- Feb 25 • 2 years ago
NetRefer’s Cultural Traveller – Adrian Takes Us to Japan’s Roads Less Travelled
Adrian Farrugia – our seventh Cultural Traveller – is the Content Writer in the Marketing Department at NetRefer. Adrian, who’s Maltese, spent almost eight years living in Japan, most of which were spent in the Kansai (West) Region. This was not his first time living away from home: he spent most of his childhood living in The States with his family, but it was his first time moving abroad alone. Having eclectic tastes and interests gave him a broad perspective and an appreciation of a wide range of aspects of Japanese culture. And today, he sat down with us to share some of the highlights of his travels in his favourite region of Japan – the Kansai Region.
Japan doesn’t need much of an introduction. Both its traditional and contemporary cultural elements are widespread, and many people have it on their list of countries they dream to visit. On one hand, it combines an immensely rich history and cultural tradition with natural scenery with a distinct flavour. On the other, it’s a technological and modern economic success story that has awed and inspired many other countries. And the Kansai Region is a sheer display of how the country holds all these extremes in a delicate balance. From the subdued beauty of Kyoto – former capital and currently cultural capital – and Nara – the original capital with its rustic Buddhist aesthetics – to Osaka – the modern city of comedians and merchants – to Kobe – the harbour city with a tint of Western antique architecture and influence – Kansai has it all. Join us and Adrian this March as we take a trip to The Far Eastern region of Kansai in Japan!
1. What makes the Kansai Region in Japan unique?
Kansai Region includes all of the Western Region of Japan. It’s a cluster of cities and towns that are so rich in culture and history that, in many ways, have their own identity. When you speak to other Japanese and refer to people from Kansai – Kansaijin – or people from Osaka or Kyoto – Osakajin or Kyotojin – there seems to be a general consensus about certain standard characteristics across the board. For instance, Osakajin have their own distinct dialect and are generally considered as cheerful, humorous and in some cases louder and more expressive than many other Japanese. This is so true that most nationally recognized comedians come from Kansai – especially Osaka. Also, Osaka is famous for a traditional form of comedy called Manzai.
Kansai plays a prominent part in Japanese history. Two of its cities – Nara and Kyoto – are both former Japanese capital cities. The other two are Tokyo and Kamakura (for a short while) in the Kanto (Eastern) Region.
Japan is one of the countries I’ve been to with the widest culinary variety. Japanese people take a lot of pride in cuisine and it’s no hyperbole to say that you’d be hard-pressed to find a restaurant that serves poor quality food. And Kansai cities, towns and villages have their rich share of exclusive dishes and ingredients. What’s more, each season brings with it limited seasonal dishes you won’t want to miss out on.
2. What are must-visit cities and towns?
Starting with the most obvious, Osaka should be on your must-visit list. The second biggest city in Japan after Tokyo – Osaka – has ultra-modern downtown areas gathering business buildings and an overwhelming array of entertainment spots. At the same time, you’ll find iconic historical sights such as Osaka Castle, impressive Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, and suburban residential areas.
Next up, you need to add Kyoto for entirely different reasons. This quaint city of culture has its own downtown area as well, but modern progress has been capped so as not to compromise its distinct atmosphere.
Kyoto is a naturally shaped basin since it’s surrounded by mountains. All along its outskirts (and even in more central areas), you’ll find temples, shrines, traditional Japanese houses, hiking trails, rivers (most famously Kamo River) and right outside it, Japan’s largest lake – Lake Biwa. Quite a few of the historical sites here are recognised as UNESCO World Heritage ones. Kyoto is also home to Japan’s largest and most famous Japanese Manga (comic book) museum, housing a copy of every comic book ever published.
One more thing that adds to Kyoto’s charm is that most of the businesses are traditional ones or family-run ones that have survived for generations. Two of the most famous traditional businesses this city is famous for are kimono and yukata (summer kimono) making and Matcha (green tea) and all food items that can be made from it.
Moving on, and not far off from Kyoto, is Nara – the original capital city of Japan. Here, you’ll find sprawling open-air parks teeming with deer, which you’re welcome to feed senbei (rice crackers) to. Nara is also famous for its huge temples, with Todai-ji housing Japan’s greatest Buddha statue.
