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Kobe, Japan's fifth-largest city, lies on the southern side of the main island of Honshu. With a population of 1.5 million, the city only grew to prominence relatively recently, in the Meiji period, as a port for foreign trade.
Kobe sits on a narrow spit of land between the Rokko mountain chain and the coast. Mount Rokko is a dormant volcano and dominates the approach to Kobe at an elevation of more than 3,000 feet. It is a popular fall tourist site for Japanese leaf-peepers.
Two artificial islands, Port Island and Rokko Island, have been built out into the harbor to allow space in the city for a modern airport and further development.
In the 13th century, Kobe was known as Hyogo Port and traded extensively with China. In 1868, at the end of Japan's period of self-imposed seclusion, Hyogo Port was reopened to foreign trade and was soon home to a considerable European enclave. The houses of these merchants and diplomats can be found today in Kobe's Kitano area.
Kobe's new 19th-century name derives from kanbe, an archaic name for those who supported the Ikuta Shrine. This Shinto shrine is one of the oldest in Japan. The stretch of coastline around Kobe was famous for the shrine before the city developed.
The city was fire-bombed in 1945, destroying more than a fifth of all buildings. Thirty years later, Kobe's city council passed an ordinance banning vessels carrying nuclear weapons from the port. This ruling, known as the "Kobe Formula," effectively prevents U.S. warships from entering the port because the U.S. Navy has a policy of not disclosing which of its warships are nuclear-armed.
Until 1995, Kobe was Japan's busiest port, but the Great Hanshin Earthquake destroyed much of the old port and killed 6,434 people. The earthquake is dramatically commemorated in Meriken Park. Despite ambitious rebuilding, Kobe is still only the fourth busiest port in Japan.
Kobe today is a fun place to arrive. You are quickly and suddenly in an attractive recreation area. Meriken Park with its modern art installations and lawns is a pleasant 800-meter walk from your ship. Visitors can enjoy Kobe's Maritime Museum and the iconic red Port Tower. Pay to visit its fifth-floor viewing platform, and you get to see how attractively laid out this city is.
Because of the decisions of the Meiji Emperor (1868 to 1912), Kobe remains a cosmopolitan city. That is why you'll find far more French and Italian restaurants, European bakeries and international supermarkets than you might expect. The European influence has also resulted in the city proving particularly popular with European ex-pats and having much more greenery than most Japanese cities. Kitano-cho, the foreigners' enclave to the north of the city center, reminds American visitors of Boston Common, and English residents of Hampstead. Locals take pride living in Kobe, and you can see why. This is a colorful, lively, friendly place to spend your time.
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Other Asia Cruise Ports:
Bangkok (Laem Chabang) • Beijing • Cochin • Da Nang • Hanoi • Hiroshima • Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) • Hong Kong • Kelang (Kuala Lumpur) • Kobe • Koh Samui • Langkawi • Mumbai (Bombay) • Nagasaki • Osaka • Penang • Saipan • Seoul (Incheon) • Shanghai • Sihanoukville • Singapore • Taipei (Keelung) • Tokyo • Yangon (Rangoon)
Try a rainbow cocktail at Ko's, a sky lounge bar on the 14th floor of the Meriken Park Oriental Hotel, which has 270-degree views of the Seto Inland Sea. The view alone is worth the expensive cover charge and drink prices. For something cheaper, try a mineral water in one of the plastic Kobe Port Tower bottles. Taira no Kiyomori is a cocktail named after a 12th-century warlord from Kobe city and is the speciality of the ANA Crowne Plaza hotel's Level 36 bar.
Arima Onsen (Kin no Yu - Arima Onsen, Mount Rokko ) sells pairs of ceramic animals -- owls, birds, frogs -- as well as embroidered drinks mats and more traditional onsen cleansing products. Kobe Vidro Glass produces both functional and decorative glassware locally. The Tor Deco Glass Art Shop (2-4-12 Nakayamatedori) is a good place to pick up all sorts of Kobe glassware. For a good range of Japanese sweets, go to Sogo & Seibu (8-1-8 Onoedori).
