Just don’t ask Where’s the beef?

Kobe Port Tower, the Hotel New Okura building and Kobe Maritime Museum's white meshed monumentmake the most famous scenery of Kobe. | Photo credit: Masayuki Kawagishi

Kobe (In Japanese, Kōbe-shi) is the capital city of Hyōgo Prefecture and a prominent port city in Japan.

Kobe is the busiest container port in the region, surpassing even Osaka, and the fourth busiest in Japan. There are over 100 international corporations with East-Asia or Japan headquarters in the city. Of these, twenty-four are from China, eighteen from the United States, and nine from Switzerland. Some prominent corporations include Eli Lilly and Company, Nestlé, Procter & Gamble, Temur-Pedic and Toys “R” Us.

A great many things account for Kobe’s unique charm, the beauty of the surrounding sea and mountains, the international cuisine, the exotic and fashionable ambience, and the city’s cultural assets.

The sea is often regarded as the undeniable “face” of Kobe. Along the coast in the western area of the city are many parks such as Sumaura Park, Maiko Park, and Suma Kaihin Park. There is also a famous and popular beach and yacht harbour at Suma, where residents (and visitors) fish year-round.

Kobe is adjacent to the Rokko Mountains, part of the Seto Inland Sea National Park. This area has been a favourite spot for communing with nature since ancient times. The panorama of Kobe viewed at night from the summit, which is accessible by cable car, is so breathtaking that it is known as the “ten-million-dollar night view”.

 Kobe is famous for many indigenous products such as its sake, wine, bread, shoes, pearls and, perhaps most famous of all, Kobe beef. Kobe beef is from the black Tajima-ushi breed of Wagyu cattle, raised according to strict tradition in Hyōgo Prefecture. The beef is renowned for its flavour, tenderness, and fatty well-marbled texture, and can be prepared as steak, sukiyaki, sahbu shabu, sashimi, ground hamburger patties and many other delectable treats.

And then there is the city centre with its maze of shopping streets, fashionable boutiques and bustling nightlife, famous for its China Town and filled with all sorts of dining establishments, jazz clubs and a myriad of other entertainment.

With all the rich experiences to see and do, Kobe is quite simply, an exciting place to visit and explore.

Did You Know?

  • Originally known by the name Ōwada Anchorage (大輪田泊, Ōwada-no-tomari?), earliest written records regarding the region come from the Nihon Shoki, which describes the founding of the Ikuta Shrine by Empress Jingū in 201 A.D.
  • The name “Kobe” derives from “kanbe” (神戸, kanbe), an archaic name for those who supported the shrine.
  • The lore surrounding Kobe Beef has long been a source of fascination. Stories of massages with sake and diets based on beer have circulated for years. Some of the stories are true … some are merely legends which have taken on a life of their own.
  • T or F? Kobe Bryant was named after a type of Japanese steak that his parents saw on a steak-house menu a year before his birth.
  • Kobe is a 35-45 minute flight from Tokyo or (Approximately) 4.5 hours by car.

How to Get Here

Kobe is easily reachable from within the country. Kobe Airport is situated on an artificial island close to the coast of central Kobe. The airport operates with only domestic flights and the nearest International airport is Osaka’s Kansai Airport. The Kobe Airport is connected to the main Kobe railway station, Sannomiya Station, by an elevated Port Liner that will get you there in 20 minutes.

Taxis are readily available just out side of arrivals, and the ride is 8-10 km. Several bus lines provide service to various areas of Kobe.

Tokaido Shinkansen is a train that connects Tokyo and Shin- Kobe Station. It takes a little less than 3 hours (170 minutes) to reach Kobe with a Nozomi train. There are less expensive Hikari trains that run through the same destinations, but it takes 25 minutes more to reach the city.

Are there any Travel or Medical Alerts?

