If you could only ever explore one region of Japan, Kansai would be a good choice. Where is Kansai Japan? The cultural heartland of the country, which includes the cities of Osaka, Sakai, Kobe, Nara and Kyoto, no other region offers as much cultural and historic significance into such a compact size.
This has been the cultural center of Japan for centuries, having given birth to traditional Japanese theatre styles, Japanese Buddhism, the tea ceremony, and hosted many Japanese capitols throughout time. It is a patchwork of intense urban life mixed with traditional sites; exciting modern architecture sits next to a diverse legacy of beautiful castles and temples from ancient times.
It is a hub of Japanese experiences in food, religion, and ancient tradition, and is the perfect region to sample Japan’s diversity. No other region of Japan offers as much variety as Kansai. You fly into Kansai airport.
Things to do in Kansai Region, Japan
Kimono Wearing Experience
Once you arrive at Kansai airport Japan, best to organize a change of clothes before you start exploring. And one of the most unique ways to sight-see is to dress in an iconic kimono! A great way to tour Kansai area Japan.
Head to Menkasoh, Jo-Terrace Osaka to hire a kimono for the day. Experience the unique world of fashion that developed here over the centuries, right in the heart of one of the country’s most historic cities.
With a tremendous variety of colors and designs for men and women, you start by choosing your kimono. You get fitted with a complete ensemble including an obi belt and Japanese sandals, can have your hair styled, and then set out to enjoy Kansai sightseeing. A fabulous addition to your Kansai travel itinerary.
Although kimono are no longer worn daily by most Japanese, they are still proudly put on for special occasions. The Japanese are thrilled by foreigners who take interest in their culture, and honored to see people take interest in reviving tradition of the kimono. This was the best of Kansai.
Locals smiled at us, waved, and took our picture as we made our way through the streets. The venue’s location at Jo-Terrace leaves you plenty of opportunity to explore its historic beauty. You’re just a quick walk from Osaka Castle.
Visit Osaka Castle
Whether or not you visit in Kimono, Osaka Castle is one of Japan’s most famous landmarks; the symbol of Osaka and one of the country’s longest standing castles, despite having faced its fair share of challenges over the centuries.
Originally constructed in the 16th century on the site of Ishiyama Honganji (monastic temple), Osaka Castle has managed to stay standing in spite of war, fire and even a lightning strike, thanks to continued reconstruction and restoration projects. A Kansai tour must include Osaka Castle.
Walking up to Osaka Castle is a wonderful experience in itself, especially in autumn when stunning maple leaves display their fiery hues. It’s hard not to be taken back in awe looking up as the castle looms imposingly ahead.
It now acts as a museum, with each of its seven floors exhibiting fascinating artifacts, models and installations, covering the history of the castle and the famous samurai general Hideyoshi Toyotomi. The eighth floor offers wonderful panoramic views of Osaka City.
Enjoy the Fall Foliage
Seasons are a highlight of traveling to Japan, and many travelers plan their trip around spring to witness the cherry blossoms bloom. Though a strong argument could be made that Autumn is the most beautiful time of year!
Kansai has some of the most stunning fall foliage in the country, and come mid October, Kansai destinations are ablaze with vibrant hues of yellow, oranges and reds. This is one of the best things to do in prefectures like Wakayama.
Admiring fall foliage is called momijigari in Japanese, which literally translates to “autumn leaf hunting”. Leaves start changing from mid October and last until mid-December. Should be included on your Kansai region itinerary.
The city of Kobe offers great opportunities to appreciate Japan’s autumn beauty. Head to Mt Rokko for a scenic cable-car ride to the top and admire the stunning forest below, with panoramic views of Osaka and Kobe city.
Eat Your Body Weight in Japanese Cuisine
The Japanese word used to describe the food culture in Osaka is “kuidaore”, which literally translates to “eat until you drop”.
The people of Osaka are famously obsessed with their food, and according to a local saying, Kyoto people bankrupt themselves by overspending on fine clothing, and Osaka people on fine food.
While the region is famous for its seafood, udon, and teppanyaki, one dish you shouldn’t miss in Osaka is okonomiyaki. This is a pan fried pancake-like dish that consists of cabbage and batter. A whole range of other ingredients are added to the batter such as squid, prawn, and octopus, and everything is mixed together. Kansai things to do includes eating!
