Exploring the kooky culture of Kansai

Welcome to the Japanese region of Kansai, where the chaos of neon cities coexists in harmony with a traditional world of geishas, temples and lanterns.

By Pól Ó Conghaile
Published 18 Nov 2013, 10:54 GMT, Updated 30 Jun 2021, 15:01 BST

Who knew ghosts could smell so good? Darkness is drawing a veil over Ponto-cho, an ancient district in downtown Kyoto peppered with wooden teahouses. Lanterns are glowing and the citrusy smell of yuzu noodles wafts out from behind a screen, when suddenly I hear the patter of wooden slippers. I turn just in time to catch an apparition float past. Face white but for a button of lipstick, she lifts her ornate kimono off the ground, before tiny footsteps take her off down a side alley. All that lingers is her perfume.

Read more: Japan travel guide

This is the way it's been for centuries. The ghost is, of course, a geisha — or more correctly, a maiko (apprentice). It's only later I learn about the years of training maiko undergo before becoming geishas; about the countless hours of etiquette and classical arts like calligraphy, dance and tea ceremony they absorb. Every stitch of clothing, every sleight of hand, every elaborate kanzashi (hair ornament) contains within it centuries of cultural refinement. But maiko and geishas are a waning phenomenon — exotic, elusive butterflies in a high-tech society. Later, in the Gion district, I glimpse another through the smoked-out windows of a Lexus — a young ghost adjusting a strand of hair using her smartphone as a mirror. Like her colleague, she glides by and is gone. I'm left catching my breath.

Kyoto was Japan's imperial capital from 794 to 1868, and dotted around its hills and rivers are no less than 1,600 Buddhist temples and 270 Shinto shrines. What's more, Kyoto is only my first stop in Kansai. This compact region of south-central Honshu, Japan's main island, offers more heritage per square foot than anywhere else in the country. From Fushimi's sake brewers to Osaka's Castle and the city of Nara's ancient treasures, every footstep seems to skip through centuries.

It's not just tourists lapping it up, either. When I walk up a sloping street lined with souvenir shops towards the Buddhist temple of Kiyomizu-dera, I pass a trio of young Japanese girls; they tell me their kimonos are hired especially for the visit. They pause to giggle and text outside shopfronts laden with fans, sandals and Hello Kitty merchandise, before arriving at the temple complex — dotted with cherry blossoms in spring and maple in autumn. There, they join tourists, locals and schoolchildren in washing their hands with silver ladles, slipping their shoes off, and praying in ancient spaces. They shoot pictures as they walk between two famous love stones at Jishu Shrine. Set roughly 20ft apart, the legend here says if you can walk from one to the other with your eyes closed, you'll find true love.

Temple-hopping can be tedious, of course, but spreading select visits over several days helps to keep things fresh. At Fushimi Inari-taisha, for example, I find thousands of vermillion torii (gates), familiar from the movie version of Memoirs of a Geisha. Todaiji complex in Nara contains a 50ft-tall statue of Buddha (Daibutsu) and hundreds of domesticated sika deer. The animals are historically valued as messengers of the gods, although visitors who buy crackers to feed them can expect to be caught in a less than holy scrum. Suffice to say, don't bring a picnic.

Nara once lay at the end of the Silk Road, and it's crawling with history. At Kasuga Taisha, a Shinto complex dating from AD768, I pick my way through brass and stone lanterns and ancient wisteria archways. Pausing outside a shrine, I hear chanting within. A sign explains the etiquette: 'Bow twice deeply. Clap hands twice (make a wish). Then bow once deeply'.

Tradition runs deep throughout Kansai. The Philosopher's Path leads from Ginkakuji, a temple in Kyoto's Higashiyama district, along a canal lined with hundreds of cherry trees. Named for the philosopher Kitaro Nishida (1870-1945), who walked along it during his daily commute, the route is popular with couples, families, seasoned hikers and tourists alike. And it's not all temples and pagodas, either — I pass vintage kimono shops, waterfalls and a craftsman sculpting insects from wood and wire. At one point, a woman stands outside a coffee shop, holding her spaniel like a baby.

I stop to eat at noodle restaurant Honke Owariya. It proudly boasts it's been 'loved by the people of Kyoto since 1465'. In Nara, the men pounding a nuclear-green rice mix into submission at Nakatanido, a mochi(sweet rice cake) shop, are following a centuries-old method. After a flurry of fists and hammers that seems nanoseconds away from serious injury, they cut the mix into parcels, fill them with sweet bean paste, and sell them as street treats.

