Before you head to Kansai, realise this: a) it will almost seem like a different country and b) the JR pass wouldn’t bring you to many places.
In Kansai, the dominant rail companies are Nankai 南海, Kintetsu 近鉄 and Hanshin 阪神. These rail companies usually have their own stations in the same town, so it can get pretty confusing for first-time visitors. Tor example, in Namba, the Namba Station is really 4 stations-in-one: the Nankai-Namba station (Nankai line), the Osaka-Namba station (Kintetsu & Hanshin lines), the JR-Namba station (JR line), and the subway-Namba station (subway lines). All linked but distinct.
But if you are doing a side-trip from Tokyo, stick to JR.
I spent 15 days in Kansai in October 15, covering Osaka, Kyoto, a bit of Hyogo 兵庫 and various bits of the Kii Peninsula 紀伊半島 ie Koyasan, Kumano, Ise, Nara. Here’s how it turned out.
Day 1 (3 Oct) – Singapore/ Kansai International Airport (KIX)/ Osaka/ Namba 難波
Namba makes for a good base because it is the de facto capital of Osaka. The downtown, the entertainment district, the train lines all congregate here. There are direct train connections to KIX, Koyasan, Himeji; Dotonburi and the many adjacent shopping streets are in Namba, so are Shinsaibashi and Den-Den town (think Akihabara, neon lights, huge anime billboards, maid cafes etc).
From KIX, take the rapid or airport express train to Nankai-Namba station. After 1130pm, take the airport limousine bus (terminal stop is the Ichei hotel 一栄 next to Nankai-Namba station).
Day 2 (4 oct) – Namba/ Himeji castle 姫路城 (Hyogo)
Himeji castle re-opened in Mar 15, after undergoing an extensive restoration lasting 5.5 years so you can imagine the pent-up interest to enter the site. It was a Sunday when I went and there was a massive crowd. Standing in line behind long queues to enter and view the inner halls was the norm.
Try to avoid such major sites on weekends.
Take the Hanshin line from Osaka-Namba station to Amagasaki 尼崎 and then to Sanyo-Himeji station 山陽姫路駅. From Sanyo-Himeji station, take a walk or take a bus. I used the 3-day Kansai Thru Pass here (5200 yen, would use it again for Koyasan later).
Day 3 (5 oct) – Namba/ Koyasan 高野山
The first temple on Koyasan was established 1200 years ago by the monk Kukai 空海, later revered as Kobo Daishi 弘法大師. I stayed in a shokubo (temple-lodge), a change from the usual hotel/ryokan; it was very serene and in the morning, guests had the option to attend a Buddhist praying session. Highly recommended for vegans, Buddhists and runners (beautiful running grounds).
To reserve a shokubo, contact the Koyasan Shokubo Association.
From Nankai-Namba station, take a train to Hashimoto station 橋本 駅 then transfer to a train bound for Gokurakubashi 極楽橋 (or take the a direct train to Gokurakubashi, reservation required). From Gokurakubashi, take a cable car up to Koyasan. at Koyasan station, take a bus to the shokubo (staff at the station will be there to direct). The connections are seamless so it is easier than it sounds.
Day 4 (6 Oct) – Koyasan/ Yunomine Onsen 湯の峰 (Wakayama 和歌山/Kumano Kodo 熊野古道)
The Kumano Kodo is an UNESCO heritage trail site. It has been a popular pilgrimage area for over 1000 years with many well-defined trails traversing the area. These days, in place of pilgrims, it gets hikers. The 3 principal shrines in Kumano Kodo are also the highlights of these trails: Hongu Taisha, Hayatama Taisha and Nachi Taisha.
But it takes effort to get there.
From Koyasan, take a train back to Hashimoto and then switch over to the JR line to Gojo station 五条駅. From Gojo station, there is a direct long-distance bus to Yunomine. Although the bus stops by Gojo station, it’s best to board it from the Gojo bus terminal (a 10-minute walk from Gojo station – walk down the straight road until it hits the t-junction, turn left, look for the Aeon mall. The bus terminal is next to it).
The journey is 4-hour long but there will be 15-20 min toilet breaks every 1-1.5 hours. Unfortunately, the bus does not have a luggage compartment so the luggage goes up the bus too. Pray/hope/wish that the bus is not packed with local tourists heading to the hot springs.
The Kumano tourism bureau has an English website that provides very comprehensive information on the area (including bus schedules).
