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Travel and Tourism

Treasures of the Kansai region

Ivan Man Dy - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines – Osaka with its bright lights, contemporary bustle and lively markets – it’s so easy to fall in love with the capital of Osaka Prefecture. I did. But more than her urban delights, Osaka also hit the spot as a perfect base from which to explore West Japan’s iconic destinations. The Kansai region, with Osaka as the gateway, offers a wealth of fascinating cities and towns that convey different aspects of Japan’s ancient history and culture.

On a recent late winter visit, we explored three UNESCO World Heritage sites: the historic city of Nara, Himeji Castle and the mountain town of Koyasan.

Nara was a welcome surprise. Only 40 minutes by train and yet the city felt like a hundred miles away from Osaka’s fast and frenetic pace. This small town charm was immediately palpable as we exited the main train station – quiet streets, low-rise buildings and quaint little home-grown shops lined the main shopping drag of Sanjo-Dori street. 

Dating back to the 8th century,  Nara is, of course, renowned for being the first capital of Japan. And as luck would have it, our family was offered a free walking tour upon arrival at the local tourism office. With over millennia of history, Nara’s story is rich as it is complex and to get us acquainted, our volunteer guide Michiko led us to the historical precinct of Nara Park, where stands the city’s three grandest religious structures.

First stop is Kohfuku-ji, a sprawling Budhist temple complex which boasts of grand halls, intimate shrines and a five-story pagoda listed as the second highest in Japan. It is here where we first meet the iconic Sika deer that freely roam the temple grounds. Considered as messengers of the gods in the Shinto faith, our guide explains that there are over a thousand of these creatures within the park. It has become the city’s symbol and has also been designated a national treasure. 

To get the deer to come near you, there are deer crackers available on sale but be warned, some of them can get pushy and even grab things that stick out of your pocket. 

Nearby at Todai-ji, we pay our respects to the Daibutsu, the 50-foot high, 500-ton great bronze Buddha housed  at the  Daibutsu-den hall. This temple could very well be considered the crowning  jewel of  Nara’s golden age. Towering at an impressive 49 meters, the Kondo (main hall) is a spectacular wooden masterpiece that dates back to the year A.D. 752. It is the largest of its kind in the world.  

Our last stop was Kasuga-Taisha shrine. Here, the spirits must have conspired with nature on that late afternoon as the temperature adjusted to a pleasurable level and the soft afternoon sun brightened the vermillion glow of this great Shinto shrine.

Kasuga-Taisha is famous for its lanterns which were donated by worshippers. Hundreds of bronze lanterns hang within its halls and even more stone ones line the rolling grounds under the shade of age-old cypress trees. Standing under the canopy, we took in the serenity of the surroundings as we basked in this quintessential Japanese Zen moment in this most holy of Shinto shrines.  Indeed, the perfect setting to end our visit to Nara. 

The White Heron Castle

Himeji is in Hyogo Prefecture, an hour west of Osaka by train. It’s a pleasant, modern city but truth be told, doesn’t hold a candle in terms of antiquity compared to Nara. It is, however, the site of Japan’s most famous fortified citadel:  the great Himeji Castle. It’s hard to miss this landmark. Walking out from the train station, the castle’s six-story main keep looms in front of you. It looks small at first but as you edge closer, the magnificent scale of the structure becomes apparent. And as luck would have it, we espied a goodwill volunteer holding a placard by the main entrance and who was all too happy to guide us through the finer architectural points of this impressive 14th century complex.

It took us more than four hours to explore the castle’s highly developed defense systems, ingenious protection devices and aesthetic symbolisms. At the end, we left with a feeling that Himeji Castle was indeed  a brilliant millitary monument, a glimpse of Japan’s heady Shogunate days. 

Buddhist Pilgrimage And vegetarian delights

Not many people – me included – have heard of Koyasan. Quite understandble, for this is an obscure town that sits above the Kii mountain range in Wakayama Prefecture. From Osaka, it take two hours by train and a cable ride which whisks you up to a height of 900 MASL in all of five minutes.

Koyasan is a classic exemplar of a picturesque hill town – winding roads, cedar trees and nippy weather – but this one comes with a twist. It is a Buddhist pilgrimage town and monastic center. 

Founded over 1200 years ago by the great monk Kobo Daishi, Koyasan is the center of the Japanese Shingon sect of esoteric Buddhism and as such, the town is dotted with temple complexes and monastic retreat lodgings known as shukubo. We visit the Danjo Garan, the biggest religious complex in town, with its eye-catching, vermillion-colored Konpon Daito or Great Pagoda. Then there is the Okunoin, a cemetery and sacred area where the founder Kobo Daishi is buried. The main path is lined on both sides by towering, centuries-old cedar trees amidst over 200,000 gravestones and memorials of devotees who longed to be buried close to the great monk.  We take a late lunch of Shojin Ryori or Buddhist vegetarian cuisine which Koyasan is known for, before finally capping our exploration with an homage to the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyayasu, that illustrious founder of the Tokugawa shogunate which ruled Japan for 268 years from 1603 until the Meiji Restoration in 1868.

Koyasan was tranquil, lovely and spriritual, as any holy mountain can be. Kobo Daishi couldn’t have chosen a better spot. And we did just as well by visiting Koyasan to cap off our passage to Japan’s Kansai region.

 

 

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