Aug 3, 2017
Osaka or Kyoto? Where to stay as a base for Kansai exploration
An oft asked question in the ether of online Japan travel discussion goes something along the lines of, "Which city should I use as a base, Osaka or Kyoto?". One supposes the glib retort might be something to the effect, "Well, which city do you want to explore the most?". Fair enough but often the people answering these types of questions do so wrapped in the pashmina of Japan experience and have lost sight of what it once was to not have a clue about the country. The question of Kyoto or Osaka as a base for Kansai exploration and travel is a legitimate one, despite the reactionary temptation to just plump for Kyoto. So let's try to answer it by looking at the practicalities of each city. We break these down into the following:
Access (to other parts of Kansai)
First things first though. Travel between Osaka and Kyoto is a breeze. You can read more about the transport options and how much they cost on a previous post on City-Cost here. To give a brief summary ...
|Train||Cost (yen)||Time (min)|
|Limited Express||from 1,210||27 - 29|
|JR Rapid / Local||560||29|
|Private Trains / Lines||from 400||40 - 50|
Osaka or Kyoto as a base for what?
The obvious Kansai choices for sightseeing and exploration are probably Kobe, Nara, Himeji Castle, and Universal Studios Japan. Let's take a look at how much it might cost to get to these spots from a base of either Osaka or Kyoto. Let's also throw in access to Kansai International Airport (KIX) for good measure.
|From Osaka||From Kyoto|
Time: ~ 60 mins
Cost: ~ 800 yen
Time: ~ 50 mins
Cost: ~ 700 yen
Time: ~ 30 min
Cost: ~ 400 yen
Time: ~ 60 mins
Cost: ~ 1,000 yen
Time: ~ 65 mins
Cost: ~ 1,500 yen
Time: ~ 100 mins
Cost: ~ 2,200 yen
Time: ~ 200 yen
Cost: ~ 20 mins
Time: ~ 50 mins
Cost: ~ 800 yen
Time: 45 - 80 mins
Cost: 1,200 - 2,000 yen
Time: ~ 80 mins
Cost: ~ 2,500 yen
It should be noted that the above table of transport options for getting around Kansai is very rough indeed. The information for Kyoto to KIX is for the bus which is direct and looks to be easier than taking trains. The rest of the information is for trains. Journey times between Kyoto and Himeji can be significantly reduced by taking the Shinkansen. Of course, this will mean an equally significant increase in travel costs.
Looking at the transport options then one would have to say that Osaka, rather than Kyoto, comes out better as a base for travel in Kansai (at least in terms of the locations listed above). Osaka is both cheaper and more accessible than Kyoto.
Let's cut to the chase here, from a visiting perspective at the very least, Japanese people are polite, unconfrontational, and sometimes a little shy. One should expect few, if any, unpleasant interactions with the locals in any city in Japan.
On a recent trip to Kyoto this expat asked their Japanese travel partner what, if any, was the "characteristic" of people from Kyoto. The response was that they are good talkers, good with words. In essence, they are good at telling people what they want to hear rather than expressing the blunt truth or their own true feelings. Now this could just be taken as sensible diplomacy, and if you're someone that likes flattery, maybe Kyoto could be the place for you. Stick around though, and it sounds like it could end up being a bit frustrating - "But you said I was the greatest thing since sliced bread!".
People from Osaka on the other hand then, might be said to be the opposite, often being described as being a bit brash, gobby even. This is usualy in a positive way though. Osakans (?) are famous jokers (a lot of Japan's most popular comedians hail from these parts) and if you're looking for the company of strangers, Osaka is arguably the best place to find them in all of Japan.
On a side note, when this expat was researching a potential move to Osaka, real estate agencies told me to avoid living in south Osaka as they described it as being a bit "unsafe". In the end, the move fell through and I can't vouch for the legitimacy of their claims.
Maybe it's just this expat's heightened senses that come with leaving Tokyo, but Osaka or Kyoto, the people don't half look dapper.
