By Laura Welch
Smells of lavender, mint, chamomile, lemongrass and sage float through the air as I descend on foot through Kobe's mountainside herb garden. A few minutes earlier, a cable car whisked me up into the skies above this small port city on Japan's central western coast. As the ropeway gently carried me upwards, it produced expansive views of Kobe below and Osaka in the distant north. I felt bird-like as I floated above the lush green foothills of Kobe's Mt. Maya and peered down on the Gohonmatsu Dam and Nunobiki Falls tucked into the the intense greenery below Soaked in the warmth of the soft spring sun, I gazed out over the sparkling waters of Kobe Bay and smiled: this is the Japan I had come in search of.
I am certainly no herb enthusiast, but when I first heard about these gardens, set against the backdrop of a panoramic view of Kobe city, I knew I had to check it out, if not for the herbs themselves, at least for the view. As it turns out, the herbs were the highlight of the visit. The beautiful combination of scents that engulfed my entire being as I strolled down through the gardens competed for my attention as the view became secondary to what my nose was experiencing. It was if the air itself was beckoning me to slow down and breathe deeper.
Embrace the moment, it whispered.
Back in the gardens, I meander down the twisting pathways, delighting in the full body experience of the place. It's April, the temperature outdoors is pleasantly warm, the bugs minimal and the tulips are in full bloom, a dazzling display of soft pinks and summer yellows. Turning left and right as I please, I surrender my sense of direction and let the smells guide me down to the Glasshouse, the halfway point of the gardens. Fuchia, hibiscus, angel trumpet, guava, papaya and bougainvilla plants bask in a sun soaked interior.
Behind the Glasshouse, a free herbal foot bath awaits the garden's visitors. I take my shoes off and relax as the hot, herbal jets massage my tired feet. After about 10 minutes, I feel like I can run a marathon, and I continue down to the bottom of the gardens, passing the Waterfall Patio, Oriental Garden and Fruit Garden on my way.
I nearly pass by Kaze no Oka Mid Station when something purple catches my eye. Lavender soft serve ice cream! I take a moment, close my eyes and let myself feel everything around me. As my lips touch the ice cream and my taste buds dance around the strange new flavor, a current of energy surges through my body.
I open my eyes. This is now, and here I am. This is the Japan I had come in search of.
How to get there: from Shin Kobe station, exit the lower level and take the walkway through the Ana Crowne Plaza to the Herb Garden Ropeway (Cable Car). I recommend buying a one way ticket ("kanimachi kudasai"). This way, you can take the cable car up and enjoy the views, and get some exercise in by walking back down through the gardens.
After you pass Kaze no Oka Mid Station, you have the option of following the road down, or taking a separate forest path past Nunobiki Falls, one of the Best One Hundred Waterfalls in Japan. WARNING: In the spring time, you will see Japanese people on this trail waving sticks around like crazy people. Well, crazy they are not. The sticks are used for knocking down the floating caterpillars that descend from the trees by the hundreds. As much as you naturally look down when you are hiking, it's best to look up on this trail, grab a stick and embrace the crazy. If not, you might end up washing down that lavender ice cream with a mouth full of caterpillars, so take care as you walk. I promise the photos of the waterfall are well worth the risk.
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