Travel: Kansai, Japan

I had been to this area before, on my first trip to Japan, but I came through again to get some photos that I wanted, now that I know more about photography. Plus, my spouse is from here, so I had to come anyway to visit with her family. Japan is broken up into prefectures, which are like provinces or states, but those are grouped together into larger areas, of which Kansai is one.

Be aware that if you go to the touristy places they may be overrun; if you’re in a place like Kyoto I’d recommend going to sites very early or late in the day. When I visited some Kyoto spots this time I left thinking that Kyoto is ruined. There were “rivers” of tourists and it wasn’t even high season, and I was glad to get out of there. Maybe it was because I had just come from Kyushu (the large southern island), which was much quieter and authentic. But I suppose the positive side of this would be that it might make you want to get off the tourist trail, head into the countryside, and have some great experiences. Speaking of which, I think a rental car would be the best way to do this. Just get them to set the navigation system (usually included for free) to English and you’re good to go.

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Highlights:
Chatting with new friends while drinking local sake in Yamatokoriyama
The Nio guardian statues at Todaiji temple in Nara
Himeji Castle (without scaffolding this time)
Tour of ancient tombs in Asuka
Wandering around grocery stores
Randomly finding a bunch of fireflies in Nara

The language barrier in Japan prevents a complete travel experience as it’s hard to chat with the locals, which is why it was nice when my spouse arrived and I was able to have conversations with her friends and family and it made it onto my highlights list.

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Kobe to Himeji

I didn’t spend too much time in Kobe, just went through because of the cheap flight. But I would recommend stopping to see Nunobiki Falls, it’s a picturesque waterfall behind one of the train stations. It’s a short ride to Himeji from there. The castle dominates the town and one of the most amazing sites in Japan. Head in early before the heat and the tourists hit, then go back in the evening for some sunset and then blue hour photos. There’s a viewpoint right in the middle of town, apparently, and I found the building but I don’t think it’s open during blue hour. It would have been a great spot for a panorama of the whole site. At sunrise, there’s a nearby hill with an excellent view of the castle. The long row of stairs in the pics below is the way to get there. I forget the name of the hill, but it’s not far from the castle, and one of the guidebooks at the tourist info office has a section on viewpoints and a map. Himeji is a nice quiet little city, very relaxing after more hectic places, and there are a bunch of other sites to see other than the castle, just check at tourist info.

 

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The two-tiered Nunobiki Falls in Kobe

Kyoto

I had been here before so I really just came in to get shots at the Arashiyama bamboo grove (which I didn’t know about the first time) and Fushimi Inari shrine. I would recommend heading to Arashiyama as early as possible. I unfortunately missed a sign that pointed to the bamboo grove when coming off the train and instead went to a spot named Arashiyama on my map. There were a lot of other tourists wandering around there looking for the bamboo; I lost a lot of time. I backtracked and eventually found the grove. Note that when you exit the train station you need to follow a little street that goes to the right. When I got there it already had a few tourists and I wasn’t able to get a nice shot with no people in it. I’d recommend trying some shots off to the sides when lots of people arrive. Do some abstracts with camera movement, break out the infrared camera or filter, or try shooting up into the bamboo stalks.

Fushimi Inari is a pretty cool place but compared to my visit in 2011, this place is now overrun with tourists. For photography I’d recommend going very early or late, or focusing on smaller details. It’s really easy to get here, just a few train stops from the main station.

If you’re in Kyoto, there are many temples to see, but try not to miss Sanjusangendo. It’s a really long temple with a thousand kannon statues inside (many armed dieties), and in front of them is a completely intact set of their guardians, which are pretty amazing sculptures. I don’t have any shots of the temple because photos aren’t allowed.

And a small side note: There’s a Nakau restaurant across the street from the train station on the south side. It’s one of my favourite Japanese fast food places. It’s similar to a Yoshinoya or Matsuya. Get your ticket at the vending machine (the food is cheap for Japan) and then present it for your food to arrive within seconds.

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Just to give an idea of what a zoo Fushimi Inari has become.

