Authored by Kim-Ling Richardson
Osaka is a darling city, offering tourists plenty of attractions without the stressful crowds like that of its larger city counterparts. And while it may prove difficult to pull yourself away from its charms, beyond Osaka itself are some lovely places to experience Japan’s culture and natural beauty.
The following are two great cities for exploring more of Japan, both under an hour away from Osaka, making each perfect for a day trip during your stay.
Two Day Trips from Osaka
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Sakai – Rich in Culture and Tradition
Sakai is a small city, with much opportunity to delve into Japanese culture. Laden with intriguing keyhole-shaped burial mounds (called Kofun) dating back to the 3rd century, one such opportunity are the Kofun tombs.
Emperors and people of high rank were buried in these kofun tombs, along with their personal artefacts. They range anywhere from 10 metres to 400 metres in length and said to include one of the largest tombs in the world. The largest kofun took over 15 years and 8 months to construct, with 2000 men working on it day and night. Nowadays, the mounds are covered with trees and look incredible when looking at them from above.
The ‘keyhole’ shape is unique to Japan and Sakai is hoping to be recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site for these wonderfully preserved tombs. You can get a great view of these mounds from the Observation Lobby, Level 21 of Sakai City Hall. There also free guides at set times in the day there, to explain the history of the kofun (look out for the yellow shirts).
Or for an on-the-ground view, Daisen Park is the place to visit. It houses a few kofun, along with a stunning traditional Japanese garden.
Filled with stunning landscaped lawns, pathways, streams and lovely rest houses, Daisen Park will leave you feeling inspired, relaxed and very zen.
Sakai is more than just beautiful parks and kofun though. Once a famous merchant city, called the ‘Venice of the East’, Sakai is known for producing samurai swords and firearms, the metal masters now produce high-quality knives, cutlery and bicycles.
Getting to see craftsmen make knives firsthand is a fascinating experience and possible at Mizuno’s Tanrenjo’s workshop. The men from Mizuno Tanrenjo have been making knives since 1872 and the art form of knife forgery is now on to the 5th generation.
Here, we were able to watch the metal be beaten, heated and shaped into a blade and learn about the techniques of forging. We also had the opportunity to learn about the different blades required for Japanese cuisine at Den, Sakai City’s Traditional Crafts Museum and store.
If you want a wonderful souvenir from Japan, consider a cooking knife from Den or Mizuno Tanrejno, as they are the best quality you will find. If it’s good enough for the sashimi masters, then it’s good enough for us, right?
Did you know Sakai was one of the main cities to cultivate and cherish the famous Japanese tea ceremony tradition? The great master of the Japanese tea ceremony, Sen no Rikyu, was from Sakai and perfected the art of the tea ceremony, by including concepts of Zen in the practice.
You can learn all about the traditions and customs of the Japanese tea ceremony at Sakai Risho No Mori (the Sakai Plaza of Rikyu and Akiko). They even offer a wonderful tea ceremony that is a little more ‘tourist friendly’ with tables and stools (much easier for those with bad knees to enjoy the experience), and English guidance.
Kobe – A City of Natural Beauty
One thing that really struck me about Kobe was how beautiful it is. My first introduction to Kobe was walking through the town of Arima Onsen. I fell in love with the autumn maple trees, with each one flaunting a different shade of red, orange and gold.
The paved pathways casually curving up the hill, inviting us into the quaint village and giving us glances of onsen culture, with families dipping their feet into the ‘gold onsen’ (hot spring water baths coloured with iron deposits). It was here I had my first Japanese onsen experience.
Japanese Onsen Experience
Onsens are hot spring communal baths, where visitors often go to relax, rejuvenate and escape pressures of everyday life. The water from the hot springs contain minerals that are thought to have healing and restorative qualities.
It is also where you must bathe completely naked in front of others (genders are separated) and follow a set of rules and etiquettes. Whilst the thought of it was intimidating at first, it was a completely liberating experience, and allowed me to appreciate another beauty… the beauty being comfortable in one’s own skin, regardless of shape and size.
Kobe offers other lovely opportunities to appreciate beauty in Mt Rokko. Take a scenic cable-car ride to the top and admire the stunning forest below and panoramic views of Osaka and Kobe city.
There is also the impressive Rokko-Shidare Observatory, which will delight architecture fans, as it has been cleverly designed to honour the environment and seasons and maintain a set temperature all year round. Ice is collected during winter and stored underground so that by summer, the observatory is still cooled naturally. And during winter the intricate wooden mesh becomes a spectacular site when covered in snow and ice crystals.
Mt Rokko also has a beautiful botanical garden and a music box museum, which will delight children (or those with an inner child). It houses a wonderful collection of music boxes and instruments collected throughout history, with concerts held every half hour. You can even make your own souvenir music box, with plenty of songs to choose from their selection of 250 songs.
A different side to Kobe is Harborland. After the horrific earthquake in 1995, Kobe port has been rebuilt and it is very clean and modern, with lovely sea views, restaurants, shops and entertainment venues.
For the history fans, the Earthquake Museum is a moving memorial aimed to commemorate the 1995 tragedy and educate visitors on earthquakes and disaster prevention. Video footage, photos, testimonials and more are displayed through the museum, and volunteers are on hand to answer questions and share stories.
Visiting it was quite moving, emotionally, and allows you to pay respect to all those who were affected during the devastating event.
Not far from here is the Port Terminal, where you can catch a 31-minute ferry to Kansai airport; a nice alternative and scenic way of getting back to the airport and connect to the next destination.
Two Day Trips From Osaka
Both cities are great places to do day-trips from Osaka, and truly allow the visitor to feel more connected to Japanese culture and tradition.
Whether it is from delving into history through the various museums, getting closer to nature through the beautiful gardens, or immersing yourself into cultural activities, Sakai and Kobe are perfect destinations to visit as they are easily connected and under an hour from Osaka.
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