Kinki Region

Outline of Kinki

According to the common categorization, the Kinki Region includes seven prefectures: Kyoto, Nara, Shiga, Wakayama, Mie, Osaka and Hyogo (whose capital city is Kobe). This region is often referred to as “Kansai”, but this word does not necessarily correspond exactly to the geographical Kinki Region, because when we say Kansai, it sometimes indicates a slightly wider area.

Location of the Kinki Region, Japan (近畿地方の位置)

The total land area of the Kinki Region is not so big, occupying only 9% of Japan’s entire land, but when we study Japanese history and think about how this country has formed and developed as a nation, we can’t by any means overlook this region: since ancient times, this area had been the political and economic center of Japan, with the country’s ancient capitals once having been in Nara and Kyoto. And for that reason, this region has a numerous number of historically important structures and artifacts, many of which are designated as National Treasures or Important Cultural Properties, and some of which are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Kamigamo Shrine (上賀茂神社)
Kamigamo Shrine in Kyoto, a UNESCO World Heritage site (with an XF35mmF2R WR lens).

In terms of the population, Kinki Region comes second among the seven regions in Japan, behind only the Kanto Region, where Tokyo is located. Nearly 20% of the country’s entire population is living here. The biggest three cities in this region, which are Osaka, Kyoto, and Kobe, are located relatively close to each other, and they all have a population exceeding a million. In fact, Osaka has the third largest population in Japan, next to Tokyo’s 23 wards and Yokohama City in Kanagawa Prefecture.

Osaka Castle (大阪城)
Osaka Castle, a landmark of Osaka.

In the early 20th century, with the development of railway system surrounding the city, Osaka grew greatly, and a lot of factories and homes were built on the outskirts of the city. And eventually, the edges of the Osaka City area expanded to the ones of Kyoto and Kobe, gradually forming one big metropolis called the “Keihanshin (Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe) Metropolitan Area,” the second largest metropolis in Japan next to the “Greater Tokyo Area.”

Map of the Kinki Region, Japan (近畿地方の地形)
Seven Prefectures in the Kinki Region.

Geographically, the Kinki Region is divided into three parts: northern, central, and southern. Each part has its own distinctive topography and climate:

Northern Kinki

The northern part consists largely of gently sloping mountains, with a small number of plains. With the Sea of Japan to the north, this part gets a lot of snow in winter, and because of that, there are quite a few ski resorts here. With its “ria coast” (a sawtooth shaped coastline), the northern coast of Kyoto Prefecture is beautiful.

Ama no Hashidate (天の橋立)
Ama no Hashidate in winter.

And Ama-no-Hashidate, often cited as one of the three most scenic spots of Japan, is also located along this coast. And in the northern part of Hyogo Prefecture sits the Kinosaki hot spring resort, whose popularity among international travelers is gradually increasing these days.

Kinosaki spa (城崎温泉)
Kinosaki hot spring resort in winter.

Southern Kinki

The southern part of the Kinki Region is largely comprised of the Kii Mountains, which sit on the Kii Peninsula. But unlike the ones in the northern part, these mountains are high, steep, and daunting. Several peaks exceed 1,500 meters, with 1,915m Mt. Hakkyo being the highest of all. Extending into the Pacific Ocean, this area gets a lot of rain. Especially in summer, the humid seasonal wind blowing from the southeast hits the mountains, and when it is combined with the influence of the warm Kuroshio Current (Japan Current), it brings much precipitation to the area.

A river in the Kii Mountains, Wakayama (紀伊山地)
The swollen Hidaka River deep in the Kii Mountains, Wakayama Prefecture.

Additionally, in summer and autumn, typhoons often pass off the coast of the Honshu’s southernmost tip, Cape Shionomisaki. Under these climatic conditions, some areas in southern Kinki boast of having high precipitation that far exceeds the country’s annual average, which is about 1,700 mm. For example, the average annual rainfall of Owase City in Mie Prefecture exceeds 3,800 mm.

 Cape Shionomisaki(潮岬)
Cape Shionomisaki.

With a small portion of flat lands, southern Kinki is not very suitable for agriculture. Instead, forestry flourishes here. In particular, the quality of cedars and cypresses from Yoshino area in southern Nara Prefecture has been highly regarded since about 500 years ago. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one of the most dominant warlords in the late 16th century, is said to have used them for the construction of his Osaka Castle. But recently, forestry in this area faces various problems, including the decreasing and aging population of the lumberjacks, and the severe price competition with imported lumber from foreign countries.

one of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage routes (熊野古道)
Entrance to one of the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage routes in the Kii Mountains, part of the UNESCO World Heritage site.

