Welcome to The Kansai District.
The most renowned cities in this area are Osaka and Kyoto. The people of Osaka are known for their sense of humour and their insatiable appetite. In turn, Osaka is known as the “Nations Kitchen” and is famous for its food, especially “Street food”. Takoyaki and Okonomiyaki are the most famous foods local to Osaka. Osaka also boasts a strong nightlife scene where the locals can be found partying into the early morning.
Takoyaki - Octopus dough balls
Kyoto was once the capital of Japan and has a rich background in politics, culture, battles, and religion. Kyoto is the best place for you to witness authentic Geisha roaming the streets in the evening as they make their way to the tea houses. The Suntory and Asahi distilleries are located between Osaka and Kyoto if you are looking for something stronger than tea!
Tourist dressed in traditional Japanese garments walks through the "Kimono Forest" Aryashiyama Station Hannari Hokkori Square (Kyoto)
Two other cities that I visited during my time in this region were Kobe and Nara. Kobe in recent years has become world-renowned for its beef. Kobe beef is essentially Wagyu Beef from a special breed of cow that is raised in the Hyogo Prefecture and is of the Tajima strain. Deep rich marbling of their meat leads to a deep, world-class, melt in your mouth finish. While in Kobe you can also visit Sake distilleries, Mt Rokko, and Famous Onsens.
Finishing the free "Haku Tsuru" Sake Distillery tour with a DIY dress up photo alongside my Guide "Momo".
Nara, another city that was once the capital of Japan, has also become more popular in recent years due to social media. Nara is full of wild deer who roam the streets freely, much like cattle in India. The locals believe they are messengers of God. Nara Park is home to these deer who are after one thing, food. Unlike other parts of the world where animals lack “manners”, the deer of Nara have learned from the locals to bow in return for food.
Making friends with the Nara locals.
Before you travel there are some things you should know before arriving in Kansai, Japan.
Firstly, English is not widely spoken in Japan. My uber had an instant translator which would be a very helpful piece of kit to bring with.
Japan is not that cheap. From Kansai Airport into Osaka by Uber is just over an hours drive and over $100. This is what I did. I would recommend the train, it will be a fraction of the cost. A beer will cost about $8-$12 on average. The cost of beer is my international ruling on deciding on how expensive a country is.
Buy an "Icoca" card - This is Japans equivalent to London's Oyster card. Tap as you go and then top up when needed. All the trains that I mention in the blog can be paid for by the card.
This region has a lot of rich history and each city has its own claim to fame. This blog contains information on the places I visited and what I experienced. I'm sure there is much more, so don't be afraid to try and get some local knowledge!
Chuo Ward - Shinsaibashi district, Dotonburi, Amerikamura, Orange Street, Osaka Castle
Kita Ku & Miyokajima Ward – Umeda Sky Building, Tenjinbashisuji Shotengai (Shopping), & Kyobashi (Izakaya Toyo), small intricate streets.
Extra - Universal Studio’s
The Shinsaibashi District is regarded as the main shopping area in the city. Here you will be able to shop till you drop. Caused either by the sheer weight of clothes bought or food consumed.
As mentioned already, food is what makes Osaka stand out from the rest of the nation. Dotonburi is the most famous food district in the city, and visually it is Japans answer to Times square. I had my first okonomiyaki here, which was cooked right in front of me, Tepanyaki style. The streets are full of interesting billboards and massive animal sculptures advertising their speciality. When in Dotonburi don’t forget to get a photo with the Running Man!
Okonomiyaki with Pork being prepared.
Famous signs and structures of Dotonburi
If the High street is what you are looking for, head to Orange Street for “Street Wear”. For more mainstream shops like Nike, Uniqlo and Apple, head north of the river from Dotonburi along the “Mido Suji” road.
If shopping isn’t your thing and you would rather get all nostalgic, make your way to “GeeBee”. This is an arcade bar, not far off the high street which you can pay $5-$10 (500 - 1000 Yen) for unlimited drinks, Katsu curry and video games for an hour. Pretty incredible deal if you ask me!
