global tourism

From urban jungles to Zen temples: A traveler’s guide to Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, and Himeji

Joshua Berida
From urban jungles to Zen temples: A traveler’s guide to Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, and Himeji
We also include some key budget tips to keep your trip easier on the pocket!

Japan is a beautiful country with a vibrant past, rich culture, and delicious food, and is often atop the bucket lists of many Filipinos. I have been to Japan a number of times and am still eager to return.

One of the regions one must visit is Kansai. The latter can easily fill your itinerary and is also easy to explore because of passes available to tourists. This is where you’ll find Osaka, Kyoto, and Himeji. If you want to see castles and temples, eat delicious food, and immerse yourself in the country’s culture, this is the place to be.

Getting a visa

Filipinos will need to acquire a visa first before traveling to Japan. These are some of the basic requirements:

  • Passport
  • Filled-out application form with a photo attached
  • PSA-issued birth certificate
  • PSA-issued marriage certificate (for married applicants)
  • Itinerary
  • Bank certificate
  • Copy of income tax return

You can also view the list of complete requirements here.

After gathering the required documents, submit your application through an accredited travel agency.

You can also get more information by checking out the Embassy of Japan’s website.

Get into Osaka

It’s easy to travel to Kansai from the Philippines. There are regular flights from Manila to Osaka operated by Cebu Pacific and Philippine Airlines. Get the lowest fares by planning your trip and booking tickets months in advance. 

Get out of the airport

You’ll most likely arrive at Kansai International Airport (KIX) from Manila. The airport is quite far from the city, but it’s convenient to get out of it because of your transportation options. The Haruka limited express train travels to Tennoji for JPY1,740 for an unreserved seat and JPY2,300 for a reserved seat, and to Shin-Osaka for JPY2,380 for an unreserved seat and JPY2,900 for a reserved seat. The JR airport rapid train travels to Tennoji for JPY1,080 and Osaka Station for JPY1,210. Nankai Railway’s Rap:t limited express train can take you to Namba Station for JPY1,450 in roughly 35 minutes. A cheaper option from this rail company is the express train which costs around JPY930. 

Get around Kansai

Should you get a rail pass? The answer depends on how much traveling you want to do. The JR Pass covers an extensive network of trains throughout the country. However, it doesn’t provide good value if you don’t use the shinkansen often. I would recommend the Kansai Thru Pass because it covers both the trains and bus rides you’ll need to take. The pass only covers non-JR trains, which are still quite extensive even if they’re slower. The pass also allows you to ride city buses and subways within Osaka and Kyoto, both of which you’ll explore in this guide. You must pay extra for limited express trains when you ride Kintetsu, Keihan, and Nankai trains. You can use this pass in two or three calendar days as long as it’s still valid. You save a bit of money when you purchase the pass outside of the country; a two-day pass costs JPY4,380 (buy in Japan for JPY4,480) and a three-day one costs JPY5,400 (buy in Japan for JPY 5600).

You can purchase the pass through Klook, Kansai Airport, and tourist information centers in Hankyu Umeda Station, Namba Station, and Osaka Station. 

Learn more about the pass here.

You might also want to check out this website. You can check various routes you can take between cities.

Itinerary

You’ll have plenty of things to do and places to visit in the Kansai region. One trip isn’t enough to cover everything.

*This itinerary assumes you start with one full day.

Day 1

After arriving the day before, it’s time to explore Osaka. The latter is one of Japan’s biggest cities. As is typical with many metropolises of similar size, Osaka provides visitors with plenty of dining, entertainment, and shopping options. The city has also retained some of its traditional charm.

HISTORY. Osaka Castle. Photo by Joshua Berida/Rappler

First, make your way to probably the most popular attraction in the city, Osaka Castle. The latter dates to the 1580s and (as the cliché goes) has withstood the test of time. The castle is surrounded by a park which you can hang out or walk around in. You can go inside the castle but expect a minimalist interior. The castle grounds are also a popular destination during cherry blossom season. 

Next, head on over to Shitennoji, one of the country’s oldest temples. Prince Shotoku founded the temple centuries ago back in 593. The serene temple contrasts with the hustle and bustle of a mega city.

Osaka is also a famous foodie destination. You can try all sorts of Japanese food during your trip. One of the places you can indulge in delicious food is Shinsekai. The urban planners that designed Shinsekai patterned this neighborhood after New York’s Coney Island and Paris. At the center of the district, you’ll see the Tsutenkaku Tower. You’ll find numerous restaurants serving kushikatsu, which is a famous deep-fried dish.

BRIGHT. The famous Glico Man and Osaka’s neon signs. Photo by Joshua Berida/Rappler

End your day by exploring Namba. The latter is a bustling shopping and dining district. Simply put, it’s a bigger and more modern version of Shinsekai with more places to eat and shop. Make sure to head on over to Dotonbori where you’ll find many neon signs, including the Glico Running Man. You might also want to window shop (or actual shop) in Shinsaibashi Shopping Arcade. Eat as much okonomiyaki, takoyaki, and ramen before returning to your accommodation.

