17
Apr

2017

Kobe Nunobiki Ropeway, Part 1: Background and Gondola

Post by Nick Chu

 

Last March, I had the opportunity to visit the Japanese port city of Kobe, Japan and tour its most modern cable car, the Kobe Nunobiki Ropeway.

Last March, I had the opportunity to make a side trip to the Japanese port city of Kobe. During my time there, I was lucky enough to spend half a day touring the city’s most popular recreational cable car, the Kobe Nunobiki Ropeway. In this first blog post, I will provide a background of the system.

BACKGROUND

The Kobe Nunobiki Ropeway and Herb Gardens is one of Kobe, Japan’s preeminent attractions — ranking as TripAdvisor’s top “Thing to Do” in the city. Thanks to its accessible location, charming setting, and integrated visitor experience, the urban cable car continues to attract thousands of visitors each day despite being more than 25 years old.

For those unfamiliar with the City, Kobe is positioned between the Rokko mountain chains and Osaka Bay and is considered a modern Japanese metropolis known for its cosmopolitan vibe. While the City proper only has a population of 1.5 million residents, Kobe is part of the much larger metropolitan region known as Keihanshin which encompass the cities of Kobe, Kyoto and Osaka. This area represents 15% of the country’s population (19 million) and is Japan’s second most populated region after the Greater Tokyo Area.

Keihanshin Metropolitan Region. Image from Japan Talk.

Keihanshin Metropolitan Region. Image from Japan Talk.

Given its strategic location by the water, Kobe was one of the first Japanese port cities to open up to foreign trade in 1800s and remains a strong hub for trade and commerce today. For tourists, the city is well-known for a number of attractions including its legendary Kobe beef, Arima Onsen hot springs, “exotic” western styled buildings, and fashion.

Throughout this photo essay, many of these themes may reappear as we tour the Kobe Nunobiki Ropeway.

Traveling up towards Rokko mountain and Herb Gardens.

Traveling up towards Rokko mountain and Herb Gardens.

LOCATION

The Kobe Nunobiki Ropeway offers visitors convenient, affordable and scenic access to the Nunobiki Herb Gardens, a quiet and serene urban oasis located on a hilltop of the Rokko mountain range.

The ropeway and herb gardens wre built over a former golf course and opened in 1991 as part of a larger city redevelopment plan which included the nearby Shin Kobe Oriental City (commercial complex).

When the system was first conceptualized, I learned that it was actually envisioned to improve access to multiple sites along the Rokko mountains but planners eventually settled on a 3-station, 1.5km alignment. While it’s uncertain why a more fulsome system wasn’t built, it is worth noting that the Rokko mountain range in Kobe has long been a place of refuge and recreation for its inhabitants. The first Europeans built cottages in the greenspace while visitors retreated to its hot springs.

In fact, long before the Kobe Nunobiki Ropeway was built, the mountain range was already well-connected with four cable-driven systems! This includes the Maya Cable Car (1925), Maya Ropeway (1955), Rokko Cable Car (1932) and Rokko Arima Ropeway (1970).

Despite the number of visitor facilities built on the Rokko mountains, the greenspace remains a highly attractive nature escape for city dwellers. Similar to many European ropeway in the Alps, this network of ropeways in the Rokko mountains provides another example that when implemented properly, cable-driven systems and natural areas can co-exist harmoniously.


Can you find the ropeway? Image by Japan Guide.

Simplified transport map of Kobe. Can you find the ropeway? It’s a yellow line located near the centre-top and marked as the “Shin-Kobe Ropeway”.

Map of herb gardens and ropeway.

Map of herb gardens and ropeway. Bottom station is not shown.

ACCESS

The ropeway is strategically located next to the Shin-Kobe Station — a large transport hub connected to three major rail lines including the Sanyo Shinkansen Line (bullet train), the Seishin-Yamate Line (subway), and the Hokushin Line (railway). If that wasn’t enough, five local bus lines (#2, #18, #90, #92, #60) and one tourist “loop bus” provide passenger access to the ropeway’s bottom station.

For myself, I arrived in Kobe via a direct 30 minute Shinkansen ride from Kyoto. Once disembarking the bullet train, well-placed way finding signs in both Japanese and English provided simple directions to the ropeway.

Shin-Kobe Station Shinkansen Platform Level.

