Kansai Travel Tips

So, you want to take an adventure in the Kansai region? Of course you do! But if you have never been to the Kansai region before (or Japan for that matter), you probably have a lot of questions. Here, we are going to take some time to answer the most common questions we hear about travel in Kansai. Some of these travel tips are also applicable to Japan as a whole

Do you have a question? Ask us on the contact page!

 

General

 

What is the climate like in the Kansai region?

Most of Kansai’s major cities (Kyoto, Nara, Osaka, etc…) experience similar temperatures throughout the year.

During the spring and fall, temperatures are usually around 20°C (68°F) and the days are typically sunny. In winter things can be chilly, roughly 5°C (41°F) or so during the day. It does occasionally snow, but the snow seldom piles up unless you go to mountainous areas, like north Kyoto or Hyogo prefecture.

Summer is easily the roughest season throughout the Kansai region. While summers have traditionally be hot and very humid, in the past few years we’ve had highs reach well in to the upper 30’s (upper 90’s in°F). Some days have even gone as high as 40°C (104°F). In 2018 there were a number of heat stroke warnings issued, and local governments encouraged people to stay indoors.

Our Travel Tips: If you are a very heat sensitive person, try to plan only a few outdoor activities in the summer, keep water on hand, and give yourself plenty of breaks in the shade when possible. Additionally, it is worth mentioning that a number of shrines, temples, and other historic tourist sites do not necessarily have air-conditioning.

How much English do people speak?
English is still not the norm throughout the Kansai region. One of the main reasons this blog exists is to provide information about the history and culture of Kansai and Osaka in English because I personally found the English resources on these topics limited.

It is also important to keep in mind that many restaurants in the big city areas in the Kansai region offer English menus, but that does not mean staff can speak English. Rather, it is most likely that the staff does not speak English, though they will try.

Our Travel Tips: Be sure you have some common Japanese expressions under your belt. Even just the basics can be very helpful!

What times of the year are the most crowded?
Golden Week (the end of April to the first week of May), O-bon (mid-August) and around New Years are typically the most crowded times of year throughout Japan. During those times, hotels can be very expensive and the Shinkansen crowded. During New Years it is possible that someone might have to stand the entire time during a trip on the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Osaka.
Is the crime rate high in Osaka/Kansai?
It is true that when compared to a number of other countries, Japan does indeed have a very low crime rate. A low crime rate, however, does not mean crime free. While it is unlikely you will find yourself the victim of a violent crime in Japan or the Kansai region, there are still experience plenty of minor crimes you might fall prey to.

In Osaka for example, purse snatching is a real problem and many people report having their bags stolen right out from under them. In crowded areas, especially those with lots of tourists or big events like festivals, pickpockets are not rare either. Furthermore, if you lose something on a train DO NOT count on getting it back. It seems every winter I lose a pair of gloves on the train, and I never see them again.

Our Travel Tips: Remember these common sense rules about traveling in new or unfamiliar areas:

  • Keep a close eye on your personal possessions at all times.
  • Make sure your bags are closed and close to you.
  • Keep large amounts of money or other valuables inside your hotel room or in a locker.
  • Be aware of your surroundings at all times.
What is the average price for a hotel in Osaka?
Hotel prices strongly depend on location, but most decent business style hotels are typically 10,000 yen to 15,000 yen per one night for two people (Japanese hotels charges you per person, not per room). If you wish to stay nice Japanese-style hotel such as a ryokan with a hot spring, expect to pay a minimum of 30,000 yen for two people. Keep in mind that ryokan will give you a very nice dinner and breakfast too, so you are getting more than just a place to sleep. If you wish to do super cheap, you can stay love hotels (adult only hotels) or a capsule hotel, which is probably around 5,000 yen per night.
What about getting medications in Japan?
This topic can get a little tricky. For general, minor ailments like colds, headache or eczema, you can get those things over the counter at most drugstores. For something a little stronger, you will probably have to ask the pharmacist. Pharmacists are legally required explain the usage and side-effects of more potent drugs to customers. However, unless you can demonstrate you completely understand these instructions and explanations they will not be able to sell those medications.

During the winter in Japan the flu is extremely common, but flu medicines are not sold at drugstores. If you think you have the flu you must go to a hospital to get medications that treat flu symptoms.

