Welcome to Japan: Kansai International Airport

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Kansai Airport International Departures. Photo by 663highland (CC BY 2.5)

Welcome to the last in a series of blog posts called Welcome to Japan. In the first project since updating the layout of my blog, I am introducing a series that will explain the available transit options after arriving at some of Japan’s major airports.

In the free time that I’ve had to post articles here, I have written about Narita Airport, Haneda Airport and Centrair Airport. Now comes the last of Japan’s major airports, Osaka’s Kansai International Airport, which is a fairly recent addition; it only opened in 1994. It became so popular that a second runway was put into operation 13 years later. Kansai Airport, like Centrair Airport and a few others, sits on a man-made island in the southern part of Osaka Prefecture.

In September 2018, a strong typhoon halted operations for some time, with the runways flooded and the major bridge linking the airport to the mainland severely damaged by a drifting tanker. Repairs on the bridge have since been completed, and Kansai Airport once again welcomes visitors eager to explore the Kansai region, while at the same time serving as a springboard to western and southern Japan.

When Kansai Airport opened in the 1990s, it took most of the international operations away from Osaka’s much closer Itami Airport. Itami is still in use today; while restricted to domestic flights only, Itami is actually busier than its more modern counterpart in Osaka Bay.

Technically speaking, the airport property sits within three municipalities: Izumisano City, Tajiri City, and Sennan City. The main bridge from the airport leads you to Izumisano, home to the Rinku Town outlets and commercial zone. Japan’s third tallest building, the Rinku Gate Tower Building, is located here as well. It is also a junction for train services heading south on the Kii Peninsula.

Kansai Airport has two terminals. By far the main attraction is the main terminal building, or Terminal 1, which was designed by the famous Italian architect Renzo Piano. The terminal building is the longest in the world, stretching around 1.7 kilometers (1.06 miles) from end to end. A people mover system stretches the entire length of the facility. It is also built for easy interchanges and connections. International passengers complete arrival formalities on the first floor, while departures are handled on the fourth floor. The second floor is dedicated to domestic arrivals and departures. Shops and restaurants are located on the third floor. Directly connected to the airport is a retail complex known as the Aeroplaza.

Pale in comparison is the much more simpler Terminal 2, which is a facility built specifically for Low Cost Carrier (LCC) airlines. Facilities are much more limited compared to Terminal 1. Free shuttle buses make the approximately 10-minute trip between terminals regularly.

Now let’s go into depth about what transit options are available to and from the airport. We begin with the trains… like Narita and Haneda airports, there are two main train operators competing for your business: Japan Railways (JR) and the private Nankai Railway. Each of the two offer a premium service heading to and from Kansai Airport, as well as standard commuter service.

It’s important to point out that much like Tokyo (but on a smaller scale) there is a circular loop that goes around Osaka, called the Osaka Loop Line. A big difference compared to Tokyo, on the other hand, is that a plethora of both subway lines and private rail lines cross around and through the loop.

Japan Railways (JR)

The JR offers useful connections to the Osaka Loop Line, the bullet train, and Kyoto. You can also pick up the national Japan Rail Pass and a variety of regional JR passes at the airport.

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JR West Haruka train. Photo by Chabata K (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Their flagship limited express service is called the Haruka. It operates twice per hour throughout most of the day. With the exception of certain rush-hour trains, Haruka services leaving Kansai Airport operate nonstop to Tennoji, at the bottom of the Osaka Loop near the Namba district. The train then runs clockwise around the loop and split off, arriving at Shin-Osaka where you can easily connect to the bullet train to head off towards western Japan and cities such as Okayama, Hiroshima and Fukuoka, or even go east towards Nagoya and Tokyo. From Shin-Osaka, the Haruka proceeds directly to the ancient capital of Kyoto. Most services terminate there, while a few rush-hour trains operate as far as Maibara in Shiga Prefecture.

