One day in Kobe, Japan is not enough to view everything this floral, coastal and mountainous city has to offer.
We actually stayed in Kobe for three days as part of our two-week trip to Japan in January. But two of the days consisted of day trips (to Nara and Himeji). So although we only had one full day in the city of Kobe, we also had evenings there after our day trips and managed to get quite a good feel for the place.
Kobe stretches along the coast, sandwiched between the sea and the mountains. The heart of the city is Sannomiya, where the big shopping area is, along with the main flower and gardens area. It may seem daft that we went to Kobe in January: winter probably isn’t the best season for going to a city of flowers. But this is Japan and they’ve thought of everything. The flowers all over the city were very much up to scratch.
Shin-Kobe ropeway: cable car
Our first port of call was the Kobe Nunobiki Herb Gardens and Ropeway. This involves getting what we’ve decided is officially the best form of transport: a cable car.
The entrance to the cable car is by Shin-Kobe Station, at the foot of the Rokko mountain range. As it ascended up the hillside, we had beautiful views across the city, port and sea. It was reminiscent of the cable car in Funchal, Madeira which is one of our favourite things in the world. Only on a much bigger scale, obviously. This is Japan.
Kobe Nunobiki herb gardens
The cable car dropped us at the top, where there was a café and an inexplicable wedding cake on display.
We headed down the hill towards the glasshouse, through admittedly slightly depleted herb gardens. Despite not being in season, they were of course extremely tidy and well tended. But the glasshouse was very much in bloom and they’d put a special Valentine’s display on. Hearts and flowers everywhere. You can just tell that the gardeners here go all out for any and every seasonal occasion.
Valentine’s day is definitely not our cup of tea but when there’s a specific display made for a photo backdrop, it would be rude not to indulge. There are little stands all round the herb gardens for you to rest your camera or phone on to take a photo on self-timer mode. Genius.
Venturing out of the warmth of the glasshouse, we braved the January ‘breeze’ and walked down the mountainside with the cable cars overhead, until we got to the short hiking trail back to the city.
This is the part where normal people would follow the path. This is the part where, like every holiday we ever go on, we ended up walking round a residential area for several miles. It happens.
We did get to see the Nunobiki waterfall and a large reservoir though, before we departed from the beaten path and into some random cul-de-sac.
Kitano: Europe in Japan
Kobe was once Japan’s only port for foreigners to enter the country. So lots of merchants and diplomats lived there and built Western-style houses and other buildings. Obviously these are much more interesting and a novelty to Japanese tourists than to us as Europeans, but it was still quite fun and surreal seeing all these ‘normal’ buildings in Japan.
Kitano sprawls up the (steep) hillside, leading to a rather nice shrine featuring a statue of a bull and a good view. Kobe is famous for beef, so we can assume the original bull met an untimely end as a steak, but at least he got to wear a red bow tie.
After falling over in Kitano, we headed back into Kobe to have a mooch round.
On the way, we stopped and shared a tray of our favourite Japanese street food snackettes, takoyaki (battered octopus dumplings, otherwise known as heaven) from a stall called Kokoha Takoyaki.
Apologies for the hunger-inducing photograph.
Exploring the streets of Kobe and shopping
When we had got back to civilisation, we had a quick lunch on the go, consisting mostly of steamed buns.
We did some shopping after our day trips from Kobe in the evenings. Kobe is excellent for shopping, with miles of covered malls and underground shopping centres that go on forever.
But you don’t need to go into shops to appreciate it all. Just walking around Kobe, like anywhere in Japan, is entertainment in itself. We’ll go into more detail on this when we write a post about Japan in general and how pleasantly baffling it is, but hopefully the first photo below gives a sense of what we enjoy about it.
Everything is going on, all the time, all at once. Everywhere you turn, there are more noises, more people, more stuff. It never ends. You look down a bustling side street, with people spilling out of shops and cafés as far as the eye can see, and then you remember to look up and realise there are about 10 floors of the same thing going on above you. And quite possibly also below you, in several layers of underground malls.
