Everything You Need to Know About Kansai, the Historical and Cultural Heartland of Japan
Home to Japan’s ancient capitals of Kyoto and Nara, the Kansai region has long been known as the country’s thriving, cultural center. And thanks to commercial hubs like Osaka or the port city of Kobe, Kansai is still synonymous with commerce and prosperity, continuing to attract many visitors to the region. In this article, we will discuss the various areas of Kansai as well as their features, histories, top tourist destinations, and seasonal weather. We’ll also drop a few useful tidbits of knowledge about Kansai and let you know how to reach it from Tokyo and Fukuoka!
Apr 28 2022 (May 17 2022)
Where Is Kansai?
The Kansai region is located slightly west of the central part of mainland Japan and consists of six prefectures: Osaka, Kyoto, Shiga, Nara, Wakayama, and Hyogo. It takes up an area of approximately 27,350 km², with a population of over 20 million people. It’s Japan’s second largest economic hub after the Greater Tokyo Area.
The northern area of Kansai overlooks the Sea of Japan while its western part faces the Seto Inland Sea, with the south neighboring the Pacific Ocean. The northern mountains brush right up against the coastline, leaving very little flat land. Conversely, the central areas consist mainly of lowlands, with the vast Osaka Plain being home to Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest lake, and the Yodo River. Running north to south across the plain, you’ll also find a small mountain range cradling the Kyoto and Nara Basins. In the south is the Kii Peninsula, which juts out into the Pacific Ocean. This part of Kansai is dominated by the sheer and difficult-to-access Kii Mountains.
While the weather can vary considerably depending on the area, Kansai can be broadly divided into three climate regions. The northern areas facing the Sea of Japan enjoy cool, mild weather for most of the year, with frequent snowfall in winter. Central Kansai's climate is similarly mild but, since the area is a basin, the temperature differences there can be quite severe. The southern Kii Mountains area is known for experiencing some of the largest amounts of rainfall in all of Japan. At the same time, though, the Kuroshio Current keeps the southern coastline warm even during winter.
Which Prefectures Make Up Kansai?
Osaka Prefecture sits roughly in the center of Kansai and is shaped like a large crescent moon running north to south. It is a land of bountiful nature that is surrounded by mountains on three sides, with the exception of the west which faces Osaka Bay (which continues out into the Seto Inland Sea). Locals enjoy mild and warm weather all year round with comparatively light rainfall and many sunny days.
With an area of approximately 1,905 km², Osaka is the 2nd smallest prefecture in Japan. However, it houses a whopping 8.83 million residents, making it the country’s 3rd most populated region, which also serves as the economic center of western Japan. Since ancient times, Osaka has been an important center for marine transportation, bringing together visitors from all over Japan and the world who’ve all helped to make it the financial and cultural powerhouse it is today. Thanks to this, the prefecture is full of many cultural treasures, such as shrines, temples, and “kofun” tombs.
Out of the many attractions in Osaka, the most iconic one is Osaka Castle, which was meant to serve as the seat of power for Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a military commander active during the 16th-century unification of Japan. Also worth noting is the prominent Sumiyoshi Grand Shrine which was established around 1,800 years ago. Osaka is additionally known as Japan’s foodie capital, with a dynamic food culture centered around flour-based treats like "takoyaki" fried octopus balls, "okonomiyaki" pancakes, and much more.
Kyoto is a narrow and long prefecture running north to south through the center of the Japanese mainland. It has a total area of approximately 4,612 km², making it the 31st largest prefecture in Japan. The northern regions of Tango and Chutan, which face the Sea of Japan, are known for their deeply indented rias coastlines boasting a variety of beautiful landscapes and sights, including the breathtaking Amanohashidate sandbar and the Tango Matsushima islands. While around 80% of Kyoto is mountainous or hilly, the prefecture features no peak higher than 1,000 meters. Its southern region is taken up mostly by the vast Kyoto Basin.
After Kyoto City became Japan’s capital in 794, Kyoto Prefecture flourished as the center of Japanese politics and culture for over 1,100 years and is today full of temples, shrines, and other culturally important structures. Due to their exceptional historical value, 17 of the prefecture’s cultural assets have been registered as the “Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto” World Heritage Site, including the Kinkaku-ji and Kiyomizu-dera temples.
Areas like Arashiyama and Sagano are also celebrated for their natural splendor, drawing in flocks of sightseers during the cherry blossom and fall foliage seasons. Then there are dazzling traditional Kyoto festivals like the Aoi Matsuri and the Gion Matsuri, which have long, fascinating histories and are likewise popular with visitors.
Boasting atmospheric streetscapes, natural beauty, and a hefty helping of famous attractions, it’s no surprise that Kyoto is one of the most popular destinations in Japan for domestic and international tourists.
