One of the many things that attracts tourists to Japan is its rich history which is present up until today’s modern times. Many people are interested in visiting Japan’s historic towns to get a feel of what life used to be like in the country. Thatched roofs, castles, shrines, temples, and samurai lodging all draw a lot of attention from both local and international tourists. Here is a list of the top historic towns to visit in Kansai (関西). The Kansai region of Japan includes the urban centers of Osaka (大阪), Kyoto (京都), and Kobe (神戸), and the prefectures of Mie (三重県), Hyogo (兵庫県), Shiga (滋賀県), Wakayama (和歌山県), Kyoto (京都府), Osaka (大阪府), and Nara (奈良県).
“Okage,” when translated into English, means “thankfulness” and “yokocho” can be translated as “side street.” Therefore, “okage yokocho” literally means “thankful side street.” Okage Yokocho is located in Ise City, famous for Ise Jingu (伊勢神宮), home of the sun goddess Amaterasu (天照大神). The shrine is said to have been established over 2,000 years ago and is designated as the Grand Shrine of Japan. The shrine was originally established by the daughter of Emperor Suinin (垂仁天皇), Yamatohime-no-mikoto (倭姫命).
During the Edo period (江戸時代), this area was especially popular among pilgrims. Some say that 1 in every 6 Japanese people during this period made a pilgrimage to Ise Jingu. Pilgrimages before were not as easy as they are today (with modern transportation and plentiful accommodation), so the pilgrims were often exhausted and hungry. In response to this, the people of Ise would welcome all pilgrims and Okage Yokocho was formed.
Lined with buildings from the Edo and Meiji eras (明治時代), Okage Yokocho is truly a historic town that still holds the thankfulness and gratitude of years past. Although some of the buildings have been moved to their new locations or rebuilt, you still get a real feel of historic Japan. If you are visiting Ise Jingu or find yourself in the area of Ise, Okage Yokocho is an excellent spot for visiting. Here, you can try local and traditional Japanese food that are deliciously prepared, and imagine yourself back in history.
Kyoto was once the capital of Japan for almost 1,000 years from 794 and it was modeled after the capital city of Chang’an in China. It was built with a grid-like pattern of the streets, nestled in a valley between mountains. Kyoto has luckily retained a lot of historical monuments and buildings and is a cultural and historic center. Between Ginkaku-ji (銀閣寺) and Nanzen-ji (南禅寺) is a picturesque canal, lined with strategically planted cherry blossom trees. One of Kyoto University’s (京都大学) philosophy professors, Nishida Kitaro (西田幾多郎), is said to have used this path for his daily meditations, soul-searching, and philosophizing, thus the name “Philosopher’s Walk.”
During the spring and autumn, this pathway is absolutely stunning with the blossom of flowers and the red autumn leaves respectively. On the 16th of August every year, the Philosopher’s Walk offers a great viewing spot next to the cooling water of the canal to watch the Gozan no Okuribi (五山の送り火) or Daimonji (大文字) which is the culmination of the Obon (お盆) festival. During this day, five giant bonfires are lit on the surrounding hills of Kyoto to signify when the spirits of the deceased return to the spirit world.
The summer is also an excellent time to visit at night as fireflies dance across the top of the canal, lighting the night. If you aren’t visiting at these times of the year, do not worry for this walk can also take you on a sightseeing tour of old Kyoto and to visit a number of shrines and temples. One of these temples is Honen-in Temple (法然院) which according to some is the most beautiful temple in all of Kyoto (see for yourself above). This temple is especially beautiful during the spring when Camellias bloom and in autumn when the Momiji (紅葉) trees turn red. Here, beneath the reaching branches of the Momiji trees, you can really feel as if you are back in an era long gone.
Kiyomizu-dera is a rather famous temple in Kyoto City for its stunning main building floating above the trees on wooden stilts. Many people may be familiar with this temple especially from photos during cherry blossom season or Momiji leaves in autumn. However, the stunning destination is not the only aspect of visiting – the journey is as well.
Founded in 778, Kiyomizu-dera’s present buildings were built in 1633 under the orders of Tokugawa Iemitsu (徳川家光). Popular in its time, many shops and tea houses sprung up along the hilly route to get to the temple. These shops all stand until today and are truly beautiful to behold when ascending to see the temple complex. Along each side of the street, you will see a lot of traditional Japanese food and goods. Leave extra time when visiting so that you can spend some time shopping along the way. Shops feature items such as traditional sake cups and bottles, kimono, traditional hair decorations, and even Studio Ghibli (スタジオ ジブリ) goods.
Nara was once the capital city of Japan between the years 710 and 794 which is known as the Nara period (奈良時代) of Japanese history. Nara Prefecture, having more UNESCO World Heritage listings than any other prefecture in Japan, is a real hotspot for visiting historic Japan. Many of these World Heritage Sites are important parts of the history of Japan, especially the temples and shrines. This meant that Nara was a destination for pilgrims across Japan.
Kuragari-toge was one of such pilgrimage routes to get to Ise Jingu and it also offered a path to get from Nara City to Osaka. During the Edo period, Kuragari-toge was lined with tea houses and accommodation in the form of traditional inns. Today, this road is often used by hikers and sightseers alike. The road itself is around 4 km long and has a lot of interesting stops such as Sekibutsu-ji Temple (石仏寺) and monuments for Manyou-Shu (万葉集). This route is also less known than the other famous pilgrimage sites in Japan so you can often visit without the hustle and bustle that is usually associated with popular destinations across the country.
Wherever you are in Kansai, you are not far from traditional Japan and its history. Take a day out and live like the people of the Edo period, go on a pilgrimage, drink green tea in a tea house, or simply let your mind wander and experience historic Japan.