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Osaka Insider Guidebook Now Available on Amazon.com!

January 22, 2012 5 comments

A quick follow-up to the previous post: Osaka Insider: A Travel Guide for Osaka Prefecture is now available on Amazon.com! Credit cards from any country are accepted, of course. It is still available through my online store, as well.

Click here for the Amazon.com page.

The Osaka Insider Guidebook is Complete! Get Your Copy Today!

January 21, 2012 7 comments

After much hard work, I have finally published my guidebook, Osaka Insider: A Travel Guide for Osaka Prefecture!!

This unique guidebook covers sightseeing destinations throughout Osaka Prefecture, both famous and unknown. Written by a Japanese-speaking American expatriate and former long-term resident of Osaka, it offers an unbiased and in-depth look into the best things to see and do in Osaka, whether you are a first-time visitor or local resident. The addition of ramen and okonomiyaki guides, festival and event information, rail and walking maps, general sightseeing information and tips, essays by the author and more make this the single most comprehensive English-language guide on Osaka Prefecture to date. It’s the guidebook that no visitor to Kansai should leave home without. Come to Osaka and discover the best-kept secrets of Kansai!

Currently it’s available through my online store, and also available on Amazon.com. For customers in Japan, you can still purchase it through the American Amazon site even if you have a Japanese credit card–the slowest international shipping option is very affordable, although it will take a little while to arrive (overseas express shipping options are also available). If you happen to live in or visit the Fukuoka area, I would be happy to sign your copy personally.

I have also created a Guidebook Maps page, which was designed to be used in conjunction with this guidebook. This is especially useful if you have internet access during your time in Japan.

One of the biggest motivating factors behind this project was the warm and support and encouragement I have received over the years from Osaka Insider’s readers, and for that I thank all of you. I hope you will consider purchasing Osaka Insider: A Travel Guide for Osaka Prefecture and discovering more of the great things Osaka has to offer!

Sakai: Kansai’s Lost City

June 17, 2011 10 comments
Old Sakai Lighthouse

Historical Old Sakai Lighthouse, with a smokestack in the background

I can’t count the number of times I have heard foreign nationals complaining about the  tragic loss of traditional Kyoto. It was one of the few major cities in Japan to be spared bombing of any sort at the end of World War II, and the fact that the old wooden buildings and roadways are mostly gone is due to the demands of modernization.

But I don’t think Kyoto is the great tragedy of Kansai. I don’t even think it has really been lost, as most of its culture and traditions are still intact, its arts are still practiced, and it is respected as the cultural center of Japan by almost all, despite the considerable legacies of places such as Edo and Osaka. And regardless of its considerable size and the laws that make preservation of wooden structures difficult, Kyoto has still managed to maintain a significant amount of its architectural legacy. The real tragedy of Kansai is the city of Sakai, which has become a dreary southern-Osaka suburb and a manufacturing center. Urbanization and modernization have not only created a city that is, for the most part, run-down and depressing, its has chiseled away at the cultural legacy of Sakai to such a degree that most Japanese don’t even know of the city’s importance in Japanese history and culture.

One of the more well-known facts about Sakai is that it has historically produced the best-quality blades in Japan, and most consider it to be one of the great centers of blade production (mostly cutlery in modern times) in the entire world. Sakai swords will set you back nearly a life savings, and genuine swords today are considered national treasures, and thus cannot be legally taken out of the country. Sakai was also a pioneer of early bicycle manufacturing in Japan, and even now produces are large amount of Japan’s bicycles. There are many crafts still done by hand in Sakai, including dying of cloth, painting of koi-nobori (Sakai is one of the rare places where this is still done by hand), and wood carving.

And let’s not forget one of the most influential cultural legacies to come of out Sakai, the tea master Sen no Rikyu, who was history’s most influential figure in developing and solidifying the art of Japanese tea ceremony–he was important enough to be the personal tea master of both Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, two of history’s greatest shoguns and rulers. Sen no Rikyu was held in such high esteem that he helped host a tea ceremony for the emperor, and was bestowed with an honorary title as a result. And if Sen no Rikyu isn’t enough to impress you, try opening Google Maps and taking a look at some of the largest ancient imperial tombs in existence (in carefully executed keyhole shapes, large enough to be seen from space), which are scattered here and there throughout Sakai City. When excavated, these tombs contained some of the most valuable artifacts from ancient Japan that have been found, revealing a massive amount of information about ancient Japanese history, art, culture and lifestyle. And the reason these tombs are in Sakai? Because that region is where the emperors first reigned over Japan, long before Nara and then Kyoto became the capitals in the late 8th century AD.

