By Tetsuya Tsuruhara / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterKOBE — I went to Kobe one weekend to visit the city’s old Western-style residences, dubbed “ijinkan” in Japanese. Trudging uphill toward the historic Kitano district was difficult, as I had a hangover.
I had taken off my coat by the time I reached the Kitano Tourist Information Office, diagonally across from the Weathercock House, or Kazamidori no Yakata. Here I met Norimasa Shiihata, 77, a volunteer tour guide who would accompany me.
“Let’s learn some history first,” he said. The Tokugawa shogunate was pushed to open up the country in the wake of the arrival of U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry. It signed treaties with the United States, the Netherlands, Russia, Britain and France, resulting in the opening of five ports to the countries.
One of the five ports was Kobe Port. In the latter half of the Meiji era (1868-1912), Kobe became the nation’s largest trading port.
The Kitano district of the city developed into an international community. Late in the Taisho era (1912-1926), the number of foreigners’ residences surpassed 300. Of those, about 30 still remain.
“Water is the origin of [Kobe’s] prosperity,” Shiihata said.
The city’s water flows down from the Rokko mountain range, which was formed by the geological uplift of ancient seabeds. The local groundwater, after filtering through strata of fossilized seaweed and shells, contains little iron and thus is not prone to oxidation. A ship stocking up with such water will find that it remains clean and drinkable even on long voyages across the equator.
This “treasure water” attracted many foreign ships to Kobe Port.
Shiihata pointed to a public water fountain in a nearby square. “It may only be tap water, but Kobe’s is delicious,” He said. The water was beneficial for a person with a hangover like me. I could not help but guzzle my fill.
Tourists flock from Asia
I stood in front of a Western house, atop which sat a weathercock.
It was the residence of German trader Gottfried Thomas, who built it in 1909.
In the autumn of 1977, NHK aired a drama series titled “Kazamidori,” set in the Kitano Ijinkan area. The drama depicted a Japanese woman who married a German baker in the Taisho era.
The drama triggered a popularity boom for the Ijinkan area. The formerly quiet residential area turned into a tourist hot spot.
In January 1978, the house Thomas lived in was designated by the central government as an important cultural property.
In 1995, the Great Hanshin Earthquake toppled the house’s chimney and cracked its brick walls. It took two years to repair.
Shiihata recalled: “I used to run a photo studio in Hyogo Ward, Kobe. I was hit by the disaster and spent about 10 days in a shelter, where I was deeply impressed to see volunteers working hard. They were making utmost efforts for others. Now I work as a volunteer tour guide, as I intend to return the favor, even if just a little.”
One million tourists annually visit the Kitano Ijinkan area now. Shiihata said: “My gut feeling says that about 80 percent of them are from Asia, such as South Korea, China and Taiwan. Among Japanese, there are many groups of women.”
The sound of applause drew me to a square, where a street performance was being held. Kento Yoshikawa, a 23-year-old juggler, said: “I’m the only one in the world [who can do this],” before throwing seven large balls into the air. It was superb.
He is a member of Croissant Circus (https://croissantcircus.co.jp/) based in Katsuragi, Nara Prefecture. “Our circus master is better than me,” he said.
In the afternoon, the master, Hisao Shimizu, 48, appeared in the show. Wearing a tall hat, he performed mime and acrobatics. His audience of tourists steadily grew.
Finally, Shimizu began a tightrope walk. He stood on the rope. He even let go of his balance pole and performed acrobatics.
He shouted, psyching himself up. It conveyed how deeply he was concentrating. I too held my breath.
Shimizu cut a dramatic figure standing on the rope with the Weathercock House in the background.
The Weathercock House is one of two in the Kitano Ijinkan area that the government has designated as important cultural properties. The nearby Moegi House, built in 1903 as the residence of then U.S. Consul General Hunter Sharp, is the other.
Although it takes its name from the “moegi iro” spring green color of its exterior walls, there was a period when it was known as the “White Ijinkan” because the color of the walls had been changed. During repair work around 1990, the walls were restored to their original spring green shade.
One of the must-see features of the house is an imposing fireplace.
Most popular bread
One of Kobe’s most popular foods is bread. Around noon, I went to the main shop of the Isuzu Bakery, which first fired up its ovens more than 70 years ago, near JR Sannomiya Station.
The shop was packed with businesspeople piling various breads and deli foods onto their trays.
Placed to attract shoppers’ eyes was a placard reading, “Top Popularity Beef Curry,” above a pile of relatively small buns, stuffed with beef curry paste and fried. The price was ¥170 each, plus tax.
I tried one. The fried surface was light, the inside was soft and moist, and the beef curry paste was pleasantly mild.
The dough is prepared on the previous day and is then left to rise in a refrigerator.
A manager at the shop said: “Kobe residents know the taste of bread very well. Only shops selling genuine bread can survive.”
Another highly popular bread at the shop is the “Hard Yamashoku” loaf, priced at ¥240 each. I aim to try one next time.
Sake for Nobel ceremony
An area straddling Nada Ward and Higashinada Ward in Kobe has been Japan’s most prestigious sake production site since the Edo period (1603-1867).
Kobe Shu-Shin-Kan Breweries Ltd., is one of many sake breweries in the area. It is famous for producing Fukuju junmai ginjo sake — which is 100 percent made from polished rice, giving it a special flavor — that has been served in recent years at the Nobel Banquet following the award ceremony. A 720-milliliter bottle of the brand’s sake in a decorated box is priced at ¥1,728.
The company’s Fukuju brand sake has an aroma like ripe cherries and is crisp on the palate.
Visitors to the company can taste sake. On its grounds, there is a restaurant called Sakabayashi, serving meals that go well with sake.
It takes about two hours and 50 minutes to ride a Nozomi train on the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen Line from Tokyo Station to Shin-Kobe Station. Kitano-cho Plaza, from which visitors start tours of the Ijinkan area, is about a 15-minute walk from the station.