A journey into the cultural heartland of West Japan

From the bright lights of Osaka to the born-again city of Hiroshima, West Japan is home to a plethora of culture. With its cities and countryside all serviced by an extensive rail network, exploring this beguiling region has never been easier.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020,
By West Japan Railway Company
Tea house interior at Kenrokuen Gardens in Kanazawa,  a city backed by mountains and fronted ...
Tea house interior at Kenrokuen Gardens in Kanazawa, a city backed by mountains and fronted by the Sea of Japan.
Photograph by Alamy

Taking in the Sea of Japan, the Pacific Ocean, Osaka Bay and the Seto Inland Sea, any visit to West Japan comes with a guarantee of spectacular maritime views. There are mountains, too; cutting across this part of the country are the vast volcanic Japanese Alps, home to thick green forests filled with waterfalls, dramatic gorges, pretty glades and hiking trails shared with bears, eagles and red-faced snow monkeys. Visitors can also explore a wealth of historic attractions, from imperial cities and Buddhist pilgrimage towns to a wealth of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Throw in an array of exciting cities and memorable cuisine and you’ve got the full West Japan package. Despite the dramatic scale of the region, Japan’s superb rail network makes it a breeze to get around, both geographically and economically. Many sightseeing trains, such as the Belles Montagnes et Mer service, which travels along the Himi and Johana lines, are operated by JR-West, meaning travel is handily covered by the JR-West Rail Pass. Honing in on just two of the many passes JR-West has to offer, here are two itineraries to help you plan your next adventure.

Visitors enjoying a canal boat journey in Kurashiki Bikan Historical Quarter in the city of Okayama.
Photograph by Okayama Prefectural Tourism Federation

Itinerary one: the Kansai-Hiroshima Area Pass 
Famed for its fantastic street food, friendly nature and electric nightlife, Osaka is where your journey begins. You’ll arrive from Kansai Airport into the enormous JR Osaka Station in the heart of the city. From here, you can see the robot-like 558ft-tall Umeda Sky Building, which has a circular observation deck on the 39th floor, offering eye-popping views of western Osaka’s skyscrapers and the meandering Yodo River. After getting your bearings, fuel up on some of Osaka’s sensational street food. Lit up like a jukebox and packed with stalls, restaurants and cafes, the canal-side Dotonbori is a favourite place to fill up on kani (crab), fugu (pufferfish), and crunchy-squishy takoyaki (batter balls typically filled with octopus). End the night with some late-night shopping and drinking in the Souemoncho party zone.  

While Osaka is a modern metropolis, it has a key historic building that’s not to be missed: Osaka Castle, an elegant pearl-white fortress dating back to 1583, set in a 106-acre plum tree park. Its beauty is only rivalled by that of the hilltop Himeji Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site located 30 minutes on the Hikari line from Osaka-shin Station — an outing which teams perfectly with a tour of the dreamy Edo-period gardens of Okayama.

Then there’s Kobe, just 15 minutes from Shin-Osaka station by Shinkansen. Perched between the Rokko mountains and Osaka Bay, it’s considered one of Japan’s most attractive cities, as well as the producer of its best beef. Take a historic cable car to the city’s highest peak for views of the Seto Inland Sea and islands; dip in the Arima Onsen hot springs, the oldest in the country; tuck into a top-quality beef burger folded over rice and topped with a fried egg; and visit the emotive Kobe Earthquake Memorial Museum, which commemorates the Great Hanshin-Awaji disaster of 1995. 

The following day, take the Sanyo Shinkansen line 90 minutes west, passing the Chugoku Mountains, and into the ruggedly beautiful Chugoku region. Hiroshima, the biggest city in the area, features wide boulevards, six beautiful rivers, a range of galleries and a buzzing food scene. It also, of course, has a tragic past, having been the first city in history to suffer a nuclear attack. Spend the morning learning about the immediate and long-term impact the A-bomb had upon the city with visits to the Atomic Bomb Dome, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, the Hiroshima National Peace Memorial Hall for Atomic Bomb Victims and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Follow with an afternoon river cruise and an evening sampling the local treat okonomiyaki (a fat, savoury pancake stuffed with some variation of meat, seafood, vegetables and shredded cabbage).

From Hiroshima Station, it’s also just a 25-minute rail journey to Miyajimaguchi Station, where you can catch a ferry to the temple-studded island of Miyajima; both the train and ferry are covered by the JR West Pass. Miyajima, considered one of the three most scenic spots in Japan, is home to the 1,400-year-old Itsukushima Shinto Shrine, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From here, head to Kintai Bridge, one of the country’s most iconic landmarks.

Sagano Romantic Train running through the Saga-Arashiyama area of western Kyoto.
Photograph by Getty

Itinerary two: the Kansai-Hokuriku Area Pass 
Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan, has long been a crowd-pleaser with its beautiful shrines, gardens, tea houses and geisha flitting in the shadows. Any visit should include marvelling at the orange torii gates of the Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine, the sparkling Kinkaku-ji temple and the hilltop Kiyomizu-dera temple. Later, lose yourself in the cobbled streets of Gion, where artisans sell hand-made lacquerware, copper chazutsu tea caddies, pottery and delicate washi paper.  

Kyoto is also awash with top-notch dining, from super soba noodle spots to Michelin-starred restaurants serving traditional multi-course kaiseki. There are also cool cafes, sushi joints, craft beer bars and hidden speakeasies. Don’t leave without sampling at least one steaming bowlful of tonkotsu pork broth ramen, a local favourite. 

Next is Nara, just 45 minutes on the Miyakoji Rapid service from Kyoto. This is another wonderfully preserved ancient city, with no fewer than eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the sprawling Horyuji Temple, one of the world’s oldest surviving wooden buildings. Nara is also home to more than 1,200 wild sika deer. Considered to be messengers of the gods in the Shinto religion, the animals are allowed to wander freely around Nara Park and will happily eat from visitors’ hands. Lovers of the great outdoors should board the scenic Limited Express Thunderbird train and head north towards Kanazawa, a city backed by mountains and fronted by the Sea of Japan. Once there, purchase a one-day pass from Hokuriku Railroad and hop on the Kanazawa Loop Bus and Kenrokuen Shuttle bus, making stops at the Kenroku-en gardens, the Nomura Samurai House and the teahouse district of Higashi Chaya. Alternatively, there’s the Hanayome Noren tourist train, which makes two round-trips a day through some of Japan’s most striking mountain scenery, travelling from Kanazawa Station to the hot springs resort of Wakura Onsen. The train’s design was inspired by the area’s traditional arts, with a shiny red livery and pretty interiors incorporating Wajima-nuri lacquerware, Kaga Yuzen dyed fabric and Kanazawa gold leaf. 

Toyama is well worth a visit. Alongside history, art and temples, the area is known for its 9,000ft-high peaks, part of the Japanese Alps. The best way to absorb majesty of these is on a train journey along the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route.  

Essentials

Getting there: British Airways flies non-stop from Heathrow to Osaka Kansai on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. 

Getting around: JR-WEST has an intricate network of train and bus routes criss-crossing West Japan, providing an efficient way of getting around. Before you travel, order a JR-West Pass, offering unlimited travel on JR-West trains. westjr.co.jp

Follow National Geographic Traveller (UK) on social media 

Twitter | Facebook | Instagram 

Read More