Beyond Osaka lies Kobe – one of Japan’s most recongisable harbour cities. Throughout history, Kobe was a gateway onto the rest of the world, and the mix of Japanese culture with a lot of foreign influence is evident. The Ijinkan area is famous for Western colonial style houses. Closer to Japanese grounds, there’s Chuukagai – a little Chinatown popular for its Chinese restaurants. But what you’ll surely not want to miss in Kobe are its chocolate, coffee, and more than anything else its different qualities of beef – Kobe-gyu. In my experience, I used to think I had tried good beef until I tried Kobe beef (and Matsuzaka Beef). It’s entirely on another level.
The list of stops to add to your itinerary could go one, but one worth mentioning here is Himeji, and this is for one reason – Himeji Castle. This majestic medieval building is one of the biggest in Japan and one of the only whose interior hasn’t been renovated with a modern aesthetic. Walking in its rooms and corridors will make you feel like living out an Akira Kurosawa samurai flick!
3. What are staple historical sites any visitor should see in Kansai? How about ones off the beaten track?
One thing peculiar about Japanese cities is that they have a way of blending the modern and the historical together in the same space, while doing it seamlessly. One of the first times I was visiting Osaka, I remember seeing a Sony Tower right next to a Shinto shrine. And while this may sound jarring or incongruous, the Japanese have a way of making it work. And perhaps, this is mainly attributable to two things: lack of habitable space on the island and Shinto beliefs.
If you look at a top-down map of Japan illustrating the population distribution, you’ll see that there’s a high concentration in small areas and a lot of land left uninhabited. This is because Japan is a predominantly rocky country, and most of its land is not suitable for building or developing infrastructure. Japanese have learned how to work within narrow spaces.
A quick note on Shinto: This animistic mythology has at its core the belief that everything has “gods” or “spirits” inhabiting it, or everything is “sacred”. There is no sense of duality, and everything naturally cohabits with one another.
Where to even start with recommended sites! Kyoto alone has so many temples and shrines that it’s uncertain if there are more of these or convenience stores in the entire city. That said, some of the staple destinations, especially for first-timers, include Kiyomizu-dera, Kinkaku-ji, Ginkaku-ji, Ryoan-ji, Kurama-dera, all of Arashiyama district, Eiga Mura (Film Village – famous for many iconic movies, including some of Akira Kurosawa’s), Nijo Castle, Heian-jingu, Sanjusangendo, Yasaka-jinja, Fushimi Inari, Gion (Geisha district) and Tetsugaku no Michi.
While Osaka is a bigger and overall more modern city than Kyoto, it has its fair share of historical sites. Osaka Castle is probably the most famous one, followed by places like Sumiyoshi Taisha Shrine. For something a little different, there’s Osaka International Peace Centre – a war museum, slightly less known than the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, but still a vivid and grim representation of the horrors of the World War. One more place which I mentioned earlier, and that is one of my favourites, is Dotonbori – the iconic food and shopping district. While a lot of buildings have been renovated into modern ones with updated safety standards, they’ve retained a certain air and ambience of older times. Dotonbori is overall one of the more vivacious and colourful places in Osaka, that really expresses its character famous for comedy and business acumen, renowned for centuries.
As mentioned earlier, Kobe is worth visiting for its blend of local culture and foreign influence, especially after the Meiji Restoration period, when Japan started opening its doors to the rest of the world. Ijinkan District is the first destination to put on your list. This idyllic little town set in the north feels like a life-sized diorama with buildings designed in a 19th Century Western architectural style. And while you need to travel slightly further to get there, Himeji castle really warrants mentioning again.
We’ve already mentioned some of Nara’s highlights, but there are a few places located somewhere between Kyoto and Nara that are gems in their own right, with Uji being a poignant example of this. Among the many temples and shrines, the most notable one is Byodo-in temple. With its phoenix hall, magnificent garden, and a myriad of ancient statues, it’s magnificent and worth a stop. with its magnificent garden is one. The other two points reasons behind this place’s fame are The Tale of Genji and green tea. The Tale of Genji is known as the first novelised story ever written in world history. And the final story chapters are set in Uji. If you’re a literature lover, you’ll want to visit The Tale of Genji Museum. As for green tea, you can try some of the best at traditionally styled teahouses there.