Entrance fees:

  • JPY600 Osaka Castle
  • JPY300 Shitennoji inner precinct, JPY300 garden, and JPY500 treasure house
  • JPY900 Tsutenkaku Tower entrance fee, pay an extra JPY300 to access the open-air deck and JPY1,000 for the slide

Day 2

Explore Umeda and experience its many dining, shopping, and entertainment offerings. Some notable spots include the Grand Front Osaka, Osaka Station City, Umeda Sky Building, Kitashinchi District, and Nakazicho District. If you have the budget and interest, make your way up to the 39th floor of the Umeda Sky Building for overlooking views of the city from the Floating Garden Observatory. 

WALK. Minoo Park. Photo by Joshua Berida/Rappler

Escape the urban jungle with a trip to Minoo Park, which is just around half an hour away from the city. The park has mostly flat, leisurely trails that lead you to gardens and temples. One of the highlights of a trip to Minoo is the waterfall. An ideal time to visit the park is during autumn when the foliage turns into various hues.

SPLASH. Minoo Park Waterfall. Photo by Joshua Berida/Rappler

Fees:

  • JPY1,500 for the Floating Garden Observatory

Day 3

HIMEJI CASTLE. Admiring Himeji Castle from afar. Photo by Joshua Berida/Rappler

After sightseeing in Osaka, go on a day trip to one of the most beautiful castles in Japan. Himeji Castle or White Heron Castle has a long history that dates to the early 15th century. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a popular tourist attraction. Its well-preserved state and beauty have drawn people from around the world. It has survived wars and natural catastrophes over the centuries. After visiting the castle, you have the option to drop by the Kokoen Garden. 

RED. Autumn is an ideal time to visit Kokoen near Himeji Castle. Photo by Joshua Berida/Rappler

Fees:

  • JPY1,050 Himeji Castle and Kokoen Garden ticket
  • JPY1,000 Himeji Castle ticket

Day 4

ORANGE. Fushimi Inari Shrine. Photo by Joshua Berida/Rappler

Start early by heading over to the famous Fushimi Inari Shrine. The latter is a Shinto shrine that became a popular tourist destination because of its many orange torii gates. You can go up to the peak to get bird’s eye views of the city. After exploring the shrine area, make your way to Nijo Castle. The latter was constructed in the early 1600s as Tokugawa Ieyasu’s residence in Kyoto. The castle consists of the Honmaru, Ninomaru, and a few gardens.

CALM. Kinkakuji Temple. Photo by Joshua Berida/Rappler

You’ll find plenty of temples during your trip around Kyoto. One of the top temple attractions is Kinkakuji. This Zen temple overlooks a pond surrounded by trees. It used to be the retirement villa of shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu. Not too far from Kinkakuji is Ryoanji Temple. Inside you’ll find one of the most famous rock gardens in the country. It used to be a villa before it became a Zen temple. 

Fees:

  • JPY800 Nijo Castle and an extra JPY500 for the Ninomaru Palace
  • JPY400 Kinkakuji Temple
  • JPY500 Ryoanji Temple

Day 5

POPULAR. Tenryuji Temple. Photo by Joshua Berida/Rappler

Start your day early and head on over to Arashiyama. Walk to the nearby Tenryuji Zen temple. The temple dates to 1339 and is one of many UNESCO Heritage Sites in Kyoto. The area may not be relaxing because of the tourists constantly coming and going, but the landscape garden is quite beautiful. In autumn, you’ll see the colorful foliage surrounding the temple grounds. After your visit to the temple, walk around Arahisyama. The latter is a popular nature destination for many locals and tourists alike. If you visit during autumn, you’ll see plenty of colorful foliage dotting the surrounding hills and mountains. The bamboo groves are a favorite walking path for many visitors. 

BRIDGE. Arashiyama. Photo by Joshua Berida/Rappler

After lunch and spending around half a day in Arashiyama, return to Kyoto. Make Ginkakuji your first stop upon your return. This Zen temple was patterned after Kinkakuji on the other side of the city. The temple became the center for Higashiyama Culture, which developed architecture, flower arrangement, Noh theater, and other forms of art. From the temple grounds you can walk all the way to Higashiyama. If you go directly without stopping, the walk can take around an hour to an hour and a half. Walking more than 4 km may seem exhausting, but you’ll pass through attractions and quaint districts along the way. 

STATELY. Chionin Temple gate. Photo by Joshua Berida/Rappler

Some of the places you can visit and explore along the way include the Heian Shrine, Chionin Temple, Yasaka Shrine, and Kiyomizudera. Depending on your interest in seeing more temples and shrines, you could skip a few places or just walk around the free areas. Some shrines and temples have entrance fees while others are free like the Chionin Temple, Yasaka Shrine, and Heian Shrine. In some places, the temple and its grounds are free while you have to pay an entrance fee for their gardens. 

Gion and Higashiyama are quaint districts lined with traditional houses, shops, and restaurants. You could find a place to buy souvenirs, eat, and drink in this area. Both places are also quite atmospheric for late afternoon and evening strolls. You’ll see some locals and tourists wearing kimonos while they explore either neighborhood. 

