Sake Yasiro is a small bar in the Sannomiya District of Kobe city, where dinner reservations are a must. However, if you arrive in the afternoon, they may be able to assign a table with a time limit so you can check out all the sakes in the display case and order your favourite otokozake, literally ‘man’s sake”. While only a descriptive term, otokozake is the pride of Kobe’s famous Nada sake brewing district, one of Japan’s major sake production areas. This is where mineral rich “miyamizu’ or mountain water co-mingles with the cold winds from the Rokko Mountains and then, when combined with Yamada Nishiki, a high quality sake rice, the result is the crisp, dry flavor that is the hallmark of Kobe sakes.
For the record, the sakes from Kyoto, about a 75 minute train ride away, are referred to as onnazake or ‘female sakes’, based on their wonderful mellow, fruity quality. While most people associate Kobe with the famous marbled beef that bears its name, a visit to this engaging city reveals so much more. It’s a blend of intriguing flavours that take in many of the special interests that travellers rank high on their menu of ‘must-dos’ : culinary (food, drink), history, crafts, culture, as well as an impressive array of visual treats.
Our flavourful adventure began as soon as we finished checking into the Tokyu Rei, a very comfortable business hotel in Kobe’s Motomachi area, known not only as the core of the shopping district but also as the home of China Town. We met Ms. Kei Matsuura from the City of Kobe who would show us around for two days, hopped on a local train and travelled five stops to the Nada ‘sake’ district, with the Rokko Mountains to the north and the Bay of Osaka to the south.
The Kobe Shu-Shin-Kan sake brewery includes the ultra-popular restaurant, Sakabayashi with a menu of taste bud treats that include crab meat with tofu, local-grown Hyogo Prefecture vegetables, yellowtail fish (sashimi, grilled and teriyaki style), minced chicken in broth with enoki mushrooms and leeks, plum flavoured rice, and “sake lees”, a yeast paste left over from the production of sake, mixed with salmon and mushroom. As an after-lunch treat we toured the brewery to better understand the secrets of the brewing process and take advantage of the opportunity to sample the product. And for those looking for some historical insight into the importance of sake to the region, the nearby Sawa-no-Tsuru Brewery Museum takes you back in time, 200 years, to see huge wooden vats, models of the ships used to export sake, display cases of good luck sake gods and even some early sake advertising posters .
The link that took us back to the future was provided by a visit to the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge, about a 30 minute taxi ride away. The suspension bridge, which boasts the longest central span in the world, crosses the busy Akashi Strait (Akashi Kaiykyo) to link Kobe with the city of Iwaya on Awaji Island. The Exhibition Centre tells the story of the bridge construction as well as demonstrates the hinged girder system that allows the structure to withstand high winds, strong sea currents and earthquakes.
For those who want to see the bridge up close and personal, the impressive walk on the Maiko Marine Promenade, 50 meters above the water is fascinating. In the evening, many visitors seek out the “10 Million Dollar Night View” by taking the ropeway to Kikuseidai (literally “the hill where one can scoop a handful of stars”) for breathtaking views of the Milky Way above, and Kobe’s city lights below.
On our second day we toured the Takenaka Carpentry Museum, an architectural masterpiece that features an excellent photo exhibit on the main floor and, after a descent down a staircase hewn from one single Oak tree, we discovered a perfectly laid out display of carpentry tools, a full size tea house and historical treasures. According to Museum Director and building architect Kenzo Akao, the museum is based on the theme of the five senses: Seeing, Listening, Touching, Smelling and Inspiration. For those who never really thought about carpentry, this is a definite inspiring ‘must-see’.
And as a special bonus on weekends, the museum conducts carpentry workshops and it was here that we made chopsticks! We started with two squared sticks of cypress wood and after planing and sanding them for 30 minutes, we ended up with a tapered, matching pair of eating utensils. The ultimate test was to pick up a glass marble with the chopsticks, and I’m pleased to report that we passed! Down the street we hopped on the City Loop Bus which visits all the major attractions, and disembarked at Kitano-cho, a district at the foot of the Rokko Mountains where foreign merchants and diplomats settled after the Port of Kobe was opened to outside trade in 1868.
The area rates as one of Kobe’s top draws and includes great views of the port as well as buskers, street artists, souvenir and coffee shops that mingle with the 34 historic Western style houses. A tour of Kaza-mi-Dori (the Weathercock House) named after the iconic weather vane on the roof and built by the German trader Gottfried Thomas in 1909, provided fascinating insight into the lives of the merchants.
And then it was time to experience perhaps the ultimate flavor of Kobe, the famous beef. We sat around the grill in Wakkoku, one of the Kobe’s top restaurants, with owner Masato Shinno as our culinary guide. Shinno-san explained that the popular term ‘Wagyu Beef’ refers to any kind of Japanese Beef. The more marbled meat is referred to as Tajima Beef and the very specialized marbled meat is Kobe Beef. In fact there are only 3700 head of Kobe beef cattle in the world, with 80-90 of them in Canada and the United States.
“Shimofuri” refers to fat marbling and results in tender meat fibres, rich in oleic acids that, alongside lineage, determine the quality, taste and flavor of the beef. And then the chef, Shimete-san, began to prepare lunch in front of us. He carefully cut, trimmed and grilled the meat, which is served in small portions a little at a time, with ‘condiments’ on the side: salt from Hyogo prefecture, black pepper, home-made mustard and garlic from Aomori. The meat was complemented with dishes of fragrant potato soup, beansprouts, eggplant, tofu, potato, lotus root, green pepper and Konnyaku, a delicate potato jelly.
And each and every bite required us to lay down our chopsticks to reflect and absorb the “umami”: the delicious, savory, taste of the food. We were nearing a state of total culinary bliss. Our host, Masato Shinno explained that the Kanji (or Japanese character) for his name means “the god of agriculture” and that it was very similar to the Kanji for “Kobe”, which means ‘the door of the god”. Perhaps that’s why we thought of the meal in terms of a heavenly experience!
Our visit to Wakkoku was a fitting finale to our stay but there are activities to experience on our next trip including Harborland, the large shopping and entertainment complex on the water, the Shin-Kobe Ropeway with access to hiking trails, the Nunobiki Falls and Herb Garden, the morning Eastern Market, and further exploration of the Izakayas in the Sannomya and Moto Machi districts. Kobe is a city where so many flavours converge, from Nada sake to Kobe beef; from the magnificent achievement of the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge to the extremely impressive Takenaka Carpentry Museum; from the Kitano-cho District of Western Houses to the mountain tops that allow visitors to mingle with the stars. It’s a truly tasteful city that should be included in any Japan itinerary.