Six places to discover in Japan's Kansai region

From the lush greens of Tokushima’s forested hills calling out to be hiked to a hidden village in Tottori preserving the area’s unique culture and traditions — Kansai is a prefecture of many faces, steeped in history and spiced with tradition. 

Published 4 Feb 2020, 11:13 GMT
Mitakien’s restaurant, Tottori

The restaurant in Mitaki-en, the village built by Teratani and her husband

Photograph by Tamsin Wressell

1. Spirited Away in Tottori

More than 50 years ago, Teratani and her husband wanted to live in the forest, in a village that had a restaurant, a tea house and a shop selling local produce. So they built it

The weather is raging midway through a typhoon. The path before us is blocked and the muddy ground of the forest floor is heavy with rainwater. In the few minutes it’s taken to walk up to the shrine that Teratani had carved from the root of a tree, the footpath has turned into a miniature version of the river that curls around this mountain village in the forest. 

Teratani, who built this whole complex using only natural materials, is a few metres ahead of me. She’s wearing a duck blue kimono jumpsuit, white tabi socks and sandals. She’s ditched her umbrella and is using her hands to scoop up great armfuls of mud, carving a path for the water to flow towards the river, giving us a way back.

“Everything here is made by locals and by hand,” she says to me later that afternoon once we’ve made it back to the thatched teahouse. Seated on tatami mats that wrap around an irori fireplace, she pours me tea and continues: “My husband wanted a waterfall so we could always hear the peaceful sound of water, so he built it. We wanted a tea house, so we built one.

The shrine we just went to? The artist carved a face with gentle features into the tree to portray the sense of softness this place represents. Everything here has its purpose and place.” 

All the food served here is foraged or grown on site, and on the short walk from the teahouse to the village’s tiny restaurant I pass a crop of shiitake mushrooms, blooming from the ground like brown clouds. Inside, I sit down to a feast of wild deer, braised tofu and chestnut rice, and Teratani tells me a little more about the village’s history: “My grandad used to sit in this chair — now my daughter’s built a coffee shop around it. Everyone has put their own stamp on the place.”

But Teratani has seen a lot of change in the past 15 years, and gesturing to the storm still howling outside, worries that this is only the start of what’s to come. “Now is a difficult era — for people and for the planet,” she tells me. She hopes, however, that this little village will continue to keep the culture she’s known all her life alive and flourishing — and to offer a different, sustainable way of life for future generations.

Did you know? 
Tottori is the birthplace of the Kirin Lion Dance — a unique traditional performance in which two dancers embody a mythical beast with the golden head of a lion. The Tottori Toshogu Shrine was the first place the dance was performed and it can still be seen there on special occasions today. 

Tateiwa (standing rock), San’in Kaigan Global Geopark
Photograph by Alamy

2. Try 24 hours in 'Kyoto by the Sea'

From exploring iridescent blue caves to sampling the catch of the day — a day in Kyoto by the Sea is both bracing and invigorating

The fishing village of Ine in the Yoza District is a sleepy place. Sheltered by mountains on one side and an island on the other, Ine is largely cut off from the rest of the country. Get there for the daily fish market between 7-8am in the summer, and 8-9am in winter, where fishermen sell their catch straight off the boats. Then head for Mukai Brewery — out of all the sake breweries in Japan, this is one of the few with a female master brewer. Be sure to try the speciality sake, made from ancient red rice. 

Drive to San’in Kaigan Geopark in Kyotango on the coast. From here, you can take to the water to surf, try standup paddleboarding with Kyotango135east, or take a boat to the Blue Cave, where the water glows aquamarine due to the region’s underground volcanic activity. The coastline has several incredible sites including the gigantic Tateiwa rock and ancient Onaru Burial Mound, plus Kotohikihama beach where the quartz sand squeaks underfoot. 

Stop for food at Hisami, a seafood restaurant on a hill overlooking the Sea of Japan. It’s known for the snow crab it serves in winter, but during summer the menu features locally caught fish and homegrown vegetables — try the Seafood Rice Bowl to get a real taste of the region. Finish the day with a visit to a traditional onsen. The spa at Centrale Hotel has a natural hot spring and is a local favourite for its open-air hot tub, small cold tub, sauna and Japanese garden. 

Rice terraces in autumn in Kansai's Ayabe prefecture.
Photograph by Getty

3. Get back to nature in 'Kyoto in the Forests'

Take some time to enjoy a leisurely drive through Ayabe — an area rich in colour and filled with verdant mountains and rice terraces. This is where nature comes first: the villages here have been built to seamlessly blend in with their surroundings. There’s a variety of hiking routes you can take through the bamboo forests, but be sure not to miss the chance to see ōtochi — a gargantuan 2,000-year-old chestnut tree near Mount Kiminoo — or taking the 500 or so steps up to Komyoji Temple and Niomon gate, the beautiful wooden temple entranceway built 1,410ft above sea level. 

Back in Ayabe, pick up some snacks from Koku coffeeshop, which sells a range of products made from rice including biscuits, cakes and coffee, air-dried in the traditional way.

The sea of clouds roll over the mountains, Kuro
Photograph by Tamsin Wressell

4. Discover a sea of clouds in Kuroi, Tamba

An early wake-up call and tough mountain walk are worth it to witness this spectacular natural phenomenon, where an ocean of clouds stretch out across the horizon

My eyelids barely flutter. It’s 4.30am and they don’t want to be disturbed. I’m leaving my futon at Keisen — a traditional Japanese guest house — to hike a mountain before the sun has so much as stirred. 

