Kobe is a city of many charms and enough history to fill a stack of PhD dissertations. The city began its original industrial modernization as a textile and leather products town, then became a major port of entry when Yokohama harbor was destroyed in an earthquake, then, after two economic booms, two economic busts, two World Wars won and lost, and another earthquake - this time on its own turf - the city pretty much became what it is today. You find a lot of shoe stores and bag stores, which are remnants of the days when leather products was one of Kobe’s main industries, although they are not necessarily made of leather these days. The reason Kobe has one of Japan’s most vibrant Chinatowns, and one of the oldest Islamic Mosques, is because it was a cosmopolitan harbor city from early on. And you will find some crazy interesting hardware stores that sell hand-forged carpentry tools and cooking knives because neighboring Miki is traditionally the home of Japan’s greatest blacksmith artisans. And Nada is a storied district whose fine sake appears frequently in all forms of Japanese literature. Kobe is also the home to Japan’s first coffee shop, and remains a coffee-oriented place to this day. But all of these are just minor details compared to the one aspect in which Kobe totally dominates: Kobe is the city of sweets.
The natives of the city are quick to tell you what a paradise for sweets lovers this place is. There are just so many bakeries and patisseries, you can wander the city every day for years and not have enough time to taste even a small sample of the offerings. There are traditional Japanese sweet shops in the street corners, and Western patisseries beside shrine gates. You can have truly special sweets everywhere with impeccably brewed coffee. For lack of space I will introduce you to just the following five.
1. Café Freundleib
Inside Freundlieb. Photo by 663highland on Wikimedia CommonsFreundlieb is a building you would probably mistake for a church within walking distance of Shin Kobe Station where you get off the Shinkansen. Actually, the first floor of this building is a bakery, the second floor is a café. This place was founded in 1924 by Heinrich Freundlieb, an accomplished German baker who first came to Japan as a prisoner of war during the First World War. His captors treated him decently and he stayed on after the war helping large bakeries design their factories. He eventually married a Japanese woman and started his own bakery. Today Freundlieb sells chocolates, cookies, cakes, and bread. But the most iconic is the pig’s ear pastries. This bakery is responsible for not only introducing pig’s ear pastries to Japan, but for making them symbolic of Kobe’s infatuation with Western sweets.
Karl Juchheim was another German who opened his first bakery in Tokyo. But he was forced to start over after Tokyo was ravaged by the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. He opened his next bakery in Kobe not far from Freundlieb. Karl died in 1945, and his widow Elise was extradited to Germany after WWII, but she returned to Japan to help rebuild the company that bore her husband’s name. In Japan, Juchheim is synonymous with baumkuchen, which seems to be a much more popular treat in Japan than anywhere else. If you do not know what a baumkuchen is, I suggest you go to Kobe to find out. Over the years, Juchheim has inspired dozens of excellent bakeries that serve excellent baumkuchens. You can even find baumkuchens in convenience stores. I venture to guess that Japanese people consume more baumkuchens than anyone else in the world.
Not all of Kobe’s sweet makers were founded by foreigners. Fugetsudo started as a maker of traditional Japanese sweets. They still are, but that is not what they are famous for today. They are better known for their wide range of cookies and cakes. The flagship item of Fugetsudo is the gaufres. The name sounds less like “gophers” when you say it in the Japanese pronunciation: “gohfuru”. These are very thin cookie wafers with a layer of cream in between. They are large and round and sold in cans. They are so well known all over Japan that they are classic. If you ever come across a situation when you have to present a gift wrapped box of sweets to your landlord or your new boss (a custom in Japan), you cannot go wrong with a can of gaufres. In fact, those cans are so ubiquitous, almost everyone in Japan, at one point or another, voted for the class president with an empty gaufre can as a ballot box.
Few sweets in Kobe can be described as mediocre. In fact, most sweets in Kobe range between eye-opening-good to mind-blowing-excellent. The amount of care and attention that goes into what are seemingly “gimmick” products can be astonishing. A good example of that is Frantz. They make exceptional puddings and cakes on a regular day. But they, like so many Japanese artisans, go totally overboard on special occasions. And for people who sell chocolates, that special occasion is St. Valentine’s Day. You may have heard about how Japanese people send each other obscene quantities of chocolate every year on St. Valentine’s Day. If you haven’t, that’s a story that deserves an article of its own. Suffice it to say that the Japanese obsession with chocolates on this Western holiday is scandalous. Frantz jumped onto the bandwagon with a line of “mechanic” chocolates. Chocolates shaped like spanners, screwdrivers, and pliers for that special grease head in your life. It fused the Japanese love for cars with the Japanese preoccupation with Valentine’s chocolates. The centerpiece was a fully functional chocolate monkey wrench. This was so realistic, however, that a passenger was stopped at the security gate of an airport when X-ray images of his carry-on luggage showed what looked like a potentially dangerous weapon. The puzzled passenger was asked to surrender the chocolate he just got from his girlfriend. The altercation that followed went viral on the internet, after which the sweet maker Frantz issued a public apology. Perfection has its price.
And to round it all off, there is Königskrone, which is of course a very good patisserie, but that is not why I added it to this list. Königskrone (which is German for king’s crown) sells an array of cakes, cookies, chocolates, and pies, just like hundreds of other patisseries in Kobe. What they do different is that they offer “classes” where customers can assemble their own decoration cakes. They offer pre-baked sponge cakes, whipped cream, decorative fruits, sprinkles, and whatever else you may desire to construct your ideal decoration cake. The price of admission is not much different from the price of a completed cake. The end product may not be up to par with the professionally made works of art you typically see all over the city, but if you really want to experience the Japanese world of sweets in a hands-on sort of way, you have to include this stop on your itinerary.
The sheer multitude of sweets available in Kobe is beyond the scope of a short article. You are sure to find a new bakery, patisserie, coffee shop, or a traditional sweet maker every time you explore the back alleys and hidden streets of Kobe. Next time you are in the city, give it a try.