Most people associate Kobe with its world-famous beef and stunning night views. Both definitely live up to their reputation and should not be missed if you visit the city in Western Japan. However there is another side to Kobe—more laid-back and profound—which is also worth experiencing. Step aside from the mainstream tenets of Kobe tourism and you’ll find an interesting fusion of modern art and century-old bathing traditions, the marriage of which leaves you feeling rejuvenated both physically and mentally.
Start your day with a visit to the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art on the Kobe waterfront. The museum was opened in 2002 as a symbol of Kobe’s cultural revival following the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995, which caused the death of more than 5,000 people and the destruction of tens of thousands of homes.
Tadao Ando, one of Japan’s most renowned architects (who also created Benesse House Museum in Naoshima and Osaka’s Church of Light among other sites ) designed the museum with one goal in mind: to restore the city’s relationship with the sea. Although it is built right on the water, the use of concrete and glass combined with clean, almost severe architectural lines conveys a sense of security and durability, contrasting the terrible images of the disaster on display.
The museum’s two entrances also present an expression of duality: on the mountainside visitors are greeted by a cute and colorful 10-meter high inflatable Kobe Frog installation, perched on the roof of the museum; on the seaside, the entrance is much more intimidating, with nothing but a large spiral staircase leading visitors down into the abyss of the building.
The collection within the building is equally as impressive as its design, with a vast selection of art from the early 20th century, as well as more contemporary periods. Highlights include prints from Japanese artist Kagaku Murakami, who had deep connections to the Kobe area, and modern sculptures from European masters such as Alberto Giacometti and Constantin Brancusi. There is also a space for temporary exhibitions and regular workshops are held in both Japanese and English.
Once you have satisfied your cravings for deeply reflective art, move on to Moto-machi, which offers a relaxing environment that encourages you to enjoy a break in the busy day. UNICORN cafe is particularly noteworthy: aside from great coffee and refreshing tea sodas served in cute unicorn-stamped mugs, the specialty affogato (espresso poured over vanilla ice-cream) and sugar-free cheesecake are surprising delights, not to be missed. You can also buy UNICORN’s original coffee blend (¥700 for 100g) and practice your barista skills at home.
If you fancy a proper lunch after this, Rokudan is the place to go. The laid-back restaurant serves delicious charcoal-grilled Kobe beef dishes. Their beef donburi (rice bowl) with sesame sauce is to die for.
Alas, sated and content after Moto-machi, the rest of the day should be all about relaxation. Take the 35-minute bus ride from Sannomiya Station to indulge in one of Japan’s best-kept secrets: Arima Onsen. Located just outside Kobe behind Mount Rokko, the small town of Arima Onsen has been a hot spring retreat for over a thousand years. Blessed with incredibly rich water, the town has two types of hot spring: the Kinsen (gold spring), which has a reddish-brown color due to a very high level of iron and salt which are said to help with muscle pain, backache and have great moisturizing effects; and the Ginsen (silver spring), containing colorless carbonic spring water, which helps boost blood circulation and relieve fatigue.
Visitors can use Arima Onsen’s public bath facilities (day-visit) or stay overnight in one of the ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) for a more exclusive experience. Either way, the healing properties of Arima hot springs will help relieve any tension or pain in your body and make you feel like the best version of yourself again.
Finally, before you leave, pick up a box of Tansan Senbei (carbonated rice crackers)—another local specialty. With a crunchy texture and a slightly grilled and sweet flavor, they make for a delicious and healthy snack on your way back to Kobe.