Kansai (関西) is the western region of the main Japanese island of Honshu, second only to Kanto region of Eastern Japan in population. The area is also known as Kinki (近畿) District, literally "near the capital" (referring to ancient capital Nara and Kyoto), and its three big cities — Osaka, Kyoto, and Kobe — as Keihanshin (京阪神).
the largest prefecture in Kansai, stretching from coast to coast and covering Kobe and Himeji
synonymous with the city
eastern prefecture with one leg in Chubu (actually on the other side of Nagoya bay), best known for the Ise shrine and the famous Mikimoto "Pearl Island" at Toba
Japan's oldest capital Nara and its surroundings
dominated by the city of Osaka, it includes Sakai city and numerous nearby suburbs
mountainous prefecture dominated by beautiful Lake Biwa
mountainous terrain and the southern coast
- 1 Hikone - castle and garden town off the beaten track
- 2 Himeji - small city famed for its beautiful castle
- 3 Ise - home to the eponymous Ise Shrine, the holiest in all Japan
- 4 Kobe - maritime city known for its beef and Japan's oldest Chinatown
- 5 Kyoto - Japan's ancient capital, with temples and geisha
- 6 Nara - an even more ancient capital (than Kyoto) centered around a beautiful park
- 7 Osaka - mega-world city famed for its food and nightlife is the principal city of Kansai region
- 8 Otsu - home to Mount Hiei and the temple where Tale of Genji was written
- 9 Wakayama - Known for its castle, ramen, and its Stationmaster, Nitama the cat
- 1 Arima Onsen – one of Japan's Three Old Hot Springs just across the hill from Kobe
- 2 Kinosaki – another famous historic spring town near the Sea of Japan
- 3 Awaji Island –- gateway to Shikoku
- 4 Kumano Kodo – collection of historic pilgrimages inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site
- 5 Lake Biwa – Japan's largest lake is nice for a quick break
- 6 Mount Hiei – headquarters of Tendai and protector of Kyoto
- 7 Mount Koya – mountaintop headquarters of the Buddhist Shingon sect.
- 8 Iga and 9 Koka – hometowns of ninja
Differences between Kansai and Kanto (the eastern region dominated by Tokyo) are slight but numerous. Kansai people speak a distinctive dialect of Japanese, use lighter-colored soy in their cooking, ride on the other side of escalators and are renowned for humor and their love of food.
While 22 million people live in Kansai, the region also has spectacular natural scenery, and four of the country's national parks.
The Kansai dialect (関西弁 Kansai-ben) is Japan's largest dialect group after Tokyo's dialect group collectively. There are many subdialects, ranging from the elegant and euphemistic Kyo-kotoba (京言葉) of Kyoto's courtiers to the gruff but imaginative gangster slang of Osaka, much favored by Japanese comedians. Some notable features include the copula ya instead of da, the negative ending -hen instead of -nai, the use of akan (あかん, アカン) instead of dame for "No way!", aho (あほ, アホ) instead of baka for "idiot", and ōki-ni (おおきに) instead of arigatō gozaimasu for "Thanks". Everybody understands standard Japanese too, but it is common for locals to reply in the local dialect even when spoken to in standard Japanese.
That said, most Kansaites are perfectly conversant in standard Japanese, so knowledge of the local dialect is by no means necessary, but even a few words will be appreciated. The typical Osakan greeting is Mōkarimakka? ("Making money?"), to which the typical reply is Bochi-bochi denna ("Well, so-so"); trying this out on a friend or acquaintance is guaranteed to produce a surprised smile, and make you look like a omoroi (funny) guy.
English is taught at all schools in Japan, and while it is less commonly spoken than in Tokyo you will find that younger people will often know enough English to communicate, especially those residing in the cities. Still, learning even a few important phrases in Japanese will be appreciated and not as difficult as many Westerners think.
There are three major airports in the Kansai Metropolitan Area. International flights land at Kansai International Airport. The primary domestic airport is Osaka's Itami Airport (officially called Osaka International Airport even though there are no longer any international flights). A new regional airport opened in Kobe in 2006, right across the bay from Kansai International — in fact, Kansai was originally supposed to be built there!
