There are lots of examples of western-style architecture throughout Japan, but Kobe’s historic Kitano-chō district has a rare and extensive collection of homes from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the city’s Hyōgo Port first opened to American and European traders and diplomats, who brought along their particular architectural preferences with them.
Located in the heart of the city at the foot of Mt. Rokko, Kitano-chō is full of trendy shops, restaurants, and cafés with a distinctly international feel, but the district’s main draw is the 30 or so former merchant mansions from the Meiji and Taishō periods, many of which are open to the public as museums.
Foreign residences like these are known as ijinkan, and while there are similar ones in other Japanese port cities, none are as highly concentrated or well-preserved as those in Kitano-chō.
Each mansion is unique and exhibits antiques, artwork, and historical items. Fans of Sherlock Holmes will appreciate the England House, where the second floor features memorabilia of the great detective, and a recreation of his cluttered 221B Baker Street quarters. The France and Italy Houses are notable for their furniture and fine art collections, and the Dutch Museum includes a perfumery.
Perhaps the district’s most distinctive residence is the Uroko House, the name roughly translating to “scaly” house–a massive building with turrets and multi-hued slate shingles that look like fish scales. The house offers beautiful views of Kobe from its top floor (if you can stop staring at those crazy fish scales).