September 15, 2020

Hightail to Hyogo

The city of Kobe as well as the rest of Hyogo is chock full of hidden gems and off the beaten path destinations that most tourists sadly miss.

The seaside port of Kobe City in Hyogo Prefecture

Hail and well met travelers! These days, there’s few out there who haven’t heard of the legendary beef that comes from the Kobe area. Despite the fame of these succulent and savory slices of meat, Kobe and the remainder of Hyogo Prefecture rarely receive the tourism foot traffic they deserve. Try as I might, I really can’t come up with a good reason why foreign visitors opt to skip this part of Japan. Regardless of the unexplainable causes though, Hyogo is a prefecture with a nearly endless variety of sights and adventures to discover. No doubt, Hyogo definitely deserves to be on your list.

In addition to Kobe’s amazingly delicious bulvine, the coastal region chronicles deep historical roots. During the Kamakura period (1185–1333), the area was an important port for trade with neighboring states such as China and Korea. The city’s story doesn’t begin there though. In fact, archival evidence confirms Kobe has been populated from as far back as the Jomon period (14,00–300 BCE). As is often the case with similar cities, Kobe’s unique geographical peculiarities essentially pre-destined it to evolve over time. To be frank, you couldn’t ask for a more archetypal harborage.

The earliest mentions of Kobe are noted in the Nihon Shoki. These documents log a record of Empress Jingu founding the eminently important Ikuta Shrine. This sanctum sits in the center of what is now the City of Kobe and has long been revered by the local inhabitants. After the founding of Ikuta Shrine in the year 201, the port city that became modern day Kobe began to take shape. Over the subsequent years, the fledgling town emerged as a vital link between Japan and the Asian mainland. Many of Japan’s imperial embassies to China left from Kobe on important mercantile and diplomatic voyages

Granted Kobe is both one of Japan’s earliest and largest metropolises, it should come as no surprise that there’s an impressive smorgasboard of things to do within the city’s reach. While I considered covering these in a series of standalone articles, I believe it would better serve you, the reader, to have them compiled into a single piece. What’s more, seeing Rona-chan won’t leave us alone for some time, why not dig into some longform content given all that extra time on your hands!

Getting to Kobe & Hyogo Prefecture

A Nozomi-class bullet train on the Tokaido Shinkansen Line

Allow me to briefly put my treatise on Kobe’s history on hold for a moment while I cover some key logistical info for those in need. Put succinctly, Kobe resides directly to the west of Osaka and is sandwiched between the ever-beautiful Seto Inland Sea and the Rokko Mountain Range. Because of this, it can be easily reached from Osaka in approximately half an hour thereby making for a great day-trip addition. Alternatively, Kobe also sits along the bullet train line that runs all the way from Tokyo to Hakata in Fukuoka Prefecture.

As a city, Kobe is an extremely walkable one with the majority of the action oriented around the centrally located Sannomiya Station. During my multiple-day stint in Kobe, I think I only hopped the train once or twice. Then again, I am quite the walker and often clock over 20 km per day. Should you be shuddering at the thought of hoofing it, know that Kobe is also easily accessed by a network of trains and buses. When compared to the madness of Tokyo’s complicated grid, most of the major spots in Kobe are easily reachable by public transportation.

Those coming via the bullet train from Tokyo, Kyoto, or Osaka should note that they will first pull into Shin-Kobe Station. Unfortunately, unlike a major hub such as Tokyo Station, Shin-Kobe Station only services the bullet train lines and sits a bit removed from Kobe’s main areas. As you plan to explore Japan’s seventh largest city, you’ll want to either take a bus or subway train to the area around Sannomiya Station. From here, you’ll be able to conveniently make connections to any of the major attractions around Kobe.

Likewise, if you’re planning on venturing off to explore the rest of Hyogo Prefecture, Sannomiya Station serves as a great location when departing Kobe. During my trip, I took a train from here all the way to Himeji where I continued my journey to Himeji Castle and Mt. Shosha. In the coming sections, I’ll detail each of these in turn; so for now, just remember that Sannomiya Station is the primary hub that you’ll be using while in Kobe.

Enjoy Hyogo Prefecture’s City of Kobe

The so-called $10 million dollar view from the top of Kobe’s Mt. Maya

Within the relatively modest confines of Kobe City, there is a dizzyingly amount of intriguing spots to check out. Seeing as these run the gamut of interests, I am going to elect to introduce my recommended attractions in a choose-your-own-adventure style. This way, you, the reader, can easily select whatever happens to turn your personal crank.

