Emerging from the dim recesses of Sannomiya Station, I’m washed with port city air, lightly salt-scented with an undertone of soy sauce. Kobe, in the southwest of Honshu, Japan’s main island, opens up before me like a dream of what a city of the future might be. No one here does anything so mundane as to walk on the ground. Instead the city centre is elevated, its citizens levitated. They promenade along a series of interlocking pedestrian bridges and ramps, an intricate web swooping up to gleaming department stores like Marui, Sogo and Loft. Skyscrapers forsake right angles in favour of curving glass curtain walls, while vast LED screens splash waves of colour that echo the harbour, all standing in stark contrast to thickly forested Mount Rokko in the background. On Flower Road, with its borders of sweet-smelling blooms, I pass a gigantic flower clock; it’s a quarter past azalea, Japanese standard time.
I’ve been to Kobe before, but not to this Kobe. In 1994, the downtown core was disorganized and drab, a shopworn hodgepodge of buildings thrown up in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. I stayed in a bleak concrete-and-glass hotel on the waterfront, which back then was dark and desolate at night. Not anymore. The shiny waterfront alone appears to confirm the rumour that brought me back here – that Kobe has become Japan’s capital of style. As I stroll along the 16-kilometre Kobe Bay, it becomes clear the city is ready for its glamorous long shot, its colours brighter and its shadows more sharply cut than ever. Kobe is a supremely cinematic place. If Hitchcock were alive, he’d shoot a thriller here.
As I clamber up the steep concrete arc that leads to the entrance of the Sogo depāto, the crowd (unlike me) seems to effervesce, like they’ve been freshly spritzed with perfectly chilled champagne. Young women wear brief dresses in hypersaturated colours – turquoise, crimson, violet – paired with long black mesh gloves. A high school boy brushes past in lime-and-blue Asics high-tops (the shoes are made here) that match his tartan backpack. At the top of the walkway, just when I’m starting to think everyone has co-ordinated their fashion-forward looks to go with the cityscape, I sneeze, and, as if on cue, a girl sporting a pink poodle skirt, mahogany tan and Lion King haircut steps forward to offer me a pink tissue.
To find out how this city of 1.5 million people became so avant-garde, I head over to the city hall, where urban planner and architect Takahito Saiki greets me. “The people of Kobe have long been known for their discriminating eye,” he says as we survey the skyline from his 12th-floor office. But it was a tragedy that prompted the city to embark on a new approach to style, one that blends the global and the local. The Great Hanshin-Awaji earthquake of 1995, which measured 7.3 on the Richter scale, killed more than 4,500 people and destroyed or damaged more than 120,000 buildings. “Natural disasters,” he says, “gave us the experience to think about space and time and how they related to the city.” (As he explains, devastating floods were once common here.) “So when urban planners from all over Japan converged on Kobe after the quake, we tried to see the tragic event as an opportunity not only to re-create what had come before but also to build a city that would be inclusive, interactive and ecological.” That would explain the elevated walkways and the wide landscaped plazas and tiny yet perfect pocket gardens I walked by earlier in the day.
The president of the Kobe Design University, Saiki sits down at a conference table piled with maps, charts, statistical analyses, an engraving of 19th-century Kobe, promotional pamphlets and even a Venn diagram. “Kobe design is not only about making individual items or buildings; it’s also about creating an overall lifestyle esthetic,” he says, sporting one of those white collarless shirts that architects seem to have cornered the market on. Saiki is a proponent of what he calls Kobe Total Style, a concept that isn’t about a single designer dress but a whole look: “pearls, shoes, hats, underclothes.” Before leaving, I marvel again at the view – the city is as green and inviting as it is striking and harmonious – and recall that even the manhole covers on the streets below are cool: yellow-enamelled cast-iron rectangles depicting city landmarks in silhouette.