Beautiful neighborhoods I lose myself in, and: Japan’s oldest café, cheesecake soft serve ice cream, and Kobe beef siopao.
Installments in this series:
As I mention in the first part of this series, Kobe is small enough to explore completely on foot. Weary from work and not in the mood to shop, I revel in surrendering myself to new surroundings.
A thing of beauty – pink roses – lying in a heap as I wend my way around Kobe.
Kitano-chō lies at the foot of the Rokko mountain range, a city district where several foreign merchants and diplomats settled after the Port of Kobe was opened to foreign trade in the second half of the 19th century. These foreign residences and now former mansions commonly known as Ijinkan, are popular attractions. There’s an admission fee of ¥550 to ¥750 and combination tickets are available for visiting multiple houses. But my Bin, Boo, and I decide to wing it on our own.
On the outskirts of Kitano, I can see the mountains.
It’s very quiet here among the stone roads and manicured little gardens. The avenue is dotted with bespoke boutiques, cafés, and restaurants. From out of nowhere, there’s a planter blooming with a strange orange fruit. I don’t know its name – do you? – although I remember someone once referring to it as “the hidden Mickey.”
In an imposing German-style red brick house seemingly overrun by vines, Nishimura Coffee is a café that stands the test of time, a true Kobe landmark. Open since 1948, its 20 various coffee blends are from beans roasted on the premises.
Walking inside is like stepping into a slower, more elegant time. Before us, a grandfather clock chimes 12 times marking the noon hour, its gentle pulsing sounds enveloping the dining room’s wooden interiors. The delicate antiques safely kept in glass cabinets look out at us observing, welcoming. So hushed is it in here that my family and I almost instinctively speak in low tones and sit up straight in the vintage fabric chairs.
An elderly woman in a long black skirt and long sleeved striped blouse – she looks so regal – hands us a menu. It’s heavy, and like the establishment it represents, is also full of history. Nishimura was the first coffee house in Japan to serve black coffee, cappuccino, and coffee jelly, now timeless favorites found in almost every coffee house in the world.
Our coffee and pastry order are submitted to the attendants in the kitchen. The workers’ movements are efficient and quiet.
“Mom, it feels so proper in here, so English!” Boo whispers.
My daughter’s assessment is further compounded when my coffee, the House Blend, arrives, along with her chocolate slice. While the coffee mug itself is earthenware, the sugar and creamer set is stunning, a sterling silver vintage set. Such hallowed surroundings almost make me forget what the coffee tastes like, but it’s hot and sears its smoky character into my mouth and mind: a travel memory imprinted indelibly.
Walking on, still reeling from the enchantment that is Nishimura Coffee.
A Starbucks To Sightsee In
The deep green and white color scheme of this wooden house registers immediately: a beautiful Starbucks, the Kobe Kitano Ijinkan store. (It reminds me of the Starbucks in Baguio). Set in a 19th century Western-style building, its unparalleled design compels pedestrians to stop and take the requisite photo(s). There’s no way you’d be able to resist.
In 1907, the two-story wooden building was built for Americans residing in Kobe. It was damaged in the Hanshin Earthquake in 1995, and the building was donated to the city of Kobe. Fast forward to 2001, Kobe officials used the house’s preserved materials to reconstruct. In 2009, the famous house reopened as a Starbucks.
Just like in Nishimura, walking into this Starbucks is like walking into a parallel universe circa the early 20th century.
There are seven rooms including a lounge…
… a dining room…
… and even a library crammed with books from bottom to top. Amazing! Every room possesses its own uniqueness, and though the Starbucks menu here is ordinary, your sitting and sipping experience here will differ, depending on the room you choose.
The stairs leading to the Kitano Tenman Shrine.
At the top, blistering clouds threatening to burst.
With rain imminent, a Japanese woman’s pre-wedding photo shoot is interrupted. But that reflector subs as a handy umbrella.
We huddle under the sloping roofs of a temple, and then gingerly make our way back down the steep stairs to the Kitano-Cho Plaza. Our reward: cheesecake ice cream, and I really do mean cheesecake in ice cream. Cheesecake is baked in a muffin liner – it’s slightly heavier, eggier than the traditional Japanese cheesecake. Dense layers of cream tinged with a tang of citrus, yuzu, maybe. And only a notion of sweet.
Now take that cheesecake and should you wish, the store attendant mashes one entire cheesecake into soft serve ice cream. It’s creamy, dreamy, and two of these have my name on it.
At the Sannomiya Hondohri Mall for some retail therapy.
Sankita Street, raucous and a treasure for beef (though not always for Kobe beef) and okonomiyaki restaurants. Terrific to just walk through and feel the vibe.
Nankinmachi is Kobe’s Chinatown named after Nanjing, the former Chinese capital. Like any Chinese neighborhood, this one is brightly lit and very red. After Kobe Port opened to foreign trade in 1868, the area was developed by the Chinese merchants who settled here.
There are two main streets that run through the district, intersecting at a small plaza in the center. Japanese-speaking – but very Chinese-looking – purveyors entice and invite us to enter their restaurants or eat at their food stands. But eating Chinese food in Japan seems inappropriate to me, somehow.
A burger made out of Kobe beef. So irreverent, I don’t even want to try.
Many of these Chinese dishes have been “Japanized.” I can’t even begin to imagine what Japanese sweet and sour pork would taste like.
Call me gullible but I had to try a Kobe beef siopao (manjyu) at my Bin’s urging. Um, not worth it.
Establishments mentioned in this post:
1-26-1 Nakayamate Dori, Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture, Japan, +81 78-221-1872
There are plenty of other Nishimura branches in Kobe, but the one in Kitanozaka is the most elegant and rarefied. Truly worth a visit.
Starbucks Kitano Japan