Japan is a stunning country, with way too many cities worth your time. While Tokyo might be the first choice for many people, even solo travelers, there are some advantages to staying in the southern part of the country. Kyoto and Osaka are generally the two most popular choices in the area, and we’re here to help you decide between the two!
Both cities are amazing, and have so much to offer. But they are also very different cities, and your entire experience in Japan will heavily depend on where you chose to stay. Is it the vibrant and colourful city with a wild nightlife? Or the more traditional and conservative one, with geisha walking around the streets and a temple in sight wherever you look?
Read more about Osaka and Kyoto in this detailed guide, and you will easily figure out which city is a better fit for you. Oh, and be sure to check this travel packing list before you leave, because having forgotten something you love to wear is always worth avoiding!
There are some general things that you should know about travel to Japan, and that apply regardless of which city you are visiting.
Did you know that foreigners are not allowed to drive in Japan? At least, not without an international driving permit that they can apply for in their home countries. Also, you would have to cover at least 10,000km in car if you’re from Europe, which would take days, if not weeks. So, driving to Japan is not an option.
I also searched for trains and buses out of various European countries – France, Spain, Belgium, Germany – and was not able to find any. Therefore, the only way you can actually reach Japan is to fly there, so that’s what I’m going to focus on here.
If you don’t intend to stay in one place while you’re in this amazing country, I would highly recommend getting a Japan Railway Pass. You can choose from a week pass, 10-day pass and 2-week pass, depending on how long you’re staying in the country. The pass gives you unlimited access to JR trains for the amount of time you choose, and it’s a bargain compared to individual train tickets.
To really make the most of your time in Japan, I recommend travelling to as many other cities as you can. With the JR pass you won’t have to worry about paying for train tickets, which is pretty amazing.
One thing that Osaka and Kyoto have in common is that they are both excellent hubs to explore southwestern Japan. They are both connected with trains to major cities in this part of Japan, and even to Tokyo. So, if this was one of your main concerns, you’ll be glad to know that it doesn’t really matter which city you choose to stay in.
Nara, Kobe, Hiroshima, Nagoya, Okayama and Himeji are all really close to both Osaka and Kyoto, and are amazing cities in Japan that you should definitely explore.
Osaka has two international airports, so you can choose where you want to land. Osaka International Airport is north of city center, and the Kansai International Airport is south of city center. Osaka International Airport is much closer to the city; the train ride from the airport to Osaka Station is only about 20 minutes long. I would recommend landing there, as you will be much closer to your actual destination.
The train ride from Kansai airport can take up to 1 hour and 40 minutes, if you get on the JR train. You also have the option to get a limousine bus ride to Osaka Station from either airport.
Osaka ranked as the third safest city in the world in 2019, which is pretty amazing. The city is generally considered to be very safe for tourists, but there are a couple areas that you should avoid. It’s recommended that you stay away from Tobita Shinchi – the largest brothel district in the city.
Shinsekai is considered Osaka’s most dangerous and poorest neighbourhood, but it’s still a very lively area. It was modelled largely after New York, but has been neglected in the past decades.
However, you have to keep in mind that what Japanese people consider dangerous would be thought of as a very safe area in New York or London. And your main concern in Shinsekai would be pickpockets – just pay attention to your belongings and you will be fine. In addition to that, this area has been attracting quite a lot of backpackers in the last few years, due to low accommodation prices and cheap restaurants.
It is also pretty safe to walk around Osaka at night, as long as you remain vigilant. But it’s not recommended for women to walk around alone in the wee hours of the night.
If you plan to do a lot of partying and going out, I would recommend staying in Namba. The neighbourhood is known for loads of East Asian restaurants, izayaka bars and comic book shops. It’s a great party area, but it’s not that great when it comes to access to transport. It is close the Midosuji subway line that will get you pretty much anywhere in Osaka, but that line is not covered with the JR pass.
Probably the best part of Osaka you can stay in is Kita Ward. It’s a major transport hub with several huge train stations. And since Osaka is a huge city, being close to train stations is pretty important.
