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 boasts a vibrant counter-culture rooted in rich history. They also have a really neat dialect.
Luckily, you can explore Kansai for cheap — even from Tokyo. Here’s how:
Saving Big on the Rail Pass
Most visitors to Japan tend to fly in and out of the nation’s capital of Tokyo, and use the Japan Rail Pass to zip between major cities across the country. If you confine your itinerary to the Greater Tokyo and Kansai areas, there are ways to streamline your transportation expenses.
Whereas a week-long national rail pass goes for 29,110Yen, if you combine the standard fare for the 2.5-hour train ride from Tokyo to Kyoto together with the 3-day Kansai Thru pass (“Surutto Kansai”) that covers everything from Kyoto to Nara to Osaka — you total at only a little over 18,000yen (13,260yen for the Shinkansen and 5,200yen for the Thru pass). Snoring through a ride on an overnight bus between these two major cities can save you yet an additional few thousand Yen, and the need to pay for accommodation on that night.
Now, this will only work if you don’t need to ride back to Tokyo, and utilize the Kansai International Airport (KIX) for either your inbound or outbound international flight. Not to worry — this is a major hub with hundreds of weekly flights to Asia, Europe, and North America. There is a good chance you will find an attractive deal that works with this type of itinerary.
Establishing a Base: Kyoto Budget Inn
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.
Only a 5-minute walk from the central train station in Kyoto, the affordable and clean Budget Inn is going to the perfect home base for touring Kansai. This traditional hostel or “ryokan” offers Japanese-style suites with modern touches at just around three thousand yen per person, per night if you are staying with 3 or more people.
If you’re really adventurous or simply traveling solo, try their nearby annex ryokan, which boasts the world’s first “Tatami Capsules” that go for 5,980Yen a night.
Day Trips: Kyoto, Nara, Kobe, and Beyond
Once you’ve established a base in Kyoto and figured out the rail passes and flights, it’s time for the best part — easy, affordable, and fun day trips into all the magical places Kansai has to offer.
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.
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: 500Yen (Covers admission into Ginkakuji — buses and subways are free with the Kansai Thru Pass.)
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.
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: 800Yen (Covers admission into the Big Buddha Hall — train to Nara is free with the Kansai Thru Pass.)
Too often overlooked, Kobe is a beautiful harbor city. If you’re prepared to do some walking, it can be extremely affordable too.
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 Harborland 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 lit up with a total of 80,000 bulbs in various shapes and sizes.
Total budget: 300Yen (Covers admission into the Maiko Marine Promenade — train to Kobe is free with the Kansai Thru Pass.)
There’s plenty more to see in Kansai, and most of it is on the cheap. You can break this itinerary up into multiple, shorter days using the 2-day Kansai Thru passes.