ALMOST ALL TRAVELERS to Japan visit Kyoto — and it’s no wonder why, given its millennia of history and timeless scenery on offer. Whether you’re strolling amid the ancient temples of Higashiyama or through the cinematic bamboo groves of Arashiyama, few places represent Japan more iconically than its erstwhile capital.
On your next trip to Japan, think of Kyoto not (just) as your destination, but as the place where new journeys begin. Take advantage of the city’s central location within the Kansai region to discover lesser-known treasures of western Japan. Even if you hadn’t heard of the region before you stumbled upon this article, it’s a name you won’t soon forget. Kansai is the cultural, natural and spiritual heart of Japan, with a diverse array of attractions and experiences. From the towering Himeji Castle, futuristic Osaka, to the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route, here’s some of the highlights in the Kansai region of Japan.
How long should you spend in the Kansai region?
Assuming you spend between two to three days exploring Kyoto-proper, as most travelers do, we’d recommend devoting around a week of your trip to the Kansai region. Some travelers will choose to base themselves in Kyoto the entire time, visiting all surrounding destinations as day trips, be they individual attractions or huge cities.
Other travelers take a slightly different approach, spending a few days in (and take a few day trips from) Kyoto, then migrating to a different destination in Kansai for the rest of their time in the region. For example, many visitors to Japan enjoy the contrast of Osaka’s neon lights and bustling, urban energy after a few days in comparatively quieter Kyoto. From destinations to cultural spots, here are some of the highlights of the Kansai region.
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Nara has gained fame among visitors to Japan for two primary reasons. In addition to its large and photogenic population of urban deer, it’s also home to some of Japan’s oldest surviving wooden architecture, including the Tofuku-ji five-story pagoda, and Todai-ji, which houses Japan’s largest bronze Buddha. Accessible in less than an hour from Kyoto by train, Nara is an easy half or full-day trip. Nara is beautiful year-round, but particularly amid late November’s autumn colors and the cherry blossoms of early April.
(TIP: If you want to further supercharge your Nara day trip, stop in the tea-producing city of Uji on the way back. In addition to enjoying a fresh cup of matcha, you can visit Byodo-in, the temple pictured on the back of the ten yen coin.)
2. Himeji Castle
Photo: Pajor Pawel/Shutterstock
First constructed in the 14th-century under the patronage of a local Samurai lord, Himeji Castle is today Japan’s most iconic (and arguably its most beautiful) feudal castle. Its current construction, which reflects expansive renovations during the 17th century, centers upon its highest tower or tenshu, one of only 12 that still stand intact. Himeji Castle is particularly famous during cherry blossom season when hundreds of trees planted within its walls and around its moat provide a pink frame for its white facade, which has earned it the nickname “Heron Castle.” Himeji Castle is around an hour west of Kyoto, in Hyogo prefecture and can be reached via Shinkansen bullet train.
3. Lake Biwa
Another great place to see castles near Kyoto is along the shores of Lake Biwa, just east of the city in Shiga prefecture. The lakefront castles of Nagahama and Hikone (the latter of which, like Himeji, features an original tenshu) are especially appealing. Other attractions around Lake Biwa include the old merchant town of Omihachiman, the “floating” torii gate of the Shirahige Shrine and Enryaku-ji temple. The temple is perched atop Mt. Hiei, which towers between Kyoto and Shiga.
Photo: Richie Chan/Shutterstock
The massive city of Osaka is, along with Kyoto, the nucleus of the Kansai region. Located around 30 minutes southwest of Kyoto by train, Osaka is diverse and cosmopolitan. You can begin the day at spiritual Shitenno-ji temple, have a picnic lunch beneath towering Osaka Castle and end it eating street foot amid the strobing lights of Dotonbori pedestrian streets. While some travelers prefer to stay in Osaka for a few days instead of just visiting on a day trip, its proximity to Kyoto makes either of these options easily doable.
Although Kyoto city sits reasonably close to the sea, few travelers realize that Kyoto prefecture is actually home to beautiful beach scenery, specifically in the Kyotango region which is located about two hours north of Kyoto Station via limited express train. Upon arriving here, a multitude of options await you. During colder months when swimming is not necessarily possible, you can marvel at the Amanohashidate “Bridge to Heaven,” which locals say resembles a dragon, or take a boat trip through the traditional funaya houses (boathouses) of Ine Fishing Village. If the weather is warmer and sunnier, set your towel out on the golden sands of Kotohikihama or Sunagata beaches.
Photo: Sean Pavone/Shutterstock
One quirky fact about Kobe is that while this city is known around the globe for its beef, the cows are actually raised on outlying Japanese islands such as Awaji and Oki and take their name after having been slaughtered in Kobe. With this being said, a luxurious Wagyu dinner (ideally served Teppanyaki style) is far from the only thing to do in Kobe. The city is home to Japan’s largest Chinatowns, Nankin-Machi, which is an exciting cultural experience. Another must-see is Kobe Port Tower, which lights up at water level and the ropeway up Mt.Rokko which treats visitors to a view over the cityscape.
(TIP: Since Kobe sits between Kyoto and Himeji, a great all-day trip involves spending the morning at Himeji Castle, then stopping in Kobe for the afternoon and/or evening on the way back.)
7. Mt. Koya and the Kumano Kodo
Kansai’s hilly topography makes it perfect for hiking, particularly in spiritual Wakayama prefecture which sits between two and three hours from Kyoto by train. Here, you have two basic choices. Most travelers head to Mt. Koya, an esoteric Buddhist settlement founded in the 8th century by a Kyoto monk known posthumously as Kukai. You can hike all the way to the top from Kudoyama station, or ride a funicular railway up and traipse amid the Danjo Garan temple complex or through the mysterious Okunoin cemetery. Another option is to hike along the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage, a multi-day route that snakes through the mountains, starting on the western end of the Kii peninsula in Kii-Tanabe and ending out east in Shingu, the closest city to the stunning waterfall pagoda of Nachi Taisha shrine