Since long ago, the Kii Mountain Range has been considered to be a sacred area where deities reside. The harsh and austere environment of the misty mountains surely aroused a sense of awe in the minds of the ancient people. Today we can see many religious structures and monuments of historical importance dotting the vast mountain range, and together with the surrounding nature and the old paths linking some of these sites, they were included in the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2004 under the name “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range.”

Three-story Pagoda at Seiganto-ji Temple (青岸渡寺の三重塔)
Three-story Pagoda at Seiganto-ji Temple in the Kii Mountains, part of the UNESCO World Heritage site.

Speaking of the landmarks in southern Kinki, we can’t forget Ise-jingu Shrine in Mie Prefecture. Deeply connected with the roots of the imperial family, the shrine has been highly revered by emperors throughout the history. Today, besides receiving an annual visit from the prime minister of Japan and the minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, the shrine attracts an enormous number of worshipers and tourists every year.

Ise Shrine in Mie, Japan (伊勢神宮)
Ise-jingu Shrine in Mie Prefecture.

Central Kinki

The central part of the Kinki Region consists largely of lowlands; among them, the Osaka Plain is the biggest, and this is where a large portion of the Kinki population is concentrated, forming the central part of the Keihanshin Metropolitan Area as well as the “Hanshin Industrial District.”

the city of Osaka (大阪の街を見下ろす)
Overlooking the city of Osaka.

The Yodo River traverses the plain, connecting Osaka Bay and Lake Biwa, and since long ago, commerce has flourished here mainly by utilizing this water transportation route. It is said that in the Edo Period, one was able to go from Osaka to Kyoto in a half day by boat on the river.

Yodo River (淀川)
The Yodo River.

Central Kinki is also a very significant area when we think about Japan’s origins as a nation. There are many kofun (ancient burial mounds) discovered in the area ranging from today’s Osaka Prefecture to Nara Prefecture. Kofun (古墳) are considered to be the tombs of very important people like local governors, but sometimes, very large ones are thought to be the tombs of ancient Japanese emperors. In the period ranging roughly from the 3rd to the 6th century, a lot of kofun were made throughout Japan, but the ones in central Kinki are distinctive in their number and size. So, it is believed that a very powerful dynasty, the Yamato Dynasty, who might have ruled over a large area of land, existed here.

Nikiyama Kofun in Nara (奈良県新木山古墳)
Nikiyama Kofun in Nara, part of the Umami Kofun Group.

Today, the biggest kofun in Japan is located in Sakai City, Osaka Prefecture―the Daisenryo Kofun spans 486m in length and 2.8km in circumference, and it is believed to be the tomb of Emperor Nintoku. In July 2019, the kofun was listed on the UNESCO World Heritage site, along with the other distinctive kofun in central Kinki, as the “Mozu-Furuichi Kofun Group: Mounded Tombs of Ancient Japan.”

In the middle of the 6th century, Buddhism was brought to Japan from the Asian continent, making a great impact on Japan’s politics and culture. Large Buddhist temples replaced kofun as a symbol representing the power of a ruler, and prestigious temples, such as Horyu-ji and Asuka-dera, were constructed in the southern Nara Basin. Many of the structures at Horyu-ji have been preserved to this day, and they were listed on UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993 under the name “Buddhist Monuments in the Horyu-ji Area.”

Horyu-ji in Nara. (奈良の法隆寺)
Horyu-ji Buddhist Temple in Nara Prefecture (with the Panasonic DMC-FX30).

By the early 8th century, the Japanese political system, with the emperor at the top, had almost been established, and the need to construct a large capital, one which conveyed a sense of strong authority, became apparent. So, in 710, Heijo-kyo was created in the northern Nara Basin as the new capital city of Japan, and it flourished as the political center for most of the next 70 years or so. This city is said to have been designed after Chamg’an, the capital of China’s Tang-dynasty and was laid out in an orderly grid pattern. Recently Heijo-kyo’s main-gate structure and one of the palace buildings were reconstructed, and excavation work is still underway.

Photographs: properties of Unfamiliar Japan