Back to the future

Of course, not everything in Kansai is ancient. Arriving at Osaka's Namba Station, the escalators teleport me up to one of the world's great wow-moments. After a gentle potter around Nara, the explosion of neon in downtown Dotonbori is mind-blowing. Times Square couldn't hold a candle to it — the cityscape is like New Year's Eve fireworks on a permanent loop. Signs feature giant spider crabs, champion athletes and puffing blowfish. Beneath them, chefs use chopsticks to flick takoyaki — ball-shaped snacks crammed with octopus, ginger, batter and onion. Pop music pings out of karaoke bars, streets ooze the electricity of catwalks. One passer-by is a punk, the next a businessman, the next a hostess in a fur coat. The boys watch the girls while the girls watch the boys who watch the girls go by. Blade Runner bleeds into mind as I walk along, transfixed by the bright lights of this big city. It's like jumping from the eighth to the 22nd century in one short train ride.

And it's only when I get used to the psychedelic visuals that my other senses start to engage. Osaka has a word — kuidaore — which roughly translates as 'eat till you drop', and I do my best to honour that. At President Chibo, I sit back as Wagyu beef is grilled in front of me; its pink, marbled softness turning charred brown with a sweet velvety interior. At Kamakura Soup with Noodles, I choose my meal at a vending machine outside the door, trading a ticket at the counter inside for a big bowl of Japanese comfort food. I eat tempura, sashimi, and the deep-fried series of skewered mysteries that is kushikatsu, a lucky dip where you never quite know whether you're biting into a prawn or asparagus. In Kansai, you can eat tons of fresh seafood — elegant dishes descended from the courts of the Edo period. Or you can do a Homer Simpson and kick back as a street vendor knocks out okonimiyaki — an omelette-pancake hybrid combining eggs, pork, cabbage, beansprouts, bonito tuna flakes and a sticky sauce.

Little wonder Osaka is known as the nation's kitchen. Walking through Kuromon Ichiba Market, I find live fugu (blowfish, or 'river pigs') in tanks, and dead ones on chopping boards, with fishmongers deftly removing the skin and organs — containing deadly poisonous tetrodoxin. One man sells flowers. Another flips pancakes. Next door, a woman shows me a rail of kimonos as colourful as Indian saris.

Shopping is not a problem in Osaka, as you can imagine. Giving my stomach a rest, I duck into Tokyu Hands department store and stumble across a set of Star Wars chopsticks. Namba Parks is a revelation: a canyon-like office and shopping complex, snaking through its own park. As well as being packed with stores at ground level, the city teems with underground stores and those stretching high into the sky. And if you don't fancy retail therapy, there's plenty else besides. I spend an afternoon exploring Osaka's Bay Area, wandering through the Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan to find a 16ft whale shark in the vast fish tank at its core.

Testing traditions

There are 'Lost in Translation' moments, of course, although mine come with more jet lag and less Scarlet Johansson. I keep getting whacked by taxi doors that open automatically. I shoot Instagram snaps of the plastic food in restaurant windows, advertising the menu fare within. I can finally check 'toilets with deodorisers' and 'train toilets with built-in bidets' off the bucket list. And my numerous faux pas — pouring my own beer, bowing at inappropriate angles, leaving chopsticks standing in rice — are tolerated with politeness and patience.

My most excruciating moment comes when I try a triple-whammy of Japanese experiences — checking into a ryokan (traditional-style inn), donning a kimono and taking my first onsen (hot spring bath) in one fell swoop. The ryokan is straightforward enough — staff at Omotenashi no Yado Keizankaku, a hotel and ryokan in the mountains at Kameoka, roll out a futon onto the tatami mat flooring while I eat dinner. The kimono, not so much. There's a way for the living to wear these garments (left side over right), and a way for the dead (the opposite), but I keep getting it wrong. "Right side in, left side over," I repeat to myself, folding the flaps across my chest. No! Wait a second. At times like this, I'm glad I spend half my life writing in a notebook. I check my notes, reverse the flaps, come back from the dead, and step into a pair of complimentary slippers that are, naturally, four sizes too small.