News from Japan National Tourism Organization

Following the British and Canadian governments’ ease on travel restrictions to Japan, on April 14, the US Department of State has reduced the travel alert to Japan only to the 50 miles radius of the Fukushima nuclear power plant, which excludes major cities such as Tokyo and Yokohama, and Tokyo’s Narita and Haneda airports. As international organizations release clearer figures and assessment, the current situation has reached a reasonable safety level for international travelers.

Can We Visit Japan Today?

Yes. The majority of regions in Japan including popular leisure travel destinations are outside the areas affected by tsunami, earthquake and radiation, and received no disruption to infrastructure.  Everything in these areas continues to operate as usual.  The greater Tokyo area has already retrieved the usual condition, and there are no more periodical blackouts.  The other regions are unharmed, and safe and normal as before.

How is the Radiation Level?

NOT DANGEROUS! Except for the proximate areas near the nuclear power plants, there is no dangerous level of radiation detected in Japan.  Tokyo is not within radiation contamination concern area, located over 200km (124 miles) away from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant facilities.  The radiation level in Tokyo is similar to that of New York City.  The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and other international organizations confirm that the radiation level in the atmosphere is within a reasonable safety level to human health. You can see daily updates on radiation level in major cities in Japan here.

Are Food and Water Safe?

Yes. There is no shortage of food or water, and products distributed to the public are all safe.

Is Public Transportation Working?

Yes. Japan’s sophisticated public transportation systems have been recovered to the regular service levels everywhere, except for the tsunami-affected regions.

Daily Updates

Since the 3.11 earthquake, Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) continues to release updates on its website, including radiation conditions, transportation, events and other travel-related information.

Japanese Yen

You do not need to arrive in Japan with Yen in hand. When you land at Narita International, or any other airport, there are exchange counters that offer better exchange rates than what you’d get abroad, as well as ATMs. Change enough money to last several days, since exchanging money is not as convenient in Japan as it is in many other countries.

Credit cards are widely accepted in major cities. Canadian or U.S. traveller’s cheques can be exchanged at major banks and hotels. Although traveler’s checks are something of an anachronism now that ATMs have come onto the scene, they’re still useful for Japan, where ATMs for foreign-issued cards are limited. All banks in Japan displaying an Authorized Foreign Exchange sign can exchange currency and traveler’s checks. Automated banking machines are widely available, but some do not accept foreign debit cards. Visitors should be aware that banking machines are not available 24 hours a day and may not be available on weekends.

Your bank can advise if you need a new personal identification number (PIN) for overseas access to your account. Credit cards and debit cards should be used with caution due to the potential for fraud and other criminal activity. ABMs should be used during business hours inside a bank, supermarket, or large commercial building.

What will the seasonal weather be like?

The best time to visit Kobe is during the Spring and Autumn. During these seasons Kobe experiences the best weather of the year.
Located on the Inland Sea and sheltered by the Mountain Range on the north, Kobe has a typical temperate climate, characterised by relatively mild winters and cool summers. The rainy months are June and July. The temperature in August is usually around 30 C and the Winter temperatures are around 4 C. It snows several times.

Getting Around

The best way to travel in Kobe is on foot, especially in the centre of Kobe. The shops and store fronts you will pass along the way makes the distance seem even shorter.

Kobe’s local transportation is quite convenient. Public buses are frequent and the names of the main destinations are displayed in Roman letters. You must board the buses in the centre and pay with the exact sum when you leave at the front. You can purchase a Kobe Kanko 1 Day Coupon, which provides unlimited use of subways, buses and non- JR trains around Kobe for one day. You can also purchase an additional coupon for admission to selected city attractions.

A city loop bus circles most of the city’s sightseeing spots, stopping at both Shin-Kobe and Sannomiya stations.

You can take a taxi, but taxi’s are relatively expensive, and cabdrivers can’t always find the address, so when you know where you need to be, have your hotel write it out, and take with you a card from the hotel for when you return.

