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April 29, 2016

Best Places to See in the Kobe Area

It may come as a surprise to hear that my present hometown Kobe is a popular tourist destination (more than 22 million annual visitors incl. day trippers)... but these are mainly Japanese tourists and they come in my view for the wrong places (and not only as tourists but also to marry - Kobe is a popular wedding ceremony destination!).

What I mean with the "wrong places" is that Japanese visitors throng to the Ijinkan, the foreigner's houses in Kitano, or to Kobe's Chinatown – both solid tourist traps, without anything of historical value to attract the serious visitor. No wonder that most foreign tourists prefer to remain among the temples of Kyoto.

That being said, there are several extremely interesting destinations in the wider Kobe area (incl. Ashiya, Takarazuka and the Hanshin area between Kobe and Osaka) that are worth giving up your Zen garden for and traveling the short distance to this port city, but these are not very well known (and perhaps a bit specialist in nature). But if you are interested in sake, architecture, literature or art, they are certainly worth your time!

Here they are:

[Kikumasamune Sake Brewery Museum]

1. For sake buffs: Nada Gogo - Sake breweries and brewery museums
Wedged between the green Rokko Mountains and the blue waters of Osaka Bay, the sake area of the Five Nada Districts stretches from Nishinomiya to Kobe (skipping Ashiya), with in all several tens of large and small breweries. Today, it is not such a beautiful area as it has been densely built up in a haphazard way with flats, outlets and warehouses, but you will forget this once you stand inside the breweries which often feature buildings in historical style.

In the Edo-period, it became clear that the Nada area was optimally suitable for sake brewing due to the climate (cold winds blowing down from the Rokko mountains in winter); the water (the famous Miyamizu, the iron-less, mineral-rich water found in certain wells in Nishinomiya); the streams running down from the mountains which made rice polishing by water mills possible; the availability of good rice in the immediate vicinity; and, finally, being at the seaside with good natural harbors which made transport of the sake to Edo (Tokyo) easy.

Several breweries in the area operate small museums that offer visitors a glimpse into the history, traditions and methods of the craft of sake brewing. They also give visitors ample opportunity to find out what makes Nada sake special — and to taste the difference. I will publish a full guide to the Nada Gogo on this blog, so here are just two highlights from among the museums with exhibits of traditional sake brewing tools: those of Kikumasamune and Sawanotsuru, both housed in traditional wooden buildings.

The Kikumasamune Sake Brewery Museum is located in the Mikage district. Kikumasamune was founded in 1659 by the Kano family. One of the largest breweries in Japan, it already started exports to the U.K. in 1877. Its dry-tasting sake is representative of the sake of Nada. In the museum grounds you can see a well (with the traditional mechanism for hoisting up buckets of water) as well as the water mill for rice polishing (in the Edo-period, these mills made a higher rice polishing ratio possible, which led to a clearer taste of Nada sake and therefore an advantage in the competition with other breweries which still used hand-polishing). Inside, the museum illustrates the entire brewing process with such implements as brewing vats, koshiki (steam baskets) and a sake press.

[10 min walk south of Uozaki St on the Hanshin line; 9:30-16:30; CL New Year holidays; free].

[Sawanotsuru Sake Museum]

The Sawanotsuru Brewery, too, is one of Japan's largest brewing companies. It was one of the first Nada brewers to start producing ginjo sakes and is known for its deep-tasting products in the dry Nada-style. The Sawanotsuru Sake Museum was carefully rebuilt after being toppled in the 1995 earthquake. During the reconstruction, part of the site was excavated and an old sake press was discovered, with large ceramic pots set in the ground to receive the pressed sake. Besides a large number of impressive brewing vats and huge sake presses, particularly beautiful is also the replica of a koji room, with the small koji boxes neatly stocked against the wall.

