Every October 31st, on the eve of my birthday, I make it a personal tradition to travel alone somewhere potentially memorable. In 2017, it had been decided that I will celebrate it in the mountains of Wakayama Prefecture, Japan.
The initial plan was to spend a solo night at Koyasan and have a week’s worth of Osaka’s famed dishes. But somehow I ended up booking 18 days with two friends, so our trio decided to include nearby prefectures within the Kansai region to maximize our time in the land of luxury fruits and every-flavored KitKat chocolate bars.
Being a country where the timetable of each train is followed to near perfection, you need to at least know where you intend to be each day. You can’t just wing it.
For foreign travelers, transportation in Japan could consume a huge bulk of one’s budget if unprepared, which is why they provided a bunch of options for those who are planning to cover multiple prefectures in a single trip. It took several hours of going through travel websites, but we were able to take advantage of the country’s various train passes to minimize our transportation costs in and around Kansai.
The one for every day use
Our journey began with the Kansai One Pass, which we bought at the Kansai Airport Station for JPY 2,000 back then (they now sell it for JPY 3,000). It’s a stored value card which you can use in any major transit line, not only within Kansai, but in all cities throughout Japan. Sugoi dayo!
What sets it apart from the regular IC cards are the special discounts you can get at various sightseeing spots. And it has a portrait of Astroboy on the card. We were sold. Being an anime otaku at heart, clearly, that was the main reason we even considered buying one.
Having no expiration date, it is a good investment for those who plan to visit Japan regularly as it saves you the hassle of constantly lining up to buy tickets from the machine every time you take the train. If one is planning to get a reloadable IC, I highly suggest getting this.
Because it’s friggin’ Astroboy. Come on.
The one to see everything in Osaka
To get all the usual tourist spots out of the way, we planned to maximize our 2-Day Osaka Amazing Pass which covered admission to plenty of attractions, plus unlimited rides on trains and buses in the city. At JPY 3,300, it’s sulit if one intends to hit four to five sites per day. The trick is to plan visits properly by grouping sites that are in close proximity to one another.
Typhoon Lan made landfall the morning of our first full day, bringing strong winds and substantial rain in the city. Armed with umbrellas, we decided to revise our plan and just stay indoors.
We started with a glimpse of old Japan at the Osaka Museum of Housing and Living, quickly followed by lunch at Harukoma Sushi located along one of my favorite streets in Osaka—the Tenjinbashisuji Shoutengai. The name is a mouthful, which makes it a perfect venue for a mouthful of fresh fish. As the rain continued to soak our socks, we strolled around Dotonbori and into another place that all illustrators would probably dig, the Kamigata Ukiyo-e Museum, before finally surrendering to the weather and ending the night with prayers for a better day.
The following morning, with hopes so high, I pulled the curtains to see a painting of an azure sky framed within the big hotel window of my room. Our selfish wish was granted. To make up for the previous day’s lack of activity, day two became a walkathon consisting of several sprints in between train stations as we visited the Tsutenkkaku Tower, Osaka Castle, HEP Five, Umeda Sky Building, then back to Dotonbori for the Tombori River Cruise, and the Japan Night Walking Tour. Plenty of calories were consumed and spent in the process.
Everything we did for those two days would’ve costed us an estimated total of JPY 8,000 including transportation, but the pass saved us thousands of yen to spend on raw seafood instead.
The one headed for Mount Koya and back
On the day before my birthday, I went to Namba Station to purchase the Koyasan World Heritage Ticket (JPY 2,680) and was told by the ticketing manager that the usual route to Mount Koya was unavailable.
Normally, the ticket should cover a train ride to Gokurakubashi Station, a cable car to Koyasan, and a short bus ride to my ryokan, plus the same on my way back. But due to ongoing renovations with the cable car, the train could only take me as far as Hashimoto, and from there a Nankai bus would be waiting for passengers on their way to the mountains of Koya.
Not wanting to let this setback spoil my plans, I pushed forward knowing that the ticket would still include all transportation costs needed for this leg of my trip. The revised route took a couple of hours longer but it did it’s job of getting me to my destination so it was all good.
Well-known for it’s pilgrimage trails and the largest cemetery in Japan, Koyasan was the definitive highlight of my stay in Kansai.
The one to use for non-JR railways
Personally, I wasn’t as thrilled to visit the deers of Nara like everyone else. For me, the saving grace was to see the massive Todaiji Temple housing a gigantic bronze Buddha and Kasuga Taisha which is the most celebrated shrine in Nara. I wouldn’t mind skipping on the deers but they were scattered all throughout the city, causing traffic for both vehicles and hordes of tourists.
But since we wanted to maximize the use of our 2-day Kintetsu Railway Pass (JPY 2,500), which includes unlimited rides in the Nara Kotsu buses (though I strongly recommend getting by on foot instead), we headed back to Kyoto Prefecture, further south of the former capital to the small tea town of Wazuka.
The one covering Kansai
The biggest expense of the trip had to be the Kansai Wide Area Pass. Though it provided 5 consecutive days of unlimited travel all throughout the six of seven prefectures in the Kansai area, buying the ticket put a dent of JPY 9,000 on our budget.
Was it worth the purchase? Heck yeah, it was.
A roundtrip ticket to Amanohashidate alone would’ve costed us around JPY 9,500. Using the pass we were able to go there and the cities of Himeji & Kobe (via Shinkansen), Otsu, pick-up a friend back at the airport, and then go directly to Kyoto afterwards. That’s four prefectures through the power of a single 4×5 cardboard coupon that you show to any officer at the station gates.
It could even take you as far as Tottori and Okayama—both already part of the Chuubu region. What puzzles me is how it does not connect tourists to Mie Prefecture, which is still part of Kansai.
While the Japan Rail Pass is the most popular of tickets because it could get you unlimited rides on all JR trains, from the hot springs of Kagoshima to the snow-capped mountains of Hokkaido and everything else in between, at a maximum of 21 consecutive days (and a heavenly price tag of JPY 59,350 which would make it a nightmare to ever misplace one during a trip), it is not the most practical for those who, like me, prefer taking things slow.
There are plenty of other options, my dear friends.
And because of those rail pass combinations, I was able to get my third-world un-pedicured feet on 6 out of the 7 prefectures in Kansai. While I’m all for spontaneity, it’s also very rewarding how thorough research and planning can get you where you want to go in a more efficient and economical way.