Osaka is one of the largest metropolitan city in Japan, second only to Tokyo. It’s a popular tourist destination due to its strategic location, which allows you to make multiple day trips to interesting cities, like Kyoto, Nara and Kobe. If you need help planning your itinerary to these cities, then I’ve got the perfect blog post for you! Read on.
How many days do I need to set aside in Osaka?
I recommend at least 5 days to see the must-see of the Kansai region, namely Osaka and Kyoto. The best is if you can stay at least 8 days, which will allow you to visit all the best highlights of Kansai: Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, Kobe, Himeji and Hiroshima.
When is the best time to visit Osaka region?
Much like the rest of Japan, you can aim to visit during Sakura season or in the Autumn foliage season. Click on the respective blog posts for predicted times as they change every year. Keep in mind these seasons would be peak tourism time, so it will be very crowded.
Aside of that, spring time around early May is probably the best time to visit. Try to avoid the hurricane or typhoon season in August – September.
How do I get to Osaka from outside of Japan?
Your best bet is flying to Kansai Airport (KIX), which is very close to Osaka. KIX is a major international airport and it’s accessible from many destination via a direct flight. If you cannot find a direct flight, you can still try accessing KIX via a short overlay in Tokyo.
Recommended Kansai Itinerary for first-timers
Below I have provided two types of itinerary depending on which type of traveler you are. Some people prefer to squeeze in as much as they can, while other prefer to travel a bit slower.
Itinerary 1: For fast travelers who want to do everything and visit multiple cities (7-9 days)
- Day 1: Arrive in Osaka and explore the city (stay overnight in Osaka)
- Day 2: Take the train to Kyoto (stay overnight in Kyoto / Osaka)
- Day 3: Explore Kyoto (stay overnight in Osaka)
- Day 4: Day trip to Nara (stay overnight in Osaka)
- Day 5: Kobe – you can activate your JR Pass on this day, if you don’t mind taking local trains to Kyoto and Nara on the previous days.
- Day 6: Himeji
- Day 7: Arrive in Hiroshima in the morning
- Day 8: Take the train back to Osaka and fly out
The itinerary above assumes you have at least 8 days in Kansai. But if you have less days, you can easily tailor this itinerary by omitting some cities. Out of all the cities I listed above, Osaka and Kyoto are definitely the two must-visit. For other cities, you can choose whether you want to visit them on the same trip or leave it for later, so you have excuse to come back 🙂
The advantage of this itinerary is of course you get to see a lot more than just the usual Osaka / Kyoto / Nara. On the other hand, the disadvantage is that you’ll need to get a JR Pass, which will cost more. On top of that, you need to be strategic about how to use the JR pass since they are only valid for 5 days maximum. See the “Do I need a JR Pass” section for more information. You’ll also need to move around quite a bit with this itinerary, which might be tiring for some people.
Itinerary 2: Slower and shorter itinerary, but still visit all the must-see in Kansai (at least 5 days)
Another option is to stay put in Osaka, which makes for a more chilled out itinerary, but you can still get out of Osaka on these day trips:
- Day 1: Arrive in Osaka, explore the city
- Day 2: Go to Kyoto
- Day 3: Go back to Kyoto again
- Day 4: Visit Nara or Kobe, or Akame 48
- Day 5: Explore Osaka and fly out
The advantage of this itinerary is likely you don’t need to get a JR Pass. All of the destination above is reachable by local train. You also don’t need to move around much in terms of accommodation – you can choose to stay in Osaka for the entirety this itinerary. Osaka is a big city so you won’t run out of things to do – I’ve written extensively about Osaka here if you need inspirations!
Below I have outlined each cities and what you can expect to see, so you can decide for yourself whether it’s worth visiting or not.
Tips for traveling in Kansai
- If you are only visiting Kyoto and Nara, I recommend making Osaka your base instead of staying overnight in those cities. Accommodation options are better (cheaper) in Osaka, there are more to do at night, and the train back is only 15-30 minutes.
- But if you really want to stay in Kyoto, you can do so for one night. Choose to stay at a Ryokan for that authentic Japanese experience. I don’t recommend staying overnight in Nara since it’s a quiet area.
- If you are getting a JR Pass, make sure it will be valid for all of the days that you are traveling between cities, and make sure you also account for the last day when you are going back to Osaka.
- Flying out late but have to check out early from your accommodation? You can leave your luggage in a coin locker! Coin lockers are available everywhere in major stations. They are quite spacious and cheap to rent. I was able to fit my 45L backpack into a tiny 300 yen one at the bottom. There is an English instruction on the machine. Be sure to come early if you are going from a popular station though. I tried to do this in Kyoto station around noon but I was not able to find any unoccupied locker. In the end, I gave up and had to lug my backpack around all day.
Getting into Osaka from the Kansai Airport
If you don’t have a JR pass and an IC card yet, or if you want to delay the validity of your JR pass, you can consider getting the Haruka + ICOCA card bundle at the Kansai airport station. This gives you the best price for the express train to town as well as an ICOCA card preloaded with 1,500 yen which can be used for various transactions in Kansai area. Train rides in Osaka and Kyoto will cost you 180-460 yen, so you’ll easily use up the balance in 2-3 days. You can also get the remaining balance back when you leave Japan.
Make sure to check ahead if your accommodation is closer to Tennoji or Shin-Osaka as there is a slight fare difference for the bundles. Tennoji is closer to the airport so it’s a little cheaper. My roundtrip ticket + ICOCA card to Shin-Osaka cost me 4,600 yen.
