of course the landmark of the city, Kōbe Port Tower.

If you're bringing children, there are activities for children such as Kōbe Anpanman Children's Museum & Mall in honour of the Japanese character Anpanman from the 1970's. Are you a fan of Hayao Miyazaki's films, there's also a Studio Ghibli shop where you can buy your own Totoro. This port area is one of the very European-like parts of Kōbe but still very cosy, if you wish to get away from the buzzling traffic and just shop for a bit.

Take the subway to Harborland Station, but if the weather's nice you can walk through the city and take a look at the small independent shops.

There is much more to tell you about this area, and I haven't gotten to it all myself yet. I know there is a good photo spot with giant letters saying "BE KOBE" among others. Also, try and see if you can spot Elvis near the shopping areas Umie and Mosaic. 

kobe port tower, harbour, japan, kobe, mosaic, umie

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5. Hot springs and public baths

In Japan, hot springs (onsen) and public baths (sentō) are part of many Japanese people's lives. Once upon a time, there was no baths in Japanese homes, so people went to the public baths to well... bathe. And even though there are baths in almost every home today, it's sort of just become a tradition. Today, many Japanese enjoy going to onsen and sentō with their families. When visiting one of these, it's with people of the same sex. And naked. A trip to the onsen often costs under 500¥ (around 4.5 USD) so it's not expensive. 

In Kōbe, the most famous onsen has to be Arima Onsen, which is a whole little spa town with hot springs. I've been recommended to go there but never made it. Personally, I visited Nada Onsen, which is a cosy little public bath close to Rokkomichi Station. Here, it's allowed to bathe WITH tattoos.

Tattoos have for centuries not had the best reputation in Japan, because they have been associated with the Japanese mafia, yakuza. Perhaps this is changing, but today it is still not considered particularly good for Japanese to be tattooed. Most Japanese are however fine (not loving it but fine) with non-Japanese having tattoos (I've written a thesis about this topic). Anyways, you can safely visit Nada Onsen, if you have tattoos. Remember to always check and see if a place is OK with tattoos before entering. It's just more polite.

If you think it's way across your line to bathe naked with strangers, I recommend going to a traditional ryōkan. Here, it is possible to order a room with a small, personal outdoor onsen at most places. 

Be careful not to sit for too long in the hot water, because you might feel dizzy and uncomfortable if you do (been there, done that). After a visit to the hot springs it's always nice to enjoy a cold drink from one of the many Japanese vending machines outside.

sento, onsen, hot spring, japan

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There you go! That was my little guide to sightseeing in Kōbe. If you have more time, I recommend going to the Kōbe Earthquake Memorial Museum made in honour of the great earthquake in 1995. It definitely puts things in perspective. And if you are in Kōbe in December, you can see the grand Luminarie light show in Sannomiya in honour of the same.

If you have any questions for me about Kōbe or Japan in general, please leave a comment below. See you, or as they say in Japan, "mata nee" :-)

Related: 12 tips for your first trip to Japan.

Merete Vangsgaard

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