7 mins

The Wanderlust guide to Kansai, Japan

This Autumn, the Kansai region will be hosting the Rugby World Cup. Here we give you our guide on what to do, where to stay and what to eat in this beautiful area of Japan...

Himeji Castle, Japan

The Kansai region of Japan is a place of white-walled castles and koi-filled ponds, fragrant sake breweries and sandy beaches. While it’s home to the hubs of Osaka and Kyoto, the majority of the prefecture feels a world away from the neon lights.

This Autumn, Kansai will be hosting Rugby World Cup games in both the cities of Osaka and Kobe. If you are looking to escape the crowds, read on. We give you our guide to off-the-beaten-track Kansai: exploring the regions of Kobe, Himeji, Toyooka, Kyoto by the Sea and Amagasaki...

Contents

 

Where to visit in Kansai?

First stop: Colourful Kobe

 

Kobe is the kind of city that makes you jealous of the locals. It’s just a 20-minute train ride from Osaka, yet it gets a tenth of the footfall: surprising when you learn what Kobe has to offer. Sandwiched between ocean and mountain, this city was one of the first in Japan to open its doors (or port) to the outside world back in 1868, resulting in a cosmopolitan mix of cultures, cuisines and architecture.

Did you know?

England, Scotland and Ireland games are being held in Kobe Misaki Stadium on 26 September, 30 September and 3 October, respectively. This state-of-the art facility can hold up to 27,000 people.

What to do in Kobe?

Ikuta shrine, in the heart of Kobe city

Ikuta shrine, in the heart of Kobe city

1. Walk around the city

It’s easy to lose a day just walking around the city of Kobe – there’s so much to see, and so few tourists in your way. First, stroll through the 150-year-old red and gold Nankinmachi, or Chinatown, where pork buns steams and crispy duck sizzles. Then head up to Ikuta shrine – a quiet oasis of red gates, tinkling bells and koi-carp ponds – before walking around the bustling shopping streets. Finally, as the sun starts to set, walk down to the ultra-slick oceanside ‘Harbourland’, where you can find Kobe’s neon-lit ferris wheel, as well as a number of glass-fronted restaurants where live music places well into the night.

2. Visit Nunobiki Herb Garden

As you ascend the Rokko Mountains in a glass-sided ropeway, the tall towers of the city melt away, replaced with trees so tightly packed they look as if they’ve been sponged on the mountain with paint. At the top is a huge garden, filled with lavender and sweet roses, fennel and wild strawberries. Stop for a drink or snack among in the Dutch-themed tea garden, pick up some handmade scented oils, then admire the the city in the distance.

3. Hike to Nunobiki Falls

Kobe is a bustling city metropolis, but only a short walk from the Shinkansen station lies the wilderness of Nunobiki Falls. Stroll up into the light-speckled forest and you’ll find a series of rushing waterfalls – the tallest (Ontaki Falls, at 43m) is ranked among the ‘top three falls in Japan’ (after spending time in Japan, you’ll quickly discover that there are lists for everything, from the ten best statues to the top three night views). The water is considered so pure that port sailors used to collect it to take on their ships.

 

4. Eat Kobe beef

Nothing melts in your mouth quite like Kobe beef. This beautifully marbled steak is the highest grade of Wagyu (Japanese beef) in the country, prized for its taste and soft texture.  At Wakkoqu (wakkoqu.com), the skilled chef delicately slices the steak in front of you, serving each cut as he explains the origins of the meat. The chefs here have to practice cutting and grilling vegetables for over a year before they are allowed to touch the good stuff.

The friendly chefs at Wakkoqu prepare the steak in front of you

The friendly chefs at Wakkoqu prepare the steak in front of you

 

Where to stay in Kobe?

The view from Hotel Okura

The view from Hotel Okura

Okura Hotel

It would be hard to beat Okura hotel’s location, towering above the sea within a five-minute walk from Kobe’s main sites. This 35-story chalk-coloured structure has views of either the mountains or ocean, from both the bedrooms and dining areas. The hotel also has several restaurants serving Japanese and Chinese cuisine. 

Next stop: Himeji

The 'white heron taking flight' - majestic Himeji Castle

The 'white heron taking flight' - majestic Himeji Castle

The city of Himeji is Hyogo prefecture’s second largest after Kobe – a sprawling blur of fun bars, pretty gardens and lots of delicious sake. Most people visit the castle then shoot off back to Osaka, but Himeji is worth far more time than that...