[10 min walk southwest from Oishi St on the Hanshin line; 10:00-16:00; CL Wednesdays, Obon holidays, New Year holidays; free]

[Entrance Yodoko Guest House]

2. For architecture buffs: Yodoko Guest House or "Yamamura Residence" by Frank Lloyd Wright
A private residence designed by world-famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), the only private residence he designed in Japan. Now called "Yodoko Guest House," as its owner is Yodogawa Steel Works, its original name was "Yamamura Residence." The house was constructed from 1918-1924 as a summer villa for the well-heeled sake brewer Yamamura Tazaemon (of the Sakuramasamune Brewery in Uozaki, Kobe).

[Sitting room]

The four floors of the house have been set into the hill in symmetrical steps, so that the house is nowhere taller than two stories. From all levels there are wonderful views of Kobe Port and Osaka Bay. The house has not been built from concrete, but from blocks of soft-textured Oya stone. The design is ingenious, and the decoration inside is marvelous as well, with mahogany framework, characteristic light fixtures and square copper plates with a delicate leaf design. See my separate post about this wonderful and magical place, designed by an architect who was in love with Japan.

[10 min walk from the north side of Ashiyagawa Station on the Hankyu Line. There is a map on the website. Hours: Open on Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday and National Holidays. 10:00-16:00; fee]

[Takenaka Carpentry Tools Museum]

3. Also for architecture buffs: Takenaka Carpentry Tools Museum (Takenaka Daiku Dogukan)
If you have ever wondered with what technical means Japan's temples, castles and palaces were built (and who hasn't?), then it is a good idea to make your way to the Takenaka Carpentry Tools Museum in Kobe. This beautifully furbished museum offers an in-depth overview of carpentry tools, their development and how they were used to build Japan's wooden architecture. The museum owns more than 15,000 traditional tools and various materials concerning their use and development. It was set up by the Takenaka construction company which originated in a carpenter's shop established in 1612. Learn all about the ax (ono) and the adze (chona), chisel (nomi) and gimlet (kiri), saw (nokogiri), hammer (tsuchi) and plane (kanna), carpenter’s square (sashigane) and marking gauge (kebiki) and the all-important and beautiful ink pot (sumitsubo) for marking straight lines on various surfaces. This is the most beautiful tool you'll find in the museum: a thread wound around a wooden spool has a needle attached to its other end. The needle is stuck in the surface and the thread unwound to mark the straight line - as it unwinds, it passes cleverly through a small ink pot.

[3-min walk from Shinkobe St. (map on the English museum website); 9:30 – 16:30; CL Mondays (the following day when Monday falls on a national holiday ), New Year holidays, occasional days; fee.]


4. For literature buffs: Ishoan - the residence of Tanizaki Junichiro
Tanizaki Junichiro, Japan's foremost 20th century author, lived from 1923 to 1943 in the Ashiya-Kobe area and Ishoan is the name of the house he rented from 1936 to 1943 (the name means "leaning on pine trees" but the trees are gone as the house originally stood on a slightly different spot). Tanizaki lived here with his third wife, Matsuko, her daughter from a previous marriage and her two sisters in a menage that must have resembled that of the The Makioka Sisters. In this house Tanizaki made his (first) modern-Japanese translation of The Tale of Genji and also started writing The Makioka Sisters. Much of the action in this novel is based on events in the lives of Tanizaki and his family in the late 1930s. I am not talking about the larger plot - the work was not autobiographical but purely a work of fiction - but about the small, seemingly inconsequential details of daily existence that together give life to the novel. The house also has many small interesting details. Note the dining room table which though small, can be extended - an example of the rational simplicity Tanizaki liked. The lamp hanging from the ceiling in the sitting room is a copy of the original and expresses Tanizaki's dislike of the bright lights you usually find in Western-style rooms: as stated in his In Praise of Shadows, he preferred half-dark and shadowy spaces, so the bottom side of this lamp is closed, and the light is only indirect. This house is a magical place (see my previous, detailed post for more details)!

