A couple of weeks ago I did a post on how to spend 7 Days in Tokyo. Now…Tokyo is most definitely at the top of many people’s travel bucket list and a must go to for anyone in general! BUT — what if I told you there was a better place to experience the history, culture, and atmosphere of Japan?
Welcome to the Kansai Region, my friends!
If you live and die to experience city life and you only have 7 days in Japan, by all means, Tokyo is the place for you! But if you want to get as much culture, diversity, and history out of Japan AND experience the city life within that same time frame, skip out on Tokyo and go straight to Kansai — you will thank me, and most importantly, yourself, later.
For those who are not familiar, the Kansai Region is in the south-central region of Japan and includes the prefectures Mie, Wakayama, Hyogo, Shiga, Osaka, Nara and at the centre of it — Kyoto! Kansai is seen as the historical heart of Japan and its urban region (comprised of Osaka, Kobe, and Kyoto) comes second to the Greater Tokyo Area in terms of population. The Kansai Region alone has a whopping 6 UNESCO World Heritage sites [out Japan’s 21.]
Like my previous entry about Tokyo, below is a detailed 7-day guide to the Kansai Region. It will involve staying in two different accommodations (in Kyoto and Osaka) and a day trip to Japan’s ancient capital, Nara. Kansai is a roller coaster and a half and is home to some of my best memories in Japan, so strap on in and let’s do this!
*Note: The itinerary can be slightly altered based on season or time of the month (i.e Spring, you’ll want to fit in cherry blossom viewing and in the Summer maybe a fireworks festival.) It is baseline guide to get you inspired. Please change things around based on your interests, your own research, and timing.
1-Week Itinerary in Japan’s Kansai Region
Day 1: Osaka
Even during overcast, Dontonbori’s pastel hues are as intriguing as the fragrant aromas.
Your first day is always going to be a day of travel. If you can, try and add an extra day or so to accommodate travel time. From Toronto alone, your travel time will be a minimum of 15.5 hours (or 12 hours from San Fransico directly) and pushes you a whole day forward due to the time zone.
- Arrive at Kansai International Airport right on Osaka Bay — about 40km away from Central Osaka. If you’ve planned your flight accordingly, you will try and arrive as early as possible. You are going to want to head to customs and make your way to the city pronto and you have a few options to do just that. The quickest and easiest choice is the Kansai Airport Rapid Service for Osaka Station and Tennoji Station, The Limited Express Haruka for Tennoji Station and Shin-Osaka Station or The Nankai Airport Express and the Limited Express Rapi:t for Nankai Namba Station. Another alternative for the penny pinchers out there is to take a shuttle bus — which can be as cheap as ¥1000, but will usually take a bit longer (check out the Osaka Station website, which clearly explains how to get you from point A to B.)
- Once you arrive centrally, you’ll want to check in to your hotel, capsule hotel or guest house (most check-in times are at 3:00 pm, so plan accordingly.) For your two nights in Osaka, I recommend experiencing a Japanese capsule hotel. It is an accommodation style that you have likely never experienced before; similar to a hostel, but more private. Each person gets their own pod in a shared area. They are also VERY cheap — starting as low as ¥2500 a night (which includes bag storage, robe, toothbrush, slippers, bed and all facility use.) Don’t be intimidated by the idea of a capsule hotel, most of the guests are Japanese natives and the floors are split by gender. I recommend B&S Eco Cube Shinsaibashi as it is clean, the staff is friendly and it is within walking distance from all major attractions or subway lines.
- After settling in and freshening up, you are going to want to grab a bite to eat. If you’ve chosen to stay at B&S Eco Cube, you’ll be no more than a 10-minute walk from the vibrant Dontonbori. Known as Japan’s kitchen, Dontonbori gives you hundreds of options for food. I could give you a handful of recommendations here, but the best thing to do is roam up and down the streets and tight alleys just to eat your heart out. You can find a cozy sit-in ramen shop or opt to sample different Japanese street foods. My personal favourites are Takoyaki and Okonomiyaki — and trust me, there is no way to choose a wrong place! Half of the fun comes from just exploring the plethora of food options and soaking in your first day of Japanese food culture.
- If you are tired from the countless hours of travelling and need to get some shut-eye, by all means, head back to your hotel/accommodations and sleep, you have 6 days ahead of you of fun! If you want to fight the jet lag and stay out a wee bit longer, stick around in Dontonbori and get a feel for the area. Dontonbori is best experienced at night and there is so much to eat, see and buy.
