Things to Do in Kansai Prefecture
With its gleaming gold tiers reflected in the lake below and a backdrop of forests and twisted pines, Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Pavilion) is an enchanting sight. Dating back to the 14th century, the UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of Kyoto’s most popular attractions and among Japan’s most visited temples.
Gion Corner is a convenient place for art lovers to visit while in Kyoto, as it brings seven traditional Japanese performing arts together under one roof. Attending one of its nightly performances is an ideal way to spend an evening in the heart of the Gion entertainment district while learning about traditional Japanese culture.
With more than 100 shops, stalls, and vendors selling everything from fresh-off-the-boat fish and seafood to tasty sweets and sushi takeaway, Nishiki Food Market is a wonderland of culinary delights. It's no surprise then that Kyoto’s biggest and most popular food market is a local institution and a popular attraction for traveling foodies.
One of Kyoto’s most sacred temples and among the oldest Shinto shrines in Japan, the Fushimi Inari Shrine (Fushimi Inari Taisha) is dedicated to Inari, the God of rice. The shrine’s five magnificent temples lie at the foot of the Inari mountain, and thousands of red torii gates (the Senbon torii) mark the forested trails to the top.
For classic Kyoto in a nutshell, head to Arashiyama Park. The perennially popular area is rich in temples and a riot of fall colors in November, with pink cherry blossoms in April.
The park area embraces several major sights, including Tenryu-ji Temple, founded in 1339. The main temple of the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism, Tenryu-ji is a UNESCO World Heritage Site surrounded by tranquil Zen gardens and bamboo forest.
There are many other temples in Arashiyama, including the Gio-ji, Jojakko-ji and Daikaku-ji temples. Another highlight is walking across the Moon Crossing Bridge, with views over to Mt Arashiyama.
Kiyomizu-dera Temple is one of Japan’s oldest and most eye-catching Buddhist temples. Its classic red pagoda has been influential to Japanese architecture for centuries. Located on a hilltop, Kiyomizu-dera Temple is also worth visiting for its sweeping views over Kyoto.
Among the most famous castles in Japan, Osaka Castle (Osaka-jo) dates back to the 16th century, when it played a major role in unifying the nation. Today the reconstructed castle houses a museum filled with artifacts from the history of Japan and from the castle’s creator, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The main tower provides a nice view over urban Osaka.
Located in the heart of Nara City, Nara Park (Nara Koen) is famous for the more than 1,000 semi-wild sika deer that roam its grounds. Spanning 1,631 acres (660 hectares), the scenic public park is also home to several popular attractions, including the Todai-ji Temple, the Isuien Garden, and the Nara National Museum.
If you only have time for one day trip from Kyoto or Osaka, make it Himeji Castle (Himeji-Jo), renowned as Japan’s most beautiful historic citadel. Also known as White Heron Castle, the UNESCO-listed hilltop structure was built in 1580 and features a five-story central tower with surrounding moats, walls, and pagodas.
Dotonbori (also called Dotombori) is a bustling nightlife district in Osaka’s Minami area. It stretches along the Dtomborigawa River, with a multitude of small restaurants, bars, and neon lights that come alive after nightfall. An entertainment neighborhood, Dotonbori is famous for its varied cuisine and huge animated signs.
More Things to Do in Kansai Prefecture
Often mistaken for the Arashiyama district of Kyoto, Sagano expands north of the Togetsukyo Bridge in Kyoto. The tranquil area encompasses some of Kyoto’s most stunning landscapes. With rural residential areas, mountains dotting the horizon, fields ablaze with color and a famous bamboo forest, Sagano may just be one of Japan’s prettiest (and lesser known) spots.
By far, Sagano is best known for its bamboo groves. Walking trails wind through the forest, with thin, tall bamboos lining either side. Sun light filters through the narrow trunks, casting shadows along the path. Beyond the grove, one of the best ways to experience Sagano is on bicycle. In addition to the bamboo groves, there are numerous temples to explore, as well as the river and the well-traveled bridge. This idyllic nook on the outskirts of Kyoto should not be missed.
UNESCO World Heritage Site Nijo-jo Castle, a fortified complex dating from 1603, was the official residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first Tokugawa shogun. Walk in the pretty gardens or visit Ninomaru Palace to see fine Japanese artworks. It’s one of the most popular attractions in Kyoto, a city already full of must-visit attractions.
Host to Japan’s most famous festival, Gion Matsuri, Yasaka Shrine is located in the heart of Kyoto. Yasaka Shrine dates back to the 7th century, when it was known as Gion Shrine for its location near the Gion district, famous for the geisha that live and work there. The shrine consists of several buildings. The main hall houses an inner sanctuary and a secondary hall. One of the most prominent features of the shrine is a large stage out front lined with hundreds of lanterns. One of the most popular times to visit the shrine is in the evening or at night, when the lanterns light the stage.
The annual Gion Matsuri festival began more than 1,100 years ago at Yasaka Shrine. In modern times, it takes place every July. Originally, the festival sought to expunge the city of illnesses. Today, the festival celebrates craftwork. Intricate fabrics, textiles, and sculptures adorn floats that men carry through town. Music, costumes, and street food contribute to the festive atmosphere. Yasaka Shrine is also a popular place to visit during the Japanese New Year and during cherry blossom season.
Universal Studios Japan—Asia’s first Universal Studios theme park—is second only to the Tokyo Disney Resort as Japan’s most visited amusement park. Beloved characters like Shrek, Hello Kitty, and Spiderman are in attendance, and a spectacular variety of rides, movie simulators, and parades keep all ages entertained.