One of the best places to visit in Kansai is the Dotonbori district. Packed with eateries along its main thoroughfare and many side streets, this is the best place to experience Osaka’s food culture. Dearly loved by the Osakaites, this is the place to be, and it buzzes with an intense amount of energy at night.
Universal Studios Japan
If you’re a ‘big kid’ (or have some of your very own), Universal Studios Japan is one of the best places to visit in Kansai. I am the former, and was in my element among the whimsical buildings, larger-than-life cartoon characters and land of minions. Kansai tourist spots don’t get better than this.
Of the wonderful attractions and rides you would expect, adrenaline junkies should head to Jurassic Park’s ‘Flying Dinosaur’ – an insane roller-coaster that has been named the world’s longest ‘flying roller coaster’ (putting the rider headfirst into a ‘flying’ position), reaching incredible speeds, heights and even 360 degree turns! Kansai places to visit include this.
Having visited in time for Christmas was a treat. There were plenty of family shows, restaurant promotions, sparkly decorations and a stunning light concert, called ‘The Gift of Angels III – The Voice of an Angel’. This was truly one of the best light installation/Christmas concerts I’ve witnessed and worth getting a good seat for!
For Minion Fans …
It’s here at USJ that you’ll find the largest minions area in the world. The Japanese are minion crazed, and if you’re not a fan you’re out of luck, because you can’t escape!!
There’s a thrilling ride that takes you into the Minions’ world of absolute mayhem – you board a simulator that achieves incredibly realistic sensations, and travel on a roller-coaster ride through Gru’s laboratory to transform into an actual Minion. Seriously, add USJ to your Kansai trip itinerary.
Minions feature in all of the parks parades, you can find a huge range of merchandise, and there’s an incredible line-up of minion themed food. Head to Delicious Me to witness the minions creating their mayhem filled cookie recipes, and try a scrumptious cookie sandwich baked in the Minion’s Cookie machine.
For Fans of the Wizarding World …
For fans of the wizarding world, a visit to Universal Studios Japan is a must. Unlike its international counterparts, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at USJ is separated from the rest of the park by a haunting forest of pine trees, emitting owl sounds and familiar music from the movies.
Walking through the forest towards Hogsmead (the magical village) allows visitors to forget the muggle world and truly immerse themselves into the magical world of Harry Potter. And it’s hard to remember that this is all make-believe. Kansai things to do don’t get better than this!
Enjoy a sweet, refreshing glass of Butterbeer and visit the different magic stores as you make your way towards Hogwarts Castle. You can even visit Ollivander’s Wand Shop to purchase your very own magic wand to cast spells throughout the village, such as lighting a chimney or making objects move at the wave of your wand and command. Though the highlight has to be Hogwarts and the ‘Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey’ ride.
An indoor rollercoaster, utilising the best of virtual reality glasses, you are swept up into the magical world of Hogwarts, a quidditch match, the forbidden forest and more. The exhilarating 5-minute ride goes way too fast though, and will leave you wishing you had more time to do it all over again.
Visit Sakai Museums
Kansai prefecture includes Sakai; a small city, with much opportunity to delve into Japanese history. And you can’t visit Kansai without taking the opportunity to explore the city’s many museums.
The city is laden with intriguing keyhole-shaped burial mounds (called Kofun) dating back to the 3rd century, and a trip to the Sakai City Museum is a great chance to learn more about these historically significant tombs.
The largest grave in the world, Daisen Kofun (Nintoku-ryo Tumulus) is one of Japan’s designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The resting place of Emperor Nintoku, it is said to be one of the great imperial mausoleums on earth.
While you can approach the gates to the actual tomb, which is within walking distance from the museum, you can only appreciate it’s grandeur with an aerial view. This is one of the most interesting things about Kansai travel.
The museum displays photographs and information within its exhibits, but also offers a unique opportunity to participate in a virtual reality experience. You’re taken you inside Daisen Kofun, given an aerial view, and thrown back in time to what it would have looked like in the mid 5th century.
Experience a Traditional Tea Ceremony
Sakai Risho No Mori (the Sakai Plaza of Rikyu and Akiko) is another of Sakai’s museums, which offers colorful and interesting exhibits on the history of the city. But an experience for your Kansai itinerary is a traditional tea ceremony.
