When it comes to places to visit in Japan, there’s no area as rich in culture as the Kansai region. It’s here that you’ll find Japan’s vibrant youthful city, Osaka, the ancient capital, Kyoto, the foodie haven, Kobe and Nara, the city famous for its polite deer. For most, a trip to Japan is synonymous with a visit to Tokyo but you could easily spend months in the Kansai region and still barely scratch the surface. Plus, if you’re an expat in a neighbouring country and only have a few days to explore Japan, this area offers the best of the country in a small package.
I’ve visited Japan 5 times now and visited the Kansai region twice. This is by far, my favourite region and somewhere that I long to return to again. I’ve made up this itinerary for those who are visiting Japan on a short break and want to enjoy the best of the country while they’re there! This itinerary would also work for anyone looking to spend some time in the Kansai region as part of a longer trip through the country.
Osaka: 2 Day, 2 Nights
A lot of people fly into Osaka and take a train straight back out of it but I think it’s worthy of at least a couple of your days. This is a controversial opinion but actually, I much prefer Osaka to Tokyo! Before coming to Korea, I used to be obsessed with Lost in Translation and would envision myself walking around the bright streets of Shinjuku in a complete state of culture shock. However, I didn’t get that feeling at all in the Shinjuku area of Tokyo: I got it in Dotonbori Arcade in Osaka.
Dotonbori Arcade is one of the craziest streets you’ll ever walk down. It has all the bright lights you’d expect to see in Japan with even more insaneness. Seriously, you might think someone has spiked your sushi with acid when you see all the 3D signs jumping out the restaurants. This is one of the biggest sensory overloads you’ll ever have without the help of some narcotics!
Since Dotonbori is such a tourist attraction, though, the restaurants are a bit over priced and the food isn’t the best. Head a few blocks away from it, though, and you’ll find some great food. Our hostel owner gave us loads of recommendations for places where he loves to eat himself, rather than suggesting some crappy tourist restaurants.
The food in Kansai really is amazing. During your 2 days there, I recommend that you tuck into the food that this region is famous for. The first is okonomiyaki which is a dish of griddled cabbage and flour, often referred to as Japanese pizza. The second is takoyaki, a popular street food of battered octopus pieces, sometimes stuffed with cheese, but always served with mayonnaise and Japanese barbeque sauce. Osaka is also famous for its puffer fish- a poisonous dish which can kill you if prepared wrong but is a delicacy in Japan- approach with caution.
As for things to do, you can check out the Umeda Sky Building, make your own customised ramen at the Instant Noodle Museum (this is actually a lot more fun than it sounds!), see Osaka Castle, visit the Osaka Tower and explore the American Village.
Check out my post, Don’t Leave Osaka Without… for some inspiration about things to do on your trip!
Where to Stay: Oshiteruya Ryokan in Osaka
Nara: 1 Day
On your 3rd day in Japan, you’re going to wake up early, check out your accommodation and grab a train to Nara. Trains to Nara are frequent (and cheap) from Osaka and the journey only takes 39 minutes.
At Nara train station, there is an abundance of lockers where you can leave your things. These cost around 500 yen and we managed to fit both our 40L backpacks in one.
Nara has loads of things to see, the most famous being the deer park. Although I loved the deer park, it did make me sad- the deer were de-horned and we saw more than one person throwing the plastic wrapping from their cookies for the deer to eat. I have a lot of conflicting feelings about visiting the deer park but, if you’re in Nara, it’s difficult to miss it. If you do go, please visit responsibly.
I honestly don’t know how people manage to get amazing deer selfies on Instagram- deer whisperers? This is what my time in Nara looked a bit like…
The town of Nara is small enough that you can walk to all the most famous attractions easily. There are temples, shrines and ancient palaces to see. It’s a bit like a condensed, bite-sized version of Kyoto and a good stop off point on your way through from Osaka.
Kyoto: 3 Nights, 2 Days
After leaving Nara, you can take a train back to Kyoto easily. Again, these are frequent and cheap and this journey will only take 45 minutes.
Kyoto is the most historically important city in Japan and is home to over 3,000 temples! There’s a lot to see in the city and, honestly, you’ll barely scratch the surface in 2 days. Don’t try to see everything at once. You’ll never be able to and, if you come close, you’ll go home completely exhausted! Instead, either stick to the places that you’re most interested in or the usual favourites. Yes, everyone loves the Golden Temple and Fushimi Inari but for good reason. These attractions are awesome!
One of the best things about Kyoto is how easy and cheap it is to get around. The city is flat so commuting by bike is popular. However, attractions like the Arashiyama forest are more difficult to get to. I’d recommend spending one day using an all-day subway ticket. With this ticket, you can start your day visiting The Golden Temple (get there early to avoid the crowds) and then take the train out to Arashiyama. Aside from the Bamboo Forest, you can also see some more temples and even some Japanese monkeys!
The next day that you have in the city, I’d recommend either hiring a bike or making use of the 500 yen all day bus pass to see all the sights that you missed the previous day. This might include Fushimi Inari, The Silver Temple and Ikuyami Dezari Shrine.
While you’re in Kyoto, don’t miss the chance to visit Gion, the Geisha District of the city. This is the most energetic part of the city by night but is equally beautiful in the day time. Keep your eye out for a geisha or two while you’re there!
Where to Stay: Mosaic Capsule Hostel in Kyoto
The Kansai region is one of the most worthwhile places to visit in all of Japan. This really is where old meets new- some of the most important historical parts of the country are here alongside some of the most youthful and modern places to visit. For anyone strapped on time on their trip to Japan, Kansai is, undoubtedly, the best place to visit.
If you’ve visited the Kansai region before, leave me a comment and let me know what your best memory was!
If you’re planning a trip to Kansai or Japan, don’t miss my other posts:
Don’t Leave Kyoto Without…. (Coming soon!)