Sakai started as a fishing village–many of the temples and shrines, including the impressive Sumiyoshi Grand Shrine, are dedicated to deities said to grant safety at sea. It later developed into a merchant town, much like its bigger neighbor Osaka, except that in the case of Sakai it was an autonomous, self-governed body (a “free city,” or 自由都市)–this was also the case with other cities in Japan at the time, including the thriving merchant town of Hakata in Kyushu. It was during this time that all the skilled crafts and arts, which are still around today but greatly under-appreciated, began to develop rapidly. Sakai was also growing into an important trade hub during this time (mostly domestic trade). Around the time of the Meiji Restoration (1868), Japan was following a similar path of “modernization” to that of Europe and the United States, but it had to industrialize more quickly in order to keep up with the world’s other top powers and avoid falling prey to imperialism. This meant that cities like Sakai grew quickly, and factories started sprouting up here and there, polluting the air and making for the start of what would come to be a dreadful cityscape. Like many other cities, Sakai was firebombed by allied forces (mostly American) near the end of World War II–according to Wikipedia statistics, 48.2% of the city was destroyed. The postwar period of high-speed growth in Japan led to further industrial development of Sakai, and today there are many large artificial islands filling the bay. Although it is better than in recent years, Sakai has not seen the shift toward a commercial rather than industrial economy as Osaka has, and smoke and sulfurous smells still fill the air near the bay.

Hankai Streetcar

Hankai streetcar rounding a corner near Sumiyoshi Grand Shrine

Today, Sakai aims to become a model environmental city for Japan, and the national and local governments have put money and effort into achieving this end. Promising projects, such as the collaborative solar plant and factory project recently built by Sharp and Kansai Electric Power, do make it seem as if real effort is being made, but a visit to the city makes it painfully clear that Sakai still has decades (at least) before it can revert back to being a cultural icon and highly livable city. Personally, I don’t think building more is the answer; I think reducing polluting industries, expanding transportation infrastructure, enhancing technologies to cut down on pollution, and drawing in non-polluting business will be a start toward the model “green city” goal. The building of a new national (and international) soccer training facility in Sakai is seen by some as a promising new direction, especially considering its convenient location near Osaka City and Kansai International Airport.

Sakai has also made strong efforts to promote tourism in recent years, including producing sightseeing-related materials. If possible, this is something I want to promote as well. Sakai is friendly city with a fascinating and unique history, and many of its older citizens are struggling to keep its fading culture and customs alive despite disinterest among youth. Considering how tough things have been for the tourism industry after the recent earthquakes and tsunamis, and also the fact that Sakai is located right next door to bigger attractions such as Kyoto, Nara, and Osaka,  it’s not going to be an easy fight. But for those of you who want to delve deeper see a more unique side of Japant, here are some places I recommend visiting:

  • Nanshuji Temple: A Zen temple with a rich history, a 5-7 min. from Goryo-mae Station on the Hankai Streetcar Line
  • Mozu Tumulus Cluster: The ancient keyhole-shaped tombs of great emperors, scattered throughout the city (many are concentrated near Mozu Station on the JR Hanwa Line)
  • Sakai City Museum: An interesting and to-the-point museum that provides an overview of Sakai’s history, a 5 min. walk from Mozu Station on the JR Hanwa Line (near the imperial tumuli)
  • Myokokuji Temple: The site of a famous samurai suicide and a 1,100-year-old cycad tree, a 5 min. walk from Myokokuji-mae Station on the Hankai Streetcar Line or a 10-15 min. walk from Sakaihigashi Station on the Nankai Koya Line
  • Old Sakai Lighthouse: A lighthouse on Osaka Bay that was originally built in 1877, a 10-15 min. walk from Sakai Station on the Nankai Main Line
  • Hankai Streetcar: Hankai is the only remaining streetcar operator in Osaka, and there are two lines running from Osaka (starting at Tennoji and Ebisucho) down into Sakai

Let’s not let this unique and fascinating gem of Japan slip away through negligence. I truly hope that  Sakai, a casualty of development and centralization, will one day return to its former glory. At the very least, I hope it will not be forgotten.