Haruka trains offer a combination of reserved and non-reserved seats. As it is a limited express train, you will have to pay a surcharge on top of the basic fare. Here are the Haruka fares to three major destinations:

Tennoji: 1710 yen unreserved, 2230 yen reserved (about 35 minutes)
Shin-Osaka: 2330 yen unreserved, 2850 yen reserved (about 50 minutes)
Kyoto: 2850 yen unreserved, 3370 yen reserved (about 1 hour, 20 minutes)

The Haruka also offers the first class Green Car seats, which are bigger but more expensive.

The fares seem outrageously expensive at first, but remember that you are paying for the convenience of reaching Kansai’s major stations and connection points in a hassle-free and efficient manner.

The cheaper commuter train version of JR trains is the Kanku-Kaisoku, or Kansai Airport Rapid train service. These make more stops; moreover, a major difference from the Haruka is that the commuter trains stay on the Osaka Loop Line, in most instances making a complete circuit. Rapid trains stop at Nishi-Kujo, which is a transfer point to reach Universal Studios Japan, and at plain Osaka station, which is the gateway to the Umeda area and features a newly renovated train station that I saw firsthand in 2017. Since the Kanku-Kaisoku stays on the Osaka Loop Line, you’ll have to generally change trains to reach other destinations in Kansai such as Kyoto. To reach Shin-Osaka or Kyoto, you’ll have to change trains at Osaka station and change to an eastbound train on the JR Kyoto Line (aka Tokaido Line). Sample fares:

Tennoji: 1060 yen (55 minutes)
Nishi-Kujo: 1190 yen (65 minutes)
Osaka: 1190 yen (70 minutes)
Shin-Osaka: 1360 yen (about 80 minutes; change at Osaka Station)
Kyoto: 1880 yen (about 2 hours; change at Osaka Station)

The above trains are all covered by the Japan Rail Pass and a variety of regional rail passes offered by West Japan Railway (JR West). Foreign tourists traveling out of Kansai Airport may wish to consider the short-range Kansai Area Pass, sold online starting at 2,250 yen for one day. It includes unlimited usage of trains in the Kansai region for one day, and also includes travel on the Haruka limited express in unreserved cars. Multiple day versions of the Kansai Area Pass are sold, but what’s interesting to note is that if your destination on the JR is either Shin-Osaka or Kyoto, purchasing a one-day Kansai Area Pass just for your trip on the Haruka is cheaper than buying regular unreserved tickets.

The ICOCA and Haruka ticket is also available for foreign tourists, and includes a one-way or round-trip on the Haruka in unreserved seats and a 2000 yen IC card (includes 500 yen deposit) that can be used for train travel, shopping, restaurants and vending machines.

Also note that Tennoji station connects to two of Osaka’s subway lines: the Midosuji Line and the Tanimachi Line. The Midosuji Line is among Osaka city’s most useful subway routes, as it runs north and south stopping at some major transportation hubs.

Nankai Railway

The competitor to Japan Railways is the Nankai Railway. Like JR, Nankai has a premium train as well as a regular commuter service.

Nankai trains run into southern Osaka, terminating at Namba Station, so if you are heading to this area then taking the Nankai can be a convenient option. Namba station is very large, so it may take a bit of time to navigate, but there are connections to the Midosuji, Sennichimae and Yotsubashi subway lines, as well as a connection to the Kintetsu and Hanshin railways. The Hanshin railway will take you west towards Amagasaki and Kobe (with connections available as far as Himeji) and the Kintetsu will take you east towards Nara (with connections all the way to Ise Bay and Nagoya if you feel so inclined). Nankai trains also stop at two other important hubs: Shin-Imamiya will connect you on to the JR Osaka Loop Line, and Tengachaya connects you to the Sakaisuji subway line, which provides an alternate means of traveling to Kyoto via the Hankyu Railway.

