KOBE (25 miles southwest of Osaka) is the second largest port in Japan after Yokohama and home to about 1.5 million people. It is situated between the sea and Mt. Rokko. The world’s longest suspension bridge connects it with Awaji Island and Shikoku. Kobe's Port Island and Rokko Island are among the largest man-made islands in the world.
Kobe (pronounced ko-BAY) has traditionally been thought of as one of the most pleasant large cities in Japan and, ironically, a place people came to escape earthquakes. Somewhat reminiscent of San Francisco, it is hilly, has a lots of good Chinese restaurants, reggae clubs, pretty girls, and a famous suspension bridge, and is blessed with a mild climate and clean breezy air. In addition Kobe is known for its tender marbled Kobe beef, which comes from cows that are feed beer and given daily massages. Few of the cows actually come from Kobe. Many come from Hyogo Prefecture around Kobe.
Kobe was selected in a 2006 poll as Japan’s second most attractive city. However it is hurting as an international city and port. The number of consulates there has shrunk from 17 to one. In recent decades it has lost business to other Asian ports, falling from 4th in world in 1980 to 43 in 2004 and handles less than one tenth the volume of Singapore. After the earthquake in 1995 the port was renovated and expanded at a cost of $50 billion. Its computerized loading cranes can unload cargo ships a rate of one minute but often times the cranes stand up which means they are idle. Kobe is trying hard to reverse the trend but some of the measure taken’such as building an expensive new airport---may create more problems than they solve. See Airports, Tourist Information, Getting There.
1995 earthquake damage Websites:Official Kobe Tourism site feel-kobe.jp Hyogo Prefecture site hyogo-tourism.jp Map: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO ;Official Kobe Tourism site feel-kobe.jp ; Subway Map: Urban Rail Urbanrail.net ; Japanize Kansai Railway Map japanize.jp Hotel Websites: Official Kobe Tourism site feel-kobe.jp ; JapanHotel.net JapanHotel.net Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Kobe is accessible by air and by bus and by train from Tokyo (four and half hours) and Osaka (20 minutes) and other Japanese cities. Kobe ison the main shinkansen line Lonely Planet Lonely Planet
History of Kobe: Kobe has always had reputation of outward looking and international city. When Japan began opening to outside world, Kobe was one of the first places to welcome foreign ships and establish foreign communities. Kobe developed at a rapid pace after the Meiji Restoration in 1868 and was destroyed very quickly by the Kobe earthquake.
Kobe Earthquake: Kobe sustained $30 billion worth of damage and lost over 5,000 people during the great earthquake of 1995. Most of the damaged areas have been rebuilt and there is little evidence that a major disaster ever took place. One of the main reasons why Kobe was so badly damaged in 1995 was it was thought to be located in an area of Japan in which earthquakes were not a threat and thus the kind of precautions that are common places that are more earthquake-prone like Tokyo were not taken in Kobe. See Kobe earthquake, Nature Websites: Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Facts and Details factsanddetails.com/japan
Tourist Sights in Kobe
Tourist Sights in Kobe include Kobe port, founded in the 3rd century and now a starting point for trips on the Inland Sea; Nadagogo, an area with several famous sake breweries; the Nunobiki Herb garden, with a spice workshop and 150 varieties of plants; and Ikuta Shrine, a vermillion-painted building dedicated to the goddess of ancient Japan and located in a busy business district.
Kobe Bund in the early 20th century
Kitano-cho is a district in Chuo Ward known for its beautiful well-preserved foreign residences, known as Ijinkan. Many were built in European and Chinese styles in the Meiji Era. About 90 survive and many of these are open to the public. Nearby on Toru Road, a scenic uphill lane, you can visit the Kitano Tenjin Shrine and many fashionable stores. The Kobe Municipal Museum displays many paintings and works of art produced under European influence since the 16th century.
Kobe Phoenix Plaza contains an earthquake museum with displays on the earthquake, the fires, recovery and rebuilding efforts. The plaza is also a clearinghouse for information and services for earthquake victims. On nearby Awaji island a park has been set up around the fault where the earth shifted five feet during the quake.