Our Travel Tips: Assemble a basic travel first aid kit. In addition, you might want to bring a couple extra small portions of special medications if you are prone to things like sour stomach and headaches. Also, don’t forget to buy traveler’s insurance! You never know what could happen.

What about toilets in Japan?
There are two kinds of toilets in Japan: Japanese-style and Western-style. While Western-style toilets are nothing new, Japanese-style means a squat style toilet. In many city areas, Western toilets are widely available. Once you get out of the cities or in to places where tourists do not frequent, Japanese-style toilets are still widely used. This includes many shrines and temples and older train stations.

Our Travel Tips: It is not uncommon for Japanese-style toilets to not provide toilet paper, soap, or paper towels. The fewer tourists in an area, the more likely this might be. Bring a small towel and some hand sanitizer with you whenever you venture off the beaten path. If you are planning to really go a remote location, you might even want to consider toilet paper…just in case.

Are tattoos Ok in Japan?
Hot springs, beaches and pools are more accepting of tattoos these days, but there are still many that prohibits tattoos. For centuries, tattoos were given to people who committed crimes and certain tattoos related to certain crimes. Over time tattoos also became the mark of the yakuza and this is still true today.

Our Travel Tips: If you have tattoos and you intended to go to an onsen or a beach, you may want to call/check ahead to make sure tattoos are permitted.

Are many places handicap/wheelchair accessible?
In big city areas and large stations, there is sufficient accessibility for people with limited mobility. This will quickly change once you go towards the countryside. There are even some trains and airplane companies that require you to make special accommodations in advance.

Our Travel Tip: We advise always calling ahead/checking in advance about how handicap/wheelchair accessibility. Even in major city areas, smaller stations might have only one elevator and that elevator might only be on one side of the station.

What about earthquakes? How frequent are they?
Japan has many earthquakes and there are big earthquakes (magnitude 6) several times per year. Though this may sound scary, many places in Japan are very capable of handling up to a magnitude 6 quake. However, it is next to impossible to predict when and where the next earthquake will strike. If you have Japanese mobile phone, you will receive an alert just before any large earthquake in Japan.
What about free Wi-Fi in Japan?
In Osaka and parts of Kyoto City, you can find a number of public Wi-Fi spots, but outside of the cities I have not seen much free Wi-Fi.

Our Travel Tips: Consider using the Wi-Fi in your hotel as your primary source of Wi-Fi, or make plans with your cellphone service provider in your home country first.

In the past few years, I have seen more temporary phones advertised to tourists that offer internet services, but I have never personally used one.

 

Transportation

How convenient are Japanese trains?
In major city areas, trains are very convenient and you can basically go anywhere via train. Since service is frequent, you probably don’t have to check the train schedule ahead of time. However, the further away you get from major cities, especially places like Kinosaki Onsen, Amanohashidate, or Shirahama, you should check the trains schedule in advance because trains may not come as often.

Our Travel Tips: Once you get away from big cities, check the train schedules in advance!

Are trains really that crowded?
Yes. In Tokyo the trains are very crowded, especially during morning and evening rush hours. In Osaka and most of the Kansai region, it is not as bad, but the morning rush hour (7:00-8:00 am) can be rough.

Our Travel Tips: If possible avoid rush hour, especially if you have large baggage with you.

Do the trains run all the time?
Throughout Osaka and the Kansai region there is no train 24 with hour service. For most lines, the very first train runs around 5 am and the last train is typically around midnight to 1:00 am.
What about manners on the trains?
In Tokyo, many people keep quiet on the trains and become very irritated when people start talking or using theirs phones, play music etc. In the Kansai region it is fine to talk softly to the people around you, but using your phone is still considered bad manners. However, during rush hours many trains ask that you turn your phone on silent and refrain from using it. Also, many train services in Kansai region have lady’s only car in weekday or only in the morning.

Our Travel Tips: When in doubt, “silence is golden”.

Should I buy a JR Pass?
It depends on your plans, but if you stay primarily in Kansai, you don’t need to. Private lines like Hankyu and Nankai are much more convenient than JR in Kansai, and are often closer to major tourist sites. You can read more about this topic on our blog post about Osaka’s Private Railways. However, if you plan to go from Tokyo to Osaka, or other parts of Japan, the JR Pass is definitely worth buying. Buy your JR Pass here.
Which airports are most convenient in Kansai?
There are several airports in Kansai. Itami (Osaka) is exclusively for domestic flights, and will probably serve as your connecting airport from Tokyo. From Itami, limousine busses are a cheap, convenient and comfortable option to reach to Osaka City.