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Nankai Rapi:t train. Photo by 日根野 (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Nankai’s premier airport service is called the rap:t (pronounced ra-PEET). The trains have a very unique, streamlined/steampunk-ish look. Inside you have a choice of standard seats and slightly wider super seats. Unlike JR’s Haruka, all seats on the rap:t require a reservation. Trains leave every 30 minutes or so, and the fastest trains reach the Namba terminal in around 39 minutes. The fare between Kansai Airport and Namba, Shin-Imamiya and Tengachaya stations is the same: 1430 yen for regular seats and 1640 yen for super seats. It’s possible to purchase rap:t tickets in advance on the Nankai Railway website for a discount of 300 yen; you would then bring the voucher to one of the rap:t train stations and exchange it for an actual ticket.

Running more frequently (around 4 trains per hour) is Nankai’s commuter service, the Airport Express. The fare between Kansai Airport and Namba, Shin-Imamiya and Tengachaya stations is only 920 yen for the commuter trains.

As mentioned, the Nankai Railway offers connections to major train lines, so even though it stops short at Namba you can easily travel to other areas. Nankai sells a plethora of discount tickets that can be used to reach other parts of the Kansai and Hyogo regions:

Yokoso! Osaka Ticket: 1500 yen (online purchase). Sold only to foreigners, this includes a one-way trip on the rap:t from Kansai Airport, plus a one-day unlimited Osaka Subway/Bus pass.

Kyoto Access Ticket: 1230 yen. This ticket includes a one-way trip on regular Nankai trains from Kansai Airport to Tengachaya, and then a one-way trip from Tengachaya to Kyoto using the Sakaisuji subway line and Hankyu Railway. You can ride the Nankai rap:t train for an additional charge.

Nara Access Ticket: 1230 yen. This ticket includes a one-way trip on regular Nankai trains from Kansai Airport to Namba, and then a one-way trip from Namba to Nara using the Kintetsu Railway. You can ride the Nankai rap:t train and the Kintetsu limited express for an additional charge.

Kobe Access Ticket: 1130 yen. This ticket includes a one-way trip on regular Nankai trains from Kansai Airport to Namba, and then a one-way trip from Namba any station on the Hanshin Railway; you can travel as far as Kobe-Sannomiya and Motomachi, and apparently, you can also head towards Umeda (near JR Osaka Station) by changing trains at Amagasaki, which would still save you about 150 yen. You can ride the Nankai rap:t train for an additional charge.

Other useful passes are described on the Nankai website. One of the more useful tickets to get around the entire region is the Kansai Thru Pass, which gives you unlimited travel on private railways and many local buses in an vast area. Tickets are 4300 yen for 2 days or 5300 yen for 3 days, and you do not need to use the pass on consecutive days.

Buses

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Kansai’s Airport Limousine Buses are blue and white in color. Photo by KishujiRapid (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Highway Buses in and out of Kansai Airport are managed by Kansai Airport Transportation Enterprise. As mentioned in previous articles, they are convenient if you have lots of luggage and you don’t want to use baggage forwarding, or if you want to go to specific hotels. The only drawback is the potential for traffic.

Many buses go to Osaka’s dedicated terminal for airport buses, the Osaka City Air Terminal or OCAT in Namba, which offers access to Namba station. Buses leave every 20 minutes and are timetabled at 50 minutes between Terminal 1 and OCAT. The fare is 1100 yen one way, or 1900 yen round-trip.

Buses run every 20 minutes or so to the Sheraton Miyako Hotel Osaka, located next to Kintetsu Uehommachi station. Buses between Terminal 1 and the Sheraton take 55 minutes and cost 1550 yen one way or 2800 yen round-trip.

There are also buses that operate every 15-20 minutes to the Hotel New Hankyu and Herbis Osaka, adjacent to JR Osaka station. Buses between Terminal 1 and Hotel New Hankyu are timetabled at one hour, at a cost of 1550 yen one way or 2760 yen round-trip. Evening buses from the airport stop at more hotels in that area.

There are 1-2 direct buses every hour to Universal Studios Japan (70 minutes, 1550 yen one way or 2700 yen round-trip).

If you are connecting to a domestic flight at Itami Airport, there are regular buses that go there as well (75 minutes, 1950 yen one way or 3500 yen round-trip).

