Osaka is one of those cities where we start with the glaringly obvious advice. This is that in Japan the train really is king, and this really is just as much the case in Osaka as it is in the capital Tokyo. For those who love their statistics, almost 30% of all journeys taken in Japan are by train, whereas in the UK the figure is less than 10%, and in the USA it’s barely even 1%.
Any leaning towards train travel is simply increased further for tourists, who have to consider the rental cost before they even think about how much it will cost per mile for any trips by car.
There really is no reason to expect any sort of difficulty trying to get anywhere in or around Osaka by train, other than the fact that on a mile by mile basis, Japanese trains can be notoriously expensive. For the visitor, the cost of getting around can be reduced massively by buying one of the various different national or regional Japanese rail passes, hence the total trip cost can be capped, unlike that for motoring. If you are planning in staying in the Kansai region and only making one or two longer distance journeys, then as with long-distance rail travel in many European countries, it’s best to book long in advance and travel at the less busy times.
Needless to say that all the major places of interest both within the city of Osaka, in nearby Kyoto or Kobe, are all perfectly easy to get to by train. This also includes the Universal Studios theme park in Osaka, which has its own station serving the complex.
Arriving in Osaka
If you are flying in to Osaka, then you will land at the spectacular piece of engineering that is the seemingly floating Kansai International airport, and from here, trains will whisk you quickly not just into Osaka itself, but also throughout the Kansai region.
However, just because Kansai airport is on its own island, this doesn’t mean that you can’t pick up a hire car here, as there is also an access road that serves it. We just don’t recommend getting into a taxi from the airport if you don’t need to (for obvious cost reasons), and there’s really no need to, as once back on the mainland, most major hotels are within easy walking distance of a rail terminal. If you do need to take taxis in Osaka, it’s best to do so just for short distances – but you should also find that walking is no problem either.
You may also fly into Itami airport, especially if you are flying from elsewhere in Japan, whilst many visitors also arrive from further afield by train in the first place.
Regardless of where you arrive in Osaka, or your means of getting here, rental cars are still widely available for those who want them.
Reasons why it might be worth hiring a car in Osaka
So why would anyone offering Osaka car hire advice make any sort of suggestion of renting a car here? If you were seriously thinking of renting a car for the whole duration of your stay, then we would turn round and say that really wouldn’t make much sense, but if you are asking us about picking up a hire car in Osaka or somewhere in the Kansai region and maybe doing a driving tour for just a day or two then we’d say that could well be a really good idea.
- Firstly, the roads in Japan are brilliantly engineered in many places, and it’s worth jumping onto the Japanese motorway network even if just to experience one or two amazing bridges and tunnels. The Kansai region in particular, with its huge range of mountainous terrain and bridges to nearby islands, is perfect for this sort of indulgence.
- The roads in Japan are safer than anywhere else in Asia, other than Israel, and they are twice as safe as they are in Singapore or South Korea. Surfaces are well maintained and generally very modern.
- In autumn in particular, the area around Osaka is absolutely stunning, and we would in particular recommend heading out towards the mountains in the south east. This sort of brief road trip excursion will introduce you to parts of rural Japan which you aren’t going to see if you just stick to public transport and organised tours.
- Whatever your preconceptions are about the cost of driving in Japan, is one day really going to break any travel budget (see our global car hire price list for comparison – the answer is surely no?) Another ideal time to consider Osaka car hire options is during the spring, when the area erupts in a riot of colour during the cherry blossom period.
- As a westerner visiting Japan as a tourist, you will already be quite a rarity – but this is one place where you really can step totally off the beaten track by getting a rental car, rather than just using the trains – needless to say, in many parts of the world, and especially in the USA, the opposite would be true!
- Even within the city, you can find yourself driving on some pretty impressive highways in the sky – although your view will be limited due to the extensive usage of noise reduction barriers. If you want to see a bit of the city from beyond what you might see from the train, it may be easier to take a short taxi journey, rather than hire a car just for a couple of hours.
Petrol & parking
- If you are expecting sky-high fuel prices in Japan, then be pleasantly surprised! Fuel here is generally cheaper than in western Europe, and typically closer to what you might expect to pay in the Canary Islands (see tables for details).
- British and Irish drivers may also be pleased to know that driving in Japan is on the left-hand side, but it’s far more useful to know that most of the road signs will also be in a Roman script as well as in Japanese. However, driving laws are strictly enforced, and in particular there is zero tolerance of parking violations.
- Bear in mind that in many cities in Japan, residents aren’t even allowed to register a car unless they also have a parking space to go with it, so don’t expect your hotel to offer any kind of free parking facilities, unless they very explicitly say they do! The only hotels likely to offer free parking will be ones in outer suburban or rural areas, well beyond the city centre. This is another reason why if you are planning on hiring a car in Osaka, it makes sense to do it just for one day and then to make sure the car is safely parked in the rental compound once you are done.
