Adventure Tourism in Kansai: Getting Outdoors in the Ancient Heart of Japan
- Published: Apr 25 2022
- Last updated:
Adventure tourism is more than just outdoor activities - it’s about experiencing the nature, history, and culture of a destination by exploring the area and interacting with locals. Filled with lush wilderness and vast history, the Kansai region of western Japan is the perfect place for authentic adventure tourism. Below we’ll introduce 7 activities and regions in Kansai to spice up your holiday with some off-road fun!
The Kansai region of Japan is made up of six prefectures: Osaka, Kyoto, Hyogo, Shiga, Nara, and Wakayama. Each boasts its own unique culture, like Kyoto and Nara’s pride as former capitals or Osaka’s centuries-long history as a lively center of commerce.
But that’s not all. Kansai is also a mecca for kayaking on the island-filled Seto Inland Sea and a haven for divers seeking abundant sea life in the Kuroshio Current of the Pacific Ocean. Inland, adventurers can also explore the network of rivers originating from the Suzuka Mountains, or go canyoning down the deep Kansai valleys. More serious thrill-seekers can also bungee jump off one of Japan’s cultural properties!
Rafting Down the Hozugawa River (Kyoto)
Kyoto Prefecture’s Hozugawa River is a famous scenic spot part of the steep Hozu Valley. In spring, the towering slopes are engulfed by the soft pink of blossoming cherry trees, which give way to a deep, verdant green in the summer and fiery red in autumn. No matter when you visit, you’ll always find something to enchant you.
The beauty of the Hozugawa River stands out even amongst the thousands of gorgeous rivers in Japan, serving as the setting for several renowned Japanese novels while attracting countless visitors from all over the world. Well over 1,000 years ago, before Kyoto became Japan’s capital, the river was an important route used to transport goods to and from faraway lands. During the early Meiji Period (1868-1912), when roads made river transport obsolete, the Hozugawa was reborn as a tourist destination for downriver cruises.
Parts of the Hozugawa River boast some of the fiercest rapids in the Kansai area, with rafting tours in rubber boats capable of carrying 7-8 people making the most of this natural thrill. The choppy white waters offer peak excitement while the calmer stretches are ideal for a relaxing swim.
Horseback Riding in Kyotamba (Kyoto)
Having served as Japan’s capital for over 1,000 years, there is a lot to see in Kyoto. While most seek out the iconic wooden townhouses, Kyoto’s charms extend far beyond its nostalgic streetscapes. In fact, about 75% of Kyoto Prefecture consists of woodlands dotted by tranquil villages and traditional inns, which once served as the backbone of post towns throughout the region.
Kyotamba is one of these places, and today it facilitates fun adventure tourism like horse trekking through the peaceful surrounding landscapes. With easy access to unspoiled mountains and forests, Kyotamba is the ideal destination to escape the headaches of city life in favor of sweeping rice paddies full of frogs and water striders. You don’t need to be a local to lose yourself in the calming, nostalgic atmosphere of this bucolic paradise.
One of the most unforgettable ways to absorb this scenery is on horseback, which will give you even deeper insight into the local way of life before the modernization of Japan.
Sea Kayaking Around Awajishima Island (Hyogo)
According to myth, the Japanese archipelago was created by the god Izanagi-no-mikoto and goddess Izanami-no-mikoto, and the first island they made was Awajishima. Sitting in the Seto Inland Sea off southern Hyogo Prefecture, Awajishima Island is connected to the Honshu mainland via the Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge and to Shikoku on the Onaruto Bridge.
Awajishima Island is also famous for marine sports and activities, especially sea kayaking, which allows a leisurely tour of the stunning Seto Inland Sea and its collection of countless islands.
There is nothing quite like relishing the picturesque scenery and pleasant weather as you paddle through the calm waters of Awajishima. In the evening, you can sit back and take in an entirely different view as the setting sun transforms the sea and islands into a stunning exhibition of light and shadows. As the scenery changes so dramatically, be sure you take both the location and time of day into account when planning a sea kayaking tour of Awajishima.