[450 meters north of Uozaki St on the Hanshin line; or 150 meters north of Uozaki St on the Rokko Liner; or 900 meters south of Sumiyoshi St on the JR line; only open on Saturday and Sunday, now closed for repairs until February 2017; 10:00-16:00; free]

[Tessai Museum]

5. For art buffs: Tessai Museum
The Tessai Museum stands in the grounds of the popular Kiyoshikojin Seichoji Temple (one of the most interesting temples in the wider Kobe area, not because of its statues, architecture or gardens, but because it is a living temple and one of the few that has retained its fusion with Shinto and various folk beliefs). The museum houses a large collection of representative works of the last great Nanga or “literati painter,” Tomioka Tessai (1836–1924), a tradition that found its inspiration in the literati landscape painting of the Southern School (“Nanga”) in Yuan, Ming and Qing China. Important painters of this tradition in Japan had been Ike Taiga, Buson and Urakami Gyokudo.

Tomioka Tessai was born in Kyoto where he studied Chinese and Japanese classics. He championed traditional ways against the influx of Western ideas, also in painting, and traveled widely in Japan. He mostly lived and worked in Kyoto and was a very prolific painter with a total output of about 20,000 works. The works of his last years, after he had turned 80, are considered his best. Besides the literati style, he also worked in other styles as the “native” Yamato-e style, the folksy Otsu-e style and he made humorous haiga, haiku paintings. He was also a great calligrapher. His best works are large landscape paintings characterized by strong and free brushwork.

The collection is shown in rotating exhibitions of about fifty works each. The museum is a fitting tribute to this eccentric painter and the beautiful works he created.

[15 min walk from Kiyoshikojin St on the Hankyu Takarazuka line; 10:00-16:30; CL Mondays, irregularly for re-installation, summer / winter times, etc., so check in advance at; fee]

[Kosetsu Museum of Art]

6. Also for art buffs: Small museums in the Hanshin area 
The area between Osaka and Kobe ("Hanshin area"), along the various train lines that connect both cities, is characterized by the presence of many interesting private museums, set up by entrepreneurs from Osaka, who also had their residences here. Although they possess interesting collections with rare art works, these museums are easy to miss as they are only open a few weeks each spring and autumn (therefore, be sure to check if the museum is open before going there!). Here follows a brief overview of the best small museums:

Hankyu Kobe line:
Mikage: Kosetsu Museum of Art
Sitting in a quiet street close to Mikage Station, this museum houses the small (about 500 pieces) but fine collection of Murayama Ryuhei (artistic name: Kosetsu), the founder of the Asahi Newspaper. There are Chinese paintings and ceramics, Japanese paintings, Buddhist images, swords, armor, tea ceremony utensils and Korean ceramics. Exhibitions are held twice a year in spring and autumn, when about 50 objects are on view. The quality of this small collection is excellent.
[5-min walk south-east from Mikage station on the Hankyu Kobe Line; 10:00-17:00; only open in spring and autumn, check in advance; no CL during exhibitions; fee;]

Hankyu Kobe line:
Mikage: Hakutsuru Fine Art Museum 
Kano Jihei, president of the Hakutsuru Breweries, founded the Hakutsuru Fine Art Museum in 1931 as one of Japan’s first private museums, housed in a traditional-style building. That building from 1934 is a delight: a two-storied building in Oriental style, its roof and other design features mimicking Momoyama architecture. The main part of the 1,300 pieces strong collection is formed by Chinese art, from bronzes to ceramics and paintings. Japanese items include archaeological treasures, decorated sutras, handscrolls and screens. The museum shows a selection of about 120 pieces in two thematic exhibitions a year. (Note that this museum is different from the sake brewery museum also operated by Hakutsuru and located near Hanshin Uozaki St)
[15-min walk northeast (and uphill) from Mikage St on the Hankyu Kobe Line; 10:00-16:30; only open mid-Mar - early Jun & mid-Sept - late Nov., CL Mondays - check in advance at; fee]

[Hakutsuru Fine Art Museum]

Hankyu Kobe line:
Ashiyagawa: Tekisui Museum
Tekisui (“Fresh Green”) was the artistic pseudonym of banker Yamaguchi Kichirobei, who founded the Yamaguchi Bank in Osaka, and after his retirement enjoyed his hobby of collecting tea utensils and tea ceremony objects. What adds color to the collection are the other interests of Tekisui: karuta or Japanese playing cards, clay dolls and hagoita or battledores. The collection consists of about 1,500 objects.

