If you want to see and experience traditional Japan and Japanese culture, a trip to the Kansai region should be in your itinerary. Located southwest of Tokyo, Kansai is considered the cultural and historic heart of Japan. It’s where you can find former Japanese capitals, Kyoto and Nara, and many of the country’s centuries-old temples, shrines, and villages spread across the rest of its prefectures that includes Shiga, Hyogo, Wakayama, and Osaka. Here are the best ways to experience old Japan in Kansai.
1. Visit centuries-old temples and shrines.
Feel like stepping back in time when you walk the mountain trails up to centuries-old shrines or behold a temple in the middle of a lush garden that was formerly a shogun’s holiday villa. In Kyoto, you can head over to Fushimi Inari and make your way up the mountain trail to the peak; you can also see two of the most important and oldest shrines in the prefecture by the beautiful Kamo River, Shimogamo and Kamigamo Shrines, which were founded in the 7th century.
Temples in Kyoto such as the Kiyomizu-dera and Kinkaku-ji are top draws for good reason. The large wooden terrace of the former afford amazing views, particularly during spring and fall season. Kinkaku-ji, a three-tiered pavilion covered in gold leaf, was a former shogun’s holiday home in the 14th century before it became a Zen Buddhist temple.
2. Take in the beauty of Kansai’s famous castles.
Japanese castles are another way to experience old Japan with its watch towers and castle keeps. The Kansai region has several famous castles worth a visit. Himeji Castle in Hyogo is considered one of the most iconic. The 6-story World Heritage Site cuts an imposing yet magnificent figure as it sits atop a hill. Guaranteed the view from the top is worth the climb on those narrow wooden stairs.
Hikone Castle in the Shiga prefecture, like Himeji, is designated a National Treasure and one of greatest castles in the country. Though not as imposing, it’s also built atop a hill and its inner citadel offers an amazing view of the grounds and the nearby lake. Both are fantastic to visit in the evening. Sprawling Nijo Castle in Kyoto, Osaka Castle, and Wakayama Castle round up the list of renowned castles in Kansai that are sure to give you old Japan vibes.
3. Geishas and Gion.
Many centuries ago, people who used to make the pilgrimage to Gion Shrine (Yasaka Shrine) would stop at Gion for food and lodging. It eventually became an entertainment district, where they could watch Kabuki drama or go to an ochaya (tea shop) to be entertained by geisha or geiko.
Today, you can still make like a pilgrim, find lodging and traditional Japanese entertainment in Gion. If an evening at an ochaya (usually costing north of AUD600 per person) is out of the budget, you can always just take a stroll through the Shirakawa area. Its well-preserved and picturesque street is lined with willow trees and elegant restaurants housed in traditional machiya townhouses.
4. Stay in a ryokan.
Booking your accommodations at a traditional Japanese-style inn is another way to experience traditional Japan. Said to have originated in the 8th century for weary travellers, most ryokans will provide rooms with a tatami mat (ryokan-style hotels will have option for Japanese futons or western-style beds).
Usually, you can also find hot spring facilities in a traditional ryokan. It can be public or, if you have more yen to burn, opt for a room with a private hot spring. And while there are no dress codes in a ryokan, most offer guests a yukata (casual-style kimono) and geta (Japanese wooden clogs) to wear during your stay. Another important service a ryokan offers is the traditional dinner and breakfast typically served should you choose to book with meals included. The dinner is a way for you to partake in an old Japanese tradition of having …
5. A kaiseki meal.
While kaiseki may be served for dinner in your ryokan, you can also have this traditional multi-course meal of small dishes in a restaurant. Most are served in high-end establishments and go for AUD100 and up, but locals will tell you that you can find more reasonably-priced kaiseki meal if you go during lunch. Yes, even in Kyoto, which is famous for kaiseki.
Whether dinner or lunch, you often need to make a reservation and if you don’t speak Japanese, best to have your hotel concierge call to reserve for you and your party at your restaurant of choice. And unless you’re having your meal in a ryokan, leave the t-shirt-and-jeans combo at your hotel and put on something less casual.
6. Sit down for tea time.
A good way to experience one of Japan’s famous traditions is in a tea ceremony. Dating back to the 9th century, the tea ceremony or sado traces its roots from China. It’s said that after a Buddhist monk who returned from China prepared tea for the Japanese emperor, Emperor Saga ordered tea plantations to be cultivated in the Kansai region.
It’s no surprise that Kyoto and its cities like Uji are top destinations to enjoy a tea ceremony. Taihoan tea house in Uji has a tea ceremony you can watch (be prepared to sit on your knees on a tatami mat) for around 5AUD. Spend a bit more if you want to learn how to make it yourself and basic etiquette in tea drinking. (You can find other tea ceremony experiences here.)
7. Try traditional arts & crafts.
Appreciate the intricacies of traditional Japanese arts and crafts by enrolling in a workshop so you can actually try your hand at it. You can do a private Ikebana class in Kyoto and learn how to do the Japanese-style flower arrangement. How about making washi paper and designing it with pressed flowers and leaves? Take a dyeing class to make a dyed silk cotton furoshiki (wrapping cloth) using the traditional sekka shibori method. Most of these classes are available in Kyoto.
Covering an area of over thirty-three thousand kilometers, Kansai can get overwhelming to navigate—deciding which of the many temples and palaces to see or which traditional ceremony to take part of. Having a travel organiser can help you save on time, get you the best value-for-money, and know which attractions are really worth the visit. Get in touch with a Star Flights travel organiser to help you plan your trip to see old Japan in Kansai.
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