Edited by Jess Wright
Nightlife in Kobe has everything you need, with a spread of restaurants and bars literally wherever you go. Being the first port city in Japan has meant a great deal of international influence in Kobe. While adding spice and diversity to the city, it has done nothing to dampen the Japanese cultural drinking quirks like hostess culture, tachinomi, and izakayas. The Kobe nightlife area is tucked neatly into a square kilometer between mountain and sea. While it is right next door to Osaka, where the real action is at, Kobe nightlife is more personable. Everyone knows everyone. Kobe at night is uniquely beautiful, Jagerbombs are a thing and Japanese drinking is a 24-hour game so you are guaranteed to always find somewhere open. All that’s left to do is arm yourself with a ripper of a list of things to do in Kobe at night. You’ve come to the right place for that!
Things to Know
Before we get going, there are a few tips about nightlife in Kobe to share with you! Kobe’s hostess culture, in particular, makes for a lively atmosphere, but if you aren’t familiar with the term, it essentially encompasses the practice of paying women to sit with you, pour your drinks and laugh at your jokes. As a foreigner, I suggest you avoid this purely because you don’t understand the system and will probably get ripped off because you don’t understand the customs. Another cultural norm that often catches visitors by surprise is the practice of charging a table fee at bars; space in Japan is a hot commodity so it’s not uncommon and is usually well advertised out front. Be aware that most bars are tiny and there is a high chance they won't have any English speaking staff or menus whatsoever and locals are generally shy and reserved. So go with a Japanese host if you can, or stick to ex-pat places which don’t normally charge a table fee, and have the added benefit of raucous and friendly ex-pats who won’t mind having a few with a stranger. Now, onto the good stuff!
Meriken Park is not usually associated with Kobe nightlife, which makes it something of a Kobe hidden gem. Adjacent to the sea in Osaka Bay, people come here by day to take pictures and to visit the Maritime Museum and Port Tower. It’s at night however that this particular Kobe attraction comes to life for me; when the sun goes down and the lights start to go on. It’s great to be in the heart of the harbor, so close to the sea. I like to sit there watching the lights, the illuminated big wheel, and the fountain light show – before grabbing a bite to eat or drink in one of the many bars and restaurants such as Harbor Tavern. From there I usually head into town and hop between the many international bars where most of my friends are bar owners (which says a lot). If you do visit this area, be sure to take a photo with the BE KOBE sign near the port!
For the best nighttime view of Kobe, you might think the Mount Rokko night view would be the one to go for, but it’s the night view from Mount Maya that was recently dubbed the best view of Kobe. But don’t let this confuse you - Mount Rokko is a beautiful collection of peaks, most of which are easily accessed by ropeway or cable car, and Mount Maya is one of these. The breathtaking (and award-winning) view encompasses Osaka if you look further left, and all of Kobe further right. It makes for a pretty romantic date, which is probably why the area has become a bit of a couples spot, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an impressive site for everyone. By day the area is well worth the visit too, with some great hikes and attractions such as the nearby Nunobiki Herb Gardens which are a not-to-be-missed item for your itinerary. You could arrive during the day, and stay on for the night time view, but prepare for all weather types since it’s not uncommon to have four seasons in a day, and be aware of the closing times for your way back down the mountain.
When it comes to things to do in Kobe, you can be sure that this night strip epitomizing modern nightlife in Kobe will make a regular appearance. In Kobe we have one compact drinking district where some of the best bars in Kobe are all conveniently nestled into a cozy block; a strip that makes for an easy bar crawl. Kobe was flattened by a tremendous earthquake in the 90s and a great deal of the city had to be rebuilt, which means it’s largely all new. The Sannomiya Motomachi stretch now forms the center where a great deal of the population choose to go out at night. Here you will find some of the best restaurants in Kobe – a topic that needs an entire write-up of its own – a few of which are the answer to the age-old question of where to eat Kobe beef in Kobe. Royal Mouriya, near Sannomiya Station, is your place to try this regional delicacy which – though undoubtedly delicious – is not a dish I would consider a local staple being far too expensive to indulge in regularly. The main attractions for me in this action-packed 1km stretch are the ex-pat bars. A mixed hat of bars – a few of which I have detailed further on – with owners from all over the globe, you can expect to find a friendly, raucous crowd in attendance at most of these.
The Sannomiya Motomachi nightlife offers a mish-mash of little bars, many of which have ex-pat owners which means a largely English-speaking crowd and no table charge! When bar-hopping through the night a few of my favorites to visit include Midnight Bar, Denial (a hidden karaoke bar you are likely to find only through word of mouth) and 1134, which is a wild spot for a younger crowd. Then you get Iznt – the place I like to pop into en route to line my stomach with some decent finger food and my nightly fill of good live music. The beer selection is great, and the staff engaging, friendly and likely to point you to some other hidden gems in the area. Don’t be thrown by Popeye playing on the TV all night long; it’s just another perfect example of Japanese quirk in action!
Another of the Sannomiya Motomachi stretch favorites, the Ember Room gets a mention all of its own largely thanks to the uniquely pleasant rooftop location. This incredibly trendy, tastefully decorated rooftop bar offers something rare in the rest of Japan; outdoor seating. With a canopy to keep the space warm and dry even in bad weather, the lush, leafy bar with wood and copper finishings has a vibey atmosphere, sofas to relax in and a menu of really great drinks. On the top floor of the building the venue is good for private parties and has the bonus of being situated above several other excellent bars including Alchemy (on the bottom floor) where you can expect some decent mixology and live bands.
Tachinomi are a version of tiny bars that include some of the best izakaya in Kobe – izakaya being informal Japanese pubs good for a few drinks after work, with tapas-style finger food. Tachinomi are a version of these that translates to “standing drinking”, where patrons stand at the counter drinking cheap drinks, snacking on finger food and blowing off steam. Traditionally no-frills, these drinkeries – usually located around train stations or in working-class areas – have taken of a new life, experiencing a renewed surge in popularity among the younger generations. Nowadays you’re likely to find tachnomi with trendy decor, a more creative selection of food and drink and a youthful, hip crowd. There are dozens of these around the city, opening early in the morning and acting as daytime bars. An excellent option for drinking and eating on a budget, these bars offer a unique cross-section of Kobe society with a lively, local atmosphere. Customarily there’s no host at the door, so it’ll be up to you to find a good spot with a bit of elbow room in the usually crowded bars. Settle in with a group of friends, grab a draft of local craft beer and order a plate of sashimi and edamame to snack on for a truly local experience.
Photo credit: 663highland, Wikipedia
When considering what to do in Kobe at night, this is one that might not appear in your guide book, being as it is a kind of sleazy area. It might not boast the hippest bars in town and has a somewhat dodgy, run-down feel to it but this area is where the working class of Kobe come to unwind and is a more authentic slice of life, you're unlikely to find in this city. As the main red-light district in Kobe, you might wonder what on earth might draw a foreigner to these streets, but keep your ear to the ground and you’ll soon discover a flourishing blues and jazz scene perfectly indicative of the creativity that results when the Japanese put their spin on western culture. One of the very first Japanese jazz bands was formed here in the early 1920s, and ever since the jazz scene has exploded. The area now hosts an annual jazz festival and nightly live shows in the scattering of jazz and blues clubs that dot the Shinkaichi map. The best of these must be the atmospheric Sone; a smokey jazz lounge that offers a taste of the local music scene without the hefty admission fee. If jazz is not your thing you might consider visiting the area for the interesting coffee shops and tasty Japanese style ginger ale and lemonade instead.
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