If you don’t want to walk and if you need to go a bit further, there are two subway lines: The Kaigan Line that runs along the coast and the Yamate-Seishin Line that runs in the direction of the mountains.

There is also a train: The Hankyu, Hanshin and the JR lines cross Kobe in a west-east direction. For visiting the area, it would be handy to purchase a JR-West Rail Pass. With this pass you have unlimited use of any standard trains in the Kansai area ( JR trains only). You can buy a card from 1 up to 4 days.

When you want to go a little or a lot further west or east, you can take the Bullet Train (The Shinkansen) This train will take you to Tokyo in less than 3 hours.

Because Kobe is a port, you can take a ferry to other areas like Shikoku, Kyushu, and the Awaji-shima island.

Kobe is divided into 9 districts called kues, Each district is famous for different reasons, and the most important are

  • Higashinada ward is home to the sake breweries of Nada, the world’s top producing region of sake. This is a place where old traditions still exist. Higashinada ward is also a preferred area to live by students since many colleges and universities are situated at the foot of the mountains.
  • Suma-ku attracts visitors because of its sandy beach and popular summer events.
  • Sannomya is famous for the Ikuta Shrine located here. This is also the place where the battle between the Heike and Genji clans took place several hundred years ago.
  • Chuo-ku is the growing centre of Kobe, surrounded by natural walls of mountains, historical buildings and seas.
  • If you want to rent a car, free city maps are available from either the city tourism association or a car rental agency, but, investing in a handheld GPS system featuring turn-by-turn voice directions could be invaluable. GPS systems today also feature points of interest that are nearby your location, and many other features that will provide a level of confidence while navigating in a foreign country. To view a variety of GPS products and verify that maps are available, see Garmin.

What not to miss

World Heritage Site(s)

Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritages are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) seeks to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world. Currently, there are fourteen World Heritage Sites in Japan.

The history of Kobe is connected to the Ikuta Shrine. Kobe was heavily bombed during the Second World War, and had to be rebuilt. Following the devastating war, the city suffered another disaster, this time caused by nature: the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995 took the lives of more than five thousand people and destroyed most of the port. In spite of the damage, Kobe has flourished …

Kobe has an exotic harbour atmosphere, spectacular night views and a little something for almost every taste, from the performing arts and jazz to sake breweries and hot springs.

Arima Onsen (Hot Spring area) is located on Mount Rokko and is one of Japan’s oldest hot-spring spas. There are two public baths: the Gold Spring with copper-coloured water and the Silver Spring with clear water rich in carbonic acid, both believed to be curable.

Nunobiki Falls (Nunobiki-No-Taki) is one of the greatest “divine falls” in Japan which is a set of waterfalls. This natural phenomenon had a significant impact in Japanese literature and art and is an ideal place to unwind and enjoy nature.

Kitano-cho is a Western-style neighbourhood that was settled by foreign diplomats and traders when Kobe was chosen for an international port. More than twenty Gothic and Victorian style houses, called ijinkan, are open to the public and attract visitors for the architecture and views of the sea.

Kobe Fashion Museum displays various fashion accessories and gowns from ethnic costumes to modern collections by famous designers. Extravagant fashion shows that take place in the museum and displays change four or five times a year.

Hakutsuru Sake Brewery Museum was established in 1743 as one of the many sake breweries in this area. The tour takes about 30 minutes and presents previously and currently used techniques to produce sake. The tour is free of charge with a free sake tasting and drinking tips at the end.

Hanshin Earthquake Museum presents a re-creation of the 7.3-on-the-Richter-scale earthquake that struck the city in 1995. It takes about an hour to witness the disastrous event by computer-generated scenes and detailed documentaries.

Kobe’s Chinatown is west of Sannomiya, just south of Motomachi Station but suffers slightly in comparison with Yokohama’s more vibrant and authentic Chinatown.

