Kobe is a large port
city in Japan
, west of Osaka
and north of Awaji
Island. It is one of the major cities of the Kansai
region, and forms a convenient triangle with Osaka and Kyoto
. The heart of the city is nestled between mountains (to the north) and the Pacific Ocean
(to the south). Kobe's long summers are quite hot and humid; winters are mild, with little if any snow. Spring and fall are quite nice, but short.
The busiest part of Kobe is Sannomiya, which is the city center; Sannomiya has Hankyu, Hanshin, JR, and subway stations. Many of the cities best restaurants can be found in the Sannomiya area. Also in or near Sannomiya are a host of "gaijin" bars -- i.e., drinking spots popular with the foreign population. Ryan's (an Irish bar actually owned by an Irishman) and The Hub are favorites. Club Otoya is probably the best dance spot in the city. Diamond Love (in the same area as the wonderfully named Soul Fuck Try) is another place to shake your groove thang. Sunflower/Seed is a two-floor bar/club combo, usually more popular with gaijin males of the heterosexual persuasion, who are in turn quite popular with this spot's Japanese females of the heterosexual persuasion.
Another hotspot in Kobe is Harborland. As you might expect, this area is right on the harbor, and is within walking distance of both JR Kobe and Kosoku Kobe stations. Harborland features lots of shopping (including a Wallace and Gromit store), the Hard Rock Cafe Kobe, one of the best movie theaters in Kobe (at Mosaic), and a nice ferris wheel.
Public transportation in Kobe includes taxi, bus, subway (the "U-Line"), and train (the Hankyu, Hanshin, JR lines are the most popular with tourists, although other, regional lines are frequently used by residents). Shin-kobe, a JR and subway station, also boasts a Shinkansen platform. From Kobe, Osaka is roughly 15 minutes by the bullet train; Kyoto is 40 minutes; Tokyo is 3.5 hours; Hiroshima is 1.5-2 hours. Kansai International Airport (KIX) is accessbile via train and taxi, but the limousine bus service available near JR Sannomiya station is most highly recommended. See bottom for more information on transportation in Kobe.
Kobe is perhaps most famous internationally for its unhappy role in the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995, when large parts of the city were destroyed, and somewhere around 6000 people died. Kobe has made a remarkable recovery from the disaster, however, and has once again regained its spot among Japan's most livable cities.
This is especially true for gaijin. Kobe has been an international port since the Meiji Restoration and the "opening" of Japan. International influences can be found throughout the city. One notable example is Kitano-cho, north of Sannomiya. Picturesque Kitano-cho still hosts "American-style" houses, which are a popular tourist site for Japanese Kobe residents and tourists. (Gaijin residents and tourists may be nonplussed by the draw of these seemingly normal houses, and should remember that they are not normal in Japan).
Another happy result of Kobe's cosmopolitan history is the wonderful variety of food available in the city's commercial centers. Recommended restaurants include: Chai Pasal, a terrific Indian restaurant located on Tor Road in Sannomiya; Pinocchio's, a pizza/pasta joint north of Sannomiya; Mother Moon, with two locations in and around Sannomiya, one in the Kobe International House next to the Sogo department store; Modern Ark, an eclectic spot west of Tor road, just north of the train tracks, near Motomachi; and Brasserie Tooth Tooth, with good French food, also in Tor West. There are many others.
Kobe's Japanese food is also good, and is highlighted by Kobe beef, a marbled, tremendously expensive beef from cows who, or so it goes, are fed beer and massaged daily. Curiously, cows are few and far between on the streets of Kobe. Must-trys include okonomiyaki, Kansai-style (best at holes-in-the-walls, which also tend to serve great sobameishi, a fried-and-chopped mixture of rice and soba with a gorgeous sauce) and takoyaki, or fried octopus dumplings (Akashi, a sort-of-suburb west of Kobe, is home to what many consider the best takoyaki in the world, dubbed Akashiyaki). Both dishes are best accompanied by beer. (Sapporo Black Label is especially good, and Kirin Ichiban is not bad, but beware of Asahi Super-Dry, which can lead to nasty next-mornings.)
Final Aside: Kobe High School is the alma mater of Murakami Haruki, one of Japan's most famous contemporary authors, whose works include Norwegian Wood, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and the non-fiction Underground.
Brief Synopsis of Transportation in Kobe
Subway (U-Line): From Tanigami to Seishin-Chuo stations. Stops include Shin-Kobe and Sannomiya. Cost depends on number of stops traveled.
Hanshin: Shares track with Hankyu between Sannomiya and Itayado stations, at which point the line merges into the Sanyo line, which goes as far west as Himeji. On way to Osaka, stops at Koshien, home of the Hanshin Tigers. Cost depends on number of stops traveled.
Hankyu: See above. Famous maroon livery. Slowest trains. From Kobe, you can go to Kyoto on Hankyu by transferring at Umeda station in Osaka. Cost depends on number of stops traveled.
JR: Fastest and most expensive of the three major train lines. West to Himeji, east to Osaka and beyond. Cost depends on number of stops traveled.
Buses: Get on at front of bus. Pay at stop. Can be difficult if you don't recognize your stop's name; drivers generally do not speak English.
Taxis: Base charge for short, local trips; cost soars as you go beyond local distance. Don't try to take these between cities unless you're prepared to spend $100 US or more. Be wary as you approach: doors will open and close for you automatically. Many, if not most, taxi drivers speak no English whatsoever.