One last addition worth mentioning is Ise, famous for Ise Jingu (Ise Shrine). This Shinto shrine in the midst of nature is considered the holiest of all Japanese shrines as it houses this animistic religion’s principle deity – Amaterasu Omikami – The Sun Deity. The main building is torn down and rebuilt out of wooden tree trunks during a pilgrimage and grand festival held every 20 years. I was lucky to attend the last one back in 2013.
4. If you were an outdoors/trekking type of person, where would you go?
Generally, Japan is a treasure trove for outdoor lovers, with its abundance of mountains, lakes, rivers, woods, natural hot spas, and other breath-taking natural sites. What’s more, Japan prides itself for having four very distinct seasons. So, visiting the same location at a different time of the year adds a fresh element to the place as it’ll be dressed in snow in winter, seasonal flora – most famously cherry blossoms in spring, coloured leaves – both on trees and under your feet in autumn, the characteristic cries of cicadas in summer, and more.
Again, starting with Kyoto, there’s a pleasant selection of hiking trails to choose from. Many of these paths lie on the outskirts of the city atop the mountains that surround it. Also, the level of difficulty of these hiking trails varies a lot but none tend to be too challenging. Arashiyama, already mentioned earlier, abounds in a wealth of natural beauty. It’s most famous path dotted with temples and shrines leads you into a famous bamboo forest you’ve probably only seen on screen in some samurai movies. This path is an upward slope that spits you out on the edge of a heady cliffs overseeing the flowing river underneath. Walk down this mountain to the riverside to find docked boats, which you can rent or join a tour group on for a ride on the river. Another favourite hiking trail is the one that takes you up Daimonji Mountain – the one with the famous Japanese character “Dai” (big) written on it. If you’re there in summer, make sure to catch it when lit it up with bonfires in August. Fushimi Inari Shrine is the starting point for the Kyoto Isshu hiking trail, that leads you up another mountain, with its path punctuated by rows of torii gates.
Wakayama deserves a special mention when talking about outdoor and hiking. Mostly known for its sandy beaches in Shirahama, this city offers a lot more. The Kumano pilgrimage trail offers so much in terms of natural beauty that it feels like taken right out of a Studio Ghibli animated movie. Apart from its natural scenery, you’ll find a sprightly fish market, quaint traditional Edo style townhouses and geothermal hot spas to relax at the end of a long hike. Wakayama is also famous for Koyasan – one of the most impressive Buddhist temples in the entire Kansai region. This complex sits atop a mountain by the same name and is a recognised UNESCO world heritage site.
5. If someone’s a foodie, any particular types of food or drink you’d recommend and spots to try them out? How about if you’re a sweet tooth?
The topic of food in Japan deserves an entire article on its own! Japan has so much to offer in the way of food that you can take a trip there even if you only want to go on a culinary tour. Also, each distinct season brings with it seasonal specialties you can only catch during that time. And it goes without saying that in each city, apart from the local specialties, you’ll find staple Japanese dishes served throughout the country, but which may be served with a peculiar twist in that particular region.
Some of Osaka’s most famous typical dishes are somewhat more akin to fast food of sorts. When you think of Osaka, you cannot forget to mention Okonomiyaki – a savoury pancake cooked on a hot plate, filled with your choice of ingredients such as meats, seafood, vegetables, and more. Similarly, there’s yakisoba – noodles cooked in the same way and served with a similar mix of ingredients. Two favourite snacks are Takoyaki – octopus in balls of batter – and Kushikatsu – deep-fried breaded skewers of meat, seafood and vegetables. If you’re feeling slightly daring, you can try Fugu – the notoriously poisonous blowfish – served either cooked or as sashimi (raw thinly sliced fillets of fish, as opposed to sushi, which is the same but served on a small bed of rice). Preparing this fish takes a high level of mastery and caution. However, my favourite Osaka cuisine must be Yakiniku – Japanese barbecue. When you arrive at a Yakiniku restaurant, you’ll be seated around a charcoal griddle and served with your choice of thinly sliced meat (as well as vegetables and seafood). As you cook your own foodstuffs, you’ll dip this in a choice of sauces, pair it with a dollop of rice, and bon appetit… or itadakimasu! (as they say in Japanese). And before moving on from Osaka, a quick sidenote on Miso Soup – the other Japanese staple food apart from rice. In the case of Osaka, you’re likely to find the white variation, as opposed to Tokyo, which uses a darker reddish version.
