Restaurants along the main street

The city of Kobe is known for many things: being one of the first ports to open to foreign trade at the end of the Edo Period (1603-1868), having one of the three big Chinatowns in Japan and the annual Kobe Luminarie which is one of Japan's oldest winter illumination events. In addition to all of these, Kobe has a thriving and cosmopolitan gastronomy scene, thanks to its history as a port city. With that in mind, I made a day trip from Osaka to Kobe in order to get a sampler of some of the delicious foods offered in the city that is quite distinct from those found in the nearby cities of Osaka and Kyoto.

Taking the train from Osaka to Kobe
Kawara-senbei (on the left) is a popular souvenir from Kobe

I kicked off my day trip from the underground Hanshin Umeda Station where I took the Hanshin Main Line to the Nada Sake district to visit some breweries. Among the things I learnt was how important Mount Rokko is to the breweries. The mountain range north of Kobe provides the sake makers with both the cold winds that cool the district to optimum temperatures for sake production and miyamizu which refers to the all-important water used in sake making.

During the feudal ages, sake produced in the Nada Sake district was also sent from the nearby port to Edo (Tokyo), a journey that took roughly two weeks and would allow the sake to mature just right and arrive at its destination ready to be drunk. These boats carried up to 2500 casks of 72 liters of sake each, and each fleet would consist of about 14 boats. Imagine the amount of sake!

I first visited the Kikumasamune Brewery not far from Uozaki Station. The brewery has been in business since 1659 and has a sake brewery museum where visitors can see how sake was made back in the day. But the highlight of my trip there was visiting the Taruzake Meister Factory where cedar casks to age sake are made. Tours in the factory are offered twice daily and there you can learn more about these wooden casks and see craftsmen making them. It was highly educational for me to be there, smelling the scent of the cedar and seeing the casks being made, and finally tasting the sake that was aged in a cedar cask.

Exterior of Kikumasamune
Relics of the past inside the sake museum
Aging sake in cedar casks at the Kikumasamune Brewery
Inside the Taruzake Meister Factory
These wooden slates are slightly curved
Hammering the boards in the old fashioned way
Showing how a bamboo strip is wound into a tight binding for the cask
Each craftsman makes about 10-15 casks a day on average
The second bottle from the left was served to Barack Obama when he met with the Emperor of Japan in 2014

Fukuju was the second brewery I visited not far from Ishiyagawa Station on the Hanshin Main Line. I toured the brewery, this time being able to look into the rooms where the action really happens. One of the interesting things about the Fukuju brewery was the restaurant and the sake bar on the brewery premises as well as the furniture and decoration used onsite which were actually former machinery parts repurposed for a second life.

Exterior of Fukuju
Display showing how much rice is polished off at Fukuju Brewery
Tanks in which the fermentation process happens
Restaurant at Fukuju featuring beams from the former warehouse
Inside the shop where the beams are from the former warehouse and the large panels on the pillar were from the sake press
Sake tasting line up. The second bottle from the left was served at a Nobel dinner party
Enjoyed more sake at the sake bar in the shop

Moving on to central Kobe, I headed to Motomachi by the Hanshin Main Line and backtracked towards Sannomiya on foot. Walking between the two stations takes about ten minutes, and the area is filled with numerous restaurants catering to a wide palate. I set off to find some local specialities and was not disappointed with that I found.

Taking the Hanshin train
Popular window shop selling kobe beef potato croquettes and all things deep fried

Akashiyaki is as, if not more delicious compared to its famous cousin takoyaki. I personally prefer the delicate flavours of akashiyaki and the way of eating it, dipped into a hot dashi broth. Egg lovers will also be happy to know that eggs play a large role in akashiyaki and one of the reasons for the happy fluffy dish. Although similarly shaped, akashiyaki is really soft and fluffy, and typically served sans toppings on a wooden board while takoyaki is served on a paper tray and has lots of toppings like sauce, mayonaise, bonito flakes and seaweed.

Akashiyaki is like eating a savoury souffle

Bread is also a big local speciality. Many may raise their eyebrows and question "how is bread a local speciality?" but the city of Kobe alone has over 100 bakeries and each with their fanbase. Thanks to its history as international port town, Kobe has been exposed to a large international community for over a century. In fact, historical records show that the first bakery opened in Kobe way back in 1869, not long after the port opened to foreign traders. One of the biggest bakery chains in Japan, Donq was founded in Kobe over 130 years ago! So if you are a big bread fiend, there's no better place to do a bread tour than Kobe city.

Bread for days

Finally, I turned by attention to Kobe's most well known dish: Kobe Beef. Many steakhouses in the city serve Kobe Beef, but there is no better place to experience the delicacy than at Mouriya, a steakhouse that has been serving residents since 1885. The restaurant serves only select cuts of meat and offers diners two choices: Kobe Beef and the Mouriya Strictly Selected Beef which are cuts from cows that are close in quality to its famous brethren. I went to the Mouriya Honten (main shop) and took the opportunity to sit at the counter for front row seats to see my meal being cooked. Having Kobe Beef in Kobe was quite the experience for me, and I think it's going to be hard to go back to eating regular beef.

Slab of beautifully marbled Kobe Beef filet
Maillard reaction in progress
All parts of the cut get eaten so there is zero wastage
Midway through my meal that also came with other side dishes
Chef showing me a Japanese beef certification that verifies a cow's pedigree. The cow's nose print functions like a fingerprint.
The Mouriya Honten is conveniently located along the main street

Kobe is a fun city to explore with many delicious options to consider. I left with my belly full and satisfied, and my map with a lot of places pinned to try next time. Having the Hanshin Tourist Pass made my day trip a lot easier as there was no need to consider train fares at all and all the spots I visited were just a short walk from the train stations.

Back in Osaka after a day out in Kobe

Access

The Hanshin Tourist Pass offers international tourists an economical way to travel between Osaka and Kobe by Hanshin Railway for just 700 yen (500 yen from October 1, 2018 to April 30, 2019). The one day pass allows for unlimited rides along the lines shown on the map above. The one way journey between Umeda and Kobe-Sannomiya takes about 30 minutes and costs 320 yen.

Using the Hanshin Tourist Pass 1 day was very convenient

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