Home to historic hot springs, world-class cuisine and beautiful mountain landscapes within easy reach of the city, Kobe offers an accessible highlights package of Japan’s best bits. What’s more, it’s just an hour from Kyoto and 20 minutes from Osaka by train, so it’s a breeze to reach. Read our Kobe travel itinerary for ideas on how to spend 48 hours in Kobe.
For more information, visit the Official Travel Guide of Kobe.
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For all its natural and cultural wonders, there’s no doubting that the stars of the show in Kobe are the cows. Kobe beef is one of the world’s most celebrated varieties, prized for its marbled texture, rich flavour and tenderness – and seeking some out for lunch should be your first port of call on arrival in Kobe.
Kobe beef comes from a breed of cow called the Japanese Black. It was not until the Meiji Restoration of 1868, when Japan re-opened its borders to foreign trade, that eating beef began to catch on. Prior to this, Japan had been isolated from the world for 1,200 years. During this time, meat-eating was not a big part of life for ordinary Japanese people. This was partly down to the influence of Buddhism and Shinto, the two major Japanese religions, and party for practical reasons – namely, that growing crops was a more efficient use of Japan’s farmland. Legend has it that it was an English visitor to Kobe who first had the idea of eating cows, and a legend was born.
Unsurprisingly, there’s a great range of places in Kobe where you can try its world-famous beef. If money is no object, head to the lavish Royal Mouriya, where you’ll find some of the very finest steak in Kobe – with prices to match. There are other celebrated restaurants in town, where prices are much lower, proving that Kobe beef doesn’t have to cost the earth. This is also one of the few places in town where you can try beef sashimi – thinly sliced and served raw – which allows the more subtle flavours of the meat to come through.
Having feasted on a lunch of Kobe’s famous beef, you’ll want to burn off a few of those calories with a walk in the great outdoors. Mount Rokko looms above Kobe at 932 metres (3,057ft) high, and its slopes are protected by Mount Rokko National Park, which actually covers a small mountain range. If you’re feeling energetic, it’s possible to hike from Ashiyagawa Station, in between Kobe and Osaka, to the top of Mount Rokko in about four hours. Be warned, though: this is a challenging and at times steep hike, involving climbing over rocks and uneven ground, and should only be attempted if you’re reasonably fit.
Most visitors are content with riding the Rokko Cable Car, a vintage funicular that takes you from the city area of Kobe to the mountaintop in around 10 minutes. Once there, you’ll find the Tenran Observatory, a lookout point with magnificent views over Kobe and out to Osaka Bay. A half-hour walk further up the mountain, there’s the Rokko Alpine Botanical Garden, home to no fewer than 1,500 varieties of beautiful alpine plants from all over the world. Nearby there’s the quirky Rokko International Music Box Museum, with vintage music boxes and other automatic instruments on display, including self-playing violins and pianos. Every half an hour, the instruments put on a little concert, featuring classic Japanese and Western songs. There are music boxes for sale here too, should you want to take away a kooky keepsake, gift or souvenir.
East of the museum is the Rokkosan Country House – not really a country house at all, but rather a wide open green space. Manicured lawns, fringed with flower beds, are perfect for a picnic, while there’s a little lake where you can go paddle boating. In the winter, when the top of Mount Rokko is smothered in snow, there’s skiing and snowboarding to be had on the slopes of Rokko Snow Park, while all year round the Rokko Garden Terrace affords lovely views over Osaka Bay.
The next morning, make for the southwest of Kobe and the Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge, which connects the islands of Honshu and Awaji. The longest suspension bridge in the world, this stretches across the Akashi Strait for a whopping 1,991 metres (6,532ft) and is an amazing feat of engineering. With Bridge World, a tour which departs from the exhibition centre on the Kobe end of the bridge, you can discover more about the history of the bridge and the technology that went into its construction from engineers who helped to build it. You’ll walk underneath the bridge itself in a mesh-like passage, with cars whizzing along the tarmac above your head and the ocean below you. Another highlight of the Bridge World tour is the breathtaking view from the main tower of Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge, 300 metres (985ft) above sea level.
Heading back into central Kobe, visit the Takenaka Carpentry Tools Museum, the only museum of carpentry tools in all Japan. Here, more than 35,000 items – including all manner of chisels, planes and axes – tell the story of the history of Japanese carpentry. Interactive displays reveal the beauty of this historic art form, with gorgeously carved furniture, wooden houses and woodblock artworks – you can look at, touch and even smell the lovely aroma of the wood at different sensory exhibits.
Having learned about traditional Japanese building techniques, it’s time to head back into the hills and see them in action, as you board the Rokko Arima Ropeway to Arima Onsen. Japan is home to thousands of onsen (hot-spring resorts), but Arima is said to be the oldest of them all. The town here dates back more than 1,000 years, and history echoes through its winding cobbled streets, wooden shopfronts and traditional ryokan inns. Bathing in Arima’s famous baths is a must during your time here. At Kin no Yu, the largest of the two public bath houses, the water is known as Kinsen – “gold water”. This water has a brown colour because it is rich in iron, and it’s said to be good for the skin. Nearby, at Gin no Yu, the water is called Ginsen – “silver water”. This is more clear, rich in radium and carbonates, and is believed to be good for your muscles and joints. Both bathhouses offer the classic Japanese onsen experience, with beautiful wooden baths where you can relax and reflect on 48 hours well spent in Kobe.
Header image: Kobe Herb Gardens