Osaka – Tokyo’s rougher and rowdier little brother – is one of Japan’s top destinations for eating, drinking, partying, and soaking up the neon glow of a super-modern metropolis. There’s enough there to keep you entertained for weeks, but if you plan on staying a while, it’d be a shame to restrict yourself to the city limits.
Japan’s third largest city is nestled conveniently in the middle of Kansai: the region with perhaps the greatest concentration of traditional culture, breathtaking nature, and famous sights in all of Japan. Here’s our pick of the best sites that can be explored in a day trip.
Striking a perfect balance between modern convenience, historic richness, and natural beauty, Kyoto may just be the perfect city. The medieval capital of Japan is home to a seemingly infinite number of temples, shrines, and other historic treasures.
Travel to Arashiyama on the north side to find the famous bamboo forest and a wealth of Zen temples. If you visit during peak season and the crowds of bus-tour visitors are interrupting your quest for enlightenment (or for just a little peace and quiet) you need only turn down a side street towards some of the lesser-known temples, where you can find your own little patch of serenity.
Once you’ve had your fill of temples, Kyoto also boasts excellent food stalls on the famous Nishiki Market street; wandering geisha and maiko in the superbly-preserved Gion district; beautiful nature walks leading up to Shimogamo and Fushimi Inari shrines; and an impressive calendar of traditional events and festivals.
At only under an hour’s train journey away from Osaka, you really cannot afford to miss Kyoto – the gem in Japan’s cultural crown.
Nara has recently achieved worldwide social media fame as the home of the bowing deer who wander freely around the central park of the city, politely begging for crackers from tourists before wandering off to rest among moss-covered shrines.
This alone is enough reason to visit the city, but spend a day here and you’ll have time to discover that the cultural significance of this site stretches back centuries. Chief among the attractions is the giant buddha statue at Tōdaiji temple - an 8th century building which once held great status at the head of all temples in Japan.
Start your day here before heading eastward, then turn south down the quieter avenues of the park. These paths lead into the forested area, through shrines and graveyards with an otherworldly feel. Stop off at Kasuga-taisha Shrine before rejoining the main path to complete your circuit with a visit to Nara National Museum and its impressive collection of Buddhist art.
Another extremely accessible location (only 45 minutes away by train) and much more manageable in a single day than Kyoto, Nara ranks joint top among the best short trips from Osaka.
One of the first cities to be opened up to European trade in the 19th century, Kobe holds an important place in Japanese history as a bustling and affluent port city. This reputation drew in settlers from China and Europe, who left their mark by establishing their own distinct areas of the city: the impressive Chinatown, and the British-influenced Kitano district.
Nowadays the city is associated with the high-grade beef which bears its name, and when a city’s name is synonymous with great food, you know that’s a good sign. The eponymous beef gives the city much of its international fame, but of equal importance is the Nada district - home to a high concentration of Japan’s best sake breweries. Alcohol lovers can embark on a tasting tour of the area, visiting over a dozen breweries in a single day.
If history and drinking aren’t your thing, you’ll be happy to hear that Kobe also has plenty of natural beauty. The city enjoys the ocean at its front and gorgeous mountains behind. Take a trip up to Mount Rokko – accessible via the Shin-Kobe ropeway – for a breathtaking panorama of the city which is particularly nice in the evening.
Art lovers will also want to check out the Hyogo Museum of Art to see an impressive collection of contemporary pieces from a mixture of Japanese and international artists.
Often overlooked in favour of its more famous neighbours, Kobe is a worthy day out which is only 15 minutes from Osaka by train!
In good company alongside the likes of Edinburgh and Prague, Himeji is a city defined by its monumental castle. The White Heron Castle – named so for its beautiful white walls and elegantly curving roofs – is the stunning centrepiece of the city, and one of the best-preserved castles in all of Japan.
