Kansai (関西) is the heart of Japan, where much of modern-day Japanese culture originated. Its highlights read like a greatest-hits list. Looking for a vibrant dining and drinking scene and the vivid color that Japanese cities are famous for? Head to Osaka. Want to get out into remote mountains and hike for days? Follow the ancient trails of the Kumano Kodō. Famous works of art? See the Buddhist sculptures in Nara. Onsen? There's a whole town for that in Kinosaki. Castles? Check. There's enough to fill a whole itinerary here, and it's all easy to access by public transport. Kansai is a great place to explore if this is your first time in Japan, and it's also a good choice if you're a repeat visitor: there's much to discover beyond the highlights, including fascinating temples, shrines and archaeological sites that resonate through the ages.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Kansai.
Oku-no-in, whose name means 'inner sanctuary', is perhaps the most intensely spiritual place in Japan. At its farthest reaches is the Gobyō, the crypt that Shingon Buddhism founder Kōbō Daishi entered to began his eternal meditation. Spread out before it are some 200,000 tombs, creating Japan's largest cemetery, built during various historical eras by people, prominent and otherwise, who wanted their remains (or at least a lock of hair) interred close to the legendary monk.
Believed to have been founded in the 3rd century, Ise-jingū is Japan's most venerated Shintō shrine. It’s in two parts – Gekū, the outer shrine, and Naikū, the more important inner shrine, several kilometres away – both set in sprawling, deeply forested precincts. According to tradition, the shrines are rebuilt every 20 years, with exact imitations on adjacent sites according to ancient techniques – no nails; only wooden dowels and interlocking joints. The present buildings were rebuilt in 2013.
Nara's star attraction is its Daibutsu (Great Buddha), one of the largest bronze statues in the world. It was unveiled in 752, upon the completion of the Daibutsu-den (大仏殿, Great Buddha Hall), built to house it. Both have been damaged over the years; the present statue was recast in the Edo period. The Daibutsu-den is the largest wooden building in the world; incredibly, the present structure, rebuilt in 1709, is a mere two-thirds of the size of the original.
Himeji-jō is Japan's most magnificent castle, built in 1580 by general Toyotomi Hideyoshi and one of only a few original castles from that era (most are modern concrete reconstructions). Its white-plaster facade (and its elegant presence) earned it the nickname Shirasagi-jō (White Egret Castle). There's a five-storey main keep and three smaller keeps, all surrounded by moats and defensive walls. It takes about 1½ hours to follow the arrow-marked route around the castle. Last entry is an hour before closing.
Ise-jingū's inner shrine is dedicated to the sun goddess, Amaterasu-Ōmikami, considered the ancestral goddess of the imperial family and guardian deity of the Japanese nation. Naikū is particularly revered because it houses the sacred mirror of the emperor, one of three imperial regalia – the other two are the sacred beads – at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, and the sacred sword, at Atsuta-jingū in Nagoya).
Hōryū-ji was founded in 607 by Prince Shōtoku, considered by many to be the patron saint of Japanese Buddhism. It's renowned not only as one of the oldest temples in Japan but also as a repository for some of the country’s rarest and most-outstanding examples of early Buddhist sculpture. There's an entire gallery of Hōryū-ji treasures at the Tokyo National Museum. Some of the temple’s buildings are considered to be the world's oldest existing wooden structures.
Located high on a thickly wooded mountain, Kurama-dera is one of the few temples in modern Japan that manages to retain an air of real spirituality. This magical place gains much of its power from its brilliant natural setting. The entrance to the temple is just up the hill from Kurama Station. A cable car runs to/from the top (¥200 each way), or you can hike up in about 30 minutes (follow the path past the tram station).
The name of this temple, which is sometimes called Danjo Garan or Dai Garan, derives from the Sanskrit saṅghārāma, which means monastery. With eight principal buildings (temples, pagodas), the complex was the original centre for teaching established by Kōbō Daishi in the 9th century. It's still a teaching centre today, and you might see groups of saffron-robed novices making the rounds. The buildings have burned several times in the intermediate centuries and what you see today are almost entirely modern-day reconstructions.
After unifying Japan in the late 16th century, General Toyotomi Hideyoshi built this castle (1583) as a display of power, using, it's said, the labour of 100,000 workers. Although the present structure is a 1931 concrete reconstruction (refurbished in 1997), it's nonetheless quite a sight, looming dramatically over the surrounding park and moat. Inside is an excellent collection of art, armour, and day-to-day implements related to the castle, Hideyoshi and Osaka. An 8th-floor observation deck has 360-degree views.