Check out the Sakai Tourism and Convention Bureau’s sightseeing guide and Sakai City’s sightseeing guide, or stop by a tourism information center at one of the major JR or Nankai train stations where information is available in English and other languages.

Accessible Japan

November 24, 2010 1 comment

Accessible Japan is a highly useful, much-needed English-language site specializing in sightseeing, lodging, and other tourism-related information for travelers who require wheelchair accessibility. I stumbled across this site by pure chance, and because many travelers require this kind of information, I decided to post the link here (it’s also been added to my links section on the right). Not only does it provide information on locations of ramps, availability of rental wheelchairs and accessible toilets, information on inclines and other landscape characteristics, and other such information, it also has a lot of good general recommendations and advice for tourists.
If accessibility is an obstacle that has prevented you from making the journey to Japan, I suggest you check out this site. Be sure to take a look at their extensive links sections, as well.
Accessible Japan is put up by TESCO Premium Search Co., Ltd., a company that aims to provide job opportunities for people with disabilities.

Autumn Leaves in Japan 2010

October 15, 2010 3 comments

Autumn Leaves in Japan 2010For those who haven’t experienced it, the fiery colors of changing autumn leaves in Japan are a magnificent thing to behold. Momiji-gari (autumn-leaves viewing) is just as popular as cherry blossom viewing in the spring, and televised weather reports include the status of leaves in Japan as they change–a sort of “autumn leaves front” moving from north to south through Japan.

For information on when the leaves will be at their best for each region, as well as detailed information and up-to-date reports, check out the helpful info at Japan-guide.com, one of my favorite resources for anything related to sightseeing in Japan. Although this site does not list information on Osaka (although it does include surrounding areas such as Kyoto and Nara), I can personally recommend Minoh Park as a great spot to see autumn leaves. If you want to stay in Osaka City, Osaka Castle Park is a good option.

November is the best time for viewing in Kansai.

The Meaning of Travel

August 17, 2010 7 comments

I’m not sure how or when I became a travel addict. Certainly there is an allure in going to new places, encountering unpredictable situations, and seeing unfamiliar things, but understanding where that feeling comes from takes a bit more thinking. Here’s what I came up with.

To start with, I think the opportunity to escape from daily worries is a major reason. Whether we know it or not, every day is filled with anxiety about trifling things that needn’t be worried about in the first place. As I pore over documents every day, wracking my brain for new ad copy, elegant translations and smoother rewrites, I become physically and mentally exhausted. After work I worry about what I need to do, what I haven’t done, what can’t be done but should be done. The amount of things to do in a day is simply overwhelming. However, the moment I step foot on the train or bus bound for my next destination, all of that is forgotten. Whether it be a day- or a week-long excursion, the time is my time, and I can think about things like the future, my humanity, the world around me, and the little things that often go unnoticed–things I don’t have time to consider most days. The lack of small worries lets me finally see the world clearly.

Next, there’s one of the most basic concepts in travel: movement. I truly believe that movement, both literally and figuratively, is freedom. I always bring along books to read on my train trips, but in the end only about five pages or so ever get read, because I just stare out the window at the things whooshing by, at scenery familiar and new. Just the ability to move, whether it be at a screaming shinkansen speed or rickety wanman clunker-train crawl (see photo), is exhilarating. It’s no coincidence that we say life is “at a standstill” when things seem to be stagnating and unchanging; movement, whether it  toward something or just movement’s sake, is liberating.

Movement also means we are going to new places, seeing new things. But why is that important? Because encountering new situations, people, and ideas helps us grow, especially when we don’t have the burden of everyday worries weighing us down, hindering our clear thinking. I have never gone on a trip and come back as the same person: whether it be to a small or large degree, I have always changed and grown through travel. My view of the world becomes different, and my perspective becomes wider yet more refined. Occasionally traveling alone only enhances these aspects further.

