Merge & Al's Excellent Adventures

6 min read

Kobe – Nunobiki scents and Nankinmachi Chinatown

In March 2024, I had the opportunity to visit Kobe, Japan for the first time.  I had been close by in Osaka in October 2023, but there was so much to see and do right in that city that I never made the 45-minute drive west to Kobe.  But now, the MS Zuiderdam stopped in Kobe for two days, and it was my chance to explore.  At more than 1.5 million residents, it is hardly a small city, but compared to Osaka’s quirkiness, it seemed quieter and calmer.  On the waters of Osaka Bay, its backdrop is the scenic Rokko Mountain range.  As a port city, it historically served as a gateway for international influences, and its architecture, fashion, and cuisine reflect this diversity. 

It is probably most famous for its namesake Kobe beef, celebrated for its flavor, tenderness, and well-marbled texture.  Since I don’t usually eat much meat, this was not on my agenda for the next two days.  Instead, I had two other objectives in mind.  First, I was keen to make my way up Mount Maya, one of the mountains in the Rokko Mountain range.  And second, I wanted to visit Nankinmachi, Kobe’s Chinatown.  Yes, I know, visiting Chinatown in Japan may seem odd, but Nankinmachi is a true reflection of Kobe’s multicultural roots.  Established in the late 19th century when Kobe’s port was opened to foreign trade, hundreds of merchants from China made their way here to ply their commerce. I had read that the architecture and traditional businesses still operating here make it a fascinating place to visit. 

We were welcomed with a fireboat water salute!

As we sailed past the iconic red Ohashi Bridge into Kobe Harbour, we were welcomed by a fireboat water salute.  Turns out the MS Zuiderdam was the first cruise ship to visit Kobe since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020.  Normally reserved for the retirement of a senior captain or a visit of a warship, this was pretty exciting to watch!

The iconic red Ohashi Bridge in Kobe Harbour

I caught a shuttle bus from the cruise port into the city centre, and purchased a day pass for the City Loop bus.  At 700 JPY (approx. USD 4.50), this was a great transportation bargain that would get me everywhere I wanted to go.  My destination today was the Shin-Kobe station stop.  From here, I caught the Shin-Kobe Ropeway to go up the side of Mount Maya, past the Nunobiki waterfall, and to the Nunobiki herb garden.  Mount Maya is one of the peaks in the Rokko Mountain range (the more famous one, Mount Rokko, is the highest).  The Shin-Kobe Ropeway offers spectacular views of the Kobe area as it ascends to the garden, which is a stunning vantage point to overlook the city and the harbour below.  The garden itself is one of Japan’s largest herb gardens with about 75,000 square meters of garden space and around 200 different kinds of herbs and flowers.  It has several themed sections – the Fragrance Garden, the Flower Garden, the Spice Garden, and the Fruit Garden – each dedicated to different aspects of horticulture and herbology.  I really enjoyed the Fragrance Garden – it had several interactive displays on different scents and their uses.  There is also a Glasshouse that grows tropical and exotic plants.  In early March, not much was blooming, but it was not hard to imagine how absolutely striking it would be in spring and summer.  I spotted the Nunobiki waterfall as I ascended on the ropeway.  It is considered one of the “Great Divine Falls” and is often mentioned in Japanese literature and folklore.  There had not been much rain recently, but I was told that it is specially impressive when the water volume increases significantly.

The very inexpensive City Loop bus
The view from the Shin-Kobe ropeway as we went up Mount Maya
Imagine how stunning this would be in bloom!
Nunobiki Waterfall
In the Nunobiki Herb Garden
The descent down the Shin-Kobe Ropeway, sped up 6X

Nankinmachi, Kobe’s compact Chinatown right in the city centre, is particularly vibrant on weekends and holidays.  So it was a good thing that my second day in Kobe was a Sunday.  The shuttle from the cruise port dropped me off directly in front, so getting there was very easy.  Sandwiched between Motomachi Street and the Daimaru Kobe department store, it was easy to spot because of its traditional Chinese gates at the several entrances.  As I wandered in, the colourful streets lined with an array of shops, restaurants, and food stalls were selling a wide variety of Chinese cuisine, from dim sum and Peking duck to sweet and sour pork.  Bright red lanterns and hordes of people gave it a festive atmosphere.

Sunday afternoon in Nankinmachi

Nankinmachi dates back to the opening of the Port of Kobe to international trade in 1868 following the end of Japan’s period of national isolation (sakoku) under the Tokugawa shogunate.  Kobe was one of the several Japanese cities that opened to foreign trade during the Meiji Restoration, which marked a new era of rapid modernization and internationalization in Japan.  Chinese merchants were among the first foreigners to settle in Kobe, and they named Nankinmachi after Nanjing, the capital of China at the time.  Despite the political conflicts of the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II, the Chinese community in Kobe remained resilient.  After World War II, and particularly during the post-war economic boom, they contributed significantly to the city’s recovery and economic development by rebuilding Nankinmachi and other damaged areas, and re-establishing businesses and cultural institutions.   

I happily wandered through the neighbourhood soaking up the vibe.  After all that walking, lunch was in order, so I tried a bowl of wonton soup and some potstickers.  I pronounced them excellent!

I have heard that Kobe has an excellent Earthquake Memorial Museum that commemorates the devastating Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995.  Next time I come here, it will be on my exploration list.  This time however, I had to make an all-aboard time so I made my way back to the ship.

My choice for lunch

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