Kobe Cosmopolis


You won’t find many rice fields in Kobe, a narrow strip of sea-facing land that was long ago requisitioned for modeling as a port, with all the adjuncts of quays, customs houses, stone esplanades, and warehouses that the word conjures up.

Kobe’s pre-foreign-settlement period is patchy. Korean emissaries knew the bay as Muko, Sung Chinese traders as Ogawa; the puppet emperor Antoku briefly moved the capital here from Kyoto. Its Spartan tidal flats did have a few rustic shrines, which were collectively known as Kan-be, or Ko-be, ‘God’s Door.’ Western captains elected to make Kobe a working port in 1868 as sounding surveys revealed that it had good land access and deep water.

The new lifestyles that came with the expansion of the foreign community here were evident as early as 1871, when soccer and beef first appeared in the city. The first film was shown in the port in 1896, and Japan’s first golf course was laid out by a British designer in 1903.

Kobe’s well-to-do foreign families chose the green pine covered hillside at the foot of Kitano Tenmangu shrine as their preferred residential zone. Among the foreign specialists who descended on Kobe was the British architect Alexander Nelson Hansell, who arrived in 1890 and spent 30 years in the city designing and building the resplendent houses, many of which still stand on the verdant slopes of Kitano.

The houses, built mostly for prosperous traders and missionaries, are quite eclectic in style, reflecting the tastes of their owners and Hansell’s declared aim not to repeat himself. Persia House has decorated pediments in arabesques shaped from plastered wattle and daub; Hunter House is built from the best imported Southeast Asian hard woods; Weathercock House, completed in 1915, has domes that have been carved into cupola minarets. Other houses pay homage to Georgian, Moorish, Queen Anne, timbered Victorian and North American clapboard styles, while polygonal domes, columned porches, green wooden shutters and carved gables hint at a lifestyle far removed from Kobe’s dockside life of coolies and stevedores.

Many of these homes were lovingly restored after the Great Hanshin Earthquake, which struck the city in 1995, causing immense loss of life but also vast damage and destruction to private property. Although the psychological damage is inestimable and the city’s economy continues to suffer, the casual visitor to the city is unlikely to see any physical signs of the tragedy. Kobe is, in fact, a model of Japanese resilience and the ability to bounce back.

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