Day 5 (7 Oct) – Yunomine Onsen/ Nachi Taisha 那智大社
I stayed in Yunomine Onsen, one of the oldest onsens in Japan (apparently 1800 years old). Beyond Yunomine, there are 2 other onsens, Watarase 渡瀬 and Kawayu 川湯 with their own exclusive claim to fame. Watarase has a huge outdoor onsen and Kawayu has a hot, bubbling river running through it (you can dig your own onsen by the river bed). It may be tempting to go ahead and dig that onsen at Kawayu, but trust me, don’t waste your time. It takes a lot to just stick the spade into the river bed, much less dig holes big enough to sink into.
The fastest and easiest way to get to these onsens is by car. If not, there’s the bus but the timings are not very friendly.
From Yunomine to Nachi Taisha, take a bus to Shingu train station 新宮; get on another bus to Nachi station 那智 and then another bus to Nachi Taisha. Trying to connect all the buses was a pain (too slow, too long, not cheap, poor connection timings) and I lost a lot of time. In hindsight, I should have taken a taxi.
Day 6 (8 Oct) -Yunomine Onsen/ Hongu Taisha 本宮大社/ Kawayu Onsen 川湯
Theoretically, Hongu Taisha is quite near to Yunomine (15 minutes). But the bus … ah the bus. Screw the bus schedule.
There are various ways to get to Hongu Taisha. Take the bus. Or trek from Yunomine. Or take the bus to Hosshinmon Oji 発心門王子and then walk 7km to Hongu Taisha. After that, head to the big Torii gate at Oyu no Hara 大斎原, which can be seen from Hongu Taisha.
Day 7 (9 Oct) – Yunomine Onsen/ Ise (Mie) 伊勢
Ise city is the site of the Ise Grand Shrine 伊勢神宮, the holiest Shinto shrine in Japan, for which the imperial family is both patron and custodian.
The Ise Grand Shrine covers a large area and is comprised of more than 125 shrines including the 2 larger and better known ones: the Geku or outer shrine and the Naiku or inner shrine. Geku 外宮 is walking distance from the Iseshi (Kintetsu) station 伊勢市駅, while Naiku 内宮 is located 6km away at Urata-cho 浦田町. Don’t expect grand structures and opulent furnishes. The design of the shrines is an epitome of the Japanese penchant for elegant but understated aesthetics.
From Yunomine, take a bus/taxi to Shingu station 新宮駅. From Shingu station, take a train to Taki station 多気駅 then to Iseshi (Kintetsu) station 伊勢市近鉄駅.
The wonderful travel bureau staff @ Shingu train station helped negotiated a taxi for 10,000 yen 2 days before. Lesson learnt: if in doubt/confusion, always ask for help from the local tourism bureau personnel. You never know what magic they can weave.
at Iseshi station, if the station lockers are all taken, there’s a luggage deposit office outside the train station to the left (500 yen per luggage, very reasonable rates). We left our luggage there so that we could visit Geku first, before heading to our hotel which was located between Geku and Naiku.
Day 8 (10 Oct) – Ise/ Nara 奈良
Nara is more than just Nara Park and Todaiji 東大寺.
Nara was the first permanent capital of Japan (before it moved to Kyoto) and home to the most number of UNESCO sites in Japan.
Most people do a day trip from Osaka/Kyoto since it is only 30 minutes by train but it will be more fruitful and enjoyable to stay 1 or 2 nights in Nara, taking your time to lose yourself in those thousand year old temples. At night, when the tourist mob has gone off, you’d have the streets to yourself.
From Ise, take the Kintetsu line to Nara (Kintetsu) station 近鉄奈良駅. Follow the crowd to the Higashimuki shopping street 東向き商店街 (next to station) and then head towards Nara Park and Todaiji. Watch out for deer droppings!
Day 9 (11 Oct) – Nara/ Kyoto 京都
15km south of central nara, in Ikaruga 斑鳩 is where you will find Horyuji 法隆寺.
Horyuji is renowned for 2 things: the oldest original wooden buildings in the world and the 2.1m tall Kudara Kannon 百済観音 (Goddess of Mercy). The entrance fee is quite steep (1500 yen) compared to other sites but you’d realise why when you step into its treasure block, the Daihozoden 大宝蔵殿. They have a marvellous collection of wood-cared Buddhas from the Sui dynasty (581-614 ad), preserved in pristine condition.
Get the 1-day Wide Bus Pass (1000 yen) from the bus office opposite the Nara train station. Or cycle, if you fancy some exercise. There are lovely tree-lined bicycle paths along the way.
From Nara to Kyoto, take a train to Kyoto station then transfer to bus/subway to hotel/Machiya. We stayed 4 nights in a refurbished Machiya in a residential neighbourhood near the Heian Jingu 平安神宮 in Higashiyama 東山. Although the danger of us inadvertently breaking something fragile in the house was ever present, it was a memorable experience.