  • A $10 Million View
    While the following spots are merely suggested, this location is one that I absolutely insist all visitors experience. As briefly mentioned in the logistics section, the City of Kobe is nestled against the Rokko Mountain Range. Though not the highest of peaks, these crags offer killer views of Kobe and Osaka nestled below. The upper reaches can be accessed via any one of three ropeways though the lift leading to Mt. Maya is by far the best. The stunning vista (pictured above) from the Kikuseidai Lookout has been called a “$10 million view.” The peak has been hailed as one of Japan’s best scenic nighttime panoramas and alone, justifies a visit to Kobe.
  • Kitano Area
    This part of Kobe is located at the foot of the Rokko Mountain Range. In the latter parts of the 19th century, many foreign merchants and diplomats made the Kitano Area their home. Today, more than a dozen former mansions remain and are open to the public. Entry to these antique European mansions will cost you a few hundred yen each but you can save some coin by purchasing a combination ticket. There’s also the Soraku-en traditional garden to savor as well. Finally, be sure to check out the Starbucks in Kitano as it (along with many of the other cafes here) has a really unique design.
  • Ikuta Shrine
    I mentioned this ancient sepulcher in the opening paragraphs of this piece but know that Ikuta Shrine is basically synonymous with the city of Kobe. Located directly below the Kitano area in the heart of the city, Ikuta Shrine is one of the oldest establishments in all of Japan. It enshrines the goddess of fabric, Wakahirume-no-Mikoto, and is known as a shrine that facilitates the making of connections. In the same way that two threads become intertwined when weaving cloth, Ikuta Shrine is said to be able to bind two individuals together and is therefore popular with folks who are considering tying the knot.
  • Kobe’s Chinatown
    Much like Yokohama, Kobe boasts a bustling Chinatown. You’ll find this interesting slice of the city sitting down near the harbor. The area was originally developed by a host of Chinese merchants who settled in Kobe after Japan welcomed foreigners at the end of the Edo period (1603–1868). Kobe’s Chinatown consists of two main streets that snake through the district. A nightmare for those on a diet, these lanes are jam-packed with restaurants and food stalls that compete aggressively to sell you something absolutely delicious. Be sure to come hungry…
  • Harbor Land
    Speaking of the harbor, know that Kobe’s waterfront is quite developed. In addition to catching a cruise, you can also peruse what’s on offer at the Harbor Land shopping mall. This district has a large selection of shops, restaurants, and other allures which together combine to create a popular spot for both couples and tourists. Additionally, there’s also a collection of old brick warehouses that are quite similar to those in Yokohama. As if that weren’t enough, know that there’s also a 24-hour hot spring facility here called the Manyo Club. You’ll find this on one of the top floors of the Puromena skyscraper, a building with great views of the city.

To cover all of the above, you’ll probably need a day and a half in total at the very least. During my stay in Kobe, I got a very early start and was barely able to fit it all in. Of course, while you’re in town, you’ll also want to be sure to budget for some time to indulge in the locally raised meat. I mean, let’s be real, no trip to the city would be complete without sampling some deliciously decadent Kobe beef.

Relax in Kobe City’s Arima Onsen

People bath their feet at an ashiyu foot bath in Kobe’s Arima Onsen

Technically speaking, this legendary hot spring is located within the confines of Kobe City itself. Seeing as the spring sits on the far side of the Rokko Mountain Range though, I am going to opt to give Arima Onsen its own section. After all, the hot spring town is regularly hailed as one of the top three onsen in all of Japan so it stands to reason that Arima Onsen deserves its own time in the spotlight. Now, while I am unabashedly an onsen aficionado, even I was blown away by Arima Onsen’s charm. While you’ll need to budget half a day to relax and rejuvenate, I highly recommended finding time for Arima Onsen.

The journey to Arima Onsen from central Kobe isn’t too difficult. From either Sannomiya Station or Shin-Kobe Station, you’ll need to take the subway to Tanigami Station. From there, you’ll want to hop the Shintetsu Arima-Sanda Line to Arima-guchi Station. Here, you’ll need to complete the final leg of the journey via the Arima Line to Arima Onsen Station. While this sounds rather demanding, the entirety of the journey should only take forty-five minutes or so. As always, just refer to Hyperdia or a similar service when it comes to calculating the train connections.

