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The ultimate guide to Kansai by rail

The ultimate guide to Kansai by rail

Published February 11, 2024

Home to the country’s first capital, many of Japan’s most sacred Shinto shrines and a hinterland adorned with holy mountains, the region of Kansai not only marks the geographical centre of Japan but also stands as a cultural and historical heartland for the nation. Among its greatest treasures is Kyoto, which served as the imperial capital of Japan from the eighth to the 19th century, and is now renowned for its temples, geishas and gardens. Today, Kyoto remains as enchanting as ever, with ancient alleyways still evoking a picture-book Japan reminiscent of samurai and shoguns. 

Kyoto has a counterpoint nearby in Osaka — a stridently modern metropolis with a future-facing philosophy. This cutting-edge outlook is especially evident as Osaka prepares to host the Expo 2025, organised by the Bureau International des Expositions. An estimated 28 million people are expected to travel to the artificial island of Osaka Bay during the six-month event. During this time, Kansai will showcase its commitment to designing a future centred around innovative solutions.

Journeying westward from Osaka leads travellers to Hyogo Prefecture, home to the modern city of Kobe. Travelling northeast from Osaka brings you to Shiga, a prefecture encircling the serene shores of Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest. Located in the south of Shiga is the Kii Peninsula which holds the prefectures of Mie, Nara, and Wakayama — a green expanse that’s home to sites held sacred in both Shintoism and Buddhism. Tokushima Prefecture faces the Kii Peninsula on the eastern shore of the island of Shikoku. Tokushima is a place of pilgrimage, drawing countless souls to the forest trails and its 88 renowned temples.

While Kansai is home to many world-famous attractions, the region also offers opportunities for visitors to explore beyond the well-trodden paths. Take, for instance, Fukui and Tottori Prefectures, neighbouring regions situated along the Sea of Japan. Despite their captivating coastal landscapes, both receive fewer tourists than the rest of Kansai.

Kansai offers a chance to experience the best of Japan within a relatively small area. Train travel is an excellent way to unlock this region’s wealth of destinations and is a greener way to get around. Whether navigating urban metros or taking the leisurely rural branch lines, riding the rails is, in its own right, an essential Japanese experience.

1. JR West
Travel the lesser-known areas of Kansai

Upon arrival in Japan, many visitors encounter the Kansai-Airport Express HARUKA. This train shuttles passengers from Kansai International Airport to Osaka and Kyoto. Distinguished by its Hello Kitty-themed livery, it is operated by the West Japan Railway Company, also known as JR West — the main railway company in this region. They also manage the high-speed Sanyo Shinkansen line, connecting major stations throughout west Japan, such as Osaka and Hakata.  

If you’ve time, take the opportunity to ride one of JR West’s leisurely sightseeing trains, like the Umi Yama Musubi service. This train weaves through verdant hills from Amarube to the hot springs of Kinosaki Onsen. Many trains run by this company allow you to reach less-explored areas such as Tottori and Fukui prefectures. Both regions are gastronomic hubs and renowned for their fresh seafood and great restaurants. Tottori is known for its Matsuba crab, whereas Echizen crab is prized in Fukui — characterised by its long legs.

2.Osaka Metro
Visit Osaka and Expo 2025

The Osaka Metro’s nine lines serve as vital arteries, pumping life through the vibrant metropolis, making it an indispensable means of travel. Keep an eye out for the Chuo Line, which is currently undergoing an extension to the artificial island of Yumeshima in preparation for Expo 2025. The Chuo Line 400 Series train launched in June 2023 and features an impressive, futuristic design, having been modelled on a spaceship. 

Begin by visiting the central Kita district at the Umeda Sky Building, whose viewing deck offers magnificent vistas across the vast urban sprawl. Next, take the Metro to Osaka-jo, a replica of a long-lost 17th-century castle built in 1931 standing regally over moated grounds. Allow another 15 minutes to reach the vibrant, neon-lit Dotonbori district which can be accessed from Osaka Metro Namba Station and from Shinsaibashi Station. Renowned as a nightlife hub and as a great shopping destination, it’s also an excellent location to try Osaka’s signature street-food dishes, such as takoyaki (fried octopus balls) and butaman (pork buns). 

