The Kansai Region (関西地方 Kansai-chihō), sometimes coterminous with the official geographical designation “Kinki Region” (近畿地方 Kinki-chihō), comprises the prefectures of
- Shiga (滋賀県 Shiga-ken)
- Mie (三重県 Mie-ken)
- Nara (奈良県 Nara-ken)
- Kyoto (京都府 Kyōto-fu)
- Wakayama (和歌山県 Wakayama-ken)
- Osaka (大阪府 Ōsaka-fu)
- Hyōgo (兵庫県 Hyōgo-ken)
The term Kansai (関西, lit. “west of the barrier” was first used in the tenth century in contradistinction to the word Kantō. Kantō (関東, lit. “east of the barrier”) referred to the area east of the barrier station (関所 sekisho) at Ōsaka (in modern-day Shiga Prefecture, not to be confused with the major city of the same name), hence Kansai referred to the are west of that station. From the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) the dividing line between the Kantō and the Kansai was marked by the three barrier stations at Suzuka (present-day Mie Prefecture), Fuwa (Gifu Prefecture), and Arachi (Fukui Prefecture). It was later fixed further east at the barrier station at Hakone (Kanagawa Prefecture). The term is also used to describe local speech patterns (as in kansai-ben, 関西弁 or 關西辯, or kansai–namari 関西訛り), and manners and customs, and thus closely resembles kamigata (上方), another term used to cover the Kyōto-Ōsaka area.
It was the imperial center of Japan until the end of the Tokugawa shogunate with the Meiji Restoration in 1868, when the imperial residence was moved to Tōkyō. The most popular destinations in this region are the former imperial capital cities of Nara (capital from 710 to 794) and Kyōto (capital from 794 to 1868). The cities of Kobe, Osaka, Himeji and Hikone however are major destinations in their own right. The main hub and international airport is the new airport built on a man-made island in Ōsaka Bay, but Nagoya Airport in the neighbouring Chubu Region may also be a suitable international entry point, if you are going to be studying or traveling in Shiga or Mie Prefectures.
Language, life & studying
- 22,757,897 residents (2010)
- 27,335.11 square kilometers, covering 11% of Japan’s land area
- Population density: 830 inhabitants per square kilometer
- Main urban centers: Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto
If you are interested in learning the Kansai dialect, then any of the cities in this region would provide a good base – almost all Japanese living in this area use the Kansai dialect in their daily life. Costs vary considerably depending on location. As with any metropolitan locations, the large cities of Osaka and Kobe are both very congested and you will find that housing and transport costs will be higher than other cities in the region. In return, you get a more cosmopolitan environment, better night-life and cultural entertainments and better transport connections to other parts of the region and Japan.
Kyōto in particular has several study destinations of good quality. It has long been a city of learning and major destination for Japanese students. There are also high quality providers of niche programs in smaller centers such as Hikone. Transport connections to the rest of Japan are excellent although the price of the shinkansen can make transport to Tokyo prohibitive. If you wanted to travel through both east and west Japan then a more central location such as the Chubu region might be better; if you are interested in a cosmopolitan and lively study environment and travel to the west of Japan and Shikoku, the Kansai region would be an ideal base.
Kansai Airport (KIX) is the main international airport in the region, serving Ōsaka and Kansai. There are other local airports and also Ōsaka International Airport (Itami), but Kansai Airport will probably be your main access point to the region from abroad. Nagoya is also located nearby, and is just one hour from Kyoto. Ōsaka and Kyōto are major hubs for train travel and you can get to many parts of the country easily from either location.
From within Japan, you can get flights to Yao, Nanki Shirahama and Tajima airports although most flights will be to Ōsaka Itami or Kansai International. Trains and buses also connect the major cities in the region with each other and the main Tokaido/Sanyo shinkansen and motorway routes to the north and the south of Japan.
Temperatures do not change significantly from the Kantō and Chubu regions, which means hot, sweaty summers and cool winters. Autumn and spring are the best times to visit, as ever, and also the time to see many of the famous sites around the area at their best (particularly Kyoto and Nara). Winter temperatures drop to as low as five degrees Centigrade, but in the summer rise to the low thirties and average nearly thirty degrees Centigrade. Sunshine remains fairly steady throughout the year, but rainfall varies considerably. From May through to September, typhoon rainfall is high, but as ever usually concentrated.
