A historic port and distinct city in its own right, KŌBE (神戸), the capital of Hyōgo-ken, now seems more like a fashionable western suburb of sprawling Ōsaka. Kōbe’s cosmopolitan atmosphere, eclectic food scene and dramatic location on a sliver of land between the sea and Rokkō-san are the main reasons to visit this friendly harbourside city.
Although it is more than fifteen years since the 1995 earthquake, Kōbe has far from forgotten this horrific event – the oddly named Disaster Reduction and Human Renovation Institution documents the quake and its aftermath, while the new Tetsujin robot monument is a reminder of the continuing spirit and effort of Kōbe citizens in rebuilding their city. The Kōbe City Museum, covering the port’s earlier illustrious history, is also worth a look, as is the space-age Fashion Museum on the man-made Rokkō Island, east of the city harbour.
Heading into the hills, you can relax at Arima Onsen, one of Japan’s oldest spa resorts. West of the city is the Akashi Kaikyō Ōhashi, the longest single-span suspension bridge in the world, linking Kansai directly with Shikoku via Awaji-shima. Travelling some 55km further west of here, along the coast, you’ll arrive at Himeji, home of Japan’s best original castle, Himeji-jō, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1993.
Kōbe’s history is dominated by two important events; the opening of Japan’s ports to foreign trade in 1868 and the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995. Although it had been a port as long ago as the eighth century AD, Kōbe’s fortunes really took off when foreign traders set up shop in the city in the latter part of the nineteenth century, bringing their new ways and styles of living with them. Japan got its first taste of beef and football in 1871 in Kōbe, the first cinema film was shown here in 1896, and the first golf course was laid down close to the city in 1903, designed by Arthur Gloom, a Brit.
This trendsetting nature and booming trade made Kōbe a very popular place and, despite suffering heavy bombing during World War II, by the 1960s the city was bursting out of its narrow stretch of land between the mountains and the sea. A solution was found by levelling the hills and dumping the rubble in the sea to create Port Island and Rokkō Island in the bay. All this came to a sudden halt, though, at 5.46am, January 17, 1995, when a devastating earthquake struck the city and surrounding area. As dawn broke, Kōbe resembled a war zone, with buildings and highways toppled, whole neighbourhoods in flames, some 5500 people dead and tens of thousands homeless. While the authorities were criticized for not responding promptly to the disaster, Kōbe has recovered well and today the city bears little physical sign of the tragedy.
Nonetheless, a lingering recession still affects the city, and economic growth is somewhat stalled. The primary source of angst for many of the city’s residents is Kōbe Airport, which opened in 2006 on a man-made island off the coast. The airport only handles domestic flights, and with two perfectly good airports already in service within an hour of the city centre, it has failed to spark increased prosperity.