One of Japan’s most iconic touristic regions is Kansai where the cities of Osaka and Kyoto are located. In contrast to other regions such as Tokyo or Central Japan, the Kansai region offers both the ultramodern comforts that Japanese big cities are known for as well as charming old towns dating back from the time of the geishas and samurai warriors. Another good thing is that traveling between Osaka and Kyoto takes less than an hour by train which makes combining these two cities in one trip highly advisable. Whether you love shopping, eating or exploring cultural attractions, check out this itinerary for your trip to Kyoto and Osaka.
Day 1 – Osaka
Beat the crowds and head to Osaka Castle first thing in the morning. Your closest train station would be Koen on the JR Osaka Loop. Though you can easily find similar buildings in many Japanese cities, the Osaka Castle is still worth a visit and is a popular stop among visitors. It’s especially charming during spring when there are cherry blossoms on the grounds surrounding the castle. For a unique bird’s eye view, you can climb up on one of the higher floors of the Osaka History Museum (admission: 600 yen).
Tip: If you are planning to visit a number of tourist attractions in Osaka, consider purchasing the Osaka Amazing Pass. It gives you access to over 30 places over 2 days including Osaka Castle, Umeda Sky Building Floating Garden Observatory, Osaka Science Museum as well as unlimited subway/bus rides within Osaka.
By late morning, the cafes and specialty shops at Nakazakicho will be open. This is Osaka’s version of the hipster district with plenty of quirky items as well as specialty food items on sale. You can go cafe hopping here or just soak in the alternative vibe. The district is accessible from Nakazakicho station or if you’re on the main line, you can walk around 10 to 15 minutes from Umeda station.
Head to the suburb of Ikeda to check out the Cup Noodles Museum (8-25 Masumicho, Ikeda; open 9:30AM to 4:30PM daily). This popular Asian staple is said to originate here in the Kansai Region and the museum is a homage to the humble origins of today’s instant noodles. The museum itself is free but for a nominal fee, you can participate in a DIY cup noodle making session.
By the afternoon, you can head back to the city to check out the lively Shinsaibashi and Namba areas. I suggest you start in Namba and keep Shinsaibashi for the evening when it’s especially atmospheric. While at Namba, you should not miss a visit to Namba Parks, a shopping mall with its interesting curved walls and rooftop garden. From here, walk north to America-mura, the center of youth culture in Osaka. You’ll find plenty in the way of big-name youth brands here if shopping is your thing. Head further west and you’ll come across another charming area in Osaka filled with specialty cafes and unique food shops. My to-go cafe here is Granknot (1 Chome 23-4 Kitahorie, Nishi Ward, Osaka; open from 9AM to 6PM Monday to Wednesday and Friday, from 11AM to 6PM Saturday and Sunday) where I had one of the frothiest lattes I’ve ever tasted.
Make your way back to Shinsaibashi in late afternoon to do more shopping. While here, make sure to check out the takoyaki (octopus balls) which Osaka is known for. As night falls, head to Dotonbori for a glimpse of the famous Glico advertisement. It has become something of an icon over the years. It is best viewed from the Ebisu Bridge.
Day 2 – Osaka to Kyoto
Unless you plan to go indepth or have an interest in Universal Studios, one day is probably enough for Osaka and your best bet is to catch a train to Kyoto. From Osaka, the fastest train to Kyoto is one on the Hankyu Kyoto Line. It’s just 43 minutes from Umeda to Kawaramachi (Kyoto’s main street).
There are hotels all over Kyoto but for the atmosphere, I recommend staying somewhere in the old town of Gion. I personally stayed at Hotel Celestine Kyoto Gion during my last visit to the city and absolutely enjoyed the zen vibe at a reasonable price. It will be late morning by this time and you may want a caffeine fix. %Arabica is undoubtedly the cafe of choice here.
Kyoto has so many temples that it’s futile to try to visit them all. There are a few I would recommend for their varying styles. Since you are already in Gion anyway, check out the Entoku-in (530 Shimokawara-cho, Kodai-ji, Higashiyama-ku; open daily 9AM to 5:30PM), an unassuming temple whose gate you’ll easily miss unless you make a conscious effort to locate it.
Afterwards, make your way up north for the breathtaking Tenjuan Gardens (admission: 400 Yen) located within the Nanzenji complex. The grounds boasts of an impressive rock garden and a larger garden at the back surrounded by a pond. If you visit during November, the garden is illuminated at night to highlight autumn colors. As a final sightseeing stop, check out the less-visited Shisendo Temple. This is another place with a nice zen garden that looks especially scenic when viewed from the terrace.
