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3-Day Model Trip Outline of the region

3-Day Model Trip Outline of the region / Kansai / The

Long ago, all roads led to Kyoto. But today, there are also many fascinating excursions outside of Kyoto, not only to the old capital of Nara, with its many World Heritage Sites, but also to the Sea of Japan coast through idyllic pastoral scenery, over the glorious Inland Sea to Shikoku, and into the interior of mountainous Wakayama to a whole enclave of Buddhist monasteries. We do hope your road will lead to Kyoto, but don't end your adventure there.

A Feast of Idyllic Scenes

Kyoto to the Sea of Japan via Miyama-cho and back to Tamba

Heading from Kyoto towards the Sea of Japan, one finds a Japan far removed from the refined, aristocratic culture of the ancient capital. Here are tall forests, fast-flowing streams, and valleys filled with farms, where the simple ways of the past go on. The pastoral scenery along these roads is more than enough to nourish the soul, but why not take a detour to Miyama-cho, an idyllic hamlet of thatched farm houses, where anyone can walk around, take pictures and inspect the houses at close hand.
The beautiful pastoral scenery continues all the way to Miyazu on the rugged Sea of Japan coastline. Here you can visit Amanohashidate, one of the nation's three classic beauty spots, a pine clad sandbar nicknamed the Bridge of Heaven. Bend over and view it through your legs to find it floating in the sky.

From olden times people have loved to bathe in the hot-spring waters of Kinosaki. This photogenic town, with its willow-lined streams and rows of old inns, has been a favorite retreat of artists and writers since the nineteenth century. When you see everyone out strolling in their cotton kimonos, you will probably want to join them.
But do make a little detour to Kasumi first. Here you can find a splendid craggy coast and a temple, Daijo-ji, with marvelous sliding screen murals by Maruyama Okyo, one of Japan's most noted eighteenth-century artists.
Izushi, a former castle town is an hour away. Here one of the highlights is the Takuan temple named after a mid-seventeenth-century Zen priest who was the legendary mentor of swordsman Miyamoto Musashi. Takuan also gave his name to the ubiquitous yellow pickles you find in your box lunch. There are also old samurai quarters, an impressive wooden clock tower, and 40 soba shops in this lovely old town.
To complete this glorious round trip back to Kyoto, the last stop should be Tamba-Sasayama with its well-preserved streets full of old buildings, and shops selling country produce and antiques. There is an excellent museum of Tamba ware, the simple stoneware loved by tea ceremony masters, and even a rare Noh drama museum. The local Kasuga Shrine holds special Noh performances in mid-April and mid-September. Okina, the god's dance, is presented at midnight on New Year's Eve, and anyone is welcome to stand in the snow, watch the performance and share sweetened sake afterwards.

Into the Wilds of Wakayama

Kyoto to Wakayama via Nara

Nara is a fascinating destination in itself that, if possible, should not be visited soon after seeing Kyoto and its many temples. Try to start your trip to Nara refreshed and ready to discover a history somewhat different from, and even older than, Kyoto's.
But on the way, don't fail to stop at Uji to see the Phoenix Hall at the Byodo-in temple -- one of the loveliest temples ever built. It is in the shape of a bird with outstretched wings and with phoenixes on the roof, in a delightful riverside setting.
Nara is really where Japan's written history began, in the fifth and sixth centuries, when Buddhism was brought via Korea. The two most famous places in Nara are the Horyu-ji temple complex, which contains the world's oldest wooden buildings, and Todai-ji temple. Todai-ji houses the Daibutsu (Great Buddha) statue in the Great Buddha Hall, the largest wooden structure in the world. Both temples are linked to Buddhism's earliest days here, and they are both World Cultural Heritage Sites. Also, don't miss Kasuga Shrine with its parkland full of deer.
Heading out of the city, huge numbers of tourists converge at Yoshino in the Nara Hills in early spring for this is the cherry blossom paradise of the world. However, you don't need to battle the crowds: remember the mountain scenery here is spectacular right through to the fall as well.
Holy Mount Koya, the center of Shingon esoteric Buddhism in Japan, is over the border in wonderful Wakayama. The temple town, founded by the saint Kobo Daishi, has huge cedars, ancient mausoleums, and is packed with temple lodgings. Staying at such a lodging gives you a taste of Buddhist vegetarian food and you may even be roused at 5:00 a.m. for morning chanting of the sutras.
Next head for the seaside, and travel along a coastline dotted with bizarre shaped rocks to the old whaling port of Taiji, where the local museum has a compelling display on the earliest whaling practices. And from Taiji, it is an easy drive to the other two best attractions in Wakayama: Kumano Hongu Shrine in Hongu town, with its simple black shrines in the style of the Grand Shrines of Ise, and Seiganto-ji Temple, overlooking the fantastic Nachi Falls.

