Walkable, compact Kōbe is so easy to get to know. Strutting between the mountains and the sea, this cosmopolitan Japanese city near Osaka on the southern side of the main island of Honshū, has a sea-breezy charm.
Accessible via a 30-minute train ride from Osaka – or just 60 minutes by train from Kyoto or 90 from Kansai Airport – Kōbe offers world-renowned cuisine, waterfalls, revolving restaurants and more, with far fewer tourist crowds than neighboring Osaka. Wondering where to start? Here’s our guide to spending three perfect days in Kōbe.
Day 1: See Kōbe – herb gardens, famous falls and live jazz
Kōbe is a trim package of four strollable central neighborhoods, that are ideal to explore on foot, with plentiful English signposting making navigation easier for visitors. An alternative for less active travelers is to hop on the Kōbe City Loop bus, which links all the city’s key sights including Chinatown and the Waterfront.
Willing ramblers should start their exploration at Shin-Kobe station, where most people alight the bullet train from Osaka or Tokyo. From here it’s an easy five-minute walk to the ropeway that carries you in a (usually) quiet gondola to the lofty Kobe Nunobiki Herb Gardens with 400m-high views across Kōbe nuzzling against the sea.
Meander back down through greenhouses and landscaped herb- and flower-gardens, pausing occasionally to admire the view and enjoy the free outdoor foot spa, where you can soak tired feet in warm herb-infused waters. If you’re travelling with a special someone, make sure to stop by the “lovers’ bell” and ring it together to ensure a long and happy relationship. Continue on down to Nunobiki Falls – a set of waterfalls that has inspired numerous Japanese artworks and poems (“Which, I wonder, is higher, this waterfall or the fall of my tears.”)
Back in the center of town, international bars and restaurants abound on its the trim streets of Sannomiya district. Dinner at a convivial izakaya (Japanese pub–restaurant) is a must, sampling local Kōbe delights such as misodare gyoza (dumpling with miso sauce) and sobameshi (a mixture of fried noodles and rice).
Finish the evening at Sone, Kōbe’s top live-jazz bar where eclectic visitors to the port-town have been coming since 1969. Stained glass and ornate tables make for a classy yet casual night watching Japanese musicians get into the swing of things.
Day 2: Taste Kōbe – local sake and some world-renowned beef
To kickstart Day 2 of your Kōbe tour, take a 15-minute train ride from the downtown area to Nada-gogō district, a major sake brewing center that produces a distinctive, butch-flavored version of the Japanese tipple that is sharp and strong. To sip and run, visit the Hakutsuru Sake Brewery Museum (near Hanshin Sumiyoshi train station) where the history of sake brewing is explained in English, and sake tastings take place in a modern brewery set inside traditional buildings.
For lunch, head back to Sannomiya in central Kōbe and explore the local boulangeries and patisseries. Kōbe loves its bakeries; the city was where bread was first taken seriously in Japan, and Kōbe remains one of the country’s top three bread consumers. Famous Isuzu Bakery has that Japanese touch of blending sweet and savory French-style baked goods. Its iconic lunch snack is ‘curry pan’ – beef curry stuffed into a fluffy crisp doughnut. It might sound a little strange, but it tastes fantastic.
Another of Kōbe’s specialties and must-tries is its namesake beef, loved worldwide for its tender, melt-in-the-mouth quality. What makes this type of wagyu beef special? It’s the high-grade marbled fat that sizzles when it hits the butter in the pan and the rich, smooth flavor it creates. Only a handful of restaurants outside of Japan can sell the real deal (the name ‘Kōbe beef’ is not protected in many countries). For guaranteed deliciousness, head to a registered Kōbe beef restaurant such as Misono, which invented the Japanese teppanyaki steak (Kobe Beef set-meal upwards of ¥23,000).
Perhaps one last sake to finish off the day? The waterfront Sake Taru Lounge inside the red Kōbe Port Tower offers a tasting experience of local sake with exceptional views out over the sea towards Mount Rokko (giving you a taste of what awaits you tomorrow.) The bar rotates 360 degrees, providing ever-changing panoramic views through its floor-to-ceiling windows.
Day 3: Beyond Kobe – a 10-million-dollar view and rejuvenating onsens
The time has come to ascend the green sentinel looking over Kōbe. Float up Mount Rokko in a cable car for one of the most gorgeous views in Japan. The 10-minute ride is soundtracked by bird song and the rustle of cherry blossom branches from April to June, or burnished autumn leaves in November.
At the top is visual poetry, with the layered mountain greenery and the sparkling white Kōbe cityscape standing out against a smudge of blue sea and sky. Focus into the distance to spot silvery Osaka threaded across the horizon. At sunset, cicadas chirp into life, announcing the coming city lights, which dazzle with a view dubbed the ‘10-million-dollar nightscape’.
Cap off your Kōbe trip in Japan’s oldest onsen (hot spring) town. Ropeway carriages slink above the white-blossomed dogwood trees of Mount Rokko in a 12-minute shortcut to Arima Onsen. Check into Arima Onsen ryokan for the traditional Japanese lodging experience complete with sliding doors and rice-straw tatami mats.
Before stripping off, take some time to head out and explore the temples nestled into the hills surrounding the 1,000-year-old town, or meander the pretty laneways lined with wooden shop fronts.
In the resort area, head on a quest for your favorite onsen. Choose between iron-rich Kinsen ‘gold waters’ (actually opaque brown, handy if you are feeling coy) to refresh your skin and muscles; or the clear, carbonate- and radium-rich Ginsen ‘silver waters’ to ease your joints. Or just slip into the onsen attached to your ryokan and tiptoe to your room, refreshed for dinner.
Most ryokan serve a kaiseki set meal of seasonal tidbits in a menagerie of cute dishes that evoke ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ – a fitting end to your time experiencing Kōbe and its surrounds.