As night falls, head back to Gion and stroll around Hanamikoji-dori. This is the best place to spot geishas in Kyoto, especially during the weekend. While the geisha culture is mostly lost in most of Japan, here, ladies who work in offices by day fulfill their geisha inclinations by dressing up at night. A nice place to have dinner nearby is the Michelin-starred Uokeya-U (605-0074 Kyoto, Higashiyama Ward, open daily 11:30AM to 2PM, 5PM to 8PM) which serves unagi rice bowls.
Day 3 – Kyoto
Head out early in the morning to Arashiyama Bamboo Forest. This is one of Kyoto’s most instagrammable spots with tall bamboo groves swaying with the wind as you walk past the well-trodden path. Admission’s free and the place is open 24 hours but the place can get really busy by midday. While in Arashiyama, make your way as well to Gio-Ji’s moss-covered grounds. The greenery is a sight to behold and is a tempting place for a short nap (though you can’t actually lie on the grounds). While in Arashiyama, you might also want to go for a cruise down the river to fully appreciate the scenery. Just go towards the direction of the river and you’ll easily find boats for hire. Do check on the length of the boat ride before boarding.
For lunch, check out the delicious steaks at Otsuka. (open Monday to Friday 11AM to 2:30PM) I can’t recommend this place enough.
From Arashiyama, all it takes is a bus ride (take #11 then change to #59) to the trio of temples – the Kinkakuji, Ryoan-ji and Ninna-ji. By now, temple fatigue would probably set in and if you’re to choose only one, I would suggest you check out the golden Kinkakuji. The place is more a spectacle than anything. Visitors are prohibited from entering the building and there is just a walkway which allows visitors to appreciate it from afar. This is one of Kyoto’s most popular sights and it can get crowded easily. However, since everyone’s restricted to the walkway, it’s very easy to get a decent shot of the Kinkakuji from almost any vantage point.
By late afternoon, head back to downtown Kyoto and check out the bustling Nishiki Market. This is one place where you can sample a variety of street food, from delicious mochi to sushi and even grilled seafood. But don’t eat too much. You’ll want to save stomach space for dinner. The small alley of Pontocho to the east (walking distance from Nishiki Market) offers a plethora of dining options. My personal favorite is Iroha which serves excellent sukiyaki.
Getting to Kansai Airport From Kyoto
If you are heading back to Kansai International Airport after visiting Kyoto, I would suggest purchasing a JR West Kansai Area Pass valid for 1 day rather than buying a one-off train ticket. This will save you 680 Yen on your train ride (780 Yen if you buy the area pass online). You can purchase the area pass online HERE for a further 100 Yen discount on top of the 680 Yen savings.
Where to Stay in Kyoto and Osaka
Osaka: Few other hotels are as convenient as Hotel Il Monte which offers direct trains to Kansai Airport or Kyoto. Room prices are also reasonable, rendering it an excellent budget/mid-tier option.
Kyoto: In Kyoto, I stayed at Hotel The Celestine Kyoto Gion, a great find in the heart of Kyoto’s tranquil Gion old town. The zen vibe here is more in tune with luxury hotels but the price tag is surprisingly mid-tier. Many of the city’s tourist attractions are a short walk away.
- While in Japan, I typically pre-purchase my prepaid data sim card as it is cheaper compared to buying it on the spot upon arrival. NTT Docomo is one of the more reliable networks and you can purchase their sim here and pick up when you arrive at the airports of Osaka, Tokyo, Nagoya, Sapporo or at JR Osaka Station.
- Given how expensive Japan is, I typically purchase travel medical insurance whenever I’m coming here in case I need to see the doctor or miss my flight/s unexpectedly. You can check out SafetyWing which provides travel medical insurance on a subscription basis for as low as US$37/4 weeks of coverage. The good thing about going with them is that one child up to 10 years of age is automatically included with every adult possessing the travel medical insurance policy and you can purchase a plan while you’re already on your trip.
- Osaka and Kyoto are year-round destinations but do note that it can bet unbearably hot in the summer which is from July to September. I’d recommend coming here in May (just after the cherry blossom) or October (before the peak autumn period) during the shoulder season in order to escape peak prices with pretty decent weather.