Kobe: Discovering football in a beautiful corner of Japan

Experience a blend of cultures, incredible history, breath-taking mega structures and the rise of a super club in this city between the mountains and the sea

Date: Wednesday, August 15th, 2018 
Location: Kobe
Venue: Noevir Stadium Kobe  
Match: Vissel Kobe versus Sanfrecce Hiroshima (J.League 1)

Kobe is a city that draws you in. Slowly at first. A short trundle out of Osaka, through industry and suburbia, emerging between sea and mountains. Superficially pretty, but it’s what’s behind the scenic back drop that captures hearts.

There are stories everywhere you look here. Tales of triumph, of tragedy, of recovery.

And history. A port city that became one of the first in Japan to open up to foreign trade, Kobe hasn’t been averse to outside influence. Welcoming different cultures is in the DNA here, and none more so that at Vissel Kobe.

The city’s football club is graced by some of the best talent from around the world. Players from Brazil, Qatar, South Korea and Thailand regularly turn out at Noevir Stadium Kobe. And that’s not to mention two former World Cup winners: Spain’s Andres Iniesta, formerly of Barcelona, and German forward Lukas Podolski need little introduction.

But what makes this team tick is the blend of Japanese and overseas players. This is what Kobe is all about, and not just in football. Walk around the city and you’ll see traditional culture and architecture sharing space with influences from around the world.

This is Kobe.

Cultural cohabitation

Few places in Kobe exude as much charm as Kitano-cho. And it’s hard to believe it exists when emerging from Sannomiya or Shin-Kobe stations. A short walk away from the railway line bustle of harried commuters and ramen restaurants is a scene from the 19th century.

Nestled up against the foothills of Mount Rokko is this district of former merchant and diplomat residences. Gentling sloping streets lined with quaint cafes, frilly gift shops and windows displaying arrays of tempting chocolates lead away from the reminders of every day life.

Kitano-cho Kobe statue Japan
Looking out over Kobe

Further up the hills, atop winding paths and steep staircases, are signs of cultural cohabitation. From this vantage point, Kobe falls away towards the sea. It looks like any other Japanese city. But amid the trees at the foot of Mount Rokko, traditional architecture nuzzles up against European influence, with temples and churches jostling for space.

Kobe Kitano temple church
A mix of cultures in Kitano-cho

The world of Peter Rabbit

Culture, of course, comes in many forms. Away from the tea shops and eclectic buildings of Kitano-cho, the Rokko Cable Car, a 1930s-inspired railway system, traverses the steep rise from street level to the summit of Mount Rokko.

The train rattles and clanks through gaps in the rugged mountainside, past plunging waterfalls framed by verdant forest. On this cloudy, dank August day, mist forms the higher we rise. Fleeting views of the city and ocean appear through momentary breaks in the haze.

Rokko Cable Car Mount Rokko Kobe Japan
Aboard the Rokko Cable Car on a murky day

It’s cooler at the summit. The wind whips at my summer clothes. Through the murk, 930 metres below, sits Kobe, sprawling out between the mountains and sea.

There are a number of attractions at the top of Mount Rokko, most of which seem to have been plucked from the English countryside. Including the mountaintop bus, plastered with photographs of Peter Rabbit and friends.

And it only becomes more European after boarding the bus. We pass Rokko Country House, botanical gardens and a music box museum before reaching the quintessentially English Rokko Garden Terrace. Which is where the Beatrix Potter-inspired bus starts to make sense.

Peter Rabbit bus Mount Rokko Kobe Japan
All aboard the Peter Rabbit Express

It’s the British Fair at Mount Rokko, the dystopian Britain of Peter Rabbit. His image is everywhere, dotted around the English-style houses of the garden. And his friends, too, and books, and merchandise to buy.

Peter Rabbit book Mount Rokko Kobe Japan
It’s Peter Rabbit’s world and we just live in it

But the only part of the experience that feels authentically British is the weather. Gusts of fine spray blow across the exposed site, damping everything and everyone with a light but insistent drizzle. It’s an eerie scene, and one that feels like a gentle nudge to keep moving.

