Former classmate and newly minted Michigan State professor J.S. writes:
Have you ever been to Kobe (or, failing that, the general Osaka/Kyoto area)? I have a free day after a conference and most of the tourist suggestions I’ve read are insipid.
I have been to Kobe and the area. Kobe has not much more for the tourist than the wallet-busting beef. Testament to the resilience of the inhabitants, there is little to remind of the tragic earthquake.
I am guessing you are classing Kyoto/Nara as insipid since those are the main draws in the area, though I especially enjoy the deer wandering around Nara. Osaka in some ways I like better than Tokyo, it is a pulsating place, centered on the crazy Dotombori. The gigantic Spa World would be a treat.
Before heading to Osaka, though, I would hop on a bullet train from Shin-Kobe or Shin-Osaka to Hiroshima (schedules here, take care in selecting stations). In about 90 minutes you will be at one of the most poignant, disturbing relics of human conflict. The city has a quite different vibe from Tokyo or Osaka, too.
If you want to get away from the tourists, Shikoku, the oft-forgotten of Japan’s main four islands is just down the bridge from Kobe. A day won’t be enough for the millennium-old 88 Temple Circuit but you can get a sense of rural Japan amid great scenery.