Travel

Quiet luxury in lesser-known Kansai

Nine unforgettable experiences that will define your trip to Japan

by Kit Nagamura

Contributing Writer

In the run-up to the 2020 Olympics, Japan is bursting at the kimono seams with visitors. In 2013, inbound visitors numbered an impressive 10 million, but that figure has tripled in the past half-decade and is set to skyrocket in the months ahead. This means most major sightseeing spots are packed with yukata-clad tourists bobbling green tea soft serve and swinging selfie sticks.

If you’re looking for something less frenzied, the Kansai area — think Kyoto, Osaka and surrounds — has some of the country’s best anaba (little-known spots) tucked away, where you can encounter the rich depths of Japanese culture, minus the crowds. Reserve one of these nine luxuriously uncrowded options to take your travels to new levels.

Kyoto

1. Shape sweet moments

Situated on what was once land belonging to the imperial palace, the Yuuhisai Koudoukan cultural research facility dates to 1806. Today, the facility offers private tea ceremonies, dance performances and classes in shaping traditional Japanese sweets, taught by internationally acclaimed master Toru Ota, 62, head of the Oimatsu school of confectionery.

Sweet touch: The author's attempt at making Kyo-wagashi at Yuuhisai Koudoukan in Kyoto. | KIT NAGAMURA
Sweet touch: The author’s attempt at making Kyo-wagashi at Yuuhisai Koudoukan in Kyoto. | KIT NAGAMURA

Ota greets students at the narrow, stone-paved entrance path to the Koudoukan’s elegant old wooden home. One tatami room is set aside for lessons in making Kyo-wagashi (Kyoto-style sweets). In the manner of most Japanese artisans, Ota teaches by example, nimbly adding color to a rice-based dough, then adeptly wrapping this around balls of sweet bean paste.

Then, with little more than a wooden stick, he transforms them into sublime suggestions of flowers. Following Ota’s example, and channeling a bit of Play-Doh know-how, guests can create their own floral creations, or create any shapes they like, since Ota encourages creativity. The hands-on experience is a tactile pleasure, and students can either carry home their creations, or eat them on the spot.

Koudoukan sweet making: kodo-kan.com; ¥30,000 for up to five people

2. Tease out quiet time

In Koudoukan’s side garden, a path of stones set in a sea of moss leads to the building’s chashitsu (tea room). Ceremonies here are illuminated by a single candle. “Subdued surroundings suit the ceremony,” Ota explains.

Guests are (thankfully!) allowed to sit cross legged on the tatami mats, instead of kneeling, but the complex etiquette involved with receiving tea is neither dumbed-down nor over-simplified. With an approach that is relaxed, yet authentic, guests learn to tune into their senses.

Steam rises from water ladled into the tea bowl, the tatami mats emit the slight fragrance of grass and the bamboo whisk used to froth a serving of thick green tea makes a delicate sound of controlled concentration. The experience is a perfect primer to Japanese thought and aesthetics, and the tea is first-rate.

Koudoukan tea ceremony: kodo-kan.com; price ¥30,000 for two, ¥12,000 per extra guest

3. Weave a narrative

Traditional patterns: An example of nishiki weaving at Koho Nishiki, an atelier established in 1894. | KIT NAGAMURA
Traditional patterns: An example of nishiki weaving at Koho Nishiki, an atelier established in 1894. | KIT NAGAMURA

Meeting an accomplished Japanese artisan of traditional crafts is an eye-opening experience. At Koho Nishiki, an atelier established in 1894, the ancient style of silk weaving known as nishiki is being kept alive by Koho Tatsumura, 73. Koho is a third-generation master of the art, which somewhat resembles intricate brocade. He takes reservations to guide visitors through his old Kyoto-style home and beneath double-height ceilings and dark timbers, shows off his atelier’s display of luminous fabric in both classical patterns and his own groundbreaking modern designs.