Japanese is the main language onshore. Kobe receives more Chinese-speaking tourists than English. Nevertheless, all sign posts and information are written in all three languages.
To ask where something is, use its name followed by wa doko dess-ka? For instance, "Kobe Tower wa doko dess-ka?"
"I don't speak Japanese" is Nihongo wa hanasemasen and "Do you speak English?" is Eigo o hanashimasu-ka?
Konnichiwa (Good day) is a useful, all-purpose greeting.
If you have a business card, remember to present it when introducing yourself. The Japanese have great respect for business cards. If you are offered one, make sure you study it briefly before filing it away (not in your back pocket). The longer you look, the more respect you are showing.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The Japanese currency is the yen; check www.xe.com or www.oanda.com for current exchange rates. The Japanese tend to reserve credit cards for major purchases, so you will want to withdraw local currency. The area around Sannomiya station has three exchanges. ATMs can be found across Kobe city. The machinery is instantly recognizable, but they might have odd names like "Cash Pit." All have the choice of an English keyboard. If you go to any of the 7-Eleven convenience stores, you can withdraw money from machines within the store.
Where You're Docked
Cruise ships generally dock at the Kobe Port Terminal on Shinko-cho, which has a total of six berths on both sides of Shinko Pier No. 4. The terminal building is airy, light and well staffed with elevators to take you up to the front entrance where taxis can be found. It's also possible to board the monorail there; the journey into the city takes only a few minutes. Buses can park right at the terminal.
The secondary cruise ship berthing is Naka Pier Cruise Terminal near Kobe Tower and the dramatic, white Kobe Meriken Park Oriental hotel. This terminal offers free shuttle bus service to the downtown area near Chinatown and JR Motomachi Station.
Kobe Port Terminal is built on an artificial island, with splendid views out to sea and back to the city. Across the big red Kobe Ohashi Bridge, you come to Meriken Park, which lies between the port terminal and Naka Pier Cruise Terminal. Both terminals are well equipped to make entry procedures smooth and quick but offer little in the way of recreation or information. Both have telephones but no Internet facilities. To head to Meriken Park and Harborland, the twin waterside recreation areas, follow signs to the Port Tower and Maritime Museum.
On Foot: Most of the sightseeing spots and tourist attractions are within a 15- to 20-minute walk from both Kobe ports.
By Train: Port Liner operates between Kobe airport and Sannomiya Station connects the Kobe Port Terminal to central Kobe. It usually runs every few minutes from 6 a.m. to midnight. By Port Liner, it takes only five minutes from Sannomiya station. It takes 14 minutes in the other direction to go to the airport.
Naka Pier terminal is located a 10-minute walk from Sannomiya station on JR Kobe line. It is only a four-minute train journey from JR Kobe station. A free shuttle bus operates to JR Motomachi Station.
By Taxi: You can find plenty of metered taxis running or waiting around the port terminals and major train stations. Drivers are usually very helpful and speak reasonable English.
Watch Out For
You will not find many restaurants with English menus, and if you're shopping for food in supermarkets and convenience stores, it is rare to see English-language signs.
It is useful to have a Japanese phrase book with you or to prepare some basic phrases -- especially if you have any food allergies. If necessary, prepare cards in Japanese to show staff at restaurants explaining that you cannot eat certain ingredients.
You will, however, find that Starbucks (1-2-1 Sakaemachidori and 7-1-19 Isogamidori) and McDonald's (6-46 Ikebirakicho and 2-2-2 Wakinohamakaigandori) only offer traditional Western refreshments and free Wi-Fi.
Meriken Park contains the Port Tower with a fifth-floor view well worth its admission charge. The waterfront park also contains a much-visited Maritime Museum (2-2 Hatobacho) and a memorial to the victims of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake. This is a small section of the old waterfront preserved in its concertina-ed state, with its lampposts still leaning at crazy angles.
Farther into the center of the city, don't miss Sorakuen (2-8-16 Motomachidori), a serenely traditional Japanese landscape garden that used to belong to the city's mayor.
