Go beyond Osaka’s big-city attractions and into the heart of Japan’s Kansai region with these three short trips.
The food trail
What pops into your head when you hear the word Japan? Is it neon-lit streets? Drifts of cherry blossom? Or is it steaming bowls of ramen, and fish so fresh that it spoils you for life? For us, it’s all about the food. And where better to indulge than Osaka – Japan’s kitchen – in the Kansai region? Dive into the scene at Kuromon Ichiba Market in front of Nippombashi Station. Many of the stores open at around 7am, selling everything from fresh fish and miso paste to pickles and sweets, with plenty of free samples to fuel you along the way.
If you crave a Western-style breakfast, fill up on fluffy pancakes at Brothers Cafe (1-17-13, Nambanaka, Naniwa-ku), located in front of JR Namba Station, before taking a train to Nara, the birthplace of Japanese cuisine.
As the nation’s first capital and an end point of the Silk Roads, Nara offers food clearly influenced by Chinese, Korean and even European and Persian cuisines. Most of Nara is rolling hills and small farms dotted with ancient temples so it’s surprising to find a number of Michelin-starred restaurants (and surprising to find they won’t send you bankrupt). The husband-and-wife team behind Wa Yamamura have had to make some adjustments since gaining three Michelin stars in 2012. Their tiny restaurant now has English menus and a three-month waiting list for the velvety sashimi, delicately grilled shellfish and rice wrapped in tofu skin presented in artistic, seasonal tableaux.
Most visitors start their explorations at Kintetsu-Nara Station, right near the old part of town. Meander along the narrow streets of Naramachi lined with Edo-period machiya (townhouses) selling sweets, green tea and Narazuke, Nara’s distinctive pickles prepared with sake lees. Rounding a corner, you’ll likely hear the dull thump of a wooden mallet and catch the sweet aroma of simmering red beans before you even see the crowds spilling onto the street outside Nakatanidou. They make just one thing: plump, springy yomogi mochi dumplings stuffed with bean paste. The mochi rice is pounded with ferocious energy right in front of you and tinted a milky green with mugwort leaves. Eat the dumplings while they’re still warm.
Traditional fare can be found at the elegantly retro Nara Hotel. At Hanagiku, its classical Japanese restaurant, enjoy elaborate kaiseki courses matched with Nara’s sakes. Time your visit to watch the city and its temples silhouetted against a pink sky as the sun sets over the mountains beyond.
Just down the hill from the hotel, a side street leads to one of the world’s best cocktail bars. Lamp Bar (1F Iseya Building, 26 Tsunofuricho, Nara) is a tiny gem with an eccentric steampunk interior, where owner and bartender Michito Kaneko creates innovative cocktails using fruits from his garden. There’s no menu. Tell him what you want or do as the locals do and leave it to him. A ceramic egg filled with a mysterious, smoky potion; gin and tonic scented with yuzu peel; the perfect Whisky Sour... every concoction is impeccable. When you reluctantly leave, Kaneko will walk you to the door and bow a warm farewell.
Direct trains run from Kintetsu-Nippombashi Station to Kintetsu-Nara Station or JR Namba Station to JR Nara Station.
The culture trail
As appealing as it is, Osaka’s rich cultural heritage isn’t all about food. Commerce features heavily, too. (The local greeting is “Mokarimakka?” – “Are you making money?”) And at night, the Dotonbori River glitters with reflected neon and the streets sparkle with people dressed up to party. It’s fun and it’s loud but if you’re pining for a quieter, more spiritual cultural experience, you’ll need to head to Wakayama to explore Japan’s sacred Buddhist and Shinto shrines.
The train to Kii-Katsuura Station on Wakayama’s east coast takes just under four hours from Osaka, hugging the dramatic coastline and seeming perilously close to falling into the Pacific Ocean at some points, skimming past white-sand beaches and sleepy fishing towns at others. After the bustle of Osaka city, the wide stretches of blue and the briny air are refreshing. If you arrive around lunchtime, try the area’s specialty, tuna. Looking something like a classic schnitzel, the juicy tuna cutlets at Bodai (5-1-3, Tsukiji, Nachikatsuura-cho) are delicious, particularly when paired with local plum wine.