Please find our Kyoto Travel Guide here!
Hyōgo is an old industrial area of Japan, and is famous for many products. Seventy percent of all soroban (Japanese abacus) production is in Hyōgo, and 90% of Japanese willow ware (nearly one million items each year). Hyōgo also makes most of Japan’s incense. It is also well-known for soba and makes nearly half of all that consumed in Japan. Sake production approaches 200,000 litres/year – hopefully consumption is a little lower. Along with this tradition, Hyōgo is also home to high technology.
The Arima hot springs in the Kobe-Hanshin district are one of the oldest in Japan, and they and the Kinosaki and Yumura hot springs (Tajima District) are popular. Skiing is possible in the Tajima area (Kannabe and Hachibuse) and in the northern part of Nishi-Harima. Swimming and yachting can be found on the Japan Sea coast, the Seto Inland Sea, and the Pacific Ocean coast. Popular festivals include the Nada Fighting Festival (Himeji), and the Shunsetsusai (Chinese New Year) Festival. In the Tanba District, the Tanba Tachikui Pottery has been making pottery for over 800 years and more than 100,000 people visit the Tanba Dekansho Festival every year.
Himeji Castle in the Kobe-Hanshin district is a must-see world heritage site, and the Engyoji Temple is an Important Cultural Asset. Higashi-Harima District is located exactly at the center of the Japanese archipelago with plenty of Jomon-era burial mounds. Awaji Island in the far south of Hyōgo has the world’s longest suspension bridge (Akashi Kaikyo Bridge), which may also be the world’s longest example of a malfunctioning political system.
Ise Shrine located on the banks of the Isuzu river is thought to be over two thousand years old, and is the most important Shinto shrine in Japan. The inner shrine is dedicated to Amaterasu, the sun-goddess supposed to be the ancestor of the Japanese Imperial family, and should be on any itinerary. Don not forget to try Akafuku rice cakes at the shrine (traditional pilgrim’s fare). Ise is also famous for udon (thick noodles). Ise-Shima for some reason has many aquariums, including two at Toba, and one each at Futami and Ago. The pearl industry in the Toba area is very famous, and produces some of the most sought-after pearls in the world. See also the sunset over the wedded rocks in Futami.
Iga is famous as the origin of the ninja spy and the birthplace of Matsuo Basho, the most famous of all haiku poets. Most of the mountainous areas have been designated national parks. See the Basho Museum and the Ninja Museum in Ueno, which also has a castle. Akame (near Nabari City) has some of the most picturesque waterfalls and forests in Japan. The northern part of Mie has some good hot springs (Yunoyama Onsen in Komono, ideal after walking around on Mount Gozaisho-Dake) and the fairly well-known Banko Pottery in Yokkaichi. Senju-ji Temple in Tsu is the largest temple in the prefecture.
The prefecture combines mountainous and coastal areas, so try to get into the Ise-Shima and Yoshino-Kumano national parks and the quasi-national park Suzuka in the area.
Wakayama is most well known for its onsen (hot springs). One of these, Ryujin Spa, is said to be one of the most effective in Japan for making women more beautiful. Shirahama Spa is one of the leading resorts in the area and the most well known spa in Wakayama. Tsubaki Spa is claimed to be excellent for rheumatism and arthritis, and Yunomine Spa is one of the oldest in Japan.
Wakayama also has many forests and national parks. They are too many to list here, but some of the best include Yoshino Kumano National Park, Seto Naikai National Park, Katsuragi Koyasan Prefectural Nature Park, and Nishiarida Prefectural Nature Park. It is possible to go hiking in most, and many also have interesting temples and other sights inside their boundaries.
Nara, along with Kyoto, is a must on most itineraries that cover traditional Japan. Formerly the Imperial capital of Japan (from 710 to 794, when it was moved to Kyoto), Nara contains eight world heritage sites (Todai-ji, Kofuku-ji, Kasuga-Taisha, Kasugayama Primeval Forest, Gango-ji, Yakushi-ji, Toshodai-ji and Nara Palace Site). The area houses the oldest and some of the most important temples and shrines in the country.
