The Kansai Grand Tour
Modern and traditional battle for ascendancy in this trip, which starts in Osaka and Kobe before stepping back in time to Japan’s former Imperial capitals of Kyoto and Nara, and concludes with an overnight temple stay and pilgrimage trail deep in Japan’s spiritual heartland of Wakayama.
Fly into Kansai International Airport (KIX). Most flights from the UK with one change of planes in Europe arrive the following morning, meaning you can start sightseeing from the word go if you’re fresh enough.
From the airport, head straight into central Osaka using the direct JR Kansaikuko (Kansai Airport) Line, which takes about 1 hour and 10 minutes. Alight at Osaka Station and head to your nearby hotel to check your bags and freshen up.
By now you’ll probably be hungry for some lunch, so try an Osakan food staple in the form of udon (thick white flour noodles) before hopping on the JR Osaka Loop Line for just under 30 minutes to Osakajokoen (Osaka Castle Park) Station for Osaka Castle. Take a stroll around the castle grounds, which are particularly pleasant in spring cherry blossom season, before heading inside the castle to explore the exhibits there. The interior of the castle is a fully modern museum - it even has working lifts.
From the castle, catch the Loop Line back to Osaka Station and use the remaining afternoon hours before dark to explore the area around the station, which is home to some major Japanese department stores such as Daimaru and Isetan Mitsukoshi, electronics giant Yodobashi Camera Umeda (a specialist in all things camera, as the name suggests), and HEP (Hankyu Entertainment Park)’s 300 restaurants and shops and ferris wheel.After dark, walk 10 minutes to the futuristic-looking 173 metre tall Umeda Sky Building and take the lift up to the 39th floor for stunning night-time views from its open-air observation deck, the Floating Garden Observatory (open until 22:30) - just make sure to hang onto your hat!
Start the day with a morning trip to Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan, one of the biggest and best aquariums in the world, with tanks even large enough to house manta rays and whale sharks.
Take the JR Osaka Loop Line 10 minutes to Bentencho Station and change to the Chuo Subway Line (not covered by the JR Pass) for the 5-minute ride out to Osakako (Osaka Port) Station on the bay.
After making friends with the local sea-life, head back into town to Minami, Osaka’s southern district, for some retail therapy, making your way directly south through Shinsaibashi and Amerika-mura (the Harajuku of Osaka - catering to young women with row upon row of clothes, shoes and handbags). Time your arrival in Dotonbori canalside entertainment district for after dark to see the rainbow-coloured neons in action and grab okonomiyaki (savoury pancakes) - another Osakan classic - for dinner.
Theme park fanatics could swap the aquarium and the shopping for an enjoyable day spent at Universal Studios Japan (USJ) theme park, the only theme park under the Universal Studios brand in Asia. Or, if you are a fan of the traditional you could watch puppet theatre at the National Bunraku Theatre.
Take a daytrip to bright and breezy, modern port city Kobe. Ride the bullet train for 10 minutes from Shin-Osaka Station to Shin-Kobe Station.
After arriving, catch the Shin-Kobe ropeway (5 minutes walk from the station) up to admire the views from the southern slopes of the Rokko mountain range.
Catch the ropeway back down and head downhill on foot to reach charming historical Kitano district. Spend a few hours exploring its Ijinkan, former residences of foreign merchants and diplomats who settled in Kobe after its opening to foreign trade in the 1860s. Around a dozen of them remain as interesting little museums.
Once you reach Hankyu Kobe-Sannomiya Station, take the train 5 minutes to Kobe Station from where it’s an easy walk to shopping and entertainment district Kobe Harborland and Meriken Park, home to the striking edifice of Kobe Tower. Have dinner in Nankinmachi, Kobe’s Chinatown, before catching the train back to Osaka from Motomachi Station.
Today you will swap the present for the past, as you exchange the bright and bustling metropolis of Osaka for the altogether calmer locales of former capital and city of culture Kyoto. From Osaka Station, it’s just 30 minutes by bullet train to Kyoto Station.
