Located in the central-western area of Honshu, the Kansai region of Japan is rightly known for its classic destinations: Kyoto, Osaka and Nara among them. But there’s so much more to the north of the island. Beyond the ‘golden route’, discover the beauty and hidden treasures of traditional Japan.
This particular itinerary starts at Kansai International Airport, travelling up to Osaka City and Kyoto City, then exploring the seaside of Kyoto Prefecture, Kinosaki Onsen in Hyogo Prefecture, Toyooka City, Kannabe Highlands… and so many more destinations.
Take a look at our list of things to do in this area to add to your next Japan itinerary.
1. Authentic Japan: Funaya Boat Houses at Ine Town
A village of around 230 boathouses built on the beautiful bay of Ine, recognised by UNESCO as the World’s Most Beautiful Bay, Ine Town is just two hours by car from Kyoto.
Around 2,200 villagers live in Funaya, the town overlooking the beautiful bay. Here, houses are renovated under strict rules to preserve the authentic landscape of the atmosphere of the fishing village. Take a tour around the area on a Ine Bay Seightseeing Ferry to enjoy a panorama the dramatic landscape.
Once you’re here, chances are you will never want to leave. So how about arranging your night’s stay at one of many waterfront inns or upper-scale Funaya lodgings for a one-of-a-kind waterside view? Waking up perched above the water, with views opening up to the Sea of Japan, is unlike any other alarm clock.
2. Photograph the astonishing landscapes of Amanohashidate
Where the most scenic place in Japan? Many would say Amanohashidate, or ‘bridge to the heavens’. It’s considered one of the country’s ‘three scenic views’, and is just two hours from Kyoto by train. A five-minute chair lift or cable car to Amanohashidate Viewland reveals a dreamy view of this land bridge, from a bird’s perspective.
There are thousands of pine trees of all different varieties, enveloped by powdery white beaches. Which means you can stroll or cycle along the sandy side of the bay to appreciate its natural splendour. Chionji Temple – one of the three temples dedicated to the God of Wisdom in Japan – and a rotating bridge (Kaisenkyo) that swings 90 degrees to allow ferries and barges to pass are among the attractions.
3. Explore hot spring towns
The northern Kansai region has more than just one town dedicated to hot springs. Find your favourite among the many, from the relaxing Yumura hot spring town to the photogenic Kinosaki hot spring town. Both are famous thermal regions of Hyogo Prefecture.
If you’re looking for something laid back and a little more vintage, make a beeline for Yumura Onsen, a three-hour drive from Kyoto. Things here can get steamy – the hot springs’ source can reach 98℃ (locals boil eggs and vegetables in it) and naturally contains sodium, hydrogen carbonate, chloride and sulfate.
You can also cook an egg (residents will show you how) then enjoy a treasure-finding mission of spotting heart symbols while walking around the quaint town. Finally, it’s time for a soak. Try the hot spring facilities at Refresh Park Yumura, where you can soak in outdoor baths together with friends and family (swimwear is essential).
Another remarkable hot spring town you can stop by is Kinosaki Onsen. The town itself is considered to be a giant hot spring facility, with seven baths dotting the streets. Guests staying in ryokans (traditional inns) around the area can get a special pass to use public bathing facilities for free. Wear a yukata (gown), take your coat, and pack a bag to visit as many baths as you can.
The streets in Kinosaki are photogenic year-round; look forward to sakura (cherry blossom) trees in the spring, blazing reds and oranges in autumn, snow-dusted trees in winter… meanwhile summer brings green willow trees and night-time festivals. It’s a treat to wander the streets finding a place to get dessert (soft serve is a must) or popping in to souvenir shops.
4. Learn about the wildlife of Toyooka City, Hyogo Prefecture
Toyooka – nicknamed ‘bag city’, because it is Japan’s largest producer of bags – is a compact city located just one station from Kinosaki Onsen. The best way to get a taste for your destination is to enjoy the numerous izakaya (Japanese pub-style restaurants) that are scattered throughout, along main streets, side streets and back alleys.
Before sitting down for a deep dive into the local gourmet scene, catch a city bus or train to The Hyogo Park of the Oriental White Stork. Toyooka City’s storks were deemed extinct in 1971; today, they’ve made a comeback thanks to a breeding program using Russian storks. Visitors to the park can learn about how the birds are being protected, and catch a glimpse of them in person.
