Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Kansai versus Kanto, or why there's more to Japan than Tokyo

This week I heard from two entirely separate people that they're heading off soon for a Japanese holiday, but both of them were destined for Tokyo and not sure if they'd go far beyond it. Of course you will, I cried! You're missing the best parts otherwise!

And so I was prompted to write this blog post to try to persuade them further. Tokyo and Osaka, the second main city of Japan, have a fierce rivalry, similar to Sydney and Melbourne here in Australia, I guess. A quick spot of geography: Tokyo falls in the Kanto region, and Osaka in the Kansai region - both similar-sized areas taking in a few surrounding prefectures.

When I was moving to Japan, the company I was going to work for offered me just two choices for my new home: Tokyo or Osaka. Without a moment's hesitation I picked Osaka. I think I've always wanted to pick the road less travelled, although with some 22 million people in the Kansai area (the whole of Australia!) it's hardly a barely travelled road. But you get my drift. Anyway, I was really glad I picked Kansai. I visited Tokyo and the Kanto region a couple of times, and it was great too, but I think for volume of amazing places packed into a relatively small area, Kansai wins. So here are a few of my favourite Kansai attractions:

1. Amazing food (and giant crabs)

My father with Namba's famous crab - in central Osaka
I think every Japanese person in every part of Japan will tell you that their local speciality is the best food (and in a sense, they're all correct - every Japanese food is amazing!) but the sheer weight of my personal favourites means Osaka wins. Okonomiyaki - need I say more? I can - takoyaki are from Osaka as well - describing them as deep-fried octopus balls doesn't quite do their deliciousness justice.

2. Kyoto's temples and shrines. Nara's temples and shrines. SO MANY temples and shrines.

Kinkakuji - the Golden Temple - Kyoto
It's true that there are temples all over Japan. But I truly believe that the selection dished up in Kansai beat the rest. There is Kyoto's Kinkakuji (pictured above) - the Golden Temple. (Named so for rather obvious reasons). There is Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto, on top of the hill, and scenic both by day and night. There's the Fushimi Inari Shrine - so orange and so incredible that it deserves its own photo (see below). There's Nara's massive Todaiji in Nara Park, home to the world's largest bronze Buddha statue. And that's just scratching the surface.

Fushimi Inari shrine

3. Kobe - rebuilt after the 1995 earthquake

Kobe is just a short train trip from Osaka (less than an hour) and I used to visit regularly. It was quite different from Osaka, Nara or Kyoto, largely because much of it had been rebuilt after the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995. This made it more modern and an interesting contrast; I also was moved every time I visited the earthquake memorial, a part of the harbour which they'd left unrepaired.

Great Hanshin Earthquake Memorial in Kobe
At Christmas time Kobe is home to Luminarie - an amazing festival of lights, particularly amazing for a country that doesn't really celebrate Christmas!

4. Monkeys in Kyoto and deer in Nara

Cute animals definitely give bonus points, right? In Kyoto I often climbed up Arashiyama to interact with the monkeys at the top; I lived close enough to Nara Park to cycle there and see the deer. I once met a man who was involved in taking care of the Nara Park deer - they're considered sacred - and he made me appreciate them even more.

A monkey on Arashiyama in Kyoto

5. USJ ... Universal Studios Japan

Meeting Jaws at USJ - Universal Studios Japan

Forget Tokyo Disneyland. (Okay, don't forget it entirely, it's pretty cool too. But you don't need it.) Osaka has Universal Studies. It had just opened when I first moved to Osaka and it was the talk of the town. And it really is a wonderful day of fantasy.

6. Osaka Castle and more importantly, Osaka Castle Park

Osaka Castle mid-cherry blossom season. Be still my beating heart!

I rather like Osaka Castle itself. But I really love Osaka Castle Park - Osaka-jo-koen - where it's located. It's a huge green space in the middle of the city and home to all kinds of fun cultural activities, from sumo wrestling tournaments (get tickets if your trip coincides!) to being a very popular destination for cherry blossom picnics.

7. And there is more. MUCH more.

In nearby Mie prefecture, head to Akame- a spot with 48 waterfalls and the most delightful walk you'll ever find. The ginormous Himeji Castle is not that far west of Kobe. You can explore Lake Biwa and surrounds, the largest lake in Japan. From Osaka, it's a short shinkansen ride to Hiroshima, one of the most fascinating cities of Japan, and from there just a quick ferry trip to Miyajima, my favourite Japanese island. I could go on. But I hope I've made my point already.

PS There is even more great stuff in Japan - see my 25 things to do in Japan post for more proof.


  1. I have emailed the link to this post to my son who is going to Japan on holidays next week.

    1. Oh, excellent timing! Hope your son has an excellent trip.

  2. Osaka castle seems to have such a romantic ambience! <3

    I'm gonna be flying to Tokyo soon for my internship over there, and after reading this article of yours regarding Osaka I seem all the more excited!

    I just wish I had a 'special someone' to tag along with (what with the romantic Osaka Castle and all :P). Unfortunately I'm still single :P

    1. Enjoy your internship but make sure you make time to get out of Tokyo, too!

  3. Hi Amanda, it's Yuki - I met you at Japan Discovery Seminar in Pan Pacific last year. Hope this rings a bell :)

    This is such an interesting post! Although you can see Japanese-ness in Tokyo, Kansai is more unique and people are also friendlier I reckon. I'm not saying this because I'm from Kobe haha.

    The other day I was lucky enough to try Sho's Japanese at the function in Hyogo Cultural Centre where I'm currently working at. You were right, that was so good!!

    1. I remember you, Yuki! I've tried twice to go to the Japanese place you recommended in the city but it's been booked out both times ;-) I have to be more organised in advance!

      Glad you enjoyed Shou's food - oishii!!!

  4. As fascinating as i found Tokyo, i agree every visitor should try and visit some other part of Japan as well. When i found myself with 10 days free in 2001, i got on a train to Sapporo with very little planning.

    One great day there was spent visiting the Historical Village of Hokkaido, which has about 60 buildings from all over Japan's north island, dating from the mid 19th to mid 20th century, divided into four different sections: a town, fishing village, farm village and a mountain village.

    I learned about silk worm cultivation, growing hops and barley (to make beer, of course!), early photography, the German influence on the area, and most amazing, a well preserved print shop with movable type presses. Think about that one - not just the 30 or so letters of a western alphabet, but a bit of metal for each of the thousands of Kanji glyphs, multiplied by all the different sized fonts for headlines and copy.

    I also visited the site of the 1972 Winter Olympics and rode the chairlift to top of the mountain at sunset, and back down in the fog, very spooky!

    The best moment of this trip was a chance encounter on a country road - i had chosen the local train that looked like it went the furthest away from the city, which turned out to be a vintage single railcar. At the end of the line there was nothing but the station and a tiny store. I took off walking up the road because i had spotted several hot air balloons, and i thought i might find where they were launching from.

    I had given up that optimistic quest and stopped to take pictures, when along came two young folks in school uniforms. They shyly said hello and asked what i was doing, which developed into an extended conversation when they saw that i was willing to let them practice their English on me!

    It was a very good trip, especially considering the spur of the moment nature.

    1. Michael, thanks so much for your comment - your Hokkaido experience sounds wonderful and I totally agree, these spontaneous unplanned kind of trips very often bring us the most memorable experience. I think I rode that same chairlift though I'm glad it wasn't foggy!!


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