June 21, 2024

Modern Japan wouldn’t be what it is today without the influence and input of the region of Kansai — and its cities Osaka and Kyoto — which have significantly influenced the country’s political, cultural and economic development. Kyoto served as Japan’s capital for over a millennium and is today known as the nation’s cultural epicentre, attracting millions of travellers to the city’s streets each year. 

Beyond Kyoto, visitors will see there is a profound respect for tradition throughout the region found in the theatre, religion, art and cuisine. From classical masked Noh performances to ancient Shinto shrines believed to be the home of local kami (spirits or deities) to traditional kaiseki banquets — there are myriad experiences and the region reveals new depths with every visit.

1. Mie Prefecture
Dine with ama divers 

Stretching along the rural southeastern coast of Kansai, Mie Prefecture is perfect for an extended trip by road or rail. Most intriguing, however, are the ama divers of the region. Meaning ‘women of the sea’, ama were once common across Japan, but as of 2023, Mie boasts the largest number of active ama today, with an impressive 514 located here out of a national total of 1,220. 

The ama women free-dive to the sea floor using just their bodies and simple tools to source seafood including precious abalone (a unique marine snail). To protect the ocean’s resources, the divers are careful, ensuring they only catch what they need. Visitors are able to dine with the divers at Satoumian’s ama hut experience. Here, groups gather in a replica of an original ama hut and listen to tales from the divers.  

2. Osaka Prefecture 
Explore ancient temples 

The Katsuoji temple lies only 15 miles from the mega-city of Osaka — but in another sense, it’s a universe away. The magnificent grounds are surrounded by serene forests and offer impressive views for each of the four seasons. Since 727 CE, Katsuoji has been associated with its ‘victor’s luck’, after a sick emperor is said to have prayed here and seen his health miraculously restored. The emperor went on to name the temple ‘Katsuoji’, with the initial meaning of ‘victorious king temple’.        

Today, the tradition continues, evident in its resident population of daruma dolls — small red figures of various sizes that act as wish-fulfilling lucky charms. Visitors travelling to the temple write on the bottom of the daruma dolls what victory they would like in their own lives and pray for them. 

Visitors can dine with ama divers where they will hear stories from the locals and learn about the diver’s unique fishing techniques.

Photograph by Mie Prefecture

Daruma dolls symbolise good fortune, perseverance and eventual success. Visitors can purchase a daruma doll at Katsuoji Temple in Minoh, and pray for their own good fortune.

Photograph by Osaka Convention & Tourism Bureau

3. Kyoto City
Taste traditional cuisine

Kyoto was the capital of Japan for a thousand years, and it remains the capital of traditional Japanese gastronomy. Many chefs still look to the city’s rich culinary past for inspiration with their cooking today. To savour the city’s distinctive cuisine, head to Manshige Kyoto-style Cuisine — a traditional restaurant with beautifully designed rooms with tatami floors. The restaurant has been operating since 1937 and is now guided by a third-generation master chef. Here, visitors can dine on the signature simmered sea bream — once beloved by successful businessmen of the textile industry — or embark on a kaiseki banquet, in which an array of small and intricate dishes are shuttled to your table. 

4. Nara Prefecture
Hike through highlands

Poised midway between the modern metropolises of Osaka and Nagoya sits Soni, one of Japan’s most beautiful rural villages. This picturesque pitstop is home to scenic mountain trails and renowned pampas grass, used in ages past to thatch nearby rooftops. This region is the birthplace of urushi, a natural lacquer integral to Japanese crafts — a tradition that traces back to the Heian period (795-1185).   

Visitors can explore the expansive Soni Highland, home to a sweeping plateau covering 99 acres towards the base of Mt. Kuroso. Expert guides offer tours, sharing tales of local folklore and insights into conservation efforts. Later, visitors can relax at Okame-no-yu, a highland onsen (hot spring), for a rejuvenating retreat. 

A traditional kaiseki banquet at Manshige Kyoto-style Cuisine, a restaurant in Kyoto City.

Photograph by Manshige Kyoto-style Cuisine

The fields in Soni Highland are renowned for their golden pampas grass that stretches for miles throughout autumn.