Kita is also close to some of the most popular attractions in the city – Osaka castle, Nakanoshima Rose Garden and Osaka Museum of History. And there are several key attractions within the area itself – Umeda Sky Building, Osaka Science Museum, Osaka Museum of Housing and Living and Tenjinbashisuji Shopping Street.
In addition to that, you will have lots of choices when it comes to restaurants and bars. There virtually won’t be any need to leave the area, other than to go and explore some touristy places.
Osaka is Japan’s second largest city, so there’s quite a lot to do and see there. And it is an amazing blend of the new and the old – you can see Japan’s oldest Buddhist temple here, and then go to a neighbourhood that looks like you’re in New York. It is truly an amazing city, full of vibrant neon signs, takoyaki vendors and skyscrapers that offer amazing panoramic views.
Dotonbori district is undoubtedly the most popular tourist hub in the city. With bright neon lights everywhere, giant octopus signs that indicate you can buy takoyaki there and the popular Tombori river walk. This is one of the few places in the city that is actually going to be crawling with tourists.
But for very good reasons; the Ebisu bridge is featured in most of Osaka photos, and it is an iconic city sights. Plus, this district has some of the best restaurants in the city, so it is a great place to sit down and enjoy a meal.
Dotonbori is also known for the best theatres in Osaka. It’s wonderful to go see that, but I doubt you would enjoy the plays much, as they are performed in Japanese.
What’s even more interesting is that you can find the Hozenji Buddhist temple just a couple alleys away from the city’s urban district. The area around the temple is peaceful, quiet and a great representation of traditional Japan. And that’s another reason why Osaka is such an amazing city; it is the perfect blend of modern extravagance and tradition, which we love Japan for.
Even though Osaka is a pretty modern city, it is still home to numerous Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. In fact, some of the best temples are in the country are located in this city, so let’s talk about those first.
Shitennoji is one of the best known Buddhist temples in Japan, famous for its colorful 5-storey pagoda. It is also Japan’s oldest temple, and definitely the most popular religious structure in the city. Hozen-ji Temple is also a must; it’s the temple that’s hidden in a quiet alley just steps away from the city’s busiest district.
Namba Yasaka Shrine is another popular spot in the city. The shrine is famous for the ritualistic performance stage shaped like a lion’s head – a rather unique sight in Japan.
And of course there’s also Sumiyoshi Taisha. The 3rd century Shinto shrine is popular for the beautiful garden, which includes a pond with a red footbridge. The entire scene it absolutely beautiful, and looks like something you’d see on a postcard.
Osaka Castle is a major tourist attraction in the city, so it should definitely be at the top of your list. The castle grounds are absolutely massive, and it will take you several hours to really get to see everything worth seeing there.
There are several gorgeous gardens, shrines and parks worth stopping by here. And there are loads of food stalls in the area, so you can have a quick bite in case you get hungry.
The castle is virtually a museum nowadays; it tells the story of how Osaka was built. The interior is not that remarkable, but the view from the top floor of the castle is absolutely breathtaking.
Osaka Castle Park is a place you should definitely stop by. It offers an amazing view of the castle, with a beautiful garden full of cherry trees.
With skyscrapers all around the town, going to an observation deck high in the sky is an absolute most. Your trip to Osaka just wouldn’t be complete without an awesome panorama of the city’s skyline.
Luckily, there are several towers that provide epic views of Osaka. Abeno Harukas is the tallest building here, and it offers a pretty amazing view from the city. But so does Tsutenkaku tower, which is actually fairly close to Abeno Harukas.
In the northern part of the city, you will want to head to Umeda Sky Building. This skyscraper not only offers epic views of this part of the city, but also features a rooftop garden, restaurant and cocktail lounge. Enjoying a bit of sake with the most magical view of Osaka in front of you is an experience you can’t have anywhere else in Japan, and something you should definitely do.
There are plenty of interesting museums in Osaka, and it’s hard to recommend just one. Osaka Museum of History is a priority if you want to learn more about the city and and its ancient history.
Osaka Museum of Housing and Living is also a must-see for those that want to know more about this amazing city. It’s located in Kita Ward and it features an exhibition on how people used to live in Osaka. You will see miniature recreations of city streets and old buildings, and that includes miniature people! It’s a very interesting museum and something that I would definitely recommend.