Once you’re in Arima Onsen, you’ll want to get to exploring. Most of the hot spring town lies to the south of Arima Onsen Station. Here, you’ll encounter a number of narrow, winding lanes. As you stroll about, you’ll uncover all sorts of tiny vendors as well as a number of ryokan. While staying in a traditional Japanese inn is a must-do while in Japan, I personally recommend that you pass on reservations at Arima Onsen if you want to thoroughly explore Kobe’s many attractions. .

Assuming that you heed my advice and don’t overnight at Arima Onsen, you’ll have to hunt down a ryokan that opens its doors to day trippers. Luckily, there’s a good number of these strewn about the hot spring town. Additionally, there are two public bath facilities that you can make use of as well. These baths are known as Kin-no-Yu and Gin-no-Yu. The former has brown water with iron deposits whereas the latter has radium and carbonate. Both of the hot springs are said to help cure various ailments.

Note that one of the highlights that really sets Arima Onsen apart from other hot spring towns is its spiritual side. Historically speaking, Arima Onsen is one of the oldest onsen in Japan and was lauded as far back as the Heian period (794 to 1185). Unlike many other hot spring enclaves, Arima Onsen features a large temple area which lends a mystical vibe to the mountainside town. As you stroll about Arima Onsen, it’s easy to see why people have been coming here in search of tranquility for centuries.

Hyogo Prefecture’s Magnificent Himeji Castle

Hyogo Prefecture’s Himeji Castle during the cherry blossom season

If you’re going to visit Hyogo Prefecture, you absolutely need to make time for a stop in the town of Himeji. Situated less than an hour outside of central Kobe, Himeji is home to what is often hailed as Japan’s top medieval fortress. Known as Himeji Castle, this mighty structure has stood the test of time. A fort of some type has existed on these grounds since the mid 1300’s but the current iteration was completed in 1609. Himeji Castle is considered to be both a national treasure of Japan and a UNESCO World Heritage site. To ensure the castle sticks around for future generations, the structure recently underwent extensive renovations and has fully reopened to the public.

Himeji Castle stands with a few other structures that have miraculously been spared by war, earthquakes, fires, and numerous natural disasters. While many of Japan’s historic forts either succumbed to the ravages of time, or were otherwise torn down at the start of the Meiji period (1868–1912), this was not the case with Himeji Castle. Hell, it even survived an incendiary bomb raid during World War II thereby giving rise to the belief that the structure is protected by a divine benefactor. While I can neither confirm nor deny this godly protector, what I can say is that Himeji Castle is really one tough cookie.

The sprawling Himeji Castle complex consists of over eighty buildings that are spread across a collection of several baileys. In turn, these sprawling spaces are all interconnected by a series of interwoven paths and corridors. All in all, the massive grounds make Himeji Castle one of the most impressive structures in all of Japan. Though I am partial to the defensive masterclass that is Hikone Castle, Himeji Castle is undoubtedly a site to behold. Moreover, when viewed from afar, the castle can be said to look like a majestic white heron that is about to take flight. What’s more, the castle is one of the best spots in all of Japan to view the cherry blossoms.

The trip to Himeji Castle is about as simple as it gets. All you need to do is take one of the JR express trains that depart from Sannomiya Station to Himeji Station. From there, you can either walk around 15 minutes to Himeji Castle or take one of the buses. Note that while entry to the castle alone is 1,000 yen, you’ll want to drop an extra 50 yen for the combination. This will allow you to enter the neighboring Japanese garden known as Koko-en. For the cost of less than a bottle of water, you can enjoy nine separate gardens with various design motifs.

By the way, if you’re looking for an amazing add-on to Himeji Castle, consider hitting up the Nadagiku Sake Brewery. Dating back to the early 1900s, this facility is located not too far from Himeji Station. In addition to having a tour of the property where you can learn how the brewery makes sake, you can also savor an amazing lunch spread here too. While strong walkers could potentially just head south from Himeji Station, you can also opt to go one stop over on the Sanyo Electric Railway to Tegara Station too.

