There seems to be an assumption that Kobe is just another modern port city and there’s nothing “traditional” or ‘’Japanese” to see like there is in Kyoto or Nara.
In this article, we are determined to prove that that is an unfortunate and totally false misconception. Sure, you can’t find any world heritage temples in Kobe. However, Kobe has some unique sights where you can see and learn very old artistic, crafting, and architectural techniques that have been passed down from generation to generation and the history behind them.
Takenaka Carpentry Tools Museum
The Takenaka Carpentry Tools Museum is the only museum in Japan to collect, preserve, and exhibit remarkable tools used by carpenters as an example of Japanese cultural heritage. Until the late 19th century, Japanese architecture was mostly of wooden structures and even today, 60% of residences are built of wood. The skills and techniques of Japanese carpenters and their unique tools played a significant role in the development of Japanese architecture.
The museum was originally opened in 1984 by the Takenaka Corporation, one of Japan’s top architecture and construction companies. Today, Takenaka is known for building large scale modern landmarks but its roots go back to a shrine and temple carpenter in the Edo period. Since 2014 when the museum was relocated to a residential area near Shin Kobe bullet train station and reopened in a brand new building, it has gained popularity for its beautiful architecture blending traditional skills with modern techniques, and for their fun exhibit style which makes it possible for visitors to feel and learn Japanese monozukuri (making things) culture.
Carpentry tools are woodworking tools used to process and fabricate wood, connect timbers to build frames, and finish the surface of wooden construction. You’ve probably seen and perhaps used saws, hammers, and chisels. But, what’s interesting is that Japanese people have developed thousands of unique tools each of which has a specific usage such as shaving the surface of the sill for sliding doors.
At the museum, you’ll also encounter tools you’ve never even heard of. There are marking ink pots called sumitsubo with rich carving designs. There are Japanese adzes chouna which have been broadly used to cut, shape, and smooth large pieces of wood since ancient times. Different types of yari ganna (yari kanna) or spear shaped smoothing planes are displayed as well. They were widely used until hand planes were introduced from China. You might find it interesting that both saws and planes in Japan cut on the pull stroke, rather than the push stroke as in the west.
Walking around the museum building, visitors get rare opportunities to learn how those tools are actually used. On the surface of the automatic wooden doors at the entrance, for example, a dimple texture called naguri was added by an artisan, Takaharu Harada, using a chouna. After learning how to use the tools from videos and ancient scroll paintings at the exhibit, you’ll be even more impressed with the beauty of the finished product as you walk out of the museum than you were when you came in.
“When people who don’t know anything about architecture come and feel, ‘Wow! Something about this place is nice!’ that’s success–when they feel, ‘I don’t know about architecture, but something about this place is great,’” says the deputy director.
The new museum building looks stylish and modern at first glance, but in fact, it showcases the highest standards of traditional craftsmanship at the same time.
The central courtyard on the first basement level is paved with ibushi-gawara roof tiles baked and smoked in a traditional kiln called daruma-gama on Awaji island. The earthen wall seen on the right side in the picture above has distinctive patterns produced by the decorative hand scraping of master plasterer Naoki Kusumi. Stairs in the back are solid timbers of white oak carved out and placed as if they were floating in the air.
This museum and the experience you’ll have there is quite different from old-fashioned museums capturing treasures in display cases. Right in the middle of the exhibition room stands the full-scale model of the interlocking brackets of Toshodaiji golden hall in Nara, a world heritage site. Artisans of our time gathered together to recreate this late 8th century masterpiece so we can take a much closer look at how the wood is assembled and stands in equilibrium.
Through a late master carpenter’s recorded interview, models, notebook filled with numbers, calculations, and drawings, you’ll get to see the power of monozukuri–it might blow you away.
In the second basement, the “skeleton” model of a tea ceremony house attracts visitors. It is a full-scale model of a famous tea house nicknamed Saan of Gyokurin-in, one of sub-temples of Daitokuji, and it shows how it would have looked before earthen walls were completed. You can go into the skeleton house and see how much attention Japanese carpenters pay to details on the inside of the building as well.
If you’d like to spend more time at this museum, it’s a good idea to relax at a lounge in the annex. It is a renovated wood building overlooking a Japanese dry garden. Its cedar ceiling, chestnut flooring, and hemlock posts and door will be great inspirations for your future wooden house.
Minatogawa Zuido, Japan’s First River Tunnel
Next, we would like to introduce Japan’s first modern river tunnel, Minatogawa Zuido, located approximately 5 km west of (and a 20 minute subway ride away from) Takenaka Carpentry Tools Museum. When it was completed in 1901 as part of changing the route of the Minatogawa (Minato River) after recurrent flooding, the river tunnel was the longest in the world at 670 meters.
The brick wall in the back is the entrance to the Minatogawa Zuido. Damaged by the Great Hanshin Awaji Earthquake in 1995, its role was replaced with the Shin Minatogawa Tunnel completed in 2000.
