How To Best Get Around Kansai Region In Japan
The Kansai Region is where you’ll find some of Japan’s best-loved spots such as Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, Nara and Himeji. First time tourists might be daunted by the sheer number of railway companies and subsequent ticket and rail passes on offer. It took some getting used to but it’s not all that confusing, really. There are 5 railway stations that service the Kansai Region: Kintetsu, Keihan, Nankai, Hanshin and Hankyu. They each use their own separate passes.
Let me take you through my itinerary to show you some of the attractions you can reach via Kansai Region’s extensive railway network.
Touched down the previous night and got to Hotel New Hankyu Osaka via a KIX Limousine Bus which was a really comfortable and convenient way of getting from the airport to the hotel. You can purchase a ticket from the vending machine at the bus stop for 1,550 yen (adults) and 780 (child). I loved how the hotel is strategically located right next to Hankyu Umeda Station central exit, which made travelling over the next few days a breeze.
The next morning, we woke up bright and early to commence ninja training. Tucked away in the Japanese countryside lies the birthplace of the ninja; they were masters of stealth and engaged in intelligence activities from the 15th to 18th century.
You can experience part of their training for yourself for 2,000 yen (adults) and 1,550 or 1,700 yen (children under 6 and children under 12). Ninjas had to prime their reflexes to flee the scene quickly if need be, even if that meant scaling walls and disappearing behind a trap door. They had to disable opponents quickly and efficiently too.
We trained for this by learning how to throw shurikens, spit darts and climb and descend from ropes. Unfortunately, some areas and equipment suffered damage from Typhoon Lan so we were not able to try everything. One other activity that rivals the ninja training in terms of fun factor was Mizugumo training. This entailed walking on a board and trying to keep dry while crossing the Akame river. I really liked that participants were presented with a scroll of mastership upon completing the training. I’ve been telling everyone that I am now a certified ninja so they should think twice before crossing me.
If you prefer a leisurely nature walk instead of shuriken throwing and scaling walls, you’ll enjoy taking in the gorgeous Akame 48 waterfalls. They are a collective name for the numerous waterfalls flowing through Akame-cho, Nabari, Mie. It was so peaceful walking beneath the verdant canopy of trees and taking in the gushing waterfalls. I imagine the effect would be even more glorious when you see the leaves in their autumnal glory. When we were there, the leaves were still green.
To get there buy aKintetsu Rail Pass and stop at Akameguchi station. Prices start at 1,500 yen (adult) and 750 yen (child) for a one-day pass. From there you can get a cab for the rest of the short journey.
In the evening, we went to Shoutouan in Mie Prefecture where we had a Kaiseki dinner that left me absolutely stuffed. Every time I thought I couldn’t eat any more, another delicious course would arrive. I found space somehow. The star dish was a gloriously marbled, grade A5 (the highest possible ranking) Matsusaka beef Sukiyaki which came with its own certificate.
We explored the Keihan line and hopped onboard the Michigan Cruise for a Western buffet lunch. While we had our meal, the paddle boat made its way leisurely around the south of Lake Biwa, the largest freshwater lake in Japan. The entire cruise took about 80 minutes. You can choose to watch the live entertainment or enjoy the Lake Biwa scenery. The ticket pictured here goes for 3,000 yen and allows you to travel to Osaka, Kyoto and Biwako, plus admits you to Michigan Cruise. It is three minutes away on foot from Keihan Electric Railway Keishin Line’s Hamaotsu Station.
After lunch, we stopped by Oumi Shrine in Shiga in Ōtsu, a city in Shiga Prefecture, Japan. It was built almost 80 years ago and is dedicated to Emperor Tenji. It’s known for its ancient Japanese water clock system. Stop at Oumijingumae Station and walk 10 minutes to get there. I’m not much of a drinker but the Gekkeikan sake and plum wine I sampled were so good. Both drinks were sweet and light. I loved the plum wine so much I bought 2 bottles on the spot. Some of the beverages on sale here are unavailable anywhere else so I highly recommend stocking up if you like something. The name of the company means ‘laurel wreath’ and is the third biggest Sake manufacturer in Japan. Gekkeikan is five minutes’ walk from Chushojima Station.
