By Wes Lang
While cherry blossoms and maple leaves are the ‘must-see’ attractions for most Japan-bound travelers, a visit during the cooler off-season can be just as rewarding for a number of reasons. For starters, you’re likely to find a fraction of the crowds that usually overrun the most popular tourist attractions. In addition, the crisp, clear air and deep blue skies that accompany the stable weather systems of winter provide the perfect backdrop to observe the beauty of the mountainous terrain. Keep these places in mind while planning a winter trip to the Kansai region, and ask your local guides to show you the truly hidden treasures.
One of the world’s leading centers of Shingon Buddhism, this vast temple complex sits high on a wooded plateau deep in the transcendental heart of Wakayama Prefecture. The cooler months bring fresh snowfall, transforming the ancient architecture into a magical oasis. You could easily spend weeks exploring the labyrinth of narrow lanes, secluded worship halls, and eerie gravestones. Experience a spiritual cleanse by staying overnight at one of the numerous temple lodgings and try your hand at meditation and Shakyo sutra-writing. If you’re lucky, you can catch a glimpse of one of the Buddhist white-clad pilgrims, who pay their respects at the grave of Shingon Founder Kukai.
The Luminaire Festival
Winter is the season for brilliant showcases of advancements in lighting technology, and the Kansai region is home to some of the more prominent displays of luminescence. The Luminaire Festival in Kobe every December commemorates the Hanshin earthquake that destroyed large swaths of the city in 1995. In Osaka, the waterfront promenades along Nakanoshima play host to a creative assortment of light-emitting diodes, along with a 3D projection mapping on the façade of Meiji-era Osaka library. While both events usually end around Christmas, the illumination in Osaka Castle Park continues until the mid-February, with its own 3D display on the façade of the castle itself.
Take a Walk in the Hills
Kansai is blessed with a plethora of hiking trails only a stone’s throw from the major cities. Mt. Rokko hugs the entire northern edge of Kobe city, and one only needs to walk uphill to reach the vast network of trails connecting the dozen or so peaks of the range. Kyotoites find themselves completely surrounded by rounded hills that offer some bird’s eye views of the ancient capital. Head up to the open meadow of Mt. Daimonji, or lose yourself in the maze of torii gates of Fushimi Inari. There’s even a 70-km long hiking trail that circumnavigates all the mountains surrounding the city limits. Osaka visitors need only to take the train 20 minutes east to reach the numerous trails winding up towards Mt. Ikoma, which looks directly down upon the sprawling metropolis.
The great part about winter in the beautiful Nara Park is there are very few other tourists around. You can just about have the entire area to yourself. Even the deer – who, in the warmer months harass tourists for handouts of rice crackers – are tame and will casually forage for food among the amber-tinged grass fields. After paying homage to the Buddhist deities of Todaiji temple, stroll through the primeval forests of Kasuga shrine in search of unique birdlife. Round out your day with a hot drink at one of the numerous organic cafes nestled in the winding streets on the eastern edge of the park. Visitors lucky enough to find themselves in the area at the end of January can partake in the annual Wakakusa-yama Fire festival, where large swatches of grasslands are burned under a canopy of brilliant hues of exploding fireworks.
There’s nothing like settling into an outdoor bath surrounded by the sights and sounds of nature and arguably the best place to experience this is on the northern edge of Kyoto city in a place called Kurama. The hot spring baths are just a short stroll from Kurama station on the Eiden line. Patrons have their choice of either the indoor facilities on their left, or the outdoor bath at the top of the hill. Go for the unique experience of bathing in the buff in colder temperatures. The initial shock of walking on the feet-numbing stone will be quickly replaced by the thermal bliss that the baths afford. It’s also a wonderful place to initiate yourself into the rules of etiquette of communal bath culture. Once you’ve mastered the basics, you could easily center your entire holiday around seeking out these outdoor pleasures, as hidden hot springs are scattered throughout the Kansai area. Rural Nara and Wakayama Prefectures offer the most mystic experiences, as you can bathe under a blanket of fresh snowfall.
What other places have you visited for an amazing winter?