So I head back down the mountain to street level, to discover that not everything in Kobe is influenced by European culture.

Rokko Garden Terrace Mount Rokko Kobe Japan
A typically British day at Rokko Garden Terrace

A taste of Asia

Less than an hour after shivering in the blustery, hazy rain atop Mount Rokko, I’m back in the humid sweatbox of the city. Eating a peking duck pancake.

Nankinmachi is Kobe’s compact Chinatown in the heart of the city. It developed after Chinese merchants settled here during the 19th century, with the area conveniently located for the port. Today it’s a tourist trap, albeit a colourful one.

Lovers of Chinese food will be in their element here, with stalls and restaurants churning out delicious dumplings, to be washed down with teas and tapioca drinks. The bright red lanterns and gates make it an atmospheric place as the sun begins to set, and the central plaza with stone statues and an ornate gazebo adds to the setting.

It’s easy to get the impression that Kobe is all about outside culture. But in the same way that Vissel Kobe aren’t just about Iniesta and Podolksi, the city and surrounding area isn’t solely defined by influence from overseas. On the doorstep of Kobe, a short 30-minute train ride away, is a stunning example of this.

Heading to Himeji

The weather has turned again as I board the train heading out of Kobe to the west. Threatening clouds are rolling in from the mountains, and within a matter of minutes rain is streaming down the carriage windows in rivers.

Through a watery blur I see beachgoers fleeing for cover, workers buzzing around industrial yards and commuters huddling for shelter from the driving rain under platform roofs.

As the weather begins to brighten up, the view starts to clear. There are fewer houses, the mountains receding into rocky islands poking out above the trees. And as the train slows down on the approach to Himeji Station, fleeting glimpses of the city’s star attraction can be caught through gaps in the buildings.

Himeji Castle dates back to 1333 and is a sprawling complex of 83 intricately-designed buildings. It’s known as White Heron Castle due to its beautiful colour and said resemblance to a bird in flight. It’s also huge – Japan’s biggest castle – and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

This is all makes Himeji Castle extremely popular. And today is no exception. Thousands of people have descended on the city and the fortress.

The weather has also changed again. It’s an oppressive day under a heavy grey sky, the rain has stopped and the humidity has risen. It’s hot and sweaty as I join the crowds entering the castle.

Himeji Castle Hyogo Prefecture Japan
On the approach to Himeji Castle

It’s a maze leading through the castle grounds to the entrance, along weaving paths between giant stone walls, up and down slopes and staircases.

And inside is a world of dark wood and musty air. Some of the floors have no windows. It’s shadowy and atmospheric.

Steep, slippery wooden stairs lead through the levels, all the way to the sixth floor, with views through narrow windows of the castle grounds and city crawling out to the surrounding mountains.

It’s easy to lose hours here, soaking up the historical atmosphere, wandering around the sprawling grounds. But it’s time to move on, because on the way back to Kobe, another stunning structure awaits. This one a modern marvel.

A bridge to the future

If, like me, you’re not in the know, the first sight of Akashi Kaikyo Bridge will be a shock. It looms into view from the train between Kobe and Himeji, fleetingly at first, snatched glances through breaks in the buildings. And then you see it in all its glory and it takes your breath away.

Akashi Kaikyo Bridge Hyogo Kobe Akashi Straight Awaji Island Japan
The stunning Akashi Kaikyo Bridge
Akashi Kaikyo Bridge Kobe Hyogo Prefecture Awaji Island suspension bridge Japan
Akashi Kaikyo Bridge Kobe Hyogo Prefecture Awaji Island Akashi Straight Suspension bridge Japan

This is the world’s longest suspension bridge and connects Kobe with Awaji Island. It’s 2.4 miles (3.8km) long and 928ft (282.8m) high. It’s a stunning piece of modern engineering, crossing the busy Akashi Straight, high above the dangerous currents that have claimed lives.

Ride the lift to the Maiko Marine Promenade and you can look down on the water from high up inside the bridge structure. On a clear day, if you look down the coast towards Kobe, you’ll see another important modern structure of the city: Noevir Stadium Kobe.

And kick off is approaching.

