Kobe (Photo:vichie81/Shutterstock)
4.0 / 5.0
Cruise Critic Editor Rating

By Adrian Mourby
Cruise Critic Contributor

Port of Kobe

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.

About Kobe


Pro

A lively waterfront with restaurants and shops, just five minutes from the city center

Con

An hour and a half from Kyoto's ancient palaces and temples and 40 minutes from Osaka

Bottom Line

It's a modern port with good facilities and an abundance of day tours and transport options


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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.

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.

Port Facilities

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.

Good to Know

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.

Getting Around

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.

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.

Language

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.

Food and Drink

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)

Shopping

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).

Best Cocktail

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.