Road Trips in Kansai

ByJustin Hanus
Mar 15, 2021

Road Trips in Kansai

The Kansai region is a great part of Japan to discover by car. Beyond the big cities Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe, many great destinations don’t take too long to get to and take in great scenery and wondrous cultural attractions along the way. From one-day excursions to lengthy road trips that stretch out over 10-12 days, you can plan your itinerary accordingly. Here is a short selection of exciting short road trips worth doing either as standalone trips or as part of a bigger exploration of the region.

Osaka to Himeji

If you’re looking for a shorter trip that can be done easily inside a day as a round trip, Osaka to Himeji is perfect. Himeji is one of Japan’s most popular tourist attractions, mainly due to its beautiful feudal castle listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. Himeji Castle is a beautiful white fortress built between the 15th and 17th centuries and, unlike many Japanese castles, was never destroyed by wars or earthquakes. Himeji can be reached from Osaka in around 80 minutes by car. You take the Sanyo Expressway that stretches along the Osaka Bay, where you will pass Kobe, Akashi, and Kakogawa, as well as the eye-catching Awaji Island to your left. Tourists can also reach the city from Kyoto in around 90 minutes.

Other attractions once you reach Himeji include Kokoen Garden, a peaceful and enchanting spot next to the castle, and Mount Shosha. This is a temple mountain on the outskirts of the city that was featured in the Last Samurai.

Kyoto, Nara, and Ise

This is a great way to explore the east coast of Kansai by journeying out to Mie prefecture. The trip can be made in 1-2 days depending on how much time you want to spend taking in the sites. The trip from Kyoto to Nara takes only around an hour, traveling along the E89, the E1A, and the E24 highways. Nara is one of Japan’s oldest cities and was an ancient capital. Because of this, the city boasts an abundance of tourist attractions, including Nara Park, where you can see free-roaming deer, and the Todaiji Temple that contains the largest Buddha statue in Japan.

You can then continue onwards east through the central mountains to Ise. This journey is via Route 25 to Kameyama and then Route 23 to finish up in Ise inside of 2 hours. Ise is a pretty coastal city most famous for its many sacred Shinto shrines, including the Ise Grand Shrine. Other attractions include the meoto-iwa (wedded rocks), which are believed to be enshrined with holy powers, and the Edo Wonderland feudal theme park. You can then travel back from Ise to Kyoto or Osaka in around 3 hours.

Kyoto, Amanohashidate, and Kinosaki

This excursion is probably best planned as a 2-3 day round trip so that you can soak up the multitude of sights along the way. Setting off north from Kyoto, you travel along National Route 162, where the two-hour drive will take you through the mountains to the agricultural town of Miyama, the city of Maizuru, where you can stop off to admire the panoramic ocean view from the Goro Sky Tower, and then onto Amanohashidate in northern Kyoto prefecture. This spectacular sandbar surrounded by mountains is considered one of Japan’s three scenic views.

It might be worth seeking out overnight accommodation in Miyazu before continuing the 90-minute drive to the onsen town of Kinosaki. Those traveling may want to consider building in an additional 90 minutes to drive around the Tango Peninsula on the way if you have time. Kinosaki has onsens and attractions such as temples, a quaint town center, and a stork sanctuary if you want to stretch this into a 3-day mini-break before journeying back to either Kyoto or Osaka.

Osaka, Mount Koya and Kumano

This is another trip best done in at least two parts or possibly extending into a 3-day break. The road trip takes you down into southern Kansai to the Kii peninsula’s tip around 100 km from central Osaka. It would be best to allow around 2 hours to get to Mount Koya from Osaka by car. It involves journeying along three routes (36, 216, and 480). Mount Koya is the Japanese center for Shingon Buddhism and is home to many monks. It’s worth experiencing the fantastic temple lodging where you will be able to sample a monk’s lifestyle, including tasting vegetarian cuisine and attending morning prayers.

On day two, you can continue south through the Kii mountains via Ryujin Onsen to Kumano. This small city is famed for its sacred shrines and UNESCO pilgrimage routes. Pilgrims have traveled along the Kumano Kodo walking trails for over 1000 years, and these paths are now very popular with hikers across the globe.

Samchan91, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Justin Hanus editor