There’s more to Japan’s Kansai region than the famous cities we know and love. Get exploring and visit mountains, valleys and beaches to escape the heat this summer.
Kansai is one of the most-visited regions of Japan, but most people only make it to Kyoto, Osaka and Nara. Across its seven prefectures, there are countless amazing spots to explore, from sacred mountains to remote valleys. All perfect for cooling down in the hot and humid summer months. Whether you like to relax by the beach, jet ski on a lake, hike up to higher altitudes or swim in natural gorges, Kansai has it all. Perfect for day trips, weekend getaways or a real vacation—these destinations are acessible thanks to the two major transport hubs, but far enough from their clammy city streets to give you a change of scene. Forget your plans to escape to Hokkaido or bask in Okinawa, the Kansai region has the perfect summer trips for every type of traveler.
1. River dining in Kibune | Kyoto
One of the closest options to Kyoto, but quaint enough to feel a million miles away, Kibune is a top summer destination from the ancient capital. While nagsashi somen is one of the most enjoyable summer dishes, it only gets better when eaten on the river. Every summer, restaurants put out wooden decks waterside for diners to enjoy the cool river air as they fill up on the refreshingly cold noodles. After lunch, you can hike to Kurama along shaded paths and see ancient trees, temples and even a museum before soaking in an onsen.
Access: Catch a bus from Kyoto Station to Demachiyangi Station. Then hop on a train to Kibuneguchi Station. From there you can either catch a bus (not too regular) or enjoy the 20-minute stroll.
Pro tip: Check out the easiest ways to get from Tokyo to Kyoto.
2. Sun and sand at Shirahama Beach | Wakayama
If beaches are your deal, then head out to Shirahama, an onsen town with nightly fireworks shows throughout summer and a picture-perfect beach. Since its name means “white beach”, you can picture the sand-and-sea combo awaiting you at this popular Wakayama resort. The town is one of the three oldest onsen resorts in Japan, so you can soak in spring water as well as the sea while you’re there.
Access: Make your way to Shirahama Station on the Kisei or Kuroshio Line and then catch one of the many buses headed to Shirahama Bus Station (about 20 minutes, just under ¥500) which is right by the beach.
3. Shrines and pearls in Ise and Toba | Mie
Mie is an often-overlook prefecture with lots to offer, including the beautiful cities of Ise and Toba. Ise is famed for the sacred Ise Shrine, but also a pristine river to frolick in and wonderful narrow streets filled with quaint shops, restaurants and performance areas. You can visit the Wedded Rocks out on the shore, pay your respects at the shrine (or the 100 others in the area, no exaggeration) and enjoy the local specialty of Ise ebi (spiny lobster). Nearby, Toba is a town famed for pearl-diving women who search the shores of the Ise Peninsula for treasures. Visit Mikimoto Pearl Island to see the free-diving local women and enjoy the seaside-air.
Access: Make your way to Ujiyamada or Iseshi Station in Ise (the latter is somewhat closer to the shrine). It takes around two hours depending on if you catch a direct Limited Express or makes changes from Osaka Namba. From Ise, catch the Toba Line to Toba; it takes 15 minutes and costs ¥300.
4. A bridge to heaven: Amanohashidate | Kyoto
Known as the Bridge to Heaven, Amanohashidate is a land bridge stretching across Miyazu Bay with everything from a mini themepark to sandy beaches and magical views. To understand the namesake, you have to look at the sandy stretch backwards with your head between your legs. There are special blocks to help you take in the view—and don’t worry, you’ll be one of many. Be sure to visit Nariaji Temple, where wishes come true and take a ride on the Ferris wheel for some bonus nostalgia points. “Pure water” beach is one of the most popular spots to relax at and offers exceptionally clear water (of course) and you can visit some of the small shops and restaurants located along the pine tree–lined strip.
Access: From Kyoto, catch the Hashidate Limited Express which costs ¥4,790 (if you select unreserved seat fee) and takes just over two hours. Alternatively you can catch the Tankai Kaisoku Bus which runs four times a day, costs ¥2,900 and takes 2 hours and 20 minutes.
5. Mount Koya | Wakayama
Stay in a temple, dine on traditional Buddhist cuisine and explore the forest-covered mountain trails! Mount Koya is a spiritual escape in all senses of the word. As the resting place of Kukai, the area is the most sacred in Japan, and the perfect place to enjoy some time away from the distractions of the modern world. Mount Koya is home to the Okunoin Cemetery and Kongobuji (head temple of Shingon Buddhism), plus important halls, gardens and smaller buildings to explore. If you’re keen to wake up to morning prayers and try traditional shojin ryori—look for a traditional shukubo (temple lodging.)
