It includes the ancient capitals of Nara and Kyoto, as well as the more cosmopolitan cities of Kobe and Osaka.
Nara was Japan’s first permanent capital (710 - 794) and is home to both the world’s oldest wooden building and the world’s largest wooden building.
Kyoto became the official capital of Japan (794 - 1868) until it moved to Tokyo in the modern era. Formerly the Imperial capital of Japan for more than one thousand years, it is now the capital city of Kyoto Prefecture located in the Kansai region, as well as a major part of the Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe metropolitan area. Kyoto is sometimes referred to as the “thousand-year capital.” Due to this history, the Kansai region is considered to be the cultural and historical heart of Japan.
The city of Nara is the capital city of Nara Prefecture. It occupies the northern part of Nara Prefecture, bordering Kyoto Prefecture. Serving as Japan’s first permanent capital (710 – 794), Nara was the political, cultural and religious center of its time. It was during the Nara period that Buddhism became the official religion of the royal court.
Spared from bombings during WWII, Nara possesses a large number of cultural relics. Along with Kyoto, it functions as the nation’s richest repository of history and culture, and it produces some of world’s finest religious monuments and art. As such, Nara has plenty of souvenir offerings and is famous for its ink and brushes used in calligraphy. It is not uncommon to see deer roaming freely through the city of Nara as they are regarded as its scared protectors. One is most likely to see them at Nara Park, which covers over 1,300 acres and is one of the country’s most popular tourist attractions.
Kōfuku-ji, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, hosts a five-story pagoda and a repository of some of Japan’s oldest and most treasured works of art.
Tōdai-ji, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, hosts the world’s largest bronze Buddha housed in the world’s largest wooden building.
Kasuga Taisha (Shinto shrine), which was patronized by the powerful Fujiwara family, and the nearby Kasugayama Primeval Forest, are also registered as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
If you haven’t gotten your fill of Japanese Buddhist art from these various sites, the Nara National Museum, located near the park entrance, can offer plenty more.
Historically, Kyoto was the largest city in Japan, later surpassed by Osaka and Edo (Tokyo) towards the end of the 16th century. Although ravaged by wars, fires, and earthquakes during its 11 centuries as the imperial capital, Kyoto was spared from much of the destruction of World War II. The first city listed on the atomic bomb target list, Kyoto was spared through the personal intervention of Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, as Stimson wanted to save this cultural center that he had come to know from his honeymoon and later diplomatic visits.
As the ancient capital and seat of the imperial court (794 – 1868), it reflects Japan’s long history and is the epitome of elegance.
Also serving as the artistic and religious center, Kyoto is rich in historical sites and relics as well as amazing architecture and magnificent gardens. It was the birthplace of many traditional Japanese arts such as tea ceremony, ikebana (flower arranging); various traditional handicrafts; and of traditional performing arts such as noh, kyōgen, and kabuki. It also boasts several large festivals showcasing its rich history.
With its 2,000 religious places – 1,600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines, as well as palaces, gardens and architecture intact – Kyoto is one of the best preserved cities in Japan. Approximately 20 percent of Japan's National Treasures and 15 percent of its Important Cultural Properties exist in the city proper.
Kyoto Prefecture is located approximately in the center of Honshū and of Japan itself. It covers an area of 4,612.71 square kilometres (1,780.98 sq mi), which is 1.2% of Japan. Kyoto ranks 31st in size. It is bordered by the Sea of Japan and the Fukui Prefecture to the north. The Osaka and Nara Prefectures are located along its southern border. To the east, Kyoto faces Mie and Shiga Prefectures, and to the west, it faces Hyōgo Prefecture. The prefecture is separated in the middle by the Tanba Mountains. This makes its climate very different in the north and south. Northern Kyoto, home to the port of Maizuru, and the Tango Peninsula hosts traditional fishing villages and one of Japan’s famous Three Scenic Views in Amanohashidate.
