Kobe is one of Japan's most important international trading centers, the other being Yokohama to the east. The Rokko Mountains shelter Kobe from the north winds, and Osaka Bay lies to the south, leaving just a narrow east-west stretch of land for the city to expand on.
To many Japanese, the word Kobe conjures up the image of an exotic port city. Trade with China brought prosperity here more than 1,000 years ago, when the settlement was called Hyogo. But the port was closed to international trade before the middle of the 17th century, and Japan's policy of national seclusion lasted for over 200 years. Kobe's transformation into a modern international port began after the ban on foreign trade was lifted in the 1860s. Different cultural influences came in, and Kobe soon had an exotic, Western atmosphere.
The culture of the 19th-century West is still evident in the Kitano district, where about 50 ijin-kan (foreigners' mansions) remain to this day. They were all built between the time the port opened and the early 20th century, and about 20 of them are open to the public. In the early days, non-Japanese were required to live in the foreign quarter near the port, but housing projects there were delayed and they soon received permission to live in Kitano. One of the most interesting of these mansions, called Kazamidori-no-yakata, was designed by a German architect. Its name comes from the fact that its turret has a weathervane shaped like a rooster (kazamidori). The house has a dignified air, and has been designated an Important Cultural Property by the government.
When you walk downhill from Kitano toward the port, you can almost sense the presence of foreign traders and others who lived here over the years. You'll see, in addition to the foreigners' mansions, a number of religious buildingsChristian churches, of course, but also a Jewish synagogue and a Jain temple, rare sights in Japan. The Kobe Mosque, an impressive building, stands out from the surrounding buildings. If you take a street a little to the west you'll come to the brightly colored Kanteibyo Temple, which venerates the Chinese general, Guan Yu. Today, Kobe is home to people from more than 100 countries.
If you take the Meriken Road from Motomachi Station (JR), you'll soon come to Chinatown on your right. This district, called Nanking-machi, has almost 100 Chinese restaurants and variety stores lined up side by side, all advertising their presence with colorful signs. The workers, and the aroma of delicious food, invite you inside. You'll see people eating in restaurants and munching on something while strolling. The area originally set aside for foreign residences is located on the eastern side of Nanking-machi, on the other side of Meriken Road. Their trading houses were here years ago.