Japan holds a strange and somewhat magical hold on the imaginations of some travelers. The subject of fascination can vary greatly between each individual, ranging from romantic visions of ancient landscapes to those of modern pop culture exports. However, to residents of Japan these landscapes (and many more in-between) exist simultaneously. While most foreign travelers focus their sightseeing efforts on the ancient city of Kyoto or the modern metropolis of Tokyo, I’d suggest that those planning a trip to Japan go off the beaten path and experience Japan as it is lived by those who make their homes here. The city of Kobe is a great place to do this; it offers travelers gorgeous natural scenery, delicious food, and lots of history, yet it is a city that many tourists seem to overlook. Though, Kobe doesn’t have an international airport but one one can book an airline ticket till Osaka, which is minutes away from Kobe. Kobe is the sixth-largest city in Japan and is the capital city of Hyōgo Prefecture on the southern side of the main island of Honshū.
In the heart of downtown Kobe you will find the bustling narrow streets of the Sannomiya shopping and bar district. Nestled between its sky-scraping buildings is one of the oldest shrines in the country, Ikuta Shrine. The traditional spirit of this shrine was apparent upon my first visit whereupon I witnessed a Shinto wedding procession, bride in kimono and draped in a white headdress, passing a gaggle of hurried and undistracted businessman, all with seemingly identical briefcases in tow, visiting the shine to make an offering, pray, and ring the bell. I was struck how the traditional lives right alongside the modern in this landscape and how alive the past is within the gates of this shrine, which stands almost timelessly against the radically modern neon and steel backdrop of the city beyond.
I am always on the lookout for street art and graffiti; it has always held some fascination for me. While graffiti often comes with a host of negative connotations, to me it is an artistic expression as valid as any painting found on the walls of a museum. Near Ikuta shrine, the walls of the surrounding district offer many examples of graffiti. They juxtapose the timelessness of Ikuta Shrine, they are capricious but for as long as they last they will provide a creative identity for the individuals who painted them. Japan is a country of strict social expectations and it seems to me that these works are a way for some creative individuals to claim and transform their landscapes into dynamic narratives that they share with all who have an eye to appreciate them.
While I enjoy the city and its nightlife, I sometimes hunger for a little escape from the concrete paths and fluorescent light interiors. Not far north of the city center at the foot of Mt. Rokko, situated across a large river is Shin-Kobe train station. Feeding this river is a series of ancient waterfalls named Nunobiki, considered one of the great “divine falls” of Japan. The falls are only a mild and picturesque 30-minute walk from the city center and offer the city dweller and tourist alike a chance to experience a more “natural” landscape. Surrounded by mountains, trees, wildlife, and greenery, the loud cascade of the falls offers me a chance to clear my head, be still, and reflect.
The citizens of Japan often tour their own country and are generally very interested in their own history, culture, and many landscapes. This makes being a foreign traveler, especially one who wishes to experience Japan more like citizens themselves, a much easier task. Keep an open mind, do some preparation, and leave some of your expectations at home, and you are sure to have some memorable adventures.