Japan is divided into several regions; mainly Hokkaido, Tohoku, Kanto, Chubu, Kansai/Kinki, Chugoku, Shikoku, and Kyushu. Within some of these regions are more subdivided regions. These regions are just used to map out areas of Japan and are not necessarily divided as such for administrative or political purposes. Prefectures are what one would call divisions that have a hold on the administration of the area. The point of using a region as a reference is for historical as well as other useful purposes, such as weather reports, or explaining a general area of where a person, culture, or piece of history hails from.
The region of Kansai (called Kansai-chihō, sometimes referred to as the Kinki region) fully holds seven prefectures: Hyogo, Kyoto, Osaka, Mie, Nara, Shiga, and Wakayama, while partly holding three others: Tokushima, Tottori, and Fukui. It’s a large and culturally rich area that takes up 11% of Japan and is found in Honshu, which is Japan’s main island.
The Etymology of Kansai and Its Other Names
The word “Kansai” has a definition; it means “west of the tollgate”, which is what it was named because the area was literally located beside the Osaka Tollgate. Before it was officially divided into Prefectures, it used to be segmented into provinces before the Edo period. In between the provinces of Omi and Yamashiro is the Osaka Tollgate, which is currently located around the prefectures of Shiga and Kyoto. It was depicted as the center of Japan and was such until the Kanto Region was developed, and overtook the role of Kansai as being a busier, more central region.
“Kinki”, the other word that is also referred to the same region, refers to the original ancient provinces of Izumi, Kawachi, Settsu, Yamashiro, and Yamato as the “neighborhood of the capital”. “Kinai” is the term used to call the center of Kansai, which is made up of Osaka, Kobe, and Kyoto. This triple combination is also called “Keihanshin”.
A Brief History of Kansai, Japan
Unlike Kanto (which Kansai is always compared), that was developed relatively later during the existence of Japan, Kansai has much deeper roots when it comes to history and culture. It held the first capital of Japan to exist during the Nara period, having the easternmost part of the Silk Route in Nara itself, which was a connection of routes that early civilizations used to trade throughout Eurasia. This is where the influence of Buddhism seeped in, thus the construction of Ise Shrine in the Mie Prefecture during 690 A.D., which is considered holiest shrine in all of Shintoism.
The capital of Japan moved from Nara to Kyoto (formerly known as Heian-kyo) during the Heian period. Kyoto would continue to be Japan’s imperial capital until the dawn of the Meiji Restoration, which would happen a thousand years later. In between the Heian Period and Meiji Restoration, what is deemed as a traditional culture in Japan flourished in terms of religion (Buddhism), art, literature (The Tale of Genji), and performance arts (Bunraku).
More Information on the Kansai Region
Relative to Honshu, Kansai is in the lower-middle area of the island. The total population as of October 2010 was 22,757,897, over its 27,335 square kilometer area. The beauty about Kansai is despite being constantly matched up against Kanto, Kansai has many more stories to tell with its vibrant variations in culture.
Osaka, for example, is known for its booming trade industry, Nara is known for its ties to the ancient past. Some even put up the people coming from both regions against each other, saying that those who hail from Kanto are more serious and sophisticated, while those who are from Kansai have a more open, easy, entrepreneurial air about them. This was observed by Catherine Maxwell, who worked as an editor for Omusubi.
The Major cities in Kansai include the designated city of Sakai, the designated city of Osaka, which is Osaka Prefecture’s capital, the designated city of Kobe, which is Hyogo Prefecture’s capital, Kyoto, also a designated city, which is Kyoto Prefecture’s capital, and Mie Prefecture’s capital, Tsu. Core cities in Kansai include Wakayama, which is Wakayama Prefecture’s capital, Nara, the capital of Nara Prefecture, and Otsu, Shiga Prefecture’s capital.
Places to Visit While You’re in Kansai
Because Kansai is so big, it’s best to take a minute to determine the prefecture you’re visiting in that region. In Osaka, the top location that is visited by tourists is Universal Studios Japan, which comes in second place after Tokyo Disney Resort as the most popular amusement park in Japan. You may want to visit this area if you’re visiting with a friend group, or with your kids. The next highest rated and acclaimed place is Osaka Aquarium, which has collected species from different parts of the Pacific Rim. It’s a fascinating place to learn more about aquatic animals and nature and get a first-hand look at them.
In Kyoto, the second hottest place for tourists to visit is Kyoto Railway Museum, with the most popular spot tourists visit being Nijo Castle. Nijo Castle is crucial to the history of Japan because it’s where Tokugawa Ieyasu lived, setting the foundation for politics under the Shogunate rule during the Edo period. Kyoto Railway Museum features entire trains that were used throughout the course of Japan’s history. Both old and new are featured here, as you have the vintage locomotive style trains, leading up to a sample of the speedy shinkansen. Everything from the parts, tools, maps, and service systems of Japan’s old public line transportation (including JR) can be seen here, for the cost of 1,200 yen.
Eat Amazing Food in Kansai: Sushi, Takoyaki, Okonomiyaki Galore
Being the center of Japan’s culture and trade industries for hundreds of years doesn’t come without merit, particularly food wise. Kansai is home to some of the best grub in all of Japan – especially the ones that Kansai specializes in.