Kyoto’s Matcha – green tea – is some of the most famous across the country. There are different types of green tea, so it’s useful to know that Matcha is the more bitter, milkier/smokier-looking version. If you’re looking to try it out the traditional way, you can dive into traditional teahouses and experience it as its prepared the traditional way. But there’s a lot more to Matcha than just a beverage. This version of green tea is used to make anything including Matcha Soba (green buckwheat noodles), ice-cream, lattes, and a slew of traditional Japanese sweets – my favourite being Yatsuhashi. Apart from green tea, Kyoto people really love their Tofu, both the hot version – Yudofu – and the ice-cold one – Hiyashidofu. For fish-lovers, I recommend Hamo – Conger Eel – served in a variety of ways, some seasonal. Apart from being an intricate ingredient to work with due to its fine bones, it’s also notoriously hard to catch, due to its sharp teeth and aggressive nature. It’s known to have bitten fingers off unwary fishermen and chefs alike. On a more peaceful note, Kyoto produces some of the best pickled foods on the island – Tsukemono – a perfect accompaniment in many dishes. And there’s no better way to try Tsukemono than in Japan’s own refined cuisine – Kaiseki. Don’t expect to get away on a shoestring budget when trying this multi-course artful delicacy in Kyoto. All dishes are small and matched in a way to create subtle flavour contrasts that has gained the status of being a ritual in itself. And before we move on, Kyoto also has a fair share of some of the top Ramen shops around – these noodles in broth, along with several other ingredients, may have originated in China, but Japan has really made it their own dish. And only for the curious, the preparation process for Ramen is something worth looking into (check out the movie Tampopo).
While we’ve already touched on the topic of Kobe cuisine, it deserves mentioning again that as far as beef goes, Kobe-Gyu – Kobe Beef – is on another level. There are several quality levels, but no matter what you go for, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find something that’s budget friendly. While you might gasp at the cost, it’s at least a once-in-a-lifetime experience for meat lovers. This can be prepared in several ways, and you’ll find several restaurants where you can opt for Kobe-Gyu course meals. For many years, Japan has been known for taking something imported from abroad and making it better. Kobe-Gyu is a prime example of this. Further proof to this in the Kobe area are its coffee and chocolate – the perfect combination to top any meal off. Since Kobe is a harbour city, it’s no surprise that it has its fair share of seafood-based dishes as well. Ones worth checking out include Tako Meshi – Octopus with Rice and Akashi Yaki – octopus in batter cooked in a broth. An equally healthy and tasteful dish is Tai Meshi – steamed seabream on a bed of rice and spring onions.
6. What are the best beaches to go for a swim?
We’ve only briefly mentioned Wakayama’s own Shirahama previously. However, as far as beaches go, you’re hard-pressed to find anything better in the Kansai region. And, if you think that summer is the only time you can hit this resort’s white sands and take a dip in the Pacific Ocean’s waters, think again! Shirahama is one of Japan’s largest three onsen (hot spring) resorts.
Close by Shirahama, you’ll find Kushimoto – known as a diver’s paradise due to its crystal clear waters and coral-crusted seabed. The waters retain a steady temperature of around 20-degrees Celsius year-round and the maximum depth is 20 metres.
Awaji Island, sits on the other end of a bridge, is packed with several amenities such as Ryokan – Japanese Inn – and onsen – hot springs. However, beach goers will want to check out its own sandy stretch of land – Taganohama Beach.
Right next to Kyoto, there’s Shiga – famous for the largest lake on the island – Biwako – Lake Biwa. If you favour a freshwater swim over the brackish taste of the Pacific Ocean, then Miami Beach (no, it has nothing to do with the one in Florida!) is your spot.
7. Is there a good public transport infrastructure? What is the best way to get around town?
Nothing’s perfect but you can go quite close, and Japanese public transport is as close as it gets. Japanese trains and subways are so on the dot that if you make it to work late because of them, which is rare, you’ll get an apology note from the railway company to give to your company.
