Things to Do in Kansai Prefecture
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
On the outskirts of Kyoto, the tranquil area of Sagano encompasses some of the city’s most stunning landscapes. This rural residential area boasts views of the mountains dotting the horizon, colorful fields, and, most famously, a dense bamboo forest that may just be one of Japan’s prettiest spots.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Built in 1164, Sanjusangen-do Hall impresses with its 1,001 golden Buddhist statues flanking the giant seated Kannon (goddess of mercy. It’s considered one of the world’s top collections of wooden statuary. The 400-foot (122-meter hall gets its name from the 33 spaces between its columns.
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.
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.
Pontocho Alley is a popular and atmospheric dining area packed with restaurants and exclusive tea houses lining a narrow, cobbled alley just west of Kyoto’s Kamo River. With no cars, modern buildings, or ostentatious signage allowed, it’s considered one of the most beautiful streets in Kyoto.
Beneath the verdant canopy of the eastern mountains, Ginkaku-ji Temple (Silver Pavilion is among the most visited of Kyoto’s UNESCO-listed temples and renowned for its idyllic gardens. Built in 1482 by Ashikaga Yoshimasa, legend dictates that it was to be covered in silver in homage to Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion—a feat that was never realized.
Travelers hoping for a glimpse of a more traditional Kyoto will feel like they’re stepping back in time upon first stepping into the Imperial-era shopping district of Sannenzaka and Ninenzaka. This pair of gently sloping, pedestrian-only roads, considered among the most attractive streets in the city, are lined with traditional shops, restaurants and tea houses occupying traditional wooden houses.
Shoppers will find chopsticks, fans and handmade crafts, while foodies can sample mochi balls, green tea ice cream or matcha cakes. Whether you come to shop, eat or simply soak up the atmosphere, take care not to stumble. According to local legend, slipping on either street will lead to bad luck (or even death) in two or three years respectively.
Among Kyoto’s collection of UNESCO-listed temples, Ryoan-ji Temple stands out for its mysterious 15th-century zen rock garden. No matter where you stand gazing out over the rock garden, at least one rock is hidden from sight, and the meditative spot is said to represent ‘infinity’ or an ‘endless sea.’
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.
At 984 feet (300 meters) tall, Abeno Harukas (Osaka Harukas) takes the coveted superlative of Japan's highest skyscraper, narrowly rising above the former title holder, the Yokohama Landmark Tower. Part of the sprawling Abenobashi Terminal Building, it stands atop the Kintetsu Osaka Abenobashi Station and houses a department store, art museum, five-star hotel, and observation deck.
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.