DESTINATION FOCUS • March 2019
Thanks to the launch of British Airways’ new direct flight to Osaka, travellers can now position themselves in the heart of Japan’s Kansai region. From mega cities to ancient capitals, Zen gardens to mountain pilgrimages, Michelin cuisine to seafood BBQs, Japanophile Kate Crockett takes us on a head-spinning tour
Kyoto tops most visitors’ bucket list, so there is no ‘best’ time to visit the geiko districts or Kinkaku-ji and Kiyomizu-dera temples (although a recent drive by authorities to open sites for longer should ease congestion). Northern Higashiyama is quieter, where parts of impressive Nanzen-ji temple are open 24 hours and you’ll find masterpiece Japanese garden Murin-an. For the local tipple head to Fushimi, where the Kyoto Sake Experience team leads fun, English-language tours of the lauded sake district. Enryaku-ji temple (pictured) in neighbouring Shiga prefecture is part of the Kyoto World Heritage Site and, although little known overseas, Shiga boasts more temples and shrines. At its heart is Biwako – Japan’s largest lake – where locals escape the Kyoto crowds.
West of Kyoto, Hyogo is the place to see Japan’s finest castle – the World Heritage-listed, white-tiered beauty of Himeji-jo (pictured) – and dine on its finest beef. Tajima cattle raised in Hyogo are better known as Kobe beef: sample some (in Kobe) at Misono, Japan’s first teppanyaki restaurant. Fans of British Airways' official partner, England Rugby, should make their way to Kobe’s Misaki Stadium, where the Rugby World Cup will be held this autumn.
Locals have an old saying that, while their neighbours in Kyoto go bankrupt buying kimono, Osakans go broke through gluttony. Osaka is the birthplace of conveyor-belt sushi bars, instant noodles (there’s a museum dedicated to their creator) and street favourites including octopus chunks in batter (pictured) known as takoyaki and kushikatsu (deep-fried vegetable and meat skewers). Sample them in the neon arcades of Dotomburi, or upgrade to gourmet kushikatsu at Michelin-starred Wasabi.
The Great Buddha of Todai-ji temple and the tame deer of Nara Park (pictured) are this ancient capital’s best-known attractions, which predates Kyoto and enjoys fewer crowds. There are scores of temples, but make time for Horyu-ji, where some of the world’s oldest wooden buildings still stand. (Fun fact: Horyu-ji is the subject of an exhibition at the British Museum this October.) For an atmosphere of Old Japan, take a cycle tour around the historical villages, rice terraces and burial mounds of ancient Asuka, the imperial capital before Nara.
On the southern Kii Peninsula, mountainous Wakayama is a hikers’ paradise and the location of many trails of the Kumano Kodo, one of only two pilgrimage World Heritage Sites (the other is Camino de Santiago). Don’t miss a temple stay in the sacred town of Koya-san, where Shingon Buddhism was founded 1,200 years ago. Book Fukuchi-in temple – which has Koya-san’s only onsen (hot spring bath) – and take the monk-led night tour around the mossy tombs and 1,000-year-old cedars of Okuno-in cemetery.
The picturesque bays and islands of Mie’s Ise-Shima National Park are home to Japan’s famed female ama divers, who free-dive for shellfish. Share some with them on an open fire in one of their amagoya huts as part of Japan Nature Network’s Ama Spiritual Tour. Look out, too, for the pearl oyster rafts offshore: Japan’s cultured pearl industry was started in Mie by Kokichi Mikimoto (you can even visit his Pearl island). Head inland to Ise Jingu, Japan’s most important shrine, which covers an area the size of Paris and is entirely rebuilt every 20 years. The next renewal is in 2033 – just don’t leave it until then to visit.
From 31 March, British Airways – official airline partner to England Rugby – will fly direct to Osaka, making it even easier to attend the Rugby World Cup being held in various cities across Japan. To plan your trip, click here