With that in mind, when travelling internally within a city, subways and trains are your best bet. There are stops within close distance of one another and it’s a fast and painless process. Especially, because you’ll find the names of most stops in English as well. Other options for travelling within the city include taxis and normal buses. Or as mentioned earlier, Jinrikisha (rickshaws).
Travelling between cities, prefectures, and regions is usually done by train or highway buses. There are trains that travel at different speeds and stop less. The fastest one is the bullet train, only stopping at major stops throughout Japan.
The only downside to Japanese public transport is that it tends to be costly. Although, there are some ways around it. There are several types of railway or day passes you might want to look into as they’ll help you save your pennies.
8. If you want to go on an art/cultural tour, what are some good spots to visit?
Roaming the streets of cities, towns and villages already provides a testimony to Japan’s culture itself, especially due to the historical spots we’ve introduced so far. So, if you’re looking for more places where you can bask in Japanese culture and art, once again Kyoto takes the cake. The most obvious destinations are its range of museums holding exhibitions about anything from classical to modern art and local to foreign art, such as Kyoto National Museum, Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art, National Museum of Modern Art and Museum of Kyoto.
However, if you want to experience living Japanese art, you can catch live traditional Japanese theatrical productions in the styles of Noh, Kabuki, Kyogen and Bunraku (Japanese marionette theatre). Then, you’ll also find Geisha, Maiko and Geiko – trained in several traditional arts. This living and breathing example of Japanese heritage can typically be found in Gion area. However, they also hold their own shows in spring in theatres.
A fun little treat you can give yourself in Kyoto is dressing up like a Geisha (or a samurai, if you’re a guy) and do a professional photoshoot and even go for a stroll in full attire. You can top it off by catching a Jinrikisha (Japanese rickshaw). While another way to experience traditional Japanese culture in Kyoto first-hand is by booking a Chado (Japanese tea ceremony) session at a tea house. Tea ceremony is only one in a list of hands-on cultural experiences you can enjoy there.
You can also turn your lodging experience into a deeply cultural one. You have the option to rent a room at a Ryokan (Japanese traditional inn), which can include amenities such as your own private hot spa, traditional Japanese food, and more. And pushing this idea one step further, you can opt for a Shukubo (temple stay). You’ll stay in a Buddhist monk’s traditional lodging in a temple. And on the opposite extreme, you can opt to stay at a capsule hotel – a hotel with man-sized compartments including TV, radio, AC, etc. These feel like something out of a sci-fi movie!
Kyoto’s International Manga Museum is a necessary stop on your itinerary if you’re into more modern pop culture, especially comic books. This building is reputed to have at least one copy of every single Japanese comic book ever published.
If tours are your thing, Japan practically has a tour for any theme imaginable. Whether, it’s a bike tour, a temple tour, a food tour, a sake (alcohol) tasting tour, a hands-on arts/craft tour, or what have you. The only limit to Japanese tours is your imagination!
9. How easy is it to make friends with the locals?
Japanese are very polite and courteous. There have been several occasions of Japanese people really going out of their way to help foreigners who were lost or in difficulty. However, making true, deep and long-lasting friendships in Japan is very challenging, especially if you’re only travelling through Japan. They tend to be reserved and keep a certain distance.
One of the best ways to make friends I can think of is if you travel to Japan to pursue a passion and join a club/circle/group that practices it.
10. What are the best seasons to visit Kansai? And does it change a lot from one season to another?
Japan takes its seasons very seriously. They are all very distinct. Throughout history, a lot of traditional poetry such as Haiku was inspired by and dedicated to seasons. Each season has its own colours, fauna, festivals and attractions, as well as special food.
If you ask most Japanese people what’s the best season to travel, they’ll say spring. Famous for its cherry blossom trees in late April and early May, almost wherever you go will be tinted in hues of light and dark pink. At this time, many Japanese have group gatherings or picnics in parks or by rivers, where they eat and drink alcohol while enjoying Hanami (cherry blossom viewing). Almost any place you go to is a good one for flower watching, but two places worth mentioning are Iwatayama Monkey Park and Nijo Castle. You’ll also find food specialties in Kyoto such as Takenoko Gohan (bamboo rice) and an abundance of sweets such as Sakura Mochi and Daifuku Mochi.
