Things to Do in Kansai Prefecture
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Established in the late 19th century, the Nara National Museum is a well-respected exhibitor of Japanese Buddhist art. In addition to the original French Renaissance–style building, a newer wing also displays temporary exhibits. In both wings, visitors can admire predominantly Japanese Buddhist statues, paintings, scrolls, and ceremonial objects.
More Things to Do in Kansai Prefecture
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.
Once a destination for nobles, the Arashiyama district of Kyoto boasts small-town charm and beautiful mountainside views. Today, the popular neighborhood attracts tourists and nature lovers. The scenic neighborhood’s iconic landmark, Togetsu-kyo Bridge spans the Katsura River and provides panoramic views of lush mountainside foliage, gentle river swells, and local fisherman navigating the shoreline. The bridge’s history extends back 400 years and has been featured in many historical films.
Crossing Togetsu-kyo Bridge is a highlight of any visit to Arashiyama. From feeding carp fish over the railing to enjoying the splendor of cherry blossoms in the spring and fall foliage, the bridge is a gateway to a simple, stunningly scenic way of life. Another popular way to see the bridge is by a boat ride along the river.
Located in the Arashiyama area of Kyoto, Tenryu-ji Temple is one of the five great temples of Kyoto. Make a stop at this sprawling Zen temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that dates from the 14th century, to experience its traditional Japanese landscape garden.
Historically, the head priests of Shoren-in Temple were members of Japan’s imperial family. In fact, a 12th-century emperor built the temple originally as a residence for his son to study alongside a prominent priest of the time. The temple’s stately pedigree matches the allure of its tranquil natural surroundings. Shoren-in Temple rests at the foot of Kyoto’s Higashiyama mountains. Standing outside of the main temple building, trees tower above, and the wooded forest encircles the entire complex.
Shoren-in Temple is known for being quiet and peaceful, a respite from hustle and bustle of the city. Visitors are invited to walk through the rooms of the temple. These include a drawing room, where the main attraction is intricately painted fusuma, or traditional sliding doors. The drawing room opens to a pond, where visitors often go to meditate. The main hall is the primary place of worship. Outside of the temple are several walking paths. Some circle a garden, while another leads up to a teahouse.
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.
Jojakko-ji Temple is not an ordinary temple; it was built on the side of a mountain in the thick of a famous bamboo grove. Finding it feels like an adventure, and climbing to the top feels like a workout. The view of Kyoto from the top of Jojakko-ji Temple rewards the effort mightily.
Located in the idyllic Arashiyama district of Kyoto, Jojakko-ji Temple was built in the 1500s, and the journey to it is all uphill from its gate. Its steep staircase leads to multiple buildings, including a main hall and a pagoda that houses a Buddha. The sites along the way offer respites from the climb, and one of the most popular of these resting points is a mossy area with the bamboos directly overhead. The top of the pagoda offers an incredible view over the city, and this hidden gem of a temple is undoubtedly worth the train ride out to Arashiyama.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The oldest and one of the most important Zen temples in Kyoto, Kennin-ji was founded in the year 1202 by a monk. Situated near the famous Geisha district of Gion, Kennin-ji attracts Buddhist monks on pilgrimage, as well as religious locals and tourists, and curious explorers.
The main hall is a bastion of solemnity. The architecture features rooftops that curve upwards toward the sky, as if in prayer. The original temple complex contained seven buildings, but fires throughout the centuries destroyed many. The temple was rebuilt in the mid-thirteenth century and again in the sixteenth century. Today three outstanding buildings remain: the Dharma Hall, the principal building; a tea house; and the Imperial Messenger Gate. Interestingly, the gate dates back to the 12th or 13th centuries, and today marks from stray arrows during battles can still be seen.
Kennin-ji boasts a stunning Zen garden. Like most Zen gardens, Kennin-ji's is defined by its simplicity and beauty. An aesthetically pleasing placement of rocks, trees, and grassy areas create a calming, peaceful atmosphere for strolling or simply sitting and thinking.
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.
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