I’ve now been living in the Kansai region of Japan for almost two and a half years. During that time I’ve done plenty of exploring and one or two day trips as I’ve sought to discover the best this region has to offer. Of course, these various voyages of discovery involved numerous sojourns to the tourism hotspots of Kyoto, Kobe and of course plenty of time spent in my current base of operations, Osaka. However, there’s so much more to this great region than just these 3 big cities.
Photo: Stéphane D on Flickr
Kobe forms part of the far bigger picture that is Hyogo prefecture.
One of Japan’s larger prefectures, Hyogo covers a wide swathe of the Kansai region, stretching from just south of Osaka, in the centre of Kansai, right down to its southern tip where it borders onto Tottori and Okayama Prefectures, at the beginning of the southern Chugoku region.
Whilst Kobe remains the undisputed jewel in Hyogo Prefecture’s crown, there are plenty of other exciting places to see and intriguing things to do, as I will show you today.
If you’re a sports fan as I am, then Hyogo has plenty to offer in terms of spectator sports opportunities, Sandwiched almost exactly halfway between Osaka and Kobe is the city of Nishinomiya, home to the region’s most famous and storied professional Baseball team, the Hanshin Tigers.
The Tigers haven’t won the national championship since the 1980s, but that hasn’t stopped them from retaining one of the biggest and most passionate sets of supporters in all of Japanese professional baseball, as well as a fierce and frenetic rivalry with their Tokyo counterparts, the Yomiuri Giants.
Photo: Steven Rolland on Flickr
A trip to Koshien Stadium, some 25 minutes by train from Osaka and around 15 mins from Kobe is a truly unforgettable experience. The sights, the sounds, atmosphere. As someone who was raised as a follower of Celtic FC, Scotland’s biggest and most successful soccer club, I am used to the big game atmosphere. In my youth, I watched in awe as giants such as Barcelona, AC Milan, Manchester United and Liverpool were put to the sword at a raucous Celtic Park. In all my years in Japan, going to Koshien for a Tigers vs Giants game is the only thing that even comes close to matching the atmosphere, volume and excitement of those great European nights at Celtic Park.
Even though I know almost nothing about baseball, this is definitely something that every visitor to Hyogo prefecture must experience at least once.
If soccer is more your thing then J2 side Vissel Kobe have their home stadium in the city’s Hyogo-Ku, though they do sometimes play matches just up the road at the nearby Kobe Universiade Memorial Stadium in Kobe’s Suma Ku.
Whilst Vissel have a long and illustrious history in Japanese soccer, dating back far beyond most other J-League clubs to the 1960s, In recent years their reputation as Hyogo’s premier soccer club has been surpassed to a large extent by the exploits of the INAC Kobe Leonessa FC, one of Japan’s premier women’s soccer clubs.
Photo: TAKA@P.P.R.S on Flickr
Despite only being founded in 2001, they have already managed to win 3 national championships, the most recent of which came in 2013, as well as the International Women’s Club Championship in the same year. Japan’s legendary 2011 Women’s World Cup Winners, nicknamed the Nadeshiko, owe a large part of that spectacular and unexpected triumph to the efforts of INAC Leonessa.
INAC contributed 7 players to the winning side, including Homare Sawa who’s heroics throughout the tournament led to her being named FIFA World Player of the year, the first Japanese to earn the honour. If you want to see INAC in action, they play their home games at the Noevir Stadium, Kobe. The stadium is a short walk from Ogikoen Station, on the JR line between Kobe and Osaka.
Of course, sports aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but don’t worry, there’s plenty of other things to see and do across Hyogo.
If you like your history, and have a taste for spectacular photo opportunities, then why not head south to Himeji City. Himeji has several beautiful parks, and one of Japan’s biggest zoos. However, no visit to Himeji is complete without taking in the designated UNESCO World Heritage Site of Himeji Castle.
After closing for a number of years for extensive renovations, the rejuvenated castle reopened in all its splendor earlier this year. Not only is this castle home to some incredible and beautifully preserved examples of art and weaponry from Japan’s Feudal Period of the 16th and 17th centuries, it is also a great place from which to view Himeji City itself.
Photo: Japanexperterna.se on Flickr
As the centerpiece of the town, Himeji Castle enjoys an elevation considerably higher than most other castles of this type, allowing for stunning, panoramic views across the city and even into the bay, looking out towards the island of Shikoku.
Last, but definitely not least, no visit to Hyogo Prefecture is complete without taking the time to relax and indulge yourself at one of the many onsens dotted around the prefecture. Regular readers will already have seen me wax lyrical about the health, medicinal and beauty benefits of these remarkable waters, but perhaps nowhere in Japan is there any one single prefecture with as diverse a range of Onsen as that which can be found in Hyogo.
Yumura Onsen, in the northern part of the prefecture offers amazing mountain views, making it a perfect tranquil getaway. Whether you want to treat the special someone in your life to an evening to remember, or just get away from the hustle and bustle of the daily grind, it is the perfect tonic.
Yumura is also less well-known and consequently far less “touristy” than the other, more popular onsen resorts of Arima, near Kobe, and Kinosaki.
However, both Arima and Kinosaki also have plenty to offer if you do decide to visit.
During your time at the onsen, make sure you also take time to sample the delicious Matsuba crab, a national delicacy.
As you can see Hyogo has plenty to offer to both ardent tourist and those who like to tread a less beaten path.
Next time you go travelling around Japan, make sure Hyogo is on your “to-do” list.