Onomichi

So get out there and explore, see everything you can while there is still time. Enjoy not only the destination, but the journey to get there. Appreciate small things, and don’t plan every day meticulously. Go somewhere nobody would ever think of taking a trip to, stay somewhere—a run-down hostel, a capsule hotel, a sleeping bag under the stars—you wouldn’t normally stay. Take every type of trip you can, at any chance you get, and you will not only experience more of the world, but will become a  happier person with a richer set of experiences.

A free mind, movement, growth, and new experiences. That’s the meaning of travel.

Osaka Castle

June 10, 2010 3 comments

Osaka Castle was built originally by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Japan’s revolutionary leader in the late 16th century who rose from peasantry to become one of the three unifiers of Japan and put an end to a long, bloody period of feudal warfare. Completed in 1597, the castle was the largest, most intimidating castle in Japan at the time, and it overlooked and provided the catalyst for the rapid growth of Osaka, which would become the “merchant’s capital” and economic engine of Japan during the Edo Period (1600-1868). Hideyoshi’s son, Hideyori, would resist the forces of the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, who took power after Hideyoshi’s death. Hideyori would defend against two assaults using Osaka Castle as a base before committing suicide with his mother when the battle was lost.

Hideyoshi’s castle was destroyed after the battle, and the rebuilt version once again during a fire; the current structure is a faithful reconstruction (except for use of concrete) from the 1930s, renovated in 1997 to express the feel of original more closely. The moats and walls are almost all original, and one of the turrets is also an original. The inside of the castle has been turned into an in informative and interesting history museum, and the view from the top of the keep provides a great way to see the whole city. Osaka Castle Park is lovely, especially when the cherry blossoms are blooming, when the plum blossoms are blooming, and when the autumn leaves are changing. You can also see Hokoku Shrine, one of the many temples built to honor Hideyoshi, within the park grounds.
While some criticize Osaka Castle because it is a re-creation, I would argue, without getting into a deep discussion about the true significance of historical monuments, that it is still fulfills the roles it was primarily intended to play–namely, that of impressing visitors and of acting as a symbol of Osaka. Some scoff at the elevator attached to provide access to the entrance, but from my perspective, it provides an equal chance for all people, no matter their physical condition or health, to visit this important site.

In summary, Osaka Castle is a must-see for any visitor to the city, and its park (one of the most beautiful and well-planned around), its event facilities and its sightseeing boat dock pier make this one of the most important sightseeing spots in the city.

Access: Directly outside Morinomiya (Chuo and Nagahori Tsurumi-ryokuchi Subway Lines, JR Loop Line), 5 min. walk from Tanimachi 4-chome Station (Tanimachi and Chuo Subway Lines), 5 min. walk from Tenmabashi Station (Tanimachi Subway Line, Keihan Subway Line), 10 min. walk from Osakajo-kitazume Station (JR Tozai Line), 10-15 min. walk from Kyobashi Station (JR Loop Line, JR Tozai Line, JR Gakkentoshi Line/Katamachi Line, Keihan Lines, Nagahori Tsurumi-ryokuchi Subway Line), 5 min. walk from Osaka Business Park Station (Nagahori Tsurumi-ryokuchi Subway Line), or 5 min. walk from Osakajo-koen Station (JR Osaka Loop Line). Many of the Aqua Bus sightseeing boats stop at the park, also. A PDF version of the map in English, which includes many of the stations mentioned, is available here.

Costs: Osaka Castle Museum costs 600 yen per adult, and is free for guests 15 years of age or younger. There are also group discounts. Entrance to the park is free.

Hours: Osaka Castle, which has a museum and an open-air observatory from the top, is open 9 am to 5 pm (closed from Dec. 28 to Jan.), and guests are admitted until 30 min. before closing time. The park is open at all times. Castle facilities are open until 7 pm during the summer (July 17 to Aug. 29).

For more information about the museum, call 06-6941-3044. Also check out Osaka Castle’s website.

Creating Life Experiences: How to Get the Most Out of Your Travel

December 28, 2009 3 comments

This is a list of personal recommendations, based on my own travel experiences and the advice of others (professional and otherwise). Many of them apply to travel in general. Following these tips will help you experience life-changing journeys and discover not only more about the world, but about yourself.

  • Travel cheap: This is not just a budgeting tip. Traveling cheap lets you see the things normal people see, and following more conventional routes reveals the “real” Japan that you might otherwise miss. I personally do not recommend bus tours and the like run by the big companies, unless you want to relive elementary-school field trips. In fact, packaged tours are usually more expensive and less fun than tours you can plan yourself by doing a little research.
  • …but don’t plan everything: In other words, leave room for the unexpected. A trip where everything goes as planned is like visiting Chinatown and saying you went to China. Research travel times, locations, and create a reasonable schedule of things you want to see each day, as well as a list of other things you may want to see. Most importantly, do not feel the need to stick to that schedule. If something down a side street catches your eye as you walk, go take a look. If you want to linger at the zen garden and ponder your thoughts an hour longer, do it. Trying to orchestrate an experience too closely causes it to become shallow.
  • Try things you wouldn’t otherwise do: Especially if you are an introvert, this is a perfect chance to try things you wouldn’t otherwise. Nobody knows you there, and you do not live there, so try coming out of your shell and let the experience change you. Travel is not just about seeing something new, but about letting yourself grow. Note that I am not recommending doing anything indecent, illegal, obnoxious, rude, etc.–don’t forget to use common sense. And don’t forget that you are a guest in Japan.
  • Forget what’s going on at home: You will get the most out of your experience if you leave your worries and daily concerns behind as much as possible (this includes checking e-mail, updating blogs, etc.). Use the chance to not only relax, but immerse yourself fully in a fascinating new world.
  • Stay awake on trains: Some of the most beautiful and interesting sights you see will be from the train window. Get enough sleep in the hotel, and stay awake on the train (or bus).
  • Rent a bicycle: Particularly in rural areas, getting around by bicycle lets you see hidden-away things you would otherwise never have the chance to see otherwise. It also gives you more opportunities to meet interesting people. Not to mention exercise never hurts. Bicycle rental is cheap, and shops are generally easy to find.
  • Don’t just hit tourist traps: I recommend going to small attractions or simply roaming around without a purpose every once and a while. Going to Kansai and just visiting Kyoto and Himeji Castle, for example, is like going to Paris and only seeing only the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. The best experiences I’ve had came from walking down random streets, taking small side paths, and visiting small, family-run restaurants and shops.
  • Try to speak Japanese: The ability to speak the language of the country you are visiting enhances the experience by a huge degree. By speaking only English, you are limiting yourself to what has been translated and people who can speak English, which means you are not really seeing Japan for Japan. Take a few weeks to study if you have time, or try out a few guidebook phrases when you have the opportunity–Japanese people love to praise foreigners with terrible Japanese in particular. And at the risk of sounding too preachy: disillusion yourself of the belief that everyone in the world knows English and nobody minds having to use it. It’s more consider to at least try to speak the country’s langauge and respect its culture, as opposed to expecting them to accomodate you–even if you can only say “konnichiwa” and “arigato,” you will be respected for trying.
  • Eat local specialty foods: Every region of Japan and most cities and towns have their own specialty foods. You will not only get a wide sampling of Japanese cuisine, but have a richer travel experience, if you try local specialties along the way. It also makes picking a menu item simple!
  • Go out drinking: There are few better ways to meet and talk to locals than getting drunk with them. Research local bars if possible before setting out on your journey, and follow the recommendations of other expatriates in Japan.
  • Stay at an onsen (hot spring): I know it’s probably scary to think of getting naked around other people, but hot spring baths are one of the most wonderful parts of Japan, and they are pretty much everywhere. Schedule one night at a hotel, ryokan, or resort with hot spring baths (or even just regular shared baths) and enjoy yourself–outdoor baths in the fall and winter are particularly lovely. Some hotels have the option of using kashikiri-buro, which are reserved baths you can use privately with family, friends or loved ones for a set amount of time. Just remember: wash yourself thoroughly before entering bath, as the bath is for soaking only.