Looking for a drink in the ultimate rugby bar in Osaka? There is only once place for it, Fiji bar. Also off the high street, this bar is fully blue, with the walls covered in photos of all the rugby legends who have made their way to this rugby stronghold.
Not feeling the high tourist area of Dotonburi? Venture down to Amerikamura, which is in walking distance. Here you will find a shopping district that has everything you can think of. Vintage, knock off, streetwear, local food and interesting stores.
Wandering the streets of Amerikamura, I found myself in a Snake café, where you can pay to handle small snakes as you enjoy some drinks and even food. If you are feeling adventurous, the menu has a section full of insects and bugs! Two floors down is a small animal café, although I never made it there as it is closed only on a Tuesday (the day I went), I’m sure that it will be highly appealing and more fun for most! For the likes of Dotonburi and Amerkiamura, I recommend heading in the evening time. A lot more atmosphere and the area really comes to life.
The final activity to do in the Chuo Ward and the one destination I'm annoyed that I missed was the Osaka castle! Just gives me another reason to come back. Osaka castle is a fantastic activity to do during the day as it is a huge complex full of stunning gardens, shrines and exhibits right in the middle of the city.
North of the Chuo Ward you will find the Kita Ku Ward. In this part of the city you will find the Umeda Sky deck. I visited the observatory at sunset and it was one of my favourite excursions of the entire trip. Here you will have an entire 360 º view of the region. Cafes a floor below the sky deck, have a range of food and a bar full of beers from around the world. Grab a snack and a drink while you enjoy the view. Don’t forget on the way out to visit the bottom floor of the building. Here there is a mini world of different restaurants laid out in old school Japanese style. Something a little different and worth a quick visit.
Another destination in the area is Tenjinbashisuji Shotengai, which is the longest shopping street in all of Japan.
Kyobashi in the Miyokajima Ward is situated just north of Osaka Castle. Here you will find beautiful small winding streets filled with colourful lanterns, beautiful stores, restaurants and bars. Now, very famous due to a strong feature on the Netflix Special “Street Food” you will be able to find Izakaya Toyo. The episode is 100% worth a watch before going to Osaka and this place is a must! Un-Japanese in approach, the food is incredible and the atmosphere is brilliant. A stone’s throw from Kyobashi station, it is worth getting there a little early to beat a huge wait in line. Make sure to leave some time to the streets and have a nightcap!
Left: Chefs Triple selection
Fatty Tuna, Caviar, Sea Urchin
Right: Grilled (Fire) Sea Urchin
Arashiya (Bamboo Forest, Kimono Forest Train, Jinbei) Golden Shrine, Fushimi Inari Shrine, Nishiki Market, Samurai/Ninja Experience, Geisha
An hour away from Osaka by train. There is a lot of train options From Osaka to Kyoto and Vice Versa – JR Line, Hankyu – Kyoto Line, Keihan Main Line and I’m sure there is more!
Kyoto is a big city and does take some time to get around. So having a bit of a plan will work in your favour if you want to hit all the spots.
Before planning on visiting anywhere that I mention, remember that due to the history of Kyoto, there is an incredible amount of temples and shrines, so do a quick google and see if somewhere else may be of more interest, as the places I went are spread out and I was privately driven around! Saying that there is only one bamboo forest, which is a must. If you are looking to dress like a local then find a shop that sells “Jinbei”.
Rocking my new "Jinbei" alongside some Chinese tourists in rented Japanese traditional dress.
Three places stand out for me in terms of popularity, Fushimi Inari Shrine, Bamboo forest and The Golden Pavilion. For these three destinations, they are spread out and in terms of the most linear path, I would recommend visiting each site in the order stated or vice versa.
