Osaka is serviced by two major airports, Osaka International Airport and the newer Kansai International Airport.
Like Tokyo, and also just as confusing, is the fact that Osaka’s older airport still retains the international name despite being used only for domestic flights. The older Osaka International Airport was once known as Itami Air Base in the 1930’s. Today, it is still often unofficially referred to as Itami International Airport. A third domestic airport in the region opened in 2006, around 25km away at Kobe.
Kansai International Airport was built on a man made island in the southern part of Osaka Bay and was one of the most expensive construction project in modern history. A Discovery Channel documentary highlights the challenges that were faced in building the airport from construction of a new island in an earthquake zone to dealing with the island sinking under its own weight.
Construction of Kansai started in 1987 and the airport opened in 1994 as the major international airport for the regions of Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe. The terminal building is the longest airport terminal in the world, and construction is underway to double the island to provide more runways and terminals.
Getting to and from the city of Osaka, Kyoto or Kobe to Kansai International Airport is best done by train or shuttle bus as taxis can be rather expensive. The buses leave just outside the arrivals hall with some dropping off at all the major hotels. Alternatively, several services operate from the 2nd level of the terminal.
There are two rail companies that service Kansai Airport, Kansai Electric Railway and JR. Both companies operate several services and the best service to use would not necessarily be the fastest train but the line that will end up nearest to your hotel or with minimal transfers.
Kansai’s services include two Limited Express trains known as the Rapi:t that takes up to 39 minutes to get to Namba Station. An Airport Express service is also available and is slightly cheaper than the Rapi:t. This service takes 43 minutes to reach Namba Station. If you need to get to the northern parts of Osaka city you would need to swap to the subway at Namba that heads through central Osaka.
JR operates two services from Kansai that connect directly to either Osaka Station, Shin-Osaka and even Kyoto. The JR Haruka Limited Express takes 30 minutes to reach Tennoji in the south of the city or 50 minutes to reach Shin-Osaka in the north of the city. The Haruka service then continues on to Kyoto and takes 75 minutes from Kansai. Shin-Osaka is the terminal for the Shinkansen bullet trains, so the Haruka service would be the best if you intend to visit other parts of Japan.
The JR Kansai Airport Rapid is cheaper and 20 minutes slower than the Haruka service but it does connect directly to the popular Osaka/Umeda Station. If you need to head to Kobe use this service and transfer to the JR Kobe Line at Osaka Station.