Star showing

This is my 16th game of the season. I’ve sat in the snow at Kofu, sweated through a sweltering afternoon watching FC Tokyo U23s and been soaked to the skin at Matsumoto.

But this is the first time I’ve seen queues winding around the stadium, a full two hours before kick off. Tonight is a sell out. And there’s one big reason for that.

Andres Iniesta is pure box office. It’s been less than a month since he joined the club after leaving Barcelona and his photograph adorns signs all around the ground, on the big screen and advertising the newly-opened Iniesta Bar, where you can enjoy Spanish food and wine.

His photograph is also on the plastic fan handed to me as I enter the stadium. And it’s much needed. It’s hot and sticky in this corner of Japan, and with rain falling, the stadium roof is closed. The air is stuffy and there’s no breeze inside. It’s going to be a gruelling night for the players.

Vissel Kobe Andres Iniesta fan Noevir Stadium Kobe J.League J-League Japanese football
A much needed plastic fan, featuring Andres Iniesta, of course

Tonight’s visitors are league leaders Sanfrecce Hiroshima. Their purple-shirted fans have packed out the away end and are already making a lot of noise.

Not to be out-done, the Vissel fans step up their chants and work through their repertoire of songs, waving their flags. And they save an extra big cheer for when the players emerge for the warm up.

Noevir Stadium Kobe Vissel Kobe J.League 1 Japanese football stadium
Vissel Kobe fans greet the players for the warm up

As kick off approaches, there are no spare seats. The shouts from the fans echo around the stadium, trapped by the roof. It’s a heavy feeling in the still air. The tension ramping up.

And then we’re underway. It’s a steady start, the players pacing themselves ahead of a long slog on an airless, stifling night.

That is until the 15th minute. A long ball over the top is chased down by Sanfrecce target man Patric. Panic ensues. Theerathon gets a foot on it but only succeeds in knocking the ball goalwards, allowing Patric to prod home. It’s not pretty, but they all count.

The lead only lasts two minutes, though. And the equaliser is a little bit special. A Lukas Podolski clipped pass finds Iniesta on the left of the box. He toys with Hayao Kawabe before leaving him facing the wrong way and heading to another prefecture. Yuki Nogami presents a momentary road block, but again Iniesta finds the space, before rifling in a right-footed shot into the top left-hand corner.

It’s hard to top that. And the rest of the game drifts by without incident. Flags flutter and plastic fans rattle in clammy hands. The roof is opened for the second half, bringing slight relief from the oppressive conditions.

Noevir Stadium Kobe Vissel Kobe J League Japanese football stadium
Breathing in the fresh air with the roof open

Full time comes, the game ends 1-1. But after the final whistle the majority of the fans stay back to applaud the players. Spanish flags for Iniesta, German flags for Podolski and a whole host of other homemade banners are waved with passion after an entertaining clash between two of this season’s best teams.

Noevir Stadium Kobe Vissel Kobe J League Japanese football stadium
Farewell to Noevir Stadium Kobe

Time to think

On my final night in Kobe, I find myself at Meriken Park. The name comes from the word used for American during the Meiji Period, when Kobe became one of the first ports in Japan to accept foreign trade.

Today this seafront space is home to the iconic Kobe Port Tower and striking Maritime Museum, both beautifully lit at night. The colourful lighting flickers on the surface of the water gentling lapping at the edges of the park.

Kobe Port Tower Maritime Museum Meriken Park Kobe
Kobe Port Tower and the Maritime Museum lit up in Meriken Park

This is a city that has wonderfully merged cultures from around the world with Japanese tradition. It feels unique, with so much to discover. A three-day trip feels like just scratching the surface.

And the same can be said of watching Vissel Kobe in action. The signing of Iniesta has stolen all the headlines, but this is a team featuring stars from other nations, not to mention the Japanese players, including some of the best young talent around.

But like everything in this city, Vissel are just finding a way to blend different influences for the best possible results. It’s still early days, but it’s sure to be an exciting ride, and the culmination of the project will surely be worth seeing.

You’ve read the post, now watch the video. Take a tour of Kobe and soak up the match night experience for a Vissel game under the roof of Noevir Stadium.

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