At the baths, I take everything off again. Naked, holding a serviette-sized towel over my modesty, I wander around trying to decipher the signage. Eventually I find my way to the sit-down showering station, have a scrub, slip outside and locate the hot spring water. Nodding to fellow bathers, I sink down until the bubbles tickle my chin. On cue, a mountain mist descends over a Japanese garden full of manicured greens, harmonious maroons and barky browns. It's brilliant.

I came to Kansai figuring it as Japan's traditional and cultural enclave. But I'm leaving with the sense of a region that's much more exciting, complicated and colourful than that. Kyoto can't be pigeonholed into the past, nor Osaka into the future. The former has its malls and nightclubs and is home to the Kyoto International Manga Museum, dedicated to the comics accounting for up to 40% of all printed matter in Japan. The latter has its castle on an island of plum and cherry trees in the middle of the modern city. Dotonbori is sci-fi. But you can still duck down an ancient alley like Hozenji Yokocho, chock-a-block with lanterns, wooden arches and whisky bars.

For me, it all comes together at Shunkoin Temple, just outside Kyoto. Established in 1590 and belonging to the Myoshinji school of Zen Buddhism, I'm expecting a run-of-the-mill tour here, but the Reverend Takafumi Kawakami has other ideas. He sits our group down to a tea ceremony, whipping up the matcha broth until it's electric green and bubbly — describing the process as a celebration of etiquette, an occasion that's at once everyday and once-in-a-lifetime. Afterwards, he offers a tour of his manicured Japanese garden — where harmony is maintained by allowing no single feature to dominate — and leads an introductory meditation class.

"This moment, right now, you are the youngest for the rest of your life," he says, sitting in the lotus position with palms upturned. I try to let myself drift into the moment. "Keep yourself simple," he says. "So you can quickly adapt to new conditions. That's central to Japanese culture."

Just as I'm beginning to feel sore and complicated, he claps meditation clappers, ending the session. As the class gradually comes to, he whips out an iPhone to show us the distinctive sound of these wooden blocks is now available in app form. Rev. Kawakami is not only a presence on the floor of a 420-year-old Shinto temple, it also transpires, but on Facebook and Twitter. He reminds me of the maiko back in Kyoto — a traditional spirit of the city checking her looks in a smartphone. Both are ghosts of Japan past, present and future.


Getting there
No direct flights from the UK to Kansai. KLM offers 17 UK departure points, including Edinburgh, Manchester, Leeds-Bradford, Bristol, Birmingham and Cardiff via Amsterdam. Alternatively, fly via Hong Kong with Cathay Pacific from Heathrow, via Paris with Air France from various regional airports or via Helsinki with Finnair from Heathrow and Manchester. 

Average flight time: 16h. 

Getting around
Trains: From subways to Shinkansen (bullet train), Japan's railway network is efficient and comprehensive. A seven-day Japan Rail Pass (Y28,300/£186) offers virtually unlimited travel, although you do have to buy it before arriving in Japan.

Subways: With signs and machines available in English, subways are easy to use in Kyoto and Osaka. One-day pass from Y2,000 (£12.69).

Taxis: Toyota Crown sedans with white lace seat covers may look retro, but watch out for the automatic doors. Fares start from Y640 (£4.20), and it's a good idea to have your destination written in Japanese.

When to go
Spring to see an explosion of cherry blossom and autumn for its raft of autumnal hues. Summer is hot, with average temperatures of 30C, while winter is around 13C — although they're off-peak, so you may find travel cheaper.

Need to know
Currency: Yen (Y). £1 = Y152.
International dial code: 00 81; Kyoto (75), Osaka (6).
Time: GMT +9.

Where to stay
Hyatt Regency Kyoto: Beautifully designed hotel just a short cab ride from Gion and Kyoto's other historic sights. From Y19,000 (£125) a night.

Hotel Nikko Osaka: Located just above Osaka's Shinsaibashi subway station, the hotel faces Midosuji Avenue, the city's main street. From Y12,000 (£76) a night. 

Omotenashi no Yado Keizankaku: A mid-standard hotel and ryokan at Kameoka, the only hot spring area in Kyoto. B&B and dinner from Y22,800 (£150) a night. 

How to do it
ViaJapan Holidays has return flights to Kansai, including transfers and seven nights in three-star hotels from £1,199 per person for autumn 2013 and spring 2014. 

Audley Travel has flights plus six nights in Kyoto and two in Osaka, including a seven-day rail pass, several guided tours and a geisha performance, from £4,450 per person.

Published in the Nov/Dec 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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