The 2021 World Masters Games (WMG) will be held in the Kansai region in the west of Japan from May 14 to May 30.  It is estimated up to 50,000 athletes from around the world will participate in a total of 65 sports.

These upcoming World Masters Games will reach a landmark 10th edition and for first time ever, this Games will be held in Japan, the first Asian host of International Masters Games Association’s (IMGA) flagship event. Japan has a rich history of hosting large international sporting events and looks forward to this experience to serve the Masters community.

The Organizing Committee of the World Masters Games 2021 Kansai has stated it will create an unforgettable sports festival, sharing the region’s uniqueness and Japan’s traditions and culture with world, in hopes of inspiring harmony among the challenges and diverse exchange between individuals.

Among its goal, the Committee plans to:

  • Transmit Japanese sports culture to the world from Kansai, a historic and cultural center of Japan and region for sports participation.
  • Serve as a history-making tradition of legacy sports for future generations while exhibiting Kansai’s unique brand of omotenashi and staff resources.
  • Breed a change from watching and supporting sports to playing them through the integrated promotion of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games.
  • Create a new regional hub by demonstrating the host region’s independence.
  • Promote regional revitalization through sports tourism, the fusion of sport and sightseeing.
  • Drive further promotion of health and sports industries
  • With an eye on aging trends, contribute to a healthier mature society through sport.

Kyoto and More: Highlights of Japan’s Kansai Region

For those athletes who plan to compete in the 2021 WMG, there will be many sites to see and visit in and around Kansai, Kyoto and Osaka.

Kyoto’s temples and gardens

For over a millennium, most of what was considered ‘Japanese’ came from Kyoto, the country’s former capital. But what stands out for visitors today are the city’s temples and gardens: exquisite examples of centuries of Buddhist architecture and landscape design.  As expected, these sights can get very crowded. Fortunately, Kyoto has literally over a thousand temples and finding your own favourite amidst your wanderings is the biggest highlight of all.

Bright lights, big city in Osaka

Tokyo is the obvious choice for travelers who want to experience urban Japan in all its glowing neon glory. But, Osaka, the country’s third biggest city, shines just as bright, and is even more famous for its 24-hour eating and drinking culture. (Unofficial slogan: kuidaore – ‘eat ‘til you drop’.) Its centre is also far more compact, meaning you can take in a lot more in a short amount of time, bouncing from food and kitchenware market Kuromon Ichiba to photogenic commercial strip Dōtombori and onward to the bars and clubs of Amerika-Mura. Pausing, of course, to sample Osaka’s casual gourmet specialties like tako-yaki (grilled octopus dumplings) and okonomiyaki (batter and cabbage cakes cooked on a griddle).

Early Buddhist art and architecture in Nara

Nara was Japan’s capital in the 8th century, before Kyoto, when Buddhist influence hit a high note. Grand temples with soaring pagodas – extraordinary for their time ­­– were built, using the latest imported technologies. Made of wood, few remain; but those that do, like the ones at Hōryū-ji (founded in the early 7th century) are among the oldest in the world. The age of Nara also kicked off the great age of Buddhist sculpture in Japan, including the city’s signature sight, the 16m-tall Daibutsu (Great Buddha) at Tōdai-ji. For a deeper dive into the art of the era – Japan’s first great artistic period – visit the excellent Nara National Museum.

Mountain monastery Kōya-san

Among the most spiritual spots in Japan, Kōya-san is a vast monastery complex, founded by the influential monk Kōbō Daishi at the dawn of the 9th century. As much a myth as a man, Kōbō Daishi entered a state of seated meditation in a sealed crypt here deep in the woods in 835, and is still there in some form or another. Centuries of followers, seeking to be near him in this life and the next, have come to light incense, plant trees and build stone tombs in the vast, forested cemetery known as Oku-no-in that spreads out around the crypt. Kōya-san is home to some 50 temples that double as lodgings. Staying in one, such as Ekō-in, gives you a peek into monastic life; you’ll also get to sample shōjin-ryōri (Buddhist vegetarian cuisine).

Hiking the Kumano Kodō

The Kumano Kodō is a network of trails established by mountain ascetics over a thousand years ago, deep in the mountains of Kansai’s Kii Peninsula. At key points – where the natural scenery is at its most dramatic ­– shrines and temples were erected that still remain today. During certain periods in history, the Kumano Kodō was wildly popular with nobles and commoners alike, on spiritual quests and tests of endurance. They fell out of fashion but have more recently been rediscovered and restored, mapped and signposted (in excellent English). There are hikes here for all abilities and you can spend a day or a week on these time-worn trails.

Hot-spring hopping at Kinosaki Onsen

Kinosaki Onsen is Kansai’s most famous hot-spring resort and makes for a fantastic introduction to Japanese bathing culture. There are seven public bathhouses here (and a pass that allows you to hop from bath to bath) as well as dozens of ryokan (traditional inns) that have their own baths for staying guests. There are inns at all price ranges (from splurge to totally doable on a budget). All provide yukata (light cotton kimono) and geta (traditional wooden sandals), which guests wear in the evenings to stroll along the town’s central willow-lined canal to the baths (all conveniently in walking distance). Kinosaki is a long-time favourite spot for foreign travelers, meaning the inns and the bathhouses are all welcoming and accommodating.

Top tips

  • Kansai International Airport is the international entry point for the region, though flying to Tokyo and transferring to a domestic flight is usually cheaper than flying direct.
  • Kyoto, Osaka and Nara are all close to each other, connected by direct trains. You can use any of these cities as a base for visiting the other.
  • Kyoto deserves the most time on any Kansai itinerary, though note that accommodations here are the priciest and fill up the quickest. A good alternative base, very near Kyoto, is the city of Ōtsu, in neighbouring Shiga prefecture.
  • Kōya-san and the Kumano Kodō are located south of Kansai’s urban centre, in Wakayama prefecture. Osaka is the best transit hub for both, but unfortunately transit between the two is limited to a lone (and long) bus that runs April through November. A car may be a better option, though the roads in and out of Kōya-san are dangerous in winter.
  • Travel passes that can save you money, depending on your itinerary, include the Kansai Thru Pass and the Kansai Wide Area Pass.

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