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Stop At: Himeji Castle, 68 Hommachi, Himeji 670-0012 Hyogo Prefecture
Himeji Castle (Himejijō), also known as White Heron Castle (Shirasagijo) due to its elegant, white appearance, is widely considered as Japan's most spectacular castle for its imposing size and beauty and its well preserved, complex castle grounds. The castle is both a national treasure and a world heritage site. Unlike many other Japanese castles, it was never destroyed by war, earthquake or fire and survives to this day as one of the country's twelve original castles. The castle recently underwent extensive renovation over several years and was fully re-opened to the public in March 2015.
Himeji Castle lies at a strategic point along the western approach to the former capital city of Kyoto. The first fortifications built on the site were completed in the 1400s, and were gradually enlarged over the centuries by the various clans who ruled over the region. The castle complex as it survives today is over 400 years old and was completed in 1609. It is made up of over eighty buildings spread across multiple baileys, which are connected by a series of gates and winding paths.
Most visitors to Himeji Castle enter the castle via the Otemon Gate into the admission-free third bailey (Sannomaru). The Sannomaru contains of a large, cherry tree lined lawn, and is a popular spot for taking photos of the castle and for viewing cherry blossoms. A ticket booth can be found at the far end of the bailey, where the Hishi Gate marks the entrance to the paid area.
The labyrinth-like approach from the Hishi Gate to the main keep leads along walled paths and through multiple gates and baileys with the purpose to slow down and expose attacking forces. At the heart of the complex stands the main keep, a six story wooden structure. It is one of only a handful castle keeps in Japan that feature wing buildings, adding complexity to its appearance.Visitors enter the main keep through an entrance in the lower floor of the building and climb upwards via a series of steep, narrow staircases. Each level gets progressively smaller as you ascend. The floors are generally unfurnished and display just a few multilingual signs explaining architectural features such as portholes, rock chutes and concealed spaces as well as renovation efforts made over the years to preserve the structure.
The topmost floor houses a small shrine and lets visitors peer out in all directions, down over the castle roofs, at the maze-like defenses below and out across the city of Himeji. You can also admire an up close view of the fish-shaped roof ornaments that are believed to protect from fire.
After exiting the keep, visitors can make their way back to the Hishi Gate. Before leaving the paid grounds, they have the option to explore one additional bailey, the west bailey (Nishinomaru) which served as the residence of a princess and provides views of the main keep from a different perspective. A long building with an enclosed corridor and multiple unfurnished rooms survives along the bailey's walls and can be entered by visitors.
Himeji Castle is also a highly popular cherry blossom spot during the short and crowded blooming season which usually falls in early April. On busy days, such as during the cherry blossom season, Golden Week and the summer holidays, visitors may encounter considerable waiting times for entering the interior of the main keep. The number of visitors allowed to enter the main keep may be limited by the use of numbered tickets.
Duration: 2 hours
Stop At: Kobe Harborland, 1Chome Higashi Kawasakicho, Chuo, Kobe 650-0044 Hyogo Prefecture
Kobe Harborland is a shopping and entertainment district between JR Kobe Station and the waterfront of Kobe's port area. The district offers a large selection of shops, restaurants, cafes and other amusements, which, together with the romantic evening atmosphere, have made it a popular spot for couples and tourists alike. The most prominent shopping complex in Kobe Harborland is Umie which consists of three parts: Mosaic, South Mall and North Mall.
Mosaic stretches along the waterfront and offers a wide selection of restaurants. Many of the eateries overlook the harbor with views of Kobe Port Tower and the Kobe Maritime Museum across the water, which are especially nice in the evenings when they are illuminated. At the southern end of Mosaic stand a Ferris wheel and the Anpanman Museum, a museum dedicated to the popular manga and anime series about the bread-headed superhero. The South Mall and North Mall are enclosed shopping malls featuring a department store and more various smaller shops.
More shopping and dining opportunities are found in many of the district's other buildings, which are connected with each other by a series of underground and surface walking paths, promenades and a waterfront boardwalk. One of the main streets that leads through the center of Kobe Harborland, the Gaslight Street, is lit up in the evenings by old-fashioned gas street lamps and electric lights.
Other attractions in the district include the Renga Soko, a small collection of 19th-century brick warehouses which remain from a former dockyard that used to cover the waterfront. The low brick buildings have been renovated and are now occupied by a restaurant, shops and an event space. In addition, a Manyo Club hot spring is located on the top floors of the district's Puromena skyscaper. The 24 hour facility offers nice views over the city from some of its baths.
