What makes Japan so amazing to travel in is the variety—with every new prefecture, city or village you find something unique. Consisting of 47 prefectures, including 43 traditional prefectures, two urban prefectures (Osaka and Kyoto), one territory (Hokkaido) and the Metropolis of Tokyo, Japan has a lot of ground to cover, and a lot of surprises to unearth. If you’re thinking of venturing outside of the obvious, here are some highlights to help you pick your prefecture!
We’ve divided them by region, with this part covering Kansai. A world away from Tokyo, it is certainly not a secret, but it is still filled with quiet towns and amazing scenery to be explored, with a laid-back and more traditional feel, it is still filled with culture and vibrant festivals! With neon-lit cities and lantern-lit temples, there is a real harmony between old and new in Kansai, with something for everyone.
Mie – 三重県
This quiet prefecture is proud home to ninjas, the birthplace of Basho, free-diving pearl hunters and grand shrines, just to name a few. For a prefecture with some interesting characters and plenty of food, Mie is the place to be.
- Ise Jingu: The Grand Shrine is dedicated to the sun goddess Amaterasu and is a complex formed of multiple Shinto shrines including the two primary ones: Naikyu and Geku. The town is a beautiful place to explore with a river, plenty of traditional shops and a cat shrine, as well as the wedded rocks of Meoto-Iwa.
- Iga Ninja Village: Aside from the dozens of ninjas lurking throughout the town (keep an eye out) and ninja trains, there is a great ninja museum with a house full of tricks, a live performance and a chance to practice your ninja skills. It is also the home of Basho the poet and has a great castle.
- Toba: A sleepy town with free-divers and plenty of pearls, Toba is best visited during the Shirongo festival in July, but watching the divers, visiting the museums and enjoying being by the sea is plenty enough for a day trip!
Festival: The Ise Lobster Festival involves giant parades along the shore and plenty of food stalls, games, performances and more. It’s a great chance to see Ise at its busiest, and be sure to try some of the famous lobster! The Izawanomiya Otaue Festival is a brilliant opportunity to see one of the biggest traditional rice-planting festivals!
Food: Mie’s specialties depend on location: but two of the most famous are Ise udon which have a thick, sweet concentrated soy broth over thick noodles and Ise ebi (lobster).
Shiga – 滋賀県
Often the forgotten prefecture, Shiga has plenty worth exploring and is a great place to take a break from the busy tourist sites nearby.
- Lake Biwa is Japan’s biggest lake, and whether you fancy strolling around it, taking a cruise or riding the cablecar in the surrounding mountain ranges, there are plenty of ways to enjoy the area. You can even walk the suspension bridge and take a zip line back down and watch the annual Birdman Rally in July!
- Hikone is a castle town on the shores of Lake Biwa and has a castle so stunning it is one of only three to be deemed a national treasure in Japan. Genkyuen Garden is a great stop-off here as it was built in 1677 and has been well-maintained ever since. If you pass through Omihachiman on the way, all the better!
- Enryakuji Temple is on the mountain range of Mount Hieizan which divides Kyoto and Shiga and is one of the most important monasteries in Japanese history. It is the headquarters of the Tendai sect of Japanese Buddhism and has three primary areas, it can be reached using the Sakamoto cablecar.
Festival: The Three Great Festivals of Lake Biwa are all magnificent, but the Sanno Festival may be the most stunning, as the mikoshi (portable shrines) are shaken violently to reflect the pains of childbirth and later transported across the lake and back in a solemn and majestic ritual.
Food: Somen noodles are dried for three years before being boiled, left to rest overnight and then immersed in broth used to simmer grilled mackerel before being served, topped with the delicious fish.
Kyoto – 京都府
The second most-visited part of Japan, Kyoto is traditional with a capital T. With a much slower pace of life, the capital has got temples and shrines galore and features the stunning Gion district, markets, rivers and more. Kyoto as a prefecture is the home of green tea and culture, a must-visit on your list for the contrast to busy Tokyo.