Vintage fun comes to Osaka in the shape of the Tsutenkaku, Osaka’s answer to the Eiffel Tower. Tsutenkaku, translated into "tower reaching heaven," reaches 338 feet (103 meters) high, making it one of the tallest buildings in Asia when it was built in 1912.
Beautifully illuminated and outlined in neon by night, the tower has a decidedly kitsch but cute 1950s futuristic look. Take the elevator to the observation deck on the summit’s fifth level to visit the popular good luck symbol, Billiken, the God of Happiness. A popular American doll in the early 1900s, Billiken was enshrined in the nearby Luna Park, but went missing when the park closed in 1923. To revive the tower and park, a replica was put in the tower and is considered a good luck symbol. Each year thousands of visitors place a coin in his donation box and rub the soles of his feet to make their wishes come true.
Tsutenkaku also boasts some other cool features. The neon lights at the top of the tower are also a weather vane and will predict the next day's forecast. And the clock located on the east side of the building is huge - 18 feet (5.5 meters) across and weighing about 55lbs (25kg). There is also a theater and a few toy museums located within!
Built in the 6th century by Prince Shotoku—a cultural hero who helped to bring Buddhism to the country—Shitenno-ji is one of Japan’s oldest temples. The complex includes a multi-tiered tower, pagoda, lecture hall, and gate. Though most of the current structures are from the 1963 rebuilding, they still reflect the 6th century design.
Foodies who spend any time in Kyoto will want to dedicate at least one evening to PontochoAlley, an incredibly atmospheric dining area packed with restaurants and exclusive tea houses lining a narrow, cobbled alley just west of the Kamo River.
Visitors from around Japan and the world come here for the open-air dining along the river and the opportunity to spot apprentice and master geishas scurrying to their appointments. While most of the tea houses are difficult to visit without a connection, visitors will find a range of restaurants — everything from inexpensive yakitori to modern Kyoto cuisine – to choose from in the evenings.
A large covered market selling fresh and cooked food, Kuromon Ichiba Market is nicknamed “Osaka’s kitchen,” because many chefs and home cooks come here for supplies. It has since branched out from purely seafood options, and is typically bustling with locals and visitors hoping to get an inside look at local ingredients and cuisine.
One of the largest public aquariums in the world, the Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan is home to various species from the Pacific Ring of Fire and aquatic environments around the globe. Learn about local species such as Asian otters and giant spider crabs, and see other creatures, including sea turtles, sharks, penguins, and a host of tropical fish.
Built in 1164, Sanjusangendo Temple impresses in scope, size, and detail, with 1001 statues of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, flanking the main image of a giant, seated Kannon. Carved in the 12th and 13th centuries, the statues are arranged in 50 columns, each two rows deep. It's said that the Kannon witness and protect against human suffering. To aid in their mission, the Kannon are equipped with 11 heads and 1,000 arms.
"Sanjusangendo" translates to hall with thirty three spaces between the columns," describing a traditional measurement system. The wooden temple building extends 118 meters (387 feet), making it the longest of its kind in the world. Originally built for former emperor Go-Shirakawa, the Temple today remains a religious destination and popular tourist stop. It represents some of the most exquisite Japanese Buddhist sculpture and architecture in the country.
Strolling along the Kamogawa River (Kamo River) at night is a quintessential Kyoto experience. The fourth longest river in Kyoto spans from the northeastern most parts of the city southwest to the Katsuragawa River. The most popular section of the river runs through the famous geisha district of Gion. In warmer months, the river becomes a popular spot for picnics, walks, and people watching.
A walking path along the river’s edge gives way to stretches of parkland, perfect for enjoying an afternoon or evening. Restaurants situated above the river light up at night, illuminating the river below. There are five bridges that span the Kamo River. More adventurous travelers may enjoy finding each of them. Along with the Seine in Paris or the Tiber River in Italy, the Kamo River is a favorite spot among locals.
The Japanese royal family lived in Kyoto Imperial Palace(Kyoto Gosho) until 1868, when the capital moved to Tokyo. It’s located within the Kyoto Imperial Park, which also houses other palaces and shrines. This must-visit attraction allows visitors to gain a greater understanding of Japan’s rich history and culture while enjoying landscaped gardens.
At 984 feet (300 meters) tall, Abeno Harukas (Osaka Harukas) takes the coveted superlative of Japan's highest skyscraper, narrowly rising above the former title holder, the Yokohama Landmark Tower. Part of the sprawling Abenobashi Terminal Building, it stands atop the Kintetsu Osaka Abenobashi Station and houses a department store, art museum, five-star hotel, and observation deck.
The Silver Pavilion temple in Kyoto’s eastern mountains has no silver on it at all. Legend has it that when Shogun – or military ruler – Ashikaga Yoshimasa built his retirement villa in 1482 on the grounds where Ginkaku-ji stands today, he grandly stated he wanted the entire pavilion covered with silver to imitate the Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji), built by his grandfather. The villa was converted to a Buddhist temple after Yoshimasa’s death in 1490, and the shining nickname persists today.
The circular route around the Silver Pavilion begins in a dry sand garden, named the “Sea of Silver Sand,” where a cone-like representation of Mt. Fuji has been dubbed the “Moon Viewing Platform.” The grounds open up to a moss garden featuring ponds with islands and short bridges, streams, and a variety of foliage. The path snakes up a hill leading to a viewing point of the entire temple grounds and the city beyond. The path comes full circle with up-close views of the Silver Pavilion itself. Unlike some of Kyoto’s famous temples, none of the buildings at the Silver Pavilion can be viewed from the inside.
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