Day 2: Osaka
If you don’t get lost in Namba Parks, you’re doing it wrong.
- Rise and shine — there is no time for sleep, you are in Japan! If you are staying in a capsule hotel as recommended, you’ll be awakened by the hotel staff to get your butt in gear. You have to be out of their by 10am so they can clean up and get it ready for another night, but don’t worry, they’ll keep your luggage safe for you. I personally like to get up early and beat the rush to the showers, because there was only 4 to be shared among 20 or so people.
- Since you are not in Osaka for long, you are going to want to hit some shopping out of the park. I like to do that right away. If you are not planning on buying a lot or haven’t budgeted a lot of shopping, that is fine…window shopping in Osaka is a present within itself. Make your way to Namba Parks. You can hop on the subway, but I recommend saving the ¥200 and walking. Take in the foreign sites and people watch — you are in a new city after all! Also, the more you get out and about and walk through the streets, the more confident you’ll get in navigating and getting familiar with the traffic patterns. Leaving or walking through Shinsaibashi, you’ll notice a lot of high-end retailers and department stores. If you have the money or are simply just curious, it is worth your time to make a stop — just make sure to grab a coffee and small snack from a FamilyMart or 7-11 to tide you over.
- You know you’ve hit the Namba Sation area when you see the tall architecturally unique buildings. You have a long shopping (or window shopping day) ahead of you. But before that, I recommend filling your belly up with some COCO Curry House (around ¥1200) for lunch. Don’t be fooled by this popular Japanese chain, they put home cooking to shame and I guarantee you’ll be stopping by a CoCo’s at least one more time before you leave. This specific location, (directions from Namba park linked above) had the friendliest staff ever, who gave us English menus right away, and told us what they recommended. We opted for the Japanese menus to challenge ourselves — plus most menus in Japan have giant pictures of the options, so just point and smile to what looks good.
- After a full belly of curry, walk through the labyrinth that is Namba Parks. We accidentally stumbled across it looking for a gift and it was a good find. If you don’t get lost, then you are in the wrong place. There is plenty more to look at in the Namba area — you have to check out Tower Records, it’s not the biggest in Japan, but it’ll still give you the same experience and is a can’t miss stop for any music lover!
- It is probably about time to head back to your capsule for re-check-in (now, you don’t have to go right at 3pm, you can head back anytime until midnight.) If you opted for a hotel you can stick around Namba if you have the stamina or go back to freshen up. I went during the summer months, so showering twice a day was a must!
- As the early evening approaches, you’ve probably got food on your mind. A. Head back to Dontonbori and eat everything you missed the prior day OR B. Head over to the famous Ichiran Ramen in Dontonbori for one of the greatest ramen eating experiences of your life. On a solo trip? They specialize in that!
- A viable option C. is to take the subway north to the Amerikamura District near Shinsaibashi. And yes, it is exactly what it sounds like — “Little America”. I know you are here to experience Japan, but Amerikamura is actually packed mostly with locals — as not many tourists know about it. It is a cool place to roam and it puts most American/Canadian burger joints to shame. The Japanese just do everything better and Amerikamura proves it!
- Now, for my hipster friends…ditch Amerikamura and explore the inner alleys of Shinsaibashi (north-west of Dontonbori around B&S Eco Cube). It is hard to explain this area, it just has such a cool gritty vibe. If you’ve ever been to Kensington Market in Toronto – it is the Japanese version of that! And for all of my video game, anime and otaku culture friends you have to head over to Mandarake. I spent at least 3 hours exploring floor upon floor of vintage/retro Japanese video games, toys and much more!
- Now, your night can either go one of two ways. If you are the party type and happen to be in Osaka from Thursday to Saturday, it is izakaya (Japanese bar) time!
- As mentioned above, the alleys of Shinsaibashi are home to a plethora of izakayas. Wander in one, grab a beer (or sake) and wander into the next one. Don’t be surprised if you make a couple of Japanese friends along the way -— locals are super outgoing and love to engage with foreigners. A cool hidden gem was Video Game Bar Space Station. The bar owner has his entire video game collection out to play. Grab a drink, buddy up and play some classic Super Smash Bros — that’s what I did!
- Once that buzz is going and you’ve been into more izakayas then you can remember, its time to hit the club. If you are not the club type, now would be a perfect time to stroll back to your accommodations and sleep off the last bits of the jetlag.