The looms are downstairs, where Koho explains how each gossamer silk thread used in nishiki weaving captures light. “The thread’s prismatic structure,” he explains, “acts like a glass rod, both holding and reflecting light to give the finished work a highly dimensional sparkle.”

To get a feel for the process of sending the oak shuttle over the warp, various weaving experiences are offered at Nishiki Koho on small demonstrator looms.

Koho Nishiki: koho-nishiki.com; ¥2,000, includes weaving; interpreter recommended

4. Sleep like an emperor

Above the bustle of Kyoto: The outer garden of Ryokan Yoshida-Sanso, a former imperial residence built in 1932. | KIT NAGAMURA
Above the bustle of Kyoto: The outer garden of Ryokan Yoshida-Sanso, a former imperial residence built in 1932. | KIT NAGAMURA

The sweeping sloped entrance to traditional Japanese inn Ryokan Yoshida-Sanso elevates it — literally and figuratively — above the bustle of Kyoto, though located in the heart of the city. A mother-and-daughter team run the ryokan, a former imperial residence built in 1932 for Emperor Showa’s brother-in-law, Prince Higashi-Fushimi. The interiors feature details such as the uragiku, a backside version of the imperial chrysanthemum crest on door pulls, and stained glass windows cleverly incorporating the prince’s family name.

Guests are welcomed with tea and a sweet, and a poem handwritten in elegant calligraphy by the okami (proprietress), complete with English translation on the back. The traditional tatami- and futon-appointed rooms open to awesome panoramas of the Higashiyama mountains in the distance, and each has a fresh chabana (tea ceremony flower). Stays can include a lavish kaiseki– (traditional multicourse) style dinner feast, or be limited to breakfast only. Coffee, a rarity at most traditional ryokan, can be savored in Yoshida-Sanso’s nearby 1930s building, Cafe Shinkokan.

Ryokan Yoshida-Sanso: yoshida-sanso.com; rooms with breakfast from ¥35,150

Mountain majesty: The view across the Kii Peninsula, where Mount Koya, home to Shingon Buddhism, is located. | KIT NAGAMURA
Mountain majesty: The view across the Kii Peninsula, where Mount Koya, home to Shingon Buddhism, is located. | KIT NAGAMURA

Mount Koya

5. Taste tranquility

Mount Koya, the mountaintop home of Shingon Buddhism in Wakayama Prefecture, is a Michelin Green Guide three-star destination and UNESCO World Heritage site. The temple complex at Mount Koya is where the monk Kukai, posthumously known as Kobo Daishi, headquartered the monastic center of esoteric Buddhism in Japan in 816.

Today, many of the temples provide superb kaiseki-style vegetarian cuisine in addition to accommodations, juggling, with varying degrees of success, the dual goals of worship and financial security. Sojiin is a standout among these shukubō (pilgrims’ lodgings) for its sublime multicourse spread of dinner delicacies, showcasing the five colors, five cooking techniques, and five tastes that distinguish shōjin ryōri (Buddhist vegetarian cuisine). At Sojiin, it’s even possible to order wine to accompany the feast.

Sojiin: sojiin.book.direct; rooms with breakfast from ¥45,000

6. Meditate under moonlight

While touring Mount Koya, it helps for tourists to remember that though local monks are often friendly, their primary raison d’etre isn’t to hone hotelier skills. At Ekoin, however, a popular shukubō, hospitality reigns. The temple offers various tour options to guests and drop-ins, led by personable, bilingual monks. You can choose from different guided meditation sessions, or join an exploration of the area’s historical sacred structures.

Some tours are conducted at night, and listening to a monk impart the story of Kukai’s early years and the tenants of Shingon Buddhism, as moon shadows play across the monastic complex, is a spine-tingling experience. For the sure of foot, Ekoin also offers night walks through the approximately 250,000 moss-covered tombs of Okunoin Cemetery, leading to where Kobo Daishi is said to still “reside,” deep in meditation.