The three major cities of Kansai - Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe - are connected by a myriad of train routes. When traveling between two of these cities, it helps to determine what method of transportation fits your travel needs, and fits your budget... unless you have a Japan Rail Pass, of course.
Besides the Shinkansen, Japan Railways operates the main trunk line - the Tokaido Line - between Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe. The Kyoto-Osaka segment is known as the JR Kyoto Line, while the segment from Osaka to Kobe is the JR Kobe Line. The Special Rapid, or Shin-Kaisoku (新快速), generally leaves every 15 minutes with very fast transit times. If you do not have a Japan Rail Pass, however, JR can be more expensive compared to private railways.
Kyoto to Osaka
- The JR Kyoto Line connects Kyoto Station in southern Kyoto with Osaka Station in northern Osaka, stopping at Shin-Osaka for the Tokaido and San'yo Shinkansen trains. 30 minutes between Kyoto and Osaka via Special Rapid, ¥560. Free with the Japan Rail Pass.
- The Hankyū Line (阪急) runs from central Kyoto, starting at Shijo and Kawaramachi streets. Trains exit Kyoto to the west and run into the massive Hankyū Umeda Terminal, located to the north of JR Osaka station. Limited express trains depart every ten minutes during most of the day. 45 minutes between Kawaramachi and Umeda, ¥390. Not vaild with the Japan Rail Pass.
- The Keihan Line (京阪) runs from eastern Kyoto, starting from Demachiyanagi or Sanjo Street and operating parallel to the Kamo River past Gion and Kiyomizu Temple. Trains exit Kyoto to the south and run into central Osaka. After stops at Kyobashi (along the JR Osaka Loop Line) and Tenmabashi, the line splits: the main line runs to Yodoyabashi, while the Nakanoshima Line runs to Nakanoshima island. The fastest trains depart every ten minutes during most of the day. 51 minutes between Sanjo and Yodoyabashi, ¥400. One hour between Sanjo and Nakanoshima, ¥460. Reserved Premium Car seating on limited express trains are available for an additional ¥400-500 per trip. Not valid with the Japan Rail Pass.
If you do travel via the Keihan, an interesting thing to listen out for are the departure melodies - songs that are played before the train departs a station. Composed by Casiopea keyboardist and railroad enthusiast Minoru Mukaiya (向谷 実), each departure melody is part of an entire song - you will hear all parts of the song if you travel along the full route.
Another private railway that runs into Kyoto and Osaka is the Kintetsu Line (近鉄). One major drawback is that services run on separate lines requiring you to change trains at Yamato-Saidaiji, and the total travel time is slightly longer than other options as a result. On the other hand, if you have a little extra money, Kintetsu is one of the few operators that run reserved seating services - a reserved seat trip from Namba to Kyoto with a change of trains takes approximately 70 minutes and costs ¥870 on top of the regular fare. Tickets for these services can easily be purchased at ticket machines, which offer English translation. Kintetsu is also a great way to travel between Kyoto and Nara.
To go from Kyoto to southern Osaka (where Kintetsu trains terminate), you would be better off taking one of the other routes listed above; when you reach Osaka, change to the southbound Midosuji subway line and get off at Nanba.
Osaka to Kobe
- The JR Kobe Line connects Osaka station in northern Osaka with Sannomiya and Kobe stations in Kobe; Sannomiya station is more centrally-located. 20 minutes between Osaka and Sannomiya via Special Rapid, ¥410. Free with the Japan Rail Pass.
- The Hankyū Line runs from Umeda to Sannomiya, running to the north of the JR Line. Limited Express trains leave every ten minutes during most of the day. 27 minutes from Umeda to Sannomiya; ¥310. Not valid with the Japan Rail Pass.
- The Hanshin Line (阪神) runs from its own Umeda station, south of JR Osaka, to Sannomiya, with trains continuing on to Himeji. Limited Express trains leave every ten minutes during most of the day. 29 minutes from Umeda to Sannomiya, ¥310. Not valid with the Japan Rail Pass.