The Future Face of Japan

Kyoto to Tokushima via Kobe

Graceful old, European-style residences of the early foreign traders who first settled in the cosmopolitan port of Kobe, now look down on a brand new city. A visit to Kobe today would make you wonder if the devastating Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995 ever took place at all. Now almost totally rebuilt with the highest technology, Kobe presents for the visitor a peephole on space-age Japan.
Spend the night in a skyscraper overlooking the lights of Kobe Port, or you might consider leaving the asphalt and heading out of Kobe to Arima-onsen Hot Spring, with its many lovely inns among green hills.
In Kobe, you are not far away from the grandest and most graceful of all Japanese castles – Himeji-jo. Nicknamed the White Heron castle, it was built at a time when castles reached a peak in their artistry; but as a fortification it was never used. Now, as one of only 12 castles in Japan with their original keeps, it is a World Cultural Heritage Site.
Backtracking to Kobe again, you are at the gateway to the latest of a series of bridges linking the mainland with the island of Shikoku -- bridges that were once thought could never be built. This one, a marvel of suspension engineering, goes via lovely Awaji-shima Island. The road crosses the island and connects with Tokushima on Shikoku via the Onaruto Bridge. Under this bridge swirl the powerful Naruto whirlpools. Get a closer look at this incredible force from a cruise boat.

Trail of History

Kyoto -- Lake Biwa-ko North Shore

The north shore of Lake Biwa-ko is a treasure-house of Japanese history, for it was in this area that the early warlords roamed and a thriving merchant culture developed. At Azuchi, find a replica of the extravagantly decorated upper levels of the ostentatious Azuchi-jo Castle that warlord Oda Nobunaga built to boast of his power. Further on at Nagahama, find the home territory of Nobunaga's first lieutenant, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who went on to rule Japan. The charmingly restored town of Nagahama is full of shops selling gourds -- Hideyoshi's symbol.
At Hikone is the castle that belonged to Ii Naosuke, prime minister to the last shogun of Japan, and the garden and villas where he entertained state guests. One of these villas, the Hakkeitei, serves as a restaurant and an inn where one can imagine being an early nineteenth century VIP. Back at Hikone-jo Castle, with its precious three-story donjon, there is a marvelous museum of Ii family artifacts with a collection of Noh costumes like no other.
While in this fascinating cradle of culture do not neglect to see the places where the Omi merchants lived. This part of Japan was home to aggressive salesmen, who made themselves rich peddling rice and other necessities around the land, and they did not hesitate to display their wealth in their homes. Some are open to the public at Omi Hachiman and Gokasho.
Perhaps after spending a night in the magical Hakkeitei, divert your attention from history for a while, with a drive deep into the mountains to Shigaraki, home of a great ceramics tradition. Here you will find superb examples of a kind of stoneware pottery loved by tea ceremony masters since the twelfth century alongside humorous statues of the mischievous tanuki raccoon dog. You have probably seen these statues with their jugs of sake standing at the entrances to bars and restaurants luring in customers. But there is no mischief in Shigaraki, just a great deal of beauty. The serious ceramics lover can find a top class contemporary pottery museum as well.
Not far from Shigaraki is the city of Ueno, birthplace of the ninja school of martial arts. The Igaryu Ninja Museum has a unique display of specialized tools and weapons used by ninja.