By George Steer
There is a saying in Japan that alludes to Kobe’s cosmopolitan feel: “If you can’t go to Paris, go to Kobe.”
Located on the coast to the west of Osaka, and three hours from Tokyo by bullet train, Kobe was largely rebuilt after an earthquake devastated the region in 1995. Thankfully, some of the old city survived; Kobe boasts Japan’s oldest mosque, built in 1935, and one of only three Jain temples in the country.
Home to 1.5m people, the city is also a business hub offering world-class cuisine.
Japan is trying hard to attract foreign workers and making it easier for them to become citizens. In 2017, the Diet, the Japanese parliament, introduced a fast-track permanent residence scheme for skilled workers.
Kobe shows a foreign influence more than most Japanese cities. Nineteenth-century European architecture is nestled alongside traditional Japanese homes in the Kitano district, where foreign diplomats and traders put down roots after Kobe’s port on Osaka Bay opened the city up to the rest of the world in 1868.
Some of the remaining Ijinkan — the incongruous western-style mansions built for these foreign diplomats — are open to visitors. England House, a quaint structure dating from 1907, has been turned into a Sherlock Holmes museum.
There is a golf club — the first in the country when it was founded in 1903 — as well as a twice-yearly fashion gala. Kobe is also considered the home of Japanese jazz, holding a dedicated festival every October.
Since the opening of its port, Kobe has welcomed a growing number of businesses from around the world. In 2016, it overtook Yokohama to become Japan’s second-busiest port, according to consultancy McKinsey.
The city is located in the Kansai region, one of the 10 most productive business regions in the world, according to Washington DC think-tank the Brookings Institution.
Kobe is home to dozens of foreign companies, including Nestlé, Procter & Gamble and Eli Lilly, as well as a thriving biomedical industry. The Kobe Biomedical Innovation Cluster is Japan’s largest biotech centre.
One word comes to mind when most foreigners think of Kobe: beef. Surprisingly perhaps, it accounts for just 0.16 per cent of beef consumed in Japan. One reason is its high price: expect to pay ¥10,000-¥20,000 for a good-quality steak, equivalent to $90-$180.
There is an old, likely apocryphal, story about Kobe beef cows being played soothing music, given sake to drink and receiving massages to enhance their flavour; if this was ever true, it is a practice that has long since vanished. But the great taste remains.
Mount Rokko, the highest peak in the Rokko mountain range, which lies 6km north-east of the city centre, offers great views of Kobe.
To reach the summit you can take a gondola on the Shin-Kobe Ropeway, a lift that passes the Nunobiki waterfall and arrives at the Nunobiki Herb Garden, Japan’s largest such garden. From the observation deck, it is possible to see as far as Osaka.
Hidden in the shadow of Mount Rokko is one of the oldest hot springs in Japan. Arima Onsen has been reviving weary bathers for more than 1,300 years — Emperor Jomei, the 34th emperor of Japan, is said to have visited in 631.
The spring has two distinct types of hot mineral-rich waters: Kinsen (“golden water”) and Ginsen (“silver water”). Both are reputed to remedy skin ailments and muscle fatigue.
The bus from central Kobe takes about an hour. Entry to Kin no Yu or Gin no Yu, Arima Onsen’s two bath houses, costs ¥550-¥650.
Photographs: Chisanu Liengpan; Getty Images; jiGGoTravel; Getty Images/iStockphoto