For some shopping make sure you visit the Maruzen and Junkudo Bookstore for a massive collection of Tezuka Osamu’s works. He is known as ‘the god of manga’ and is sometimes referred to as the Japanese equivalent to Walt Disney. His most famous and beloved creation is Astro Boy, though I particularly adore Unico. He’s a white baby unicorn with a pink mane, and has the ability to bring joy wherever he goes.
The nearest station to the bookstore is Umeda Station. Our last stop of a very busy day was Hankyu Department store. Here you’ll find 13 floors of shopping paradise with pretty much everything you can imagine. Occasionally they will hold seasonal events. When we were there they were having a Christmas fair as well as a bread fair. Tourists are eligible for tax-free on certain items with a minimum purchase amount of 5,000 yen on the same day. Hankyu is walking distance from the bookstore.
For dinner that day we had what was one of my favourite meals. A crab Kaiseki at Kanidouraku. I’m a huge seafood lover so I practically inhaled the fresh crab that was served up in all sorts of ways – boiled, grilled, raw, in a chawanmushi or cooked in a pot of rice. I miss this meal so much I even dream about it. It’ll definitely be on my list of places to revisit when I return.
The Nankai Airport Line is usually tourists’ first introduction to the train service in Japan since, as its name suggests, it goes to Kansai International Airport. It makes for a comfortable and pleasant journey, especially if you take the super seats on the Rapi:t Airport Express as they are more spacious. Seats here cost 1,340 yen for an adult and 770 yen for a child. For regular seats, the fare between the airport and Namba is 1,130 yen for an adult and 570 yen for a child. The Airport Express (920 yen for an adult and 460 yen for a child) also goes to the airport, but it makes more stops and it won’t take you there as quickly.
Next up we went over to Hanshin Electric Railway’s Shin-Kobe Station. A one-day Hanshin Tourist Pass costs 700 yen. It’s right next to the Kobe Nunobiki Herb Gardens. As a nature lover, I really enjoyed starting the day under the sun and amidst the lush greenery there. Home to 75,000 herbs and flowers, I had a great time taking in the crisp air and walking amidst the flora. The cable car ride to the place gave us a bird’s-eye view of the changing leaves. A round ticket costs 1,400 yen for an adult and 900 yen for a child.
Another place to wander around in is Kobe Harborland. There you’ll find Mosaic mall and Umie mall, both offering a slew of shops selling everything from knick-knacks, handmade bags, well-loved Japanese brands to all sorts of food. We had an afternoon cuppa at Streamer Coffee to recharge.
Sufficiently refueled, we ventured into a popular chocolate shop, Monloire. They make such pretty and dainty little confections. Almost too pretty to eat. Almost. Eavus was interesting. There you’ll find one of a kind bags made of nylon and leather at an affordable price. I’m told that these bags are extremely popular with the ladies from Taiwan and Hong Kong.
We ended off the night with another cruise, Luminous Kobe 2. It’s one of the largest restaurant cruise ships in Japan and I found it to be popular wedding venue. I saw a few couples taking wedding photos around the harbor and the cruise had a wall dedicated to all the couples who got hitched there. Over a delicious fusion meal, we watched as the sun sank below the horizon, before venturing out to the deck to watch the dazzling city lights flicker across the waters.
On the last day, we checked in at Hankyu Tourist Center at Hankyu Umeda Station, a one-stop location where you can purchase railway tickets or get information regarding places of interest. Staff there are able to speak Japanese, English, Chinese, and Korean. There are lockers just outside too, so you can leave any bulky baggage behind and explore the vicinity.
From there we spent a day on Mt. Rokko, one of my favourite places we visited on this trip. You can easily while away a day here enjoying the art exhibitions, autumn leaves and perfect weather. There are just so many things to do here.
