Kobe is a port city best known internationally for the style of Japanese beef named after it, but the city has much more to offer than culinary delights. It is a vibrant area that played an integral part in Japan’s opening to the world in the 19th century.
Two areas of the city still exist that showcase the introduction of foreign culture to Japan in the decades after its opening: Chinatown and the Westerner’s district (Ijinkan). Both areas can be visited in a single day, and doing so offers a glimpse of three unique cultures from Chinatown’s food and architecture, Kobe’s modern Japanese sections, and the Westerner’s district with its Victorian era buildings and layout.
Ijinkan Starbucks (Inside View)
This confluence of cultures was the result of a peculiar set of historical circumstances that are worth exploring in brief. Japan was closed to the outside world for much of the Edo era (1603-1868) as the government feared the instability brought to other Asian nations by opium dealers and Christian missionaries. The only exception to this isolation was the small trading port at Dejima in Nagasaki which the Dutch were allowed to use. This outpost existed as much to allow Japan to study Western scientific and medical practices as it did for trade. By the mid-19th century, however, Western whaling vessels had begun venturing into the waters around Japan in search of their prey, and these ships wanted access to Japan’s ports in order to resupply and in cases of emergency. The Japanese government refused, and in 1853 Commodore Perry arrived in Japan with a squadron of warships and orders to convince the Japanese to open their ports by force of necessary. Japan's top officials realized they could not compete militarily as the technological gap was too wide, and in 1858 a commerce treaty was signed that opened several ports, including Kobe, to foreign vessels.
The opening of Japan plunged the country into turmoil that would last for a decade, but foreigners began arriving despite the chaos. One of the first groups to arrive in Kobe were Chinese immigrants, and the area they settled became known as Nanking Town after China’s ancient capital. The number of Chinese grew steadily until the Second World War when the population fell sharply as people returned to their homeland, and the area left behind was largely destroyed in aerial bombings. The few remaining Chinese people rebuilt, however, and today Chinese style gates stand at the entrances to the main street, which is itself lined with various restaurants whose facades showcase Chinese architectural motifs. There are many stalls set up outside of the restaurants that sell meat buns and other Chinese food. Inside the restaurants Chinese can be heard from the kitchens, and the accented Japanese of the wait staff speaks to the continuing foreignness of the location. In the center of Kobe’s Chinatown there is a square festooned with paper lanterns, a pavilion, and stone sculptures of the animals of the Chinese zodiac. This spot is also home to annual Chinese New Year celebrations which are a popular attraction with tourists and Chinese alike.
Western diplomats and merchants also made their way to Japan, and they in settled in the Kitano-cho district, which is up near the mountains that run parallel to the sea. English, Dutch, Italian, French, and other immigrants built homes in the area, and today over a dozen of them are still in pristine condition as the areas near the base of the mountains avoided the bombing runs that destroyed the parts of the city closer to the harbor. Many of these houses have been converted into museums that showcase the original contents of the people that built them, which offers a fascinating insight into how this first wave of Western immigrants lived in their adopted country. While the houses that have been converted into museums are intriguing, one of the most interesting experiences is the buildings that have been transformed into coffee shops, restaurants, and retail stores. These provide a visitor with the chance to not only interact with the area as a museum piece but as a still living location. While the exteriors and interiors of the buildings showcase the foreign nature of the area, the streets themselves are startlingly different from other areas of Japan. European style street lamps line the roads, and there are a variety of foreign signs and flags on display. A large public space is available where various performances can be viewed and artists sketch or paint pictures for sale, which provides a festive atmosphere. Anyone who suddenly found themselves in the area would be hard pressed to guess they were in Japan.
From the mid-19th century on, Japan modernized under the slogan “Japanese spirit, Western technique” (wakon yosai) that sought to blend Japan’s culture with Western technology. By this time, however, Japan had been borrowing and incorporating Chinese culture for a thousand years. Kobe’s Chinatown and Westerner’s district are a rare opportunity to see the two cultures that have profoundly influenced modern Japan existing side by side and surrounded by the culture they helped shape. A visitor to the area will not only be able to see this remarkable mix of connections, but will be able to enjoy delicious Chinese food in Chinatown, enjoy street performances and beautiful architecture in the Westerner’s district. This combination of historical, cultural, and immediate significance make these two stops an amazing day trip for those in traveling in the Kansai area.