Things to Do in Kansai Prefecture
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.
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.
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.
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.
If you only have time for one day trip from Kyoto or Osaka, make it Himeji Castle (Himeji-Jo), renowned as Japan’s most beautiful historic citadel. Also known as White Heron Castle, the UNESCO-listed hilltop structure was built in 1580 and features a five-story central tower with surrounding moats, walls, and pagodas.
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.
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.
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.
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.
More Things to Do in Kansai Prefecture
The spindly needle atop the 55 meter (180 foot), five-storied pagoda of To-ji temple keeps protective watch over the city of Kyoto, as it has done since its construction in the early 9th century. The tallest pagoda in Japan, it has become a symbol and iconic image of Kyoto. Several Buddha statues reside inside the famous wooden structure, enhancing its religious and historical allure.
The temple itself dates from 796, two years after the capitol moved to Kyoto. At the time, To-ji, along with a no longer existing sister temple, guarded the capitol. The temple’s feature image is that of Yakushi Nyorai, the Buddha of Medicine, further promoting To-ji’s status as a protector. To-ji was one of only three temples allowed in Kyoto in the early years of its reign as capitol, and it’s the only one that still stands today.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
No wonder this serene destination was once featured in "Lost in Translation". The Heian Shrine (Heian Jingu) is easily one of Kyoto's most beautiful. Built in 1884 to mark the 1,100th anniversary of the city, and was dedicated to its first and last emporer's, it is an astounding two-thirds scale replica of the Imperial Palace of the Heian period, and is just as beautiful.
On a nice day, a tour through the stunning bridge and onto any one of its four majestic gardens will relax any weary traveler. Whether it is through the iris, filled pond of the Nishi Shin'en, writing a haiku next to one of the radiating weeping cherry trees of the Heian-style Minami Shin'en, or just taking a leisurely stroll through the magnificence of the stone pillars in the Naka Shin'en, your visit to the Shrine's gardens is a sight that will not be soon forgotten.
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.
If you think this classic furled-roof temple looks familiar, take a look at a 10-yen coin, and you’ll see why. One of Japan's most famous temples, and a World Heritage Site, the image of its 11th century Phoenix Hall graces the coin and the 10,000-yen note.
The reason why this Buddhist temple is so famous is because it is one of the few remaining examples of Heian-era architecture, a textbook example of Japanese perfection.
Take a tour to see the famous statue of Amida and 42 Bodhisattvas from the 11th century. The surrounding gardens are also justly famous, with tranquil water gardens reflecting the temple's surrounding pines.
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 1164, Sanjusangendo Temple impresses in scope, size, and detail, with 1001 statues of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, flanking the main image of a giant, seated Kannon. Carved in the 12th and 13th centuries, the statues are arranged in 50 columns, each two rows deep. It's said that the Kannon witness and protect against human suffering. To aid in their mission, the Kannon are equipped with 11 heads and 1,000 arms.
"Sanjusangendo" translates to hall with thirty three spaces between the columns," describing a traditional measurement system. The wooden temple building extends 118 meters (387 feet), making it the longest of its kind in the world. Originally built for former emperor Go-Shirakawa, the Temple today remains a religious destination and popular tourist stop. It represents some of the most exquisite Japanese Buddhist sculpture and architecture in the country.
No matter from where visitors view Japan's most famous rock garden, at least one rock is always hidden from sight. That's one of the reasons that Ryoan-jiTemple, a temple with an accompanying zen rock garden, attracts hundreds of visitors every day. Originally a residence for aristocrats, the site was converted to a Buddhist temple in 1450. The temple features traditional Japanese paintings on sliding doors, a refurbished zen kitchen, and tatami, or straw mat, floors.
The temple's main attraction has always been the rock garden, as much for its meditative qualities as a desire to find meaning in its minimalistic attributes. The garden is a rectangular plot of pebbles with 15 larger stones on moss swaths interspersed seemingly arbitrarily. Some have said the garden represents infinity; others see it in an endless sea. Ryoan-ji is nestled down a wooded path that crosses over a beautiful pond with several walking trails. The luscious setting is as attractive as the temple itself.
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.
It is not every day that a retirement home is converted into a temple. After Emperor Kamayema’s death in 1305, however, this is exactly what happened. Named the Nanzenji Temple, it is now one of the most important Zen temples in Japan. The Nanzenji Temple complex includes multiple buildings and several subtemples. Walking paths wind through the complex.
An impressive, large gate—the Sanmon entrance—welcomes visitors to the temple. The gate memorializes the soldiers who died in the battle for Osaka Castle in 1615. Visitors can make their way up to a balcony on the gate, which affords an incredible view of Kyoto and beyond. Trees line both sides of the pathway through the complex, and mountains dot the distant horizon. One of the popular spots on the premises is a zen rock garden, with formations many believe look like tigers swimming through the water.
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