If you’ve ever ordered Kobe beef at a restaurant in the U.S., you’ve almost certainly been had.
The scam that is the American “Wagyu” and “Kobe beef” industry is well–documented. Suffice to say, odds are you’re eating a pretty standard piece of U.S. beef, a hybrid of domestically raised Wagyu cattle and the increasingly Frankenstein’s monster-like approximation of Angus. There are no rules about what restaurants can claim on their menus.
In actuality, the cut of beef prized for its superior levels of fat marbling is incredibly rare. Only Wagyu cattle from the very specific Tajima bloodline—bred and raised in the Hyōgo prefecture, with Kobe as its capital—can be certified as Kobe. That’s roughly 3,000 cattle per year.
The rarity, delicacy, and rich history of the Tajima cattle makes it a point of pride for Kobe, Japan’s seventh-largest city and neighbor to fellow Kansai region stars Kyoto and Osaka. I visited Kobe earlier this year on my way back from the oft-overlooked Shikoku region (which I wrote about for our It’s Still a Big World series) and found it to be as deliciously unique as its namesake beef.
And, yes, I had a steak. More on that later.
Kobe is thoroughly cosmopolitan, with a stylishness and worldliness that comes from being one of the first port cities to open to outsiders in the 1850s, after the shogunate ended its centuries-long policy of isolationism. That status continued until the 1995 Great Hanshin earthquake, a 6.9 magnitude monster that killed more than 6,000 people and decimated both downtown Kobe and its lucrative shipping operation. Since then, Kobe’s status as a major international port has waned but the city’s people take unusually great pride in their city—for its resilience, its liberal spirit, and its accolades as an internationally recognized “city of design.”
As such, as one Osaka-based friend semi-helpfully explained, people from Kobe are generally “sophisticated, proud, and don’t consider themselves part of the Kansai region.” (The other Kansai cultures, she amusingly added, are the “chatty and fun-loving” Osakans and “reserved and snobby” Kyotoites).
Among Kobe’s many idiosyncrasies: Most of its population of 1.5 million—about the same as Philadelphia—is crammed into a long, narrow strip of buzzing urbanity wedged between the wilderness of the Rokkō Mountains and the Seto Inland Sea. It’s not unusual to hike or bike along a cliff and waterfall one hour, enjoy the exotic architecture and amusements near Kobe’s waterfront the next, and then get lost in the city’s historic drinking districts where, in typical Japanese fashion, tradition constantly collides with modernity.
And that’s pretty much how I spent my one day in Kobe.
After 45-minute train ride from central Osaka—much to my excitement, riding past Hanshin Koshien Stadium, Japan’s oldest ballpark—I disembarked at Sannomiya in the heart of the city and immediately walked just over half a mile up a steep hill to Kitano-cho, a neighborhood of Western-style homes that served as residences for the merchants and diplomats who settled in town after the port opened up in 1868.
It’s like a real-life Epcot pavilion, a surreal juxtaposition of immaculate, ornate Victorian homes against a backdrop of a very modern Japanese skyline. Naturally, it’s a wildly popular tourist destination, with visitors flocking to check out the well-preserved homes now themed around countries like England, France, Italy, and Austria. I didn’t linger, however, as anything beyond scoping out the exteriors felt too much like a novelty.
My destination on this particular uphill walk was a cable-car lift heading 1,300 feet up the mountain from the heart of downtown Kobe. There are a handful of these ropeways along the ridges of the Rokkō mountain chain, allowing visitors to quickly travel up to parks offering eye-popping views of the city, especially at night.
The most popular of these aerial lifts is the Maya View Line, a combination funicular and ropeway trip up Mount Maya to Tenjō-ji, a Shingon Buddhist temple, and Kikuseidai, an observatory offering an unbelievable panorama of Kobe with Osaka, the Kii Peninsula, and Awaji Island in the distance. The viewpoint is famed throughout Japan as among the canonical “Three Major Night Views of Japan,” aka “the $10 million night view.”
But on this visit, I rode the Kobe Nunobiki Ropeway, which climbs directly over a hiking trail starring the famed Nunobiki waterfall—again, this is mere feet from a city’s downtown—eventually landing at the Nunobiki Herb Garden. The park boasts an impressive collection of 75,000 herbs and flowers, most of which follow along the garden’s winding path descending from the top ropeway station down to a greenhouse full of tropical fruits and greenery, ending at the lowest station.
At that point visitors have three choices: ride back down to the city, hike back to the city (and peep the aforementioned waterfall), or nap on a hammock overlooking the skyline. I chose the latter before a hike that accidentally (on my part) included a winding city road rather than the actual hiking trail, which I rejoined about a mile in, serendipitously just before the famed waterfall.
Once again, all of this is within just a few steps of a major urban center.
Once I reached downtown Kobe again, it was lunchtime. While nearby Osaka, aka “Japan’s Kitchen,” is far more famous for its food scene, Kobe is known—perhaps unsurprisingly, given the number of foreigners who came through its port—for its diverse, highly international offerings: Lots of German chocolatiers, Russian confectionaries, and beloved Burmese, Mongolian, and Indian restaurants.
There’s also one of Japan’s largest Chinatowns, known as Nankin-machi, which is where I ended up, lured by the promise of a steamed pork bun from Rōshōki, the famed vendor dating back to 1915, when it was popular with Chinese sailors. Nowadays, it’s a go-to stop for all, with lines often wrapping around the nearby center square, forming an obstacle course of sorts amid throngs of selfie-stick-wielding tourists stopping to snap pics under the red lanterns. But it is definitely worth it.