- Are my club people still with me? Ok. Let’s drink off the rest of our jetlag. I only went to one club while in Osaka and that was GHOST. I highly recommend this place. It is roughly 50/50 foreigners and locals which is a fantastic mix. The early half of night we partied with people from Seoul, Boston, and Sydney and the late half is when the locals intermixed. Other viable options based on local recommendation were Club Joule, Giraffe, and CHEVAL. Make sure you check out their Facebook pages the night before to see dress code, theme, etc.
- Oh, and did I mention there is a 24 hour McDonald’s within a 3-minute walk from all of these clubs? Now is your chance to try the famous teriyaki or shrimp burgers.
Day 3: Osaka → Kyoto
Take a journey to Osaka Castle, it’s a long one!
- How’s the hangover friend? (If you chose to opt out of drinking, you made the smarter choice.)
- Grab some well-needed breakfast. FamilyMart or 7/11 usually does the trick — especially for us budget travellers. Remember you have to check-out by 11am!
- Hop on the greenish yellow subway north or take a beautiful morning stroll to Osaka Castle. Don’t worry about your luggage, there are luggage lockers at almost every big station in Osaka where you can store it for as little as ¥500.
- Walking up to the castle will take some time and it is such a beautiful sight to behold. I personally did not go inside (which houses a historical museum and art gallery with many exhibits) as I was strapped for time. I’ve heard the museum is just ok, but the observation deck at the top is worth the admission alone!
- If you still have time to kill after Osaka, I would take the JR over to the Umeda Sky Building. Although I did not go personally, I heard that I made a mistake skipping out on it. Take a look at a few pictures online and you’ll see what I mean. This is a modern architecture fanatics dream!
- It is time to make your way to Kyoto. The fastest and most affordable way to get there is to take the JR from Osaka Station to Kyoto Station. It will take about 30 minutes and costs only ¥560. From Kyoto Station, there are subway connections that can get you across the entire city. Make sure you arrive at your hotel/guesthouse/ryokan in time for your 3pm check-in. I went the super budget way and found a really cheap hotel called Hotel Chatelet Inn Kyoto. It was $60 CAD a night and was located close enough to everything. I’m sure you can find something better in Booking.com or Hostel World, but I have zero complaints about my experience there and would recommend it to anyone who wants a private hotel room at a low cost.
- Head downtown. If you make your destination Karasuma Station, it’ll put you where the action begins. Who said you couldn’t explore Japanese city life in Kansai?! As you walk east, there are plenty of small shops and big name brands to be seen. From a giant multi-floor Uniqlo to the small boutiques selling sweet mochi, you’ll be roaming until the sun goes down. But make sure to head over Yasaka Shrine at the end of Shijo Dori. Your Japanese history lesson has begun!
- At this point, I just assume that you’ve wandered into a tasty yakitori restaurant or have been taken away by the sweet smells soba and tempura. If you are having trouble picking a spot, I recommend Kichi Kichi Omurice. You’ll have to make reservations at least a month in advance, but it is well worth it! The chef is Facebook famous for his extreme skill on the art of Japanese omelette rice making. If you are going to splurge on a meal, this is the one to do it on!
- After food, take a stroll down Kamo River and navigate the tightest of historic alleys in Kyoto.
- Has Kyoto won your heart over already?
Day 4: Kyoto
Let Kyoto’s alleyways take you back a few centuries.
- Today is your FREE day!
- The best days in Japan are those that go unplanned. Wake up, grab an onigiri and vending machine ice coffee, take the subway into town, get off and just explore! Take as many breaks as you want, walk into any food spot and just let the small alleys whisp you away. There is nothing short of things to do in Kyoto— who knows what you’ll find!
Day 5: Nara Day Trip
- Nara. The ancient capital of Japan awaits. At this point of the trip, you’ve gotten into a bit of a ritual. You wake up, find your favourite breakfast place, or wait until noon to eat all together. Regardless, you’ll want to head over to Kyoto station first thing in the morning. (Quick Tip: Before you head over to Nara, spend some time in Kyoto Station, it is an attraction in of itself.)
- I recommend taking the Nara Line to Nara JR Station. It costs about ¥710 and gets you to Nara within 45 minutes.
- You’ll know you are in Nara when you see all of the deer signs. Once you’ve left the station, head over to town, there is no need for a bus, it is just a skip away.
- Before you head over to Nara Deer Park, grab a bite in town. I went to CoCo Curry House once again, because it is super addicting, but apparently, the eel donburi dishes are to die for. There was also a lot of American-style pancake houses on the downtown strip — I still don’t understand why.