Kansai Airport is the largest international airports in the Kansai region. It takes 40 minutes to reach Osaka City from the airport via the Nankai Rapit Express.

*As of September 2018, Typhoon 21 caused a large ship to crash into the only bridge connecting the Kansai Airport to the mainland. While the airport is scheduled to resume flights, it seems currently the only way out of the airport will be bus or ship service. For more information, see our post about the Aftermath of Typhoon Jebi on Kansai Airport*

Kobe Airport is in Hyogo prefecture, but it doesn’t have as many flight per day as Itami or Kansai Airport

There are no airports in Kyoto and Nara.

Are there highway buses in Japan?
Yes, there are many highway bus lines in Japan. Those buses can be the cheapest option but it often require reservation in advance.
Are taxis expensive?
Taxis can be expensive. For example, if you take taxi from Namba to Osaka Station, it is roughly 1,400 yen. If you take taxi in midnight, you have to pay extra. There are no services like Uber or Lyft in Japan.
Do people in Japan walk often?
Yes. Plan to walk a lot during your time in Japan. Famous temples and shrines in particular are not always near stations and you may end up walking quite a bit. Moreover, if it is only a short distance, there typically no bus service.

Our Travel Tips: Bring your good walking shoes when you come to Japan!

 

Food

How late are restaurants typically open?
It depends on the restaurant but dinner service often runs from 4 o’clock to maybe no later than 10 o’clock at night. However, Izakaya and some bars are open till 1 or 3:00 am on the weekend.
How much is the average cost for restaurants?
This also depends on the restaurants, but if you are fine with something cheap, you can easily find about 1,000 yen per person. Family-style restaurants are another affordable option and their food is often decent quality. However, the typical costs of restaurants in most tourist areas is about 2,000 yen or so. Fancier restaurants normally run around least 7,000 to 8,000 yen per person and require reservations in advance.

Our Travel Tips: Food is a huge part of experiencing another country. Eat well and consider treating yourself to something you really want at least once during your trip. Trust us, it’s worth it!

Are there many vegetarian/vegan friendly restaurants?
The answer is…sometimes? Though there are several restaurants that say the specifically serve vegetables, they are few and far between and might even still put meat in their dishes. True veggie friendly options can be tricky. It is sad but that is the truth. Keep your eyes open for “shojin ryori” restaurants. Shojin ryori is food traditionally eaten by Buddhist monks and is known for being completely vegetarian, but those restaurants are often hard to find, not to mention expensive.
Are there many gluten free options at restaurants?
Unfortunately, there are not many, if any, restaurants that specialize in “gluten free” dishes. At least I have never heard of it. The word itself “gluten free” may not be even a familiar concept in Japan yet. It is possible in areas in Tokyo you might have better luck, but I think this is still too new to be prevalent. Some restaurants serve dishes that use rice powder instead of wheat, but it is few and far between. Then of course there is gluten in soy sauce. Again, unfortunately, I have never seen tamari sauce during any of my time in Japan.
Do you tip in Japan?
No, you don’t tip in Japan. In taxis, hotels, hair salons, restaurants, etc… Japanese people never tip. In fancier restaurants, a “service fee”, which is basically the tip, is already included in your tab at the end of the meal. Do not leave money behind on the table because people will just assume your forgot it.
Do waiters/ waitresses come to the table?
In Japanese restaurants, waiters or waitresses typically do not visit your table, unless of course your call them. Once you decide what you would like to have, you have to call them over by saying “Sumimasen (excuse me)”. You might have call a little loudly to make sure they hear you. If you are shy about calling out to them, if you make eye contact with them it is possible they will come over. In any case, if you don’t do anything, they won’t visit your table. I personally hate doing this and always make Jun do it.
What about eating on the go in Japan?
In Japan, it is considered rude to walk and eat. It is also typically considered bad manners to eat on a train that doesn’t have booth seating. When you buy food from a stall or food vendor you are expected to eat that item nearby, rather than walk on. Many younger Japanese people are starting to think it’s Ok to eat and walk, but older people still frown on walking and eating—even they never say anything directly to you about it.