Historical Japanese architecture suffered from a fatal flaw: due to the high number of natural disasters, large stone construction was unfeasible, so the majority of castles and temples were built from wood. This made them especially vulnerable to fires. Fortunately, Himeji Castle is one of the few Japanese castles to have survived intact since its construction in the 17th century!
Take a walk around the grounds to get a taste of medieval Japanese life. Peer through the arrow slits in the walls and its easy to cast your mind back to the days of feudal lords holed up in their castles, as their soldiers repelled katana-wielding invaders.
If you find yourself with some time to spare, consider taking a walk around the outer wall to find quiet gardens, and a moat filled with gigantic carp which will practically throw themselves out of the water at the slightest promise of food!
Following extensive renovations which finished in 2015, the walls of the castle are gleaming a brilliant white, making this a better time than ever to visit. At just an hour and a half from Osaka, Himeji deserves a top spot on everyone's must-see list.
A place exemplary of the marriage of spirituality and nature in traditional Japanese culture, this forested mountain retreat is a must-visit for anyone seeking some quiet contemplation. Chosen by Kobo Daisha, the founder of Shingon Buddhism, as the spiritual home of his school in the 9th century, the mountain became a site of huge religious importance. Nowadays over one hundred individual temples have sprung up around the main complex, with more than half offering overnight stays for tourists.
While Kyoto might boast a more impressive number and variety of temples, Kōyasan is undoubtedly the better place to witness Buddhism in practice. Observe the everyday life of the monks that call this mountain home as you stroll through the pristine forest to Okuno-in Cemetery – resting place of Kobo Daisha himself – and onwards to Torodo Hall with its thousand lanterns, finishing with a visit to the head temple: Kongobu-ji.
If the mood takes you, you can sample the tranquility of monastic life for yourself by trying your hand at meditation or calligraphy at many of the minor temple in the town. Just don’t slip too deeply into contemplation – at 2 hours from Osaka, you’ll need to manage your time a little more carefully if you want to experience Kōyasan in a day.
This quaint canal town stands in stark contrast to Osaka’s bright lights and skyscrapers, filled instead with old Edo-period buildings which line a network of canals. The Bican quarter was once an important commercial hub for the empire, and its preservation as a popular domestic tourist destinations keeps the town thriving today.
Many of the old rice warehouses have been converted into independent cafes and shops, making this a great place to spend an afternoon relaxing, shopping, and strolling along the canal, with its beautifully ornate stone bridges.
If time permits, consider stopping off at nearby Okayama, which boasts one of Japan’s most famous gardens – Kōraku-en – and a black-walled castle which offers an impressive alternative for those unable to visit Himeji's famous fort.
All in all, transport time is around 1 hour 40 minutes, making this a great option for those who want to do a little time travelling on their trips.
After a few days of sightseeing, trekking along mountain trails, or drinking with the locals in Namba, it's only natural to crave a bit of rest and relaxation. Thankfully, the Japanese have mastered the art of chilling out. One of the best ways to discover this is spending some time at an onsen: the natural hot springs which draw their water from deep volcanic springs around Japan.
Shirahama is a top onsen town which is easily accessible from Osaka. Here you’ll find open-air baths, where you can kick back in mineral-infused waters while looking out over stunning ocean views. Consider visiting in summer to catch the nightly fireworks displays (but be wary of the increased crowds).
The pristine white sand of the town’s beach would look more at-place in Hawaii or Okinawa – it seems a little out of place on mainland Japan. That’s because it is! was actually imported from Australia to bring a taste of tropical paradise to the Kansai coast. This stroke of genius means Shirahama has hands-down the best beach in Kansai.
Plan your travel in advance, as this journey is on the longer end at 2 hours 30 minutes. Consider reserving a spot on the Limited Express Kuroshio from Shin-Osaka to make your journey as easy as possible.
There are a handful of words which spring up, for better or worse, when one thinks of Japan: samurai, sumo, manga, and of course, ninja. Originating in Kansai, this historic group of clandestine agents and assassins once lurked in the shadows of feudal Japan, delivering secret messages and dispatching the enemies of their daimyo masters.