Nara

My wife is from a town outside of Nara so I’ve been here a couple times now. There are deer all over the center of town here as they are sacred and can’t be bothered, so they hang out looking for snacks from tourists. There’s an old section called Naramachi with twisting streets and old buildings. This area felt a bit less off the beaten trail in 2019, but it’s still fun to wander around. You’ll obviously go to Todaiji temple, which has one of the world’s biggest bronze Buddha statues, housed in the world’s largest wooden building. Again, go early. And yet another place to go early is Kasuga-Taisha, a shrine southeast of Todaiji (I didn’t go in due to the crowds). Note that shrines are Shinto based and Temples are Buddhist based. If you walk west of Kasuga-Taisha there’s a little building built on stilts in the middle of a small pond called Ukimi-do Hall. It’s a nice spot to stop.

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See some shots from around Todaiji temple below. On the right side I was able to include a staff member in the shot for scale.

There are a lot of things in and around Nara that don’t get as much appreciation as they deserve, due to the town being dominated by that giant Buddha. To start with, the treasure hall at Kofukuji temple has a statue called Ashara with three sets of arms and there’s something about it that is amazing. You have to see it to appreciate it. Also, when you’re on the way into the Todaiji temple complex (the place with the giant Buddha) don’t miss the Nio Guardians that are guarding the front gate; they’re some of the best statues in Japan, and for me they were even more impressive than the giant Buddha (small pics of them below). On the way back from the Kasuga Taisha shrine I ran across an active group of fireflies; keep your eyes open if you’re walking in the evening in the spring. Actually there are firefly hotspots throughout Japan (in the spring) and a little bit of research online will help you find some nearby. Lastly, if you’re at the Kofukuji temple complex, check out a little octagon temple in the back corner (Hokuen-do, photo below). I think it’s the nicest building of that temple complex and I think it’s also the oldest building there.

(And Nara is also known for having excellent sake.)

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Hokuen-do, a small octagonal temple at one corner of the Kofukuji temple complex. I think it’s the nicest building there.

 

Lake Biwa

Just at the northeastern edge of Kansai is Lake Biwa. On the west side you have the Shirahige torii gate in the lake, and on the west side you have Hikone Castle (I didn’t have time to see it on this trip, but it’s one of Japan’s famous castles). Relatively close by you have the MIHO Museum with amazing architecture, and slightly further away from there you can find the Koga ninja village. There’s not much signage in English and not nearly as good as the ninja museum and castle in Iga, but if you have kids with you and you’re nearby it would be a fun stop for them.

Kii Peninsula

South of Nara you get into the Kii Peninsula which has Wakayama and Mie prefectures. The east side of the Mie peninsula isn’t technically Kansai, but I’m including it here anyway. Before you get very far south from Nara you could stop in Asuka, which has a lot of ancient royal tombs, and it’s fun to get a site map from tourist info and visit the various sites. Also in the area is Muro-ji, an important temple in Muro with national treasure buildings and statues, in addition to a waterfall and also fireflies in the spring. Things that I would recommend here are Meoto Iwa (large rocks in the ocean with a rope connecting them), Nachi Falls (the tallest waterfall in Japan with a picturesque pagoda nearby), Wakayama Castle (a nice stop but not mind blowing), and Mount Koya (“Koya-san“, a spiritual center with tons of old temples). If you’re at Koya-san don’t miss the huge moss covered cemetery called Okunoin.

Osaka

Osaka is a concrete jungle, but you can still find some interesting things to see. Dotonburi is a pedestrian area full of restaurants which is full of neon lights in the evening. Osaka Castle is pretty impressive and was one of the most important and impregnable ones in Japan’s history. If you want to get some nice city views you can head to the Umeda Sky building; get your thrill seeking done in the glass elevator and super long escalator that go to the top and you don’t even have to pay to go onto the observation deck (particularly since the gift shop is full of windows). If you’re into shopping, there’s a whole connected world under the streets around the main train station. I spent a couple hours wandering around here getting kouign-amann pastries (something I’m always looking for and Japan has them) from some of the many pastry shops, while pairing them with coffee and getting wired.

 

That’s about it for now. This post got pretty long but most of the small details have been left out, so feel free to message me if you want more tips. As always, if you want to get an alert when there’s a new post just scroll to the bottom of the page and click the Follow button.

– Patrick

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