Kobe: picturesque city by the sea


As last month’s terrible tsunami off Sumatra and the subsequent tidal waves showed only too well, the shiftings of the earth’s crust can lead to horrific natural calamities. Sitting atop one of the world’s geological hot spots, Japan is of course no stranger to these phenomena. And the ever-present threat of a destructive earthquake here became perfectly clear when a massive tremor struck Kobe 10 years ago this month.

The Great Hanshin Earthquake lasted just 20 seconds, but because the focus of the tremors occurred close to the city center and at a shallow depth of 20 km below the surface, it was especially destructive. It wreaked a staggering 10 trillion yen worth of damage, grim images of which became familiar in news stories around the world. Today, as one might expect, the visitor to Kobe sees few visual reminders of the destruction of a decade ago.

Kobe presents the aspects of a bright, modern, positive city. Only the Port of Kobe Earthquake Memorial Park has been conspicuously preserved just as the earthquake left it. The memorial consists of a stretch of harborside that was ravaged by the tremor. Once-attractive harbor lamps can be seen pitching heavily towards the bay, and a section of the former sea wall is now under water — evidence of the frightening forces that lurk beneath the Earth’s surface.

This simple, poignant memorial is part of a larger 15-hectare piece of reclaimed land that goes by the name of Meriken Park. The park is a pleasant enough, spacious area on the waterfront, though it does have a temporary air about it — as if, having created the space, the city authorities are not quite sure what to do with it. A few people stroll around and flea markets are held. It is a place where a band using a PA system — which could fill a concert hall — plays songs to three people and a dog. For some reason, Meriken Park is home to a rough reconstruction of Columbus’ Santa Maria, though, with its badly peeling paint, it has the disheveled look of a tub that could barely make it over to Osaka, much less discover the New World.

Tenuously strung out between the Rokko Mountains to the north and Osaka Bay to the south, Kobe is a long sliver of a city. Admittedly the competition is not particularly intense, but Kobe’s location does make it one of Japan’s most attractive cities: From most points within Kobe, it seems, you have as a backdrop the dark-green hills or the blue sweep of the bay. It was toward those hillier parts of Kobe that many foreigners decided to set up home over a century ago.

The city was designated an open port in 1858 at the end of Japan’s long period of national seclusion. And later, with the goods of the West streaming into Kobe, the port began to acquire an international flavor and a population of resident foreigners. The hilly area where those foreigners were apt to huddle together is known as Kitano, and here they built houses for themselves in a style reminiscent of those they had left behind in a distant homeland.

These old residences are now a main attraction for the local tourist industry. Known as ijinkan, the former dwellings of the non-Japanese elite offer a quaint view of life in the various countries that then had dealings with Kobe. English House is all warm beer, cardigans and tweeds; Denmark House presents the Hans Christian Andersen view of that land; American House sports eagles, star-spangled banners and a huge Mickey Mouse.

At Holland House, Japanese girls get dressed up in lace bonnets and smocks and, then, clomp around in clogs while clutching fistfuls of tulips before having their photos taken. Like other features of Kobe, the genteel buildings from the time of the early well-heeled foreign settlers are reminiscent of Japan’s other great international port, Yokohama. As with Yokohama, Kobe is a port of call for luxury cruise ships.

The two cities both have a gaudy, busy Chinatown, near to which is a famous shopping area called Motomachi. The two ports are so close to their oversized urban neighbors (Tokyo for Yokohama, Osaka for Kobe) that when traveling between the adjacent cities, you are hard pressed to say where the one ends and the other begins. The rival ports have 100-meter-high towers that were built within two years of each other. Kobe’s tower came later, in 1963, and so had to be just that little bit taller than Yokohama’s.

As with Yokohama, the most popular eating spot is found in Chinatown, known in Kobe as Nankin-machi. And, as testament to the quality, the lines of people waiting to eat at the better restaurants are, if anything, even longer than in Kobe’s eastern rival.

Unlike Yokohama, there is quite an accent on street food in Nankin-machi. And the variety of dishes, including heavenly dim sum, on sale from the sidewalk vendors is a good deal more attractive than in Yokohama, as indeed are the prices. Overall, Kobe’s combination of elements works rather well.

The city has its historical bits; it has sleek shopping areas; it has romantic spots — like along the canal at night, which is all restaurants, wooden walkways and twinkling lights — as well as having the usual modern glitz. And there is the port itself.

In Kobe, the harbor impresses itself less on the overall character of the city than is the case with Yokohama, where you are constantly aware of the proximity to the sea. But when you do reach the harbor in Kobe, what greets you is not a glum, concrete faade like that of Yokohama Bay, but a real sea, stretching out to dark silhouettes of islands in this arm of the Pacific and the glittering blue promise of the greater ocean beyond.