Text & Images by: Lily Riani
Blessed with heritage-rich Kyoto and food-heaven Osaka, together with lush green mountains and deep blue sea, Kansai Region has it all, including the bragging rights as the region with the most UNESCO World Heritage Listings and Sites in Japan.
Kansai, comprising seven beautiful prefectures, has always attracted travellers all over the world, luring them through its unique culture, gastronomy, and eco-tourism, which includes landscapes and outdoor activities. Taking it to the next level, Kansai has now embarked on halal tourism, focussing on the Muslim market in South East Asia since Japan is now one of the most popular destinations for this segment. International airports and big cities are now Muslim-friendly, musholla (Muslim prayer rooms or spaces) available more than ever and halal restaurants mushrooming.
Paving the path less travelled in the Kansai Region sweeps one of her feet – experiencing the sea of clouds, various crabs, unique onsen (Japanese hot bath) and enchanting bamboo groves are just the tip of the iceberg. Roll them all together with majestic temples, striking tori gates, shrines, castles and beautiful lakes, you will get one fantastic travel destination. Besides, Kansai is also ideal for the outdoorsy and adventurous since the destination offers ski, banana snow boat ride and short hike to the volcanic crater, as well as trying out the ever famous poisonous puffer fish and the curious tofu ice-cream.
Embracing modernity, Upholding heritage
Known as the thousand-year capital and once served as the emperor’s residence and now a cultural centre, Kyoto certainly lives up to its name. It is said that if one wishes to experience Japan, Kyoto is the best place to start. Amidst the Edo period architecture and landscape, one can still spot girls in kimono strolling in the city, testifying that culture and tradition is strongly conserved despite the technological advances and western influence.
Travellers should not miss visiting Kyoto’s Arashiyama Bamboo Grove for its fairy tale-like atmosphere and enchanting feel. Another landmark worth noting is the Kimono Forest, the latest hype at Hannari Hokkori Square located at Arishiyama train station, which is adorned with various rich and luxuriant fabrics used in the making of kimono. The idea is to create awareness towards the art of kimono, giving the train station a new and distinctive mood and feel, besides generating interest among the younger generation to appreciate kimono’s cultural significance and heritage.
No one season look or feel the same in Arashiyama but rest assured that the boat ride along Hozugawa River remains memorable all year round as it takes travellers through torrents and deep pools, offering a mild adrenaline rush.
Travellers are also encouraged to visit the stunning Tanba Mountain range via the Romantic Train or Sagano Torokko at every season for them to enjoy the crimson gold leaves during autumn, the powdery snow topping the mountains during winter, the cheerful sakura during spring, and emerald greenery during summer.
Kiyomizu-dera Temple, also known as Pure Water Temple, is recognised by UNESCO as one of Japan’s heritage sites and one of the most celebrated and famous, characterised by the majestic wooden stage jutting out from the main hall that is supported by hundreds of pillars, offering the view of Kyoto city. Often visited in August during the Thousand-day Pilgrimage, locals would bring their concerns and hopes to the statue of the Thousand-Armed Kannon, believing that their one day prayer is equivalent to a thousand days’ worth of meritorious prayers. This ritual started over one thousand years ago.
Onsen splendour, Crab galore
Nestled right between Sea of Japan and Kannabe Highlands, lies the pristine 1300 year-old onsen (hot spring) town of Kinosaki. Located three hours of train ride from Kyoto or Osaka, Kinosaki is the town where time stands still, willow trees bow to your presence and the stream lullabies you to sleep. Travellers would also be able to spot men and women simply dressed in yukata, a sight familiar only to Kinosaki.
Besides socialising, bathing in facilities that uses the onsen water proves beneficial as it relaxes muscles, accelerates metabolism, assists in digestion, relieves skin ailments and rashes, including bruises. To meet travellers’s accommodation needs, the town is replete with ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) that comes complete with their tatami flooring, futon mattress, yukata robe and geta (Japanese footwear resembling clogs and flip-flops)
Culinary is at its best as fresh seafood are in abundance especially crab. During high season between November and March, one can easily sample five to ten Matsuba Crab (snow crab) during mealtime. The crab is prepared in the form of sushi, sashimi and chawanmushi, as well as crab soup, grilled crab, shabu-shabu, tempura, kani miso and more. The crab dish is usually paired with onsen tamago or onsen boiled egg, another Kinosaki unique delicacy.