Port Island and Rokko Island are man-made islands in the bay, south of the old foreign settlement area, which is now Kobe’s commercial centre where Kobe City Hall, Daimaru Department Store and the Kobe City Museum are located. The museum exhibits a fine collection of nanban (“southern barbarian”) art, namely wood block prints detailing Japan’s early Western visitors.
Kobe Maritime Museum in Meriken Park has an exciting modernist exterior and a collection of model ships and audiovisual displays.

Sorakuen is a traditional Japanese landscape garden in the center of Kobe. The garden used to be part of the residence of Kodera Kenkichi, a former mayor of Kobe, but was opened to the public in 1941. All the buildings, which had originally stood in the garden, were destroyed in the war, except for a stable. The former home of a foreign trader, the Hassam House, was moved into the Sorakuen Garden from the Kitano district in 1961.

Municipal Kobe Winery The birthplace of the renowned Kobe Wine, vineyards extend around the Wine Castle. At the Wine Museum, visitors can learn the process of wine production as well as the history and culture of wine. Take advantage of a menu that boasts locally-produced beef and wine at Restaurants KOBE WINE.

Note You can purchase The Kobe Welcome Card which provides discounts and preferential services. The guidebook features discounts of 10 – 20 percent to more than 60 attractions. You can get the Kobe Welcome Card at the Kobe City Information Center, JR Railway Shinkobe Station Tourist Information Center, Kitano Tourist Information Center, Arima Onsen Tourist, Kansai Tourist Information Center or at the Kobe Airport Terminal Information.

For the kids

The Oji Zoo is one of three large zoos in the Kansai area. The total area is more than 80,000 square meters and where 850 animals from a total of 150 different species live. The kids will enjoy rarely seen animals such as a giant panda, koala, golden snub-nosed monkey, Amur tiger and snow-leopards, among many others. Some of the most popular attractions are the pandas Koko and Tantan, and the female elephant Suwako, who born in 1943, making it the oldest living elephant in Japan.

SUMA AQUALIFE PARK features a collection of 20,000 marine organisms of about 500 species. Sharks and rays swim in the artificial currents of a 1,200-ton capacity water tank. A spectacular dolphin show, a children’s amusement area, a sea otter house and the Amazon House are just some of the many activities to be enjoyed.

The Portopialand Amusement Park lies along the southern border of the Port Island. This amusement park features many structures and high rides. There are two good Schwarzkopf coasters and an enormous ferris wheel.

About Shopping

Hailed as “the Shopping City of Japan”, Kobe is sure to provide you with a memorable retail therapy experience. And this is just a sampling of what the area’s shopping highlights include.

Kobe’s historic shopping area is known as Moto-machi. It extends west for 2 kilometres from JR Moto-machi Station. Much of the district is under a covered arcade, which begins opposite the Daimaru department store and runs north of Nankin-machi. Moto-machi is more of a functional shopping area, selling house wares, imported foods,and electronics, with restaurants scattered between.

Nearly connected to the Moto-machi arcade, the San-No-Miya Center Gai Arcade extends from the department store Sogo to the Moto-machi area for 1 kilometre.

Nanae is a darling and inexpensive antiques shop in Kitano-cho with a large collection of high-quality yukata, which are lightweight summer kimonos, and a collection of ceramics and other antiques. Nanae, the owner, enjoys explaining the history behind the pieces.

Sakae-ya has traditional Japanese dolls, from Oshie to kimekomi dolls to the traditional samurai and kimono-clad ladies. The store is packed with cloth for doll-making, cupboards for storing doll-making supplies, and of course, dolls.

Santica Town is an underground shopping mall, with 120 shops and 30 restaurants. It extends for several blocks beneath Flower Road south from San-No-Miya Station. With its numerous shops, you can find everything from electronics to clothes.

The main shop of Tasaki Shinju, a pearl company, not only sells pearls but also exhibits astounding works of pearl art, including a model of the “Akashi Pearl Bridge” and a rooster with an impossibly long pearl tail. It is both a great shopping attraction as well as an art exhibition.

