Taking the Scenic Route: Osaka to Tokyo by Local Train

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Photo by Bong Grit

I love traveling. However, I also love having money. With the bullet train so expensive, and with a few days to spare, I set myself a challenge: Get from Tokyo to Osaka using only local trains, and see as many new places as I can along the way.

Taking advantage of Japan’s world-class local train system, I decided to go from Osaka to Tokyo via local trains usually takes about 8 or 9 hours, however for the purposes of this project I envisioned a four-day time span for the trip. A couple of hours on the train each day, stopping off to take in some of the best sights along the way.

One of the great things about the route between Osaka and Tokyo is that there are so many points of interest along the way.  Visiting Japan is a lot like visiting the UK in some ways. If you spend all your time in big cities like London, Edinburgh, or Glasgow, you’re missing the big picture of what real life there is like.

While my trip was just 4 days, it would be easy to extend that to a week or possibly even longer. So, here is my basic itinerary outline, with some notable highlights to plan your own trip like this.

Day 1: Osaka – Kyoto – Nagoya

Firstly, leave Osaka nice and early to get a head start on your trip. From JR Osaka station, the local train will get you to Kyoto in about 40 minutes. I would recommend spending a full day in Kyoto, to take in the best of the sights.

There are so many things to see and do in Kyoto but my top personal recommendations would be Kinkakuji temple, Ryouanji temple and Kitano-Tenmangu shrine. These are all within 30-minutes walk of each other and easy enough to navigate in a morning, provided it’s not too busy. I recommend starting at Kinkakuji, which you can reach in about 45 minutes by bus from Kyoto station. For lunch, head back toward Kyoto station. Be sure to treat yourself to some green tea ice cream while you’re there.

You may see traditional dress while in Kyoto!

A short nine-minute ride on the Biwako line will take you to Otsu in Shiga Prefecture.

Make sure you get here before dusk to take in the stunning view of the setting sun over Lake Biwa. I recommend spending the evening here, in one of the many onsen hotels or ryokans in and around the waterfront. You could also take advantage of one of the evening cruises around the lake if you are feeling particularly energetic.

Day 2: Otsu — Nagoya City

Day two begins with a 75-minute train ride from Otsu to Ogaki on the JR Tokaido line. From there, take the local line for 11 minutes to reach Gifu. There’s plenty to do in Gifu, but the undoubted highlight is Gifu Castle. The castle is one of Japan’s most historically significant castles: its central location made it the venue for frequent flashpoints throughout Japan’s long and bloody history of feudalism.

After visiting the castle, there’s a choice of sitting down for lunch or heading to the next stop: Nagoya in Aichi Prefecture. With time and money at a premium, a quick gyudon (beef and rice bowl) from the Gifu Eki Ten Yoshinoya will really hit the spot.

A mere 25 minutes or so on the local JR line will take you down to Nagoya, Japan’s fourth-largest populated city behind Osaka, Yokohama and of course Tokyo. However, most visitors probably think of Nagoya as just one of many stops on the bullet train from Tokyo down to the Kyushu region. In fact, it has plenty to see and do for a would be visitor. The bayside Port of Nagoya Public Aquarium is worth a visit. I don’t know about you, but seeing dolphins always puts me in a good mood.

Fall foliage in Nagoya is a highlight.

There’s also plenty of shopping, good bars and restaurants around Nagoya station. I was in the mood for something a little different however, so I ended up eating at an izakaya a short walk from my hotel called Uminohi. As the name suggests, ocean fresh sashimi and sushi were the orders of the day. I especially recommend the fatty salmon.

For hotel accommodation, I recommend moving a little away from the station itself. A short taxi ride of just 10 or 15 minutes out of the city center can save up to 50 percent on your room price. You’ll need to get a good rest in your hotel because day three is going to be a busy one. I went for a room at the Dormy Inn, a simple yet comfortable hotel in the Sakae district, about 15 minutes from Nagoya station.

Day 3: Hamamatsu — Mt. Fuji

Hamamatsu, in Shizuoka Prefecture, is another great location all-too-often overlooked by travelers since the faster Nozomi Shinkansen trains breeze past it on the way to Tokyo every day. From Nagoya, the Tokaido line takes approximately 90 minutes to Hamamatsu.

With a population of less than 800,000, the city of Hamamatsu may pale in comparison to metropolises such as Tokyo or Osaka, but nevertheless, it is the largest city in Shizuoka Prefecture and has some interesting distractions. The Nakatajima sand dunes, alongside Tottori’s, are one of the largest dune areas in Japan. As well as being a beautiful place to see, the dunes also serve an important conservation role, as one of the region’s most popular turtle habitats.

Possibly Hamamatsu’s most famous location is the Act City Tower, the city’s only skyscraper. From the observatory, on the building’s 45th floor you can enjoy views over the entire city. You’ll also find plenty of places to grab something to eat along the way.

Though being as simplistic and impatient as I am when I get hungry, I ended up going for the deliciously simple Mos Burger. Just as well, really, since I had a long journey ahead.

Tateyama ropeway in Hamamtsu City.

It takes one hour and 40 minutes to reach Fuji station. We aren’t going to climb Mt. Fuji this time, since the climbing season ends in October, but Fuji City itself is a quiet little town where we can take things a bit slower and unwind with local foods such as sakura ebi (cherry shrimp) and quiet local parks as we prepare for the final leg of our journey. On a clear day, you can enjoy pleasant views of the town’s namesake in the distance.

Of all the places I visited along my journey, Fuji provided the biggest and most pleasant surprise. It was wonderful, and yet unusual to find such a quiet and sleepy little town in the midst of Japan’s most famous natural landmark. For my accommodation, I stayed in the Fuji Grand Hotel which also included a lovely bathhouse, which was the perfect way to unwind ahead of my return to the urban madness that awaited me the next day.

Day 4: Yokohama — Tokyo

Time to leave the sleepiness of Fuji behind as we embark on our last leg of the journey. Getting from Fuji to Yokohama will take a little under two hours using the Tokaido Rapid line via Atami. Among Yokohama’s various attractions are Japan’s largest Chinatown district, and  Yokohama Stadium, which played host to the World Cup Final back in 2002.

After spending the day in Yokohama, I recommend heading over to Shinjuku in Tokyo, which takes 35 minutes on the Shonan Shinjuku line from Yokohama station. With so much to do and see in Tokyo, you could spend hours checking it out, but here are two major places to start: a view from the top of the the free-of-charge Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building or another tourist attraction Tokyo SkyTree.

Photo by Tinou Bao

Taking the local train can lead to adventure.

Local train life: The Pros and Cons

Overall, I’m glad I made this trip. It has taken me to parts of Japan I otherwise would never have seen.

Pros:

  • Far more relaxing than taking the shinkansen.
  • Get to see places you would otherwise fly right past on your way to the main hubs.
  • Opportunity to try new foods and experience Japan away from the big cities.

Cons:

  • Sometimes local trains can change their schedules unexpectedly.
  • It’s not always practical to take the three or four days off work needed to do this kind of trip properly.
  • Overall, a direct flight to Tokyo is cheaper through a domestic low cost carrier.

This trip not only proved relaxing but also eye-opening. I hope to do something similar again next year, if I can get the time off work!

If you want more travel tips on these and other locales in Japan, check out GaijinPot Travel.

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Teacher, journalist and now blogger.

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