The Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake Museum in Kobe, Japan

January 3, 2011 MuseumChick

Happy New Year’s! For my first post of the New Year I wanted to do something new- a guest post from an e-friend living in Japan. Japan is a place that I have never been to and I’m hoping to go to one day (maybe even with Darcy in tow). So, when I started chatting with Dr. Benedict Davies and discussing our travels in Egypt, I was immediately struck by his knowledge and passion for culture and ancient history. I thought I would be lucky to have him share his experiences on MuseumChick. In this guest post he writes about an unconventional museum- The Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake Memorial Museum in Kobe, Japan. His recounts will walk you through this interesting and sobering museum and give you a look at a dark day in Japan’s history.

Located in a quiet district, east of the centre of Kobe, The Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake Memorial Museum was established to commemorate the 6,434 souls who tragically lost their lives in one of the worst earthquakes in Japan’s living memory. The timing of the disaster, 5:46 on the morning of 17th January 1995, is displayed as a potent reminder in huge neon lettering down both front and back of the museum. The earthquake ripped through the heart of Kobe with an intensity of 7.3 on the Richter scale, and in the process destroyed most of the harbour and large swathes of the city centre, including the collapse of an 800m stretch of one of the main elevated arterials. It is the image of this toppled highway that remains a symbolic testament to the terrible devastation that ripped the city apart on that fateful day.

The museum is housed in a state-of-the-art building, purposefully designed using a revolutionary architectural design. Costing some $60 million, its double-skin glass walls were specifically designed to withstand the most devastating earthquake imaginable. The building is also home to various `disaster prevention` agencies, each of which has contributed immensely to many of the current exhibits.

Entering the building’s striking glass façade, visitors are lead into a spacious atrium, from where admittance to the museum is regulated with the strict military precision for which the Japanese are so renowned. The first part of the tour consists of a harrowing 3-D film, which reconstructs in brutal realism the events of that dreadful day. For seven minutes, a tangible tension is steadily created, as flashing images, haunting sound effects and vibrating floors all serve to re-create collapsing buildings and ruined infrastructure in a vivid assault on all of one’s senses. With its graphic portrayal of the horror of that morning’s events, this short film is clearly designed to leave everyone in a sober mood.

There is little time to compose oneself before a host of exquisitely attired attendants lead visitors through a reconstructed ruined street scene and into a second auditorium. Here, a fascinating documentary charts the process of recovery and re-building. Particular emphasis is focused on the debt owed by the city to the thousands of ‘volunteers’ who descended on Kobe in the quake’s immediate aftermath.

Upstairs in the main exhibition space, high-tech displays vie for space alongside a collection of more commonplace objects, including life-saving equipment and supplies, gifted to the city from overseas governments and aid agencies. A really nice touch, and something that lends the exhibition a real air of authenticity, is the host of elderly `volunteer-residents` who are constantly on hand to relate their own personal stories from that fateful day.

The museum is certainly not the morbid “curiosity shop” that it might at first appear. In fact, it deals with the drama of that day with considerable sympathy and compassion. It also serves as a major centre of learning for the on-going study of disaster prevention. Whilst it may not be to everybody’s tastes, I personally found it a compelling insight into the lasting sociological effects of this terrifying chapter in Kobe’s history.

Getting there:  Take a JR-train one stop east from Sannomiya to Nada, from where the museum is a 10 minute walk away. Alternatively, you can reach the museum on foot in 30 minutes from the centre of Kobe.

About the author:
Dr Benedict Davies is an Egyptologist and the founder of “Iconic Guides”, a series of MP-3 audio tours of ancient Egypt, Greece and Japan.  He is a leading expert on the community of royal workmen at Deir el-Medina and the Valley of the Kings. A seasoned traveller and resident in Japan, Benedict is particularly interested in the culture and art of the ancient Near East and the Far East.

Benedict’s audio guides to the temples of Kyoto and Nara are now on sale at

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  1. ListsMania 04.25.2014

    Japan had the most destruction by this quake rather than the previous ones in the past ..
    ListsMania recently posted…Top 10 Most Devastating Natural Disasters EverMy Profile

  2. Brod Nicholls 04.28.2013

    I just found this so fascinating,I have been walking around Richmond in Melbourne Australia and really enjoying the local history of the buildings.I thank you so much Kobe Japan for bringing this sensitivity to life in buildings back to me.Brod

    • MuseumChick 04.28.2013

      Hi Brod- Thank you for your kind comment about my blog and I’m glad you find it interesting!

  3. Suzy 03.16.2011

    This is really interesting to read after the recent earthquake in Japan. The exhibits appear chilling, yet powerful. It is also nice how you can speak with survivors and get that personal connection.

    • MuseumChick 03.16.2011

      Thanks Suzy- It is really interesting how plaguing the earthquakes are in Japan and interesting to learn how they cope. Praying for the people there…

  4. Peter K 01.4.2011

    Very interesting museum and great guest post. I particularly like the last picture with the slanted street lights

  5. Andi 01.3.2011

    Happy New Year!!! What a great guest post. :)