If you have some extra time, consider visiting Mitsumasa Anno Art Museum, dedicated exclusively to artworks from the renowned artist, painter, and illustrator for children’s books, Mitsumasa Anno. The venue (in Kyotango City, Kyoto Prefecture) itself is state-of-the-art, designed by one of the most prolific Japanese architects, Tadao Ando. It sits inside the Wakuden no mori, a forest of 30,000 trees of 56 species, planted under the guidance of esteemed ecologist Akira Miyawaki.
5. Outdoor activity at Kannabe Highland and Uradome Coast
You might not have heard, but Kansai area has three ski resorts. While many fans of powder snow end up in Hokkaido, Nagano or Niigata, those after a breezy one-day ski trip will find Kannabe in Hyogo Prefecture an awesome add to any travel itinerary. There are three locations for skiing in Kannabe, depending on whether you’re a beginner or expert rider. Other than skiing, you can also sign up for snow shoeing, banana-boat snow drafting or a ride on a snow cat.
If you’re not a fan of winter sports or are visiting outside the snow season, sea kayaking along the Uradome Coast is highly recommend. Hugging the nearby Tottori Prefecture, the Uradome Sea is known for its crystal-clear water. Explore the magnificent marine terrain that has been formed over centuries by the raging waves of the Sea of Japan. An instructor will accompany you on the kayak trip, while you discover the beauty of the Uradome Coast.
6. Spend a day exploring the national natural monument of Tottori Sand Dunes
Remarkably, the largest sand dunes in Japan can be easily reached from the centre of Tottori City on a 20-minute bus ride. These immense dunes were formed over thousands of years, as sand was washed ashore and gradually piled up thanks to the ocean’s currents and coastal winds.
In 1945, the Tottori Sand Dunes were part of a massive reforestation project to regenerate the dunes. The weeds crept in, then in 1994 a publicly funded project was launched to restore the original beauty of the sand dunes. Today, the 131-hectare dunes owe their beauty to tireless volunteer efforts in cooperation with local citizens.
You can easily spend a couple of hours wandering around the vast area. Picturesque spots include the 40-meter Umanose sandy hill overlooking the Japan Sea; the oasis in the middle is at its finest in summer. There are also various locations where you can see saren (sand curtains) and fumon (wind ripples), reflecting how the winds shape the dunes and provide an ever-changing landscape. Have fun paragliding or sandboarding, or maybe take a ride on the dunes’ camels.
Pro tip: Stay a night at Hotel New Otani Tottori for a hassle-free Tottori exploration.
7. Don’t miss trying as many local dishes as you can
Dive into the wide range of dining options this area offers. North Kansai culinary traditions can be divided into three main areas: Toyooka city, Kyoto by the sea and woodland Kyoto, where visitors can enjoy Matsuba crab and Tajima beef, a highly marbled type of wagyu.
And then there’s Kyotanba Kogen pork. This high-quality pork from Kyoto is characterised by its fat, which creates a smooth and juicy texture in the meat. At Tango Kingdom Shoku-no-Miyako, the largest road station in Kyotango City, you can enjoy this luxury pork, barbecue-style. Try it with a Tango Kingdom beer, crafted in the adjacent brewery. Before you leave, make sure you visit the Tango Takumi-an souvenir shop at the entrance for unique Kyotango specialties or fresh local fruits, sourced directly from farms.
8. Spending a night in Glamping domes
Glamping has rapidly become the latest travel trend. It’s a combination of our favourite features of traditional camping, with luxury amenities on the side. There are great locations for glamping in the North Kansai area, including the Deluxs Outdoor Resort, surrounded by nature. Managed by a glamping dome-maker, the location offers some of the country’s best facilities, replete with five dome styles, a jacuzzi bath, sauna, and huge dinosaur figures. Because, why not?
Another option is the Farm Glamping Kyoto Amanohashidate overlooking the beach, where you can also pick fresh vegetables at a farm five minutes away. Enjoy the estate’s barbecue, relax in your dome, take a walk to the beach and unwind in a fabulous location.
How to get there
From Australia, you can reach the North Kansai area of Japan from Kansai International Airport. This is the first 24-hour operated international airport in Japan, which has Hotel Nikko Kansai Airport and a newly opened compact hotel, FIRST CABIN Kansai Airport, for travellers who want to catch early flights or those who arrive at a late hour.
Given its global reach and the upcoming 2025 World Expo in Osaka, KIX has recently undergone a renovation complete with state-of-the-art COVID testing facilities and a multi-lingual information centre for those looking for travel inspiration and guidance.
Pro tip: Have you ever heard about this insurance for travellers to Japan? Take a look at this website here for how to prepare for a safe trip to Japan, with advice from the Japan National Tourism Organization.
For more information about North Kansai and Kansai area in general, visit the Kansai Guide.
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