Ekoin: ekoin.jp; rooms with en suite and two meals included from ¥30,000; group tours from ¥2,000, private tours from ¥12,000

7. Go with goma, two ways

On Mount Koya, the word “goma” has two meanings. One denotes a dramatic fire ritual in which flames of the Buddha cleanse away human desires, the root of pain. Visitors can attend Ekoin’s free daily goma ceremony at 7 a.m. The idea is to purchase a cedar stick on which you inscribe your name, age and desires. Watching the sticks being consumed in towers of swirling sparks produces a mildly euphoric sense of release, as you let the heavens decide how things will go.

Burn your desires away: A monk practices the fire ritual known as goma at Mount Koya's Ekoin temple. | KIT NAGAMURA
Burn your desires away: A monk practices the fire ritual known as goma at Mount Koya’s Ekoin temple. | KIT NAGAMURA

“Goma” also translates to “sesame,” and Mount Koya is famous for a special sesame-based tofu. Unlike the oilier versions available throughout Japan, here only the seeds’ inner kernel is used, yielding a light-textured pale tofu. Kadohama Gomatofu, the tofu manufacturer charged with providing twice daily offerings for Kobo Daishi himself, also creates beautiful meals for lay folk. Two tofu set lunches feature esoteric mandala designs — the Diamond Realm and the round Womb Realm — and both are as beautiful as they are loaded with flavor.

Kadohama Gomatofu: gomatohu.com/kadohamagomatofu; mandala lunch ¥1,860

Tea for the modern age: A unique tea ceremony with projection at Myohoji temple, in the town of Sakai in Osaka Prefecture | KIT NAGAMURA
Tea for the modern age: A unique tea ceremony with projection at Myohoji temple, in the town of Sakai in Osaka Prefecture | KIT NAGAMURA

Osaka

8. Clean your Soul in Sakai

If you set up base in Osaka, zero in on the Japanese or Club Suites at The Ritz-Carlton, Osaka, with its newly renovated and plush interiors. With superlative dining choices, world-class sommeliers, knockout city views, fabulous bedding and attentive staff, the Ritz is also convenient to the city of Sakai, home to several superb knife makers, a distinctive poppy seed-coated rice sweet called keshimochi, and birthplace of Sen no Rikyu, famed master of chanoyu, or “the way of tea.”

Myohoji, a 1343 Nichiren temple in Sakai, offers a unique prayer ceremony celebrating tea. Instead of incense, the aroma of roasting tea leaves scents the air as Myohoji’s head monk chants prayers, sharply punctuating his words with clackers, and striking flint sparks over the heads of visitors to purify and protect them. Guests can then arrange to enjoy lunch inside the cozy temple. From an array of tea kettles in various colors and designs, visitors choose the style they prefer before settling on tatami mats. A projection show extolling Sakai’s seaside history plays as a three-drawer box of delicious bites arrives, showcasing the tea-based recipes of three local restaurants.

The Ritz-Carlton, Osaka: bit.ly/ritzosaka; rooms from ¥38,000 Myohoji temple: sakai-myohoji.com; lunch ¥4,000, reserve via exsa.info

9. Get an edge (and swing it)

Japan has a fair number of stage-like venues to encounter the culture of Bushido, or the way of the warrior. Osaka sword purveyor Yushindou, however, is connected to the real deal, the Yushinryu school of swordsmanship. Short one-off lessons are available for adults (16 and over), but note that the lessons call for strict attention to form, etiquette and mindfulness, as taught by master Seto Tenyu Hirotoshi.

No one wields one of the dojo’s centuries-old, razor-sharp blades before Hirotoshi says so. The reward for training, though, is a “Kill Bill” thrill, slinging an ancient blade straight through a roll of wet tatami mats. If you’d like a blade of your own, Yushindou can cut you a great deal, and expedite the legalities.

Yushindou: yushindou.com; classes from ¥3,780 for 40 minutes; interpreter recommended

The author received assistance from the Osaka Convention & Tourism Bureau while researching this article.