Arriving at the Shin-Kobe Station’s Shinkansen platform.

Going down set of escalators.

Going down escalators to the ground floor.

Arriving at the bustling ground floor level of the Shin-Kobe Station.

Scene of the bustling ground floor level at Shin-Kobe Station.

Simple, clear way finding signage located throughout the station to help locals and visitors navigate.

Simple, clear way finding signage located throughout the station helps locals and visitors navigate to their destination. The ropeway and herb gardens is clearly marked in both English and Japanese (third destination from the top).

Once exiting the station, more clear signage directing visitors to the ropeway.

Once exiting the station, more clear signage (green sign) directing visitors to the ropeway.

Glass roof pedestrian bridge leads passengers from the Shin-Kobe Station through the ANA Crowne Plaza and shopping mall before arriving at the entrance of the ropeway and herb gardens.

Pedestrian bridge leads passengers from the Shin-Kobe Station through the 37-storey ANA Crowne Plaza/Shin Kobe Oriental City (commercial complex) before arriving at the entrance of the ropeway.

Kobe-Nunobiki-Ropeway-Peeking-Out

Glimpses of the ropeway as I walked through the skybridge. From the pedestrian level, the gondola is nearly unnoticeable as the cabins float quietly to the Herb Gardens.

The ANA Crowne Plaza and attached shopping complex is usually very busy during the day with a variety of shops and restaurants. However, it was relatively quiet during my trip as I passed through in the early morning.

The 37-storey Shin Kobe Oriental City is built with a hotel, theatre and plentiful shops/entertainment. However, it was relatively quiet during my trip as I passed through in the early morning.

Once walking through the shopping mall, signs lead visitors to a pedestrian pathway. A set of stairs and an elevator are available to take passengers to the ground floor of the bottom station.

Once walking through the shopping mall, signs lead visitors to a pedestrian pathway. A set of stairs and an elevator take passengers to the ground floor of the bottom station.

After climbing a small set of stairs, visitors arrive at the bottom station.

After climbing a small set of stairs, visitors arrive at the bottom station. The gondola’s platform level is located on the fourth floor. Notice that the rooftop is partially designed with glass at its peak. This allows ample sunlight to penetrate into the station.

Quiet outdoor seating functions as a waiting and resting area.

Quiet outdoor seating functions as a waiting and resting area. The elevator to the ropeway’s platform and ticketing level is through the green entrance to the centre right.

 

SYSTEM AND STATIONS

From some of the previous photos, readers might notice that the lower terminal is housed in a four storey building. While a station of this size and height is a little atypical for a lower capacity recreational ropeway, I learned that the bottom three floors were designed for the ropeway/herb garden’s offices. Despite the large station size, it did not feel out of context since it was discreetly nestled between a highly treed area, a stream and the gargantuan 37-storey Oriental City commercial complex. However, compared to the beauty of the herb gardens, the bottom station’s greyish concrete exterior is fairly utilitarian in nature and easily forgettable.

From a technical standpoint, the current ropeway is a 2nd generation system which underwent an upgrade in 2011 as part of larger renovation works. The original system was built in 1991 by Mitsubishi but the latest revamp was performed by Nippon Cable (the Japanese partner of Doppelmayr).

The 2011 upgrade gave the ropeway a fresh and modernized look from white coloured cabins to red coloured cabins. Technologically, the gondola features fairly standard specifications commonly found in Monocable Detachable Gondolas (MDG).

  • Length: 1.5km
  • Cabin: 6 persons
  • Speed: 4 m/s
  • Ride time: ~10 minute
  • Altitude difference: 330m
  • Capacity: 1,800 pphpd

While the ropeway lacks any extraordinary technical stats, the gondola system remains an first-class visitor experience as there is an incredible amount of “attention to detail” to almost every single component of the attraction.

From my two weeks in Japan, this pursuit of perfection was often found in many top destinations. Furthermore, it seemed evident that the designers understood their target market very well as nearly everything was done with the intent of maximizing a guest’s overall experience. Many of these small gestures are so seamlessly integrated that I imagine most visitors aren’t even aware they exist.

Visitor centre and ticketing.

After taking the elevator, visitors arrive at the welcome centre where passengers can purchase tickets from an automated machine. Ropeway staff are dressed casually to match the relaxed ambience and atmosphere of the site.

