Kansai is a group of prefectures in western Japan known for everything from the rich history of Kyoto to the food culture of Osaka. It is home to some of the best sights in the country and has a huge range of things to see and do. Visiting Kansai is a must-do for any Japan traveller and a great experience for both first time visitors and return travellers.
Kansai is made up of the prefectures of Osaka, Kyoto, Hyogo, Nara, Wakayama, Mie and Shiga. These are located on the main island of Japan, Honshu, and have strong cultural and historical ties as a group. Kansai is well-known for a lot of things, one of the main ones being the distinct personality associated with the region. Kansai is considered to be the more outgoing, talkative, fun-loving persona in opposition to the more reserved, formal and straight-faced Kanto region (Tokyo and the surrounding prefectures). Kansai thinks of Kanto as boring and cold, Kanto thinks of Kansai as brash and overly forward. This difference has led to Kansai being symbolic of counter-culture. This is strengthened by the distinctive tones of ‘Kansai-ben’ or Kansai dialect. The people of Kansai have held tightly to their dialect despite the standardization of the Japanese language spreading from Tokyo. This has led to it being well-known while other regional dialects become rare. Kansai also has strong historical ties with the ancient capital of Kyoto, and the even more ancient capital of Nara. Not only this but Kansai is home to the country’s holiest shrine and the earliest state-built temple. However, Kansai is a large region with many different cities, each with their own individual charm.
Where to Stay in Kansai, Japan
The first of these cities is Osaka. Many of the personality traits of Kansai are synonymous with Osaka, as it is the biggest and the loudest prefecture. Osaka is the third-largest city in Japan and the largest city in Kansai. It is known as the ‘kitchen of Japan’ due to the number of different foods originating in the area and the strong hospitality culture. Osaka is also home to the concept of ‘kuidaore’ or ‘eat until you drop’. So, what are the foods that inspire such a culture? We start with takoyaki, one of the most well-known Osaka foods, and most probably responsible for Osaka’s association with octopus. Takoyaki is a street food, consisting of a number of small fried balls of dough with a filling. There are a range of fillings but the most traditional and most common is octopus. It is served piping hot with a good covering of sauces. Another similar dish is okonomiyaki. Okonomiyaki is often likened to a savoury pancake or omelette. It is made up largely of cabbage, egg, a batter and from there it is largely customizable. You can choose which meats, vegetables or other ingredients you would like in your okonomiyaki and they will be included. It is later brushed with the same sauces as the takoyaki. These are just a few examples of Osaka’s food culture and love of ‘Japanese soul food’. The city is also home to an array of quirky tourist attractions, from the retro charm of Shinsekai to the popular alternative fashion suburb of Amerikamura. Osaka is a warm, friendly city that will welcome you with open arms.
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Just a short train ride from Osaka is Kyoto. Kyoto is more well-known for its historical sites. It is home to 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and many more locations significant to Japan’s history. Kyoto served as the capital of Japan for 1000 years and through multiple rulers, making it prime land for beautiful shrines, temples, castles and gardens. A lot of the sights that are symbolic of Japan can be found in Japan. One of these is Fushimi Inari shrine, a shrine with thousands of repeating red torii gates lining the paths. Fushimi Inari is the most important Inari shrine, a category of shrine dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice. These shrines are dotted with statues of foxes, as they were considered the messenger of the god. Kyoto is also home to Kinkakuji, the Gold Pavilion, and Ginkakuji, the Silver Pavilion. These are two sister temples which are actually quite different in appearance. Kinkakuji is well-known as it is covered entirely in gold-leaf, truly living up to it’s name. The shining gold Kinkakuji in front of the surrounding forests is an image truly representative of Kyoto. These are just a few examples as it would be impossible to cover all the sites located in the traditional and culturally significant Kyoto. That is why it has endured as one of the most popular cities for tourists for many years.
Nara is a short 1 hour train ride from Osaka, yet has a completely different atmosphere. Nara was actually the first permanent capital of Japan. Prior to this, the custom was to change capital with each new Emporer. Nara cemented the capital in place. However, this only lasted for 80 years, in comparison with Kyoto’s 1000. Due to this, Nara is home to some of the oldest and biggest temples and shrines, but it isn’t as overwhelming as the amount in Kyoto. Upon arriving in Nara, one of the first things you might notice is the abundance of the deer mascot and deer-themed objects. This is because one of Nara’s top attractions are the deer that roam freely through the city. While the deer tend to mostly stay in and around Nara Park, they are considered wild animals and can be found throughout the city. They have become accustomed to people and deer cookies are sold at stands in Nara Park to feed to the deer. If you decide to feed the deer, be prepared to be surrounded as they know when food is around and they gather fast! Nara Park is also surrounded by a number of temples and shrines, making it a wonderful place to visit.
In the opposite direction, we have Kobe. Over the years Kobe has escaped a lot of the international attention placed on other areas in the Kansai region and so has developed a more relaxed feel. Kobe is the capital of the Hyogo prefecture, the first of our Kansai cities so far to not have the same name as the prefecture it is situated in. Kobe is an important port city and was one of the first ports open to international trade and visitors. Because of this, Kobe has had a lot longer to absorb an international influence. This can be seen in the heavily European design of some buildings. There is even a district of Kobe, Kitano, which was heavily populated by Europeans in the 19th Century and has retained a number of European-style houses. The international influence has also led to Kobe having one of the largest Chinatown districts in Japan. Chinatown, located in the Nankinmachi district of Kobe, is a lively area full of street food and regular festivals. Kobe has been an international city for much longer than most of Japan and this shows in its adoption of food, design and houses from overseas and it’s relaxed, metropolitan atmosphere.
Wakayama is located south of Osaka and is one of the lesser populated areas within Kansai. The prefecture of Wakayama is predominantly known for the beachside towns like Shirahama and for Kumano Kodo hiking. The Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Trails are a number of hiking trails through the mountains and forest of Wakayama, leading to three spiritually significant shrines. The hiking itself is supposed to be a spiritual experience, culminating in the arrival at the shrines. However, there is more to Wakayama than these shrines. The city of Wakayama is also home to a number of shrines and temples, including Oda Park in the centre of the city. The prefecture is also well-known for its naturally occurring hot springs. There are a number of beachside onsens, taking advantage of the good views, relaxing beaches and hot spring water. However, for something different, a 25-minute train ride from the centre of the city will take you to onsens within the national park area of the nearby town of Kada. Onsens in the forest are a calming experience and this is ideal after the excitement of Kansai.
Over time, Kansai has evolved from being just a group of closely-located prefectures to having a distinct personality and culture. Kansai prides itself on being different to the rest of Japan and is an exciting place to visit because of it. Whether it’s nature-filled Wakayama or historical Kyoto, there is always something to see or something to do in Kansai.
Book Hotels in Kansai Region, Japan
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Hannah Cook has been living and working in Osaka, Japan for the last 2 years. She enjoys seeing and trying new things and has been doing her best to experience everything Japan has to offer.