And then there’s also Osaka Science Museum. It’s a must if you’re even remotely interested in interactive science exhibits. It’s only about 400 Yen for adults, and it’s free for children younger than 15. A really good deal for several hours and four floors of fun, if you ask me.
There are several other museums you might find interesting – Museum of Oriental Ceramics, National Museum of Art, the Mint Museum, Fujita Museum and Osaka International Peace Center.
Osaka is Japan’s second largest city, and it baffles me how often tourists overlook it. Sure, it’s not as talked about as Kyoto or Hiroshima, but it is still an amazing city worth exploring. And it’s swarming with friendly locals that know how to party.
Yes, you can party in Kyoto, but it’s nothing compared to the parties in Osaka. With nightclubs, pubs, discos and cocktail bars all over the city, Osaka parties are going to be a rather unforgettable experience.
Especially if you manage to make friends with English speaking locals that will show you exactly where the best parties are. Just avoid the ones that have way too many tattoos – you know why.
The closest international airport to Kyoto is Kansai airport, which is in Osaka. From there, you would have to get on a train to actually reach Kyoto; the good news is that there’s a train station right at the airport. The bad news is that, after flying for nearly a day, you have to endure more public transport until you actually reach your hotel.
But don’t let that stop you; the airport is just a little over an hour away from Kyoto station, and that ride would be included in your JR Pass.
Kyoto is one of the safest cities in Japan, so there’s really very little to worry about. The biggest risk are pickpockets on public transport, which can be said for virtually any other city in the world. As long as you take some basic precautions and keep an eye on your stuff in large crowds, you will be perfectly fine.
And honestly, you should be more cautious with foreigners than with Japanese people.
You have your choice of the usual hotels in Kyoto – Four Seasons, Marriott, Hyatt Regency etc. But this city has a reputation for culture and tradition, and I recommend you embrace that. Wouldn’t it be better to stay at a traditional ryokan in Kyoto, than to just book a room at a hotel that’s exactly the same wherever you go?
Ryokans are a big part of Japanese culture, and you can find loads of them throughout the city. From cheaper ones that will set you back about 60 Euros per night, to much more expensive ones where stays are several hundred Euros per night. There’s a suitable one for you no matter what your budget is, and it will really contribute to your overall traditional Japanese experience in this stunning city.
However, keep in mind that the less money you pay, the less privacy you have. Most budget ryokans have common bathrooms and dining rooms. But they also don’t have too many rooms, so you won’t be sharing with a lot of other people.
Kyoto is also pretty famous for its machiya – traditional townhouses. The advantage in staying of staying in a machiya is that you’ll have almost the entire house to yourself! They’re an excellent option if you want to experience traditional Japanese rentals, but also if you value privacy.
For the best experience, I recommend staying at least two nights in a more traditional rental in Kyoto. After that you can switch to a hotel, and enjoy freedom and room service.
The best parts of Kyoto to stay in are around Kyoto Station, Downtown Kyoto and Southern Higashiyama. If you stay in one of these areas you will be close to the best sightseeing spots and you will have easy access to transport. Alternatively, it’s ok to book a hotel anywhere in Central Kyoto; you might have to walk a bit to the nearest station, but trains will generally get you wherever you want to go.
Kyoto is known about the world for tradition, culture, photos of geishas walking around city streets and some remarkable religious temples. It is the city you want to visit if you really want to get to know Japanese culture and tradition and don’t care too much about modern day extravagances.
Arashiyama is technically a neighbourhood of Kyoto, but it is pretty far from city center. It is most famous for the monkey park, where you can observe all sorts of monkeys in their natural habitat. If there aren’t too many people at the park while you’re there, you might even get a chance to feed the monkeys and play with them.
Since Arashiyama is pretty far away from the main area of Kyoto, I recommend you plan to spend almost an entire day there. There’s a lot more to see here apart from the monkey park – go to the observation deck, visit the Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, walk around the bamboo forest and go on some challenging hikes.
This neighbourhood is also home to an amazing riverside hotel that you might want to check out. It’s a luxury hotel, but if you can afford it, I would definitely recommend staying there for a couple of nights. It’s very close to the Buddhist temples in the area, and it offers magical views of Katsura river. Plus, it is in a very peaceful area and you are surrounded by breathtaking nature – what’s not to love?
