Great summer days out on the wine trail in Kent, seeking out the very best English Sparkling wines
Autostadt in Wolfsburg is a must-see destination if you love cars.
If you're in Paris, make sure you put a visit to Marche d'Aligre on your agenda
Perhaps this is no coincidence because it’s my wife’s home city. I’ve been there many times over the years and got to know it quite well.
Kobe’s Port Tower and Meriken Park
Although Kobe suffered a devastating earthquake in 1995 which killed over 6,400 people, the damaged areas of the city have been completely rebuilt. Few signs of the quake remain.
Foreign visitors to Japan mostly seem to take a well-trodden path, which doesn’t usually bring them to Kobe – the typical “see as much of Japan as you can in a week” tourist itinerary includes a few days in Tokyo, a stop at Mount Fuji, a bullet-train to Kyoto to see the temples, then back to Narita for the flight home.
If you do find yourself in Japan, and you’re not on one of these guided tours, I recommend that you try to visit Kobe – you’ll find it very rewarding, but you’ll need to set aside 3 or 4 days in order to see all the sights mentioned in this blog.
For a start the city has a wonderfully attractive natural setting, sandwiched between Osaka Bay and the Rokko Mountains. From Mount Rokko, which is easily reachable by cable car, a panoramic view of the whole Hanshin region (Kobe and Osaka) can be had. By day the view is impressive. By night it’s simply stunning.
Kobe’s $10 million night view
Kobe’s location and climate makes it a very pleasant city in which to live. People who work in the neighbouring and much bigger city of Osaka (20 minutes away by train) often prefer to live in Kobe, although it’s pretty expensive. So many celebrities now live in the Ashiya area of the city that it’s known as the Beverly Hills of Japan.
Kobe has a vibrant food culture. This is after all the home of world-famous Kobe Beef. This isn’t just beef that comes from Kobe – it’s beef that comes from a particular breed of cow (Tajima-ushi). The cows are raised in a specific place, in a particular way, and the meat is graded according to some very strict rules. It’s illegal to export Kobe Beef, so the only way to taste the real thing is to come to Japan and try it.
It’s a city with rather a sweet tooth as well. The cakes at Morozoff are sublime as are the handmade chocolates at Goncharoff and the Kobe Fugetsudo gaufres. Tins of Kobe gaufres make great souvenirs.
The city also has some great shopping. The quality and variety of both the shopping and restaurants in Kobe, particularly in the downtown Sannomiya area, is every bit as good as you’ll find in Tokyo or Osaka.
Kobe has been an important port city for centuries and was one of the first places in Japan to be opened up for foreign trade in the 19th century. As such it has always had a relatively large community of non-Japanese residents, particularly Chinese, Indians and Europeans. Today the city has a vibrant Chinatown (Nankinmachi area), a sizeable Indian community and a surprising number of long-term western residents.
Nankinmachi (Chinatown) Area of Kobe
At the foot of the Rokko mountains is Kitano-cho (北野町, Kitanochō) an area where diplomats and wealthy foreign merchants settled in the second half of the 19th century. This area features a number of grand mansions, known as Ijinkan, more than a dozen of which are open to the public as museums. This is a lovely area to walk around as its steep, narrow streets have a nice variety of cafes, restaurants and boutiques.
Ijinkan area in Kitano-cho
Kobe has long been famous for its sake – the Nada district of the city is the world’s top sake-producing region. The Hakutsuru Sake Brewery has a brewery museum in its grounds where you can see the whole process of sake brewing and there is usually an opportunity to do some sake-tasting.
Kobe certainly makes the most of its location by the sea – Kobe Harborland is a lively waterfront shopping and entertainment district and Meriken Park is a waterfront park full of modern art and home to some of the best examples of the city’s iconic contemporary architecture, including the bright red Kobe Port Tower and the Kobe Maritime Museum.
The city also has some attractive gardens and shrines. The Sorakuen (which has a Japanese garden and a Western-style garden) and Ikuta Jinja (a shrine) in Sannomiya are well worth a visit.
