Edited by Jess Wright
Being the first-ever port city in Japan, the diverse ex-pat ratio which followed has lent Kobe an international vibe that is hard to find in the rest of Japan, while leaving the authentic Japanese culture well intact. The eclectic populace of the medium-size city – about 1.5 million people – has led to a vibrant and lively nature. Nestled between mountains and seas, with only ten minutes to either and an action-packed, compact city center full of small bars and restaurants in between, there are many untraveled adventures to embark on, each uncovering an interesting aspect of Japanese culture. From hostess culture and tachinomi to ancient alpine onsens, Kobe has so much to discover. While there are many weird and wonderful museums – the carpentry museum and the earthquake museum, just to name a few – right here in the city center, I plan to take you a little further afield with this comprehensive guide to Kobe off the beaten path.
The Nada Sake brewing district has the most sake distilleries in Japan and is only a 5-minute train ride from Kobe. As far as day trips from Kobe go, this is a goodie. With an entire tourist map dedicated to this region alone and around 8 sake breweries to sample and explore you can be pretty sure that after a day in Nada, a night on the town will be in order. After having frequented these breweries for some years, the free samples are still a big drawcard; I usually cycle up and hop from one to the other for free samples before heading back. I would highly recommend Hakutsuru Sake Brewery Museum; a brewery and museum based on the best selling sake in Japan. You can’t access the still-functioning brewery but will get to see all the historical instrumentation on display as well as end your tour with loads of free samples. If you’d like to see the brewing process in action, Shushinkan Brewery offers factory access with English guides, a sake shop and cool little bar with free samples and the option to buy a tasting tray with five variations of sake. Be sure to pre-book this one! Hamafukutsuru Ginjo Brewery might have the ugliest website on god’s green earth, but don’t be put you off; this is another great brewery where you can sip sake while observing the brewing and bottling process through the glass.
Cherry blossoms, fireflies, and locally brewed beer – what more could you want from an alpine town overflowing with ancient hot springs, tucked into one of the most pristine and breathtaking mountain ranges in Japan? Hidden gems in Kobe don’t get much better than that. Arima – only a 30-minute train ride in mountains – boasts one of the oldest (and in my opinion one of the best) onsen (hot spring) in all of Japan. While the golden onsen water is said to be a rejuvenating treatment for skin, the fresh mountain air, walkways that wind between leafy forest and ancient wooden houses and the atmosphere in this quintessentially Japanese mountain town are good for the soul. Spend half a day here defrosting your toes in the free public springs, or splash out on entry into one of the private onsens and enjoy locally brewed Rokko beer. Arima is a wildly popular weekend getaway for city dwellers, so it might be well worth the loot to dodge the crowds and book into one of the hotels that open their baths to the public during lunchtime. They are costly but provide a better environment to relax and some hotels throw in lunch as part of the package. This not to miss experience is one of the top things to do in Kobe in winter or summer, as well as part of the perfect one-day itinerary.
San Center Plaza
Dubbed San Plaza among ex-pats, this secret Kobe shopping paradise is a gem I only discovered about a year ago. Running beneath the bustling Sannomiya/Motomachi area is a bonanza of shops and restaurants. The entire complex boasts more than 500 spaces and spans above and below the ground and while the second and third floors (above ground) are a mish-mash of all sorts of stores with comic books, instruments, and anime cafeś, under the ground is where the magic happens. Divided into 3 sections – San Plaza, Center Plaza, and Center Plaza West – the basement level of all three is one big underground foodie extravaganza. Here you will find some definite Kobe must-eats, with a huge selection of great restaurants and a scattering of boutique stores. In the Center Plaza basement is a place called On The Curry where you can expect to find some delicious Japanese style curry sauce, usually served over chargrilled meat and three free toppings. If you do happen to be an anime fan don’t skip the upper levels full of video game centers, anime, hobby, and cosplay shops as well as an anime cafe where it’s not uncommon to see a parade of cosplay thanks to the events that often run on weekends.
Situated in one of the nine wards of Kobe is this stretch of white sandy beach. I’d like to tell you it’s pristine, but it’s not. In fact, out of season, it’s pretty nondescript, fairly dirty beach. There are, however, some factors that make it unique though, and worthy of mention in this list. One of these factors is the massive Sumadera Temple complex – really unique with its Nepalese style temples and some jaw-dropping garden features. From nearby you can catch a cable car to the top of the mountain, giving you a great view of the Askashe suspension bridge – the longest suspension bridge in the world. The other factor that puts Suma on the map is the same that attracts tourists to the Kansai region all through summer when this stretch of beach transforms into a giant beach party, full of pop-up beach bars, restaurants, and dance clubs. The atmosphere is electric, with girls and guys sunbathing, drinking and partying, excellent beer, ice-cream, and mouthwatering hotdogs always close at hand. Afterward, the bulldozers roll in and flatten it, but between the beginning of July and the end of August, this is a great spot for a party.
