Must see attractions in Kansai

  • Top ChoiceSights in Kōya-san


    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.

  • Sights in Ise-Shima


    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.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Nara


    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.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Himeji


    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.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Ise-Shima


    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).

  • Top ChoiceSights in Nara


    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.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Kurama & Kibune


    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).

  • Sights in Kōya-san


    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.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Osaka


    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.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Ōhara


    Famed for its autumn foliage, hydrangea garden and stunning Buddha statues, this temple is deservedly popular with foreign and domestic tourists alike. The temple’s garden, Yūsei-en, is one of the most photographed sights in Japan, and rightly so.

  • Sights in Osaka

    Osaka Aquarium Kaiyūkan

    Kaiyūkan is among Japan's best aquariums. An 800m-plus walkway winds past displays of sea life from around the Pacific 'ring of fire': Antarctic penguins, coral-reef butterflyfish, unreasonably cute Arctic otters, Monterey Bay seals and unearthly jellyfish. Most impressive is the ginormous central tank, housing a whale shark, manta rays and thousands of other fish. Note there are also captive dolphins here, which some visitors may not appreciate; there is growing evidence that keeping cetaceans in captivity is harmful for the animals.

  • Sights in Nara


    Yakushi-ji was established by Emperor Temmu in 680 as a prayer for his ailing wife (who actually outlived him to accede to the throne). With the exception of the East Pagoda, which dates to 730 (and is under scaffolding for restoration until 2020), the present buildings either date from the 13th century or are very recent reconstructions. Inside, however, are some masterpieces of Buddhist art.

  • Sights in Kōya-san

    Konpon Daitō

    The most interesting structure at the Garan is the Konpon Daitō, a 50m-tall, bright-vermilion pagoda seated at what is considered to be the centre of the lotus-flower mandala formed by Kōya-san's eight mountains. The main object of worship is Dainichi-nyōrai (Cosmic Buddha), surrounded by four attendant Buddhas and, painted on pillars, 16 bodhisattva, which together compose a three-dimensional mandala of the Shingon Buddhist cosmos.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Osaka


    Highly photogenic Dōtombori is the city's liveliest night spot and the centre of the southern part of town. Its name comes from the 400-year-old canal, Dōtombori-gawa, now lined with pedestrian walkways and with a riot of illuminated billboards glittering off its waters. Don't miss the famous Glico running man sign. South of the canal is a pedestrianised street that has dozens of restaurants vying for attention with the flashiest of signage.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Nachi-Katsuura


    At 133m, Nachi-no-taki is Japan's highest waterfall. It's the first of many still deeper in the Nachi mountains and has long been used in ascetic training.

  • Sights in Nara


    Kōfuku-ji was founded in Kyoto in 669 and relocated here in 710. The original Nara temple complex had 175 buildings, though much has been lost over the years to fires and periods of medieval warfare. Of those that remain, the most impressive are the Tōkondō and the temple's two pagodas: the three-storey pagoda dates to 1181 and is a rare example of Heian-era architecture, while the 50.1m five-storey pagoda, last reconstructed in 1426, is Japan's second-tallest pagoda.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Nara

    Nara National Museum

    This world-class museum of Buddhist art is divided into two sections. Built in 1894 and strikingly renovated in 2016, the Nara Buddhist Sculpture Hall & Ritual Bronzes Gallery displays a rotating selection of about 100 butsu-zō (statues of Buddhas and bodhisattvas) at any one time, about half of which are National Treasures or Important Cultural Properties. Chinese bronzes in the ritual bronzes gallery date as far back as the 15th century BC. Each image has detailed English explanations.

  • Sights in Nara


    Tōshōdai-ji was established in 759 by influential Chinese priest Ganjin (Jian Zhen), recruited by Emperor Shōmu to reform Buddhism in Japan. The main building, the Kondō (Golden Hall), dates from the 8th century and houses an impressive 5m-tall Thousand-armed (possibly literally) Kannon (Buddhist goddess of mercy), among other National Treasures. Behind it, the Kōdō (Lecture Hall), also built in the 8th century, was actually originally part of Nara's Imperial Palace – today it's all that remains of it.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Northern Kansai


    Bujō-ji was founded in the 12th century by Emperor Toba, and while the main hall has been repaired over the years it stands pretty much the same as it always has: a simple wooden structure with a terrace overlooking Kyoto's northern mountains. The view is simply awesome; catch it on the right day – when the skies are clear and there's not another soul around – and you can have the kind of meditative experience that's so elusive at more famous temples.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Shiga Prefecture

    Miho Museum

    Secluded amid hills and valleys near the village of Shigaraki, this knockout museum houses the Koyama family collection of Japanese, Middle Eastern, Chinese and South Asian art, and beautifully displayed special exhibitions. The facility is at least as impressive as the collection. The IM Pei–designed main building, reached from the ticket centre via a footpath and a long pedestrian tunnel opening onto a gorge, feels like a secret hideout in a futuristic farmhouse.