Neil Porten takes to the hills to visit a gentrified part of town before returning harbourside to check out historic sites.

People come to Kobe to taste the famous marbled beef and soak in the waters at nearby Arima Onsen hot spring resort. I'm here because my ship has come in; the Costa neoRomantica berthed mid-afternoon and I've got about five hours to get a taste of this cosmopolitan city which has traded with the world since Japan opened itself up in the middle of the 19th century.

Kobe is defined by its port and the hills that hem it in on the northern shore of Osaka Bay. So I'm heading first to Kitano, a gentrified part of town on the slopes above the city before returning to the harbourside to check out historic sites and more recent developments.

This is a narrow city, so getting to the heights of Kitano and back to the attractions of the waterfront is a quick trip by taxi. With more time, you can take the City Loop bus, which takes about an hour to complete a circuit, taking in the main sights including the Sannomiya shopping district and Nankinmachi Chinatown.

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Kitano perches on the hills above the port, a place where foreign merchants and diplomats built their mansions away from the bustle below. In the early evening the air is cool, clear and bright for a walk up steps and through small squares, where fountains and sculpted bronze jazz players catch the eye.

It's quiet now but the Kobe Jazz Street festival in early October has these streets jumping and jiving.

New Zealanders love an open home. Or two. In Kitano two of the most architecturally significant merchant dwellings, Weathercock House and Moegi House are mere steps from each other. These foreign houses, ijinkan, were built at the end of the Meiji period, a time of great social and economic change in Japan brought about by the influence of trade, especially with the Western world.

Weathercock House, so-named for the cockerel weathervane on the roof, was built in 1909 for German businessman Gottfried Thomas. The exterior red-brick walls and half-timbered second floor are in a German style, and interior details such as metal door knobs and ornaments in the entrance porch are art nouveau designs. The ground floor, where business took place, is more ornate than upstairs. In the dining room, with its crenellated dark-wood panels and upturned crown chandelier, guests could imagine themselves at a banquet in a medieval castle.

Moegi House is a contrast, with its pale-green weatherboards, brunswick green shutters and slim pillars supporting the upstairs balcony. It was built for the US General Consul Hunter Sharp in 1903.

The formal garden is a good spot for a group photo or a moment's quiet reflection. But make sure you take in the view of the city below from the first-floor balcony.

For a truly panoramic view, Kobe Port Tower is a must-do on the waterfront. Built in 1963, the tower's hourglass shape mimics a traditional Japanese hand drum. At night, the pipe-lattice structure glows red, its 108m height a contrast to the neon green sails on top of the Maritime Museum, which is another landmark in the seaside Meriken Park.

The park gets its name from a common translation of "American" from the Meiji period when US traders dominated the area. On one edge, is the memorial for the Great Hanshin earthquake of 1995, which devastated the city, killing more than 6000 people. On the southern seaward edge, the city erected its BE KOBE monument to celebrate the rebuilding of the city and it is now a popular spot for a photo.

There is still time to wander through the Mosaic shopping and eating complex beside the giant ferris wheel at Harborland.

My appetite is whetted, but not satisfied after a few hours in Kobe. When I'm here next, I will eat the beef and I will soak in a hot tub. But maybe not at the same time.

Checklist

GETTING THERE

Cruise World

has four-to-six night packages sailing on the Costa neoRomatica between Japan and Korea from May to August, with prices starting from $649pp (without flights).