A large model of Tetsujin 28-go, the fictional giant robot known in the West as Gigantor, was erected in Nagata ward, Kobe, in an effort to attract visitors to the ward, which has never really recovered from the 1995 Kobe earthquake. About half the houses in Nagata collapsed or were destroyed by fire in the quake. The statue is 18 meters, the same height as the fictional robot.
Suma Aqualife Park is the oldest large aquarium in Japan. Built in 1897, it boasts a 1,200-ton tank with sharks. A new tube-sapped aquarium which allows viewng from all sides, features creatures form the Amazon. Over a million people visit the aquarium every year.
The new airport that opened in February 2006 is regarded as tourist site (See Tourist Information). Among the sights near the airport are the UCC Coffee Museum. with exhibits on coffee and canned coffee; a hot spring, which draws water from a 752-meter-deep well, Hyogo Prefectural Art Museum, housed in a building designed by the famous architect Tadao Ando, with oceanside Grand Staircase, a Circular Terrace, a mountainside entrance gate and changing exhibits; the Kobe Fashion Museum; and Suma Aqualife Park, with dolphins, oysters and penguins.
Entertainment, Shopping and Restaurant Areas in Kobe
Kobe's Chinatown Nankin-Machi is one of the largest Chinatowns in Japan. Small by comparison to the ones New York and San Francisco, it has a number of restaurants and outdoor food stalls that produce Chinese food geared for Japanese tastes. The dumplings and pork buns offered from the stalls are tasty.
The Nada district of Kobe is perhaps Japan’s most famous sake production area. Nine sake breweries offer tours The one at Shushinkan is recommended. They have an introductory video in English and serve a seven-dish lunch with aperitif made of the local sake for only $11. The tour includes a visit to the cedar-lined room used to ferment the rice. Nishinomiya is another famous sake-brewing district. Water comes from a famous aquifer.
About 650,000 people tour the waterfront on cruise ships of water buses. Two-hour amphibious car tours of Kobe which includes visits to land-based and water-based sites are offered by a company called DUKW Tour Taiko Co. The U.S.-made, five-ton DUKW car carries 20 people. Kidzania (Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture) opened in 2009 and features 80 work experiences such as those of firefighters and television announcers that kids can try themselves.
The Kobe Portopia Land Amusement Park features a large Ferris wheel, the Sky Flyer jet coaster and a number of other rides. At last report it was having financial problems and was in danger of being shut down. Takarazuka Grand Theater and other tourist associated with Osaka---as well as ones in Kyoto---are also accessible to Kobe.
Harbor Land Kobe is regarded as one of the man fortunetelling centers f Japan. Mjo no Ie (House of Witches) and Jemmu Uranai no Machi (Gem Forune-Telling Town) are fortunetelling institutions. The former is staffed by “witches” in their 20s who read tarot cards. The latter is staffed by performing fortunetellers. Among them are ones who beat Buddhist drums while doing flamenco dances. The famous “ant fortinetller” predicts the future by observing the actions of a queen ant as it walks across a table. Websites: Hyogo Prefecture site hyogo-tourism.jp ; Kansai Restaurant Guide Bento.com ;
Shopping Areas in Kobe include Kobe Harbor Land, a large waterfront commercial area with many jewelry shops selling jewelry made with cultured pearls; Santica Town, a unique underground shopping area with 150 stores in 11 "towns:" and Motomachi Street, a flourishing shopping center covered by an aluminum roof. Kobe is to many pearl sellers and distributors.
In the Old Foreign Settlement Area near the port there are a number of fashionable shops including Louis Vuitton, Armani, Dior, Jean Paul Gaultier, Prada, Ferragamo, Fendi, Gucci, Yves St. Laurant and Ralph Lauren.
Kobe Area Sights
Mt. Rokko is a 3,000-foot-high mountain that towers over Kobe and offers has beautiful views of Osaka Bay and Awaji Island. Reached by cable car and roads, it houses a small community with restaurants and recreation facilities. Worth checking are the Rokko Alpine Botanical Gardens and the Museum of Music Boxes.
Many of Kobe's residents live off of narrow paths and roads that spiral up and down the Rokko Mountain Range, which parallel's the coast, blocks out cold winds coming from the west, and divides Kobe from the rest of Japan. Around 500 to 600 wild boars live in the Mt. Rokko area. In recent years they begun hanging around shrines and invading farmer's fields and laws were passed to prevent people from feeding them.
