Onsens, Arcades and Merchant Houses: These Are Kobe’s Top 10 Things to Do

Arima Onsen is Japan’s oldest hot spring resort
Arima Onsen is Japan’s oldest hot spring resort | © Loco3 / Getty Images
Photo of Tanja Warwick
18 March 2020

The vibrant port city of Kobe boasts a variety of fun things to do. Take a dip in Japan’s oldest hot spring, explore Mount Rokko and try the city’s speciality pudding among other top experiences.

Often overshadowed by its arguably brasher neighbor Osaka, Kobe is a vibrant port city with a cosmopolitan atmosphere with international influences that distinguish it from most other Japanese cities. For visitors, there is much to be discovered, from the oldest hot spring resort in Japan to mountains and cascading waterfalls, while the international influences can be found in the streets of Kobe’s Chinatown and 19th-century mansions that once belonged to wealthy merchants. Foodies will delight at not only being able to sample some of the best quality Japanese beef at reasonable prices, but also at Kobe’s high concentration of French-inspired patisseries and bakeries offering delectable desserts and cakes sure to satisfy anyone with a sweet tooth. Here’s our list of the top 10 things to do in Kobe.

See the historic merchant houses of Kitano Ijinkan

Historical Landmark
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The oldest western-style building in Kitano district, Kobe, Japan
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Kobe Ijinkan is a collection of 19th-century historic houses situated in the Kitano neighborhood of the city, around a 15-minute walk from the central Sannomiya Station. When the port of Kobe first opened in 1868, Kitano became the area where wealthy merchants settled from overseas. Although there were once more than 300 of these houses, today a collection of 20 remains open to the public. Highlights include the English House, built by a British architect in 1909 and housing a traditional pub and Sherlock Holmes memorabilia, and the French House, featuring French antiques and furniture from the Napoleonic period. A discounted ticket can be purchased for ¥3,000 (£24), which allows access to seven of the houses; otherwise expect to pay between ¥600 and ¥1,000 (£4.80-£8) for individual entry.

Hit the arcade at Harbourland

Shopping Mall
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Harbourland, Kobe, Japan.
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Harborland is one of Kobe’s largest shopping and entertainment districts that includes fashion outlets, gaming arcades, cinemas, restaurants and a Ferris wheel. Most of the area is consumed by the large Umie complex, a collection of shopping malls that are interconnected and split into three sections. The North and South malls predominantly feature international and Japanese fashion brands such as Zara and Muji, while the Mosaic buildings situated on the waterfront house restaurants featuring every kind of cuisine, from conveyor-belt sushi to Hawaiian poke bowls.

View the city from above at Port Tower

Building, Architectural Landmark
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Port Tower and Maritime Museum, Kobe, Kansai, Japan
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Kobe’s landmark Port Tower has become one of the city’s most iconic buildings since opening in 1963. The 108m (354ft)-high lattice tower has a striking red design in the shape of a Japanese drum, with the observation decks providing panoramic views of the city and serving as the tower’s main attraction. The lower floors of the tower are home to souvenir shops, while the observatory can be found on the top floor of the building. Pro tip: Stop by the third-floor sake bar, Sake Taru Lounge, on the way down to sample sake brewed in the surrounding villages of Nadagogo and take in the city views as the bar slowly rotates.

Join in a Chinese festival at Nankin-Machi

Market
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Nankin-Machi in Motomachi, Kobe, Japan.
© Malcolm Fairman / Alamy Stock Photo

Nankin-Machi was established in 1868, following the settlement of Chinese merchants in Kobe. One of Japan’s largest Chinatowns, Nankin-Machi is a five-minute walk from Motomachi Station and home to over a hundred restaurants and souvenir shops. Throughout the year, visitors can enjoy seasonal festivals, including the dragon parade during Chinese New Year and the lantern festival, which sees the area decorated by over 400 traditional lanterns, during December. Outside of these months, take a stroll around and try some of the dishes on offer such as dim sum, steamed buns, crispy duck and Chinese sweet pastries. While exploring the area, keep an eye out for the Chinese public telephone box and the intricately carved lion statues.

Come for the beef, stay for the dessert!

Dessert Shop, Dessert
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Although widely known for its beef, Kobe is also at the centre of Japan’s dessert scene, and the city is filled with luxurious French-inspired patisseries and sweet shops. To bring awareness to this treasure trove of desserts, Kobe City recently developed a Sweets Map for international visitors, a series of walking routes taking in over 30 of the city’s sweet spots. Pro tip: If you only have time for one dessert, try the local speciality Kobe pudding, the city’s own take on the classic crème caramel.

Take a plunge into Arima Onsen

Health Spa
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Arima river and Arima Onsen
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Just a short train ride from downtown Kobe lies Japan’s oldest hot-spring resort, Arima Onsen. This small and well-preserved traditional town dates back to the eighth century and is home to approximately 30 hotels with hot springs, along with public baths, Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. Many of the hotels and public baths are open to day visitors, so you can experience the hot springs even if you are short on time. A trip to the onsen is a quintessential Japanese experience, so unleash your inhibitions, plunge into an open-air bath and let your body absorb the mineral-enriched water as you soak up the scenery.

Explore Mount Rokko

Natural Feature
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Kobe cityscape and skyscraper seen from ropeway to Nunobiki Herb Garden on Mount Rokko in Kobe, Japan
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Mount Rokko, standing at 931m (3,055 ft), provides a scenic backdrop to Kobe and is well worth a visit for its panoramic vistas, impressive sunsets and tourist attractions, including botanical gardens, an observatory, cafes and a music box museum. The mountain can be accessed from the city via a short bus ride followed by a 1930s cable car, which is a particularly scenic journey during the autumn months when fall colors are out in force. From September to November each year, a modern-art exhibition called Rokko Meets Art, featuring sculptures by Japanese and international artists, is held. Past works have included a giant ice-cream sculpture and a pop-up café made entirely from Styrofoam.

Have some lighthearted fun at the Consulate of Trick Art

Museum
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For some lighthearted fun and memorable photo opportunities, consider a visit to the Consulate of Trick Art in Kitano. This optical illusion museum features a series of 3D photo backdrops for visitors to pose in amusing scenarios, such as being trapped inside a shark cage or stuck inside a giant wine glass. The museum is housed inside a historic building from Japan’s Meiji period that previously served as the Consulate of Panama.

Relax at Nunobiki Falls and Japan’s largest herb garden

Botanical Garden
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Nunobiki Falls, Kobe, Japan.
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A short 20-minute hike from Shin-Kobe Station, Nunobiki Falls is a series of four waterfalls that have played a significant role in Japanese history, inspiring works of literature and art, along with holding spiritual importance. The largest waterfall, Ontaki Falls, offers the highest cascades at 43m (141ft), and there are seating areas and a small viewing platform for visitors to spend some time relaxing away from the bustle of the city. The area is also home to Japan’s largest herb garden, featuring over 75,000 herbs and flowers. Seasonal highlights include cherry blossoms during the spring, English roses in May and June and vibrant autumn colors in November.

Visit the Earthquake Memorial Museum

Museum
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Kobe Earthquake museum, Japan, Asia.
© agefotostock / Alamy Stock Photo

Kobe was struck by a major earthquake in 1995 that devastated much of the city and killed over 6,000 people. It’s an important part of the city’s history that most adults residing in Kobe still remember. This museum serves as a memorial and earthquake education center, with an exhibition that re-creates how it would have felt to experience the earthquake through large projection screens and special effects. The museum is also staffed by a number of multilingual volunteers who are able to share their memories of the earthquake while guiding non-Japanese speakers around the exhibits.

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