- Nara Deer Park is about a 15-minute walk from the “downtown” strip of Nara. You’ll be spending most of your day here, and for a very good reason!
- DEER EVERYWHERE! Need I say more? You won’t believe it until you actually see it so I will leave you with that.
- Make sure you head over to Todai-Ji while you are in the park, you can’t miss one of the oldest Buddha’s in all of Japan.
- As you head into the late afternoon, I recommend exploring a bit of the nearby neighbourhoods and small alleyways. There is something so calming about walking through these streets and it gives you a very warm and atmospheric vibe. Don’t be surprised if you see stray deer trotting around.
- You can either check out some of Nara’s quaint restaurants in the inner alleys adjacent to the deer park or take the Nara Line back to Kyoto Station and have a bite at one of the many restaurants there.
- If you are not as tired as I was, you must be some sort of superhuman. Hit up the closest Family Mart to your hotel and find all of the cool Japanese snacks you can. Bring your haul back with you, take a shower (if your lucky enough, your accommodations will have a hot spring…mine did!) and throw some Japanese TV. trust me, this is all apart of the experience. Oh, and start ripping through those snacks, they aren’t going to eat themselves!
- If you are game for some more late night adventure, I’ve heard Sake tasting is a must try experience (one I will have to try myself when I go back next year.) My friend recommended Sake Bar Yoramu. He claims it is the ultimate Sake educational experience! If sake is your thing, this thing is the thing for you! If you want some cheap watering holes to hit up, go to the Kiyamachi area which runs parallel to the Kamo River.
Day 6: Kyoto
Get lost in the Bamboo Forest.
- Wakeup! You’re going to Nishiki Market! You’re going to need to load up on sustenance for today’s trek. You may be within walking distance or a short subway ride away. Nishiki is considered one of Japan’s best food markets. It is semi-indoor, so rain is never an issue. Be prepared to sample the good, the delicious and the darn right questionable. Make sure to bring a lot of change and an open your mind — you are about to have some of the tastiest Japanese delicacies. If you haven’t had your sushi fix, now is your chance to try some of the freshest fish you’ll ever have. Make sure you get the fatty tuna! There is also an extensive shopping area around Nishiki where you’ll find modern fashion and unique souvenirs.
- This part is a little bit of your choice. Choose between Fushimi Inari-Taisha (world famous Shinto shrine, Kinkaku-Ji (iconic golden temple) or Arashiyama (monkeys and bamboo forest.)
- It is possible to fit all three into one day but you may feel rushed and won’t really have time to relax and soak in the natural beauty. Choose your top choice and revisit the others during your free days! Another popular option is Nijo Castle.
- You are tired, sweaty, hungry and are need of some sweet Japanese food. My suggestion? Head back to your hotel, freshen up and head to the inner city and take your pick. I’m not a huge pro in the culinary scene of Kyoto (all about the budget choices — conveyor belt sushi, ramen and pretty much and donburi spot) so this may take some more research on your end. You are tired, I get it…but can’t you fit in a few hours of drinking and karaoke? It is Japan after all! I recommend any JOY SOUND in the area. They are pretty good with foreigners and have some extra perks. Sing your heart out and don’t look back!
Day 7: Kyoto
Rooftoping on Kyoto Station. Give it a shot — I dare you!
- FREE Day #2. Kyoto is best to be uncovered through aimless exploration. There are so many alleys, crevices, and unique shops that beg to be found. Did your hotel concierge recommend a popular temple nearby? Go check it out! Will you need to take the train to take an out of city day trip? DO IT! There are plenty more temples, shrines, museums, art gallery’s and parks to be seen. This is your trip, so get creative and add a hint of personality to your itinerary — it’s your last day after all!
Make sure to wake up early enough to allow plenty of time to get to the airport. It takes about an hour and a half to get back to Kansai International Airport so be prepared. Looking out of the plane window as you take off, you’ll wonder why didn’t stay an extra week.
Just because we have different budgets, doesn’t mean we can’t all enjoy the same destination! Check out How Much Will it Cost to Visit Japan in 2018? for my guide on different Japan travel budgets.
Are an urbanite at your very core? If so, Tokyo is probably more your thing. Check out my Tokyo Itinerary 7 Days (Budget-Friendly) post for your complete one-week guide to Tokyo.
I’d love to hear your suggestions on must-see places in Kyoto, Osaka & Nara. Comment below or hit up my Facebook page to get more personalized travel posts and entries!