Dragging myself outside, the black sky above me is dotted with stars. We’re hiking to see the ‘sea of clouds’ — a rare phenomenon that, when seen from above, resembles the waves of the ocean. Our head torches guide us until we reach a clearing in the thick woods, halfway up the mountain. The sky, so dark a mere half an hour before, has transformed into a canvas of spectacular oranges and blues. 

As we reach the peak, a group of locals are there to greet us; they’ve been coming here in time for sunrise every day for 12 years. We meet Tsuneoka San, a 71-year-old woman who’s brought small cakes filled with bean paste, and her friend, Oda San, armed with Thermoses of steaming coffee. They greet me affectionately and I take a mug, cupping it between my hands for warmth. Last year, Tsuneoka San tells me, she travelled solo to Peru to climb Huayna Picchu. Another friend, Takemura, picks up a conch, “to call the sun,” she explains. We stand silently and watch as daylight breaks, light glinting off the peaceful beauty that is the sea of clouds.

“It’s the sea of clouds that makes the produce here so special,” Aoki, master brewer at Yamana Shuzo Brewery, tells me later that day as I sit with him in the distilling room. The tanks that surround us are filled with rice that — after being steamed for two days — will stay in there for six months. Yamana Shuzo Brewery has been open for 300 years, and Aoki has been here for 52 of them. “I learned everything I know about brewing here and became a master brewer 40 years ago,” says Aoki, who also makes his own sake. 

The rice used to make sake is grown from spring to autumn. I’m here just before the harvest starts, as winter is drawing in. “The colder months are perfect for making sake because the air and water are so fresh,” he continues. “It’s the fog from the sea of clouds that really helps with this. It cleans all the impurities from the atmosphere and also lowers the temperature.”

Aoki explains how sensitive rice is to temperature, and of how moved he was by Greta Thunberg’s UN talk praising fresh air and clean environments. “Sometimes I think about retiring, but that’s too easy. Making sake the traditional way without machinery, and keeping the culture alive — that’s my destiny, and I need this environment to do it.”

It’s been a long and rewarding morning. I’m glad I opened my eyes for this. 

Kazurabashi Bridge, Iya Valley
Photograph by Getty

5. Explore the Iya Valley from all angles in Tokushima

The Iya Valley is defined by its forested mountains and deep gorges, carved out by the Iya River that flows below the peaks and sheer cliff edges

On land
During summer, campsites open deep in the mountains for hikers. While this region is home to some of the highest peaks in Japan, for an easier day, trek through the deeper part of Iya valley in Oku-Iya. Kazurabashi Bridge, made entirely of vines, spans the Iya River to campsites sheltered amid mossy rocks and pine trees. Afterwards, head to Tsuzuki–Iyajiman, where noodles are made from 90% buckwheat. The roads in these valleys are narrow and should be navigated with caution, but make for a beautiful drive. 

In the air
For views that stretch out across the valley, Forest Adventure is nestled between waterfalls and historic villages. There’s a treetop rope course where you can swing, jump and tightrope through the canopy, but for a really special experience, take a zip-line through the pine forest or over the Iya-gawa. Seasons provide different landscapes to zip through, from the red leaves in autumn to the verdant greens of summer and the yellows of spring. Afterwards, stop by nearby supermarket Boke Mart for a soothing matcha tea. 

On the water
Take a cable-car from Nanoyado Hotel Iyaonsen, which juts out over a cliff edge, down to a natural hot spring onsen. With views out over the river, the water here flows from a spring, into the onsen, and then out into the river, which naturally regulates the temperature. The blue stone that lines the riverbed is special here; it’s been pushed up from deep inside the Earth to the gorge at a 45-degree angles, and it’s this rock that makes the water such a vivid aquamarine. Get an even closer look at these dazzling colours on a short boat ride with Oboke Gorge Pleasure Cruise. 

Onaruto Bridge over the Naruto Strait
Photograph by Getty

6. Escaping the city on Awajishima Island

Tucked away in the countryside in Hyogo prefecture, Awajishima Island is awash with history and traditions. With plenty of onsen to explore, the best way to experience this island is to simply relax and soak up its luxury.

What to do
Just 30 minutes’ drive from Kobe and within an hour of Osaka, this island — abundant with nature and countless hot springs — offers a blissful escape from the city. The cuisine here draws on a wealth of locally sourced ingredients, from livestock and vegetables (onions are particularly celebrated) to seafood caught just off the island’s coast. 

Don’t miss getting a boat out to Onaruto Bridge when the tides change and the currents of the Pacific Ocean and Seto Inland Sea collide to create whirlpools, sometimes as vast as 30 metres in diameter — it’s one of the few places in the world where it’s possible to see naturally occurring sea vortexes.

Where to stay
Yumesenkei is the epitomy of wellness: it features a natural hot spring, an onsen overlooking the ocean and restaurants dishing up the freshest local ingredients.  The rooms are Western or Japanese in style and offer views over the sea. For a taste of real indulgence, book a private booth to dine in, where you can opt for courses of fresh seafood, prepared and served directly at your table. 

Getting there and around: Japan Airlines and British Airways fly direct to Kansai International Airport from Gatwick while China Eastern Airlines, Shanghai Airlines and Asiana Airlines also fly there, but with one stop.
Average flight time: 12h10m.

Trains and buses run through Kansai, although the easiest way to travel around the region is by car. Nippon Rent-A-Car is available from Kansai International Airport.

When to go: The weather is temperate year-round here although the best times to visit are spring when temperatures average between 15 and 20C (March to May) and autumn (October and November) when temperatures average once again between 15 and 20C. 

Published in the Jan/Feb 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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