Let's be straight, Osaka is by some distance larger than Kyoto so at the very least one should expect more in the way of nightlife options here. On top of this, given the more open and approachable nature of the locals in Osaka, the traveller's chances of interaction (in whatever form) would seem to be greater. Then there is the hallucinogenic madness of places like Dotonbori with its trippy neon, looming oversized plastic sushi, and a sense of heavy urban density not often seen outside of Ridley Scott's Bladerunner. In fact, outside of Tokyo, Osaka probably boasts the most varied and exciting nightlife in all of Japan.
With a greater size and population tends to come greater opportunity. In other words, there will be more foreign residents to meet up with in Osaka and a greater number of gaijin bars. We were in the city recently and did a very nice "tour" of the gaijin bars around the Umeda area.
Maybe one can have too much choice though. In this regard, Kyoto certainly keeps things comparatively concise and in Kiyamachi Dori the city can surely be proud of one of the most charming (but still robust) nightlife spots in the country. On a personal level, I really do love Kiyamachi. The blend of quaint surrounds (tricking river, weeping cherry blossom trees), international travellers, knackered salarymen, sleazy dudes and sleazy parlours, beautiful locals, and myriad choice of bars and eateries in a fairly traffic free zone never fails to intoxicate (in more ways than one)! And while Osaka might have the larger population of expats, Kyoto is where you'll be able to meet all the travellers.
In fact, downtown Kyoto at night is almost haunting it's that beautiful. The banks of the Kamo River play host to buskers, couples and canned beer drinkers. The streets of Gion are cleared of flag waving tour groups taking on an air of romance and intrigue evocative of a Miyazaki anime, and the narrow alleys of Higashiyama really have to be seen to be believed of an evening. Actually, "seen" is the wrong word. "Felt" would be better.
Kyoto probably lacks the epic lasers, the wanton misery of girlie bars (at least on the scale of Osaka), and a sense of debauchery but it more than makes up for this in heavy, romantic, and otherworldly charm.
Choosing between Osaka and Kyoto when it comes to nightlife is simple enough then - civilised, sophisticated and romantic = Kyoto. Epic, debauched, and with the chance of a random encounter = Osaka. Which one are you?
Tenka no Daidokoro / "the nation's kitchen" is a moniker often slapped onto Osaka, and to coin another phrase - there's no smoke without fire. The point being that, however true Osaka's status as the nation's place for knocking up a bite to eat, it can't be denied that food culture is strong in Osaka. This is after all the city that came up with the pastime of kuidaore - the custom of eating oneself to ruin. Food in this city goes hand in hand with the open / sociable nature of its residents often acting (along with booze) as the conduit from which this interaction flows. Osaka is also the birthplace of kappo style dining - typically a dining experience in a restaurant as cozy as a closet where you'll be rubbing shoulders with the person next to you as the chef picks out the dishes.
And then there's the term "soul food". Yes, as a term it's annoying, a bit empty, and very Japanese but Osaka's "soul food" has gone on to become among the most famous grub in all of Japan - takoyaki. Or is it okonomiyaki? Can you have two soul foods or does that imply the coexistence of two souls in one body? Well, let's not get too metaphysical about things. Osaka does good honest grub very well, and the nation laps it up.
(Osaka's much loved takoyaki)
Now, this expat is in no way a "foodie" nor an expert on Japanese food, but when it comes to Kyoto, I hand on heart can't think of a food stuff associated with the city other than yatsuhashi - the doughy, bean paste-filled confectionary that is a Kyoto souvenir staple. Yatsuhashi, as nice as it is, does not constitute a meal nor something to be particularly boastful about. So let's hand this over to the experts then. According to this article (Dec, 2016) in Business Insider, Kyoto has more Michelin starred restaurants than Osaka (although both cities fare pretty well in this regard). To this end then, can we say that Kyoto is the better city for fine dining? Honestly, I don't have the money to put this to the test. What we can say though is that in locations like Arashiyama, Ponto-chō, Gion and Higashiyama Kyoto has some of the most "Japanese" of surrounds in which to get fed. During the summer the kawayuka riverside terraces of Ponto-chō make for, arguably, one of the most romantic dining experiences one could have in all of Japan, or anywhere in the world for that matter.