Other places not to be missed around Kobe include Arima Onsen, a famous hot spring resort town on the other side of the Rokko Mountains, and the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge, which, at almost 4 kilometres, is the world’s longest suspension bridge. It spans the Akashi Strait and connects Japan’s main island of Honshu with Shikoku.
The Akashi Kaikyo Bridge
The city also has its own airport. Kobe Airport opened in 2006 and is built on an artificial island only 8 kilometres from the city centre. The Port Liner (monorail) will take you from Sannomiya to the airport in just 18 minutes.
Once you’ve seen all the sights of Kobe and sampled some of the great food you can either jet off from Kobe Airport or take a bullet-train from Shin-Kobe Station and continue your travels around Japan.
I was lucky enough to work in Bahrain twice – from 1982-1984 and again from 1994-1996. I was with the British Bank of the Middle East (now HSBC) and on both occasions lived in Adliya and worked at the old Main Office of the bank in Al-Khalifa Avenue, next to Jashanmals Department Store.
After leaving Bahrain in 1996 I did not have the opportunity to visit the island again until a few weeks ago. After 14 years away I was truly shocked, but also pleasantly surprised, by the scale of the changes that I saw – the shiny new office towers in the Financial Harbour and Seef District, new shopping malls, many new hotels, the fabulous F1 Grand Prix Circuit and the lovely golf club at Riffa. Lots of new development too down the Budaiya Road where whole new districts have sprung up. I was also struck by the sheer number of vehicles on Bahrain’s roads with Saudi number plates.
What has not changed though is the island’s warm and welcoming atmosphere. You notice this as soon as you arrive at Bahrain International Airport, where the immigration officials have a smile and a few friendly words for each arriving passenger as they collect the BHD 5/- visa fee.
I jumped into a taxi at the airport and had a nice chat with my very engaging driver as he took me to my hotel. Bahrain’s taxis may not be cheap but you always get chatty drivers willing to share their views on what’s happening on the island.
I had arrived in Bahrain on a Wednesday evening and it soon became apparent that this was party night, at least for the Saudis, whose weekend starts a day earlier than Bahrain’s. The island’s nightlife has always been pretty vibrant but the weekend partying of thousands of visitors from Saudi Arabia has definitely added a whole new dimension.
I was quite unprepared for the sheer volume of traffic on Bahrain’s roads, not just in the evenings but throughout the day. I’m sure that the island’s population has grown a lot since 1996, but where on earth did all these cars come from? Fortunately the road network has developed a lot too, but a journey from Delmon Avenue to the Suq, which used to take ten minutes back in 1996, takes much longer now.
An evening spent in Adliya was a trip down memory lane. I was particularly keen to see this area where I had spent four years of my life. I was delighted to see Mansouri Mansions and Cico’s (Italian restaurant) still going strong. Lots of new eating-spots have opened up since 1996 of course but Adliya still retains a pleasant, cosmopolitan atmosphere with lots of people strolling around in the evenings.
Bahrain was always a bit of a gourmet’s paradise and I was pleased to see that this hasn’t changed. The choice of cuisines available now is even more extensive than when I last lived on the island. I also noticed that development seems to have started on a new pedestrianised restaurant and bar area in Adliya. This will surely be a great addition to the evening scene in Bahrain.
My stay lasted for a week and I was fortunate enough to be based at the offices of one of Bahrain’s premier banks. Access to banking services has really improved for Bahrain’s citizens, with ATM machines everywhere and elegant Financial Malls and well-appointed bank branches now covering the island. In 1996, banking services were mostly concentrated in Manama, Isa Town and Riffa.
I was also pleased to see that a lot of money is being spent on preserving the island’s unique cultural heritage. There are some lovely old buildings which, since my days living on the island have had a complete makeover. Most of the Suq seems to be a building-site but it’s great to see Bahrain looking after its past.
I was a bit sad though to see my old branch, which is now closed. It has famous doors that feature the “Dilmun Seals” and I do hope that these will be saved for posterity. Bahrain has a more interesting history than most other places in the Gulf so there is much to be proud of and worth preserving for the benefit of future generations.
I really enjoyed seeing Bahrain again and I hope that the current troubles are resolved quickly, and peacefully.