Hours of operations are extended during the busy summer season and weekends/holidays while scaled back during weekdays and non-summer times. Fares are also adjusted accordingly to meet demand.

The site’s hours of operations are extended during the busy summer season and weekends/holidays while scaled back during the quieter weekdays and non-summer periods. Fares are also reduced for night time visitation. A number of discounts are also available for groups, annual passes, disabled persons and senior citizens.

A variety of herb garden themed items and gifts are available for purchase.

A variety of herb garden themed gifts are placed immediately across the customer service counter. This is a great area to pick up some presents either before boarding the gondola to the top station or after coming back down from the top station.

Unlike many gondola stations, the loading platform area is bright and airy thanks to an almost unnoticeable design intervention — a partially glass roof which allows sunlight to penetrate into the queue space.

After purchasing tickets, passengers transition seamlessly to the platform and queuing area. Unlike many gondola stations, the loading platform area is bright and airy thanks to an almost unnoticeable design intervention — a partially glassed roof which allows sunlight to penetrate into the space below. Notice that information boards (right) are located throughout the line so that visitors can learn about the site’s attractions as they wait to board. Everyone inch of space is fully utilized.

The glass roof is more visible from this perspective.

The glass roof peaks can be viewed from this angle.

Once onboard, passengers are afforded sweeping views of the Rokko Mountains. During my time, the trees have yet to fully blossom, but once it does, the views become even more spectacular.

Once onboard, passengers are afforded stunning aerial views of the Rokko Mountains. Unfortunately during my visit the trees did not blossom yet. However, once they do, the view becomes even more spectacular. Notice that the towers are all coloured in a darkish, brown shade — thereby helping the system blend into the foliage. The red cabins with black/white accents help the system stand out but not overpower the surrounding natural beauty. It also provided a fresh new design from the previously white cabins.

City views.

Turning around, passengers are treated to breathtaking views of the City.

Even though the ride is only 10 minutes, blankets are provided in the cabins in case passengers get cold. A seemingly simple solution for unheated cabins.

During my visit, the weather was still a little chilly (10-15 degrees celsius). To enhance passenger comfort, blankets are neatly placed in cabins. I personally have never seen this before in an urban recreational ropeway but it seems like an incredibly simple and cost-effective solution for unheated cabins.

Roof hatch provides

Roof hatch improves air circulation and helps cool cabin during summer months.

One of the most impressive aspects of the ropeway that is often not discussed enough is system cleanliness.

One of the most impressive aspects of the ropeway is the system’s level of cleanliness. Even though the system transports thousands each day, the cabin windows and fabric seats were spotless. Unlike many other systems, I didn’t notice a single fingerprint or scratch anywhere in the cabin. Nothing ruins a ropeway experience more than heavily scratched / dirty cabin windows.

Mid station, known as Kaze no Oka station.

Mid station (Kaze no Oka station).

Kaze no Oka station from outside.

Kaze no Oka station from outside.

The system was strategically built to allow passengers to see major landmarks such as the Nunobiki Gohonmatsu Dam, japan's first concrete gravity dam.

The system passes by major landmarks such as the Nunobiki Gohonmatsu Dam, Japan’s first concrete gravity dam and Nunobiki Waterfall.

Passengers can enjoy sweeping views of the Rokko Mountain as the gondolas glide to the top station at a leisurely pace.

More sweeping views of the Rokko Mountain as the gondolas glide smoothly to the top station and herb gardens.

Approaching top station.

Approaching top station (drive station).

Information boards and signs are presented clearly to visitors once they disembark the gondola and enter the Herb Gardens.

Information boards and signs are presented clearly to visitors once they disembark the gondola and enter the herb hardens. Once again, the top station’s roof is glassed, allowing light to penetrate into the terminal and in turn, making the station feel much more spacious and attractive.

Herb Gardens, top station.

Herb Gardens, top station.

After ascending 330m vertically over 1,500m of ropeway, visitors arrive at a Bavarian-themed village and Japanese-style garden. Overall, the leisurely 10-minute gondola ride is incredibly well-managed and offers visitors an exciting and unforgettable way to reach the hilltop and garden space.

In part 2 of this photo essay, we will explore the herb gardens and describe why it is one of Kobe’s top attractions.

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