(Kyoto - kawayuka riverside terraces of Ponto-chō)
Staying with the fine dining, Kyoto has few tall buildings that can provide those gob smacking night views. Osaka, on the other hand, has plenty.
Osaka for the street food and Kyoto for the posh nosh then? Which city has the best food for you?
If Osaka has a strong coffee culture, it doesn't jump out at you. There will likely be some "top 10" list online detailing a random selection of organic, bookish looking coffee joints in the city but you don't have to spend long in Osaka to get a sense that dark-rimmed specs, sued jackets and the latest fair-trade grains from Guatemala are a distinct characteristic of the city and its people. On a recent trip it wasn't even all together easy to find a Starbucks (let alone a seat in one). Maybe I'm being too dismissive here. Perhaps better research will turn up evidence of a coffee scene in Osaka but maybe the real point is that if there is a scene, it isn't self evident or even easily felt. Have you got the time and the motivation to seek it out?
Kyoto, on the other hand, looks like a coffee city (at least once you get away from the main train station). The old buildings, all the wood, and the quiet, quaint and charming backstreets must be the entrepreneurial coffee connoisseur's wet dream. And you can spot these coffee joints with relative ease. Why, even Starbucks got in on the act setting up shop in a 100-year-old townhouse.
(Coffee spot Kyoto)
It all makes sense really - the higher pleasures have long come served with a contemplative cup of coffee and Kyoto does higher pleasures better than anywhere else in Japan.
Out there somewhere is a list telling you where the best coffee shops in Kyoto are. It's probably based on someone else's list which in turn was probably based on places of which photos were available, but it doesn't matter. The joy here is in the discovery, the fruits of which will likely be more plentiful in Kyoto than in Osaka.
Kyoto, by some distance.
Osaka has a booming shopping scene befitting a city of this size. Osaka's two largest centers of consumption are Namba (south) and Umeda (north). It's in these zones that you'll find massive department stores and underground complexes that look like they could be the life quarters of a post-apocalyptic world, such is their size and complexity. Between Namba and Umeda sits the Shinsaibashi-suji Shopping Center, an arcade built in the old skool which dates back to the Edo era. Shinsaibashi-suji is around 600 m long but that pales in comparison to Tenjinbashi-suji, northeast of the Umeda area, a shopping arcade said to be the longest "straight" shopping arcade in Japan at some 2.6 km.
In Den Den Town, Osaka has its own version of Akihabara, an area loaded with tech goods, manga, anime and video games (although you might be a little disappointed if you come here thinking you're going to get something close to Akihabara). Amerikamura is Osaka's Harajuku and Shibuya rolled into one - a hub of all things youth, pop, boutiquey and cool. Then there's Abeno Harukas, Japan's recently crowned tallest skyscraper. The Kintetsu-owned department store here is said to be the largest in Japan. Dotonbori is the place to go for novelty Japan souvenirs, key chains, trinkets and mad, "only-in-Japan" snacks.
In all honesty, Osaka's shopping possibilities are too extensive to list in a piece like this other than to say - if you want it, Osaka's probably got it.
When it comes to tourist tack and tat of a more "cultured" bent, there's no competition between Kyoto and Osaka - Kyoto wins hands down. Head to the narrow streets that climb up to Kiyomizu-dera and you'll see what we mean. Here you can find those sundry items and dust collectors that look like they were made out of discarded kimono fabric. The streets around here are packed to the brim with stores peddling this kind of stuff. The same could almost be said of busy and somewhat brash Shijo Dori in downtown Kyoto.
For something with a bit more authenticity head to the Kyoto Handicraft Center where you can find your woodblock prints, dolls, and even ornamental swords (although good luck getting these back home).
One of Kyoto's most famous streets for window shopping and consumption actually has no windows. It's Nishiki Market, a tourist's fantasy of photo ops, local produce, and weird looking bits of food that will impress the folks back home. For the locals, Nishiki Market is a legitimate resource.