Arima Hot Springs (reached by cable car or train from Kobe) is said to be the oldest hot spring resort in Japan. Located at opposite of Mt. Rokko from Kobe, it is small town with a public bath house, complete with entertainment facilities and number of inns and hotels with hot spring baths. With checking out are Onsenji temple and Onsen Shrine. There are lots of good hiking routes in the area. The waters are high in iron, sodium chloride, an radium. Website: Arima Onsen official site arima-onsen.com
Ashiya (reached by from Kobe, Kyoto and Osaka) is a popular day trip destination on the slopes of Mt. Rokko. The home of 83,000 people it boasts shrines, museums and hiking trails and zoning laws that have kept the place from being overdeveloped. The Yamamura-teo, (also knows as the Yodoko Guest House) is one of only two surviving, untouched buildings by the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright left in Japan. It is open on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons.
Akishi (on the coast 9 miles west of Kobe) is the home of the Uontana Fish Market, the largest and most interesting fish market in the Kansai area . Although it is nowhere as large as Tsukiji in Tokyo it supplies a large portion of the seafood for Kobe, Kyoto and Osaka. Many of the fish are caught in waters off of Akishi at night and sold in auctions at 11:30am. The most well represented sea creatures ate Japanese horse mackerel, chub mackerel, Japanese sea perch, eel, squid, shrimp and octopus.
Akashi Kaikyo Bridge (7 miles west of Kobe) is the world's longest suspension bridge. Opened in April 1998 and connecting Kobe with Awaji-shima island, it is a 3,911 meters long, a few meters longer than the Great Belt Connection (connecting the islands of Funen and Zealand in Denmark), completed in 1999. The Akashi Kaikyo Bridge has been designed to resist powerful earthquakes and typhoons. Illuminated at night, it is a breathtaking sight referred to as the "Pearl bridge."
On the Akashi side of the bridge there is an observation deck, within the bridge, 46 meters above the ground, that is reached by an elevator and has a ¥500 entrance fee. Nearby there is a UF0-like observation gondola that rotates as it climbs a tower for a view of the bridge and Awaji Island. The gondola rises every 15 minutes and stays at the top about eight minutes. It costs ¥500. Website: Wikipedia Wikipedia
Awaji Island (reached by the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge from Kobe) is the largest island in the Inland Sea. It is the home of the Nojima Fault Preservation Museum, a futuristic greenhouse-like glass structure that encloses a 140-meter section of the Nojima fault where the earth shifted five feet during the Kobe earth quake. Visitors can see roads, dikes, rice paddies and a house disrupted by the earthquake and
Onokoro Airando-Koen Park has miniature replicas of the Parthenon, Taj Mahal and other world famous sights. UF0 Jinja features a Torii gate surrounded by stone frogs, plaster castes of human limbs and fake gorilla skulls. Nearby is a rather depressing sex museum with a resident troop of monkeys. Awaji is also a jumping off point for trips to view the whirlpools of the Naruto Straits (see Tokushima). A museum has a 3-D movie that recalls a story of a fisherman was sucked into a whirlpool and rescued by a white seal and hands on exhibits that allows you to move video cameras on the top of the bridge’s towers. On the Awaji coast are some nice beaches and campgrounds. The islands is famous for its Japanese daffodils which usually bloom in the middle of winter.
Awaji is also known for its modern architecture. Of particular interest is Awaji Yumebutai, designed nu Tadao Ando. Inspired by the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, it includes terraced gardens, an open air theater, a circular plaza, greenhouse-plant museum, conference center, tea ceremony rooms that harmonize with the natural surrounded, and feature simple lines and sunken spaces.
Nearby is Ando’s innovative Honpukuji water temple, with a Buddhist temple sunken below a lotus pond situated on a mountain. The temple is entered by descending a staircase in the middle of the pond. The outside is constructed from reinforced concrete while the circular shrine features bright red walls and lot by natural light. Websites: Awaji Navi awaji-navi.jp ; Wikitravel Wikitravel
Himeji (50 miles west of Kobe) is a small city, with one primary attraction, its castle. Other less visited sights include the Hyogo Museum of History, with an interesting displays on Japanese castles and special rooms where you can try on kimonos and samurai armor. The historic setting has drawn production crews which have shot 250 films and television dramas in Himeji. The scene from The Last Samurai, where Tom Cruise meets Ken Watanabe, were filmed at Himeji’s Shoshazan Engyo-ji Temple.
