Kansai (関西) is the heart of Japan. Nowhere else in the country can you find so much of historical and cultural interest in such a compact area. Indeed, if you had to choose only one region of Japan to explore, Kansai would be the easy choice. Kyoto, covered in the preceding chapter, makes the perfect base for exploring Kansai and is home to an extraordinary range of first-rate attractions.
Nara, Japan's first permanent capital, is thick with traditional sights and is home to the awe-inspiring Tōdai-ji Temple. Osaka is a great place to sample Japanese city life in all its mind-boggling intensity, while Kōbe retains some of the international feeling that dates back to its days as a foreign treaty port. In Mie-ken, you'll find Ise-jingū, one of Japan's three most important shrines, and in Wakayama-ken there are great onsen, a rugged coastline and the temple complex of Kōya-san, Japan's mountaintop Buddhist retreat centre.
Need to know
Kyoto is old Japan writ large: quiet temples, sublime gardens, colourful shrines and geisha scurrying to secret liaisons. Cuisine Few cities of this size offer such a range of excellent restaurants. Work your way through the entire spectrum of Japanese food, from impossibly refined cuisine known as kaiseki to hearty plebeian fare like rāmen.