(Goodies on show at Kyoto's Nishiki Market)
Kawaramachi and the JR Kyoto Station areas are the main hubs for modern-day, practical shopping in Kyoto. It's in these areas that you'll find Kyoto's largest department stores and malls.
Deciding on which is best for shopping, Osaka or Kyoto, is a really tricky one. In terms of shear volume and variety, the nod would have to go to Osaka. The same could be said for an indulgent shopping spree with a good friend. If you're the kind of shopper that likes to keep things concise and to the point, then maybe Kyoto is better as there is less distance to cover, and less choice to get overwhelmed by, although you might not be able to find everything that you want. Certainly, when it comes to crafts, arts, and tourist novelty, Kyoto will make for a better shopping experience that Osaka, even if so much of it empty nonsense.
Which do you think is the best shopping destination, Kyoto or Osaka?
To be clear, Osaka has some great sights, attractions, and other things to "see" many of which could be considered "world class". And certainly, if what you want is a "city" and all that comes with that - the down and out, the grubby and the sleazy, the massive parks, the variety, the sprawling views, the industry, the sense of urgency, the sense of real people doing real things, the element of risk and chance, the mad people, and the glimpse of beauty amidst brutal functionality - then Osaka, rather than Kyoto, it where it's at. Otherwise, in terms of sightseeing, it's Kyoto all the way. I mean that, emphatically.
It took this expat some years after moving to Japan to finally make it down to Kyoto. This is down to laziness, cynicism, and snobbery. I just got tired of all the newbies, fresh off the boat telling me how awesome Kyoto is. And as much as it pains me to follow suit, I have to agree that Kyoto really is awesome. Anyone who says something along the lines of, "Well, these temples and shrines all start to look the same after a while." can't have been to Kyoto. And more than anything else, it's the atmosphere of the downtown area - Ponto-chō, the banks of the Kamo River, evening Gion, and nighttime Kiyamachi - that are truly intoxicating and really should be an experience in any trip to, or stay in, Japan.
Drum roll for the conclusion ....
Osaka or Kyoto as a base for travel / exploration of Kansai? - Kyoto
OK, in terms of practicality, cost, transport, and maybe food Osaka actually makes more sense as a base for exploration of the region (although it is a little further from Tokyo than Kyoto). But while Kyoto is very easy to access from Osaka, it would just be a crying shame not to stay in the former and bask in its glory. Personally, Kyoto is way more than the sum of its already considerable parts and arguably the best moments in the city are those that you have when moving between the attractions or when you aren't even thinking about trying to have them. For this reason, Kyoto warrants a greater span of time.
Of course, choosing between Osaka and Kyoto is all about the purpose of the visit or stay. If that purpose is for pleasure though, then surely one's base of operations should be Kyoto.
*NB - Perhaps a large "Osaka or Kyoto" shaped hole in this piece is accommodation. Literally then, which of the two cities is the best place to stay? In short, I don't know but would hazard a guess that the cheapest accommodation can be found in Osaka. Certainly, Osaka will be more geared up to accommodate business travellers from other parts of Japan, in town on the company's tight budget. To this end, the area just southeast of Umeda is home to some pretty down and out business hotels where single rooms go for around 5,000 yen (which is cheap in Japan). In Kyoto, however, you're likely to find a greater range of youth hostels where bed in dorm will be around 2,500 - 3,000 yen per night. At the upper end of things, both Osaka and Kyoto can cater to the deepest of pockets. For the ryokan, slippers, and yukata experience, it most be Kyoto all the way.
How about you? Which do you think is the best place to stay, Osaka or Kyoto? Let us know your choice and why in the comments.
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Easily Kyoto if this is a trip for taking a trip's sake. Osaka is a lot of fun but you might as well visit it from a base of Kyoto. If you want to have an 'Osaka' night on the tiles then do so, and the head back to Kyoto to refresh and pick yourself back up again.