Heavy rain set off powerful floods and mudslides across western Japan on Monday, killing at least four people as rivers overflowed in major cities, officials said.

The rain, which resulted from a powerful typhoon that pounded Taiwan and the Philippines, led authorities to urge some 70,000 people to evacuate in the historic areas of Kyoto and Kanazawa.

A ferocious torrent gushed through Japan's sixth largest city of Kobe, sweeping bystanders off their feet and into the water.

Four people were killed -- a 29-year-old woman, girls aged 12 and 5, and a 10-year-old boy. Another three people were rescued and rushed to hospital, a city official said.

Television footage showed a man wearing a helmet, apparently a construction worker, holding onto a stone bridge column in a desperate effort not to be swept away by the flash flooding.

Rescuers sent down a lifeline and a ladder, pulling the man up from the rushing stream.

The dead bodies were found near the mouth of the Togagawa river, which feeds into Osaka Bay, the Coast Guard said.

"Rain suddenly started falling in the afternoon, but now it's calmed down. It's unusual for the Togagawa River to overflow. The last time it did was probably many decades ago," said Hirokazu Shikata, a local official.

Western Japan has seen heavy rain since the weekend, with as much as 120 millimetres (4.75 inches) of rain per hour falling overnight.

In Kanazawa -- dubbed "little Kyoto" for its centuries-old wooden teahouses, temples and elaborate gardens -- the Asano river surged through the city in the morning, dumping mud into nearly 300 houses.

The city asked some 50,000 people to evacuate, although it lifted the advisory by early evening, a city official said.

In the areas around Kyoto, Japan's ancient capital, authorities advised more than 20,000 people to evacuate.

Floods were reported at 15 places across Kyoto prefecture. Television footage showed a stranded car submerged up to its wing mirrors in water.

"We still have warnings for heavy rain and flooding in place," said a Kyoto prefectural official.

A motorist was also buried by a mudslide in the city of Toyama, although he was rescued and suffered only broken bones, officials said.

The heavy rains were caused by a fog to the south tied to Typhoon Fung-wong, which killed one person on Monday in Taiwan after wreaking havoc in the Philippines, said Japan Meteorological Agency official Naoyuki Shimizu.

More heavy rain was expected on Tuesday in western Japan, Shimizu said.