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, and actually take part in one. You’ll see a master perform the “Ryurei tea ceremony”, and prepare the tea in front of you. This experience is a little more ‘tourist friendly’ with tables and stools (much easier for those with bad knees to enjoy the experience), and English guidance.
“Also in Sakai Risho no Mori you will find an exhibition explaining the history and culture of the tea ceremony, a real tearoom, and the ruins of the mansion house in which Sen no Rikyu was born located opposite”.
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?
Take a Home Cooking Class
Sushi is the most famous Japanese dish outside of Japan, and one of the most popular dishes among the Japanese themselves. What better way to immerse yourself in the food culture of Japan than with a cooking class in a local home!
Washoku Home Cooking is run by talented cooking instructor Machiko who teaches Washoku home-style cooking and Japanese customs. She learned the basics of Washoku cooking (traditional Japanese cuisine) from her mother and grandmother at a young age, and loves cooking with local people.
She lived in New York, so the lessons are in English, and will have you cooking homemade sushi dishes before you know it! She fosters a relaxing atmosphere by welcoming small groups into her home kitchen. This will be the highlight of your time in Kansai.
Watch a Traditional Japanese Dance Show
I won’t lie, we had no idea what was going on, but a truly unique thing to do in Kansai is take in a traditional Japanese dance show at Gofukuza.
This is a kabuki theater in Osaka, and while there are no English translations, it’s entertaining to watch actors in drastic makeup and ornate costumes, performing a modern take on traditional Japanese drama.
Kabuki is a style of Japanese theater which features singing, acting, and dance, performed in a highly stylized and dramatic manner. It dates back 400 years to the Edo period, and traditionally has an all-male cast.
The show begins with a play, and then after intermission the second half is a dance show. Kansai kabuki typically centers around romance plots.
Bathe Naked in a Japanese Onsen
Onsen plays a huge role in Japanese culture – these are hot spring communal baths, where locals have gathered for thousands of years to relax, rejuvenate and escape pressures of everyday life.
You will find hot springs in every prefecture of Japan, though Arima Onsen in the city of Kobe is a famous hot spring town which ranks at the top of Onsen experiences in Japan. The town has a history of Onsen which dates back 1300 years, and is considered one of the country’s oldest hot spring resorts.
There are two types of hot spring waters in Arima Onsen. The Kinsen (“gold water”) is colored by iron deposits and said to have miraculous healing power, while the clear Ginsen (“silver water”) contains radium and carbonate and is said to cure muscle and joint ailments. Historically, Samurai would heal their wounds and relaxed in springs after battles.
One thing which takes many western visitors by surprise, is that the onsen experience requires you to bath completely naked (genders are separated), and there are strict rules of etiquette you must adhere to.
Arima Grand Hotel Onsen
Whilst the thought of it was intimidating at first, it was a completely liberating experience to bathe naked in an Onsen, and allowed me to appreciate another beauty… the beauty being comfortable in one’s own skin, regardless of shape and size.
Arima Grand Hotel offers day use of their Onsen even for those not staying at the hotel. A 5 star hotel, the Onsen experience here is that of a luxury spa, and with three separate Onsen to choose from, there are various baths.
Unkai Onsen, located on the top floor, offers incredible views over the town, and with a high ceiling and large windows you can bathe while watching the scenery of the mountains. An open-air bath overlooks the town of Arima Onsen and off in the distance is the view of the Tanba mountain ranges.
Photographs were not permitted inside the onsen, though I did manage to snap a few quick photos inside the changing rooms while no-one else was undressing!
Sake Tasting at Kobe Shu-shin-kan Breweries
With 250 years of tradition, Kobe Shu-shin-kan breweries offers you the opportunity to experience Japanese premium sake and get an authentic feel for the age-old tradition of sake brewing.
A traditional sweet, low-alcoholic drink made from fermented rice, Sake is also known as rice wine. It is deeply rooted in Japanese history and culture, having been around since ancient times.
Brewing techniques have evolved over time, but the cultural significance has remained, and continues to be entwined with many of the country’s traditions and customs today.
Kobe Shu-shin-kan comprises of the main plant, equipped with a brewing facility which visitors can tour, a Japanese restaurant focusing on fine cuisine, and then an event hall for tastings. The legendary Fukuju sake is brewed here.
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