Funazushi is sushi that was made from fermented Funa, or Crucian Carp. What’s so special about this is that you can only find this fish in Biwa, which is a lake in the Shiga Prefecture. When these fish are caught, they are put through a years-long pickling process using rice and salt. Once the fish is done with the pickling cycle, it is then served as-is on a plate.
Takoyaki is more well-known, and popular around the world for its versatility and easiness to make (as long as you have the grill, that is). Takoyaki is made out batter, octopus, pickled ginger, and green onions – all grilled up into a perfectly shaped ball. Top this with some bonito flakes, mayonnaise, and nori (seaweed) powder, and you’re good to go. This street food is done exceptionally well in Kansai because it’s where it hails from.
Okonomiyaki (sometimes endearingly referred to as the soul food of Osaka) is a bit like takoyaki, but in pancake form, and with more ingredients. With the okonomiyaki, you can add an assortment of vegetables, meat, and toppings. The “okonomi” in the word okonomiyaki means “what you like”, and “yaki” means grilled. Combine those two, and you have what you like, grilled – and the food is literally that. While this is a Japanese dish, Kansai has a special take on it, as it adds a yam called “nagaimo”, shredded cabbage, pork belly, cheese, veggies, green onion, squid, and konjac. It even has variants that add udon or noodles (modanyaki), as well as another version with scallions (negiyaki).
Flying in Through Kansai International Airport
Kansai International Airport is a public international airport, sometimes known as “Kanku”, its colloquial name. The airlines that fly through here are mostly Japan Airlines, All Nippon Airways, Nippon Cargo Airlines, and Peach. It was built on September 4, 1994, on an artificial island for easing the traffic going on at Osaka International Airport. It has since been a domestic airport, with planes flying in over a hundred thousand times each year. In the year 2010 alone, 14 million people had gone through the airport. Out of that 14 million, 3.7 of them were domestic passengers, while 10.4 million were on an international flight.
Although it’s located on an artificial island, that doesn’t mean you must take a ferry to get there (then again, that is a viable option). Rinku town has a train called the Haruka limited express, which leads you from Kyoto Station, Shin-Osaka, and Tennoji stations to Kansai Airport Station. If you’re coming from Osaka, you may opt to take the Kansai Airport Rapid from the Kyobashi station. Otherwise, you can take a scheduled bus that is operated by the Kansai Airport Transportation Enterprise that heads there, which should take less than an hour.
Traveling Around Kansai With A Thru Pass
A Thru Pass is a card that allows you to access some forms of public transportation in Kansai at an affordable price, especially if you plan to be traveling a lot via trains, buses, and subways for a (consecutive or nonconsecutive, depending on your ticket) succession of days. The areas that a Thru Pass covers are Osaka, Hyogo, Kyoto, Nara, Wakayama, and Shiga. You have the choice to buy a 2-day or 3-day card, that gives you unlimited access to tour the region.
A “2day Ticket” currently costs 4,000 yen for Adults, and 2,000 yen for children. The “3day Ticket” costs 5,200 yen for adults, 2,600 yen for children. When you buy a Kansai Thru Pass or KTP, you also get access to the internet around the train stations, a map, and some coupons. Because their rates system can be complicated, this plan is devised for tourists who don’t want to have to deal with arranging their itinerary around transportation prices, giving them more freedom to go wherever they want on-whim.
What Is the Dialect Spoken in Kansai?
The dialect spoken in Kansai is “Kansai-ben”. In all of Japan, Kansai-ben is only second-popular next to Tokyo-ben. The general way of speech that comes with Kansai-ben originates from Osaka, aka Osaka-ben, though it is theoretically a collection of Kansai’s dialects. This is important to note, as each area in Kansai also have their own idiosyncrasies when it comes to dialect.
During the Edo period, Osaka and Kyoto had dialects of their own – these were called “Kamigata dialect”. Kansai-ben, which is patterned mostly after Osaka-ben, has two differences when it comes to the standard language (a.k.a. Tokyo-ben). The Kansai-ben accent tends to elongate the word, have a more melodic intonation, and possess a more abrupt pronunciation.
Thinking of Studying in Kansai Gaidai University?
Established in 1945 initially as Tanimoto English School, Kansai Gaidai University is a private university in Osaka. It is known for its specialty in teaching a foreign language, which is what “Gaidai” technically stands for. Gaidai comes from the words “Gaikokugo Daigaku”, which directly translates to “foreign language university”. Both words were abbreviated and combined to form “Gaidai”. It is a popular university among both international exchange students who want to learn more about Japan and its language, as well as Japanese students who want to learn how to speak English to expand their study and career options internationally.
In their Nakamiya Campus, they have their Asian Studies Program which actively helps students learn the language better. For example, each foreign student is matched with a local who is an expert in the language, for them to get used to speaking it often. They even have a program that immerses the student in all aspects of day to day life in Japan by letting him or her stay with a foster family. On the other hand, Kansai Gaidai University offers programs for locals who want to study abroad as well.
Remnants of The Old Capital
Tourists think they’ve seen enough when they visit Tokyo. Though Kanto is the standardized idea of what Japan is, it’s just not enough to cover the whole picture. There is so much more to Japan’s story that stems from its other regions, especially if you’ve had a go at Japanese history. Kansai used to be the mecca of politics and cultural development that contributes to what so much of Japan is now.