South of Chinatown and its adjacent shopping arcades are some of those age-old ports, many of which have been converted to fanciful displays of Kobe’s hyper-modern architecture. On the west side, a bustling shopping and entertainment zone known as Harborland; east of that is the port known as Meriken Park (in Kobe’s internationalist fashion, derived from the word “American”), featuring a giant ferris wheel, a maritime museum, an earthquake memorial, and Kobe Port Tower, the city’s iconic 350-foot-tall observation tower designed to look like a Japanese tsuzumi drum. After dark, with its ever-changing multicolor lights, this park becomes one of Japan’s most recognizable nighttime views.
Further eastward, across the wharf from Meriken in the Shinkōchō district, however, is where I walked to burn off calories before dinner and check out átoa, which I can only describe as the most delightfully bonkers aquarium in the world.
Pitched as part art exhibit, part aquarium, and titled in all lower-case, átoa on paper sounds pretentious. Lord knows this world doesn’t need yet another art pop-up cloaking a glorified selfie factory in buzzwords like “experiential” and “immersive.” Much to my surprise, átoa is actually engaging on both intellectual and sensory levels—so much that I have continued thinking about it every so often, months after visiting.
Yes, there are plenty of quirky lights, mirrors, and eminently selfie-ready displays, but the four-floored museum works hard to instill—for both adults and children—a giddy sense of wonder about marine life and its place in a vast, complicated world.
In one room, large tanks with minimalist interior decor showcase strange animals like the spotted garden eel bobbing and weaving with their heads poking out of the sand; the cylindrical shape of the tank magnifying and warping some of the marine life and the wall art behind them. In another room—themed around wabi-sabi, the acceptance of impermanence in nature—simple vessels like a shallow red bowl with a bamboo fountain house a single goldfish. An installation from famed papercut artist Atsumi Sakai interacts with a light show to simulate a Japanese garden changing through the seasons.
A quarter-pipe overhead tank implores visitors to look up at Asian bony tongues, a river fish normally below your feet. One floor up, in átoa’s rooftop terrace, visitors will discover that capybaras and otters had been hanging out at the top of those opaque waters. I particularly enjoyed a nook with a high-powered microscope and the preserved remains of various sea creatures in resin blocks. Zooming in to view something as simple as a tiny two-inch octopus felt trippy as I discovered a whole world of intricate patterns in its eye and surrounding membranes.
Elsewhere, átoa’s playful engagement with the natural world takes on a cheeky sense of humor: Visitors can stick their nose up to a sculpture of a penguin’s butt to experience the flightless bird’s odors. “Isn’t the back of the creature cute? You can enjoy the smell that you can’t usually smell while looking at its butt,” the display’s English translation proudly read.
The aquarium’s big exhibit, however, is the spherical tank (the largest in Japan) starkly positioned at the center of a dimly lit room, a mythical-looking home for several types of brightly colored coral fish. Alternating between laser-and-mist-heavy effects and near-darkness, a light show plays with the tank to mimic both the vastness of the universe and the deep sea. Of course, the tank is highly Instagrammable, and visitors no doubt spend minutes waiting their turn to get an unobstructed shot standing next to it. But it is gorgeous, so the grumpy spoilsport in me took a break.
After a trip to the rooftop to look at those otters and capybaras and take a few nighttime shots of the shimmering port tower across the way, I made my way back into the center of town for that steak dinner.
As one might expect of the epicenter of high-quality beef, there are almost too many steakhouses offering the finest cuts available. Between spacious upscale establishments and unpretentious joints tucked into cramped corners, you will undoubtedly enjoy one of the best steaks of your life. And so it can be overwhelming to decide without outside tips or an advance plan.
On the advice of my Osakan friend, I made a reservation at Kokubu, a no-frills ten-seat counter on the second floor of a building near Kobe’s central train station. The chef, Nori-san, runs the shop with his nonagenarian mother who originally opened their family restaurant across the bay in the Kagawa prefecture. It’s a cozy spot, almost like sitting in someone’s home kitchen, pots and pans hanging above a crowded countertop with a rice cooker, microwave, and water boiler stacked together in one corner.
Nori showed me an extraordinarily marbled cut of beef—a maze-like swirl of pink and white unlike any cut of meat I’d ever seen at a U.S. butcher—with the official Tajima symbol stamped into its side. This was a cut of Kobe’s pride and joy, an A5 BMS-12, the extremely rare grade signifying the highest possible degree of fat marbling and flavor.
As an appetizer of sorts, he first grills a few veggies—two mushroom caps, a few potato medallions, a shishito pepper, and a crescent slice of white onion—until golden. All items are minimally seasoned, a very Japanese emphasis on the flavor of the produce itself. A bowl of garlic rice, normally prepared by his mother, is also served.
The steak, roughly 4 ounces worth, is then cubed and grilled until seared with a red center left intact. After just one bite, the flavor of a purebred Kobe steak is obviously unlike any beef I’ve had in the states: It’s actually quite mild, subtle yet sumptuous. Despite the high fat content, the meat doesn’t feel oily or greasy on the tongue. Yes, as the cliché goes, it does melt in your mouth. But it doesn’t taste like arteriosclerosis. And most remarkably, it doesn’t sit like a brick in your stomach afterwards.
Of course, that’s all because Japanese food culture almost universally values quality over excess. A larger portion would surely have been expected in the U.S., but here in Kobe it would be decidedly wasteful and distract from the ingredients themselves. I just had the scarcest cut of beef—in fact, the best steak dinner of my life—for roughly $60 and some change.
On the train ride back to Osaka that night, I couldn’t help but giggle as I fondly recalled all the times a younger me had ordered “Kobe beef sliders” at the chain restaurant in my hometown.