There’s the Rokko-Shidare Observatory which is inspired by branches of the sakura tree after it sheds its blossoms. Rokko garden terrace gift shop is a great place to stock up on souvenirs for everyone. I spent quite a bit here loading up on snacks.
Lunch at Rokkosan Genghis Khan Palace was a carnivore’s wet dream. We were presented with a massive plate piled with beef, chicken, lamb, pork and some veggies so you don’t feel too guilty. A great meal for those bulking or cutting carbs.
I’m doing neither. I just love to eat.
There’s a seafood platter available for those who rather not consume too much red meat. The Kobe beef here was phenomenal. It was so meltingly tender with the perfect meat to fat ratio. After trying two different kinds of premium beef, I’d say I prefer Kobe beef to the Matsusaka beef we had on day two. That was rather underwhelming to me, despite the certification and stellar grading it had. Maybe my palate isn’t sophisticated enough to fully appreciate it.
I controlled my portions so I could leave room for this amazing soft serve ice cream. It’s one of the best ice creams I’ve ever had. Rich and creamy with a subtle sweetness, I couldn’t get enough of it. My travel companion liked it so much he purchased another cup despite having already had one before lunch. His was drizzled with local honey collected by bees from around the mountain. I went with matcha as it’s one of my favourite flavours, but given the choice again, I think I would have ordered his.
On the last day, I finally got the chance to see what I’d be hoping when I arrived in Osaka. Autumn leaves in Rokko Alpine Botanical Gardens! Autumn is the season I love best so I was disappointed when I realised most of the trees at sea level had not yet changed colours.
Up in the mountains, the temperature was cooler. Trees had begun to turn red and gold. I’d most definitely recommend visiting in November to get the full effect. There’s nothing quite like a crimson canopy. Nevertheless, it’s still worth the visit for the assortment of alpine and cold-region plants and quirky art installations.
The Rokko International Musical Box Museum is home to a collection of musical boxes found in the West around the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There’s also a concert every half hour. After many hours of walking around, this was a welcome respite. I finally had the chance to rest my weary legs while enjoying the lovely music.
I tried my hand at putting together my very own musical box. That’s what the pieces above are for. Let’s just say I fully appreciate the work that goes into them now. I didn’t expect it to be so finicky, delicate and tedious. I think I’ll stick to enjoying an already completed musical box, TYVM.
Tenran café served delicious teatime treats while we watched the sky outside lighten and turn pastel shades of orange and purple. The sun sets early just before 5pm.
We left for the Botanical Gardens again, this time for a moonlit lantern walk. It was unbelievably pretty to see the trees and plants illuminated with twinkling lights. Our lanterns glowed and changed colours simultaneously too, adding to the spectacular light show as we wound around the darkened park.
It was a great ending to a fantastic trip. Mt. Rokko can be accessed via the Hankyu Kobe Line. Stop at Rokko Station and take a ten-minute bus ride on Bus 16 to the base station of the Rokko Cablecar.
Speaking of transportation, if you don’t mind forking out more money, a rechargeable IC card (much like our very own EZ-link) is available for 2,000 yen (inclusive of 500 yen deposit). This card is called Kansai One Pass and is accepted on all major trains and buses in the Kansai region. Keep it even after your trip if you plan on visiting again because it has no expiration date. You’ll receive discounts at participating places of interests if you present this card. There are about 200 special benefits and services you can claim. Click here to see them all.
In the end, the passes you choose depends on your priorities for your trip. For me, I value convenience above all and would go for the Kansai One Pass. I’m known to be quite a scatterbrain and misplace things at times. The last thing I need is to be fumbling for the right card during peak periods. The Japanese are generally a kind and gracious lot, but even the most patient will get annoyed at a tourist with spaghetti hands when they are rushing to get on their train.
Of course, if you are on a budget and don’t mind dealing with multiple cards, the individual passes with their discounted rates would be more appealing. That means more money saved for food and souvenirs! Whatever you choose, Japan’s super efficient railway system is the easiest and most economical way to travel around Kansai. I’ve already been planning on returning, perhaps in November this time, once all the leaves have turned red.