After the tunnel became inactive, not only its great design as an early modern civil engineering structure but also the unique history behind the construction were recognized and it was decided to conserve it as an industrial heritage site. The Minatogawa river improvement, part of which was the construction of Minatogawa Zuido started and finished as a private project funded by local business people and estate owners, not as a public sector project.
Now, the upstream side of the tunnel is open to the public once a month so you should schedule your trip accordingly if you don’t want to miss it. Also, every year on November 18th, civil engineering day in Japan, they let you walk through the whole tunnel; on January 17th, they have a memorial service for the earthquake.
It’s spacious inside and it feels like the dimly lit tunnel keeps going on and on, endlessly. It’s not hard to imagine how challenging the digging must have been without any heavy machinery. The floor of the tunnel is paved with cut stones carried from islands in the Seto Inland Sea and more than 4 million bricks are layered from the bottom of the wall to the very top. The orange light creates a magical atmosphere.
On the monthly visiting day, they also have various music concerts. When we visited, a nearby junior high school brass band played some J-pop songs and the powerful brass sound echoed throughout the tunnel.
This is a great spot not only for couples looking for a unique place to have a walking date, but also for families with adventurous kids. Caution is advised though, as the floor is wet and slippery.
Giant Buddha “Hyogo Daibutsu”
The last spot is the Hoshakuzan Nofukuji temple, home to one of the biggest Buddha statues in Japan. The temple is located near Hyogo no Tsu, a major medieval port expanded by Taira no Kiyomori, who was the first samurai to sit in the chief minister position of of the government in 1167.
In the middle of a quiet town, the giant buddha or Hyogo Daibutsu, stands…or should I say sits. With a height of 11 meters–18 meters including the pedestal–you might think it’s odd that it’s not nearly as well known as other big Buddha statues such as the one in Kamakura. Well, that’s because Hyogo Daibutsu is the second Buddha for the temple and was built in 1991. It’s quite new!
The original Vairocana Buddha was built on the ground of Nofukuji just 100 years before the current one was completed. The disastrous anti-Buddhism mayhem during the Meiji Restoration shocked Buddhist communities nationwide. Furthermore, once Kobe port was opened in 1868, Christianity started to have a big influence on the city. Worried about the situation, Soubei Nanjo, a local wealthy merchant donated a lot of money to build the Buddha. Once it was completed, news spread quickly from port to port because of the location of the Buddha and soon, it was counted as one of the three biggest Buddha statues in Japan.
Unfortunately, the original Hyogo Daibutsu was scrapped during WWII. Sad neighbors and local Buddhists believing their beloved Buddha would be transformed into weaponry gathered to see him off. But, after the war, parts of the scrapped statue were discovered and kept at the temple, and later they were used in the new Buddha when it was built with a totally new face and design.
At Nofukuji, you can walk up the stairs of the pedestal to get close to handsome Buddha. If you want to know more about the history of Hyogo no Tsu and Kobe in general, it is a great idea to take time to walk around the area. Taira no Kiyomori’s grave is on the temple ground, and only a block away, you can find an interesting mural representing important aspects of Hyogo no Tsu’s history.
Takenaka Carpentry Tools Museum
Address／7-5-1 Kumochi-cho, Chuo-ku, Kobe-shi, Hyogo
Admission／Adults 500 Yen, Seniors (Age 65 and over) 200 Yen, High School, College, and University Students 300 Yen
Hours／9:30～16:30（Last admission is 30 minutes prior to closing)
Closed／Mondays. However, it is open if it’s a public holiday and will instead be closed the following day. New Years Holiday（December 29th – January 3rd）
Parking／6 free spaces (5 for standard sized car, 1 for disabled person)
Nearest Stations／Sanyo Shinkansen Shin-Kobe Station or Kobe Municipal Subway Shin-Kobe Station
Address／9 Chome 3-1 Minatogawacho, Hyogo-ku, Kobe-shi, Hyogo
Tel／090-5255-6288（The Mintagawa Zuido Preservation Society)
Open／The 3rd Saturday of every month
Parking／None. Use nearby public parking lots
Nearest Station／Kobe Railway Minatogawa Station
Address／1-39 Kitasakasegawacho, Hyogo-ku, Kobe-shi, Hyogo
Parking／None. Use nearby public parking lots
Nearest Stations／JR Hyogo Station or Kobe Municipal Subway Chuo Ichiba-mae Station
Photographs & Text by Madoka Hori
Takenaka Carpentry Tools Museum
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Madoka Hori / Photo-writer Entrepreneurial translator/writer living in Hyogo. As a licensed English tour guide, she occasionally takes tourists to beautiful destinations such as Kobe, Himeji, Okayama, Kyoto, and Osaka and her clients have never got lost so far. On Setouchi Finder, as one of the original team members, she enjoys taking photos and sharing her favorite hidden gems. Private Photo Blog http://riderv328.tumblr.com Twitter https://twitter.com/Riderv328
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