Osaka is the third largest city in Japan after Tokyo and Yokohama and is well known for its street food, friendly locals, unusual dialect, and a huge amount of comedians. This city was visited by over nine million tourists in 2016, and it is easy to see why. As well as being a city where you can walk the streets and absorb an entirely different vibe from Tokyo, Osaka is a hub of great things to do such as the beautiful Osaka Castle, the bustling Dotonbori Street with its many shops and restaurants, and for theme park lovers, the famous Universal Studios Japan. While many may say that Osaka is more exciting at night, it is also an excellent location for day trips. If you are staying in Osaka, though, be sure to visit the surrounding areas too as Kansai has many other fantastic places to offer.
Nara and is less than an hour away to the east, and Kobe and Himeji are an hour or two away to the west. Kyoto is also within easy reaching distance of Osaka by being less than an hour away by train. It is very easy to spend several weeks just exploring Kansai! If you are going to be in Osaka for several days, be sure to try out this perfect day trip itinerary to explore some of the Kansai area.
Kobe holds the spot for the seventh largest city in Japan and is the capital city of Hyogo Prefecture. It is a coastal town surrounded by mountains, well-loved for its high-class Kobe beef, “million-dollar landscape” from Mt. Rokko, and sake breweries. It is around an hour or two away from Osaka to the west and is ideal for a day trip. Kobe was one of the cities to open up for trade with foreigners in 1853 after the cessation of Japan’s isolation policy. It is a great add-on to a Kansai itinerary. Although Kobe has changed a lot since the Great Hanshin earthquake in 1995, the city nevertheless retains its traditional and modern charm.
Himeji city is also in Hyogo Prefecture and the breathtaking Himeji Castle is considered to be one of the finest surviving examples of ancient Japanese architecture, surviving typhoons, the Great Hanshin earthquake, and even World War II air raid bombings. Himeji Castle has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
This day trip itinerary covers Himeji Castle in the morning, followed by Kobe Motomachi and Sannomiya in the early afternoon. After that, you can take a walk or a bus ride to Kitano Iijinkan, the European quarters where the early foreign settlers lived. Return to Osaka in the evening for the specialty local street grub of grilled octopus dough balls (takoyaki), deep fried skewers (kushikatsu), Japanese savory pancakes (okonomiyaki), ramen noodles, and a selfie with one of Osaka’s famous landmarks, the Glico running man.
Starting from Umeda Station in central Osaka, both the JR Kansai Pass and Kansai Thru Pass allow convenient travel to Kobe and Himeji. Kobe is an hour west of Osaka, and Himeji is another hour west from Kobe. Purchasing a pass is recommended as you gain the value of the Kansai Thru Pass just by the trip from Osaka to Kobe and then to Himeji alone. For the Kansai Thru Pass, you may also ride buses, which may be convenient in Kobe and Osaka if you or your group prefer not to get around by foot.
In the morning, take the train from Osaka Station through Kobe Sannomiya to Himeji Station or Sanyo-Himeji Station. On the way, look out of the train to catch views of the port of Kobe, as well as the Akashi-Kaikyo bridge that links to Shikoku. You might be able to snap some photographs before you even get there! Himeji Castle is a short walk away from the station. Also known as the White Egret Castle, Himeji Castle dates back to the 14th century and oversaw numerous warlord and shogun feuds over its development. It is considered to be one of Japan’s most impressive castles and has thankfully survived many potentially damaging events throughout the years.
It is also famous for the tragic story of Senhime, also known as Lady Sen (1597-1666). She was the eldest daughter of Shogun Tokugawa Hidetada and was married to her first husband, Toyotomi Hideyori, when she was only seven years old. She was widowed when he committed suicide in battle. About a year later, when she was 20 years old, she married the son of the lord of Himeji Castle and spent the best decade of her life there with her husband, son, and daughter. That was until her son died when he was three and her husband passed away when he was 31. Senhime subsequently became a nun and mourned her loss by praying every day until she finally passed on at 70.
You can experience this story and more at Himeji Castle, where you can observe the remnants of battles and the elegant, white structure that takes you back in time to ancient Japan.
Head back to Kobe Sannomiya in the early afternoon where you can walk through the main shopping street all the way down to Motomachi Station. Check out the shops and maybe grab some souvenirs along the way. Kobe Chinatown is also just around the corner from here. Their steamed pork buns (nikuman) from Roshoki are an absolute must-try. The juicy, oily buns have a rich filling and a thin white dough layer making them a popular and tasty snack. It is only 90 yen for one, but many customers in the snaking line outside the store get ten or even up to thirty to go! Along the street are numerous Chinese family restaurants, as well as vendors offering tasty Chinese snacks.
When other parts of Japan are famous for their seafood or noodles, Kobe is famous for its marbled beef, produced from the high-quality Wagyu cattle that are raised in Hyogo Prefecture. There are some steak restaurants that specialize in Kobe beef such as the Bistrot Café de Paris, Wakkoqu, Steakland, or Red Rock, but the high prices could very much reduce you to having meals from convenience stores for the rest of your trip. If you are really in the mood for some Kobe beef but can’t afford to shell out up to 10,000 yen per 100g for the good stuff, there is a pop-up store on the corner of the main square of Kobe Chinatown, just a short walk away from the pork buns shop, that serves up Kobe beef steak or burgers. There are also some stands in Osaka’s Dotonbori street that do the same for teppanyaki Kobe beef steaks.
If you have some time to spare or would like an alternative to the aforementioned activities while you are in Kobe, the Kobe Nunobiki Ropeway is a fun way to view the city.
One of the three services that elevates visitors up the southern slopes of the Rokko mountain range, it provides a stellar birds-eye view of the Nunobiki Waterfall and Herb Garden. At the top station, there is an observatory deck that provides an excellent view of Kobe city. A more interesting and fun way, but one that takes a little more time and energy, is to hike up from Shin-Kobe Station right through the waterfall and Herb Garden. The way up only takes around 40 minutes, or 30 if you go past the garden. For the more adventurous, the same trail continues on to Mount Maya in the Rokko Mountain Range after passing the top station and observatory deck.
After that, walk or take a bus to Kitano Ijinkan (which translates directly to “foreigners’ residences”). It is a historical district that still retains the foreign flair of the architecture of the early foreign merchants and diplomats’ mansions during the Meiji period. Some of the mansions are open to the public as museums and even restaurants, such as the England House, Yokan Nagaya or French House, and the House of Weathercock, to name a few. It is fascinating to see western-style architecture in a country that holds on to its traditions. For a nostalgic feel of old Europe, definitely pay Kitano Ijinkan a visit.
After this, it is time to head back to Osaka for an evening of fun. The hustle and bustle of downtown Osaka provides a great atmosphere especially during the night when people revel in good food and drink. You can taste some delicious street food as you observe people having a drink after a hard day’s work or getting some evening shopping. Visit a traditional Japanese izakaya pub and try Japanese snacks that go well with beer or sake. Osaka is a night owl’s dream city.
These activities can be spread over two or three days if you would prefer, or you can pack them into one action-packed day to see some fantastic spots of the Kansai region. Next time you are in Osaka or nearby, be sure to include a day trip in your itinerary to visit beautiful, rustic Kobe and Himeji!