"Kansai? Erm, where exactly? Oh, around Osaka!" Yes, that sums up my reaction when I was first told that I would be visiting the Kansai region in Japan.
While Osaka is well-known in its own right, most travellers may be less familiar with the rest of Kansai.
But with daily direct flights from Singapore to Kansai International Airport, it is in fact a great destination for wanderlusters looking for fresh experiences. It boasts everything that the Land of the Rising Sun is famous for: bustling cities, rich historical and cultural sites, good shopping, gorgeous natural attractions and, most importantly for the Singaporean traveller, delicious Japanese food!
Just a six-hour flight away, a trip to Kansai need not take up a huge chunk of time. On our five-day journey, we started at the historical town of Nara, made a quick one-day stop in Osaka before discovering some hidden gems at various towns in the Wakayama prefecture.
Here are seven great experiences to discover in Kansai:
1. Take a walk around Nara town
Our first stop was Nara, once the capital of Japan from 710-794, and a town steeped in history.
We started our walk at Nara Park, where we were greeted by a group of friendly hosts: deers. Considered sacred in Nara, the deers roam freely in and around the park, soaking in the adulation from the crowds. But the cute creatures can be demanding too, surrounding you insistently once they spot crackers that can be bought from roadside stalls.
The streets of Naramachi, Nara's old merchant quarter, are lined with machiya, which are long, narrow "townhouses" that used to be both the merchants' shops and living quarters. Today, the buildings remain in place, but now house modern-looking cafes and businesses selling clothes and souvenirs - a charming mix of old and new.
On our walk, we made a stop at the Nakanishi Yoseburo Confectionary, a bakery selling authentic Japanese snacks and tea. The tea rooms are lined with tatami mats, where customers can enjoy hot mugs of matcha tea while appreciating the serenity of the well-manicured Japanese gardens from the windows.
After all the walking, it was time to cool down with some Japanese sake, a specialty of the region. At Harushika brewery, customers can get a taste of five different types of sake for 500 JPY (S$6.75), with friendly staff on hand to explain the differences between the various brews. One I particularly enjoyed was the Umakuchi Yondanzikomi Kiokezukuri, where the sake is left to ferment in wooden barrels, the traditional way, giving the final product a distinctively dry and sweet taste.
2. Stay in a heritage hostel
Looking for a place to spend a night in Nara? Why not stay in a building that has a history dating back over 150 years?
The Naramachi Hostel and Restaurant only opened its doors in March this year. Located just a short walk down from Nara Park, the facility is actually converted from four traditional townhouses, with its façade kept intact. General Manager Mr Takayuki Yoshida explained that the houses were built in 1856 by a wealthy landowner, who used it to store soy sauce and sake.
The hostel has dormitories, private rooms and even duplexes for larger groups. It also has three gardens, a restaurant and bar, as well as a large public area for guests to mingle. Prices start at 3,300 JPY a night.
Pro tip: One way to learn more about Nara is to stop in at the Nara Visitor Centre and Inn. There, visitors can try on traditional Japanese kimono, attend tea-making or origami-folding sessions, or join a tour to see more of the town. Luggage storage facilities and other amenities are also available for visitors' convenience.
3. Take in the view from Japan's tallest building
We didn't have a whole lot of time in Osaka, but one place that encapsulates the best of Japan's big cities is Abeno Harukas, the tallest skyscraper in Japan.
Start from the bottom. The Kintetsu Department Store, stretching a mind-boggling 14 floors from Basement 2 to the skyscraper's 11th level, is Japan's largest department store by floor area. You'll be able to find everything from fashion labels and branded bags to electronics. The lowest level also houses a large depachika, or one of Japan's famous food halls with an amazing selection of Japanese delicacies.
The 12th-14th levels consist entirely of cafes and restaurants, with a whole host of Japanese and international options. Those looking for a true blue Osaka experience can head over to Osakatsu, an area with seven restaurants that all serve authentic Osaka-style cuisine ranging from kushi-katsu (battered, deep-fried skewers) to Osaka-style sushi.
After filling your stomachs, take the elevator from the 16th floor all the way to the observatory at the top of the building. There, you get a breathtaking, unobstructed view Japan's second largest city from 300-metres in the air, including the tall buildings in the north, iconic landmarks like Osaka Castle, and the scenic harbour facing the sea in the east.