Three famous pagodas here are the five-Storied Pagoda of Horyuji, the three-Storied Pagoda of Hokkiji, and the three-Storied Pagoda of Horinji. The first dates from the seventh century and is the oldest wooden pagoda in the world. Other pagodas can be seen around Nara at Kofukuji, Yakushiji, Muroji, Tanzan and Taimadera.
Museums in Nara are many and generally of very good quality. Nara National Museum in Nara Park has a special autumn “Exhibition of Shoso-in” with articles you normally cannot see. Other museums include Kofukuji Museum of National Treasures (Kofukuji Temple), Asuka Historical Museum (artifacts from Takamatsuzuka Burial Mound), Nara Prefectural Museum and Nara Prefectural Museum of Art, Nakano Art Museum (modern Japanese artists), Nara City Museum of Photography, and the Museum Yamato Bunkakan (East-Asian art).
Ancient burial mounds (kofun) are the tombs of ancient nobles and emperors. Little is known about who is interred in each but conflicting legends exist. The main ones are Ishibutai Burial Mound in Asuka (seventh century CE), Takamatsuzuka Burial Mound (vividly colored paintings inside), Fujinoki Burial Mound (sixth century, many artifacts found), and Hashihaka Burial Mound (third century CE).
Asuka has dozens of enormous ancient burial mounds and sites of ancient palaces and was the center of Japan in the sixth to the seventh century CE. The period is famous for its pottery and power struggles between vying families. See Okadera Temple, Asukadera Temple (the oldest daibutsu or Great Buddha in Japan at Ango-in Monastery), Kashihara Jingu Shrine and the Prefectural Museum.
Hase and Muro have the temples Hasedera and Muroji. Hasedera has the second largest main hall in Japan, and is the home of the standing Eleven-Faced Kannon figure which is the largest wooden Buddhist statue in Japan. In spring, the peonies in the gardens all bloom together, and bring Hasedera much of its fame. Muroji Temple has the smallest outdoor pagoda in Japan and is also in a fantastic setting (best in spring or autumn).
Mount Yoshino is said to have over 60,000 sakura (Japanese cherry trees) and is an incredible sight in spring when they are all in bloom. Because of the varying types and height of the mountain, different trees bloom at different times meaning that you can find enough for hana-mi for a full month. See Nyoirinji Temple, Kinpusenji Temple (the honden or main hall is the joint second largest wooden structure in Japan), Yoshimizu Shrine and the Chikurin-in Temple.
Nishinokyo has the famous temples Yakushiji and Toshodaiji. Also see Akishinodera and Saidaiji Temples and the old site of Heijo Palace.
Ōsaka has long been an important city in Japan, and the centre of trade and enterprise for centuries. With the establishment of Edo (Tokyo) by the Tokugawa shogunate, a long rivalry between the two cities began. Ōsaka is the most populous city of Japan after Tokyo, and a centre of culture. The local dialect (kansai-ben) is widely used, although you will find that almost all people speak standard Japanese (if they really have to).
Ōsaka Castle is a must on any visit to the city, and is one of the largest and most fabulous in Japan. In Izumiotsu City and Izumi City see the Ikegamisone Historic Ruins which date from the Yayoi period. The Nintoku Mausoleum in Sakai City at nearly 500 metres long is the largest burial mound of its type in the world. It is thought to date from the fifth century CE. The Museum of Oriental Ceramics has one of the foremost collections of Chinese and Korean ceramics in the world. Above all though, Ōsaka is a bustling city and the nightlife is second to none.
Ōsaka has long been regarded as the kitchen of Japan. Some of the most famous items to come from Ōsaka and now found all around Japan include takoyaki (たこ焼き or 蛸焼), octopus in batter cooked into a ball; and kitsune-udon (狐うどん), thick noodles (饂飩, or simply うどん udon) with fried tofu among many other things. The city has also been a center of culture for centuries, and the tea ceremony has its roots to Ōsaka. Comedy duos or manzai (漫才) are a common feature of Ōsaka comedy, and have become the standard around the country. Ōsaka is also an important center for rakugo (comic storytelling) and kabuki.