My personal favourite time to be out and about is autumn. The trees take on a totally different look with their autumn colours. In late autumn (as well as in spring), several major temples surrounded by nature are lit up at night. My personal favourite is Kiyomizu Dera. Looking at it from a distance will make you wonder if you’re seeing the real thing or a painting. Some of the food items to look out for at this time include Sanma (Pacific Saury fish), Matsutake Mushrooms, chestnuts, sweet potatoes and persimmons.
Winter in Kansai is cold, especially in Kyoto and Nara. The temperature can hover around 0 degrees Celsius and it tends to snow. That said, winter offers its share of features. Around Christmas time, most of the main areas in Kobe are lit up (Luminarie). While this is a couples and family favourite, the purpose behind it is to commemorate the Hanshin Earthquake of 1995. When it comes to food, Japanese have really thought of great delicacies to keep themselves warm during the cold season. You’ll find all Nabe (hotpot) of all sorts, Sukiyaki and Oden (special type of stew). These dishes are typically shared ones, where everyone sits around the pot, picks food items as they cook and dips them in sauces.
Summer is the season I’d recommend the least. Japan has monsoon weather, so it gets unbearably muggy and hot. That said, if you’re a beach-goer (cue Shirahama in Wakayama or Lake Biwa), then you might enjoy it. Apart from that, summer has some of the most popular and fun festivals to see, including Hanabi Matsuri (Fireworks Festival) and O-Bon (Festival of the Dead).
11. What are some customs/manners/expressions one should know when visiting?
Japan is considered, among many things, as the country of politeness, manners and rituals. It’s so intertwined into the culture that even their language has different politeness registers, with the politest form known as Keigo or Teineigo. This adopts words and phrases and ways of addressing people that are entirely different from normal Japanese language. It’s subdivided further into Sonkeigo and Kenjougo, which distinguish between the audience you’re addressing – usually customers you’d show respect to – and people in your own circle – who you speak about more humbly.
Foreigners travelling to Japan will quickly notice that Japanese people tend to keep a certain social distance – both physically (by not making much or any physical contact at all) and by using politeness. In Japan, customers are treated like “gods” of sorts. In fact, anyone learning the job becomes quickly acquainted with the expression “okyakusama kamisama”, which means just that. Along that, job trainees go through a complex learning curve in which they’re familiarised with Japanese business etiquette and “the Japanese way of doing business.”
When you’re the customer, this may feel pleasant at first if you’re only there for a short stay. And since Japan is so organised, it does indeed speed up the process a lot. But this can gradually change to frustration due to the lack of flexibility displayed and the slippery feeling Japanese people convey when you want to be dealing with someone on an individualistically expressive level.
However, despite all this, Japanese people tend to close an eye towards foreigners visiting their country. They acknowledge the complexity of it and don’t expect foreign travellers to comprehend the nuances and ins and outs of their customs and manners. That said, going there prepared and showing sensitivity to their culture will win you a lot of sympathy.
Some general guidelines to keep in mind in Japan include avoiding physical contact or physical displays of affection, especially with people you’re not close with yet. Be mindful of others around you and just observe what others are doing and try to follow suit. You’ll notice that Japanese tend to love order; they don’t break into the line when queuing, they don’t jaywalk (in most cases), etc. (True story: I was standing at a crossroads in Nagoya once, waiting with a bunch of people for the lights to change. I lost my patience and tried crossing. At that moment, fate would have it that a patrol car just passed by and a police officer called me out over the speaker. So, I had to backtrack to the side of the road I was standing on again).
When eating, don’t stick your chopsticks in the food, especially rice (That means death in Japanese culture!). Staying on the note of food, don’t walk and eat, and if you’re eating in company, it’s best if you pour someone else’s drink and they’ll return the favour. Also, don’t wear strong cologne/perfume in public spaces. Japan is (generally) a country of moderation when it comes to colours, flavours, smells, etc. An important one to remember is that whenever you go to someone’s house (and even in several traditional style restaurants and companies), take your shoes off at the door.
