What to Do in Kobe — from Foreigners’ Perspective

Someone from the US is coming to Japan for sightseeing with her 7-year-old daughter. We have one afternoon-and-evening to spend with them in Kobe. How should we entertain them?

For a comprehensive list of the articles I have written for foreign people living or traveling in Japan, see this article.

Figuring that out is no easy task, because what appeals to foreigners and what does to local folks are often completely different. So I looked through the web pages on the topic that I found through a simple Google search (listed a the end of this article).

First, elimination of the obvious is in order. I am excluding the following from consideration:

  • Oji Zoo and Suma Aquarium — They are going there by themselves.
  • Kobe beef — They are going to have a Kobe beef steak lunch by themselves. Otherwise the restaurant I talked about in “My Favorite Steak Restaurant in Kobe That Serves Kobe Beef… Well, Almost” could have been a candidate.
  • Nankin-Machi (“Nankin” for 南京 or Nanjing), or Kobe’s Chinatown — They are from San Francisco and they have their own big Chinatown there.
  • Kobe Luminarie (Wikipedia), annual illumination event commemorating the Great Hanshin Earthquake that hit Kobe in 1995 — It takes place only in part of every December.
  • Arima Onsen (hotsprings) — Though not entirely undoable, I believe it should be reserved for the occasion when they have more time. Arima is outside Kobe City limits and it takes some driving to get there.
  • Kitano neighborhood, or Kitano Ijin-kan Gai (北野異人館街) — It is an area near Shin-Kobe Shinkansen Station, where early merchants and traders from overseas settled. It has interesting historic European-looking buildings there, but I do not think it will appeal to them much. It is expensive also; they charge several dollars each time you enter a building.
  • Nada Sake breweries — It’d be a fun experience if you love Japanese sake and would like to know how it was traditionally made; I have already brought two separate groups of foreign visitors there. However, I doubt the daughter will appreciate it as much as we sake-loving adults do.

Now, what surprised me most looking through those pages is the fact that they often list the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake Memorial Disaster Reduction and Human Renovation Institution (人と防災未来センター (ウィキペディア)). Boy, was it a mouthful; let’s call it Kobe Earthquake Memorial Museum for short.

In fact, this page lists the museum at the very top. Sure, the ’95 quake was and still is a huge deal for us — after all, we lost more than 6,000 people to the calamity. Yet I did not expect it to draw that much attention from foreign visitors. But then again, our visitors too sit on the Ring of Fire, so they might want to check it out. We actually have been to this museum, and to us, it was a solemn reminder how cruel Mother Nature can be. Even though they are supposed to be all about the Kobe Quake, they also have a theater where you get to experience virtually what it would have been like to be in the midst of the 2011 Tohoku Quake, which caused some nuclear reactors in Fukushima to fail, leading to the infamous nuclear meltdown.

If they are going to this museum, Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art (Wikipedia) is next door.

There was also another minor surprise in the lists: the Takenaka Carpentry Tools Museum. This page lists it at the very top. In a way, its inclusion is even more surprising than that of the Kobe Earthquake Memorial Museum because the Takenaka Museum is hardly known even among the locals. Personally, I came to know of it only recently, and only by sheer chance; someone I know lives nearby. I have not been in there yet. If you are a wood working enthusiast, this museum might be immensely interesting, but probably not so otherwise. What is good about this museum is its geographical vicinity. They are going to stay at Ana Crowne Plaza Hotel Kobe, which is right next Shin-Kobe Shinkansen Station, and the museum is just a five-minute walk from the hotel. We can easily add it to the plan.

Speaking of geographical vicinity, Kobe Nunobiki Ropeway’s base station is, again, a few minute-walk from the hotel (Wikipedia lists it as “Shin-Kobe Ropeway,” but that’s an old name). It takes you right up to Kobe Nunoboki Herb Gardens (Wikipedia). The cityscape you can view from the gondola and on your way down the mountain is great, but how much you can appreciate the herb gardens depends on your personal tastes. I am no botany afficionado, so I only enjoyed it just like you would a beautiful park. On your way down the mountain, you can elect to visit Nunobiki Falls. When I visited them for the first time as a kid, I was awe struck, but I am not sure how they will appeal to our visitors. These falls may be one of the three “divine” falls in Japan, but, after all, they are just small falls and no Niagra Falls. But don’t just take my word for it; see for yourself.

You could see Kobe Harborland (Wikipedia) as Kobe’s Waterfront, and all the following sites and services are within an easy reach (plus it has ample parking space, which cannot be said of San’nomiya, where parking can be a nightmare):

  • Umie, a gigantic mall
  • Mosaic, a restaurant/shop complex
  • Kobe Port Tower
  • museums
  • cruises of various kinds
  • Meriken Park
  • Manyo-no Yu, hotsprings in a building (Japanese website)

Harborland is an area I like to visit as a local. I like the fact that it faces the ocean and you can get on a cruise if you so choose. I find the atmosphere very relaxing. My concern for our visitors, though, is that since the whole area was developed relatively recently, it is all modern and, as a consequence, it does not give you a feel of traditional Japan.

There are a few places that I found in the list that we can add to the plan relatively easily:

  • traditional “shopping malls” in Motomachi and San’nomiya — unlike large-scale malls typically found in the US in the suburbs, they are just walking-only streets with arching roofs, flanked by many relatively small shops. Not something you get to see in the US (as far as my personal experience there goes), but I have no idea if this is something our visitors will be interested. Personally, I find those small, often esoteric shops under the JR train tracks more interesting, but I do not know about them.
  • Ikuta Shrine — I would definitely enlist this shrine as one of the must-go places if they were visiting Kobe only, but they are visiting Kyoto and Nara too, so… I don’t know.

Finally, given the fact that foreigners often find interesting what we locals tend to simply take for granted and think nothing of, I would like to take them to the following places as well:

Addenda to this article after the following list of references.



Some friends recommended the following places, primarily to entertain the kid. They are not necessarily close-by, so we will pass this time, but I am saving the info here for our future reference.