Exploring Kansai: Kobe, Nishinomiya and Osaka

As is the case with any country, not everyone is that country is the same. There are regional differences that become apparent when you spend time in different regions. That’s true with the U.S. – contrary to the belief of many of my French friends, we don’t all love Coca-Cola and eat at McDonald’s. It’s also true with France – the people of the North, South, East and West all have their differences, from cuisine to culture to personalities. And Japan is no exception. Kansai, which is the region to the west of Honshu island, and includes Kobe, Osaka, and Kyoto, has a different culture and feel compared with the metropolitan area of Tokyo. As one editor noted, “Kansai residents are seen as being pragmatic, entrepreneurial, down-to-earth and possessing a strong sense of humor. Kantō people (which includes the Tokyo region), on the other hand, are perceived as more sophisticated, reserved and formal, in keeping with Tokyo’s history and modern status as the nation’s capital and largest metropolis.” I would say, think San Francisco versus New York. And being a San Francisco native, I think I really identified more with the culture of the Kansai people. We discovered this with our visits to the cities of Kobe and Osaka, as well as a town in between, Nishinomiya.

Kobe: The City Between Mountain and Sea

We were staying with amazing, hospitable friends in Kobe, so this was the city that we got to explore the most. Honestly, I didn’t know too much about Kobe before visiting – my only memories of the city were pictures I saw from the devastation of the 1995 6.9 magnitude earthquake. So I was pleasantly surprised by the beauty of this city. With lush green mountains to its back and a thriving port in front, Kobe was probably the most beautifully-situated city of all of the ones that we visited on this trip.

Taking the Shin-Kobe Ropeway up Mount Rokko

These lush, beautiful mountains were definitely worth exploring, and the multiple cable cars and tramways located around the base make this a lot easier. We were actually staying footsteps away from the Maya Cablecar, but sadly it was closed on the day that we wanted to visit (Tuesdays, for future reference). So our friend took us to the Shin-Kobe Ropeway, a gondola lift, instead. Within minutes, we were whisked to the top of the mountains above the city of Kobe.

Looking over the city of Kobe on a hazy day

The nice thing about the Shin-Kobe Ropeway is that you not only get a great view, but there is also a beautiful garden at the top, called the Nunobiki Herb Garden. We could easily have spent more time there, if we weren’t melting so much from the heat and humidity.

The German-inspired mini-village at the top of the Shin-Kobe Ropeway
A refreshing way to cool off at the top, with a delicious lemonade-rosemary slush

Not only do they have a beautiful rose garden at the top, but they have gorgeous fields of flowers that you can walk through. There are two stations to the Shin-Kobe Ropeway – we rode all the way to the top, and then walked our way down the mountain to the one in the middle, so we could enjoy the gardens without walking all the way down to the bottom.

Some of the beautiful flowers that we saw at the Nunobiki Herb Garden

There were also several places to rest in hammocks along the way. We took a break and laid peacefully for a while, until the intense heat drove us out of the hammocks and into the air-conditioning.

Hammock views
Back in the comfortable A/C with my favorite travel buddy

After exploring the mountains, we went to the other side of town to explore the Port of Kobe.

The building on the left is Kobe Port Tower, a distinctive part of the Kobe skyline. To its right is the Kobe Maritime Museum with its sail-shaped design
Same city skyline at dusk
Delicious nigiri at a nearby restaurant

When we tell people that we visited Kobe, the first question we get asked is, “Did you try Kobe beef?” And the answer is… no. Shameful, right? We were so busy with our friends that we never got a chance to try Kobe beef at a restaurant. BUT… our friends cooked us a very special meal, one that I had never heard of before. And there was beef in it, and it was in Kobe, so I will say that we had our own version of “Kobe” beef.

This is Hobayaki, which is meat and vegetables cooked on a dried Hoba (magnolia) leaf with miso. The leaf adds a bit of a smoky flavor to the beef and vegetables as they cook over the fire. It was delicious!

Nishinomiya: One of the Homes of Japan’s National Drink

If you have never heard of Nishinomiya before, that’s okay – I hadn’t either. But it ends up that Nadagogo (or the “five villages of Nada”) is considered one of Japan’s best sake brewing areas, brewing just over 1/4th of Japan’s total production. One of the things that makes this area unique is the water and rice here. Nishinomiya is one of the 5 sake-brewing villages here and thankfully happened to be where one of my friends, Toki, lived. Toki took us to Hakushika, a brewery that has a museum showing the history of sake brewing. Included in the entrance fee was a small bottle of sake. Score!

These sake barrels are pretty huge!
We couldn’t do a sake tour without some sake tasting. This sake, from Hakushika, is available only at the brewery and was wonderful! So wonderful, in fact, that I had to buy a bottle and stuff it into my already-stuffed suitcase.

After our visit to Hakushika, Toki took us to a beautiful restaurant nearby called Tokyo Chikuyotei. The restaurant specializes in barbecued eel (unagi) which we were planning to order, but we were wooed by the description of the beautiful bento box lunch that was offered and we ordered that instead. And it did not disappoint.

Osaka: The city of people, big buildings, and great food

Unfortunately we didn’t get to see too much of Osaka. We were so busy with sake drinking and bento box eating in Nishinomiya that we arrived in Osaka quite late. Our tour of Osaka consisted of the area around the Umeda Station (and two days later, the airport). However the little bit that I saw was impressive and I would love to return for more.

This green bear sits near Umeda Station in Osaka spitting out water. He’s normally au naturel but was clothed for the World Rugby Cup that was taking place in Japan at the same time.
Osaka is well-known for its food culture and with the abundance of food halls like this one near Umeda Station, I can easily see why.
Meeting up with our friends in Osaka

One thing we DID make time for in Osaka was the food. I love okonomiyaki, which is like a Japanese savoury pancake with varying ingredients. And knowing that Osaka was known for their okonomiyaki, I knew we had to spend our limited time here trying it out.

The okonomiyaki is cooked at a grill at the table. There are many different ingredients that you can add to okonomiyaki. Some of the ingredients that we added included cabbage, beef, shrimp, mochi, noodles and cheese. I know it sounds weird, but it smelled and tasted great!
Amazingly enough, we had room for dessert. With the hot and humid weather, I was missing the shaved ice that we had in Korea. We found the second best thing at a Taiwanese shaved ice shop in an Osaka mall. This was almond shaved ice with black sesame ice cream and lychee. Amazing!

One thing was glaringly evident from our time in the Kansai Region – we need to come back! We just scratched the surface of all there was to explore. With great food, great sights and great people, coming back to this region won’t be difficult at all.

Up next – another one of the most popular cities of the Kansai Region… Kyoto!

2 responses to “Exploring Kansai: Kobe, Nishinomiya and Osaka

  1. Another gem! Beautiful, intriguing, interesting photos & commentary. Hope you do get to return for a more in-depth exploration of the Kansai region of Japan!

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