3. Hankyu Railway
See the best of Kyoto and Osaka 

The Kyo-train Garaku operates between Kyoto-kawaramachi Station and Osaka-umeda Station. Travellers stepping aboard this weekend service will quickly notice its exceptional design, featuring ornately designed carriages, each individually themed to reflect the different seasons. Look out for cherry blossom fabrics in the spring carriage, iris motifs in the summer carriage, muted hues in the autumn one and shoji paper screens with dry gardens in the carriage representing winter.

Hankyu Railway, the operator of the Kyo-train Garaku, provides access to key locations in Kyoto, such as Arashiyama and the Yasaka Shrine. There are also opportunities to explore beyond the carriages. Ride trains from central Osaka to Hankyu Minoh Station, where you can embark on an accessible 40-minute hike to the stunning Minoh Falls. Here, a cascade of more than 30 metres is fringed by maple trees that blaze red in autumn. Maple trees also find their way into momiji tempura — a local speciality, where their leaves are battered, giving a sweet taste and found in restaurants near Hanku Minoh Station.

4. Hanshin Electric Railway
Tour sake breweries in Hyogo

The Hanshin Electric Railway comprises several lines connecting Osaka and Hyogo. The company is also the proud owner of the Hanshin Tigers, one of the nation’s favourite baseball clubs. Hanshin Electric Railway provides a valuable means of making a home run out of Osaka into more rustic areas of Hyogo Prefecture — notably NadaGogo, a collective name for the five villages of Nada, which together constitute one of Japan’s most significant sake-brewing areas. 

The rice wine was first made in NadaGogo in the 14th century, benefiting from the local mineral-rich spring water. Today, 25 breweries line the hillsides above Kobe, and Hyogo Prefecture, including NadaGogo — the nation’s number one producer of sake. Some breweries are open for tours, inviting visitors to explore the fermenting tanks and sample their specialities. Hakutsuru is the world’s largest sake producer, however there are many other sake breweries in NadaGogo, each with their own unique character and dedication. Look out for the themed NadaGogo train that services the area on the Hanshin Electric Railway.

5. Kintetsu Railway
Journey to a national park

With its island-studded coastline and abundant forests, Ise-Shima National Park stands as one of Japan’s most beautiful destinations — and also one of its most sacred. It’s home to one of the country’s most significant Shinto shrines, Ise Jingu.

To make the journey there from Osaka, hop on the premium sightseeing train operated by the Kintetsu Railway, which takes just 90 minutes. Evocatively named Shimakaze, meaning ‘Shima wind’, the train offers a comfortable ride, fully equipped with facilities such as massage chairs and a cafe serving Matsusaka beef.  

Upon arrival at Ise, tread the woodland walkways surrounding the much-hallowed Ise Grand Shrine. Dating back to the third century, it’s an ancient site, yet, at the same time, remarkably modern, as it’s rebuilt from scratch every two decades. Next, continue on to the southern coast, where you can experience the region’s ama culture and learn about the women who free-dive along the seabed where they harvest shellfish. Finally, before boarding the return train to Osaka, be sure to dine on the region’s signature Japanese spiny lobster, a local speciality.

6. Keihan Railway
Traverse cultural heritage sites

The Keihan Railway excels at transporting passengers between popular destinations in Osaka and Kyoto, as well as facilitating exploration to the lesser-known places in between. Northeast from Osaka, consider a stop at Uji — a quaint town recognised for its distinctive green tea and for the world heritage site, Byodoin Temple Phoenix Hall. Riding the train for a few more stops will lead you to the famous Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine. Trains also stop in Gion, Kyoto’s famous geisha quarter.

7. Nankai Electric Railway
Ride in a retro-futuristic train

One of Japan’s — if not the world’s — most visually striking trains is the Rapi:t, a limited express service connecting Kansai International Airport to Osaka’s Namba station. It boasts a retro-futuristic design, with sleek curves and modern circular windows. The Rapi:t covers routes south of Osaka and is operated by the Nankai Electric Railway, which also runs the more old-school Tenku sightseeing service. This train meanders from Hashimoto station to Koyasan, a ninth-century temple complex set on a mountaintop.

This paid content article was created for the Kansai Tourism Bureau. It does not necessarily reflect the views of National Geographic, National Geographic Traveller (UK) or their editorial staff.

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