Photograph by Nara Prefecture

5. Wakayama Prefecture
Taste fresh bluefin tuna

An essential component in many sushi and sashimi dishes, bluefin tuna can be as precious as gold in Japan — a single fish sold for £2.36 million in 2019. To see these tuna as they swim, head to Kushimoto, a town at the farthest end of the Kii Peninsula, with its harbour strung along a natural isthmus. Notably, this town was the first place in the world where Pacific bluefin tuna were successfully fully farmed. 

Visitors can feed the bluefin tuna here, weighing between 10kg and 40kg each. Afterwards, travellers can head south to the Shionomisaki Lighthouse, located on Cape Shionomisaki — its blinking light stands sentinel at the southernmost point of Japan’s main island, Honshu.

6. Kyoto Prefecture
Learn about age-old crafts

Nothing to do with the Argentine dance of the same name, the Tango Peninsula is a thumb of land jutting out into the sea, crowned by emerald hills and edged by sandy coves. It’s well known for Tango Chirimen, an elegant silk crêpe that has been woven here for around three centuries, with the drumming of looms a rare disturbance to the serenity of this rustic nook.  

The silk weaves its way to all corners of Japan, with some 70% of the fabric used for all kimonos coming from Tango. The material is highly prized for its finely textured surface and its dye-ability. In the town of Kyotango, visitors can tour the Tayuh factory, which has been in business for almost a century. Here, the diligent work of master craftspeople can be witnessed.

Fishing for tuna is important for Japan’s sushi and sashimi dishes. An excellent place to see tuna in the ocean is Kushimoto.

Photograph by Wakayama Prefecture

Visitors can witness the traditional craft of silk weaving in the Tango Peninsula, a popular silk used throughout Japan.

Photograph by Kyoto Prefecture

7. Shiga Prefecture
Kayak to a Torii gate 

Lake Biwa is Japan’s largest lake — and a worthy place for visitors to immerse themselves in the country’s spiritual life. Watching over this shimmering body of water is the holy peak of Mount Hiei, measuring 848m. Mount Hiei is known as the ‘mother mountain of Japanese Buddhism’ as many high-ranking monks have trained here.

Monks still visit Mount Hiei to take part in a gruelling 1,000-day pilgrimage where they repeatedly walk around the same route, known as kaihogyo (circling the mountain). Perhaps most peaceful of all is Shirahige Shrine on Lake Biwa’s western shore. Here, visitors can kayak up to a vermilion-coloured Torii gate — a structure symbolising a threshold between the material and divine worlds.

8. Tokushima Prefecture
Join a historic pilgrimage 

The Shikoku Pilgrimage measures some 745 miles, passes by 88 temples, takes roughly six weeks or more to complete and welcomes 100,000 participants annually. At the same time, it has a magic that cannot be expressed in numbers. Outsiders can join this legendary circular pilgrimage route that traces the coast of the island of Shikoku, passing a rich mosaic of landscapes, from noisy cities to serene forests. 

The route follows in the footsteps of Kobo Daishi, the 8th-century monk who spent time here. The defining sight of Shikoku is that of the henro — pilgrims adorned in the traditional attire, featuring a straw hat, white garments symbolising purity, and a kongozue staff to use as a walking stick representing the companionship of Kobo Daishi.

Shirahige Shrine, located on Lake Biwa, is the largest lake in Japan. Here, visitors can kayak up to a spectacular Torii gate.

Photograph by Shirahige Shrine/Biwako Visitors Bureau

Pilgrims making a journey to the temples in Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands.

Photograph courtesy of Tokushima Prefecture

9. Fukui Prefecture
Sail to Sotomo Arch

Fairly few outsiders visit Fukui Prefecture — yet those who do discover a coastline of hidden bays and sublime rock formations. None are more spectacular than the Sotomo Arch. Here, aeons of wave action have hewn a natural bridge out of granite cliffs — just wide enough for a small boat to pass beneath. 

After a local seafood lunch at Kaikoen restaurant in Obama City, travellers can book onto a boat tour departing from the nearby Wakasa Fisherman’s Wharf. They’ll spend an hour tracking the steep shores of the Uchitomi Peninsula and learning about the history of the area before reaching the rocks, battered by the swells from the Sea of Japan. The arch is part of a beautiful four-mile stretch made up of rugged cliffs and dramatic cave entrances.