Hyogo Prefecture sits west of the central part of mainland Japan and is the westernmost prefecture of Kansai. It overlooks the Sea of Japan to the north and the Seto Inland Sea to the south, the latter of which is home to such famous destinations as Awaji Island, the Ieshima Islands, and more. The total area of Hyogo is 8,401 km², making it the 12th largest prefecture in Japan.
The landscape of Hyogo is diverse, ranging from massive urban cities to rural mountain and farming villages and remote islands. Thanks to this, visitors to Hyogo can enjoy a variety of fun activities such as swimming, skiing, hot spring bathing, and more.
Since the opening of its port in 1868, Kobe City in Hyogo Prefecture has flourished as Japan’s center for international trade, making it a highly cosmopolitan and culturally diverse city. Not far from it, you’ll also find the World Heritage Site of Himeji Castle and Arima Onsen, one of Japan’s top three oldest hot springs. Kobe is also the origin of the world-famous Kobe Beef, which is served as premium steak and more at numerous restaurants spread all throughout Hyogo. The city is also the capital of sake, ranking #1 in terms of production and sales volumes. Several of Japan’s most famous sake breweries are concentrated around the Nada ward of Kobe, which is renowned by sake lovers throughout the country.
Shiga Prefecture is located in northeastern Kansai. Encircled by mountains, its center is dominated by Lake Biwa, the largest lake in Japan. Lake Biwa is surrounded by lush greenery and gorgeous, distinctive scenery nicknamed the “Eight Views of Biwa” or the “Eight Views of Omi.”
Shiga is the 38th largest prefecture in Japan with a total area of 4,017 km². Neighboring Kyoto, it flourished as a key part of a transportation route connecting the ancient capital with the rest of the country. Owing to this, numerous historical buildings like shrines, temples, and post towns can be found along the prefecture’s ancient highways.
Examples include Enryakuji Temple on Mount Hiei, which borders Kyoto and Shiga Prefectures and is part of the “Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto” World Heritage Site. You also have Hikone Castle, a National Treasure of Japan, and Shirahige Shrine, known for its stunning vermilion torii gate towering above the surface of Lake Biwa. Plus, who could resist a ninja experience at Koka Ninja Village in the city of Koka, said to be the birthplace of Japan’s legendary assassins?
There’s also plenty to eat in Shiga, including such local dishes as “funazushi” (fermented sushi) and “kamonabe” (duck hotpot), along with Omi beef, one of Japan’s top three varieties of wagyu beef. Those seeking more active vacation experiences can also try their hand at SUP, canoeing, windsurfing, and more at Lake Biwa.
Nara is a land-locked prefecture stretching north to south through the center of the Kii Peninsula. Surrounded by mountains, its total area of 3,691 km² makes it the 40th largest prefecture in Japan. The centrally-located Yoshino River running from east to west divides the prefecture into two: northern, lowland Nara and the steep, mountainous southern Nara. Because of this, the population of Nara is largely concentrated in the northwest Nara Basin.
Nara is the keeper of Japan’s ancient history and culture, and as such is home to many temples and shrines of great importance, befitting one of the country’s former capitals. Many of them are today considered Japan’s premier tourist destinations, including three different World Heritage Sites: The Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara, The Buddhist Monuments in the Horyu-ji Area, and The Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range. Those seeking to learn more about Japanese history and culture should make a trip to Nara at least once in their lives.
One of the most popular sites in the city of Nara is Nara Park, where you can find several notable temples like Todai-ji and Kofuku-ji or the Kasuga-Taisha shrine. Nara’s best outdoor sightseeing spots include Yoshino, one of Japan’s most famous cherry blossom hotspots, and the Yamanobe-no-michi Trail, said to be the oldest road in Japan.
Wakayama Prefecture sits in the southwest of the Kii Peninsula. Much of Wakayama is mountainous, with many of its Kii Mountain peaks reaching around 1,000 meters in height. That being said, most of its mountains are forested, with woodlands actually making up more than 80% of Wakayama. With an area of 4,725 km², it is the 30th largest prefecture in Japan. Its rias coastline on the Pacific Ocean is approximately 651 kilometers long.
Wakayama is full of enchanting travel destinations like the World Heritage Site of Kumano Kodo or Mt. Koya, a temple settlement and the heart of Japanese Buddhism founded over 1,200 years ago by the monk Kukai. There is also the Shirahama Onsen, another one of Japan’s top three oldest hot springs, and the Doro-kyo Gorge, a mystical valley filled with untouched wilderness.
The History of Kansai, Japan’s Cultural Heartland
The history of the Kansai region begins in the mid-4th century when powerful and wealthy “gozoku” clans joined forces and created an early form of government around the Yamato area (modern-day Nara Prefecture). Until 1869, which was when Tokyo became the new Japanese capital, Kansai was the political, economic, and cultural heartland of Japan, not to mention the home of two former capital cities: Kyoto and Nara. Owing to that, the entire Kansai region is rich in cultural properties, historical heritages, and traditional cultures that are key to understanding Japanese history. In fact, six of the 25 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Japan are found within the Kansai region!
