Located on Osaka Bay, Kobe has a long and storied history as a port town. The merchants and traders that sailed in and out of Kobe’s ports were a major point of contact between Japan and the rest of the world. A formative part of Kobe’s modern identity, these foreign influences continue to leave their mark on the city.
Historic Foreign Town
One of the greatest documents of Kobe’s international identity is Kitano, its preserved “foreign town.” The neighborhood was once populated by the many foreign dignitaries and merchants who resided in Kobe during the late 1800s, after the city’s port was opened to foreign traders. Elaborate Western-style mansions dot the hillside of Kitano, preserving these families’ luxurious lifestyles and the unique presence of 19th century Western architecture in Japan.
Starbucks at Kitano District
As you walk up Kitanozaka, the main street leading up to Kitano’s hilltop mansions, you will quickly notice the change in scenery. On the left-hand side of the road a Starbucks stands in a 19th century white, wooden home with trim painted the coffee chain’s signature green. Designated a Japanese cultural property, the building was actually home to Americans living in Kitano in the early 1900s. Now home to venti lattes, the beautifully furnished store is a great spot for weary travelers looking for a place to rest and take in some of Kitano’s famous architecture.
If you continue up Kitanozaka you’ll find the main attractions, most notably Kazamidori no Yakata or the “Weathercock House.” Named for the iconic red rooster weathervane that tops the building, Kazamidori is the only brick house among the Kitano mansions.
For a small entrance feel, visitors can see the fully-preserved and furnished rooms of the German residence. The tour includes a glimpse into the lives of wealthy foreigners living in Japan during the Meiji era as well a look at some gorgeous antiques that blend European and Asian design styles.
With a joint ticket, you can also enter the neighboring Moegi House, the residence of the American Consul-General in the early 1900s. The home, painted a creamy pistachio green, has plenty of antiques to fawn over as well as a sunroom with elaborate wooden window panes that look out on the Kobe skyline.
For most, an afternoon in the mansions of Kitano will feel like a walking tour of Europe, with scenes from Italy, Russia, and France. It’s a unique opportunity to see the historic cultural exchange of Kobe’s port city physically manifested.
Kobe by Night
After a dose of Kobe history, head down to the harbor for a view of Kobe’s thriving present. The night view of Kobe’s skyline is perhaps the city’s most iconic scene and its other major architectural site.
In the last few decades, the harbor area has been redeveloped to include shopping districts, restaurants and amusements. It also makes a gorgeous sightseeing spot at night, when the city illuminates the area with colorful lights. The harbor night view includes the Mosaic Ferris Wheel, Meriken Park, cruise ships covered in sparkling lights, and the bright red Kobe Port Tower. The scene has now become synonymous with city of Kobe.
Kobe Sannomiya Station is 40 to 50 minutes away from Osaka’s Namba Station and 30 minutes from Umeda Station on the Hanshin line. From Sannomiya Station, the Kitano area is within easy walking distance. Kitanozaka and the Starbucks located there is a simple landmark to identify the neighborhood. If you continue up the hill past Starbucks you’ll find the major Kitano sites including the Kazamidori House, as well as a tourist information center office with English-language pamphlets, maps and area guides.
The best Kobe Harbor night views can be found at the Mosiac shopping complex or along the Kobe Haborland Walk. The closest station is Kosoku-Kobe Station.
I’m an American journalist and editor based in Tokyo. After nearly 20 years living in Japan, I’m still discovering new and exciting places in Japan outside of Tokyo and off the beaten path, such as the ancient “Kumano Kodo" pilgrimage trails and the charming seaside fishing village, Kada.