What to do in Himeji?

1. Explore the castle

Himeji-jyo, as the castle is known, stands on a hill 96m above the city – ‘a white heron taking flight’, as the locals like to describe it. The castle was built in 1609 and remains the only UNESCO-listed castle in Japan. Stroll the castle grounds with a guide, who can show the hidden spots, such as the water chestnut symbols that formed the foundations of the ninja’s ‘throwing star’, or the Christian cross engraved on one of the roof tiles. The grounds are overflowing with cherry blossom trees, which were first planted at the castle in 1868. The flowers, which bloom only a week in May, were meant to be a symbol of the lives of the Meji-era soldiers: young, beautiful, but over too soon.

The view from the top floor

The view from the top floor

Did you know?

The castle was the set of the ninja training house in the James Bond movie, You Only Live Twice. It’s also ‘sister castles’ with Conwy Castle in Wales.

2. Stroll Koko-en garden

In the shadows of Himeji castle, you’ll find the perfectly-manicured gardens of Koko-en. They offer everything you could want from a Japanese garden – arched bridges over koi-filled ponds, delicate waterfalls, red dancing dragonflies and flower beds packed with lilies. The gardens are modelled on Edo period designs (1600-1860), which is why they are often used as a film set for TV and film. Spend an hour following the path through the nine gardens, before stopping for green tea at the sukiya-style tea house. 

Open 9-6pm (closes 5pm winter, 6pm summer). 1,000 yen entry (or 1,040 yen for combined ticket with Kokoen). Closed Dec 29-30.

 

Top tip!

3. Drink Sake

 

If you loudly clap near the water’s edge, the koi carp in the ponds will swim over to you.

 

Kansai is true sake country, home to over 100 sake breweries thanks to the high-quality rice and fresh mountain water used to make it. In Hemeji, you can tour Nadagiku brewery, which produces more than 1,800 litres of sake a day (suprising, considering how idyllic it looks). The brewery can be reached by a 20-minute walk from the station, with an English-speaking member of staff available to offer tours. After you’ve looked around, make sure you get dinner in the restaurant – you can try sukiyaki, a kind of beef hotpot (best when dipped into raw egg) alongside a generous sake tasting.

Next stop: Toyooka

The hot spring town of Kinosaki, in Toyooka

The hot spring town of Kinosaki, in Toyooka

Toyooka is the land of the oriental stork, or kounotori. This rare bird – standing one metre high with a two metre wingspan – is only found in the lush rice paddies of Toyooka, thanks to the local government's efforts to reintroduce the near-extinct bird back into the wild. You can explore the area by local bus, or rent a car, whizzing past green fields and rolling mountains that make the region feel a lot further away from Osaka than the two-hour train ride it takes to get there.

What to do in Toyooka?

1. Eat soba

The small rice paddy town of Izushi is home to over 50 soba ‘buckwheat noodle’ restaurants – a surprising feat considering the town is so small. Only in Izushi is soba served in sets of five (apparently to make it easier to count at the end of the bill). A standard lunch would be five plates, but go for ten if you’re feeling hungry.

Soba is served in sets of five in Toyooka

Soba is served in sets of five in Toyooka

Morosugi Jinja shrine, where the festival is held

Morosugi Jinja shrine, where the festival is held

Did you know?

Each year, Izushi holds a soba festival at the castle ruins. There’s always a competition to see who can eat the most plates of soba. This year (the 49th year running) the record was 132 plates in just ten minutes!

 

2. Explore Izushi’s castle ruins

Izushi used to be a castle town. You can still visit the castle ruins, high on Mount Arikoyama. As you begin the climb, you’ll find a tunnel of ruby red tori gates– nearly 40 of them, spaced evenly among the trees. They look identical to the Kyoto’s famed (and very crowded) ‘Fushimi inari’ red gates, though you’re unlikely to encounter anyone else here.