Day 10 (12 Oct) – Kyoto
How do we even begin to explore Kyoto when there are so many sites to visit and so many people to avoid?
The thing to note is this: most of these key sights are away from Kyoto station and many of them close early (430pm). But the more popular ones (Kiyomizudera, Fushimi Inari, Arashiyama bamboo grove etc) open from dawn to dusk. So, get there early before the tour buses start to roll in.
I was staying near to Shoren-in 青蓮院 so I started with this one. From Shoren-in, it is a 5-minute walk to Chion-in 知恩院. After Chion-in, stroll through Maruyama Park 円山公園 towards Gion 祇園. Explore Hanami Koji 花見小路 then head towards Nishiki market 錦市場 for lunch. Lunch done, hop onto a train to Fushimi Inari 伏見稲荷大社 and back to Gion 祇園 again, to try to catch a glimpse of a Geisha (I heard chances are higher after 6pm but I had no luck). When night falls, explore Pontocho Alley 先斗町, then cross the bridge overlooking Kamogawa 鴨川 to Gion-Shijo station 祇園四条駅 and head back.
Fushimi Inari was swarmed with people so in hindsight, it might have been better to start with this first.
Day 11 (13 Oct) – Kyoto
Start the day really early, with Kiyomizudera 清水寺. Human traffic will be sparse at that hour. If time permits, explore Sannenzaka 産寧坂, Ninenzaka 二寧坂 and Yasaka Pagoda 八坂の塔 (Hokanji 法観寺). Thereafter, head to the Philosopher’s trail starting with Ginkakuji 銀閣寺 followed by Honen-in 法然院 and Nanzenji 南禅寺. After Nanzenji, adjourn back to town for lunch then visit 1 more temple – Daitokuji 大徳寺 before calling it a day.
If time is a constraint, skip Honen-in and go straight to Nanzenji because Nanzenji is really big and you’d want to spend more time there.
Buses are a cheap and easy way to nagivate kyoto. Get a bus day pass (500 yen) from the bus driver before you alight (make sure to slot the pass into the machine so that the date can be printed). The pass can also be purchased from train stations.
Day 12 (14 Oct) – Kyoto
Start with the bamboo grove at Arashiyama 嵐山 early (8am) before the crowd saunters in (8am), then go to Tenryuji 天龍寺. Exit from the north gate of Tenryuji, pass through the bamboo grove again to get to Okochi Sanso 大河内山荘 (1000 yen, includes a matcha tea with dessert). Have lunch at Arashiyama then take a bus to Kinkakuji 金閣寺 followed by Nijojo 二条城. After that, head back to Shijo 四条 for some shopping at the Takashiyama.
My favourite places from this lot are Okochi sanso and Nijojo.
Take bus #11 and alight 1 stop after Tenryuji (for the bamboo grove). It is also possible to walk from the 2 Arashiyama stations ie Arashiyama station 嵐山駅 and Saga-Arashiyama station 嵯峨嵐山駅. If you start from Arashiyama station, you’d have to cross the Togetsukyo 渡月橋 first.
Day 13 (15 Oct) – Kyoto/ Kinosaki Onsen (Hyogo) 城崎温泉
Kinosaki Onsen is a small resort town famous for its 7 public onsens (not all will be open at the same time) and seafood. Grab an onsen pass, put on your Yukata and go onsen-hop in those Getas that the ryokans provide. But be warned that the waters are extremely hot.
To get there, take the Kinosaki Limited Express direct from Kyoto to Kinosaki Onsen (2.5 hours). Walk to your hotel or if it is far in, take the free town shuttle bus.
Day 14 (16 Oct) – Kinosaki Onsen/ Osaka
Take the same limited express train back to Osaka JR station, then transfer to the subway (Umeda) to Namba. While at Osaka station, take time-out to visit the Umeda Sky Building 梅田スカイビル, then shop at the Daimaru department store in Osaka station.
Day 15 (17 Oct) – Osaka/ Singapore
Explore the shopping areas near Namba such as Doguyasuji 道具屋筋商店街, Kuromon market 黑門市場, Namba parks. Grab all the souvenirs that you have to put off buying, but make sure you save some yen for that final last ditch shopping in KIX.
No, I’m kidding.
But temple fatigue does set in, especially in Kyoto, so it is important to pace yourself. Alternating visits to temples with walks in the parks (Nara) or a hike in the woods (Kumano), helps strike a balance. And if you’ve really had enough, there’s the theme parks and museums.