Itinerary, Japan, Kansai

Osaka Itinerary: How to plan your trip to Kansai

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Osaka is one of the largest metropolitan cities 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. I’ve visited this area three times now, and if you need help planning your itinerary to these cities, then I’ve got the perfect blog post for you! Read on 😉

At the Osaka Castle

How many days should I spend in Osaka?

I recommend at least 5 days to see the must-see of the Kansai region, namely Osaka and Kyoto. But it would be better if you can stay for 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 / Kansai region?

Much like the rest of Japan, you can aim to visit during the Sakura season or during 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.

Try to avoid the hurricane or typhoon season from August – September. Also avoid Golden week in the first week of May, which is Japan’s biggest holiday.

Yellow Ginko Trees along Osaka Shinsaibashi station
Yellow Ginko Trees along Osaka Shinsaibashi station

How do I get to Osaka?

There are two popular ways to get to Osaka:

By Shinkansen train – Most people get to Osaka by train from Tokyo via Shinkansen, Japan’s famous ultra-fast bullet train. If you are coming here from Tokyo and you don’t have a JR Pass, you can book the Tokyo – Osaka Shinkansen here (Note that you need to exchange this voucher when you land at Narita or Haneda airport!). You’ll most likely get off at Osaka Station, where you will have plenty of convenient local trains to switch to. If you have the Unlimited JR Pass, then the Tokyo – Osaka train is already included so you don’t need to buy separately!

By Airplane – If you are flying and landing at Kansai Airport (KIX) and will be staying in the city, I recommend taking Haruka line by Japan Rail (JR). This line takes you straight from KIX to the city, stopping at major stations Tennoji and Shin-Osaka before going on to Kyoto. If you have the unlimited JR Pass, this is already included. From there, you can resume with local trains using your IC card.

Where to stay in Osaka

In Osaka, it’s best to stay close to a major train station – anywhere near Umeda, Shin-Osaka, Namba, Tennoji and Umeda / Osaka station is a great option.

During my most recent trip, I stayed at PremiasA in Umeda which is a mid-range accommodation close to Umeda and Osaka station. I shared the room with 2 other people, we each paid US$42.50 per night per person and it’s worth every cent. I would highly suggest the apartment because it’s much more spacious than other accommodations I’ve gotten in Japan (they have 2 Queen beds!), the amenities are very new, and the location is amazing (~10 minutes walking from Osaka / Umeda station). One thing to note is that it’s a self-operating hotel which means there is no front desk to check you in or let you in if you lost your keys, and you cannot accept packages during your stay.

Osaka Itinerary for first-timers

Below I have provided two types of itineraries depending on what type of traveler you are. Some people prefer to squeeze in as much as they can, while others 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 fewer 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 an 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-sees 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 destinations above are 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 of 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 inspiration!

Below I have outlined each city 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 visiting Kyoto, Nara, and Kobe, I recommend making Osaka your base instead of staying overnight in those cities. Accommodation options are better (cheaper) in Osaka, there is more to do at night, and the train back is only 15-30 minutes.
  • 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. Please read my Kyoto guide for places to stay.
  • 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 having 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 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 could not find any unoccupied locker. In the end, I gave up and had to lug my backpack around all day.
Coin lockers at JR station

Getting into Osaka from the Kansai Airport

If you don’t have a JR pass, or if you want to delay the validity of your JR pass, you can consider getting the Haruka Airport Express train ticket. This gives you the best price for the express train to town.

Make sure to check ahead if your accommodation is closer to Tennoji or Shin-Osaka as there is a slight fare difference. Tennoji is closer to the airport so it’s a little cheaper.

Haruka ticket

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 are cheaper than JR Pass but takes slightly longer. The difference isn’t that much – it’s only 15 mins by JR train vs 30 mins by local train.

But if you are going to more places than just Kyoto and Osaka, you likely should get a JR Pass. The 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 seeing 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:

What to do in the Kansai region

1. Osaka

As I’ve said before, Osaka is one of the largest Japanese metropolitan cities, not just in Kansai but in the 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.

Dotonbori
Dotonbori 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.

I’ve written a dedicated blog post for Kyoto here: Kyoto Travel Guide, so please check that post on all my recommendations for Kyoto.

Yasaka Pagoda in Higashiyama District in Kyoto
Yasaka Pagoda in Kyoto

3. Nara (1 day / Day trip)

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.

Playing with Sika deer in Nara
Playing with Sika deer in Nara

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 / Day trip)

Akame 48
Akame 48 Waterfalls

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 the Momijigari season, which tends to be mid to end of November. Momijigari is the term Japanese use for admiring 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)

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 the 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 roofs, but the Himeji castle’s roofs 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 to 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 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 of what your political stance is.

However, aside from its grim past, Hiroshima is also famous for quite a few 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 views. 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 the best knowledge.

