Byline: SARAH WALTER
THE Kansai region has long been overshadowed by the high-tech party capital of Japan 500km to its west. Relative latecomer in Japanese history terms, Tokyo has been one of the most advanced and rapidly growing cities in the world since the 1900s.
But it doesn't have the monopoly on bright lights, and it certainly doesn't have the heritage of Kansai's three key cities: Kyoto, Nara and Osaka.
It is perhaps the region's underdog status that has made the people of Kansai such a proud, welcoming and humorous bunch.
After landing on a square of land wrestled back from the waters of Osaka Bay, visitors are transported to the mainland on the jaw-dropping dual rail and road Sky Gate Bridge - made doubly impressive by being the longest truss bridge in the world.
My heritage tour of Japan starts in Kyoto - the country's ancient capital. It's laid out in broad boulevards, is notably low rise (to protect the view of the surrounding mountains for city centre residents), and peaceful.
Years ago, my guide tells me, the noisy Pachinko gaming houses were ordered out of the centre to 'protect the tranquility of the city'. It's an anecdote that says a lot about Kyoto.
It's not without its modern touches, of course. So big a part of Japanese culture is Manga animation, for instance, that it has its own central museum, complete with a history tour and working library.
The breakfast room at my hotel, the Kyoto Hotel Okura, is certainly a great place to appreciate the skyline and mountains. It's Kyoto's tallest building with panoramic views over many of the city's main avenues and the mountains.
It's perhaps second to the Kiyomizudera Temple for views, the sacred space offering just about the best vantage point in town since 780AD.
Despite being a Mecca for tourists, Kiyomizudera is also a surprisingly contemplative space with cherry trees stretching up into the mountains.
Most impressive, though, is the feat of engineering that is the main hall's wooden stage, standing on dozens of 13m-high pillars made from single trees. Sadly, it's also the temple's most threatened feature, currently under attack from vicious wood ants.
The plan is to grow trees tall enough to replace them; like everything in Japan, in nature they trust.
Kiyomizudera also has a wonderful market area - a collection of tiny shops selling local crafts and, occasionally, tourist tat - and tremendous restaurants.
I try Akebono-tei, a historic teahouse on a picturesque, steep paved street serving traditional Kyo-ryori cuisine, characterised by local delicacies like tofu, fu (a wheat gluten), sashimi and eggplant.
Seating is western - not on the floor - but everything else is distinctly Japanese, with dozens of perfectly formed and fat-free dishes served artistically on perfect plates and bowls.
As astonishing temples in this part of Japan go, the Fushimi-inari Grand Shrine is a close number two.
Now famous for its tunnels of torii - vermillion red arches that snake through the forests to a shrine in the mountains - after they featured in the 2005 movie Memoirs Of A Geisha, it's also a working Bhikkhu with a purifying station outside the gate, where visitors must wash their hands and mouth according to a strict ritual.
Fushimi-inari begins a day of quiet contemplation that continues at Myoshin-ji, a complex of 50 or more closed temples with elegant gardens and miles of traffic-free pathways open to the public.
Shunko-in is one temple that does take guests for silent meditation and traditional green tea and rice cakes.
Meditation is a popular part of Kansai culture, as are arts and crafts. …