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 – From Osaka Castle to Shinsaibashi
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.
Just a few blocks east of the famous Glico man sign is the relatively unknown Hozenji Yokocho Alley. This is a narrow, pedestrian-only street with an old town feel. Here, you’ll find the quaint Hozenji temple as well as a number of izakayas and bars.
Day 2 – Traveling From 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 cheapest train to Kyoto is one on the Hankyu Kyoto Line. It’s just 43 minutes from Umeda to Kawaramachi (Kyoto’s main street). The fastest method is the shinkansen or bullet train from Shin-Osaka Station to Kyoto Station that takes only 15 minutes. Rides on the bullet train are covered by the JR Pass.
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. In Kyoto, especially in the old town of Gion, many travelers walk around town wearing rented kimonos while taking selfies. You can rent a kimono there at a reasonable price.
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 – Arashiyama, Kinkakuji, Nishiki Market
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 daily except Thursday 11AM to 2:30PM) I can’t recommend this place enough for its succulent steaks.
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.
Day 4 – Fushimi Inari & Kiyomizu Dera
Head out early in the day for Fushimi Inari-taisha. The shrine is known for for its multitude of torii gates that lead up to the summit – Mt Inari at 233 meters high. There are said to be over 1,000 torii gates in Fushimi Inari and several shrines within the complex. Although it has been a popular shrine to visit among Japanese, it became popular among foreign travelers during the social media age, especially as the rows of torii gates make for good photo taking spots. Because of this, and due to the free admission, the shrine is one of the busiest tourist attractions in Tokyo. If you’d like to come here without the crowds, try to arrive before 8AM or after 8PM (it is open 24 hours). From Kyoto Station, you can take the JR Nara line to Inari Station which is right in front of the shrine. If you have any of the JR passes, you don’t have to pay extra for this train ride.
Allow for about 2 hours (inclusive of photo stops) to complete the loop and make it back down. Just opposite the road leading to the entrance of the shrine, there is a store selling excellent daifuku (glutinous rice ball) stuffed with fresh fruit.
Another spot not to be missed – especially if you are in Kyoto during cherry blossom or autumn season – is Kiyomizudera. Perched on the foothills of Mt Otowa, the massive temple is perhaps best surveyed from the viewing deck just next to it. You’ll see a flood of colors – whether it be pink during cherry blossom season or red and yellow during autumn. This makes for a quintessential photo spot in Kyoto. The surrounding gardens are also a joy to walk around in during these periods.
If you have an extra day to spare, you can also check out Wakayama which is around a 1 hour journey from Osaka / 1 hour 45 minutes journey from Kyoto.
If you have an extra 3 or 4 days to spare, you can go further west to the cities of Himeji, Okayama and up to Hiroshima. Check out this Western Japan itinerary.
Getting From Kansai Airport to Kyoto (& Vice Versa)
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.
Getting From Kansai Airport to Osaka (& Vice Versa)
If you are heading back to Kansai International Airport from Osaka, hop aboard the Nankai Line Airport Express for a smooth 34-minute journey to the airport from Namba (or vice versa). You can purchase the ticket here.
Where to Stay in Kyoto and Osaka
Osaka: Few other hotels are as convenient as Hotel Hankyu Respire Osaka which offers direct trains to Kansai Airport or Kyoto. Room prices are also reasonable, rendering it an excellent mid-tier option. You can also check for the most competitive prices for hotels in Osaka through this aggregator here.
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. Among budget or midrange options, you can check out the relatively new Hotel The M’s Kyoto which is situated within walking distance from Kyoto Station in the city’s commercial district. If you prefer to stay near the shopping area (Kawaramachi), Cross Hotel Kyoto is highly rated for its good-sized rooms and close proximity to bus lines and the main shopping street.
You can also check for hotels in Kyoto through this aggregator here.
Train Passes – Which One to Get?
If you are intending to include Tokyo to your trip to Osaka and Kyoto, it may be worthwhile to get the JR Pass. A one-way trip from Osaka to Tokyo on the shinkansen (bullet train) costs about 14,720 yen or slightly more than half the price of the JR Pass. Assuming you take it round trip and ride local JR trains as well, you’ll end up saving more money with the JR Pass than buying tickets ala carte. You can purchase the JR Pass here.
Alternatively, if you are just staying within the Kansai area (i.e. Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, Himeji), you can check out the cheaper JR Kansai Pass which you can use for shinkansen, limited express trains and JR buses. You can get the JR Kansai Pass here.
- 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. The sim comes with unlimited data and you can purchase here and pick up when you arrive at the airports of Osaka or Tokyo.
- 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 (after the cherry blossom and after the Japanese golden week) or October (before the peak autumn period) during the shoulder season in order to escape peak prices with pretty decent weather.