KOBE, Japan (AP) _ For centuries, Japanese revered their emperor as a god. Today, in a time of crisis, they welcomed him as a friend.

Emperor Akihito, accompanied by Empress Michiko, made his first visit to Kobe since the western port city was ravaged two weeks ago by an earthquake that killed more than 5,000 people. The couple toured quake shelters, kneeling among survivors' scattered possessions and offering encouragement.

One survivor told the emperor of his wish for a bath. A woman wept after the empress touched her hand. Shelter residents bowed deeply to the royal pair.

Spontaneous contact with ordinary Japanese citizens is rare for the imperial couple, who spend most of their time presiding at ceremonial events or cloistered at the palace.

Often photographed in formal wear or traditional robes, the two dressed today in plain clothing. Akihito wore a ski jacket and a turtleneck; Michiko wore a short jacket, long skirt and ankle boots.

``You've suffered a great deal,'' the emperor told refugees at his first stop, a gymnasium-turned-shelter outside Kobe. ``Please take good care of yourselves.''

The empress urged a crowd of people to ``Hold on to your hope.''

Many quake victims are angry over the government's slow and ineffective rescue effort after the quake. The emperor, however, has no role in politics or policymaking, and few seemed to hold bureaucratic bumbling against him.

Still, some were disgruntled by the visit.

``Don't send us the emperor,'' said Kobe shopowner Mitsu Inoue, 66, whose business was destroyed. ``We don't need visitors. We need money!'''

Most quake survivors, though, seemed touched and grateful for the visit. After Michiko placed a small bouquet in the rubble of central Kobe, where many victims died, a woman wept over it, saying over and over again, ``Thank you, thank you.''

``I think the emperor's visit is an important gesture,'' said survivor Yasuhisa Kajiguchi. ``The emperor is, after all, the symbol of our nation. I think this will raise hopes.''

The royal couple were spending eight hours in the quake zone, shuttling by helicopter and motorcade to 13 sites. More than a quarter-million quake refugees are living in unheated shelters set up in gymnasiums, schools and other public buildings.

As of today, the death toll from the Jan. 17 quake stood at 5,097. Twelve people were still missing, and 26,801 people were injured. The 7.2-magnitude quake was Japan's most destructive in 70 years.

Despite the gravity of the disaster, the emperor _ generally treated with kid gloves by Japanese media _ has not been overtly criticized for waiting a full two weeks to visit.

Visits soon after disasters are not the norm. In 1993, after a tidal wave claimed more than 200 lives on northern Okushiri Island, the emperor waited moe than two weeks to travel there.

Some criticism was voiced, though, after the Imperial Household Agency, which runs palace affairs, dispatched Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako on a Middle East tour three days after the quake. The two wound up returning early.

In the quake zone, meanwhile, cold and aftershocks worsened the misery of survivors. The temperature plunged to just below freezing overnight, and it snowed today. More aftershocks rattled the region, including one before dawn today with a magnitude of 3.7.

There have been scattered reports of price-gouging since the disaster. Today, the government announced a special telephone line for consumers to report illegal price increases.

Also today, Trade Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto said the government was considering tax breaks and low-interest loans for large companies that lost buildings and equipment.