It's almost that time of year again!
Japan is crazy about winter/Christmas. Even though they do not observe/celebrate Christmas, all the buildings, shopping centers, train stations get decked out in illuminations and other signs of Christmas.
If you happen to be in Osaka or Kyoto, head over to Kobe for a really cute display in the Kitano area!Kobe was actually one of the first cities in Japan to open its ports to foreign trade way back when. Even still, it is a rather busy port city and has a lot of foreign trade.
Due to its history, it only makes sense that there is a foreigners sector of Kobe. Kitano is the old foreigners settlement in Kobe and its buildings are full of character and are very reminiscent of European architecture. It was settled by the first wealthy tradesmen and diplomats who brought a lot of the "old world charm" with them from Europe.
Many of the original houses are available to tour for a small admission fee, combination tickets are available, as they have now been repurposed into museums. If you don't want to go inside, there is still plenty to see just by doing a quick walkaround.
The area also has a ton of cute little cafes and restaurants to check out. Many of the cafes are very European-inspired. Kobe is also well-known for Kobe sweets and you can definitely find plenty of Kobe pastries, cakes, and tarts around this area.
Also, there is a very popular (read tourist-y) Starbucks in Kitano. It is in a old house and many tourists grab a coffee after hiking the mountain/hills around here. Here, you can find the Kobe-themed Starbucks merchandise. I will find the page in my Korean tourguide and take a picture of the merchandise recommended to purchase. They have Kobe Port Tower-themed tumblers and mugs and also Kobe-themed gift cards.
I started collecting country/city-themed Starbucks cards. You usually have to put about a 5USD value on each time, so I usually put the minimum and then use it to purchase a drink. It's a really small sort of way to mark your travels with minimal bulk.
Also nearby Kitano is the first coffee roasting house in Japan, the UCC brand. If you're super into coffee history, there is a UCC Coffee Museum in Kobe!
During the Christmas season, many of the old houses are decorated with Santas. I'm sure there is some sort of scavenger hunt gimmick, but I just thought it was fun to go around and find the Santas.
Sannomiya is a really great area to look around and is very conveniently located to Osaka and Kyoto. The Hankyu, Hanshin, and JR lines all come together at Sannomiya Station. The terrain is rather hilly here, so be prepared for that. I am not sure if it would be a great place to go if you had crutches, etc. Keep mobility issues in mind.
Right by Sannomiya station is Sannomiya Shrine, after which the area is named. This is a Shinto shrine and is really beautiful. If you go right after the New Year's (January 1), you can experience hatsumonde. I did my hatsumonde experience in Tokyo at Sensoji, but I went to Ikuta Shrine in Sannomiya a few days after with my language partner. She taught me the Shinto ritual. I will write about it later when I update with the pictures from Ikuta shrine in Sannomiya.
Sensoji is a Buddhist temple, so the ritual is a little different at each one. Luckily when I was at Sensoji, I met some travelers from Australia (I felt so lucky that I heard other in the massive crowd speaking English) who were Buddhist and they taught me the ritual.
Also, in planning your trip to Kobe, make sure to check out the official tourism website. There is information about how to get free WiFi (finding WiFi was the bane of my existence in Japan) and also coupons for tourists! Coupons are my favorite!!
Check out these other Kobe posts:
Sannomiya - A la Campagne (FRUIT TARTS!)
Harbourland and Umie Mosaic Shopping Centre
Sannomiya - Chao Sai Gon (VIETNAMESE FOOD) at Mint Kobe Shopping Centre
Sannomiya - Floresta Nature Doughnuts (ORGANIC DOUGHNUTS)