When the Port of Kobe opened up to foreign trade around the mid-19th century, foreign merchants arrived in the city–and just as they did in Nagasaki–they built their homes in a hilly neighborhood, this time at the foot of Mount Rokko and in the area known today as Kitano-cho.
As trade boomed and merchants amassed tremendous amounts of wealth, large western-style mansions or Ijinkan sprouted around Kitano-cho with about 200 homes built back in the day. Presently about 30 of these houses remain standing, with several of them opened up to tourists as museums, cafés, and event venues.
The most popular attraction in Kitano-cho is the Ijinkan architecture. One of the most colorful Ijinkan in the neighborhood is Moegi House, the residence of the Consul General of the United States back in 1903. Famous for its old veranda among other details, it is also visited for the city views it offers from its second floor. From here on, you’re welcome to go through the list of houses and visit the Weathercock House, the English House (Sherlock Holmes Room included), and Oranda House among others. There’s an entrance fee to visit each of the houses and if you’re keen on seeing them all we recommend a quick stop by the Ijinkan Uroko Group Visitor Center at the intersection of Kitanozaka and Kitano Street to pick up a day pass that allows access to all the houses open to the public.
Beyond the famous houses, this colorful hilly district is perfect for a stroll with your traveling partner or for people watching. Panorama Kitano, an observation deck, gives you perfect views of the surrounding streets which kind of feel like the Montmartre area of Paris, and in between houses you will come across street artists selling their craft, and cute statues of musicians like the Obelix Saxophonist which add an artsy touch to the area.
Once past the Panorama Kitano, you’ll run into the steep steps leading up Kitano Tenman Shrine, a slight reminder that you are still back in Japan and not in some historic European town. Although Kitano is all about the western atmosphere, Kitano Tenman Shrine sits atop the hill as if it was watching over the merchant houses. It dates back to 1724 when its worship hall was built and where nowadays the “deity of cows” is still venerated. We love this shrine not only for its cow statues but also for views of Kobe Port Tower and the city on the horizon.
After taking in the views of Kobe City, carry on with the walk around the narrow streets of Kitano-cho. There are more than enough cafes and restaurants to choose from, several Omiyage shops where you can pick up something for your loved ones back home, and even sherlock-holmes wannabes roaming the streets looking to discover the mysteries of this historic district.
Kitano-cho lies between Shin-Kobe Station and Sannomiya Station and is only a 15-minute walk from both. So if time is on your side, we suggest you put on your walking shoes and head to the hilly neighborhood for sightseeing experience quite different then what you’ll find in other cities across the country.