More recently, the ninjutsu tradition had captured imaginations worldwide through an endless stream of movies, TV shows, and video games which portray ninja traditions and tropes. Iga, a town which once held one of the most successful ninja schools, now capitalises on this fame by establishing itself as a pilgrimage site for all things ninja!
Take a trip to the museum to check out some of the tools, tricks, and traps once utilised by the infamous agents, followed by an acrobatic show in which you’ll see performers put these historic weapons to use. If you feel like you could have made a decent ninja yourself, stop by the Ninja Experience Ground to try your hand at throwing shuriken (more commonly known as “throwing stars”).
Not to be missed is the town’s signature dish, aburidon: a rice bowl topped with the famously high-quality Iga beef. Unlike most Japanese dishes, you’ll rarely get a chance to try this dish anywhere outside its hometown.
For anyone interested in Japan’s military history, or families travelling with kids, Iga is a must-visit at two hours from Osaka by train. From Osaka-Uehommachi Station, take the Kintetsu Limited Express to Igakambe, then the hourly local train to Uenoshi.
Previously just another beautiful yet unremarkable island off the southern coast of Japan, the nineteen-nineties saw Naoshima revitalised as one of the most exciting and unique art spots in Asia. That was when the Japanese billionaire Soichiro Fukutake selected the site to host his collection of contemporary art. The natural setting offers a refreshing change from the often crowded galleries of major metropolises, and establishes a more serene and contemplative atmosphere.
The Bennese Art Site consists of several well-curated art museums (elegantly designed by architect Tadao Ando), as well as outdoor exhibits such as the famous pumpkin sculptures: signature pieces of the celebrated pop artist Kusama Yayoi. To take it all in within a single day, it’s best to rent a bicycle, grab a map, then spend your day on a leisurely circuit around the island’s many contemporary treasure troves.
The number of transfers means that you’ll have to plan this one well. First, take the bullet train to Okayama Station (fifty minutes), then a local train to Uno Station (fifty minutes), then a ferry to Naoshima (twenty minutes), for grand total of around two hours of travel.
Imposingly occupying about a sixth of Shiga prefecture (which neighbours Kyoto), Lake Biwa is a haven for wildlife. The crystal clear waters provide a home and feeding ground for a vast variety of migrating birds and other creatures.
For the culture-seekers, Japan’s largest freshwater lake is surrounded by a plethora of attractions for every taste. Azuchi Castle lies on the east coast, one of the primary castles of Odu Nobunaga – the first great unifier of Japan. Mt Hiei lies to the west, and is home to the head temple of Tendai Buddhism: Enryaku-ji.
The lake itself offers plenty to do as well, including water sports, fishing, ferry rides, and gorgeous sunset views. Head to Shirahige Shrine to watch the sunlight fade behind the ‘floating’ torii gate for a dream-like scene to end your day.
These waters are also famous for their abundance of fresh fish, so don’t leave without sampling some mouthwatering locally caught carp. The more gastronomically adventurous will want to try funa-zushi, a type of fermented carp sushi which is a signature dish of the prefecture.
With something for everyone, Lake Biwa provides an unforgettable natural break from big city living, and is well worth the journey at only 50 minutes from Osaka. Take the JR Biwako Express from Osaka Station to get yourself to Kusatsu, after which you can navigate the circumference of the lake via local trains.
The sheer variety available to travellers in the area around Osaka really is amazing! Of course, make sure you take the time to fully enjoy Osaka in all its noisy, gritty glory, but don’t forget all of the other amazing experiences that are right on its doorstep.
We’d recommend taking your pick of at least two or three of these great destination to really make the most of what Kansai has to offer. As with everywhere in Japan, adventurers are rewarded. Never be afraid to stray a little off of the main paths – all of the spots above are packed with hidden gems waiting to be discovered.