On the slopes at the northern edge of the city, Kitano-cho is a much-visited neighborhood for its Ijinkan, Gothic Victorian stone houses built above the old city for foreign traders and diplomats. The period interiors of these buildings -- Dutch, Chinese, English and Italian -- are beautifully preserved. South of Kitano-cho, very close to Sannomiya Station, stands the Ikuta Shrine for which this stretch of coastline used to be famous. It is pleasant but much copied and seems unremarkable today.
More impressive is a visit to the Arima Onsen on Mount Rokko. This hot spring was made popular by the Emperor Jomei (593 to 641 A.D.) who was said to have bathed there for 86 days. It takes an hour by public transport from Kenchomae Station to Arima Onsen or 40 minutes by taxi from Kobe Tower.
A truly impressive day trip would also include the ancient volcano Mount Rokko, which is an hour by taxi from Kobe Tower and allows you to take in Arima Onsen on the way back.
Been There, Done That
Kobe's Nada district is Japan's top sake (rice wine) producing region, a result of high-quality rice, excellent water and favorable weather conditions. Nada stretches for approximately three kilometers to the west of the port. The various breweries offer exhibitions and tastings, and some operate museums, too. The Hakutsuru Sake Brewery Museum (6-1-1, Sumiyoshiyama-minami-machi) is probably the best for visitors in a hurry because of its comprehensive use of English language.
Himeji is a pretty city to the west of Kobe that's just 40 minutes by train. It contains Japan's oldest surviving feudal castle, which was one of the first UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the country. Next door, the idyllic Koko-en Garden, built in 1992, also is much visited.
Awajishima is an island in the Seto Inland Sea, separated from the mainland by the Akashi Strait and connected to Kobe by the Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge. This is the longest suspension bridge in the world, and at night, it is illuminated in seven alternating colors. Awaji Ningyo-Joruri, a form of puppet theater more than 500 years old performed in Minamiawaji, in the southern part of the island, has been designated part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Japan. The Hompuku-ji WaterTemple and Awaji Yumebutai in Awaji were both designed by Tadao Ando, one of Japan's most interesting modern architects.
Kyoto needs no introduction. The loveliest historic city in Japan is six hours inland by train from Kobe.
There are a few beaches near Kobe city, and swimming is possible from July to September. Suma Beach is 30 minutes west by train. Okura Kaigan Beach is in Akashi, 50 minutes west of Kobe by train.
There's nowhere better than Kobe to eat Kobe beef, which is tender and distinctively marbled with white fat. This beef, from pedigree Tajima herds, is usually served as single steaks, as shabu-shabu (thin slices of meat boiled in a broth) or sukiyaki (slices simmered in a hot pot). At a teppanyaki restaurant, the chef will flamboyantly grill the meat on an iron griddle in front of you.
You may also want to try bokkake, Japanese stew with beef and strips of salty konjac. It is usually served with noodles or rice. Sobameshi is fried rice mixed with chopped yakisoba (pan-fried soba) flavoured with yakisoba sauce.
Misono, within walking distance of the Port Terminal, was the birthplace of teppanyaki in 1945. Okagawa in the Shochiku Building specializes in shabu-shabu and sukiyaki. If you miss European cooking, try the filet mignon at the predominantly French-themed Kitano Club.