Hyogo Prefecture’s Sacred Mt. Shosha

The main buildings of the Engyo-ji temple complex in Hyogo Prefecture

Does the picture above look strangely familiar? Well, that’s probably because it was used as a setting for that woefully inaccurate historical flick, The Last Samurai. Known as Mt. Shosha (or Shoshazan in Japanese), this mountaintop enclave is the very definition of #DonnyThings. Ethereally spiritual, this Buddhist establishment will send chills throughout your body. With over a millennia of history behind its name, this grandiose complex is home to a Buddhist temple by the name of Engyo-ji. Snuggled within a dense forest, Mt. Shosha is a must see for those visiting Himeji Castle.

Despite the fact that Mt. Shosha feels so far removed from the worries of the modern world, the crag is located 30 minutes from the center of Himeji City. As is the case with the likes of Mt. Takao in Tokyo, this makes the peak a popular weekend getaway for those living in Himeji City (which has Hyogo Prefecture’s second largest population). To reach Mt. Shosha, you’ll need to hop a bus from either Himeji Station or from the front of the castle. Note that due to the logistics, I suggest that you first hit up Mt. Shosha and then take the bus back to Himeji Castle.

Anyway, once you reach Mt. Shosha, you’ll want to purchase yourself a round trip cable car ticket for 1,000 yen. This will spare you the time consuming hike up the mountain. Fret not though. There’s still plenty of terrain to traverse once you get to the top. In fact, after paying your 500 yen fee to enter the grounds of Engyo-ji, you’ll either need to hoof it up a winding path or fork over a few additional yen for a shuttle bus. While the vehicle will allow you to skip working up a sweat, I’d encourage you to follow the pilgrims of old and walk it as you’ll get to enjoy 33 unique statues of the goddess of mercy.

The Engyo-ji temple complex has a number of wonderful allures but the two you want to keep your eye out for are the Maniden and the Mitsunodo. The first of these is Engyo-ji’s main building and is quite hard to miss. The magnificent structure stalwartly stands halfway up a rocky cliff and is reminiscent of Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto. As for the venerable Mitsunodo, this collection of three halls dates from the 15th century and is the portion of Mt. Shoza that was used in The Last Samurai. One of the buildings houses a great collection of Buddhist artifacts and is open for you to venture inside.

If you want to visit Mt. Shoza, you’ll want to budget for half a day. When combined with Himeji Castle, the duo constitutes a full day of adventuring. When sourcing the content for this guide, I ended up doing a two-day stint in Kobe and then hitting up Himeji on the third.

There’s Still More to Hyogo Prefecture

The massive Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge which connects the island of Awaji with the mainland of Hyogo Prefecture

Haven’t had enough of Hyogo? Well, you’re in luck because there’s a lot more to the prefecture than the few locations that I’ve covered thus far. Unfortunately, the following allures don’t combine very well with a visit to Kobe and Himeji Cities but nonetheless they lie within the confines of Hyogo Prefecture. If you’re looking to have a little more fun in Hyogo, consider adding these attractions to your itinerary…

  • Awaji Island
    Oh boy… This one deserves an article all to itself. Situated between Japan’s main island and Shikoku, Awaji is said to be the first of the land masses formed in Japan’s creation myth. The island is home to Izanagi Jingu which is said to be the oldest shrine in all of the country. Though access is certainly lacking, this underappreciated hidden gem is definitely worth the effort.
  • A Castle in the Sky
    Speaking of hard to get to destinations, next I’d like to introduce the Ruins of Takeda Castle. Located in the heart of Hyogo Prefecture, this former fortress was abandoned after the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. While only the stone foundations remain, the site is often enveloped in fog, thereby creating the image that the ruins are floating above the clouds.
  • Kinosaki Onsen
    Found not too far north of where the Ruins of Takeda Castle’s remain, Kinosaki Onsen is the ultimate getaway for those looking to disconnect. The lazy hot spring town is built alongside a willow-lined river and sits close to the Sea of Japan. While access to Kinosaki Onsen is not exactly what one can call convenient, it is often considered to be one of the top hot springs in the Kansai region.

Finally, know that Hyogo Prefecture will also be a host for the 2021 World Masters Games. Due to the pandemic, this 10th installment of the competition will be actually held in 2022 but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t already cause for excitement. Open to anyone over the age of thirty, the World Masters Games have seen as many as 170,000 participants since their founding in 1985. If you’re going to be in Hyogo for the games, be sure to check out some of the attractions feature in this guide.

Until next time travelers…