Do I need a JR Pass for this trip?
If you are only planning to visit Kyoto and Nara, you can easily do so via the local trains, which is cheaper than JR Pass but slightly longer. But the difference isn’t that much – it’s only 15 mins by JR train vs 30 mins by local trains.
But if you are going to more places than just Kyoto and Osaka, you likely should get a JR Pass. However, which JR pass you need to get depends on the cities you want to visit and how long you are planning to travel around. So I recommend setting your itinerary first and see which JR Pass suits your itinerary.
Here are your JR Pass options for exploring Osaka and Kansai. Normally, you need to buy JR Pass from outside of Japan and have them mailed to your address, but with Klook you can pick them up at the airport:
- JR West Kansai Pass (1, 2, 3, or 4-day pass)
- 5 Day JR Kansai Wide Pass (if 4 days is not enough for you)
- JR Kansai – Hiroshima Area Pass (5 day validity)
What to do in Kansai region
As I’ve said before, Osaka is one of the largest Japanese metropolitan city, not just in Kansai but in entire of Japan. I believe they are the second largest city after Tokyo. As with other big cities, you’ll find it very accessible and well-connected, which is why it’s a good idea to base yourself in Osaka while visiting nearby cities like Kyoto, Nara, or even Kobe.
I’ve written extensively about Osaka here, so please check out that blog post if you want to get an idea of what you can do, see and eat in Osaka. I’ve also included general tips on exploring the city and where to stay in Osaka.
2. Kyoto (2 days)
Kyoto needs no introduction – it is definitely a must-visit when you’re in Osaka. The city is an easy 30-minutes on the rapid local train or 15-minutes on the Shinkansen from Osaka. When visiting Kyoto, I would still recommend staying in Osaka because accommodations are cheaper.
You need 2 days to properly explore Kyoto as there are so much to see and do here. Set aside one day to visit the Arashiyama side of Kyoto (west), and 1-2 days to visit the temples (east side of Kyoto).
You can break up your days in Kyoto as follows:
Day 1: Explore the Kyoto central area. This entails seeing the temples / shrines (Fushimi Inari, Kinkakujin and Kiyomizudera are the most popular ones), visiting old Kyoto (Gion and Ninenzaka) and exploring Nishiki Market for some food (I spent almost 2 hours here alone). Start early and end late since there are so many things to see!
Day 2: You can then visit outside of Kyoto central – Go to Arashiyama Bamboo forest and Arashiyama Monkey Park to see the cute Japanese macaque in their natural habitat. If you can ride a bicycle, I also recommend renting a bike that near the Kyoto Central station and just bike your way to Arashiyama – it takes about 30 minutes from the Kyoto station.
3. Nara (1 day)
Nara is another popular trip to take from Osaka due to its proximity – only 30 minutes by local train. The city is quite small, but they have a huge park where you can walk and interact with the free-roaming wild Sika deer population. The Sika deer are considered a national treasure of Japan. They are very used to humans and not scared of us.
You can purchase some Shika-senbei (Deer rice crackers) to feed them. Once you have this, the deer would just come running to you – in fact, the hungry ones would chase you down if they know you have some Senbei, and eat them straight off your hands.
Nara is easily doable on your own if you just want to see the deer, but if you prefer to go with a guide and learn a bit more history, I recommend trying this Nara Tour from Osaka.
4. Akame 48 Waterfalls (1 day)
Akame 48 Waterfall is about an hour out of Osaka by train. It’s a short, easy trail following the main river which forms many small waterfalls. There are actually less than 48 waterfalls, but they used 48 in the name to signify endless waterfalls.
Though it’s probably good to visit all year round, I highly recommend visiting during Momijigari season, which tends to be mid to end of November. Momijigari is the term Japanese use for admiring the autumn foliage, and this place has plenty of them! You can read my post about Momijigari for more information on Akame 48.
5. Kobe (1 day)
I have actually not made a trip down there yet, but Kobe is also 30-minutes away from Osaka by train. Kobe is well-known for… well, the delicious Kobe beef. Aside from the beef, Kobe is known for the Chinatown area, the Kobe ropeway and Nunobiki waterfall. I think one day will be enough for Kobe.
6. Himeji (1 day)
Himeji is mostly known for the Himeji castle, which is famous for its brilliant white color. Most Japanese castles have white walls and dark roof, but the Himeji castle’s roof are light gray, which helps to give it that clean minimalistic all-white look.
This castle is on the way to Hiroshima, so it’s a good stop if you’re heading that way.
7. Hiroshima (1-2 days)
Hiroshima should be a name familiar for those who studied world history in school… which should be all of us. Yes, it is one of the sites of the infamous atomic bomb. At Hiroshima, you can learn about all the history of what happened during the world war and how badly it affected the residents. I have to warn you that it could get pretty bleak – not for the faint of heart especially if you’re American, regardless what your political stance is.
However, aside of its grim past, Hiroshima is also famous for quite a few of interesting things: don’t miss out on Miyajima, a shrine that is half submerged in water during high tide. You can visit the shrine during sunset for optimal view. Hiroshima is also famous for Okonomiyaki, so make sure to have some while you’re in the city.
That’s all I have on the Osaka itinerary! If you have any questions, please feel free to comment below. I usually answer pretty fast and to my best knowledge.