In a country so devoid of flat land, the great rice-growing plains of KANSAI , the district around Osaka and Kyoto, are imbued with an almost mystical significance. This was where the first proto-nation took root, in the historic region known as Yamato, and where a distinct Japanese civilization evolved from the strong cultural influences of China and Korea. Kansai people are tremendously proud of their pivotal role in Japanese history and tend to look down on Tokyo, which they regard as an uncivilized upstart. Today, its superb legacy of temples, palaces, shrines, gardens, sculpture and crafts makes Kansai one of Japan's top tourist destinations.
The opening in the early 1990s of the spectacular Kansai International Airport - on a man-made island - created a new gateway into Japan, but the downturn in the economy, extremely high landing fees and concerns that the airport is sinking have meant it has not been the success originally envisaged. Nonetheless, it has given a significant tourism impetus to Osaka , the country's second largest metropolis. A much-maligned city, Osaka is not short of impressive attractions and easily makes up for its superficial shortcomings with an excess of commercial spirit - the source of its long-established wealth - and an unqualified love of eating, drinking and general bonhomie. Even on the briefest stay in Kansai you won't be disappointed if you spend time visiting the city's fabulous aquarium , the handsomely restored castle Osaka-jo and the laudable Liberty Osaka , an uncompromising civil rights museum.
From Osaka, you could also take a trip out to Takarazuka , home of an eponymous show-stopping all-female musical drama troupe and the imaginative Tezuka Osamu Manga Museum , celebrating a Japanese master of comic-book art.
Though Kyoto is nowhere near as big as Osaka, it's still a major city, which keeps many of its charms hidden from view. You could spend a lifetime exploring Kyoto's bewildering array of ancient Buddhist temples and gorgeously decorated imperial palaces wrapped round with exquisite gardens . Until Emperor Meiji decamped for the bright lights of Tokyo in 1868, Kyoto was Japan's imperial capital and to this day represents the last word in cultural refinement. Its elaborate cuisine, traditional theatre, even its everyday crafts, reflect this incomparable lineage. To avoid cultural overload, it's best to take Kyoto in small chunks, and to spend at least one day in the surrounding districts. Hiei-zan , in particular, offers not only majestic temples but also an escape from the city streets, while in Uji 's Byodo-in you'll find one of the country's supreme architectural masterpieces.
Before Kyoto even existed, the monks of Nara were busily erecting their great monuments to Buddha under the patronage of an earlier group of princes and nobles. This relaxed, appealing town holds the distinction of being Japan's first permanent capital, founded in the early eighth century. A surprising number of buildings survive, notably the great Todai-ji with its colossal bronze Buddha, but Nara's real glory lies in its wealth of statues. Nowhere is this more evident than the nearby temple complex of Horyu-ji , a treasure trove of early Japanese art.
South of Nara, the monasteries of Koya-san provide a glimpse into contemporary religious practice in Japan. This mountaintop retreat - the headquarters of the Shingon Buddhist sect - has been an active centre of pilgrimage since the ninth century. The monks welcome people of all faiths to stay in their quiet old temples and join in the morning prayer service. Afterwards you can walk through the ancient Okunoin cemetery to visit the grave of Shingon's founder, Kobo Daishi, wreathed in incense smoke under the towering cryptomeria trees.
With so many major Buddhist foundations in the Kansai area, it's sometimes hard to remember that Shinto is Japan's native religion. But the balance is redressed over on the far east side of the district, where Ise-jingu represents one of the country's most important Shinto monuments. The Grand Shrine of Ise, as it's known, is dedicated to Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess, from whom all Japan's emperors are descended. Ise itself is the gateway to an attractive neck of land called Shima Hanto . Though the area has no dramatic sights, the lovely island-speckled bay of Ago-wan makes a rewarding destination for boat rides through its unspoiled scenery.
The port of Kobe , now well recovered from 1995's devastating earthquake, is less than thirty minutes west of Osaka, in a dramatic location on the edge of Osaka Bay. Its sights are less of a draw than its relaxed cosmopolitan atmosphere, best experienced in a stroll around Kobe's shops and harbourside developments. Close by is the ancient hot-spring resort, Arima Onsen , which has managed to retain a little old-world rusticity alongside the modern hotel developments.
Wherever you choose to stay in Kansai, don't miss the opportunity to visit Himeji , on the area's western edge, to explore Himeji-jo , Japan's most impressive castle. Himeji also has a couple of intriguing museums in buildings designed by top contemporary architects and the lovely Himeji Koko-en , nine connected gardens laid out according to traditional principles.