- Finally, a quick note about all those amazing trains in Osaka. Yes, the city does have a truly amazing network of rail services, and even more so as this is Japan’s second city, not the capital.
- However, you may also find the sheer range of overlapping lines to be extremely confusing at first, especially as there are several stations which are directly connected to each other by walkways, but which are named differently. This is most notably in the city’s main business district of Umeda, where there are three stations taking that name, together with the main JR station, which is just called “Osaka”.
- To add further to the confusion, the high speed Shinkansen trains only call at the “Shin Osaka” (ie Osaka High Speed” station. This is just 4 minutes away by subway from the Umeda / Osaka complex.
Airport connections – good, but really not that good!
If you are flying into Osaka, then the onward rail connections from either airport are nothing like as good as you might expect:
- From Kansai airport – there are two express railway lines, both taking over an hour to reach Osaka. Neither will take you direct to Osaka station, but you can go direct to either Namba station or Shin Osaka. Numerous connections are available to other parts of the region by train or subway – although in many cases it will actually be quicker by bus. Driving will also be faster in many cases, although we wouldn’t advise hiring a car just for the sake of shaving a few minutes off the airport express journey!
- Osaka International Airport (Itami) is actually a huge mis-nomer, as it actually only handles domestic flights. So if you are flying in here, you will be coming from Tokyo, although this could also be after a transfer from another international flight. Itami has the rare distinction of being the only airport in the world to have a rail service, but not to actually have a direct link to the city centre. Of course, you can also transfer in various different ways, but it’s still probably going to be quicker by bus or car.
None of the above inconveniences are enough of a reason to hire a car on their own, but they are still pitfalls which it helps to be aware of, especially as trying to find the right platform in a massively confusing network of tunnels could cost you dearly if you have another onward connection to catch. If you are starting to think it might be worth hiring a car in Osaka, then I hope this is because of the possibility of the thrill of a journey on amazingly engineered roads, rather than because a few bits of confusing signage on the train system might put you off – but either way, please consider this against our reasons for not hiring a car below:
Osaka without a car?
The reasons for NOT renting a car in Osaka mirror any of the points made above, combined with the impressions you probably already have:
- Car rental in Japan can be ludicrously expensive – other than perhaps Norway, Japan is the most expensive major developed nation in which to hire a car. Don’t expect to be able to hire a car for a week for anything less than around £200/$250.
- You can massively reduce the cost of renting a car by only doing so for a short period, and then doing everything else by train/bus.
- Even if you do rent a car, the cost of parking in city centres is prohibitive. Street parking is all but non-existant in Japan.
- There are some good opportunities for cycling around Osaka. The city itself has a reasonable network of cycle lanes, and leisure routes are easy to reach by bus or train. Drivers are generally (but not always) courteous towards cyclists. In many of these more popular scenic destinations, you should also be able to hire a bike locally. You can also use city bikes in Kyoto. However, the network of cycle paths still has a long way to go – plan carefully as a lot of major roads don’t have any kind of cycle paths.
Let the train take the strain
- The Japanese rail network really is as good as the hype – and this becomes even more apparent when you take the highly efficient and usually very frequent regional and local services.
- Rail passes should include local connections – check for details.
- You can still enjoy most of the amazing routes you’d want to drive by either taking regional bus services, or by using trains running on parallel routes.
- The Hanging Gardens Above Platforms – look up from Osaka station and head for the roof gardens, from where you can enjoy a combination of exquisite Japanese garden design and wide open views of the skyscrapers around you.
- Shin Osaka – the high speed station, built in 1964 is a modernist design classic, which is well worth a visit, even if you aren’t using the high speed services. It’s just four minutes away from the central Osaka station.
- Namba Park – built on the site of a dis-used baseball stadium, Namba Park is an outdoor multi-layer mall with gardens at the upper levels. The decks are designed in a way that they form a canyon of different levels, with many curving features making this building completely unique, and well worth a visit. It may also be your first port of call in Osaka proper if you are heading in from Kansai airport by train.
Our Osaka car hire advice is that it might well be worth looking into a one-day rental to get out of the city, and then doing everything else by train and bus.
If you really do love driving (and therefore haven’t bought a rail pass already), then Osaka would be a much better place to start a Japanese road trip than Tokyo. Here you are closer to some really impressive scenery, together with great driving roads, all topped off with some truly awe-inspiring bridges and tunnels.
Because we are suggesting this in a location where the natural choice leans so heavily just to taking the train, this makes our suggestion a strong “yes”, even if you only rent a car for a short period, or a small part of your stay in the Osaka – Kansai region.
Of course you don’t need a car in Osaka for a moment, but if you are actually considering renting one in the first place, then it’s well worth going ahead and doing so.
Is it worth hiring a car in Osaka? We think it is, especially for a short trip into the Japanese countryside during the changing seasons. Therefore, our Osaka car hire advice is that it might well be worth looking into a one-day rental; verdict – yes.