Japan's History Trail - My Family Travels

Following the Kansai government's new “Highway to History” road map brings the ancestry of central Nara, Kyoto, Osake and Kobe to life.

In the travel trade, the recommended route to first-time tourists is called The Golden Route. This type of itinerary usually offers scenic beauty, local culture, remnants of history, a variety of regional cuisines, noteworthy architecture, opportunities for shopping and a well developed infrastructure of transportation and lodging. Similar to compilations such as a musical “Greatest Hits” or “History: 101” survey courses, it is often the route families choose to take when introducing children to a foreign country.

Traditionally, Japan’s Golden Route begins in the capital of Tokyo, stops at the rural Hakone to view Mt. Fuji and experience the culture of Japanese onsen (natural mineral baths); and continues to bustling Kyoto for its rich collection of Zen Buddhism shrines and a look at a geisha girl.

Highway vs. Backroads

To encourage visitors to stay longer, dig deeper, and experience the essence of local culture, a group of more than 200 private and governmental organizations, supported by the Kansai Economic Federation and the Japan National Tourist Organization, has developed the Rekishi Kaido, or Highway of History.

Conceptually, this was a way to unify and promote the assets of Kansai, the country’s second largest economic zone with a population of 24 million, and the repository of half of its historic and cultural monuments. Practically, the Rekishi Kaido Project enables travelers to appreciate the major attractions of Kyoto, Nara, Osaka, and Kobe while putting them into a historic and cultural context.

Did You Know?

The Rekishi Kaido project was initiated by the Matsushita Electric Company, known to the West as Panasonic. Mr. Konosuke Matsushita, founder of the company, took a strong interest in Japan’s heritage and was a leader in the preservation movement.

Rekishi Kaido has accomplished this feat by producing comprehensive literature in Japanese and English, colorful tourist brochures, and a set of 21 postcards – each highlighting a monument along the route. These magnificent “teasers” are contemporary versions of the classic Ukiyo-e woodblock prints, created by artist Okamoto Tatuharu using the latest computer rendering techniques. Using the colorful style of Japanese anime and the viewpoint of a typical “photo op,” each image invites the visitor to find the artist’s vantage point and see it for himself. For children especially, these CG Ukiyo-e y provide a fascinating hand-held window onto Japanese daily life that few tourists take the time to see.


Following The Historic Route

Armed with this literature, and five to 10 days depending on interest, the traveler can follow the 300-kilometer-long route through Kansai chronologically. Beginning with ancient times, when Japan developed into an agricultural society based on rice cultivation and was unified by one power, you’ll travel from Ise to Asuka and from about 300BC to 645AD.

The Nara Period Area illustrates an era when political and administrative systems took hold, with the introduction of coins and the foreign cultures through the Silk Route. Stops in and around Nara include the stunning wooden Todaiji Temple in the deer-filled Nara Park, and date from 710 to 752AD. Many festivities are planned as Nara nears its 1,300th birthday in the year 2010.

From 794 to 1336AD, known as the Heian to the Muromachi Period, Kyoto is the base of exploration. In this large and ungainly city, the Rekishi Kaido of course includes some of the 1,600 temples and 400 shrines which draw 40 million visitors annually.

If time permits, families will enjoy visiting several others on their own, because Kyoto is very tourist-friendly: multi-lingual signage makes it easy to get around; public buses are cheap and stops are called out in English and Japanese; and the active local tourist office will direct you to many skillful guides who bring the city’s rich culture to life. If you log onto the Kyoto Visitor’s Guide (+81 75 811 6388) before departure, you’ll learn about the frequent festivals; for example, each year June there are public ceremonies to mark the flowering of ajisai or hydrangea,
hanashobu or irises, and sacred hasu, the pink or white lotus flowers.

Here the Highway to History highlights the shift of the Japanese capital from Nara to Kyoto, the growth of an aristocracy, and how icons of Japanese culture, such as the hiragana alphabet, Zen Buddhism, the tea ceremony and the art of flower arranging developed.

Following The Modernization Route

The three centuries between 1543 and 1853 range from the Warring Period to the Edo Priod, as illustrated in Osaka. While rival warloards were fighting for power, the Tokugawa shogunate established their capital in Edo. Many aspects of popular culture, such as bunraku puppet theatre, were developed. In addition to the imposing Nijo Castle and Osaka Castle, housing a wonderful multimedia museum, both fascinating stops along the Rekishi Kaido, families may also want to allow a day enjoying a newer aspect of popular culture, the Universal Osaka theme park.

The international port of Kobe exemplifies the era from 1868 to the present, when Japan was forced to open itself to the West and the Emperor was restored as modernization reforms swept the country. From Kobe, the excellent JR rail system transports visitors to any other region of Japan with ease.

In addition to the main route, Ise – Asuka – Nara – Kyoto – Osaka – Kobe, there are eight theme routes emanating from these bases, each focused on local highlights such as a special moment in history, a site of pilgrimage, a wilderness trail or other themes.

Those with little knowledge of Kansai and its history can use the multilingual Rekishi Kaido website for trip planning, and Okamoto Tatuharu’s “CG Ukiyo-e Series” of postcards to plot out each day’s destination, then photograph themselves at each stop.

We guarantee you will have a family album commemorating an unforgettable journey through time.

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