18 Comments

  1. Hi Melissa,
    Thanks for sharing the information.
    I will be arriving Kansai Airport and spending my 10days in Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe, Nara, Akame and maybe Himeji. Which JR pass should I get. JR west pass or JR wide area pass? A bit confusing on the Japan trains route. Or should I just go by the day pass?

    • Melissa says

      Hey Kien,

      The main difference between the JR Kansai Wide pass and the JR west kansai pass is that the west pass does not include shinkansen (bullet train) aside of the airport express.

      JR west kansai pass could be enough for you if you dont mind the slightly longer travel time (For example Himeji is 30 mins from Osaka on bullet train vs 1.5 hours on local train).

      Another thing to consider for whether you want to take the day pass or not depends on your plan. If you’re planning to move around in consecutive days, it might be cheaper to get the 4 day pass.

      I personally think it’s only worth it for the Himeji portion of your itinerary, since the local trains to Kyoto/Nara/Kobe is pretty cheap on its own.

      Thanks for asking this question! you have inspired me to add more details on which JR pass to get on my post 🙂

  2. Marie Colquhoun says

    Hi, really useful thanks. We want to visit the Hokudanshinsai Memorial Park in Awaji. Will I be able to do this on public transport from Kobe? Thanks

    • Melissa says

      It’s possible to take the local train from Kobe to Maiko station, and then you’ll have to resume via a bus from Maiko station to Hokudanshinsai Memorial Park

  3. Karthik says

    Hi Melissa,
    I was going through your itinerary and found it to be quite useful for planning a trip. I wanted your suggestion if I am planning to incorporate Mt. Koya into this trip. Should I keep 2 days for Mt. Koya? Can I club any other site during my visit to Mt Koya?

  4. Gill says

    Melissa
    Any adv on how I can spend 16 nights in Japan, arriving abd departing from Kansai airport?
    In the Kansai region, which city do I make my base for 6-8 day, of which one night in Hiroshima and two nights in Kyoto?
    We also plan to visit and stay in Tokyo for 6-7 days, what places to visits?
    Late night in Osaka before departing from Kansai.
    Question, do we complete our Tokyo trip 1st for 6-7 day and than spend the 8 days in Kansai region?
    Also adv, which are the most suitable different train passes ( for 3 adults) to get for our16 days stay and which train pass to buy and when to start using to safe cost?
    I understand the JR train pass will be good for us for 7days when going and coming back from Tokyo

    • Melissa says

      Hey Gill, I would base myself in Osaka for Kansai. Hiroshima might be a bit far (1.5 hours by train) but Kyoto will be very close especially if you have a JR pass.

      Whether you want to do Tokyo first or not, it’s up to you but definitely group the Tokyo trips together as it takes 3 hours by train to go from Osaka to Tokyo. You could explore Kansai first upon landing, then go to Tokyo, or you could go to Tokyo straight.

      Since you’re going to Tokyo, the only suitable JR Pass option is the unlimited JR pass as it covers the regions you want to go to. You can use JR pass for some local trains too as long as they are run by JR rail. You don’t really need JR pass during your time in Tokyo, but you would need it for the train going from Osaka to Tokyo, so I would see the difference of the cost of Single ticket vs JR pass.

  5. What area of Osaka should I stay, planning day trips to Kyoto, Nara, etc.

  6. Hi Melissa,

    Where do you recommend to stay in Osaka with young children? Easily accessible to their train station and food. Thank you!

  7. Surya says

    Thansk for sharing tips, After this pandemic I’m planning to go on vacation to Japan

  8. Marilyn Philogene says

    Hi, great blog.
    It helps so much.
    I will be traveling to : hadena to Shibuya to hakone to osaka to kyoto.

    I know I need the IC card ( suisa)
    Do i need the jr pass too?
    I don’t mind if it takes longer by trains than the JR.
    Thank u for your input

    • Melissa Hie says

      Hey marilyn, SUICA card is only good for local trains. I would still take the JR Pass for the trains from Tokyo to Odawara (you need to go to this station to reach Hakone, then take odakyu line) and Odawara to Osaka / Kyoto. The cost of trains from these destinations would already cover the cost of JR Pass.

      • Marilyn philogene says

        Thank u . That helps a lot.
        Can u tell me if i shoukd take the local train or the jr rail from the airport to shibuya?
        Are they both heading that way?
        Thank u

  9. Make sure not to miss the Toei Kyoto Studio Park. Here in the Philippines, super sentai shows, animés and several other Japanese shows like Takeshi’s Castle are very popular here. Two of my favorite movies related to Japan are the Seven Samurai and The Last Samurai. You can enjoy a wonderful exhibit of those in Toei Kyoto Studio Park.

    I also remember how we almost missed our tour to the Golden Pavillion because it closes at 5PM.
    Among all the countries that we visited, our tour in Japan is our favorite. It’s followed by our tour in India. 🙂

  10. KC Choong says

    Great information. Interesting and valuable read.
    Any information on Okinawa or other parts of Japan that you had been.

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