If you and your significant other are travelling together in Japan around February 14th, you're already well on your way to having a unique Valentine's Day. But should you wish to go above and beyond the box of chocolates, Hallmark greeting cards and bunches of flowers route, some Japanese tourist attractions have themed events for this romantic holiday.
Nestled in the Rokko mountain range, overlooking the port city of Kobe, sits the Nunobiki Herb Garden. On a brisk but clear skied day in late January (a cute blackboard informs me it is 8.5 degrees Celsius), a friend and I venture towards the botanical gardens to see what they have to offer two young women whose sweethearts are on another continent.
There is no queue, February being one of the quieter tourist seasons, and we purchase our ¥900 one-way cable-car tickets from a vending machine. There are English and Japanese options so the transaction is straight forward.
From the cable car
The cable-car makes for an intimate setting and even has a small blanket to cuddle under if you are feeling the cold. Fortunately for us, the sun is shining and we are able to sit back and relax, watching the coastal city melt away into the distance as we glide up the mountain. This early in the year, the trees are still bare and the forests are a little gaunt but it is pleasant enough to take in the impressive Nunobiki waterfall and dam below. The cable-cars are far enough apart that it can feel like your own private moment, away from the crowds common at popular tourist sites. That moment is slightly interrupted as the cable-car pulls into the mid-station but take care to remain on board to get the full value of the ticket.
View from the top - flower beds waiting for Spring
The view is faintly marred as we pass over the Nunobiki Herb Garden itself. Huge trenches of earth lie barren and open, where obviously the bedding plants are yet to be planted. The relaxing effect of the surrounding nature is only diminished for a second as we disembark at the top station. A piano instrumental accompanies us as we wander around the View Plaza, played from hidden speakers and makes the whole experience reminiscent of a Studio Ghibli production (think The Cat Returns).
The Rest House shop offers both edible and cosmetic souvenirs. The majority of these are readily available in other countries, but I am interested to see their yuzu (Japanese citrus fruit) scented range - something that would make for a quintessential Japanese gift without being of the predictable green tea variety.
For the Valentine's Extravaganza, ribbons had been tied onto the chairs in the seating area and throughout Nunobiki Herb Garden there are what I can only describe as 'posing points'.
Small, wooden platforms set up to balance cameras on and a happy couple (or, platonic girlfriends as is the case) can pose doing the following: pretending to eat a towering chocolate cake; hugging between statues; ringing a bell for luck and in front of flower arrangements.
It is a nice opportunity for a commemorative photograph which does not fall into the dreaded 'selfie' category, without having to pay or bother a passer-by. I approve. There is also the incentive of a free gift (chamomile bath salts) for uploading said pictures onto a social utility site, which you may collect from the bottom station after your visit is over.
Free chamomile bath salts
The most anticipated event, however, is the special Valentine's Day menu at the Mint Café. During the winter months, customers are able to eat inside the Glasshouse. Outside the flora is struggling, so the booming greenery inside is a refreshing contrast. Again, we make our order from a vending machine. The writing is in Japanese but each button also has a picture of the food or drink. We hand our tickets to the waitress and wait for our chocolate fondant, rosehip affogato and hot cocoa.
Mint cafe vending machine
I'm a little disappointed looking down at the takeout tray, as I carry it back through to the tables set up in the giant greenhouse. The cutlery is plastic and the food is served on a paper plate, not the nature-chic wooden bowls pictured on the website. Mild snobbery aside, the chocolate fondant set looks pretty enough. It's rich and velvety, the strawberries are a touch overripe but nothing to frown about. My favourite part is the sour raspberry crumb. The rose hip affogato, on the other hand, whilst not particularly pretty to look at (the rose hip sauce and soft scoop ice cream are served in separate cardboard cups and you unceremoniously dump the sauce over the top) is a treat. I am reluctant to call it an affogato, a term reserved for an espresso shot-ice cream combination, whilst acknowledging it does sound more impressive than 'milk flavoured soft scoop ice cream with rose hip sauce'. But it tastes sublime, no matter the name.
Rose affogata and cocoa
We meandered through the spice museum and take in the loveheart plaques by the Mother and Child statue. For ¥300, you are able to write down a small declaration or sentimental message and hang it up for all to see. Outside on the Garden Terrace, we wistfully look at the herbal foot bath. Our timing is a little off and it is occupied. We decided not to awkwardly wait around for a turn but I note that it is a ¥100 to use a towel. The view is magnificent.
The Spice Museum
The remainder of the Nunobiki Herb Garden is somewhat of an anti-climax. At best, it can be described as dormant. There are some unhappy flowers struggling against the last dregs of winter. For a botanical garden, it seems shortsighted not to plant some evergreens. However, I can already envisage how beautiful it must look in the warmer months.
For a Valentine's Day treat, the Nunobiki Herb Garden would be more suited for those looking for a low-key, quietly intimate day. It is reasonably priced and offers some real together time without the bustle of the crowds. Don't expect to be blown away, but do look forward to a peaceful afternoon with some tasty treats.