Osaka’s role as a major port and commercial center was established from earliest times. Historically a merchant city, Also been known as the "nation's kitchen," Osaka served as a center for the rice trade during the Edo period. It was also the birthplace of bunraku, traditional Japanese puppet theater.
While Osaka prefecture is the smallest land prefecture in terms of land area, Osaka city is the third largest city in Japan and the economic capital of western Japan. During World War II, Osaka was bombed extensively. Therefore, its historical sights are sparse. However, the city emerged from the ashes to reclaim its previous stature as economic capital of the western part of Japan. It was the site of the 1970 World’s Fair.
Osaka is also known for its food. A particular favorite of cruisers is its okonomiyaki which has been endearingly called “okonomi-yummy.” This dish, unlike any other, is hard to describe, so tasting it for yourself is highly recommended. The first conveyor belt sushi also originated in Osaka prefecture.
Osaka Prefecture is home to Kansai International Airport and major corporations such as Panasonic and Sharp. It has the largest population of Koreans in Japan. Osaka port is the gateway to the region’s wealth of sights, but it also has a few offerings very close to the port itself such as the Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan which contains 35,000 aquatic animals in 14 tanks, the largest of which holds 5,400 tons of water and houses a variety of sea animals including whale sharks. Cruisers can also take a ride on the nearby Tempozan Ferris Wheel to get a bird’s eye view of the area.
Wedged between the coast and the mountains, the city of Kobe is long and narrow. To the east is the city of Ashiya, while the city of Akashi lies to its west. Other adjacent cities include Takarazuka and Nishinomiya to the east and Sanda and Miki to the north. Kobe is the sixth-largest city in Japan, and it is the capital city of Hyōgo Prefecture. Kobe was one of the first cities to open for trade with the West following the end of the policy of seclusion in 1853, and it has since been known as a cosmopolitan port city.
Like Osaka, Kobe was bombed extensively during WWII. Therefore, it too, offers more modern tourist sites. On January 17, 1995, a magnitude 6.9 earthquake occurred near the city. About 6,434 people in the city were killed, 212,443 were made homeless, and large parts of the port facilities and other parts of the city were destroyed. The earthquake demolished portions of the Hanshin Expressway, an elevated freeway that dramatically toppled over.
Known as the Great Hanshin earthquake in Japan, the city holds an event every December called the Luminarie, where the city center is decorated with illuminated metal archways to commemorate this tragedy. The Port of Kobe was Japan's busiest port and one of Asia's top ports until the Great Hanshin earthquake. Kobe has since fallen in stature both worldwide and within Japan.
The city is the point of origin and namesake of Kobe beef, as well as the site of one of Japan's most famous hot spring resorts, Arima Onsen.
The most notable landmark of the Kobe port area is the red steel Port Tower. A Ferris wheel sits in nearby Harborland, a notable tourist promenade. Two artificial islands, Port Island and Rokkō Island, have been constructed to give the city room to expand, and Port Island is where the city’s cruise terminal is located.
Kobe’s Motomachi and Sannomiya districts, as well as Kobe's Chinatown (Nankinmachi) are all well-known retail areas. Mount Rokkō overlooks Kobe at an elevation of 931 meters. Notable buildings include Ikuta Shrine and preserved historical buildings in Kitano-chō Yamamoto-dōri. Kobe is also known for having a somewhat exotic atmosphere by Japanese standards-- mainly as a result of its history as a port city, Cosmopolitanism and fashion are central to the city’s image.
Depending on your ship’s route in and out of the port, you may be able to see the Akashi Kaikyō Bridge, which is quite impressive. It is a suspension bridge, which links the city of Kobe on the Japanese mainland of Honshu to Awaji Island. The bridge was completed in 1998, and has the longest central span of any suspension bridge in the world, at 1,991 metres (6,532 ft; 1.237 mi).
In addition to the fact that the “ancient Kansai region of Japan has always lured travelers,” it cited: