Kansai District

The Kansai district is arguably Japan"s most historic region and home to both the Himeji Castle—a UNESCO World Heritage Site—and Ise Shima National park, the most prominent ocean park of Japan and a major source of cultured pearls. The Kansai district encompasses seven of Japan's 47 prefectures, and includes the important port cities of Kobe and Osaka. Also within the Kansai District is Japan"s former capital, the cultural and architectural wonder, Kyoto. Travel to the Kansai district became easier when the Kansai International Airport outside Osaka was opened in 1994. Today, many tourists visiting the Himeji Castle and Ise Shima National Park bypass Tokyo altogether, and head straight for the cultural heart of Japan.

Himeji

A city of half a million, Himeji is only an hour's train ride from Osaka and Kyoto. The city is most famous for its magnificent castle. Comprising 83 buildings with ingenious protection devices dating from the beginning of the Shogun Period, the large, fortified Himeji Castle was a response to the advent of modern firearms. Throughout Japan only about a dozen of these large-scale Medieval castles exist, and of these Himeji is the finest example. Not only is the Himeji Castle an impregnable structure, but its white plastered walls and elegantly layered roofs are aesthetically pleasing as well. From a distance the Castle seems to float above the town like a cloud or cap of snow. And despite sustained aerial bombardment of the city in WWII, Himeji remained unscathed and today is a United Nations World Heritage Site. The Castle is a fifteen minute walk from Himeji"s central shinkansen (bullet train) station.

Ise Shima National Park

Overlooking the beautiful islands of Toba Bay, the Ise Shima National Park is a perfect place to fly kites on the long stretches of beach, check into a quaint bed and breakfast, or, in the summer months, swim and sail off the coast. For the more cultured tourist, the Ise Shima National Park is also a pearl lover's paradise. The region is known mostly for its Mikimoto cultured pearl industry. Pearl Island in Toba Harbor is the site where the first cultured pearl was produced in the beginning of the 20th century. Between Toba and the town of Ise—famous for its many Shinto shrines—is Futamigaura beach. Vacationers are drawn to this rocky coastline to see the famous Wedding Rocks. This pair of relatively inconspicuous rocks is named Izanagi and Izanami; and as male and female they symbolize the "first couple" in traditional Japanese history. Along Futamigaura you can find a number of intimate bed and breakfasts to choose from.

So while the Kansai District has many enticing larger cities, it is the smaller town of Himeji, and the windswept coast of the Ise Shima National Park that beckon tourists seeking a more serene, and more personal side of Japan.

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