The Kansai region, also known as Kinki, is one of Japan’s most popular destinations for foreign tourists. Kansai contains the growing metropolis of Osaka and the two ancient capitals of Kyoto and Nara. Visitors to Kansai will often include all three of these fantastic and unique cities in their itineraries due to the convenience of their proximity to one another.
Osaka buzzes with energy said to be even livelier than Tokyo, based mainly on the friendliness of the average Osakan. Unlike the stereotype of the reserved Japanese person, people from Osaka are expressive and boisterous, which makes Osaka feel a bit more familiar to Westerners than conservative Tokyo or Kyoto. Perhaps there is nowhere better to enjoy Osaka’s spirit than with a crowd of baseball fans cheering for the hometown Hanshin Tigers. Osakans are proud of their foods, too, the most famous being Osaka-style okonomiyaki and takoyaki.
Half an hour north of Osaka by train, stately Kyoto stands in sharp contrast to its rowdy neighbor. This former capital is considered the heart of Japanese culture and was indeed the birthplace of many important Japanese traditions and arts. Historic shrines and temples dot the Kyoto valley, including world-renowned Fushimi Inari Shrine and Kiyomizudera Temple. The Gion District contains the restaurants and teahouses where the geisha and maiko of Kyoto entertain guests. If you are fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of one, please don’t chase them or hinder them from getting to their next appointment.
As Kyoto is a classical city, so is its cuisine. Kaiseki ryori, beautiful meals served in tiny, perfectly designed courses of seasonal foods, is a specialty of Kyoto. As an international city, Kyoto has cuisine from all of the world, but its specialties are certainly Japanese dishes.
Nearby Nara has long been relegated to day-trip status for visitors to Kyoto and Osaka, but to do so does not do this lovely city and its surrounding area justice. Most visitors make a beeline to UNESCO World Heritage site Todaji Temple and nearby Nara Park, known for over 1,000 deer that roam freely. But Nara has a history that even pre-dates Kyoto as an ancient capital of Japan and contains many temples and shrines over 1,000 years old. Nara Prefecture also has vast swaths of unspoiled natural landscapes, including the best cherry blossom viewing location in Japan, Mt. Yoshino.