The Kobe Luminarie is a spectacular light festival held every year in Kobe, Hyōgo Prefecture, first appearing in 1995. It commemorates the Great Hanshin earthquake of that year, acting as a beacon of hope and recovery.
This stunning, multicoloured, huge display of millions of tiny coloured lights crafted into ornate and intricate displays attracts millions of visitors to Kobe every year.
It's a must see in winter time in Japan if you're in the Kansai area.
Kobe Luminarie: Japan’s Most Dazzling Light Festival
by Rob Dyer
Japan's finest light festival
The dazzling festival is a symbol of hope, recovery and renovation, introduced following the devastating 1995 Great Hanshin earthquake. The annual celebration is free to attend (thanks in part to donations from a number of corporate sponsors) but donations from attendees are strongly encouraged to help cover the running costs.
Traditional incandescent light blubs were originally used, but replaced more recently by LEDs as part of attempts at making the event more sustainable and to help save running costs. Whatever the technology, the results are spectacular, making the Kobe Luminarie a contender for Japan's finest light festival.
VIDEO: Kobe Luminarie: Japan’s Most Dazzling Light Festival
Luminarie returns after pandemic
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the event was held for two weeks in December, but it moved to January in 2024. This the first time the festival takes place following its cancellation in 2020. For four years, between 2020 and 2023, the festival was suspended.
The move to January was for various reasons, but vehicle access was severely restricted as city centre streets were closed to traffic and opened to pedestrians. And all this during the year-end peak shopping season, which some stores said hit customer numbers during this key season.
In response, the local government agreed to move the festival to late January. It also made some changes to the plans in an attempt to make the energy-consuming event more sustainable ahead of the 30th anniversary of the earthquake, in 2025.
The new Kobe Luminarie
The new festival runs for 10 days every evening from 19 to 28 January 2024. In the past, it has been viewed by as many as 3-5 million people a year.
Previously, the display wove it way through the city streets, culminating in a grand construction in Higashi Yuenchi Park, where the smell of numerous street food stalls pulled you in different directions.
The spectacular display now takes place in 3 specific locations: the traditional Higashi Yuenchi Park (also known as the East Amusement Park), the Former Foreign Settlement, and Meriken Park in Kobe's Harborland area overlooking Osaka Bay.
Kobe is a compact city and getting around it using public transport is easy. I've used an Icoca travelcard) for decades. It covers travelling by JR West trains, Kansai area's subway, private railways, and buses.
My personal connection
It has a personal connection for me as my wife's family live near Kobe. My (then future) wife was living there at the time of the earthquake.
I vividly remember seeing the news reports on TV. Worried about them, I telephoned to see if she and her family were OK. Thankfully, apart from some minor structural damage to their home, they were all fine.
More popular activities in Kobe
Over 6,400 died from the 1995 earthquake
Many, many others were less fortunate. More than 6,400 people were killed as a result of the 1995 earthquake. The Kobe Luminarie festival ensures they are not forgotten, helps raise money for charity, whilst providing an amazing spectacle that changes every year.
A walk through the pre-pandemic Kobe Luminarie
I've yet to try out the new, three-location festival, so what follows is my account of the original route, which I attended on several occasions.
Major streets in the area are closed to traffic during allowing pedestrians to fill the streets and enjoy the lights.
The route to the lights begins around the entrance to Motomachi shotengai (shopping arcade). The best station to get off at is Motomachi (JR and Hanshin lines). It's just a couple of minutes walk south from the station to the start of the route.
You'll then weave your way back and forth for a couple of blocks.
The streets approaching the display are lined with trees adorned with white lights. Public address systems play choral music along the way. All adding to the sense of anticipation and seasonal atmosphere.
The walk will take you towards Kobe's iconic Daimaru department store. At which point you turn left. Not far now.
Signs along the way provide an indication of how long you can expect to take before you get to the Luminarie.
The Kobe Luminarie festival ensures those killed in the Great Hanshin earthquake of 1995 are not forgotten, helps raise money for charity, whilst providing an amazing spectacle that changes every year.
Best days to go
It's best to go on a weekday as the weekends can get really busy. I've always gone on a week day and the entire pre-display walk has never taken more than 15 minutes. But they are fifteen minutes of pleasure anyhow.
With Daimaru behind you, you'll then turn left, heading east, and you'll see the start of the Kobe Luminarie. There's always an impressive entrance.
See this post for more ideas of things to do and places to see in Kobe.
Gradually, as you shuffle your way forward along with the thousands of other visitors to the spectacle, the dark night skies are replaced by the bright lights of the festival.
The lights are fixed onto intricate wire frameworks that line the streets. It creates the feeling that you're entering a magical new and exotic world.
A symbol of hope
The 1995 earthquake destroyed Kobe's electricity supply, plunging the city into darkness. The first Luminarie was designed to literally light up the city once again, giving hope to the people of Kobe that their city would be restored.
The sides of the light framework rise several storeys high, making it an all-enveloping experience.
With the music playing along the way, the chill of the frosty night air, and street stalls selling commemorative stamps and food, it's an unforgettable way to experience this extravaganza alongside the locals.
Planning a trip to Kobe? Here's some of my other recommendations of things to see and do.
Your now in the thick of it. The walking pace slows as thousands of others pause and snap a shot of the dazzling displays on their phones and cameras.
Higashi Yuenchi Park
It's at this point you'll see the iconic tunnel of lights, running for several blocks up towards Higashi Yuenchi Park - where the festival culminates.
This year coincided with the commemoration of the 150th Anniversary of the opening of the port of Kobe.
So, there was a special display incorporating Kobe's icons like the Port Tower and the huge anchor illumination found on the side of the mountains overlooking the city.
