Kobe—the cosmopolitan port city on the edge of the Seto Inland Sea—beckons visitors to experience its gastronomic and lifestyle treats. While the to-see list will take you from Mount Rokko to Nankinmachi (Chinatown) and everywhere in between, there are three “absolute must-tries”: local sake, homegrown Kobe beef—and Japan’s OG hot springs.
Kobe Beef is Best Tried in Kobe
Kobe is world-famous for its beef, which is a highly prized (and highly priced) type of Japanese beef, or wagyu, known for its marbling and tenderness.
Following the Sakoku period of isolation, Kobe, the capital of Hyogo Prefecture, was one of the first cities in Japan to open up to foreign trade. It did so in the 19th century, and the resulting influence of international merchants and diplomats can still be seen in its architecture today.
At the time the borders were opened, beef wasn’t really part of the Japanese diet. For almost 1200 years, in line with Buddhist teachings, a ban had been placed on the consumption of meat (with a few exceptions, including fish). Beef was particularly taboo. But as Japan opened up to the rest of the world and started to adopt more Western practices in the late 1800s, meat became a popular menu item, particularly among the expats in Kobe.
To meet the growing demand, local farmers made attempts to crossbreed domestic cattle with imported cows. But it was only after World War II that wagyu really took off.
Today, all Kobe beef is from Hyogo’s very own Tajima cattle bloodline, and it is all classified as premium wagyu. There are other types of wagyu too, from different parts of Japan, but Kobe beef is regarded as some of the highest-quality wagyu you can get. Much like Champagne, it’s a regional offering with seriously strict criteria that need to be met to earn the name.
All Kobe beef passes through markets in Hyogo Prefecture, including the Kobe Central Wholesale Market, where it is assessed, valued and auctioned off to buyers from all over Japan.
The Kobe Central Wholesale Market is the equivalent of the famous Tokyo tuna auction at Toyosu Market, and impressive in its own right. You can actually pick up fresh sushi there, too!
You can learn all about Kobe beef as part of a hands-on cooking experience at an upscale Kobe restaurant, or find other places to dine out in Kobe.
Vegetarian? See a list of 6 Vegan-Friendly Restaurants in Kobe and Osaka.
Go-go to Nagagogo for Superb Sake
There are a LOT of sake breweries in and around the Nada and Higashi-Nada wards of Kobe City, as well as neighboring Nishinomiya City. Collectively, this sake brewery area is known as Nadagogo, and it has long produced some of the finest sake in Japan.
A combination of four factors put Nadagogo sake on the map: the water, wind, rice and techniques used in the brewing process.
Nadagogo sake is made with miyamizu, spring water that comes from the Rokko Mountains in the northwest of Kobe. This H20 is loaded with minerals that feed both koji mold and yeast—two essential components in sake making. From the same mountains come cold winds called rokko oroshi, which are said to help to maintain an ideal brewing environment.
The local Yamada Nishiki rice, known as “the king of sake-brewing rice”, is another key ingredient in Nadagogo sake. The centuries-old techniques, passed down by Tamba-toji, or master sake brewers, are the final piece of the puzzle.
If you’re keen to explore the local sake culture, pop into Nadagogo Sakedokoro—a refurbished brewery that’s now a hip hub for sake tasting and pairing, staffed by a knowledgeable team of true sake lovers.
You can also visit a 270-year-old sake brewery in Nada, on a special tour.
Soak in Japan’s Original Onsen
After all that tasting and tippling, a trip to Arima Onsen, just outside Kobe, is a great way to refresh body and mind. Weary travelers have been heading to this hot-spring town for over a thousand years—it’s one of the best-known onsen spots in the country. In fact, it might just be the oldest hot-spring resort in Japan.
The steaming waters at Arima Onsen are known for their therapeutic qualities: choose from the gold or silver springs (named for their unique colors) and let the rich mineral content do its thing on aches, pains and other ailments, while you sit back and soak in the natural beauty of the surrounding forests and mountains.
Arima Onsen is an easy day trip from Kobe central, but staying at a traditional Japanese inn, or ryokan, like the luxurious Gekkoen, is one of the best ways to experience the town. As an added bonus, you can feast on the finest food that Kobe has to offer, from the comfort of your own room.