- Hanshin trains also run from Namba station in southern Osaka. Most services are a one-seat ride, otherwise you will have to change trains at Amagasaki. 45 minutes via Rapid Express, ¥400. Not valid with the Japan Rail Pass.
Kyoto to Kobe
- The JR Kyoto and Kobe Lines connect Kyoto with Sannomiya and Kobe stations. 50 minutes from Kyoto to Sannomiya via Special Rapid, ¥1080. Free with the Japan Rail Pass.
- The Hankyū Line connects central Kyoto with Sannomiya, with a change of trains at Juso (north of Umeda) necessary. About 70 minutes from Kawaramachi to Sannomiya via Limited Express, ¥600. Not valid with the Japan Rail Pass.
Nara to Kobe
- Kintetsu trains run from the historical city of Nara to Sannomiya station on the Hanshin line via Namba. Direct trains leave every 20 minutes, reaching Sannomiya in 75 minutes at a cost of ¥940. Not valid with the Japan Rail Pass.
Tickets and Passes
Most of Kansai's regional transportation companies have tied up to offer the ICOCA tickets, which can be used on pretty much any train, subway, monorail, cable car or bus in the region. The Nankai and JR trains from Kansai Airport are also included, and you can buy your card or pass at the airport's train station.
- The ICOCA card is a contactless smart card that can be used on JR West, JR East (Tokyo) and most private rail and bus companies in Kansai and Chugoku (Okayama, Hiroshima). Cards are available at ticket vending machines in train stations for ¥2000, including a refundable ¥500 deposit. More money can be added at the same machines.
- The Surutto Kansai magnetic card is similar to ICOCA, but it doesn't work on JR and is not rechargeable, making it pretty much obsolete.
- The Kansai Thru Pass can be purchased as a two-day (¥3800) or a three-day (¥5000) pass. It is valid for two/three separate days within the validity period which is printed on the back (usually a couple of months). It can be used on most non-JR trains and buses (and even some cable cars) in Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe and Nara with the notable exception of JR trains. The service area extends south to the Kansai International Airport and the city of Wakayama and southeast to Mount Koya (Check the Area Map on the webpage for details). In addition to free transport, these tickets offer a series of small discounts to temples, museums and other attractions in the region. Be aware that you'll have to travel quite a bit to make them pay off. (Note: You might be asked to show your passport when you purchase this card.)
- JR-West also offers the Kansai Area Pass, which costs ¥2000/¥4000/¥5000/¥6000 for 1/2/3/4 days respectively and is valid for unlimited travel on JR standard and Haruka limited express trains (non-reserved seats only). The area covered is approximately the same as for the Kansai Thru Pass above.
With its political and geographical significance in the history of Japan, the region of Kansai possesses three quarters of Japan's "National Treasure" buildings, half of its "National Treasure" artworks, as well as five UNESCO World Heritage Sites, making it an unmatched destination for heritage tourists to Japan.
World Heritage Sites
- Horyuji Temple and Hokkiji Temple in Horyuji became the nation's very first World Heritage Sites in 1993.
- Himeji Castle, (Himeji) the largest original castle in Japan.
- Eight Sites in Nara make up the Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara, including Todai-ji which houses one of the world's most famous Buddha statues, the beautiful Kasuga Shrine and the Kasuga Primeval Forest on the mountain behind it, Heijo-kyo the former palace site, and four other temples.
- The Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto are a list of 14 sites in Kyoto#World Heritage Sites, 2 in Uji (Byodoin and Ujigami Shrine), and 1 in Otsu (Enryaku-ji on Mount Hiei).
- The shrines and temples of Yoshino, Mount Koya and Kumano are all part of the single site known as the Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range.
- The Mozu-Furuichi Kofungun Ancient Tumulus Structures are a collection of burial mounds in Sakai and Fujiidera. The Nintoku Tombs are the largest and most important of the listings.
Kansai is home to two of the nation's remaining original castles. Both are designated National Treasures.
- Himeji Castle (Himeji) World Heritage Site reopened in 2015 after years of renovation, the "White Heron Castle" is now whiter than ever.
- Hikone Castle (Hikone) An impressive castle that also retains its original accompanying garden and an informative museum.
