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Japan’s Kansai Region: A Night Photography Wonderland

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A Japanophile who has survived 15 solo trips to Japan. Ced's visits focus on discovering the country’s lesser-known attractions.

Japan’s Kansai region is a night photography wonderland for all visitors.

Japan’s Kansai region is a night photography wonderland for all visitors.

The name “Kansai region” (関西) often means different things to different people, even among the Japanese.

Geographically, it is the common name for Japan’s Kinki region (近畿) and consists of seven prefectures surrounding the immense Keihanshin (京阪神) metropolis. For tourists, the name typically represents the “must-do” cities of Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe, as well as one of Japan’s major points of entry, Kansai Airport.

In Japanese popular entertainment, particularly Anime, the name is frequently used to depict a certain stereotype too—that of a loud, rough-speaking, food-loving, and often vivacious individual. This stereotype is beloved and comical, and erroneous, because what’s shown is actually the Japanese stereotype of Osaka residents. Describe Kyoto folks that way, and rest assured, they would more than insist on having a word.

What I’m saying here is, there’s no easy way to define the Kansai region simply because it is so many things at the same time. Coming back to tourism, the densely populated region is easily one of Japan’s most magical and diverse areas to have a holiday in. A harmonious gem home to everything Japan is beloved for.

This gem is, in turn, especially enchanting after sunset. Every evening, the major cities transform into fascinating, mesmerizing night photography wonderlands. The illuminated landmarks and twinkling sea of lights will charm even the most jaded travelers.

The famous Glico Running Man of Osaka. One of Japan’s most famous photo-op spots.

The famous Glico Running Man of Osaka. One of Japan’s most famous photo-op spots.

1. The Celebrated

In 1935, Japanese confectioner Glico erected a huge billboard in the heart of Osaka’s downtown Dotonbori District, and the rest is history. The immense display has since undergone many modifications and upgrades, with the latest edition utilizing LED animation, but what has not changed is its status as the face of Osaka tourism. Every day, numerous tourists can still be seen enthusiastically snapping pictures in front of the triumphant champion.

The Japanese God of Prosperity himself welcomes you to this Osaka restaurant.

The Japanese God of Prosperity himself welcomes you to this Osaka restaurant.

2. The Outrageous

While animated and 3D signs are found throughout Japan, none are as outrageous or as eye-catching as the ones in Osaka. A major tourist attraction nowadays, particularly at Dotonbori and Shinsekai, these unbelievable signs remind tourists that Osaka is celebrated as the gourmet capital of Japan. The city enjoys the proud epithet of “kitchen of the nation.”

Nighttime Osaka Castle during Hanami i.e. Sakura-viewing season.

Nighttime Osaka Castle during Hanami i.e. Sakura-viewing season.

3. The Majestic

Though it is a reconstruction of the original, few sights nowadays are as representative of Japan as majestic Osaka Castle. When viewed under the evening sky, few sights express “Welcome to Japan! Yokoso!” as grandly as this beloved symbol too.

An Okonomiyaki with Takoyaki platter. (It’s a plastic food sample, of course)

An Okonomiyaki with Takoyaki platter. (It’s a plastic food sample, of course)

4. The Delicious

Coming back to food, do you know that Osaka is the birthplace of several famous Japanese dishes? When visiting Osaka, it is considered a must to sample Takoyaki, Okonomiyaki, and Kushiyaki. Osaka residents would consider it a tragedy if you do not do so.

The Majestic Sanmon Gate of Chionin Temple in Kyoto.

The Majestic Sanmon Gate of Chionin Temple in Kyoto.

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5. The Solemn

As the imperial capital of Japan for over a thousand years, Kyoto is a treasure trove of historical and cultural landmarks. Many of these are wonderfully illuminated in the night, making the ancient capital a paradise for night photographers.

Spring Hanatouro at Kyoto’s Higashiyama District

Spring Hanatouro at Kyoto’s Higashiyama District

6.The Playful

Twice a year, leading Kyoto tourist districts host Hanatouro (花灯路), during which major temples and shopping streets are atmospherically illuminated in the evening. If you’re looking for a brief time-traveling journey while in Japan, do not miss these festive night photography paradises. To complete the experience, consider dressing up in traditional Japanese wear too.

Kiyomizu Temple terrace during the “blue hour.” One of the most spectacular sights of Japan’s Kansai region.

Kiyomizu Temple terrace during the “blue hour.” One of the most spectacular sights of Japan’s Kansai region.