One of the unmissable things to do in Kobe, Mt Maya has a night view that is as beautiful as it is unknown. Cited as the best night view in Japan in a weird award called “cool Japan”, this is one of the only places where you can see Osaka (far left) and all of Kobe (further right) at the same time. Lit up as the city is at night, it makes for a gorgeous view and pretty romantic couples spot. There are cable cars and a ropeway to get you up, but check the closing time to make sure you can find your way down again. If you enjoy a good hike, start your visit arrive during daylight hours at the Nunobiki herb gardens and make the two-hour trek to Mount Maya. The hike traverses tricky terrain with a fair bit of climbing involved, but if you can end off with a beer and the reward of this fantastic view it might just be worth it.
A city in its own right, but well-connected by train, Akashi is less than a 15 minute ride away from Kobe, and almost entirely unknown to tourists. The train ride offers a nice view of the seaside and Akashi Kaikyō Bridge, a suspension bridge which links Kobe to the Japanese mainland. To the locals Akashi is also well known for its large fish market located on Uonotana Street, which you can walk down to catch sight of seafood so fresh it is likely still flapping around. If you’ve been to Osaka you’re probably familiar with the famous takoyaki balls of batter with soft octopus inside. Akashi has its own spin on this favoured delicacy called akashiyaki, commonly eaten with a thin broth. Other good attractions in the area are the Akashi Castle, with a pretty park that just explodes in tones of pink and white during cherry blossom season, and a craft brewery that – while you can’t actually enter the brewery – sells good craft beer.
Located in Kitano, which is a picturesque attraction all on its own, boasting pretty mansions left behind by foreign merchants, is a cute and unexpected find; Animal Kingdom. One of the cool and unusual things to do in Kobe, this combination between a free zoo and a petting zoo is located on Port Island about 15 to 20 minutes south of Kobe. It is mainly located in and around a greenhouse, and is full to bursting with healthy, happy animals from capybaras, to sloths and alpacas all ready and waiting to be given a good scratch. Come here to cuddled and feed all your favorite fluffy companions, and get the chance to spot some amazing birds and forest animals here. If you're an animal lover, this one is certainly worth a visit.
Shinkaichi Higashiyama Shoutengai
Photo credit: 663highland, Wikipedia
Of all the unusual things to do in Kobe, this one is probably is the realm of the sleazier attractions. A widely patronized downtown entertainment area, Shinkaichi is more popular among the local Japanese populace and is probably where you ought to head if you are looking for a true reflection of the local drinking scene, packed as it is with cinemas, izakaya pubs, karaoke parlors and restaurants packed to the rafters with delicious ramen and gyoza. Among the bars and eateries, you’ll catch sight of a true Kobe slice of life, with an active music scene and stores that display a quirky amalgam of Japanese pop culture. At night it can be a fairly dodgy area but totes an abundance of happening bars, as well as the main red-light district which is not generally frequented by foreigners. If you do stumble to this part of town head to the blues and jazz clubs in the area that play host to the well-established jazz scene, with a popular jazz festival taking place here on an annual basis.
Hiking the big mountain chain
For an experience of Kobe off the beaten path, you might try hiking the Rokko mountain range. The natural beauty in this part of the world is splendid all year round, whether you come in November for the change of seasons that brings the full-color wheel to the treetops, or during sakura season for the more muted, delicate palette of cherry blossoms. As I’ve said, the range offers a spectacular night view of Kobe, but for an experience, few are capable of you could try your hand at hiking the full 56kms of mountain chain – all within touching distance from buses if you do decide to call it quits. Hiking the full 56kms is one of the more non-touristy things to do in Kobe purely because of the taxing nature of the hike, and is taken on by some as an endurance sport. If you aren’t in the mood for a feat of endurance on your holiday, there are plenty of day hikes that will take you past waterfalls, a historical foreigner graveyard, a pasture garden to hang out with sheep, an obstacle course and loads of viewing platforms.
While the waterfront area that is Meriken Park, overlooking Kobe Port, is not hidden and is well-known among travelers, the night time appeal of this attraction is largely unknown. Kobe Harborland, a stone's throw from Meriken park, is a shopping and entertainment district that falls between JR Kobe Station and the waterfront of Kobe port, offering excellent retail and culinary options by day, as well as bars and other amusements come nightfall. It’s the impressive illumination, however, of the entire area which is artfully lit up to create a romantic evening atmosphere and dazzling viewpoint for couples and tourists alike. The view stretches from Meriken to Harborland and back again, equally beautiful from either side looking at the other, the large KOBE sign ever illuminated in the distance.
Hello, curious traveler!
Embark on a unique experience with Hello, curious traveler!
Embark on a unique experience with Our personalized, private tours, led by local hosts, make you feel like you’re exploring the city with a knowledgeable friend. We’ll take you to well-known sights and reveal Kobe’s hidden gems, unveiling stories typically missed by traditional tours. So unscript your journey, and see Kobe through the eyes of our local hosts!
Top private experiences in Kobe
We’ll pair you with the perfect host
There is no better way to see a city than with a friend who lives there. This is why we carefully match guests with their perfect host based on interested, personality and type of experience so they can discover a city beyond the tourist trail.
Make your inbox happy with our travel tips and inspiration as well as exclusive offers and first access to new services.