Here are some useful expressions to know:
Ohayou Gozaimasu – Good morning
Konnichiwa – Hello/Good afternoon
Konbanwa – Good evening
Oyasumi Nasai – Good night
Arigatou Gozaimasu – Thank you very much
Dou Itashimashite – You’re welcome
Hajimemashite – Nice meeting you
Onegai Shimasu – (Set phrase used when politely requesting something)
Itadakimasu – (Set phrase used before you start eating)
12. Is it acceptable to haggle or is it considered rude?
No. There might be some rare exceptions but it’s safest to presume that the general rule is no haggling.
13. What kind of nightlife can visitors enjoy? Any locales you’d recommend for that?
While all cities have their own locales for entertainment, Osaka is the undisputed winner for clubs, if that’s the kind of thing you’re looking for. It also has the latest closing times in general. Umeda and Dotonbori areas are very popular at nighttime.
However, there are many other night entertainment options. For instance, Karaoke is a fun social activity even if you don’t sing wonderfully. Another popular concept is Izakaya – bars, often with compartments for patron groups, that serve both food and drinks, and these can vary in interior design style from something akin to lounge bars to old style taverns. I generally prefer the latter. A few other fun ways include (baseball) batting centres, (golf) shooting ranges or mini golf courses, massive video game arcades, and a lot more.
As mentioned earlier, both Kyoto and Kobe have a lot of areas lit up during special times of the year (late autumn and mid spring) or during certain festivals (O Bon, Hanabi Matsuri, Aoi Matsuri, Christmas, New Year, etc.) There will be a lot of people out and about. This gives you a great night light option if your trip happens to fall on any of these times.
Kyoto’s Pontocho Street is one of the most iconic, due to its classic allure and atmosphere. You’ll find some of the finest restaurants, izakayas and bars here, and if the season is right, you’ll see Geishas walking in and out of the venues with clients.
14. What would you recommend to tourists who want to take boat rides?
Kobe offers quite a few exciting bay area boat rides since it’s a harbour city. There are a few good ones in Osaka too, but one of the best is the Pirates Boat Ride that crosses the river flowing through Dotonbori area.
In Shiga, you can go on a canal cruise on Lake Biwa, while in Wakayama, there are quite a few boat rides that will take you on Shirahama.
15. What activities do you recommend for people travelling with kids?
Universal Studios Japan in Osaka. This is definitely worth adding to your itinerary if you have a day available for it. Ideally, you’ll want to go on a weekday that doesn’t fall on a bank holiday, because the queuing tends to be outrageous. That said, it has some truly entertaining attractions, with new ones being added every so often and special ones added for Halloween. Their latest and greatest addition is Super Mario World – an entire section dedicated to the iconic video game franchise.
Another fun park on a slightly smaller scale is Legoland Discovery Centre, also in Osaka. Also, Osaka has its own My Neighbor Totoro-themed restaurant. If you have kids and they’ve never watched this Studio Ghibli classic, they’re most certain to love it!
If you want to see animals, there’s the Osaka Aquarium. As mentioned earlier, Iwatayama Monkey Park in Arashiyama is a perfect chance to see arctic Japanese monkeys out in their natural habitat. The same goes for Nara and deer, as it’s overrun with them.
Kansai is the birthplace of some of the most famous Japanese cartoons and comic books. This is why Kobe has its own Anpanman Children’s Museum & Mall. Kyoto has the International Manga Museum already mentioned earlier. But you’ll also find a slew of special events, smaller exhibitions and screenings for Japanese cartoons and comic books frequently sprouting in different spots in town.
16. How safe is Kansai? And are there any specific areas to look for hotels and ones to avoid?
Generally speaking, Japan is extremely safe and clean. It has a generally low crime rate and most areas you go to are safe. Only occasionally, you hear of some harrowing crime that makes the news. If you ask people which area is considered dangerous in Osaka, they’ll usually say Shinsekai, Daikokucho, Shin Imamiya and Tsutenkaku, although locals set a very low bar for what they consider dangerous.
In Kyoto, Kiyamachi Street is somewhat seedier than other areas because of the relationship with organised crime. However, that’s where you’ll find most bars and some restaurants, and while I was there, I never had trouble (apart from that time when I was walking though there and it was overrun by Yakuza. So, I just minded my own business and kept to myself). Generally, you won’t have trouble with Yakuza or any other kind of organised crime as long as you don’t get involved with them or do something terribly wrong.
