It’s no secret that the land that gave the world karaoke and instant noodles, among a whole host of weird and wonderful inventions, isn’t exactly a cheap place to put your feet up at. But it’s possible to make your way around the western part of the country for a reasonable fee. Like, for less than $250.
To be clear, this amount refers solely to the transport costs. But considering the Kansai region includes the cities of Kyoto, Osaka, Nara and Kobe—which are known for geisha performances, Universal Studios Japan, bowing deer and toothsome beef respectively —it’s a pretty incredible deal. I’d know. I did a five-day trip in the area.
Here’s a rundown of how I scored my travel passes around Kansai for cheap, and the things I chose to do on my recent holiday there.
Where to get Kansai travel passes on a good deal
The travel pass I got was the Klook Okunoshima Bus Tour with JR Kansai Hiroshima Area 5-day Pass ($178). It not only covers travel via the JR bullet trains in the region, but also visits to attractions in Hiroshima, and a visit to and from Okunoshima (more on this intriguing place later).
I also got from Klook my ICOCA IC card ($28), the Japanese version of an EZ-Link card. It covers travel via JR West trains, subway, private railway and buses in the region.
The total cost of the two cards is $206 but I had to top up the ICOCA a couple of times, so I spent a bit more on transport. Can I just say though that obtaining them couldn’t have been any easier? I’d simply checked them out of my cart, flew to Osaka and collected them at the airport.
What I got up to in Kansai
My first stop was Osaka and I did a fair bit of shopping in the city centre. But Google would be able to give you far more info on choice retail spots than I can so I’ll just get to what I reckon is the next best thing in the area: melon pan.
There are several shops serving these yummy melon buns in the city but the one that tops my list is World’s Second Best Freshly Baked Melon-pan Ice. If you’re wondering, the company considers itself second-best because, to them, there’s no such as the best melon pan in the world.
Not sure what to make of the name? It’s OK—the only thing you need to make sure of is finding your way to the shop anyway. The bun is worth every calorie. And please have it with the ice cream. It makes a world of difference.
I also made a trip to Harukas 300, an observatory housed in what is currently Japan’s tallest building. Sure, the bird’s eye view of the city may be quite similar to what you already enjoy from your office, but at Harukas you can suit up and walk along a deck at the top of the 300-metre building. Like, in the open, with a 360-degree view of the city unobstructed by glass.
I had dinner at Sky Garden 300, a restaurant located on the 58th floor of the observatory, and cannot recommend the place enough. The food is good, the view, unparalleled, and the pineapple ice cream, superior. Don’t think pineapple ice cream can be thaaat good? I thought the same but inhaled the whole thing. I mean, there’s a reason why the sweet treat is one of their selling points.
On my third day, I headed for Okayama, which albeit lesser-known is packed with plenty of cultural gems, so if you don’t want to go where everyone goes in Japan and want a different backdrop for your IG pics, consider making a stop there.
The city is most famous for the attraction that is Korakuen Garden, recognised as one of the three best landscape gardens in Japan, and it is there that I watched the world go by for two hours. If you need some space and quiet during your holiday, whether to read a book our journal, this is the place.
I then made my way to Kojima Jeans Street, the home to some of the finest locally-made jeans in country. OK, the prices of the denim pieces are pretty steep, but given the exclusivity of the pieces I reckon they’d be well worth the splurge.
I picked up a denim cap from Big John, the company that in 1965 manufactured the first pair of Japanese jeans, for ¥5,000 ($62).
It was also in Kojima that I customised my own pair of jeans. The workshop was by Betty Smith, a well-loved brand that was Japan’s first manufacturer of ladies jeans, and I got to choose the buttons, rivets and patches fitted. I’ll admit that I didn’t find the experience to be all that interesting but walking away with a pair of jeans unique to me was still novel, lah.
My fourth day was spent touring Hiroshima. I visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and the Atomic Bomb Dome, among a list of popular attractions in the area, but since these are all things you can easily find out more about on the Internet, I shall dive straight into the intriguing destination that is Okonomimura—a building that houses over 25 Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki eateries.
Each eatery accommodates no more than 20 customers and it can be hard picking one if you haven’t done any research. I only patronised the one I did because there were empty seats but the okonomiyaki was delicious, so it might be safe to say that even the worst of the lot at Okonomimura would actually be pretty good. Like, I-need-to-tell-my-friends-about-this kind of good.
The last full day of my holiday was spent getting to, around and from Okunoshima. Otherwise known as Rabbit Island—it is today overrun with over a thousand free-roaming bunnies—the place has a dark past because it played a key role during World War II as a poison gas factory.
There are numerous theories as to how the rabbits came to take over the island but, regardless, this area makes a nice day trip: you can interact with the fur babies, explore the many walking trails and even hit up the oft-deserted beaches. I saw many locals pitching tents to camp for the night, and given the tranquility of the area, found myself wishing that I had extra time to do the same.
A stone’s throw away from Okunoshima is Takehara, a historic old town that seems to be a little Kyoto of sorts. I had a nice lunch there at a quiet eatery helmed by a single man who was both waiter and chef, after checking out a shrine and small local shops. The last I checked, none of the eateries accept cards, so remember to bring extra cash if you do go.
So that’s how I spent my time in the Kansai region, and how I kept all of my transport costs there below $250—though even if you visit another area in the region the costs would be the same. I also visited USJ, actually, and had a ball of a time but that story deserves its own post.
If you’re planning to visit Japan (or most spots in Asia, for that matter), I highly recommend checking out Klook for deals. I didn’t use it till this trip and wish I’d started earlier. But better now than never, I suppose.