Stand Up Paddleboarding (SUP) On Lake Biwa (Shiga)
The crown of Shiga Prefecture is Lake Biwa, the largest lake in Japan. With a sweeping shoreline said to stretch for around 235 km, it takes up about 1/6th of all of Shiga. Naturally, much of the lakeside is dotted by scenic resorts, hot springs, theme parks, and more. One particular highlight is Shirahige Shrine, whose majestic red torii gate sitting in the lake attracts tourists from all over the world. Bringing to mind the famous World Heritage Site Itsukushima Shrine, this gate is often called the “Itsukushima of Omi.”
Shirahige Shrine venerates the god Sarutahiko-no-mikoto, the deity of guidance, making it a spot of deep spirituality. While most are content with viewing from the shoreline, lovers of adventure tourism will undoubtedly be drawn in for a closer look on a stand up paddleboarding (SUP) tour. The SUP boards are very stable, so even complete novices can use them safely. You’ll be able to paddle straight through the torii gate, which you can’t do on foot, allowing for a much more profound encounter with this historical landmark.
Canyoning in Higashiomi (Shiga)
If Lake Biwa is the most famous attraction of western Shiga Prefecture, then the east belongs to the Suzuka Mountains. Running parallel to Biwa, the Suzuka Mountain Range was formed about 1-2 million years ago and serves as the source for many of Kansai’s rivers. Especially worth mentioning are the rivers in the vicinity of Mt. Ryugatake in central Shiga, which are famed for their crystal-clear waters and giant granite stones that sparkle brilliantly in the sun. To experience all this beauty up close, we recommend a canyoning trek down the river valley.
During these canyoning tours, you’ll be guided by experienced professionals as you jump off waterfalls and slide down natural waterslides. On some tours, you’ll also rappel down cliffs, zipline between canyon walls, and test your courage in other adrenaline-inducing activities as you explore the remote wilderness of Kansai.
Good Luck Bungee Jumping (Nara)
Nara Prefecture is home to many of Japan’s greatest cultural and historical treasures, like the ancient capital of Heijo-kyo. While there are numerous ways to learn about Japan’s past here, it’s hard to know where to start.
For a slightly off-beat alternative, we recommend a visit to Nara’s Kaiun (Luck-Bringing) Bridge, which has been used for centuries by the faithful journeying to Chogosonshi-ji Temple, which venerates Mt. Shigi. Somewhat surprising, this sacred landmark hosts bungee jumping experiences said to bring good luck to participants, attracting adrenaline junkies from all over the country.
The bridge is painted a deep vermillion-red, which is considered a symbol of luck in Asia. From this auspicious structure you’ll fall 30 m strapped to a bungee cord while being watched by passing mountain worshippers. The operators also offer free action cameras for footage of your one-of-a-kind adventure.
After the jump, you can continue onwards to the sacred Mt. Shigi to pray for even more good luck. The mountain is said to bestow academic and financial success upon worshippers, so if that sounds like something you could use, book your jump today!
Diving in Kushimoto (Wakayama)
The beauty of Wakayama Prefecture is frequently extolled in traditional Japanese waka poetry. In fact, that’s where the “waka” in Wakayama comes from! The pinnacle of this is in the northern and south-western parts overlooking Waka Bay, which is famous for coasts of white sands and pine groves, as well as the small islands connected with stone bridges.
However, the allure of Wakayama isn’t restricted to land. Dive into the ocean of Kushimoto, Honshu's southernmost town, and you’ll be greeted to spectacular seascapes the likes of which are rarely seen on the mainland.
The warm Kuroshio Current around the Kii Peninsula fills the waters of Kushimoto with life, including migratory fish that make their seasonal journeys from down south. Kushimoto also enjoys a warm climate year round, promoting the growth of table coral around the town’s beach areas.
If you venture a little farther out to sea on a boat, you might also be able to spot the king of Kushimoto: the bright-red “azahata” tomato cod. With such sights, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call Kushimoto one of the best diving spots in Japan!
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.