- The temples and shrines of Kyoto will be familiar from every guidebook, but are still breathtaking in reality. The Golden Pavilion is stunning, and is also just around the corner from the Ryoanji Zen gardens. The Silver Pavilion is also impressive, and Fushimi-Inari Taisha‘s trail of torii gates is a must-visit for everyone. The streets of Gion with the pagoda at the head are also a list-topper, and are lovely to walk around in the morning/evening.
- Arashiyama – A short trip from Kyoto, this town has beautiful bamboo forests, a lovely river with traditional boat rides and a monkey park!
- Uji – The home of the temple seen on the 10-yen coin as well as the center of green tea in Japan, this city is well worth exploring and offers a great chance to try some traditional Japanese treats without the busy crowds.
Festival: The Gion Matsuri is by far the most famous festival in Japan and takes place throughout July. With extravagant parades, breathtaking floats, thousands of people and incredible costumes, it is simply unmissable. The Daimonji Festival in Arashiyama is also worth a trip, as it involves burning the mountainside in the shape of Kanji, but is often hampered by rain.
Food: Kaiseki-ryori is a very traditional multi-course meal perfected in Kyoto, with beautiful presentation and delicate flavors. There is a also local taste for pickled vegetables, so be sure to try some when you can. For vegetarians try Shojin-ryouri, the traditional Buddhist course meals which are seasonal and all veggie too!
Osaka – 大阪府
The Kitchen of Japan, Osaka is famed for its food, and it certainly has plenty of it. You can eat till you drop to match the city’s saying as you choose from the stalls, restaurants and markets. There is the brilliant mix of old and new in Osaka, with Universal Studios Japan and the Cup Noodle Museum, as well as temples like Tennoji and the castle!
- Dotonbori has been the entertainment district since 1662 and lives up to its name! With numerous famous restaurants, larger-than-life food signs, enough neon to last a lifetime and an incredible atmosphere, this is place to go, especially at night!
- Sumiyoshi Taisha is one of the few examples of pure Japanese design, without any influence from the Asian mainland. It enshrines the Shinto gods who protects travelers at sea, so it can be a great place to get some luck for your next journey!
- Shinsekai is a great area to explore, developed as the “new world” before the war, and left neglected after—it has a rough and ready bustling atmosphere. With the northern half modeled on Paris it features the Tsutentaku Tower and is also famous for kushikatsu restaurants (skewered and battered food) as well as being next door to Shitenoji Temple and home to Spa World!
Festival: The Tenjin Matsuri is one of the three biggest in Japan, with giant parades on land and on boats with fireworks and plenty of performances. Alternatively, however, the Kishiwada Danjiri Festival has a spike of danger, as the carts are raced through the streets with teams riding precariously on top!
Food: Okonomiyaki and takoyaki are the most famous in Osaka, and can be tried almost anywhere—as well as kushikatsu and Kitsune udon, which is udon topped with aburage (fried tofu) and is definitely a lighter option!
Hyogo – 兵庫県
Right next to Kyoto, Hyogo is home to the most stunning castle in Japan, but has plenty of other great sights. Although they are a little more spread out than is ideal, it’s a great way to see rural Japan and means you’ll find extra spots to explore along the way!
- Himeji Castle is considered the most beautiful in Japan, and is nicknames the White Heron Castle due to its elegant white design. It is the finest surviving example of prototypical Japanese architecture and is absolutely stunning during cherry blossom season.
- Nankinmachi is Kobe’s Chinatown, and although it isn’t so big, it is jam-packed with stalls, shops and restaurants and merges well with the metropolitan feeling of the busy port town. It is especially nice to walk from Chinatown to the Kobe port area, particularly towards sunset when the views are stunning.
- Awaji Island is home to the traditional puppet theater of the region and holds performances at the Awaji Doll Joruri Pavilion in the main city. You can also see the terraced flowerbeds which form the Great Hanshin Earthquake Memorial and enjoy the views of the bay from Sumoto Castle.
