Friday, April 04, 2014

Kobe: Ijinkan and Kitano District

After a long period of seclusion, when Japan opened up for trade with the outside world in the Meiji period, Kobe was one of the first ports to be opened up. This meant a large inflow of foreign merchants and diplomats to this port city, who set up their own neighborhoods and settled down. Along with Nagasaki and Yokohama, Kobe had one of the largest expatriate communities in the late 19th and early 20th century. 

While the Chinese merchants set up the Nankinmachi near the port, The European merchants and diplomats settled down at the foot of the Rokko mountain range. This historical district, known as Kitano-cho is now one of the most visited tourist attractions. The entire district with its Western style buildings is pleasant to walk through and it has an European feel to it. These former residences and former consulates are collectively known as "Ijinkan", which in Japanese means foreign residence. There used to be some 1000 houses of which about 30 now remain. A few of these well preserved houses are still serving as residences, most of these have been converted into museums, coffee shops or boutiques.

Visitors can tour most of these houses for an admission fee, which varies for each facility. Combined tickets for multiple houses are also available. Even if one doesn't wish to tour the houses from the inside, walking around the area is a good experience.

The most popular of the Ijinkan is the Weathercock House,known as Kazamidori no Yakata in Japanese.
This house was the residence of Gottfried Thomas, a German trader in the early 20th century.
Its weather cock is now a symbol of the entire Ijinkan district. Its popularity grew especially after it was featured in a NHK drama in 1977 which led to it being designated as an Important Cultural Property.  


Close by is the Moegi House, which served as the the residence of Hunter Sharp, former Consul General of US in late 19th-early 20th century.
 Its distinctive name comes from its light green colour- Moegi means light green sprouts in Japanese.

The open space outside the Moegi House and Weathercock House is a good place to relax. 
Statues of musicians are placed at various places. 

The Tourist Information Centre has lots of maps and brochures and friendly staff.    

Walking past the Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, a short uphill walk leads visitors to the Kaori-no-Ie Orandakan, which translates to the House of Perfume-Dutch house. 
It gets its name partly from having served as the residence of the Dutch Consul General in the past and partly from being converted into a gift shop selling fragrances, soaps etc. A part of the house is now a museum of Dutch furniture and household goods used during the time it served as the Consul General's residence.
The Austrian House is a reproduction of Mozart's House in Salzburg and is sponsored by the Austrian Embassy.
Statues of Mozart, relics and artifacts from the time he lived in and a piano are showcased inside. 
The Danish Embassy sponsored Denmark House is built around the Viking theme and also features the works of the famous storyteller Hans Christian Andersen. 

Another popular Ijinkan is the Uroko-no-Ie, which gets its name from its distinctive tiled exterior, (Uroko is Japanese for scales). 
This impressive house was a former luxury rental property foreign traders and merchants.  

Down the road are the Chinese Consulate, Italian Consulate and the Kitano Foreigner's Association buildings.

The Rhine House is next door.

The England House  built in 1907 is a museum showcasing Victorian style furniture and household items. 
A part of the house also showcases Sherlock Holmes memorabilia and a replica of Sherlock Holmes home. 

Yokan Nagaya (France House) is nearby. French furniture and artworks are showcased here. 
Ben's House was the residence of an Englishman, Ben Allison who was an avid traveller and hunter. 

Collections from his travels and hunting trips are showcased inside the house.

Across the road is the former Panama Consulate. 

Parastain House was the former residence of a Russian merchant.
 It has been converted into a cafe and restaurant. 

A former Ijinkan, Kitano Monogatari Kan was converted to the Kitanozaka Starbucks in 1997.
This 2 story wooden house was built in  Kitano 1-chome in 1907 and served as the residence of an American M J Shay, followed by a German Baker and later on it was donated to the City of Kobe. It was damaged severely in the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995. It had to be torn down and it was reconstructed at its current location in Kitano 3-chome in 2001. It was finally converted into a Starbucks store in 2009. Perhaps it is Starbucks most historical store in Japan ! 
This is one Starbucks which doesn't feel like a regular coffee shop. You feel like you are sipping coffee in some 19th century home. 
Visitors can chose from a variety of rooms to sip their coffee in.
The wooden framed glass windows, library, balcony, fireplace, all add to its charm.

The wooden exteriors have been painted in Starbucks trademark White and Green colours.

Nestled between the Western style homes is the Kitano Tenman shrine. 
A steep stairway leads one up to the shrine building.
The shrine is one of Kobe's major Shinto shrines. The Shrine is popular especially among young couples since this shrine is supposed to bestow good fortune in love and relationships. Two bull statues and a fish water fountain in the shrine complex.

The shrine precincts also offer a good view of the Ijinkan houses and the Harbor and Kobe skyline in the distance.     
Few other Ijinkan are still privately owned and open only for special occasions and events, like the Choueke House. 

Few Ijinkan have been converted into coffee shops or restaurants.

Kitano district is a 10 minute uphill walk from the Sannomiya station. The Shin Kobe station is also within 10 minutes walking distance.The City loop Bus also passes by the Ijinkan district. 


  1. Hi,
    I was doing survey on the Ijinkan, and i came across your article which covers most of the buildings!
    There's one thing which i'm worrying, is there many slope above after reaching Ijinkan? I'm planning to take bus up there, after getting out of the bus, do i still need to walk along steep slope? I'll be going with parents, so kinda worried..

    Thank you.

    1. Hi, Yes, there are couple of steep slopes in the Ijinkan area after you get off the bus, especially to access the Weatherfield house, Denmark House, Kaori no Orandakan etc. But walking is the only option ! The streets are too narrow for even cabs. Hope this helps.