Nagata Honsho ken serves bokkake. (Sannomiya Center Plaza Higashi Building B1F, Sannomiyamachi 1-9-1)
Daiei is a good place to get Kobe beef. (7-1-6 Shinohara Minami Machi)
Kazamatsuri is worth visiting for sobameshi. (Center Plaza Nishi Building 1F, 2-11-1 Sannomiyamachi)
Yasu sakura is excellent for fish. (Ichikawa Sannomiya Building 1F, 4-9-8 Kanocho)
Ichiya Ichiya is recommended for traditional Japanese food. (M's Building 1F, 1-9-12 Nakayamate dori)
Higaki is worth trying for hako sushi. (Kawayasu Building 1F, 2-9-4 Sakae machi)
Okan, near the Sannomiya Station is an izakaya, or casual Japanese drinking establishment, which also serves food to accompany the after-work drinking. (1-7-5 Kitanagasa dori)
Momotarou nearby is famed for it its yakitori (grilled skewered chicken). (7 Jalman Building 1F, 2-10-11 Kitanagasadori)
Best Deals: Hotel Sunroute Kobe is only a seven-minute walk from Sannomiya Station. This is a blunt, functional building relieved by individual balconies. Even the hotel admits it is best suited for business use. However, all rooms are equipped with a hi-tech Japanese toilet. (1-1-22 Isobedori) Kobe Plaza Hotel is located in front of JR Motomachi station and only a three-minute walk from Chinatown. It's an unremarkable building, but the food is above average quality. Bedrooms are compact by Western standards. (1-13-12 Motomachidori)
Closest to Port: Kobe Meriken Park Oriental Hotel is a recognizable part of the shoreline. Its profile resembles a large white luxury cruise ship at anchor. Nearby are a good range of eating and dining options: Ko's Sky Lounge Bar, Santa Monica's Terrace (an all-you-can-eat seafront terrace restaurant serving more than 80 varieties of Japanese, Western and Chinese dishes) and a fine-dining lounge called Pier with spectacular views of Kobe at night. (Meriken Park)
Best for Families: Hotel Piena Kobe is a sumptuous and, importantly for families, spacious hotel. Its French restaurant, Le Coeur uses only locally grown seasonal products. Most rooms have great views of the harbor. (2 Hatoba-cho)
Best for a Splurge: Kobe Bay Sheraton Hotel & Towers stands on the man-made Rokko Island and has quick links to all of Kobe's major attractions. The Kobe Grill has panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and sea. Enjoy the heated indoor pool, fitness center and whirlpool tub or book an in-room massage. (2-13 Koyocho-naka, Higashinada-ku) Kobe Kitano Hotel is an Ijinkan hotel in the Kitano district. With its brick exterior, courtyard, British furniture and French levels of service, this is a comfortable "hybrid" Relais and Chateaux. Chef Hiroshi Yamaguchi is well respected for his Kobe beef in salt crust. (3-3-20, Yamamotodori)
Staying in Touch
There are more than 10 Internet cafes around Sannomiya Station, and there are more than 20 free Wi-Fi spots in Kobe city, so you can connect to the Internet very easily.
In Kobe, a Wi-Fi hot spot is called a "Fan Spot." It looks like an orange tennis ball (but larger) with the words Fan Spot in white lettering. You need to register online at the fan spot website before using the facility, but it's easy. There is a 30-second introductory film to explain the process.
As mentioned above, you can also use the free Wi-Fi at McDonald's and Starbucks.
Best for First-Timers: The Mount Rokko and Sake Brewery tour takes you to the top of Mount Rokko, the highest peak in the mountain range that runs north of Kobe. The tour includes the Mount Rokko observatory, giving you fantastic views of the city and surrounding countryside. Next, take the cable car down to visit the Sake Brewery Museum in Kobe.
Best for Repeat Visitors: If you've already visited Kobe, then why not take the bullet train to the beautiful temple city of Kyoto? You'll visit a number of shrines and ancient monuments before stopping at the Nishiki Market for local food and products. Then, you'll go on a coach sightseeing trip in the afternoon before taking the bullet train back to Kobe.
Best for Families: Highlights of Osaka is great for those with youngsters, including a stop at Osaka Castle. Kids will love this: a visit to Japan's strongest and most beautiful castle, which took 30,000 to 40,000 people per day three and a half years to build. It's enclosed by stone walls 7.5 miles long. Its towers are 131 feet tall and give breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside. The tour also includes a trip to the Shitennoji Temple, which was built in 593. Shitennoji Temple is believed to be the oldest Buddhist temple in Japan.
For More Information
On the Web: Kobe Convention & Visitors Association
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Asia
IndependentTraveler.com: Asia Travel Guide
--by Adrian Mourby, Cruise Critic contributor