The red torii gates leading towards the castle ruins

The red torii gates leading towards the castle ruins

Inside Eriakukan theatre

Inside Eriakukan theatre

 

 

3. Visit Eriakukan, Japan’s oldest theatre building

Eriakukan was built in 1901 and is still in use as a kabuki theatre today. You can take a tour of the entire building, learning about the techniques used in traditional Japanese theare, such as ‘wooden elevators’, where a team of four people manually thrust someone upwards onto the stage up from underneath – usually a ninja or ghost character – giving the illusion that they’ve just appeared out of thin air.

4. Soak in Kinosaki onsen town

The picturesque town of Kinosaki, along the banks of a willow-tree lined river, is home to seven hot spring bathhouses. It is said that the hot springs were discovered between 629-641 when an oriental white stalk was seen healing its wounds in the waters. Everyone strolls around the town in yukatas (Japanese robes), hopping from onsen to onsen. Many onsen also feature rotemburos – open-air hot spring baths.

Top tip

For a bird’s eye view, ascend Mount Daishi in the Kinosaki ropeway, which whisks you high above the forests and town. Half way up you will find Onsenji temple, founded in 738. People used to come here to pay their respects before entering Kinosaki’s hot spring water.

Where to stay in Toyooka?

Koyodo Enn

Rustic Koyodo Enn lies near the heart of Kinosaki, with traditional tatami rooms and an authentic ryokan feel. With your stay, you can rent a yukata for free to wear around the town, as well as receive a ticket to visit each of the seven bathhouses. The inn serves a delicious dinner of local Tajima beef (a very high quality cut of Wagyu), as well as a delicious Western-style breakfast.

A tattami room at Koyodo Enn, Kinosaki

A tattami room at Koyodo Enn, Kinosaki

The chefs prepare an elaborate dish at San Pou

The chefs prepare an elaborate dish at San Pou

Top tip

The restaurant of SanPou Nishimuraya in Kinosaki has an upstairs room that offers unlimited wine, beer, snacks and soft drinks all day for just 2000 yen (£15). You can come and go as you please, heading to an onsen bath before returning for a glass of wine. And in the evening, the downstairs restaurant serves an impeccable ten-course feast, featuring Tajimi beef, smoked bonito over charcoal and local vegetables.

Next stop: ‘Kyoto by the Sea’

The pretty fishing village of Ine, on the Sea of Japan

The pretty fishing village of Ine, on the Sea of Japan

This self-branded region of 'Kyoto by the Sea' stretches across the northern coast of Kyoto, encompassing tiny villages and sprawling towns. It’s an epic landscape of monkey-rich forests, golden beaches and big, blue ocean, dotted with tree-covered islands and jutting peninsulas. It’s only a two-train ride from Kyoto, and easy to explore by car or bus.

What to do in Kyoto by the Sea?

1. Walk across the singing sand

The beach of Kyotango hides a rare natural phenomenon – naki suna or singing sand. Thanks to the concentration of quartz in the grains, the sand on the beach makes a high-pitched squeaking noise when you walk across it (kind of like a pack of mice). Walk along the beach and listen to the sand chirp and shriek beneath your feet. 

The singing sand of Kotohikihama

The singing sand of Kotohikihama

2. Take a boat ride in Ine

The traditional fishing town of Ine is one of those places that you can’t believe more people don’t know about. Set against the turquoise waters of the Japan Sea, 230 wooden boathouses dating back to the 1800s surround the bay. It’s the only place in Japan where you can find such structures, earning the entire town designated heritage protection. Take a 30-minute boat ride  around the bay or rent a bike and cycle along the water’s edge. Make sure you stop for a seafood lunch – thanks to the many fishermen in the area, the fish is some of the freshest in Japan.

3. Take a cable car in Amonohashidate

Amanohashidate means ‘bridge to heaven’, the name taken from the 3km land bridge that juts across the bay, covered with over 5,700 tightly packed pine trees. Ride a cable car up the mountain for one of the ‘top three views of Japan’. It really is beautiful, the bay sparkling like a thousand shards of glass. Don’t leave without putting your head between your legs to look at the bridge upside-down: it is meant to look like a dragon flying through the sky.

Top tip

You can hire bicycles from various shops in Amanohashidate to explore the area. It’s especially idyllic to pedal across the pine-tree covered sandbar, the sunlight spilling through the trees.

Where to stay in Kyoto by the Sea?