The Himeji Tourist Association information center at Himeji Station offers some good free maps and brochures and runs a free bicycle operation. Worth a look if you have the time are the Himeji City of Museum of Art, with works by Magritte and Japanese artists; Himeji City Museum of Literature, housed in a Tadao Ando-designed building; the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of History; Himeji City Aquarium; the Japan Toy Museum; the Himeji City Botanical Gardens; and a science museum, an astronomical observatory and some amusement parks.
Websites:Himeji Tourist Information himeji-kanko.jp ; Himeji City city.himeji.lg.jp Map: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO ; Himeji Tourist Information himeji-kanko.jp "> himeji-kanko.jp Hotel Web Sites:Himeji Tourist Information himeji-kanko.jp JapanHotel.net JapanHotel.net Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Himeji is accessible by air and by bus and by train from Tokyo (five hours) and Osaka (one hours) and other Japanese cities. Himeji is on the main shinkansen line. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet
Himeji Castle (10 minute walk from Himeji station) was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993. Built between 1601 and 1609 by Ikeda Terumasa, the son-in-law of Tokugawa Ieyasu, and situated on Himeji Hill, it regarded as the best of Japan's castles and one of the few with some its original interior and exterior intact. Unlike other castles in Japan, it has managed to avoid being destroyed by a fire or natural disaster and was never attacked. It has undergone some major restorations but always in accordance with designs and construction methods used to make the original.
Standing 46 meters high, Himeji is known as the White Egret Castle because all the structures are white and from a distance the castle looks like a white bird in the middle of some rice fields. Constructed of wood, plaster and stone, its features a seven-story-high, five-tiered donjon with platforms of white stone and a white plaster exterior, three smaller donjons, a three-story watchtower, and covered passages connecting the donjon with the towers.
Himeji Castle sits on a site were a fort was built in 1333 and an earlier castle was built in the middle of the 16th century. The entire structure is surrounded by imposing defensive walls and moats. The walls have triangular and circular holes used for firing guns and arrows. Openings in the main donjon were used for pouring boiling oil and dropping rocks on attackers. Parts of the moat remain but there is no water.
One look at the castle shows that not all of the features are militaristic. Some are aesthetic. The white plaster walls, curved stone base and straighten edge roof with curved gables were intended to be pleasing to eye. Around the castle complex are lots of trees and greenery, including more than 1,000 cherry trees that bloom in late March and early April. It is possible to have you picture take with a ninja, kimono-clad princess or daimyo in the park outside the castle. Websites: Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Himeji castle virtual tour himeji-castle.gr.jp ;Himeji Tourist Information himeji-kanko.jp Himeji Tourist Information Map himeji-kanko.jp UNESCO World Heritage site: UNESCO website
History of Himeji Castle: There are many stories associated with the castle. One of the most famous involves the ghost of a woman named Okiku, who was sent in the guise of a man to spy on an evil retainer who was plotting to overthrow the lord of the castle. The retainer realized that Okiku was a spy and accused her of stealing a valuable plate, which he had actually hid. For her alleged crime she was tortured and was thrown a well that now bears her name. Sometimes, it is said, her ghost can be heard counting plates. Visitors can visit a wall named after her.
Since no battles were fought at the castle stories of ghosts, murders and ritual suicides have taken the place of war stories. Another repeatedly-told tale involves a carpenter who leapt to his death after discovering a turret he worked on leaned to one side. There is another about an old women who donated her only millstone to the wall-building effort when she heard the there was a shortage of stones. Her sacrifice lead others in the town to donate stones and the wall was built. In another story the famous samurai Miyamoto Musashi slew a rival on the top floor of the castle.
Himeji will undergo a 5½-year undergo restoration beginning in autumn of 2009 in which 80,000 roof tiles will be replaced, and 250 tons of plaster will be applied to the main donjon walls. A structure with scaffolding, an elevator and glass-walled observation area will envelop the main donjon, During the last renovation from 1956 to 1964 the castle’s main donjon was overhauled down to its pillars. That time the foundation was reinforced with concrete and the 24.4-meter wooden central pillar was replaced. Over 250,000 people took part in that renovation. About 10,000 will be used in the current restoration.
