For fans of traditional Japanese culture, Kansai is an unmissable destination. Nowhere else in the country can you find so much of historical interest in such a compact area. And, since plenty of international carriers now fly into Kansai International Airport, it is perfectly possible to make Kansai your first port of call in Japan.
Kansai’s major drawcards are Kyoto and Nara. Kyoto was the imperial capital between 794 and 1868, and is still considered by most Japanese to be the cultural heart of Japan. Nara predates Kyoto as an imperial capital and also has an impressive array of temples, burial mounds and relics. Both cities should feature prominently in even the busiest travel itinerary.
Osaka is a great place to sample Japanese city life in all its mind-boggling intensity, while Kōbe is one of Japan’s most cosmopolitan and attractive cities. Himeji, west of Kōbe, has the best of Japan’s many feudal castles. Kyoto is the logical base for an exploration of Kansai, but you could also base yourself in Osaka or Nara. The former allows you to enjoy Japanese modern city life and excellent transport connections; the latter is much quieter and is a good place to relax. You will almost certainly find that Kansai is the perfect place to sample both modern and traditional Japan without having to spend too much time moving from place to place.
The main attractions of the prefecture Mie-ken are Ise-jingū, Japan’s most sacred Shintō shrine, and the seascapes around the peninsula, Shima-hantō. Wakayama-ken offers onsen (hot-spring spas), a rugged coast and the temple complex of Kōya-san, Japan’s most important Buddhist centre. Finally, the northern coast of Kansai has some fabulous scenery, a number of good beaches and the lovely Tango-hantō (Tango Peninsula).