It’s no exaggeration to say that Kansai is the best place to learn about Japanese history, experience the country’s traditional culture, and enjoy the splendor of its nature.
Kansai Climate – Hot Summers and Freezing Winters
Kansai can be broadly divided into three climate regions, and your experience will differ vastly depending on not just where you visit, but also when. Here’s what you can expect weather-wise when traveling through Kansai during each season.
Spring (March – May)
Spring in Kansai is prone to harsh and sudden temperature fluctuations, with the weather often changing on a dime. Early March remains frigid in the morning and evening, with plenty of chilly weather in between, so warm clothing and additional protection against the cold is a must!
Starting around mid-March, the weather gradually becomes warmer and more spring-like. Cherry blossoms will begin blooming in all parts of Kansai from late March, peaking around early April. However, it often rains during this time, so be sure to pack some rainwear if you’re planning to go cherry blossom-viewing in Kansai.
From April, daytime temperatures start to hover around a pleasant 20°C, while in May, the warm weather coupled with moderate humidity creates perfect weather conditions for sightseeing.
Summer (June – August)
Between early June and mid-July, Japan goes through its rainy season, so expect many cloudy and wet days with the occasional chill. The Pacific Ocean side of Kansai receives the most rainfall during this time, but once it ends, blue skies and warm temperatures become frequent, often exceeding 30°C around midsummer. Humidity is also high, so between that and the sweltering heat, it’s important to take precautions against heat stroke and sunburn. At the same time, though, many venues will also crank up the air conditioner, so you might actually want to bring a light jacket with you to put on indoors. Also, summertime in Kansai is prone to localized heavy rainfall called “guerrilla rainstorms,” not to mention typhoons, so don’t forget your rainwear when out and about sightseeing.
Autumn (September – November)
The summer heat lingers between early and mid-September before gradually giving way to chillier days later in the month. September is also typhoon season in Kansai, so be sure to keep an eye on the weather reports before making any plans. October will see the temperature drop to a pleasant 20°C or so during the day and to around 15°C at night. However, some evenings will be even chillier, which will necessitate a light jacket and other ways to stay warm. As autumn continues, the temperatures will steadily drop and Kansai will enter its fall foliage season, which first starts around the region’s mountain areas. November is a time of harsh temperature fluctuations, making warm clothing like sweaters and coats essential.
Winter (December – February)
December brings with it formidable cold, particularly along the rainy and snowy Sea of Japan side of Kansai. Daytime temperatures will drop to around 10°C, with more and more days becoming even chillier as the month passes. The air on the Pacific Ocean side of Kansai is particularly dry, so we advise packing some hand cream and lip balm. The coldest month in Kansai is February, when the temperature hovers around 5°C, occasionally dropping even further to below freezing. As the humidity is low during this time, you will really feel the cold, so proper winter wear like a thick coat, scarf, gloves, and heat packs is of the utmost importance.
The following chart shows the average temperatures and rainfall for the capitals of all the Kansai prefectures. We hope it helps you plan your trip!
Getting to Kansai
Getting to Kansai International Airport and Osaka International (Itami) Airport
When traveling to Kansai from overseas, we recommend arriving at Kansai International Airport, which sits atop an entirely manmade, artificial island (the first of its kind in the world) in Osaka Bay, just off the coast of Senshu. Known as the “Gateway to West Japan,” it’s earned its nickname by offering regular, direct flights to and from major cities in Asia, Europe, and the US.
Domestic travelers can also make use of Osaka International (Itami) Airport and its regular flights connecting Kansai to the rest of Japan.
Getting to Kansai From Tokyo
The shinkansen is the easiest way to get from Tokyo to Kansai. The ride times and fares for the Nozomi bullet train (reserved seating) departing from Tokyo Station are as follows:
- To Shin-Osaka Station: 2 hours 30 minutes, 14,720 yen
- To Kyoto Station: 2 hours 15 minutes, 14,170 yen
- To Shin-Kobe Station: 2 hours 45 minutes, 15,380 yen
Getting to Kansai From Fukuoka
You can also travel to Kansai via the shinkansen from Fukuoka. The ride times and fares for the Nozomi bullet train (reserved seating) departing from Hakata Station are as follows:
- To Shin-Osaka Station: 2 hours 30 minutes, 15,600 yen
- To Kyoto Station: 2 hours 45 minutes, 16,360 yen
- To Shin-Kobe Station: 2 hours 15 minutes, 15,270 yen
The Kansai region has everything – history, traditional culture, World Heritage Sites, scenic spots, hot springs, and more. From bustling metropolises to mysterious, undisturbed wilderness, Kansai encapsulates everything that makes Japan special.
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.