7. The Harmonious

With its status as Kyoto’s most beloved and famous attraction, it is rare for Kiyomizu Temple not to be full of visitors. That said, no matter the crowds, one can still experience a certain serenity when gazing at the famed terrace, especially when it is illuminated during festive seasons. The backdrop of modern Kyoto is also symbolic of what the Kansai region is—a land where the past and present harmoniously co-exist.

Kyoto Style traditional Japanese dance.

Kyoto Style traditional Japanese dance.

8. The Graceful

Elegance is synonymous with Kyoto, and when there, you must have a taste of the city’s timeless beauty by attending Kyo Odori, or Kyoto dance. Most performances are scheduled in the daytime but at Gion Corner, there are performances of Kyoto dance and other traditional Japanese arts every night. Touristy as this might sound, the performance is a must for first-time visitors to the ancient capital. It is a convenient, exotic photo opportunity too.

The Karamon Gate of Kyoto’s Nijo Castle during the 2018 Flowers illumination event.

The Karamon Gate of Kyoto’s Nijo Castle during the 2018 Flowers illumination event.

9. The Fantastical

Japan is renowned for its art-projection creativity and technology. During peak travel seasons such as Hanami (cherry-blossom viewing), and autumn, it is common for leading companies to host fantastical night shows at renowned landmarks. These magical presentations transform such landmarks into totally new visiting experiences.

Nara’s Mount Wakakusa is set ablaze every fourth Saturday of January.

Nara’s Mount Wakakusa is set ablaze every fourth Saturday of January.

10. The Awe-Inspiring

There are many spectacular festivals and celebrations in the Kansai region. Among these, the most thrilling and awe-inspiring is undoubtedly Nara’s Wakakusa Yamayaki.

Translated literally as “the mountain burning of Mount Wakakusa,” the mountainside is set ablaze every fourth Saturday of January. Thanks to the size of the mountain and its elevation over Nara, the fiery display can be seen from anywhere in Nara city too. If you have the joy of attending, this is one spectacle you wouldn’t soon forget.

Late evening Kobe Meriken Park. A photography delight if you’re into futuristic architecture.

Late evening Kobe Meriken Park. A photography delight if you’re into futuristic architecture.

11. The Futuristic

Like Tokyo, the Kansai region has its share of questionably conceptualized modern structures and districts, with Kobe’s seaside Meriken Park fortunately not one of those. While the mish-mash of post-modern structures here is still arguably weird, the area projects a certain futuristic feel. Depending on your mood, this area could be romantic, evocative, or even invigorating.

Evening view of Kobe Port from Mount Rokko.

Evening view of Kobe Port from Mount Rokko.

12. The Gleaming

Just as the Internet is fond of Top-10 listicles, Japan loves to rank its best attractions with “Top-3” epithets. Among the most famous of these rankings is also the top-3 nighttime panoramic views, one of which is conveniently located just outside of Central Kobe. On a clear evening, the sea of lights that is modern Kobe will take your breath away.

“Starlight hour” at Universal Studios Japan. Theme parks at night are home to splendid night photography opportunities.

“Starlight hour” at Universal Studios Japan. Theme parks at night are home to splendid night photography opportunities.

13. The Wonderland

Japanese theme parks are often travel nightmares, no thanks to unbelievable crowds every day of the year. In the evenings, though, with the departure of tour groups, even major parks like Universal Studios Japan can feel far more serene and manageable. At the right spots, these make-believe lands can even deliver the illusion of a personal playground.

Himeji Castle at midnight. The castle is also known as the White Egret.

Himeji Castle at midnight. The castle is also known as the White Egret.

14. The Spectacular

Because of its location on the fringes of the Keihanshin Metropolis, it is often forgotten that Hyogo Prefecture is also part of the Kansai region. Hyogo, with its immense historical gem i.e. Himeji Castle, the finest example of Japanese castle architecture and one of the nation’s most cherished historical treasures.

With thousands of visitors flocking to the castle each day, it is sometimes also necessary to consider appreciating this spectacular edifice under different circumstances – for example, during the late evening. While you wouldn’t be able to enter the castle grounds, the beauty of the White Egret under the silver moon will still leave you awe-struck. It is an inspirational sight one would remember for many years to come.

Osaka Winter Illumination 2018.

Osaka Winter Illumination 2018.

15. The Welcoming

To be clear, Kansai-region tourism isn’t all about mesmerizing night attractions or night photography wonderlands. Daytime is equally fun! If you’re heading to Japan soon, are you already considering an extended stay here?

© 2019 Ced Yong

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