Fushimi Inari shrine is best visited in the early morning if you would like to beat the big tour bus crowds. The temple is famous for its thousands of Torii gates which are densely packed and cover the mountain hiking trail. If you follow the entirety of the path you will be brought to the top of the trail which has a lookout over the city and takes about 2-3 hours. If you wish just to roam around you can go as far as you like and just enjoy the beautiful site!
Fushimi Inari Shrine, posing in my new Jinbei
After Fushimi Inari make your way to the Bamboo forest. The first realisation I had when I stepped foot into the bamboo forest, was how much cooler the air felt. The cooling effect from the incredibly high bamboo stalks blocking out the sun was magical on that 35ºc day. Walk around and enjoy being in a really different environment. You can hire a running rickshaw, where you are run along through a designated path by a local in traditional dress. Inside the bamboo forest, there is a number of shrines dotted around. I visited the Nonomiya shrine. I also believe there is a monkey shrine located close as well.
Rickshaw ride through the Bamboo Forest
Next on the list is the Golden Pavilion. A small entry fee of 400¥ ($4) upon entering you will be struck at the sight of some extremely impressive architecture, which is found on beautifully designed grounds. Each floor of the pavilion is designed in a different style, Shinden, Bukke (Samurai) and Chinese Zen. After viewing the Pavilion, you can walk around the gardens and enjoy the beauty.
Golden Pavilion - Did you know I bought a Jinbei?
One of my favourite experiences whilst in Japan was the Samurai/Ninja experience. Located in the Nishiki Market, you can find lots of different stalls selling endless amounts of Japanese food, then head to Samurai Museum. I wanted to make sure I got the entire experience, so I paid for the tour and the experience. During the Samurai/Ninja experience, you are dressed up and shown by a master, the arts. How to defend and attack an enemy using a Samurai sword (Katana) followed by attempts to hit the bullseye with throwing stars and blow darts! A truly incredible experience and a must when visiting.
Throwing star practice at the Samurai/Ninja Experience
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to stay into the evening in Kyoto so I wasn’t able to see Geisha roaming the streets. According to Google, the best place to witness them is “Hanami-koji-dori in Gion (the section between Shijo-dori and Kennin-ji Temple) and at the Shijo-dori end of Pontocho”.
Gion is a really beautiful area that is full of wooden machiya merchant houses, that give you the sense of travelling back in time. I managed to go there during the day and I made sure to ask the driver to stop the car so I could get out and explore the beautiful buildings.
Chinese tourists dressed as "Geisha" walk the streets of Gion
"Haku Tsuru" Sake Museum, Mt Rokko Garden Terrace, Anima Golden Onsen
Kobe is situated an hour west of Osaka. Just like its counterpart Kyoto, Kobe is highly accessible by train – Hanshin Line, Hankyu-Kobe Line, Tokaido-Sanyo Line. Mentioned earlier, Kobe beef has taken the world by storm and made this part of the world more famous than ever. A quick google search will reveal “The Best Kobe in Kobe”. While you are in the region you should also try "yakiniku", this where you are served a plate of raw meat and you cook it to your own desire over a flame grill. Sukiyaki is another traditional dish, but rather than just cook the meat, you use a propane canister to heat and boil a soy sauce-based broth and cook the entire meal as you please. One of my favourite meals of the entire trip!
After a day of tasting the best steak in Japan, you should probably have some sake! Kobe beef isn’t the only famous export from Kobe city, Sake is as well. Head to the HakuTsuru Sake Museum for a free self-led tour, free sake tasting at the end and also a DIY dress up photo. The ultimate tour really. Once you are fed and watered, its time to go into the wilderness. Take a vintage cable cart from city to the top of Mt Rokko. Kobe is surrounded by coastline and mountains. Once at the top take in the stunning views of the entire region. Once you have had your fun at the top, organise a way to get to Arima.
View from Mt. Rokko
Arima is located at the back of the mountains in regards to Kobe. Arima is home to the most famous Onsens in Japan, “Arima Onsen”. There is a number of different Onsen in the town, and the one I found myself in was the Arima Golden Onsen, supposedly the most famous of them all. The water is rich in Iron, giving it a strong rust colour. Temperatures of 44ºc and 42ºc it was an incredibly relaxing experience. Before entering the Onsen, it is best to brush up on the traditional rules associated with them.