Features of Himeji Castle include tiles stamped with family crests; brown walls made of clay and sand mixed with boiled rice water that have stood for 400 years; stones walls that have been built with a curve that get steeper at the top to provide a firm base but make it difficult to scale at the top. The main tower has a Shinto shrine at the top and has seven stories, including the basement, but looks like it has five. The two main pillars that support the main tower are nearly a meter wide. The upper part of the each pillar contains material from the original castle.
The West Bailey Building was built for the eldest daughter of the second Tokugawa Shogun. It features the 300-meter-long Long Corridor, with maids rooms and a room used by the princess off to the side and the Cosmetic Tower. The long storehouse to the back of the main tower was used to store salt and rice in the event of a siege. A deep well was the source of water.
Harakiri-maru is a small building where harakiri or seppuku or ritual suicide were reportedly conducted. It said the well near the building was used to wash beheaded bodies. Well, it turns out these stories are untrue. The building was a defensive post used to protect the rear gate and the well was an ordinary well.
Before visiting the castle, check it from a distance to appreciate it. A good place to look is the Egret, Himeji, an arts and crafts exhibition space, a couple hundred meters away. After entering the gates one must negotiate a maze of passages and gate to get to the castle proper. On the western side of Himeji Castle is Kokoen garden, a traditional Japanese garden with a tea room, waterfall and pond.
In Ise Prefecture a man spent 18 years building a 1:23 scale replica of Himeji Castle in his backyard. He spent a $170,000 on the project and made sure every detail was just right. The model covers 160 square meters. People who have seen it are impressed. There is some discussion of moving it somewhere and making a tourist attractions out of it.
Other Sights in Himeji
Shoshazan Engyo-ji Temple Shoshazan Engyo-ji Temple (about five miles northeast of Himeji Station) served as the residence of Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe) in the film Last Samurai. Located on 371-meter-high Shoshazan mountain and founded in A.D. 966 by Shoku, the Buddhist priest who founded the Tendai Buddhist sect, it an impressive temple complex and has relatively few visitors, and is particularly nice in the autumn when the leaves of the maples there turn brilliant red.
The temple’s Manden building, about halfway up the mountains, is supported by wooden pillars and is reminiscent somewhat if Kiyomuzudera Temple in Kyoto. The top of the diminutive mountain can be reached by cable car or a 15 minuet walk along a path lined with Kannon statues.
Daikodo, the great auditorium, features a large, two-tired roof made of tiles. The 40-meter-long Jikido hall houses a priest training center and boarding house. Kaizando, the innermost temple, is situated in a cedar forest. It is supported by four statutes of sumo wrestlers made by the famous 17th century sculptor Hidaro Jingoro. The number of visitors to the temple has increased dramatically since the release of Last Samurai. Website: Himeji Tourist Information himeji-kanko.jp
Izushi (60 kilometers north of Himeji and Kobe) is a pleasant castle town sometimes call “Little Kyoto of Tajima.” It is home to a drum tower made into a clock tower, traditional tea houses, samurai houses, and white-walled temples. The donjon is no longer standing but the stone walls of the castle remain and a stairway with 158 steps and 57 red torii gates lead to the top. The town has been able to retain a rustic charm partly because no major rail line runs through it.
Tatsuno (between Himeji and Okayama) is another pleasant castle town sometimes call “Little Kyoto of Harima.” It has former samurai residences and traditional white storehouses. A small rivers run through the center of the town and mountains form a scenic backdrop. The town is also famous for its somen noodles and light-colored soy sauce.
Ako Misaki Onsen (west of Himeji) is wonderful hot spring resort with views of the ocean. The calcium-and salt-rich water, it is said, heals the body and soothes the skin.
Image Sources: 1) 4) 5) 6) 7)Wikipedia 2) Earthquake Image Archives M. Yoshimine, Tokyo Metropolitan University 3) Visualizing Culture, MIT Education 8) Amolife, 9) 10) Ray Kinnane 11) Himjei Convention and Visitors Bureau
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2009 Jeffrey Hays