Spend at least two days exploring the sights that Kyoto, the city of a 1000 temples, has to offer. Kyoto has so much to see and do that’s it often hard to know where to begin. It might help to split the city up into a few districts mentally to help you get the most efficient use out of your time spent here.
Allow at least one full day for exploring the sights of central eastern Higashiyama district, which is home to the bulk of Kyoto’s most famous temples and shrines. Starting in the south, visit Sanjusangendo Temple’s 1001 statues of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, before working your way up south to north through Chawan-zaka (teabowl lane - a pottery district), to Kiyomizudera Temple, with its stunning views from its mind-bogglingly nail-free wooden balcony.
Then wend your way through the old-fashioned shops and cafes of the hilly streets of Sannen-zaka and Ninen-zaka to Nanzenji Temple, from where you can follow the Philosopher’s Path north uphill along the river to Ginkaku-ji Temple, with its low-key, even austere, Silver Pavilion.
Make your way back down the hill to visit Heian Jingu Shrine and the two nearby art museums - National Museum of Modern Art and Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art - before heading to Gion around dusk for some geisha-spotting.
Allow another day for exploring northern Kyoto, ticking off more central sites such as Nijo Castle and the old Imperial Palace before catching a bus north to the outskirts to visit Ryoanji Temple with its beautiful but austere Zen rock garden, and Kinkakuji Temple, best known for its eye-poppingly splendid Golden Pavilion.
Finally, use your last day in Kyoto to explore its southern and western sights using Kyoto Station as your base. Take the JR Sanin Line 15 minutes to Saga-Arashiyama station, from where it is a 10 minute walk to the main sights of Arashiyama.
Start from Togetsukyo Bridge, spanning the area’s wide, pleasant river, and stroll through the town, sampling traditional sweets from the vendors en route and pausing to admire the view at tranquil Zen temple Tenryuji Temple before making the short climb uphill to explore the atmospheric Sagano bamboo groves.
Take the JR Nara Line a few stops south to Inari Station to visit Fushimi Inari Taisha, with its photogenic tunnels of red torii shrine gates stretching up into the hills. As with Kyoto’s other popular sights such as the bamboo groves, you should to go either very early or late to get it at its most atmospheric and least crowded for that perfect holiday snap.
UjiWhile you’re in Kyoto, a day-trip to Uji, the home of matcha green tea in Japan, is not to be missed. It’s just short train ride 20 minutes from Kyoto to Nara Station by JR Nara Line, leaving you with ample time to explore Uji’s sights at a leisurely pace.
Uji’s must-see sight is Byodoin Temple, whose Phoenix Hall, with its elegant, winged shaped and rooftop phoenix statues, is featured on the back of the 10 Yen coin - perfect for a selfie! Visitors can only enter the hall itself on a short guided tour which runs every 20 minutes, so make a beeline for the tour reception when you arrive to get your names down for the next one.
Green tea has been cultivated in Uji since the 12th-14th century, and today its matcha tea is still regarded as having superior quality. There are many ways to sample green tea in Uji, from slurping on matcha-flavour soba noodles and ice cream, to joining in a short but authentic tea ceremony at public Taihoan tea house.
Go even further back in time, as you spend a couple of quiet days in ancient former capital Nara. Take the JR Nara Line 45 minutes direct from Kyoto Station to Nara Station.
Japan’s first capital city before it ceded the crown to neighbouring Kyoto, Nara’s most famous attractions are its impressive lineup of UNESCO World Heritage sites, including one of the largest Big Buddha statues in Japan, as well as the hordes of free-ranging deer roaming Nara Park.
The bulk of the UNESCO sites are in the east, in or around Nara Park, so try and remember to pick your accommodation with this in mind. Key sights inside the park are relatively close to one another, but prepare yourself for a full day of strolling around the sights, as there is little public transport once you’re inside. Must-sees include the bronze Big Buddha statue inside Todaiji Temple, lantern-lined Nigatsudo and Sangatsudo (Nara’s oldest building), Kasuga Taisha shrine (Nara’s original guardian shrine), and the bowing deer inhabiting Nara Park.
