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.
East of the Kii Hantō mountain ranges, on the far side of the Kii Peninsula, a small knuckle of land sticks out into the ocean. Known as Shima Hantō (志摩半島), this peninsula has been designated a national park, partly for its natural beauty but also because it contains Japan’s spiritual heartland, Ise-jingū. Since the fourth century the Grand Shrine of Ise, on the edge of Ise town, has been venerated as the terrestrial home of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, from whom it was once believed all Japanese emperors are descended. Beyond Ise it’s pearl country. The world-famous Mikimoto company started up in Toba when an enterprising restaurant owner discovered the art of cultivating pearls. Now there’s a whole island dedicated to his memory, including a surprisingly interesting museum. Most of today’s pearls are raised further east in Ago-wan, where hundreds of rafts are tethered in a beautiful, island-speckled bay.
The Shima Hantō ends in a bay of islands known as Ago-wan (あご湾). This large, sheltered bay has myriad coves and deep inlets. For centuries, divers have been collecting natural pearls from its warm, shallow waters, but things really took off when Mikimoto started producing his cultured pearls in Ago-wan early in the twentieth century. Nowadays, hundreds of rafts moored between the islands trace strangely attractive patterns on the water, while, in the nets beneath, thousands of oysters busily work their magic.
The town of ISE (伊勢) wears its sanctity lightly, and many visitors find the town a disappointingly ordinary place. However, at Ise-jingū (伊勢神宮), Japan’s most sacred Shinto shrine, even non-Japanese visitors can appreciate a deeply spiritual atmosphere. Apart from their historical importance, there is an unquestionable sense of awe and mystery about these simple buildings, with their unusual architecture, deep in the cedar forest. Ise-jingū is naturally a top choice for the first shrine visit of the New Year (hatsu-mōde) on January 1. This is followed by more than 1500 annual ceremonies in honour of Ise’s gods. The most important of these revolve around the agricultural cycle, culminating in offerings of sacred rice (Oct 15–17). In spring (April 5–6) and during the autumn equinox (Sept 22 or 23), ancient Shinto dances and a moon-viewing party take place at the inner shrine.
Central Ise is bounded to the north by the JR and Kintetsu-line train tracks and by the Seta-gawa River to the east. The southwestern quarter is taken up by a large expanse of woodland (which accounts for a full third of the town’s area), in the midst of which lies the first of Ise-jingū’s two sanctuaries, the Gekū, or outer shrine. This is within easy walking distance of both train stations, but to reach the Naikū, or inner shrine, some 6km to the southeast, you’ll need to take a bus. The two shrines follow roughly the same layout, so if you’re pushed for time, head straight for the more interesting Naikū.
East of Ise, the ragged Shima Peninsula juts out into the Pacific Ocean. Most of this mountainous area belongs to the Ise-Shima National Park, whose largest settlement is the port of Toba, home to the famous Mikimoto Pearl Island. Although it’s on an attractive bay, the main reason to stop in the town of TOBA (鳥羽) is to pay homage to the birthplace of cultured pearls. The seafront is mostly a strip of car parks, ferry terminals and shopping arcades, behind which run the main road and train tracks. However, there are a number of interesting museums that have opened in recent years, and the abundance of good seafood restaurants is also worth considering should you wish to stop over.
In 1893, Mikimoto Kokichi (1858–1954), the son of a Toba noodle-maker, produced the world’s first cultivated pearl using tools developed by a dentist friend. Just six years later he opened his first shop in Tokyo’s fashionable Ginza shopping district, from where the Mikimoto empire spread worldwide. His life’s work is commemorated – and minutely detailed – on Mikimoto Pearl Island (ミキモト真珠島), lying just offshore, five minutes’ walk south of Toba’s train and bus stations. Even if you’re not a pearl fan, the museum is extremely well put together, with masses of information in English describing the whole process from seeding the oyster to grading and stringing the pearls. There’s also a section devoted to Mikimoto’s extraordinary pearl artworks. The unsung heroines of all this are the ama women divers who stoically come out every hour in all weathers to demonstrate their skills.
Further along the seafront is the Toba Aquarium (鳥羽水族館). The steep entry fee is off-putting but it is one of only two places in the world where you can see a captive dugong. The Toba Sea Folk Museum (海の博物館), further down the coast road in Uramura, is housed in an award-winning wooden building overlooking the ocean. The museum, both inside and out, has been constructed to resemble the upturned hull of a wooden fishing boat. It has some informative 3D exhibits on the historical relationship between the people of Toba and the sea, and if you are interested in the ama women divers, there are some good displays here providing more historical background. The museum is 10km south of Toba on the Pearl Road driveway.
The female diving culture of Ise-shima dates back to the earliest annals of Japanese history. Known as ama, the women free-dive for shellfish, such as oysters and abalone, as well as harvesting seaweed. On average they’ll spend three to four hours a day in the water, going down to a depth of 10–15m without any breathing apparatus, and some are still diving past the age of 70. Ama usually dive year-round either in small groups, or from boats skippered by their husbands. The reason for women-only divers is that they can hold their breath longer than men and are blessed with an extra layer of insulating fat, which protects them from the freezing waters.
Traditionally, ama harvested seafood in Ise Bay and transported it to Ise-jingū, where they presented their catch as an offering. They played a major role in the development of the cultured pearl industry in the nineteenth century, helping to gather the akoya pearl oysters. Today, there are approximately 1300 ama in the Toba area; they still wear the customary white outfits, which apparently scare off sharks, and which are also marked with special protective star-shaped charms to ward off bad luck.