Remove shoes upon entering the building (Most places in japan), Remove clothes before entering the Onsen, Wash body completely before using the Onsen, don’t carry a towel around with you. Leave it on the hanger provided.
After your Onsen, head down to the river. During dry seasons, the river in Arima is used as an outdoor function area. Food stalls, live music and lounge areas are set up on the river banks which have been laid over with concrete and stone. This was one part of the town that I was most interested in. I loved the way that the community has brought another meaning to the river. It was lovely to stroll up and down while listening to the live band play, and the smell of freshly cooked food in the air.
Riverside in Arima being prepared for a night of festivities. Left - a live band. Right, a set of food stalls.
Kobe has a lot more to offer, I only managed to make it there for a day, so please do some more research if you find yourself there for longer. Much like the rest of Japan, there are more temples, and there is also a park with some waterfalls.
Nara Park (Deer), Todai – Ji Temple (Big Buddha), Local Sushi (Kakinoha), Nakatanidou (Mochi)
Sticking with the transport time theme, Nara is one hour east of Osaka. Again, Nara is highly accessible by train from Osaka – Kinestu Nara Line or the Yamatoji Line.
Nara, like Kyoto, is an ex capital of Japan and is steeped in history. Tourists flock to the city to venture around the area of Nara Park. Over a thousand Sika deer roam the park and streets wildly as they are sacred to the locals. The story goes that an ancient Deity travelled around the country on the back of a deer and had appeared on the mountains surrounding Nara park. “Deer Food” is available from stalls all around the area. Don’t forget to bow first and receive a bow in return before handing over your precious treats. If you go to a too highly populated area you will find yourself surrounded by hungry deer and it can be a little intense!! Best find one or two that are on the outer edges for the best experience. These deer, like any wild animals, can attack if they are frightened or provoked, so keep a keen eye on kids or other tourists who may be acting inappropriately.
Quick picnic lunch date.
Once you have been swindled into handing over all of your snacks, you can make your way to the Todai – Ji, home to the “Big Buddha”. Todai – Ji is a magnificent Buddhist monastery inside of Nara Park. Built-in 732 AD, it houses the worlds largest Bronze statue of the Buddha, known in Japanese as Daibutsu. This temple is also listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. The entrance fee is 500¥ ($5) and is well worth the cost!
Big Buddha in all his glory.
After making your way around the park, I'm sure you will be ready for some food! There is an endless supply of amazing food around Japan and Nara is no stranger. I ended up in the "Nara Visitor Centre & Inn" as I was wandering the streets. The lady informed me of a local sushi restaurant around the corner that served sushi wrapped in persimmon leaves, a local Nara speciality is known as "Kakinoha" and is not commonly come across. I headed down to "Hirasou" and had a lovely meal. There is an English menu, and I went for one of the mixed combo meals, so I could have a taste of what the establishment had to offer. After lunch, don't forget to try some famous Japanese desserts! I stumbled across "Nakatanidou" a "Mochi" shop on Sanjo Dori St. that had a massive tourist group outside grabbing photos and trying the interesting dessert. There were photos on the walls of what I can only presume to be local and national heroes who have passed by to try the treats. 130¥ for one its a cheap treat and one that you won't forget that's for sure! If you are lucky you will be there during the matcha pounding time, where two men, one with a wooden sledgehammer and another to turn the mochi continuously, work in unison to pound the mochi to the right consistency. Something I didn't have a chance to bear witness to.
"Kakinoha" at Hirasou
Mochi from Nakatanidou
So that's it. That is what I had the opportunity to experience while I made my way around the Kansai Region of Japan.
I really do hope that you have an incredible trip and that my blog can add to it in one way or another!
Feedback is greatly appreciated and I'd love to hear from you!