You’ll also find direct buses that go to Kyoto every 20-30 minutes (90 minutes, 2550 yen one way), Kobe every 20 minutes (65 minutes, 1950 yen one way), Nara every hour (90 minutes, 2050 yen one way) and Wakayama 1-2 times per hour (40 minutes, 1150 yen one way). Limited long distance buses also run to Okayama, Himeji, Takamatsu and Tokushima.

One other nice thing about these limousine buses is that some of the routes offer what is known as a transfer ticket, intended for passengers who are transiting at Kansai Airport. The transfer tickets offer a discount for round trips if you leave Kansai Airport and return on the same day. As an example, a transfer ticket to the JR Osaka station area and back on the same day costs 2200 yen (versus 2760 yen for a regular round-trip).

Taxis

Of course the taxi is another option that is available for you to consider, but due to their high costs I do not recommend a taxi unless you are traveling in a group, or unless absolutely necessary. Flat fare taxis are available if you are traveling to Osaka city, costing 13000 yen for regular taxis and 14000-14500 yen for medium sized taxis. These flat rates do not include tolls, and late night trips will be higher in price. If you are heading elsewhere, fares are by the meter.

If heading to Kyoto or Kobe, ride-share van service is available. MK Taxi offers a ride-share service to Kyoto (starting at 4200 yen one way) and Kobe (starting at 2500 yen one way). There are additional charges if you have more than one large suitcase. Yasaka Taxi also offers a similar service to Kyoto for the same price as MK.

High Speed Boat

If you are going to Kobe Airport or heading in that general direction, you can avail yourself of the Kobe-Kansai Airport Bay Shuttle, a high speed boat service which offers a fast shortcut. The boat is presently offering a lucrative deal to foreign tourists until March 2020, with the regular one way fare discounted from 1850 yen to just 500 yen. Boats leave every 1-2 hours and make the run in just 30 minutes. Tickets can be purchased at Kansai Airport terminal 1; once you have the tickets, a shuttle bus will take you to the boat pier. On arrival in Kobe, you can either walk or take a shuttle bus to Kobe Airport and the Port Liner automated train line which goes into central Kobe. All considered, tourists can travel from Kansai Airport to central Kobe for the low price of just 830 yen (500 yen boat discount ticket + 330 yen for the Port Liner train) and do it in around 75 minutes or so with good connections.

In theory, once you have completed the trip to Sannomiya you could then take a short hop on the Kobe Subway to Shin-Kobe station (210 yen) which provides an alternate connection to the Shinkansen for points west. Continuing past Shin-Kobe will take you in the direction of Arima Onsen.

Hotels

Two hotels are located on the island with Kansai Airport: the Hotel Nikko Kansai Airport of the respected Hotel Nikko chain, accessible from the first floor of the airport, and a hybrid capsule hotel on the third floor called First Cabin which offers a variety of sizes to suit different budgets. Note that the First Cabin has an early check out and a late check in time: 10:00 and 19:00 respectively.

A plethora of other hotels are available across the bridge by train, within close proximity of the Rinku Town and Izumisano stations. A train to Rinku Town by either JR or Nankai costs 370 yen, and a train to Izumisano by Nankai costs 490 yen.

Long-haul International Flights

Aside from domestic flights and regional flights around Asia, here is a select list of long-haul airlines that serve Kansai Airport with regular service as of this writing, in no particular order:

  • United Airlines flies to Kansai from San Francisco, United States.
  • Japan Airlines flies to Kansai from Los Angeles, United States.
  • British Airways flies to Kansai from London Heathrow, United Kingdom.
  • Air France flies to Kansai from Paris, France.
  • KLM flies to Kansai from Amsterdam, Netherlands.
  • Qantas flies to Kansai from Sydney, Australia.

All information and links were accurate as of July 2019, and subject to the disclaimer. Photos used in the article are either public domain or courtesy of creative commons licenses.

 

 

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New Rail Passes for Japan in 2015

Last week, West Japan Railway – the JR company that runs trains on the western part of the Japanese mainland for the most part – announced a new set of rail passes for foreign tourists visiting the west part of the country, while announcing an expansion of rail passes that already exist. In order to qualify, you must be in Japan as a tourist – specifically, the “Temporary Visitor” stamp must be on your passport.