10. Osaka City
Enjoy a classical show 

Noh is Japan’s traditional masked theatre performance, an art form that has captivated audiences in Kansai since the Middle Ages. The show focuses on actors adorned in elaborate costumes, with their mesmerising movements accompanied by the music of four instruments (a flute, a taiko and a small and large tsuzumi).    

It’s said to be the oldest surviving form of stage performance in the world. Ohtsuki Noh Theatre is one of the few of its kind in the Kansai region to have escaped the destruction of the Second World War. Inside, you’ll find an all-cypress wooden stage, fringed by a perimeter of white pebbles. The theatre holds regular productions and there are beginner’s workshops for those wishing to be initiated into this ancient art form. 

Visitors can enjoy a sailing trip to Sotomo Arch, where they will witness magnificent rock formations and caves.

Photograph by Fukui Tourism Association

Classical Noh theatre performances have been popular in Japan since the Middle Ages. Visitors can book tickets to watch a performance or take part in a beginner’s acting workshop.

Photograph by Hanagatami | Bunzo Ohtsuki

11. Hyogo Prefecture
Tour Tamba beanfields 

A ring of mountains guard the fertile basin of Tamba-Sasayama, where patchwork fields straddle the banks of a rushing river. This area is the heartland of the Tamba ‘black soybean’ cultivation — a variety of beans prized for their delicate taste, which become particularly prominent around New Year when it symbolises good health.

To see these legendary beanfields up close, visitors can take a guided tour to learn about the growing, harvesting and shipping process. There is also the option to explore Tamba’s many quaint villages, visit local communities and hike in the nearby countryside. During the December harvest season, travellers will see roads alive with bean fans keen to secure some of the crop. 

12. Kobe City
Sample famous sake 

Among gourmands, ‘Kobe’ is synonymous with Japan’s best beef. However, this likeable city is also known for its excellent sake. The Nada district possesses all the requisite ingredients for producing the cherished rice wine: calcium- and potassium-rich spring water, an abundance of rice paddies, and a helpful proximity to Kobe port, allowing colourful sake barrels to be exported far and wide.

A great way to learn about sake is on a guided tour of the Nada district which stretches for almost two miles from east to west. Visitors will be taken along riverside promenades, stopping by storied sake breweries to taste different labels. Some also have museums to provide more information about the history of the sake they produce.

The basin of Tamba-Sasayama is the heartland of the Tamba ‘black soybean’ cultivation. Visitors can take a guided tour to learn about the ​harvesting process.

Photograph by Hyogo Prefecture

Sawanotsuru Museum is a sake brewery that preserves traditional methods, where visitors can learn about Sake’s rich production history.

Photograph by Kobe Tourism Bureau

13. Sakai City
Study an ancient art

Shakyo refers to the art of hand-copying the sutras — a practice that thrived during the 8th century as Buddhism began to take root in Japan. Typically, the activity was undertaken by people as an expression of piety. Fast forward to the 21st century, and some temples now offer shakyo classes for visitors. Students are given the opportunity to experience a sense of mindfulness as they trace the contours of Japanese letters and develop intense focus while guiding the ink.  

One of the best places to try shakyo is Myohoji, a temple in the port town of Sakai City, on the southern side of Osaka Bay. In this peaceful sanctuary, students can put calligraphy brush to paper — and, in more ways than one, turn over a new leaf. 

14. Tottori Prefecture
Visit historic harbours

Tottori is the least populous of Japan’s 47 prefectures, though what it lacks in headcount, it makes up for in scenery. It’s home to the 1,729m mass of Daisen, a mountain that rises from the shore, serving as a talisman for fishermen navigating the lonely leagues of the surrounding sea.

Daisen can be seen from Sakaiminato, a historic port city set on a sandbar at the northwestern end of Tottori Prefecture. Sakaiminato stands as the epicentre of the fishing industry in western Japan, boasting one of the largest catches of tuna and red snow crab in Japan, as well as horse mackerel. Explore its quays as part of an organised tour, observing the freshly caught fish that are being processed, as well as the wholesale market where they are sold.

Shakyo is an ancient Japanese art form of hand-copying the sutras. 

Photograph by Sakai City

 A tour of the Sakai fishing port in Sakaiminato, one of Japan’s most prominent fishing ports.

Photograph by Tottori Prefecture

This paid content article was created for the Kansai Tourism Bureau. It does not necessarily reflect the views of National Geographic, National Geographic Traveller (UK) or their editorial staff.

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