17. Where can tourists go for shopping? And what kind of things can they shop for?
Shopping in Japan is a big thing. One way of looking at Japan is it’s a highly consumerist society. Another perspective is that Japanese take a lot of pride in production and manufacturing, and they have high standards when offering services.
In Osaka, Umeda is especially popular with a younger crowd for fashion shopping. There, you’ll find Umeda Shopping Arcade and HEP Five. On the other hand, it has the highest concentration of high-end department stores, and so does Osaka JR Station. Just a few subway stops away (where Dotonbori is), you’ll find Shinsaibashi and Namba. In both cases, there are some department stores worth checking out. However, the long covered shopping arcade of Shinsaibashi-suji, taking you all the way to Namba is my favourite. For something even more offbeat and alternative, you can check out Amerika Mura (also known as Amemura).
Kyoto’s main shopping area is in downtown Kyoto, between Sanjo Street and Shijo Street. Here, you’ll find lines of shops and some big department stores. There’s also a covered street, with a variety of new and old called Shinkyougoku. Nishiki Market is very famous for fresh foods and produce. Apart from here, you can shop in Kyoto Station or the neighbouring area.
18. What are some less mainstream souvenirs travellers should look for?
An idea for souvenir shopping is to look for all sorts of hand-made crafts, especially ones you’ll find at vintage stores, markets or small family-run businesses. Also, at almost any temple or shrine you go to, you can buy little souvenirs such as lucky charms or works of craft matching the theme of the place. Generally, Kyoto is a great choice for buying rarer souvenirs.
Other ideas for souvenirs include kimonos and yukatas. These can vary a lot in price, and if you really want to go on a budget, look for second-hand kimono stores.
I also recommend Japanese sweets of all sorts and green tea. Both may be an acquired taste for some, and others may never come to appreciate them, but their milder sweet taste is something that has grown on me over time.
If you’re travelling with kids, any merch related to Japanese comic books or animated cartoons is recommended. Apart from major ones that are more family friendly, like Studio Ghibli-related merch, you can head over to Den Den Town (close to Namba) in Osaka to find all sorts of stores selling the above, along with retro games and other niche or subculture goods.
19. What extreme sports can you try in Japan?
While not exactly extreme sports as widely understood, you can try traditional Japanese martial arts. One-off sessions are available for Kyuudo (Japanese archery) and Kendo (Japanese fencing).
For something more modern, Canyoning, Kayaking and Rafting are available in Nara, while Kushimoto in Wakayama is a great spot for scuba diving and snorkeling.
20. What is the national sport? And when and where can visitors go to watch pro level matches?
Despite having a lot of traditional Japanese sports, Japan is head over heels in love with baseball. Osaka has one of the national favourite teams – Hanshin Tigers – who you can catch playing at The Osaka Dome. The season starts in April and lasts eight months.
21. What are some festivals or concerts to look out for? How about local feasts?
Traditional Japanese festivals are truly colourful and extravagant. The three main ones in Kyoto are Aoi Matsuri (Hollyhock Festival), Gion Matsuri (Gion Festival) and Jidai Matsuri (Festival of the Ages). Here, you’ll see large processions with people carrying Mikoshi (sacred palanquin). You’ll also find numerous stalls selling delicious street food.
Kyoto is also famous for its fireworks festival – Kyoto Geijutsu Hanabi Fireworks Festival – a really fun and colourful pyrotechnical display you can enjoy from the banks of Kamo River. This one is held in summer, and if you’ve bought a yukata (summer kimono), now’s the time to bring it out of the closet and sport it!
The biggest festival in Osaka is Tenjin Matsuri in July. The roads are overrun with people enjoying processions that traverse both land and rivers (on boats).
However, the festival in Osaka that takes the top spot as the most extreme is Kishiwada Danjiri Matsuri, celebrating carpentry. This can be quite risky for those taking part and here’s why: the festival is a race in which 34 neighbourhoods have their representative teams race through the streets while pulling 3-ton floats. It’s a sheer display of strength, team coordination and technical ability to navigate quickly around street corners!
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