Turn right into Higashi Yuenchi Park - where everyone gathers for the huge finale. Like all the displays, it varies each year, but is always a fitting showstopper.
Take your time to soak up the festivities. Young couples taking selfies on their smartphones. Families posing for offical commemorative photos. Children barely able to contain their excitement.
And, of course, that final, vast and intricate creation.
Kobe attractions you might also like
Soaking up the atmosphere
It's always designed so that everyone can walk inside to take it in, in all its glory.
Whether you simply bathe in the light, or marvel in the fact that all the hundreds of thousands of lights are handpainted each year, you'll have memories to cherish.
Although Kobe is blessed with loads of wonderful cafes, there are plenty of stalls selling food and drinks in the park. So it's easy to hang out, wander around and generally saunter with everyone else enjoying the celebrations.
Habatan - official mascot of Hyogo Prefecture
It's also a lot quieter as soon as you're out of the main arena. So it's nice just to relax for a short while, grab a seat on a bench and do some people watching.
Look out, too, for Habatan - the offical mascot of Hyōgo Prefecture - a beakless, bright yellow phoenix, with odd-coloured shoes and red and blue tail feathers.
He makes for a great photo opportunity for children.
Or adults who refuse to grow up too much. 😉
Spectacular views from 24th floor of Kobe City Hall
Finally, one pro-tip for you to finish on...
Once you've finish viewing the Kobe Luminarie, turn to head north out of the park, up Flower Road towards Sannomiya Station.
Your destination? The landmark, 443 foot Kobe City Hall.
Look out for Yuki Shintani's golden-coloured statue 'Marina' - the titular female sitting on the back of a fish - at the northern edge fo the park. Directly behind her is Kobe City Hall.
On the 24th floor is a free-to-access observation deck. It's from up here that you get the true finalé to the Kobe Luminarie every year - by taking in the views of the route and Higashi Yuenchi Park far below.
Beyond the park, and overlooking its famous harbour, laid out in sparkling and moving lights is Kobe city.
No longer in darkness. Celebrating the light.
Kobe's other winter light event - Kobe Illuminage
If the Luminarie isn't enough to satisfy your love of lights, or if the timing of the festival doesn't fit your travel plans, there is another seasonal light event in the city, the Kobe Illuminage, that might also suit you.
Taking place in the Michi-no-Eki Kobe Fruit & Flower Park, the display for 2023-2024 runs from November 1, 2023, to February 12, 2024. This year's theme, 'Secret Garden', sees the park transforms the park into a wonderland of three distinct palaces, illuminated artistry using over 8 million LED light bulbs.
Opening times are 5-10 PM daily, with lights displayed between 5:30 PM and 9:30 PM. Unlike the Kobe Luminarie in the city centre, this is a ticketed event. Tickets can be purchased online in advance via Klook.
The three light palaces are: The Pink Palace, The Ice Palace and Ice Tunnel, reflecting the icy landscapes of the north, and The Arabian Palace, a journey into the enchanting world of the Arabian Nights.
The Michi-no-Eki Kobe Fruit & Flower Park is in Kobe's northern Kita Ward. The location is out of the way compared to the Kobe Luminarie taking place in the city centre. The park is roughly 15 minutes by bus or taxi from Okaba Station on the Kobe Electric Railway company line.
The Klook website offers several different ticketing options including simply just admission, but also admission plus a Kobe beef dinner with sake, and admission with bus transfer there and back from Umeda Station in Osaka. You can find Klook's full selection of ticketing, transport and dining options here on their website.
How to get to Kobe
Kobe is readily accessible from neighbouring cities such as Osaka, Kyoto and Himeji and is well connected by air, shinkansen, local trains, bus routes and by road. Kobe has its own airport operating mostly internal flights. Flights to and from Kobe Airport to Tokyo take 70 minutes, Sapporo is 115 minutes and Okinawa is 130 minutes flight time.
There's also the nearby Kansai International Airport in Osaka - a major international airport.
Local trains to Osaka take just 20 minutes and run every few minutes during peak hours. Trains to Kyoto take less than 1 hour and also run frequently.
Shinkansen services stop at Shin-Kobe station in the north of the city centre.
The city is connected to the Hanshin Expressway highway, a network of expressways surrounding Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto. If travelling by car, using the Hanshin Expressway is the quickest way to get to Kobe from Kansai International Airport.
Kobe itself has several local train stations (including JR, Hashin and Hankyu company lines), two subways lines, local and intercity buses and a city 'loop bus' service, making it easy to get around the compact city centre.
If you're in Kansai during the winter months then I thoroughly recommend taking in the Kobe Luminarie as part of your trip.
Might you add the Kobe Luminarie to your itinerary? Perhaps you've also been? Let me know by leaving a comment below.
Kobe Luminarie Photo Gallery
(Click on images to see larger size)
Higashi Yuenchi Park Location Map
About the Author
A writer and publisher from England, Rob has been exploring Japan’s islands since 2000. He specialises in travelling off the beaten track, whether on remote atolls or in the hidden streets of major cities. He’s the founder of TheRealJapan.com.
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Icoca IC Travelcard
Kobe Illuminage (alternative light festival in Kita Ward)
Ticketing options via Klook
Kobe Itinerary Ideas
From How to Spend A Week in Kansai (and Not Visit Kyoto)
Official Kobe Luminarie website
http://kobe-luminarie.jp/ (Japanese only)
Here's the Google English translated version of the Official site (but it isn't great unfortunately)
Kobe Luminarie page on Trip Advisor
Kobe City Hall 24th Floor Observation Deck (Feel Kobe website)