Hoshino-Oto at Marinetopia Resort

Your own private bath inside the Marinetopia villa

Your own private bath inside the Marinetopia villa

Marinetopia Resort – near Amanohashidate – is one of the most beautiful accommodations in the Kyoto region. They offer three types of luxury accommodation: private high-end suites at Hoshino-Oto (hoshino-oto.jp/en), large villas at Marinetopia the Suite (marinetopia-suite.com/en), and quirky 'glamping pods' (glamping-resort.jp/). All villas have a total area of up to 1604㎡ and feature private hot springs, a swimming pool and a traditional Japanese hearth (Irori), so you can relax in style. 

Food is taken care of, either served in your villa's private dining room, at the 10-seat restaurant where the chef cooks in front of you, or even over a sizzling barbecue, using vegetables that you have harvested yourself from their garden.  

Hoshi no Oto's private outdoor onsen and pool

Hoshi no Oto's private outdoor onsen and pool

Dinner in your private dining room

Dinner in your private dining room

Marinetopia's 'glamping' pods

Marinetopia's 'glamping' pods

Next stop: Amagasaki

Amagasaki's cute castle

Amagasaki's cute castle

If you’re looking to escape the crowds but only have a few hours to do it, the castle town of Amagasaki – just a 10-minute ride on the Hanshin railway from Osaka station – is a great option.

What to do in Amagasaki? 

1. Visit Japan’s newest castle

Amagasaki is home to Japan’s newest castle ­– a tiered wedding cake of a building in white and grey, built in March 2019. It has five interactive floors inside, with helpful English audio guides for free, as well as ninja games and costume dressing up sections. It’s a fun place to spend a few hours – plus the views over the city are great.

One of the many food shops in Amagasaki's covered markets

One of the many food shops in Amagasaki's covered markets

2. Stroll the intricate covered markets

The chuoshotengai – Amagasaki’s covered markets – sell everything from fresh fish to crepes to sweet stalls and clothing. The market stretches for 700m east, and 400m south, with about 600 shops.

The 17m torii gate

The 17m torii gate

3. Visit Amagasaki Ebisu shrine

The incredible Amagasaki Ebisu has a red tori gate over 17m high – one of the highest in Japan. It’s a picturesque setting, with Miko (‘shrine maidens’) strolling around in their iconic white and red uniforms. You can actually try on a Miko outfit as you learn about the different roles Miko play at the shrines.

The shrine's Shinto Priest, who will guide you on your miko experience

The shrine's Shinto Priest, who will guide you on your miko experience

Delicious kushi-katsu

Delicious kushi-katsu

Top tip

Try kushi-katsu­, deep-fried sticks of deliciousness, from vegetables and meat to cheese and tofu. The katsu is served on sticks, which you dip into either sweet or spicy sauce. 

Kansai: Need to know

How to get to Kansai?

Kansai is home to Kansai International Airport, about 60km outside of Osaka city. You can take the Haruku JR Kansai-Airport Express direct to Osaka city, which takes 50 minutes and costs JPY2,330 (£16). If you want to head straight to Kobe, you can catch a ferry direct from Kansai airport, which takes around 30 minutes and drops you at Kobe Port, from which you can take a bus or taxi into the city. 

 

Getting around Kansai

  • JR West has a wide variety of rail passes, from one day explorer passes (2,200JPY; £16) to five-day unlimited use passes (9,000JPY; £66). Buy before arriving in Japan to save money. westjr.co.jp/global/en
  • The electric Hanshin Railway connects Osaka to Kobe (via Amagasaki) in 40 minutes. Unlimited ride day ticket costs 500JPY (£3.50). hanshin.co.jp/global/en

 

Useful links

Looking for more information? Head to these sites…

Looking to explore multiple regions in one trip? 

Hankyu Ferry

Hankyu Ferry

Hop aboard the Hankyu Ferry. Only in Japan would a ferry have an open-air hot spring bath to can soak in as the ocean glides by. The overnight Hankyu Ferry connects Kansai and Kyushu in around 12 hours, meaning you can set off from either Kobe or Osaka in the evening and arrive in northern Kyushu the next morning (or vice versa). Private, comfortable rooms are available on board, with large windows and western-style beds. Prices start from 6,470JPY (£47) but if you book your ticket through directferries.com you can get 30% off. 

Please note: All images shot by Olivia Lee

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