Festival: The Nada Fighting Festival involves huge, ornate yatai (food stalls), as well as portable shrines that are smashed into each other during parades in the streets near Matsubara Hachiman Shrine. The Chinese New Year celebrations in Nankinmachi are also well worth seeing!
Food: Unavoidably, Kobe beef is the most famous, with the massaged, beer-fed cows making for some incredible dishes. If this isn’t your thing, try the akashiyaki (similar to takoyaki)ùthey are batter balls with octopus but are dipped in dashi before eating.
Nara – 奈良県
There’s more to Nara than deer (but they are a lot of fun!). Similar to Kyoto in its calmness and laid-back style, Nara has a very traditional feel and is great for seeing temples, shrines and architecture. Only a short trip from Kyoto, it is much quieter and is a lovely day out.
- Nara Park – Now you can’t visit Nara and not see the deer. Here they wander freely, snacking on senbei (crackers) held out by guests. They are very forward, so watch out for any grabbing your coat or camera strap, and be wary of your senbei supply, they can crowd around you.
- Todai-ji houses a giant Buddha statue made of bronze which is truly breathtaking. There is a wooden pillar with a hole the size of his nostril which you can climb throuh, which will ensure a long life. Behind the temple you will find a another Nigatsu-do hall, with a veranda offering lovely views of the city.
- Kofuku-ji is a pagoda and temple complex opened in 710, when Nara was the capital of Japan. The Central Golden Hall is being rebuilt and will be completed in 2018, but the rest of the structures are still impressive, with two pagodas and a museum.
Festival: Fire festivals are a favorite in Nara. The January Yamayaki Festival involves the lighting of the dry grass on the side of Wakakusa Mountain along with fireworks and the Omizutori Festival in March has monks waving flaming torches over the edges of Nigatsu-do’s veranda.
Food: Narazuke are a series of pickled vegetables which are kept for two years, with a special sweetness added using Mirin and are very moreish. For something more filling, you can try nyumen—a soba dish using specialty Miwa somen in a warm and light broth (normally, Miwa somen are eating cold, dipped in a cold soup).
Wakayama – 和歌山県
Nature’s playground, Wakayama is not on most people’s lists for Kansai, but this just means you can explore the treasures without the crowds.
- Nachi Falls: The tallest falls in Japan, they provide a magical backdrop to the magnificent Seigantoji Pagoda. The nearby Nachi Taisha is also great to stroll around, and is part of the large complex of neighboring religious sites that feature both Buddhist and Shinto design.
- Tomogashima: A cluster of four islands off the coast of Wakayama, these are amazing places to explore, with great hiking and camping. Dotted with fortress ruins it is a real adventure and easily completed in an afternoon, even at a leisurely pace with a picnic.
- Mount Koya: Koyasan is the heart of Shingon Buddhism introduced to Japan in 805 by Kukai. On the forest-covered mountaintop, a small, secluded temple town has developed around the mausoleum of Kukai—and it is the start and end point of the Shikoku Pilgrimage. This is an excellent place for a temple stay, with over half of the 100 temples on the streets of Koyasan offering this unique experience to pilgrims and visitors.
Festival: The Nachi-no-Ogi Festival revolves around fire, with participants carrying large burning torches from the path of the Kumano Nachi Taisha Grand Shrine to the sacred waterfall to purify the route. The Kochi Matsuri involves parades of heavily decorated large boats passing down the Koza-gawa River to Kochijima Island.
Food: For a hiking-lunch, stock-up on hayazushi (rice wrapped in mackerel) and meharizushi (rice wrapped in a pickled mustard leaf). After your travels, ordering chuka soba is a great way to try a restaurant’s Wakayama ramen – each has their own twist of shoyu and tonkotsu broth. Lastly, it is the birthplace of Soy sauce in Japan and a huge producer of ume so be sure to try some umeshu while you’re there!
So for a window into old Japan, with the bright lights only a train-ride away, Kansai is it’s own special piece of Japan, waiting for you to explore!