[10-min walk from Ashiyagawa station on the Hankyu Kobe Line (in fact, not far from the Yodoko Guest House); 10:00-16:00 (enter by 15:00); CL Monday, summer, winter - check in advance; fee;]

Hankyu Kobe line:
Shukugawa: Kurokawa Institute of Ancient Cultures
A collection of rare artefacts from China and Japan, set up by Kurokawa Koshichi, a financier from Osaka, to administer the collection of art and antiquities of his family. As the name indicates, it is primarily a research facility. Many of the 10,000 pieces owned by the institute are rare and unusual. They are from both China and Japan. In the Chinese section, we find oracle bones, jade and bronzes from the Shang and Zhou Dynasties; belt hooks, roof tiles and tomb slabs from the Han dynasty; and bronze mirrors from all periods. From the Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties we have paintings and calligraphy, as well as inkstones, ink sticks, seals and rubbings. In the Japanese section we find bronze bells from the Kofun period and mirrors and roof tiles from all periods. There is also a large collection of swords and sword ornaments. Then we have a large group of sutras (Nara and Heian) and objects used in Buddhist rituals. Besides calligraphy, we also find paintings by Korin, Hoitsu, Kiitsu and Goshun.

[Take a bus from Hankyu Shukugawa St and get off at Kayando stop, then walk 800 m west (walk back in the direction from which the bus came and take the first road to the right - there is a sign also in English pointing here. Follow this road uphill). Or take a 10-min taxi from Hankyu Shukugawa St; 10:00-16:00; CL Mondays; only open during spring and autumn exhibitions, see website for dates:; fee]

Hankyu Takarazuka line:
Ikeda: Itsuo Art Museum
This museum houses the art objects collected by Kobayashi Ichizo (1893-1957), the founder of the Hankyu and Toho consortia of companies. The emphasis is on works related to the tea ceremony, as well as paintings by Buson and Goshun. Mr. Kobayashi was born in Yamanashi Prefecture and came to Tokyo where he joined the Mitsui Company after university. He founded his own company, the Hankyu Railway at age 34 and went on to establish the Hankyu Department Store and the Toho Movie and Theater Company not long afterwards. He set up several other business organizations as well. In the war years he served as cabinet minister, but a more enduring feat was the establishment of the Takarazuka All Girl’s Revue. From his forties he also took an interest in the tea ceremony and started a large collection of tea utensils, calligraphy and paintings for the tea room, lacquer ware and Buddhist objects. The total collection of Kobayashi Ichizo comprises 5,000 pieces, among which are fifteen important cultural properties.

[10 min walk from Ikeda St on the Hankyu Takarazuka line; 10:00-17:00; CL Mon (except NH), NY, BE (check in advance); fee;]

Hankyu Imazu Line (for Takarazuka)
Kotoen: Egawa Museum of Art
The small Egawa Museum exhibits the collection of Mr Egawa Tosuke, former chairman of thr Kofuku Bank. Set up in 1973, unfortunately the museum experienced some problems in the period after Japan's economic bubble burst, and had to sell off part of its holdings. But there is still enough to see. The collection is focused on paintings (suibokuga and Edo-period literati paintings, such as work by Ike Taiga) and implements for the tea ceremony. A small but fine museum.

[5 min walk from Kotoen St on the Hankyu Imazu line; 10:00-16:00; only open for exhibitions in spring and autumn, CL Mondays; fee;]