In a country so devoid of flat land, the great rice-growing plains of KANSAI (関西), the district around Ōsaka and Kyoto, are imbued with an almost mystical significance. This was where the nation first began to take root, in the region known as Yamato, and where a distinct Japanese civilization evolved from the strong cultural influences of China and Korea. Kansai people are tremendously proud of their pivotal role in Japanese history and tend to look down on Tokyo, which they regard as an uncivilized upstart. Today, its diverse legacy of temples, shrines and castles, combined with an increasing array of exciting modern architecture, makes Kansai one of Japan’s top tourist destinations. The former imperial capitals of Kyoto and Nara, with their enduring historical and cultural importance, are naturally a major part of the region’s appeal, and are covered in the previous chapter.
Although Ōsaka has been much maligned as an “ugly” and “chaotic” city, it is not short of attractions and easily makes up for its aesthetic shortcomings with an excess of commercial spirit – the source of its long-established wealth – and an enthusiastic love of eating, drinking and its own style of comedy.
South of Ōsaka, the temples of Kōya-san provide a tranquil glimpse into contemporary religious practice in Japan. This mountain-top retreat – the headquarters of the Shingon school of Buddhism – has been an active centre of pilgrimage since the ninth century. People of all faiths are welcome to stay in the quiet old temples and join in the morning prayer service. Afterwards, you can walk through the atmospheric Okunoin cemetery to visit the grave of Shingon’s founder, Kōbō Daishi, wreathed in incense smoke under towering cryptomeria trees.
Shinto, Japan’s native religion, also has deep spiritual roots in Kansai. Not far from Kōya-san is the Kumano Kodō, an ancient pilgrimage route through the “Land of the Gods”, where for centuries both emperors and peasants sought purification and healing at sacred sites and hot springs. Over on the far eastern side of the region is Ise-jingū, one of the country’s most important Shinto shrines, dedicated to Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess, from whom all Japan’s emperors are descended. Ise itself is the gateway to an attractive peninsula called Shima Hantō. Here, ama women divers still use traditional fishing methods to collect shellfish. The unspoiled scenery of Agō-wan, the bay at the southern tip of the peninsula, is a rewarding destination for scenic boat rides which give a bird’s-eye view of the cultured pearl industry.
The port of Kōbe, now fully recovered from 1995’s devastating earthquake, is less than thirty minutes west of Ōsaka in a dramatic location on the edge of Ōsaka Bay. Kōbe’s sights are less of a draw than its relaxed cosmopolitan atmosphere, best experienced with a stroll around its shops and harbourside developments. Close by is the ancient hot-spring resort Arima Onsen, which has managed to retain some old-world hospitality in its elegant ryokan.
Wherever you choose to stay in Kansai, don’t miss the opportunity to visit Himeji, on the area’s western edge, to explore Himeji-jō, Japan’s most impressive castle. Himeji also has a couple of intriguing museums in buildings designed by top contemporary architects, and the lovely Himeji Kōko-en, nine connected gardens laid out according to traditional principles.