Kansai is Japan’s Mid-West. Well, technically, it’s the region that lies in the south-central part of the main island of Honshu. It is the home of the former imperial capital — Kyoto — as well as to other densely populated urban centers like Osaka and Kobe. While Tokyo may be considered the main cultural and economic hub of Japan, Kansai is a vibrant counter-weight rooted in a rich history and culture.

Ginkakuji
Photo by iStock.com/Rufous52

Luckily, you can explore Kansai for cheap — even from Tokyo. Here’s how:

An alternative to the Japan Rail Pass?

The Kansai Thru pass (“Surutto Kansai”) is a 3-day or 2-day pass that covers rail and bus transport in the whole Kansai area, including Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe, Nara, and Wakayama. It can be used on non-consecutive days, so if you feel like staying put for a day, you’re not using up a precious day on the pass.

If you are arriving at Kansai International Airport and planning to spend a few days in Kansai, then activating your ¥29,650 JR Pass (¥4,236 per day) does not make a lot of sense when you can travel freely around the Kansai area with the 3-day Thru Pass for only ¥5,400 (¥1,800 per day).

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The JR Pass is a 1 week pass that allows unlimited travel on Japan Rail lines throughout the country. This ticket is extraordinarily good value. *Restrictions: Can only be purchased by temporary visitor visa holders not already in Japan. ...

If you’re coming from Tokyo, instead of stumping for the JR Pass or Shinkansen tickets, you can bus from Tokyo to Kyoto and grab a Kansai Thru Pass after you arrive.

Which lines and forms of transport can I use, and what can’t I use?

You can use the Thru Pass to travel for free on 44 different private railway lines and transport companies. This includes the big rail operators like Keihan, Kintetsu, Hankyu, Hanshin, the Osaka Metro, and the Kobe Municipal Subway. It doesn’t include ANY JR West Lines — such as the Sanyo Shinkansen, the Osaka Loop Line, the JR Kyoto Line, JR Tōzai Line, and the JR Kobe Line. For a full list of the lines and transport companies you can use, see the Thru Pass website.

Who can purchase a Kansai Thru Pass?

The Kansai Thru Pass can only be purchased by visitors to Japan on a temporary visa. If you’re a resident, then you’re not eligible.

Where can I purchase the Kansai Thru Pass

You can purchase the pass at major stations in the Kansai region, or online before traveling to Japan. The pass is actually ¥200 cheaper if you purchase it from outside Japan.

Sample day trip itineraries with the Kansai Thru Pass

Once you’ve established a base in (we’re assuming Kyoto) and secured your pass, it’s time for the best part — easy, affordable, and fun day trips into all the magical places Kansai has to offer.

Kyoto

There are literally countless temples, shrines, and other sightseeing spots in and around Kyoto. Almost everything is accessible with the robust bus system in the city, but the city is extremely walkable and bike-able too. If you just make it up to the northern part of Kyoto’s Higashiyama district, you will find there the famous Philosopher’s Path — a serene walkway that connects between several famous (and not so famous) temples.

Kyoto, Philosopher's Path cherry blossoms
Cherry trees in bloom along Kyoto’s Philosopher’s Path. | Photo by iStock.com/SeanPavonePhoto

This pleasant stroll alongside the Lake Biwa Canal, most known for the hundreds of cherry trees lining it, starts at the Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion temple) and goes through several smaller temples as well as quaint restaurants and cafes. Although only 2km long, you can easily take your time here instead of busing across town from temple to temple.

Additionally, on the other end of the Philosopher’s Path you have access to an array of famous temples that are all at walking distance. Some, including Eikando Temple and Nanzenji Temple, do charge admission fees, however. Not to worry, the majestic Heian Shrine is only a 15 minute walk from the southern point of the Philosopher’s Path, and is free to enter (not the garden though).

Total budget: ¥500 (Covers admission into Ginkakuji — buses and subways are free with the Kansai Thru Pass.)

Nara

At an hour away from Kyoto, Nara is a must-see in Kansai. Luckily, most of its attractions are concentrated within Nara Park, including the Todaiji Temple with its monstrous Buddha statue inside the Big Buddha Hall. The park itself does not charge admission fees, but it’s going to run you 800Yen to witness the spectacular statue of the Enlightened One and the adjacent museum. It’s well worth it.

Nara deer park
Photo by iStock.com/Wako Megumi

The hundreds of free-roaming deer in Nara Park are friendly and provide fantastic entertainment, especially for kids. Oh yeah, and it’s free. Just don’t get sucked into buying deer crackers — they just become a bit aggressive when there’s any hope of snacking. Then again, don’t we all?

Total budget: ¥800 (Covers admission into the Big Buddha Hall — train to Nara is free with the Kansai Thru Pass.)

Kobe

Too often overlooked, Kobe is a beautiful harbor city. If you’re prepared to do some walking, it can be extremely affordable too.

bridge to Awaji Island
Photo by iStock.com/Sean Pavone

Kobe features one of the world’s largest suspension bridges. The Maiko Marine Promenade is a path that runs along this Akashi Kaikyo Bridge. You can shell out 300Yen for that experience, or simply admire the glorious bridge and its surroundings from Maiko Park.

Kobe’s waterfront is where you can combine much of your sightseeing, shopping, and dining. Everything is walkable and admission is free. If you’re around in December, all the trees on the main street are illuminated with a total of 80,000 bulbs in various shapes and sizes.

Total budget: ¥300 (Covers admission into the Maiko Marine Promenade — train to Kobe is free with the Kansai Thru Pass.)

Where to stay

Kansai is a fairly compact and well-connected region, so the first step is to pick one central location from which to embark on your exploration.

Right next to the Kyoto Station, the affordable and clean Almont Hotel Kyoto is the perfect home base for touring Kansai. This simple but comfortable hotel is also a short walk from attractions like Higashi Honganji Temple and Nishi Honganji Temple.

If you’re adventurous or simply traveling solo, try the hostel accommodation at Hiro’s Guest House in Osaka’s Korea Town, which boasts a kimchi breakfast (really!).

This article was first published in February 2015. Updated and revised by Greg Lane in November, 2022.

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