Pro tip: If you run out of Japanese currency, just head to any 7-Eleven convenience store. The ATM machines in the store accept foreign debit and credit cards, which you can use to withdraw Japanese yen. Find out more here.
4. Dip in an onsen while enjoying the sunset
From Osaka, we made our way south to Shirahama, a small town in the Wakayama Prefecture. Shirahama, which means "white sands" in Japanese, is a popular holiday town for locals, known for its onsen, or hot springs.
There are a number of onsens that are open to the public. The best known is the Saki-no-yu, an open-air bath just 10m from the shoreline, allowing visitors to feel as if they are soaking in the Pacific Ocean. For a more private experience, many of the hotels around the town have their own baths which are open to guests only. At the Hotel Seamore, where we stayed, the baths face the sea, allowing guests to watch beautiful sunsets while enjoying a relaxing warm dip.
The town also boasts three stunning natural attractions. The Engetsutou Island is a natural rock formation just off the coast, with a hollow right down the middle making for some beautiful sunsets; while the Senjojiki rock plateau and Sandanbeki cliffs, where the powerful waves crashing against the tall rock formations make for an awe-inspiring spectacle.
Pro tip: In Japan, one must be fully naked when entering an onsen. Swimming costumes or bathing suits are not allowed. A small towel is provided to protect your modesty while walking to and from the changing rooms and the baths.
5. Learn how soy sauce is made
Soy sauce is so common that we often take it for granted. But did you know that the popular dip was first produced in Wakayama? In fact, in the little town of Yuasa, soy sauce has been made for over 700 years, a tradition which continues till this day.
The Yuasa Soy Sauce Company has been churning out award-winning soy sauce blends for over 130 years. General manager Mr Misaji Miyamoto explains that wheat, salt and miso (soy bean) are mixed to create a dark liquid, which is then left to ferment in huge, 100-year-old wooden barrels for up to two years. Workers also manually stir the liquid regularly to ensure that the ingredients are well-mixed.
On our tour of the brewery, we were allowed to sample different soy sauce and miso blends, from brews with stronger, saltier tastes to others that use special ingredients such as yuzu. The tour ended with a serving of a truly unique dessert - soy sauce ice cream, which is creamy with just the right amount of saltiness.
6. Watch a tuna-cutting show
No trip to Japan would be complete without savouring some of the freshest raw fish in one of the country's famous fish markets.
In Wakayama's Kuroshio Ichiba Market, not only do you get to eat fresh sashimi, you get to watch it being prepared as well. The market has live maguro cutting demonstrations three times every day, and each one attracts a large crowd of fascinated onlookers.
The first thing you notice about the yellowfin tuna is that it is huge, weighing about 40 kg. But that is no obstacle for the tuna masters, who swiftly and skillfully dissect the tuna while entertainingly explaining the steps to the audience. They first slice off the fish's tail, before removing its head and then filleting the body.
Pro tip: Some of the belly parts are then served on a platter for the crowd to try. But be sure to be quick, as it's gone in the blink of an eye. There is no fresher sashimi than this.
7. Visit Wakayama Castle
Wakayama Castle towers over Wakayama City, befitting of its status as a home for some of the former lords of Japan. The white-walled castle, surrounded by a moat, was first built in the 16th century. Now, it is open to the public, with various artifacts and documents inside the castle's main tower giving an overview of the castle's history. The observation deck at the top also provides great views over the whole city. Admission to the castle is 410 JPY for adults and 200 JPY for children.
Visitors can drink tea as the Japanese lords did at the tea houses in the castle's sprawling gardens. We also took a walk down the unique sloping Ohashiroka Bridge. The bridge was first built in the Edo period, and was used to protect the identity of the people meeting the lords. From inside the structure, visitors can look out to the castle and the north moat.
At the end of our tour, we were even ambushed by a gang of (friendly) ninja. The group hang out at the castle's base, where they greet tourists, help visitors who require assistance, and provide an awesome photo opportunity. A fitting way to cap off our trip into Japan's feudal past.
The writer's trip was sponsored by Japan's Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport (Tourism Division) and the Foundation of Kansai Regional Promotion.