Duration: 1 hour
Stop At: Kobe Nunobiki Herb Gardens, 1-4-3 Kitanocho, Chuo, Kobe 650-0002 Hyogo Prefecture
Shin-Kobe Ropeway is one of three services that lifts tourists up the southern slopes of the Rokko mountain chain. The ropeway departs from next to Shin-Kobe Station, Kobe's shinkansen station. As it ascends, it passes by the Nunobiki Waterfall and the Nunobiki Herb Garden, giving a nice aerial view of both. The highlight of the ride lies in the observation deck located just beside the top station, which offers spectacular views of Kobe and is a popular night view spot.
An alternative way to get to the top station is via a hiking trail from Shin-Kobe Station. It is somewhat surprising that only a few steps north of the station are forests shielded from the rumbles of the city. A 15-20 minute climb through the woods takes you to the 43 meter tall Nunobiki Waterfall, whose name comes from its draped cloth-like appearance. Five minutes east from here is the Miharashi Observatory, which offers decent views of the city.
A further 20 minute scale up the mountain takes you to the middle station of Shin-Kobe Ropeway and the lower entrance of Nunobiki Herb Garden, one of Japan's largest herb gardens with hundreds of herb species and seasonal flowers. A glasshouse in the garden makes growing flowers and fruits such as guavas and papayas possible throughout the year.
At the upper entrance of the garden is the top station of Shin-Kobe Ropeway. Here, in addition to the observation deck, is a rest house with a cafe, restaurant and souvenir shop which sells many herbal and aromatic products. There is also a "Rose Symphony Garden", where visitors can enjoy viewing different varieties of roses during their blooming seasons while listening to music.
For hikers who would rather skip the garden, the top station and observation deck can be hiked to following a 30 minute trail that bypasses the garden on its east. After reaching the ropeway's top station, the same trail continues on to Mount Maya, one of the peaks of the Rokko mountain chain.
Duration: 1 hour 30 minutes
Stop At: Kitano-cho, 1 to 4 Chome, Chuo, Kobe 650-0002 Hyogo Prefecture
Kitano-cho is a city district at the foot of the Rokko mountain range where many foreign merchants and diplomats settled after the Port of Kobe was opened to foreign trade in the second half of the 19th century. More than a dozen of the former mansions, known as Ijinkan, remain in the area and are open to the public as museums.
Most of the houses charge an admission fee between 550 to 750 yen, while combination tickets are available to see multiple houses. The entire district is pleasant to walk through and offers a variety of cafes, restaurants and boutiques, making it a favorite among young Japanese couples.
Duration: 1 hour
Stop At: Chinatown (Nankinmachi), Chuo, Kobe Hyogo Prefecture
Nankinmachi is a compact Chinatown in central Kobe and a center of the Chinese community in the Kansai Region. The area was developed by Chinese merchants who settled near Kobe Port after the port was opened to foreign trade in 1868. As the Chinatown developed, it became known as Nankinmachi after Nanjing, the former Chinese capital.
Nankinmachi is a popular tourist attraction and shopping and dining district. Two main streets run through the district, meeting each other at a small plaza in the center. They are packed with shops, restaurants and food stands that sell popular items such as steamed buns (manju), ramen, tapioca drinks and various other Chinese dishes, many of which have been Japanized to a certain degree.
Duration: 1 hour
Stop At: Arima Onsen, Arimacho, Kita-ku, Kita, Kobe 651-1401 Hyogo Prefecture
Arima Onsen is a famous hot spring town within the city limits of Kobe, but on the opposite side of Mount Rokko from the city center. The town lies in a natural mountain setting, yet is close enough for Kobe and Osaka residents as an easy and popular day trip or weekend getaway.
Although Arima Onsen has a modern look today and is pretty built up, one can still find several narrow lanes and wooden buildings when strolling around the center of town. Due to its compact size, the small town can be explored entirely on foot, and there are several hot spring sources, nice temples and shrines and a small hot spring museum (200 yen) to be discovered.
With a history of over one thousand years, Arima Onsen is considered one of Japan's oldest hot spring resorts and has often stood at or near the top of onsen rankings for Western Japan. The town has two types of hot spring waters which spring up at various sources around town: the Kinsen ("gold water") is colored brown with iron deposits and is said to be good for skin ailments and muscle pain, while the clear Ginsen ("silver water") contains radium and carbonate and is said to cure various muscle and joint ailments.
Visitors to Arima Onsen can enjoy hot spring bathing at two public bath houses or at the town's many ryokan. Several ryokan open their baths also to non-staying visitors during the day. The admission fee for a daytrip visit to a bath typically ranges between 500 and 2500 yen.
Duration: 2 hours