These are additions and changes that are being made by JR West – the national Japan Rail Pass right now remains unchanged as far as coverage.

Available from March 1, 2015:

San’yo-San’in Area Pass: 20,000 yen for 7 consecutive days (1,000 yen discount if purchased overseas)

San’yo-Hiroshima Area Pass: 14,000 yen for 5 consecutive days (1,000 yen discount if purchased overseas)

Hiroshima-Yamaguchi Area Pass: 12,000 yen for 5 consecutive days (1,000 yen discount if purchased overseas)

Kansai Area Passes from JR West will have coverage expanded, and prices will go up for tickets sold on or after March 1, 2015:

Kansai Area Pass: 1, 2, 3 and 4 consecutive day passes ranging from 2,300-6,500 yen (100-200 yen discount if purchased overseas)

Kansai Area Wide Pass: 9,000 yen for 5 consecutive days (500 yen discount if purchased overseas)

All passes are sold at a discount of 50% for children aged 6-11.

These will replace some other rail passes: The JR West San’yo Area Pass and the San’yo-Shikoku-Kyushu Area Passes will both be discontinued when the above passes take effect.

I will talk more about these passes soon, but in the meantime you can read the brochure on JR West’s website: https://www.westjr.co.jp/global/en/

Japan Diary – September 11, 2013 – Kyoto

Jose posing in front of Kinkakuji in Kyoto, September 11, 2013. Photo by Jordan Martin
Jose posing in front of Kinkakuji in Kyoto, September 11, 2013. Photo by Jordan Martin

I am re-posting my diary from my September 2013 trip to Japan. This is the report from September 11 while staying in Kyoto with my girlfriend (now fiance) Jordan.

Today was a whirlwind day of sightseeing that left us tired at the hotel when everything was all said and done.

First order of business was to go to Kyoto Station to purchase the three-day Kansai Thru Pass. This is an economical pass that allows unlimited travel on private railways in the Kansai region for 2 or 3 days, and it is only available to foreign tourists. With that done, we were on our way to the first destination, Kinkakuji Temple. We could have joined the long lines for the city bus at Kyoto Station, but instead we opted to take the subway, then take the bus. I can see why this method of travel is recommended… Hassle-free and room to sit (on a weekday morning, granted) and the trip was actually quicker.

Kinkakuji was a wonderful place – a first for me as I’ve never been there. The gold leaf plating was a sight to behold… of course, so impressive that we were not allowed within a good 20 feet of it…

Next stop was Ryoanji, which was a pretty quick trip on the then crowded bus. Ryoanji was our first stop in which our shoes had to be removed before entering.

The rock garden was beautiful… there are a total of 15 stones in the garden and it’s said that when viewing the garden from the angles provided, one rock is always hidden from view. Ryoanji was actually quite a small place otherwise. One thing I did notice was that there was a row of about 15 red water buckets lined up along the side of the main temple…. fire buckets in case the worst should happen.

Monkeys at Iwatayama Monkey Park in Kyoto - September 11, 2013. Photo by Jordan Martin
Monkeys at Iwatayama Monkey Park in Kyoto, September 11, 2013.
Photo by Jordan Martin

From there we walked to the tram for the trip to Arashiyama. After having a delicious curry lunch next to the station, we went to the Monkey Park. A long, looong uphill climb (for me at least… Jordan was fine) – but we were rewarded with monkeys and an impressive view of Kyoto City and the surrounding mountains from a height of approx. 520 feet above sea level.

We returned on the Hankyu Railway which zipped us back to the subway for the ride to the hotel.

This evening we went to Kyoto Station again for dinner at a rotating sushi restaurant, which was fun for the both of us – this is a place that I’ve been to now in each of the three trips I’ve made here, but the first time I’ve seen all of their menu items translated to English.

After the sushi we went to the Kintetsu Railway station to purchase our “Vista Car” limited express tickets for tomorrow’s journey to Nara, and called it a day.