Culture

Discover Two Sides Of Japan In Hokkaido And Kansai

Brought to you by Japan National Tourism Organization

Go on a journey of endless discovery in Japan.

Even if you haven’t been to Japan, many of the country’s most famous locations might already feel familiar. After all, more and more Australians are visiting the country every year, with over 550,000 making the journey in 2018, and they’re happily posting their holiday photos online, with Tokyo’s bright lights, Kyoto’s historic beauty, and powdery white ski resorts competing for likes on Instagram.

But if you want to get under the skin of Japan, it pays to take a step off that conveyer belt and explore the areas rarely reached by the tourist hordes. For an authentic travel experience, consider adding the Kansai Region and Hokkaido Prefecture into your itinerary – a perfect partnership of culture, food, history and nature.

 

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If talk of regions confuses you a little, here’s a quick explainer: Japan is officially divided into eight regions, based on geography and history. They’re similar to the concept of Australian states, but without separate governing bodies. However, Japanese regions have distinct cultural identities, almost like countries within a country.

Kansai, on the main island of Honshu, is known by many as the cultural heartland of Japan. Inside this vast, vibrant region is the busy city of Osaka (the third-largest in Japan) and tranquil Kyoto, famous for breathtaking temples, gardens and scenery. While both of these cities appear on many Australian itineraries, few people travel beyond them. It’s a shame, because Kansai has so much more to offer.

For lovers of animals and history alike, Nara – Japan’s first permanent capital city – is 45 minutes from Kyoto and just under an hour from Osaka. It’s easy to spend a day just exploring the sprawling Nara Park and communing with the thousand-or-so relatively tame deer that call the area home.

These handsome animals have the lofty title of being “national treasures”, but will still deign to nibble biscuits purchased from vendors around the park out of your hand. Some of the deer will politely reciprocate with a bow before being fed. Others will cheekily grab food, pamphlets, and maps from distracted tourists.

Also in the Nara Park area is the must-see Todaiji Temple. This immense wooden structure houses the famous Great Buddha – a profoundly impressive 15m-tall bronze statue. Most visitors will leave after gazing up in awe at the serene face of Buddha, but look behind the statue before you depart. At the base of an enormous wooden support pillar is a human-sized 50cm hole. It’s said that if you crawl through this claustrophobic tunnel, you’ll attain enlightenment. Who knows what happens if you get stuck?

 

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If merely looking at temples doesn’t quite satisfy your need for cultural immersion, why not stay in one? Head south of Osaka to Koyasan, situated on a small plain 800m up Mount Koya. This town has 117 temples, 52 of which offer lodgings for tourists. Spend your day exploring the scenic streets and then arrive at your accommodation for a unique vegetarian meal, which is also enjoyed by the monks. Guests have the option to partake in meditations and early-morning services, fully immersing themselves in the daily life of the temple.

Once you’ve been sufficiently charmed by fascinating Kansai, you might want to change gear. Hokkaido, the northernmost prefecture of Japan and also a separate island (most easily reached by an easy two-hour flight from Osaka) is the perfect location for such explorations. This island challenges a lot of people’s understanding of Japan. It’s wild, sparsely populated in relation to the rest of the country and rarely visited by tourists who aren’t in the market for a skiing holiday.

But there are plenty of ways to enjoy Hokkaido without hitting the powder. In particular, Sounkyo – located in the centre of the prefecture – is known for the spectacular natural scenery it boasts all year round. Waterfalls, mountains and dramatic valleys form a part of Japan’s untouched wilderness, of which many tourists are unaware. Photographers are kept joyfully busy in this idyllic region.

For the more active traveller, snowshoe tours almost anywhere promise a “world of the silver shining all things glittering… where you can go on snowflakes with snow shoes,” by one operator. In real terms, that means a mildly taxing walk through Hokkaido’s famous powder and into the pristine surrounding forest.

 

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And there’s nothing like cool temperatures to work up an appetite – luckily there are plenty of hearty, specialised Hokkaido dishes suited to the weather. Ramen, a hearty meal, characterised by its wavy noodles and tasty soup base, is popular across Japan, is perfected – and done a little differently – in this region. Hokkaido locals add corn and butter for a richer flavour, with each city boasting distinct flavour profiles. Sapporo, for example, is the birthplace of miso ramen, while Asahikawa is known for its shoyu (soy sauce) ramen, and the local dish in Hakodate is shio (salt) ramen.

If you’re a true fan, you might even venture into Asahikawa Ramen Village on the outskirts of town – it even has its own dedicated shrine and gift shop.

 

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Stray a little from the tourist pack and away from the frenetic speed of Japan’s biggest cities and you’ll find yourself rewarded. Unusual sights and experiences await those who crave a cultural journey, not just a trip. Kansai and Hokkaido are reachable regions that should be on the itinerary of any soulful traveller looking for more than a box to tick.

(Lead image: Adriana Prudencio via Unsplash)

Japan is a must-visit land of endless discovery.