Castles are among the most popular tourist attractions in Kyoto, so they should definitely be on your list.
Kyoto Imperial Palace is the former residence of the imperial family. The palace grounds are vast; they feature several gardens, shrines, temples and more cherry trees than you can count. You can visit and enter almost everything on the grounds, apart from the actual Imperial Palace. That building is open to visitors only by prior arrangement, so be sure to book an appointment if you want to go inside.
Nijo Castle, on the other hand, is always open to visitors. The historic wooden castle is a Kyoto sight that you simply can’t miss, if you really want to explore as much of the city as possible. Ninomaru palace is the most popular attraction on the grounds, so be sure to visit it. It consists of multiple buildings connected by corridors, as well as rooms covered in tatami mats.
Kyoto has more than 1600 temples, so it can be a little overwhelming to pick out just a few of them to visit. I’ll help you narrow that down quite a bit, by telling what the best and most popular temples (and shrines) in Kyoto are.
The first one is pretty obvious – Fushimi Inari. The Shinto shrine is famous worldwide for the path with hundreds of Torii gates, which also happens to be one of the most popular photo spots in the entire city.
Southeast Kyoto is home to another popular temple – Tofukuji. This Zen Buddhist temple is popular for its rock garden, but it is rarely too crowded. Which makes it a great spot for photography, since you won’t have nearly as many photo-bombers as you will at Fushimi Inari.
There’s even more interesting temples in and around Northern Higashiyama. Eikando is a Buddhist temple complex with unbelievably stunning gardens that really come to life in the fall. Nanzenji Temple is also known for its gorgeous gardens, amazing architecture and forested grounds. Higashiyama Jisho-ji is another must in Northern Higashiyama; the 15th century temple has a Zen garden with a lovely pond, and features a mound of sand shaped just like Mt. Fuji.
Other temples worth your time are Tenryuji Temple in Arashiyama, and Ryōan-ji, Daitoku-ji and Kinkaku-ji just outside northwest Kyoto.
Kyoto is a city of tradition, I’ve said that many times. And tea ceremonies are extraordinarily important in Japanese culture. They include ceremonial preparation and presentation of matcha (green tea), but they’re not actually about drinking tea.
A Japanese tea ceremony is like a choreography – there’s order to how the utensils are displayed, how they are used and there’s fluidity in the movements while preparing the tea. It is something that you have to experience in order to appreciate, and really pay attention while you’re attending Way of Tea. And it doesn’t hurt that you get to drink some delicious tea at the end of the ceremony!
There are a lot of tea houses in Kyoto, and not every single one you stumble upon is going to be great. I recommend the En Tea House in Higashiyama – the staff here speaks English, which goes a long way towards making this experience enjoyable instead of frustrating.
Another great tea house in the city is Ichiriki Chaya. It was established more than 300 years ago, and there are geishas to entertain the guests at the tea house. It is pretty pricey though, but the entire experience will most certainly be worth the money.
The 400-year-old market is an iconic spot in Kyoto and you should definitely visit it. It’s lined with food stalls where you can buy pretty much any Japanese food you think of. If you love seafood, this place is going to be heaven on Earth of you. But if you’re a vegetarian, you might want to skip this place – the smell of fried fish and meat is a “little” overwhelming, and there’s a decent shopping street not far away from here.
Another cool thing about Nishiki Market is that a lot of vendors will let you have free samples of sake, honey, candy and pretty much anything. And you can also buy all sorts of souvenirs here, from stuffed toys to knives and blades.
Osaka and Kyoto are both stunning cities and excellent hubs for further exploration of Japan. But, your experience will be completely different depending on where you decide to stay.
And while they might be completely different from one another, it’s actually impossible to say that one city is better than the other. Both appeal to tourists in different ways, and both have something unique to offer to you. Since these two cities are really close to each other, I recommend that you find the time for a day trip to the city that you don’t wind up staying in.
Anna is the co-owner of expert world travel and can't wait to share her travel experience with the world. With over 54 countries under her belt she has a lot to write about! Including those insane encounters with black bears in Canada.