It seems that all travellers could easily fall for Kinosaki, especially when they climb up Mt. Kuruhi to witness the amazing sunrise, sea of cloud and the view of Sea of Japan, Maruyama River and Ramsar Wetland. For such an experience, travellers need to arrange it with their respective lodgings.
For outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers
Located in Toyooka City, Hyogo Prefecture, Okukannabe Ski Area is an outdoor recreational area in the mountains offering outdoor activities such as skiing, snowboarding and snow trekking at a volcanic crater. A hidden gem for many travellers, it is accessible by bus from Kinosaki or train from most city stations.
Another attraction is the basalt rock cave at Genbudo Park, considered as the great natural wonder of Hyogo Prefecture. The Genbudo cave system was formed 1.6 million years ago from lava that flowed from a volcanic eruption.
During summer, Okukannabe Ski Area is also the place where travellers can engage in trekking, grass roller-blading, paragliding, camping, river-fishing and checking out the waterfall. The place is also packed during summer since it becomes the venue for family outings, schools trips and corporate teambuilding. There are also tranquil temples, shrines and museums here for contemplation and reflection.
Awed by beauty, Captivated by history
A place that one should never skip is the Himeji Castle, recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the most visited castle in Japan. Standing strong for over 400 years, this magnificent white castle is the finest example of Japanese castle architecture.
Tested through time and survived the extensive bombing during World War II and the Great Hanshin earthquake in 1995, Himeji Castle remains intact and now glorified as Japan’s national treasure.
Exceptionally popular during the cherry blossom season, the locals and travellers alike can be seen picnicking and lazing at the castle courtyard to admire its beauty while appreciating the beginning of spring. It is advised to book one’s accommodation in advance during spring season since limited number of visitors are allowed during this time.
A culinary craft mastered only by a few chefs and requires license is the preparation of the poisonous fugu or puffer fish, a cuisine made famous in Japan since it allows diners to excitingly tread on the adventurous side. Due to the considerable risk involved, chefs must be highly trained and experienced to ensure that they are experts in removing the fish’s toxic parts, which otherwise would bring dire consequences. In Himeji, one can hop into a puffer fish licensed restaurant and experiment eating this authentic delicacy. There are many ways to prepare fugu, from steamboat to sashimi, from toban-yaki style to skill jelly fugu, all leaving diners in amazement.
The port, the shopping and the Kobe beef
“Osaka people spend their money on food, Kyoto people on Kimonos and Kobe people on shoes” is the popular phrase amongst the locals, and with good reason.
Ensconced by the highlands and the sea, cladded amongst ports and malls, a stone’s throw from Osaka and Kyoto is Kobe, a port city by the Osaka Bay that is also the sixth largest city in Japan and producer of the world famous meat, the Wagyu beef. Ignorant to many, Kobe is also famous for shoe-making because Nagata area is the centre of shoe manufacturing. Shoe shops are abundant in Kobe besides the famous Kobe beef and confectionary stores. It is no surprise to see malls full of shopaholics, stylish youngsters and food hunters.
A trip to Kobe is a trip where one can hike up the mountain and admire pristine greenery, enjoy the sunset boat cruise and appreciate the city from the bay, or simply embark on retail therapy. Many fall in love with Kobe since it offers the chance to shop and dine till drop, other than the fact that the locals here have good work-life balance due to what Kobe has to offer.
Kansai tourism therefore caters to all types of travellers, be they outdoor enthusiasts, nature lovers, UNESCO World Heritage Sites hunters, foodies and shopaholics. For those who intend to embark on unplanned trips, wishing to travel the road less travelled or seeking new experiences, they can conveniently stop at any Kansai region tourism information centre as it offers recommendations, options and advice on what to do and where to go, including SIM card purchase, Wi-Fi access and musholla. Some even have storage spaces and provide delivery to nearby selected hotels. With such extensive service offerings and great experiences, we foresee that Kansai is set to becoming one of the next star destinations…