Fees:

  • JPY500 Tenryuji Temple, pay an extra JPY300 to enter buildings
  • JPY600 Heian Shrine Garden
  • JPY500 Yuzen and Hojo Gardens within the Chionin Temple grounds
  • JPY400 Kiyomizudera Temple
  • JPY500 Ginkakuji

Day 6

LOOMING. Todaiji Temple. Photo by Joshua Berida/Rappler

After checking out of your accommodation, go on a day trip to Nara, the country’s first capital. Unassuming Nara is home to many centuries-old temples you can visit. One of the most famous attractions in the city is Todaiji. This huge temple dates to 752. Within its main hall you’ll find Daibutsu, one of the biggest bronze statues of Buddha found in the country. Another attraction you can visit is Horyuji Temple. Prince Shotoku founded this temple which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is one of Japan’s oldest temples.

OH DEER. Nara Park. Photo by Joshua Berida/Rappler

Nara Park is a popular spot for both locals and tourists. Here you’ll find hundreds of deer walking about. Spring and autumn are good times to visit because of the cherry blossoms and colorful foliage. Get a glimpse of how life was like in Nara centuries ago by walking around Naramachi. The area used to be a merchant district. It’s lined with traditional houses and some temples. Other places you can visit during your day trip include Kasuga Taisha Shrine, Yoshikien Garden, and Kofukuji Temple.

Return to Kyoto and take your things before heading back to Osaka.

Fees: 

  • JYP600 Todaiji Temple
  • JPY1,500 Horyuji Temple
  • JPY700 National Treasure Museum, JPY300 Eastern Golden Hall, JPY900 combo ticket for National Treasure Museum and Eastern Golden Hall, JPY500 Central Golden Hall (all of these are within the Kofukuji Temple grounds)
  • JPY500 Kasuga Taisha Shrine
  • JPY500 Gangoji Temple

Day 7

Do some last-minute shopping or just return to your favorite spots in Osaka before going to the airport.

Tips on when to use your day passes

For this suggested itinerary, you won’t need to purchase a JR Pass. You could get value from city day passes and the Kansai Thru Pass.

Here’s a suggested way to strategically use the passes you buy:

  • For day one, buy a Keihan and Osaka Metro one-day pass for JPY1,800. This provides you with unlimited rides for Osaka Metro and City Buses except for certain routes. You can also ride Keihan Railway lines for an unlimited number of times except for certain routes as well. A one-way subway ride within 3 km is around JPY180. Think about the number of times you need to take the subway and bus to maximize its value.
  • For days 2-4, buy a Kansai Pass valid for three days; this costs JPY5,400 (if you purchase online). This allows you to still explore Osaka, go on a day trip to Himeji, and go to Kyoto and explore some of its districts. The pass lets you ride buses and metro lines for an unlimited number of times, except for JR lines. You also get discounts for some attractions; just ask the person at the counter before paying. 
  • For day 5, you can buy a one-day pass for JPY900. You can use the Kyoto Subway and City Buses for an unlimited number of times. The pass also covers Keihan Bus and Kyoto Bus with a few exceptions to its use.
  • You can buy one-way or round-trip tickets for your day trip to Nara, and your return trip to Osaka.
How much will you spend?

Japan is an expensive country compared to those in Southeast Asia. However, you can still enjoy your trip even on a budget. A daily budget of roughly JPY9,000 a day is enough for the itinerary mentioned above. If you convert that amount to Philippine pesos, it’s around P3,700+++ per day. You’ll be staying in a dorm or a budget hotel, sharing a room with at least one other person, eating out at cheap restaurants or convenience stores, using one-day or multi-day transportation passes, and paying for a few attractions. This doesn’t include shopping. The amount you spend per day will depend on the type of trip you want to have. You’ll spend more if you go shopping, eat at nicer places for all your meals, stay in high-end hotels, take private transportation, and other expenses. 

Budget tips

Japan is generally an expensive country to visit; however, you can still save money and enjoy your trip. Here are some budget tips you can implement:

  • Consider staying in a hostel dorm to reduce accommodation expenses. The dorms in Japan are comfortable and often have the amenities of hotels. 
  • After splurging on a nice meal, consider buying food from convenience stores. There are several convenience stores in Japan’s cities. They sell packed meals and sandwiches at affordable prices.
  • Buy a pass such as the Kansai Thru Pass when exploring cities within regions. Some of these passes also cover local transportation such as subways and buses. One of your biggest expenses in the country is inter-city transportation. A pass reduces your expenses and saves you a lot of money. There are also city-specific passes that cost less than the Kansai Thru Pass and others. You can buy these at ticketing machines in stations or you can ask at the counter.
  • Plan your route before going. Travel to Japan by region instead of an ambitious trip that takes you to several places. Transportation is expensive in Japan; that’s why for budget travelers it’s prudent to visit by region. This is when regional rail passes provide good value. There’s a pass for various regions within the country that allows you to take unlimited rides using public transportation.
  •  Buy souvenirs or other items from 100 Yen shops. 

– Rappler.com

Joshua Berida is a writer that loves to travel. He blogs at www.thewanderingjuan.net.

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