Naniwa: Ancient Capital of Japan, Roots of Modern Osaka

November 19, 2009 1 comment

Naniwa-no-miya Remains, with the NHK building and Osaka Museum of History in the background

Long before the city of Osaka existed, there was an imperial capital called Naniwa. It first served as the seat of the emperor and his grand palace in 645, and for the second time in 744 (capital cities tended to move regularly as new emperors took power). Thanks to its strategic location, Naniwa developed into an important seaport for trade and cultural exchange not only between different regions of Japan, but with Korea and China as well. Even after the first permanent capital was established in 710 in Heijo-kyo (modern-day Nara), and in 794 in Heian-kyo (modern-day Kyoto), Naniwa acted as the seaport for imported customs and traditions that Japan integrated with its own to form the civilization we know as Japanese.
Besides sea routes, Naniwa was the trading hub for overland routes, much as it remains today. Militant Buddhist influence was be strong here, centering on the Honganji sect, but would finally be violently crushed by Oda Nobunaga in the late 16th century, and in the 17th century Toyotomi Hideyoshi would establish the great merchant’s capital of Osaka.
The name “Naniwa” remains in place names, such as Naniwa-ku (Naniwa Ward), Naniwa-bashi (a bridge on Nakanoshima island), Namba (the famous entertainment district, whose name is a modern reading of the same kanji characters (難波) for Naniwa).
Naniwa-no-miya, which was built two times on two different sites, was one of the grandest palaces in ancient Japan, and when its role as the imperial government center had ended, it served as a diplomatic meeting and lodging place for high-ranking overseas dignitaries visiting Japan. Only a small portion of Naniwa-no-miya remains, which can be seen in a small park adjacent to Osaka Castle Park. Next to the ruins is the Osaka Museum of History, which is the best museum in Osaka and one of the most enjoyable museums I have visited period. It is not only informative but engrossing, as it appeals not just to history buffs but average people who may not know anything about Osaka’s deep history. Additionally, you can enjoy a spectacular bird’s-eye view of the grounds of Osaka Castle and the Naniwa-no-miya remains from the tenth floor of this building. Both of these can be accessed from Tanimachi 4-chome Station (Chuo and Tanimachi Subway Lines).

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

Exploring Kansai: Day Trips from Osaka

November 13, 2009 4 comments
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Giant Buddha at Todaiji Temple, Nara

So far I’ve spent a lot of time talking about what there is to do in Osaka, but this time I want to give a quick overview of places that can be visited as day trips from Osaka. It is, in fact, the perfect city for this, because of its central location and its function as a transportation hub for the Kansai area.

The obvious destination is Kyoto, which is by far the most popular tourist destination in Japan among both domestic and international tourists. Then is nearby Nara (the imperial capital  from 710-794, before it moved to Kyoto), which like Kyoto is home to a number of famous temples and shrines including Todaiji, Koryuji, and Kasuga Taisha. I prefer Nara over Kyoto because it feels more genuine and is not as crowded. Kobe is known as a pleasant, cosmopolitan city with an international feel–I recommend the waterfront Meriken Park, which is a romantic hot spot at night. Then there’s Himeji, with its soaring castle that is more famous and impressive than any other in the country.

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Wakaura Tenmangu Shrine, Wakayama City

If you’re looking for something new, why not try Wakayama City? It has a number of gorgeous old temples, some great food, and lovely beaches and hot spring areas. Iga, one of the two great ninja towns of Japan (the other being Koga in Shiga Prefecture), is located in Nara Prefecture and features a ninja museum that you’re sure to get a kick out of. Kumano Kodo, a pilgrimage route that has been celebrated since ancient times, has recently become popular after being named as Japan’s newest UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Yoshino is famous for its autumn colors and spring cherry blossoms, and also has a number of lovely old ryokan and baths. Further east is Ise Shrine (in eastern Mie Prefecture), the most important Shinto shrine in Japan. It is connected to the imperial family, and it has been rebuilt every 20 years on alternating lots using the same architecture and materials since the beginning of Japan as a unified civilization.

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Ninja train, Iga

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Yes, there are even ninjas inside the ninja train.

Heading north from Osaka, you will find Uji, which is famous for it matcha powdered green tea, and also for Byodoin, a graceful temple that is meant to be an earthly re-creation of the Buddhist paradise (you can find it pictured on the ten yen coin). Fushimi-Inari Shrine is a complex winding its way up a mountainside, featuring paths lined with thousands of bright-orange torii gates that create an impressive tunnel-like effect. The Lake Biwa area is also a treasure trove of great places to see and delicious foods to eat (read about my journey around the lake here).

There are more options available, but the places listed above are all great destinations for day or weekend trips out of the city. With the autumn leaves reaching their colorful peak, now is the perfect time to experience the many faces of the Kansai region.