While the port town has a ramshackle, retro charm, the ancient pilgrim paths to Wakayama’s spiritual heartland allow you to step back 1000 years. Buses from the station wind up Mount Nachi to Kumano Nachi Taisha Grand Shrine, part of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route, a World Heritage path similar to the Camino de Santiago in Spain. Walk among towering cedar trees, up the 600-metre cobblestoned staircase known as Daimon-zaka Slope to the entrance of the Shinto shrine – cool, quiet and often garlanded with mist. Here, figures in red kimonos and veiled hats seem to float through the forest. You could be one of them; just rent an eighth-century-Heian-style pilgrim costume from the Daimon-zaka Chaya tea house (Nachisan 392-4 Nachi Katsuura, Higashimuro) at the start of the route. As you reach the top, the brilliant vermilion temples of Kumano Nachi Taisha Grand Shrine glow against the surrounding forest.
A few minutes down the hill, the three-storey red pagoda of Seiganto-ji temple rewards you with spectacular views of Nachi Waterfall behind it. Follow the path through a dense forest of cedar and camphor trees to the base of Japan’s tallest waterfall, the real spiritual draw of the entire mountain. The sheer power of the pounding water makes you feel renewed; mental cobwebs and negative energy are simply washed away. It’s easy to see that this was Wakayama’s original sacred place, predating organised religions.
Stay the night in Katsuura to see the sun rise over the emerald islands that dot the harbour. One of the most spectacular accommodations is Hotel Nakanoshima, which sits on its own island accessed by boat, like a James Bond villain’s lair. After a day climbing up and down ancient stairways, your calf muscles will welcome the indoor and outdoor hot springs overlooking the bay. Finish with a seafood kaiseki feast served in your room while you gaze at the winking lights of the fishing boats.
Take the Kuroshio Limited Express train from Osaka’s Tennoji Station to Kii-Katsuura Station (in Wakayama), where buses to Kumano Nachi Taisha Grand Shrine leave every 45 minutes. Alight at the Nachisan stop or get off one stop earlier, at Nachi-no-Taki-mae, to visit Nachi Waterfall.
The wellness trail
The town of Kinosaki Onsen is quiet, save for the slow click clack of geta (wooden sandals) as bathers clad in cotton yukatas (robes) make the pilgrimage to the area’s seven lucky hot springs. Like Japan’s traditional seven gods of good fortune, these springs are claimed to bestow different kinds of luck, such as good exam results or prosperity in business.
Little wonder Japan has raised bathing to an art form. You, too, can experience this essential daily ritual in one of the many hot springs that dot the Kansai region – a soak in mineral-rich waters is the perfect remedy for jet lag.
Start in Osaka with a bath or sauna at Spa World (spaworld.co.jp/english), the city’s temple to bathing. With baths modelled on everything from Rome’s Trevi Fountain to the Persian palaces of Persepolis, the decadent, slightly gaudy experience sums up the city perfectly. Spa World is open all night so it doesn’t matter what time your flight arrives.
Then, for deeper relaxation, spend a few days in one of Japan’s famous hot-spring resort towns, which have drawn a mix of writers, artists and aristocrats over the centuries (the indolent are also welcome). Kinosaki Onsen, which is in Hyogo Prefecture near the Sea of Japan, is one of the most charming. Leave Osaka in the morning and you’ll arrive in time for lunch at one of the many family-run restaurants around Kinosaki Onsen Station. In autumn and winter, this will probably include the area’s delicious Matsuba snow crabs, delicately simmered in a dashi broth.
The town has been welcoming visitors for 1400 years and it’s easy to see why they come. The beguiling streets of shops and inns follow a small river dotted with lanterns and willow trees. In winter, the snow turns the historic streets and stone bridges into a powdered delight; in spring, the cherry blossom trees are festooned with pink lanterns that bathe the town in rosy light every evening.
While you can reach the town in just over 2.5 hours by train from Osaka, it’s best to stay a night or two to literally soak in the relaxing atmosphere. There are traditional inns scattered throughout the town but for the full experience, try Nishimuraya Honkan, which features in-room feasts of Matsuba crab and Tajima beef and a series of indoor and outdoor baths, plus a choice of private ones. Guests also enjoy free entry to the seven hot springs (many try to do them all in one day, which is an exhausting prospect, though you’ll be very clean and hopefully very lucky by the end).
If you must leave the baths, you can dry off and take a ropeway up nearby Mount Taishi for spectacular views of the area. Halfway up the mountain, Onsenji Temple (literally “hot-spring temple”) was the traditional first stop for bathers to ask permission from the gods to enjoy the healing waters below.
Catch a Limited Express Hamakaze or Limited Express Kounotori train from Osaka Station. It takes about 2.5 hours and is covered by the Japan Rail Pass.
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