Japan Today
With one of the busiest ports in Japan today, it’s no surprise that Kobe has a long history of international relations.
With one of the busiest ports in Japan today, it’s no surprise that Kobe has a long history of international relations. Image: Sean Pavone/iStock

Exploring the bustling and diverse city of Kobe

By Elizabeth Sok

It may be best known to the rest of the world for its delicious beef or perhaps even for the devastation of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake. But Hyogo Prefecture’s Kobe City has a long and fascinating history of contact with the world outside Japan.

Over a 1,000 years ago in the Nara and Heian periods, the area now known as Kobe was the departure point for Japanese emissaries to China and the Korean peninsula. As the port continued to develop over centuries, it became one of Japan’s most important contact zones with peoples, goods and culture from Ming China. And, at the end of the 19th century when Japan was opened to much of Europe and the United States, Kobe became a hotspot for jazz and cinema.

From culture to architecture to migration, Kobe has long been at the forefront of international exchange. Read ahead for a guide to the city through the lens of its global connections.

China in Japan

This western gate to Kobe's Chinatown was built after the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake and symbolizes revival. Image: LeeYiuTung /iStock

Kobe is home to one of Japan’s three big Chinatowns (alongside Nagasaki and Yokohama) and has its roots in the mid-19th century when Japan was opened to foreign trade. While the Kyu-kyoryuchi neighborhood was designated as a residential area for foreigners in 1868, Chinese immigrants were not permitted to reside in the zone as China had not yet signed a formal agreement with Japan. For this reason, Chinese migrants carved out their own space elsewhere.

Chinatown, or Nankin-machi in Japanese, still draws many tourists for its fabulous food and festivals. For steamed pork buns, Roushouki is the most famous shop. Another must-visit is Yun Yun, a restaurant whose specialty is dandan-men, a spicy noodle dish often served with pork, green onions and vegetables. Similar to dumplings, this tasty dish contains boiled or steamed pork, shiitake mushrooms and other fillings all wrapped in glutinous rice and a bamboo leaf.

Don’t forget to pick up some steamed pork buns and “chimaki” dumplings! Image: RnDmS/iStock

As with other Chinatowns, the Lunar New Year festival is the biggest annual event. Lasting a week at the end of January or start of February, Nankin-machi takes on a festive atmosphere complete with lion and dragon dances, performances and parades. The Nankin-machi Lantern Fair is also a beautiful event where the area is adorned with over 400 illuminated lanterns throughout December and early January.

To learn more about the history of Chinese people and their descendents in Kobe, head to the small Kobe Overseas Chinese History Museum located in Nankin-machi. In this community-run museum, you’ll be able to explore the lives of Chinese and Chinese-Japanese people through archival photographs and personal belongings.

Kitano and Kyu-kyoryuchi foreign settlement neighborhoods

The former home of the U.S. Consulate and oldest structure in Kyu-kyoryuchi (1880). Image: 663highland/CC3.0/WikiMedia Commons

When Kobe was opened to European and American powers in 1868, the Japanese government established residential and commercial neighborhoods for incoming foreigners. Trading posts, warehouses and Western-style houses were constructed over the following years in the Kyu-kyoryuchi and Kitano districts. Kyu-kyoryuchi is located in central Kobe while Kitano is in the northern part of the city.

Dating back to 1880, Building No. 15 is Kyu-kyoryuchi’s oldest structure and once housed the U.S. Consulate. While it is a cafe and restaurant today, you can still admire its colonial-style architecture which was completely rebuilt following the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake. Elsewhere in Kyu-kyoryuchi, you’ll find the Ship Kobe Kaigan Building (1918), Former National City Bank Building (1929) and remnants of the oldest modern sewer system in Japan.

Take a walk through history in Kobe's Kitano neighborhood. Image: SeanPavonePhoto/iStock

Meanwhile, the Kitano neighborhood is the place to go for 19th and 20th century Western mansions for merchants and diplomats stationed in Kobe. In addition to the trendy cafes and boutiques that dot the area now, you’ll find about 20 historical buildings open to the public filled with period furniture and decor.

The origin of jazz in Japan

Imagine the sound of jazz in front of the city's historic Moegi House. Image: POCO/Pixta

Kobe is also considered the birthplace of Japanese jazz. Orchestras playing on ships crossing the Pacific carried jazz to Kobe from the US. The Laughing Stars, led by Ida Ichiro, a violinist from the Takarazuka Revue orchestra, formed the first Japanese jazz band in Kobe in 1923. Although jazz was banned during the wartime years by the military government, it made a comeback during the postwar American occupation on Japanese radio. Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, among others, played gigs in Kobe at the first jazz clubs ever opened in the country.

The legacy of jazz can be seen throughout the city. Bronze statues of jazz musicians decorate the streets of the Kitano neighborhood. Visitors to Moegi House will see a saxophonist sitting on the bench out front and a trumpist playing some tunes in the square.

If you’re looking for a jazz club, take a walk south from Kitano or get off at Sannomiya subway station. Opened in 1969, Sone hosts several performances during the afternoon and evening to accompany their extensive food and drink menu. For the oldest jazz club in Japan, head over to Java where the interior has remained largely unchanged since the 1950s.

The annual Kobe Jazz Street Festival was launched in October 1982 and continues to attract performers from Japan and beyond. In indoor venues and outdoor stages in Sannomiya, audiences will be treated to several styles of jazz over the weekend. If you can’t attend a show, try to make the marching band that opens and closes the event as they perform through the streets.

A cinematic city

Remembering the first film in Japan at Meriken Park. Image: けいわい /Pixta

After Thomas Edison invented the kinetoscope in 1891, the predecessor to the film projector, it only took five years before it arrived in Japan. In 1896, Edison’s kinetoscope made its debut in Kobe and the event continues to be memorialized every December 1st as Movie Day in Japan when ticket prices are reduced.

This history is best explored in the city’s coastal Meriken Park. Opened in 1961 and renovated in 1997, this park was designed as a public green space celebrating the city’s maritime roots, art and culture. A monument called Meriken Theater memorializes the arrival of the kinetoscope with rock sculptures representing a cinema screen and theater seats. Strike a pose and capture your day at Meriken Park framed by the stone screen!

Film buffs should continue their tour of Kobe’s movie history at the Kobe Planet Film Archive. This private museum has been recording Japan's film history since 2007. With a vast archive of over 18,000 films, they are constantly rediscovering films once thought to be lost, such as one from 1900 depicting sumo. Through old movie posters, books and magazines and preserved film equipment, you can learn about Japan’s cinematic past. For a special treat, catch a classic movie or exclusive showing from the archive in their small, but professional-grade, movie theater.

Whether you’re there to get a taste of the city’s long history of Asian cultural exchange, explore re-fashioned Meiji-era mansions or relive the first explosions of jazz and cinema in Japan, Kobe has much to offer travelers.

© Japan Today

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Kobe is my favourite city in Kansai. Really easy to navigate with mountains on one side and sea on the other, there is a wide diversity of food and all of it good. Every restaurant I tried was excellent. Great bakeries, great sushi, great Indian and Chinese food.

4 ( +6 / -2 )

We lived in Kobe for 16 years and a very nice place after the earthquake reconstruction. We lived in Hyogo Ward near the mountains. 20 minutes walk into the mountains and I was in a place without people. A 20-minute walk down to the sea. There are many attractive areas. A good city for foreigners to live in. Great city for bread and real Indian curries.

6 ( +7 / -1 )

Great bakeries

Great bakeries indeed, especially Isuzu.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Not authentic Chinese or Indian food as we would claim it,but as close as this country could make it.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

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