If you’ve got the energy for anything more after all that, head back towards your hotel via Kofukuji Temple, with its five-storied pagoda, terrapin-infested Sarusawa Pond, and Naramachi, Nara’s old downtown area, which gradually absorbed the grounds of Gangoji Temple as it grew.
On your second day in Nara, take the Kintetsu Nara Line (not covered by the JR Pass) to Yamato-Saidaiji Station for UNESCO sites Heijo Palace Remains, Toshodaiji Temple, and Yakushiji Temple.
Finish your journey back in time by seeing something incredibly old. After lunch, take the JR Yamatoji Line 12 minutes south to Horyuji Station, from where it is a 20 minutes walk to Horyuji Temple, containing the oldest wooden structure in the world.
Temple stay on Mt. Koya
Set out for Mt. Koya, a Buddhist temple-filled mountaintop retreat, for an overnight stay in a shukubo (temple lodging).
To get there, take the JR Sakurai Line/Wakayama Line for around 1 hour and 40 minutes to Hashimoto Station. Change to the Nankai-Koya Line and take the train for 40 minutes to Gokurakubashi Station, from where it is a 5 minutes cablecar ride up to the top of Mt. Koya. (Note that the JR Pass does not cover the journey after Hashimoto Station).
Check into your shukubo before heading out on foot or by bicycle to explore the temples and conifer forests of the mountain top. There are over 100 temples atop of Mt. Koya, but the most important are Kongobuji Temple and Okunoin, so make sure you don’t miss these. The former is the head temple of the Shingon Buddhism sect, while the latter is the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi, the Shingon sect’s founder. Okunoin cemetery houses over 200,000 tombstones scattered among atmospheric moss-covered cedar trees and rocky paths, while Torodo Hall’s 10,000 lanterns are kept alight 24-hours a day.
Make the most of your overnight stay in a shukubo to get a taste of life as a Buddhist monk, supping on shojin ryori (vegetarian Buddhist cuisine) for breakfast and dinner, bathing in communal baths, sleeping on a futon in a tatami room, and joining in morning prayers with the monks at dawn.
Once you’ve checked out of your shukubo and had your fill of Mt. Koya’s sights, take the cable car and the train back down the mountain to Osaka (around 2.5 hours). Stay overnight near Tennoji Station to be best placed for an early getaway the next morning.
For your final adventure, venture even deeper into Japan’s spiritual heartland, visiting a network of pilgrimage trails and three sacred shrines collectively known as the Kumano Sanzan in the Kumano area on the southern top of the Kii peninsula.
The trio of shrines in question are Hongu Taisha, Nachi Taisha (home of the tallest waterfall in Japan), and Hayatama Taisha. If you have limited time, aim for Nachi Taisha, the most scenic and also easily accessible by public transport. Take the JR Kuroshio express from Tennoji Station direct to Kii-Katsuura Station on the southeast tip of the Kii Peninsula (3.5 hours) from where it is a 20-30 minute bus ride to the shrine.
Pilgrims have been travelling to the three shrines via walking trails, called the Kumano Kodo, for over 1000 years, and so if you’re a keen hiker or have more time to spare then now is an ideal opportunity to take a break and explore some of the hiking trails winding deep into the mountains, adding on additional nights to your itinerary as necessary. The Kumano Kodo are the only pilgrimage routes beside the Camino de Santiago in Spain to be designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites, which occurred in 2004.
Break up the journey back round the peninsula to catch your flight home with a stop-off at Shirahama hot spring and beach resort (1.5 hours from Kii-Katsuura Station). Meaning “white sand” in Japanese, it has a 500-metre long white-sand beach to prove that it’s no misnomer. If you’ve been hiking the Kumano trails then the combination of hot and cold waters will surely come as a welcome break.
Once you’ve explored Japan’s spiritual heartland to your heart’s content, return to Kansai Airport to catch your flights home. You can also easily add on extra days to explore Osaka or Kyoto in more depth as you wish.