- Osaka Castle, Osaka
- Ako Castle, Ako
- Nijo Castle, Kyoto
- Fushimi Castle, Kyoto
- Fukuchiyama Castle, Fukuchiyama
- Kishiwada Castle, Kishiwada
- Wakayama Castle, Wakayama
- Iga Ueno Castle, Iga
- Nagahama Castle, Nagahama
- Genkyuen Garden - Garden of the lords of Hikone Castle (Hikone)
- Shoseien Garden - A quiet garden villa in central Kyoto owned by Honganji Temple (Kyoto)
- Kokoen Garden A modern garden with a pond, herb garden, and bamboo grove (Himeji)
- Isuien Garden Beautiful garden that utilizes Todaiji Temple and Mount Wakakusa as borrowed scenery (Nara)
As the former capital, Kyoto and the surrounding environ is home to a large number of the nation's top temples and shrines. Kyoto is home to the head temples of many Buddhist sects, such as Chionin (head of the Jodo Sect), the Honganji Temples (heads of Jodo Shinshu sect), and Manpukuji Temple (head of the Obaku sect). The nearby mountain of Enryakuji Temple in Otsu is head of the Tendai sect and Mount Koya's Kongobuji Temple is the head of the Shingon sect.
The Byodoin Temple in Uji is a well-known Pure Land temple known for its architecture and its feature on the 10 yen coin.
- Ise Shrine The top Shinto Shrine with its primary deity being the goddess Amaterasu (Ise)
- Kumano Sanzan A three-shrine pilgrimage in southern Wakayama, consisting of Kumano Nachi Shrine home to one of Japan's highest waterfalls in Nachikatsuura, Nachi Hayatama Shrine in Shingu, and Kumano Hongu Shrine in Tanabe.
- Sumiyoshi Shrine (Osaka)
- Shimogamo Shrine (Kyoto)
- Fushimi Inari Shrine (Kyoto)
- Omi Jingu (Otsu) known as a shrine for the karuta card game
- Omiwa Shrine (Sakurai), one of the oldest shrines in the country
- Kasuga Shrine (Nara)
- Shirahige Shrine A shrine by Lake Biwa with its torii gate in the lake (Takashima)
Kansai cooking is subtly different from the Kanto style, although the average short-term visitor is unlikely to spot many differences. Perhaps the most visible differences are a tendency to use light-colored soy instead of dark, especially in soups, and a preference for thick white udon noodles over the thin buckwheat soba noodles of eastern Japan.
Some famous Kansai dishes include:
- sabazushi (鯖寿司 mackerel sushi), Battera of Osaka, sabazushi in Kyoto, or kaki-no-ha zushi (柿の葉寿司) from Nara are local variants of this type
- okonomiyaki (お好み焼き), variously described as Japanese pizza or pancakes. Although Hiroshima also makes a strong claim for this name, they are in fact reasonably different from each other. (Hiroshima style tends to come cooked on a pile of noodles.)
- takoyaki (たこ焼き) is the common name for the fried balls of octopus and batter. Akashiyaki (明石焼き) from Akashi City area is recognized as the origin of the more famous Osaka-style takoyaki. As opposed to the Osaka-style being served with dark and thick sauce on it, Akashiyaki are eaten without sauce but dipped into clear soup. When visiting takoyaki bars, the various fillings mentioned are generally substituted for octopus, rather than being an addition.
- beef (和牛), there are famous beef brands; Kobe beef (神戸牛), Matsusaka beef (松阪牛), Tajima beef (但馬牛) and Omi beef (近江牛).
- udon (うどん) is the popular noodle in Osaka instead of soba in Tokyo. Another udon area, Sanuki in Shikoku, is famous for chewy noodle, while Osaka is famous for soft noodle.
Kansai is sake country, with Nada (in Kobe) and Fushimi (in Kyoto) alone accounting for 45% of the country's production. Kobe in particular is a good place to tour sake breweries, many of which are open to visitors. Yamazaki, a halfway point between Osaka and Kyoto, is known for Japan's oldest commercial whisky distillery owned by Suntory.