Access: From Shinimamiya Station in Osaka, head to Hashimoto, then change again at Hashimoto for Gokurakubashi Station. From there take the ropeway which takes you up to the top in 5 minutes for ¥390. Consider the Koyasan World Heritage Ticket which covers transport from Osaka and on the mountain for 2 days.
6. Omihachiman | Shiga
A canal town close to Lake Biwa, Omihachiman is a miniature Venice, without all the trash and crazy-expensive restaurants. The castle town is on the Nakasendo highway, a postal trail between Tokyo and Kyoto and was once a transport hub. Now, you can take relaxing rides on the waterways and enjoy the cooling breezes from the mountains. There are traditional streets lined with merchant’s storehouses, a ropeway to Hachimanyama where you can look down at Lake Biwa and plenty of temples and shrines.
Access: Omihachiman can be reached directly from Kyoto in 35 minutes for just ¥680 each way.
7. Mount Takao | Kyoto
Kyoto’s Mount Takao (not to be confused with Tokyo’s Mount Takao) has three stunning temples to explore, including one World Heritage Site. There are also waterfalls and shady walking paths snaking around the nearby mountains. Not only recgonized by UNESCO, Kozanji Temple is also home to Japan’s earliest examples of manga and the country’s oldest tea field. Its neighbors, Jingoji and Saimyoji, are well worth exploring before you have a stroll along the Kiyotaki River (ideally after lunch at one of the nearby restaurants). While it’s popular in autumn for the golden leaves, in summer you can go swimming—and I think we all know what we would rather do right now.
Access: You can catch one of the JR buses from Kyoto Station to Takao, which leaves every 30 minutes and costs ¥530 each way. When you finish your walk, head to Kiyotaki bus stop and catch the 64 or 94 buses towards Arashiyama.
8. Awaji Island | Hyogo
A more unusual option, Awaji Island lies in the Seto Inland Sea, just across Osaka Bay from, well Osaka, but also Wakayama. The island is an unusual mix of nature, design and tradition with some breathtaking views and a beach thrown in there for good measure. Hike to Sumoto Castle atop a hill for a nice breeze and a great view across the bay. Then, stroll along Sunset Boulevard at Keino Matsubara Beach and make the most of the amazing seafood on offer. One of the most unusual spots is the Yumebutai Garden designed by renowned architect Tadao Ando, which features stair-like designs filled with plants reminiscent of Japan’s famous layered rice paddies.
Access: From Sannomiya Station you can catch high-speed buses to the island with Yumebutai only 50 minutes away. Alternatively you can catch the ferry from Akashi and rent bikes when you arrive in Iwaya Fishing Village.
9. Lake Biwa’s beaches | Shiga
The largest freshwater lake in Japan, Lake Biwa is a non-traditional beach that still ticks all the boxes when it comes to escaping the summer heat. Omi-Maiko is the most popular beach as it is a direct train ride from Kyoto and has sand, warm waters and mountain views. You can camp, set up a barebecue and relax as if really were the beach—with jet skies and wind surfers lining the horizon. If you want a quieter spot, head to Makino Sunny Beach, which is farther north and considered to have the clearest water in the lake. It has a well-equipped campsite and plenty of good barbecue spots too.
Access: For Omi-Maiko, cath the Kosei Line from Kyoto to Omimaiko Station (45 minutes, ¥680). For Makino Beach, catch the Kosei Line to Omiimazu and switch for the 8-minute journey to Makino.
10. Mitarai Valley | Nara
The most remote option on our list, this stunning natural gorge is home to sacred mountains, holy temples and lantern-lit onsen towns. Mount Omine, an important site in the Shugendo sect of Buddhism draws many pilgrims, especially in August, and makes for a good hike (although women are banned from a lot of it traditionally…). Hiking along the gorge will bring you to waterfalls, swimming spots and suspension bridges. If you’re feeling fancy, you can stay at one of the traditional ryokans in Dorogawa Onsen or try Tenkawa for a few more options. While it can be done in a day trip, there’s limited transport, so staying overnight will allow you to explore further.
Access: To reach the gorge, you need to first get yourself to Shimoichiguchi Station on the Kintetsu Line (around 1.5 hours from Kyoto, 50 minutes from Nara). From there, take the bus (1 hour) to Tenkawa Kawai Bus stop, then walk 40 minutes to the gorge.