Kobe after dark

Kobe’s oldest and best-known jazz club, the Sone, has changed little since its 1969 opening, offering the same traditional jazz, including Dixieland ensembles and piano-vocalist duos, in a clubby, dated atmosphere. There are four stages nightly, and most people come to eat; the Japanese menu lists pasta, pizza, fish, and Kobe steaks.

Sports & Outdoor Adventure

There is no ‘official’ sport of Japan, but the Japan Sumo Association describes sumo as the national sport of Japan, with baseball as the most popular spectator sport.

Sumo is a religious occasion as well as a sporting event. Many sumo rituals are closely associated with Shinto beliefs. It is believed that some of ancient sumo matches were a religious event with a predetermined outcome as an offering to Kami. Some matches are arranged as divination.

Baseball, being one of the most popular sports in Japan, is played in various parks throughout the city. The Japanese demonstrate their passion for the game by organizing events and tournaments year-round, and is a joy to watch or, sometimes visitors can participate.

Local Customs and Etiquette

The best thing to know about Kobe etiquette is that the residents are considerate enough to realize that it is not possible for a foreigner to be up on all the nuances of Japanese etiquette, so they tend to be tolerant.

Greetings in Japan are very formal and ritualized. It is important to show the correct amount of respect and deference to someone based upon their status relative to your own. If at all possible, wait to be introduced. It can be seen as impolite to introduce yourself, even in a large gathering. While foreigners are expected to shake hands, the traditional form of greeting is the bow. How far you bow depends upon your relationship to the other person as well as the situation. The deeper you bow, the more respect you show. A foreign visitor (‘gaijin’) may bow the head slightly, since no one expects foreigners to generally understand the subtle nuances of bowing.

Saving face is crucial in Japanese society. The Japanese believe that turning down someone’s request causes embarrassment and loss of face to the other person. If the request cannot be agreed to, the response may be “it’s inconvenient” or “it’s under consideration”. Face is a mark of dignity and means having status with peers.

Gift-giving is ritualistic and meaningful. The ceremony of presenting a gift and the way it is wrapped is as important – sometimes more important – than the gift itself. The gift need not be expensive, but take great care to ask someone who understands the culture to help you decide what type of gift to give. Good quality chocolates or small cakes are good ideas. Do not give lilies, camellias or lotus blossoms as each are associated with funerals. Do not give white flowers of any kind as they are associated with funerals. Do not give potted plants as they encourage sickness, although a bonsai tree is always acceptable. Give items in odd numbers, but not 9. If you buy the gift in Japan, have it wrapped. Gifts are not opened when received.

If you are invited to a Japanese house, remove your shoes before entering and put on the slippers left at the doorway and leave your shoes pointing away from the doorway. Arrive on time or no more than 5 minutes late if invited for dinner. If you must go to the washroom, put on washroom slippers and remove them when you are finished.

Dining Etiquette

Wait to be told where to sit. There is a protocol to be followed. The honoured guest or the eldest person will be seated in the centre of the table the furthest from the door. The honoured guest or the eldest is the first person to begin eating. Never point your chopsticks. Do not pierce your food with chopsticks. Chopsticks should be returned to the chopstick rest after every few bites and when you drink or stop to speak. Do not cross your chopsticks when putting them on the chopstick rest. It is acceptable to ask what something is. Don’t be surprised if your Japanese colleagues slurp their noodles and soup. If you do not want anything more to drink, do not finish what is in your glass. An empty glass is an invitation for someone to serve you more. When you have finished eating, place your chopsticks on the chopstick rest or on the table. Do not place your chopsticks across the top of your bowl. If you leave a small amount of rice in your bowl, you will be given more. To signify that you do not want more rice, finish every grain in your bowl. 
Conversation at the table is generally subdued. The Japanese like to savour their food.

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