In true Japanese fashion, Flower Road does what it says on the tin. It’s a main road near Sannomiya Station known for its year-round displays of beautiful flowers. Every display has had a ridiculous amount of care and attention poured into it. There are fake picture frames filled with flowers, ornamental cabbages arranged in the shape of hearts and clocks, and huge borders of flowers running alongside the road. Fountains and sculptures break up the array of colour.
We were very impressed with how vibrant and healthy all the plants were. By the time we hit January in the UK, everyone’s ornamental cabbages have rotted, heathers are past their best and cyclamen are long gone, consumed by the frost if the damp hadn’t got to them first. But in Kobe, it was all perfect. The gentler climate must help, but it’s a testament to the city’s gardening staff that it all looks so pristine.
Nankinmachi (Kobe’s Chinatown)
Kobe’s Chinatown is a big deal. Apparently, it’s one of only three Chinatowns in the whole of Japan. It’s also weirdly small, much smaller than the Chinatowns near where we live (Liverpool and Manchester, UK). But it’s worth a look. It’s just near Motomachi Station.
We wandered through it in the day, but it really came into its own at night, with the classic Chinese lanterns glowing overhead. A lot of it is just shops selling tourist stuff (fridge magnets and other trinkets) but there are food stalls and restaurants too. We didn’t eat there because we were a bit put off by some of the menus having pictures and English translations, as well as restaurant staff standing outside to lure you in: always alarm bells.
Kobe port at night
This seems to be the standard postcard scene for Kobe. It’s very pretty lit up at night. There’s a huge shopping centre there called Harborland, which goes on forever, and also loads of restaurants. But it all felt a bit tacky and was full of Chinese tourists rather than locals. Worth a walk down at night just to look at the view though. And if you go around Christmas time, you might catch this amazing but bizarre Christmas tree display full of lampshades.
Kobe beef is a big deal. We’d had it in our buns at lunchtime so weren’t out to find more come evening.
We ended up in quite a trendy area by Sannomiya Station and spotted this very busy place called RibLab Kitchen. We had nabe (a Japanese hotpot) with some fries on the side and it was one of those times where you end up eating exactly what you fancy. Just the thing on a cold January evening.
Highly recommended if you’re not after a big old slab of Kobe beef one night.
Back to the hotel
We don’t bother mentioning much about where we stay on our travels unless it’s somewhere particularly standout.
In Kobe, we had three nights at the Centurion Hotel Grand Kobe Station. It was the best hotel we have ever stayed in in Japan (No, we’re not being paid to say this. We can only dream of being big enough bloggers to get free stuff).
Those of you who have been to Japan will probably know that mid-range hotels are very hit and miss. They often stink of cigarettes even when they give you an alleged ‘smoke-free’ room and they often only have a ‘small double’ bed and not much space within the room to lug your suitcase round. Ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) are more popular than mid-range Western style hotels, so that’s where the quality tends to be.
In this hotel, our room smelled fresh and clean, had lovely big beds, was normal European-size, and had a shower worth texting your mum about. And it was only about £5o a night.
All in all, Kobe is a lovely city in the Kansai area, Hyogo prefecture. It’s a very good base for day trips, too.
Kobe, Japan: useful information
How to get there
Kobe is on the Sanyo shinkansen line. It’s well connected to Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. It also has its own airport.
Where to stay
We stayed at Centurion Hotel Grand Kobe Station, a new mid-range hotel near Kobe Station – the old station, not the shinkansen one.
How to get around
The city centre is walkable but there are also JR and private line trains, the subway and a monorail. Not to mention the cable car up the mountainside…
When to go
As proven by going in winter, Kobe has a display of flower power in every season. Even in monsoon season, you’d be fine for stuff to do because it is full of covered malls and underground shopping centres/restaurants.
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