Whether you are picking up a souvenir for yourself to remember your trip to Kobe or are on the hunt for a friend or family, these three trendy local brands will have just what you’re looking for, especially if you are into buying the cute little things Japan has to offer.
Get Kobe Tartan to Dress Well
For those who wish to incorporate Kobe’s fashionable items into your life, a variety of quality “Kobe Tartan” products are highly recommended.
Visit Tailor Ishida on Rokko Island, and you’ll find Kobe Tartan’s dark blue gloves, ties, jackets, handkerchieves, corsages, and skirts. Kobe Tartan is not a specific manufacturer or a store. Rather, it is a pattern of the cloth which was designed to represent the city of Kobe.
Tartan is a textile design comprising criss-cross bands in multiple colors so that the pattern doesn’t change when printed horizontally or vertically. It originated in the Highlands of Scotland and since 2009, information about thousands of traditional and contemporary tartans from Scotland and throughout the world has been preserved by the single organization, the Scottish Register of Tartans.
To mark the 150th anniversary of the opening of the Port of Kobe, the owner of Tailor Ishida and the chairman of the Kobe Tartan Council, Hiroshi Ishidahara, designed this brand new plaid and its woven sample is preserved in the National Records of Scotland. Blue is for the sea, light green is for the Rokko Mountains, red is for the Port Tower and the Kobe Great Bridge, grey for the urban area, and white for western-style architecture and pearl processing which the city is known for.
Local shops and designers can use this design by becoming a member of the Kobe Tartan Council. Unique products born from such partnerships numbered nearly 200 in just over 2 years since the establishment of the council.
Get these Kobe Tartan covered buttons and you can replace the boring buttons of a plain shirt or make a hair tie for your friends.
A wallet made with denim featuring red “selvedge” detailing from Okayama prefecture, the capital of Japanese denim, is a wonderful piece if you are interested in authentic Japanese products. It’s so light, easy to store all your loyalty point cards in and stays slim. The lining is made from Kobe Tartan patterned Banshu-ori, a traditional cotton textile that has been around for more than 200 years in the Banshu area in Hyogo, known for supplying western fashion houses.
“People in Kobe know fashion. I wanted to create something that wins admiration in the community. Something locals will keep using in their daily lives for years to come,” Mr. Ishidahara says. By hopping from one shop to another in the search for Kobe Tartan products, you can explore more quiet shopping neighborhoods and discover lesser-known local designers in the city.
Kobe’s new tartan design is not only used as a clothing material but also as packaging for famous chocolate and tea caddies (elaborate containers for holding tea leaves) as well as on the protective cover of Ikuta Shrine’s “Goshuin-cho”, Japanese pilgrimage stamp book, and on the ribbons for the medals and the finish line tape of the annual Kobe Marathon.
In Sannomiya, the central shopping area of Kobe, department stores often set up a booth for everything Kobe Tartan. If you have a tight schedule, that’s a good place to start as well as this website where you can check all the Kobe Tartan products.
Get MONMANNEQUIN to Add Sparkle to Your Life
A jute grocery bag, a can of caviar, and a bag of chocolate candies. All these brooches are handcrafted by a local designer and here are some reasons you should consider getting them while in Kobe.
MONMANNEQUIN, literally translated “my model” is a pop culture-inspired, hand-made accessory brand to recreate what’s around you in daily life using thread, fabric, beads, and spangles.
At their studio in Kobe, the founder and designer Tomoka Kato along with several talented team members make all the products one stitch at a time, including various brooches, mini tote bags, pouches, earrings, necklaces, and charms.
When I visited the studio, there were brooches in the making sitting on the table. Right beside, there was a cute sewing box which is also made and sold by MONMANNEQUIN. “We make it using French cartonnage techniques. It’s how you make decorative boxes out of cardboard covered with fabric,” they explained.
You can find their products on their online shop and occasionally at their pop-up locations and events like a gallery exhibit. Also, they open their studio a few times a year and invite customers. So, at the time of writing, the website is the only place you can buy MONMANNEQUIN products whenever you want. But that’s going to change when they open a permanent store right next to their studio by the end of 2019.
The studio is located in Tor West, a stylish area with organic cafes, an antique button shop, a zakka–carefully selected everyday things that bring joy to your life–shop with great postcard collections etc. The studio stands out even in this neighborhood with its bright white outer walls and its beautiful arched windows.
Inside, the studio looks like a museum or a zakka shop itself as it is decorated with interesting small things such as hand knitted doll’s clothes, antique sewing machines, and candy dispensers. However, the most impressive part about the room is their stock of colorful materials.
