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See the lights of Kobe in southern Japan for a look at a more cosmopolitan side to this truly unique country. Kobe manages to unite native and European influences, making this city a fascinating mixed bag and a must-see destination when you're visiting Japan.
For two centuries, Japan closed its doors to foreign trade and influence; a decree of the Tokugawa Shogunate. When this foreign policy was lifted in the mid 19th century, Kobe reclaimed its place as a major trade port and became one of the first cities in Japan to open trade routes with the West – giving it an enduring reputation across the country as the place for all things fashionable and exotic.
Kobe's multicultural heritage offers visitors a wealth of cultural attractions, amongst which you'll find Kobe City Museum, Kobe Jazz Street festival, the city's Musuem of Literature and the Fashion Museum, as well as the Kobe Collection during the city's Fashion Week. The city is also home to the country's first mosque and golf club as well as natural hot springs, and the attractions don't stop there:
This fascinating district is home to many European-style houses, looking delightfully odd surrounded by the typically Japanese city and the mountains beyond. The residences were built in the late 19th century by prominent foreign traders, travellers and diplomats who came to live in the city once it opened its doors, and many are now open to the public as museums. The varied styles of architecture and interior design make for a popular sight with foreign and Japanese tourists alike, and include typically English, French, Italian and Chinese stately homes.
Millions of people come to see Kobe's winter Luminarie festival each year, where more than 200,000 lights turn the streets into a cathedral of illuminations. The hand-painted lights shine for a fortnight to honour the victims of the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995, and stand for renewed hope and recovery; commemorating the power cuts that followed the terrible earthquake, where many had to grieve for their losses in total darkness. Initially the luminarie was supposed to take place just once, but its popularity led to its development as an annual festival.
The magnificent gabled architecture of Himeji Castle is a prime example of the beautiful building traditions of feudal Japan. Visitors to the fortress are able to walk in beautifully-kept gardens that surround the castle, and can take in the unique sights of the wooden bridges, still waterways, cherry blossom trees and square stonework that run throughout the grounds. Look out for the curved tiles that peak the corners of the castle's various roofs: the oni -gawara (ogre tiles) are meant to protect the castle from evil, while the shachi-gawara (fish-god tiles) on the uppermost roof exist to ward off the threat of fire.
Kobe is something of a shopper's paradise, where boutiques and shopping centres can be found all over the city. Take some time to browse the city's expansive Sannomiya arcade for a wealth of fashion stores, but be on the lookout for souvenir shops and bookshops too – including titles in English.
As the multicultural heart of Japan, it's no surprise that dining in Kobe doesn't just offer the native fare. Expect to find a uniquely Japanese twist on cuisines from all over the world; ranging from Brazilian, French and Italian food to Indian, Vietnamese and Thai – although there's still plenty of choice if you'd prefer to dine on modern and traditional Japanese eats.
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