“I really like fabric,” Ms. Kato says. Her design and production process always starts from a simple question, “How can I make the most of this material?”. When she finds a simple stripe cloth, she makes a stripe pants brooch. When she keeps looking at black beads until they start to look like caviars, she makes MONMANNEQUIN’s signature canned caviar accessories. When a piece of bright turquoise blue cloth is found in the drawer, she matches it with orange beads to make a baked bean can brooch. Connecting the color and the texture of materials with imagination is what she’s great at and that’s how she’s been creating one-of-a-kind accessories.
As they are not mass-produced, when the piece of fabric is gone, they can’t make the same design using the exact same materials. For example, they have mustard bottle brooch in faded mustard yellow and vivid yellow depending on the time of making. Because of this inherent quality of handmade items that no two items are alike, customers who value things that are made by hand in small quantities come back to their exhibits and shops not wanting to miss the opportunity to bring products of their favorite color, shape, and design home.
For those who value creative spirits, MONMANNEQUIN makes a great gift with a story. A story about your encounter with the designer and your experience in Kobe, Japan adds something special to the object. Handmade accessories made with joy can brighten up someone’s day and I hope that someone is you, your friend or family.
Get UMIKIRIN for Machine and Vehicle Lovers
Last but not least, I’d like to introduce you to UMIKIRIN, a Kobe-based apparel and zakka brand. With umi meaning sea or ocean, and kirin a giraffe (not the beer in this context), what do you think an umikirin refers to?
These three cuties printed on a hoodie are umikirin, the symbol characters of the brand. And here’s some umikirin in the real life, found on Rokko Island.
As they do look like a giant robot version of giraffes, Umikirin is a nickname for dockside gantry cranes often spotted at terminals loading and unloading containers from ships.
Since Kobe is the port city with the most gantry cranes in Japan, on Rokko Island or Port Island, you can see up to 50 umikirin working hard. They are so big that you can easily find them even from the observatories high up on Mount Rokko.
The founder of the brand, Kazuhiko Miyata, who is well-experienced in the fashion industry saw port-related geeky items like gantry cranes as well as containers and wave-dissipating concrete structures known as tetrapods from a different angle, noticed their unique designs, and used the inspiration to create cute and functional items of clothing, bags, and stationeries.
For people who are wondering, these adorable container-shaped objects are tissue paper boxes!
Kobe’s most famous scenic view of the harbor area also looks vibrant in the illustration of UMIKIRIN’s plastic file folders. Not just cranes but ships, towers, and other buildings too, look as if they are alive in UMIKIRIN products.
Another popular series is their T-shirt collection called “Connecting T-shirts”, which is perfect for parents and their children. They’re not matching T-shirts, however. If an adult and a kid dress in paired T-shirts and stand side by side, they complete each other’s design and create one big picture.
Small animals walking up the Port Tower in the top right picture and riding cable cars on the bottom left are uribo, wild boar piglets. Because quite a lot of wild boars live on Mount Rokko, sometimes very close to the outskirts of towns, wild boars and their piglets are often seen by hikers and residents of those towns.
In reality, wild boars can be violent and dangerous but in the UMIKIRIN world, uribo is one of the most popular characters. UMIKIRIN is a fascinating successful local brand in a sense that they try to observe what locals think is unique about Kobe and create brands around these unique points even though they are not necessarily well-known to tourists.
In the newest series, they collaborate with the Kobe City Fire Bureau and made hoodies and stationery featuring uribo firefighters. They ride on fire trucks, hang from air rescue helicopters, and even set sail on fireboats. Wouldn’t they be great souvenirs for kids or your firefighter friends?
These three that I mentioned here are just a few examples of unique local brands Kobe is proud to have. Walking around the city and walking into physical shops to find good quality products by local designers when you are traveling abroad might be one of the most enjoyable moments of your trip. Especially because you can buy almost anything online these days, I hope you remember what you can’t buy there.
Address／（Council Office at Tailor Ishida）Kobe Fashion Mart 1F 6-9 Koyochonaka, Higashinada Ward, Kobe, Hyogo
Parking／Paid parking available
Closed／Wednesday (Open if it’s a public holiday)
（Kobe Tartan Council）https://www.kobetartan.jp
Nearest Station／Rokko Liner Rokko Island Center Station
Address／（Studio）Awaji Kotsu Building 2F 3-2-19 Shimoyamatedori, Chuo Ward, Kobe, Hyogo
Parking／None. Use nearby public parking lots
Nearest Stations／JR Motomachi Station, Hanshin Railway Motomachi Station, Kobe Municipal Subway Sannomiya Station, Hankyu Railway Kobe Sannomiya Station
Address／（Enport CO.,LTD.）3-2-2-401 Shimoyamatedori, Chuo Ward, Kobe, Hyogo
Stores／Kobe Loft, Tokyu Hands Sannomiya, Harborland umie North Mall, Kitano Meister Garden, Mosaic 1F Concerto, Rokko Garden Terrace etc.
Nearest Stations／JR Motomachi Station, Hanshin Railway Motomachi Station
Photographs & Text by Madoka Hori
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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