As of today (May 20th in Japan), there is still a Level 2 volcano alert in the Hakone region, centered around a volcanic vent in Owakudani, one of Hakone’s famous attractions known for its hiking and its edible, sulfur-boiled black eggs. This means there is a 300-meter no entry zone around the vent, which has closed several roads and trails. More importantly, this affects tourists who take the “grand course” around Hakone.

This “course”, which is the top course recommended for Hakone Free Pass holders, involves the following, in either direction:
– Starting at the Hakone Yumoto train station, terminal for the Odakyu services from Shinjuku in Tokyo, take the Hakone Tozan Railway up the mountains and numerous switchbacks to Gora.
– Next, take the Hakone Tozan Cable Car further up the mountain to Sounzan
– Then, take the Hakone Ropeway across Owakudani to Togendai
– From there, board the touristy but fun boat that crosses Lake Ashi
– Finally, wind your way down to Hakone Yumoto train station on the express (or for the adventurous, local) bus

The problem is that since one of the Hakone Ropeway stations – Owakudani – is inside the no-entry zone, the entire ropeway is closed. It will remain closed until it is decided to reduce the Volcano Alert back down to Level 1.

Don’t let this closure of the Hakone Ropeway put a damper on any planned Hakone trip – outside of the 300 meter zone, Hakone is open to business… in fact, they want you to come and visit to enjoy everything that they have to offer. In the days since the no-entry zone took effect, the area has been doing their very best to communicate updates to foreign tourists.

Here are some ways that you can get around the area to explore more during the disruption:

– If you don’t want to stray off of the main “course” that takes most tourists around Hakone, a shuttle bus is now in operation between the Hakone Ropeway terminals of Sounzan and Togendai, avoiding Owakudani. They run for most of the day, but only at intervals of 15-20 minutes. Hakone Free Passes are valid for the shuttle buses, while non-pass holders pay what is normally charged for the ropeway.

If on the other hand, you want to avoid the ropeway’s path, you can rely on Hakone’s bus system, most of which is covered by the Free Pass.

– The T bus runs from Odawara to Togendai, the terminal for the Lake Ashi sightseeing ship, every 15-20 minutes during the day between the hours of 6:20 AM and 9:28 PM. Buses run via Hakone-Yumoto and Sengoku. The trip from Hakone-Yumoto to Togendai under normal conditions takes 35 minutes.

– You can also pick up the T bus at the Miyanoshita stop of the Hakone Tozan Railway. So, one alternate to the circular route around Hakone could be the Hakone-Tozan Line to Miyanoshita via the switchbacks, followed by the T bus to Togendai (around 22 minutes travel time) before continuing on to the Lake Ashi sightseeing ship. Why not stop at some of the other T bus stops along the way to explore more of Hakone?

– If you continue on the Hakone Tozan railway to Gora, swinging by the Hakone Open Air Museum along the way, you could use the S Bus. The S Bus runs from Gora to Shissei Ka-En Mae (the Botanical Garden) four times per hour during the day. Along the way you can get off at the Senkyoro-mae bus stop (15 minutes from Gora), from which you could cross over and pick up the T Bus to Togendai (10 minutes).

There are also direct buses from Hakone-Yumoto to the southern end of Lake Ashi. As mentioned earlier, some of these buses are part of the circular route that most tourists use.

– The R bus is the main one, which uses the highway to transport visitors between Odawara, Hakone-Yumoto and the southern Lake Ashi stops of Hakone-machi and Moto-Hakone-ko – though there are more R buses going FROM lake Ashi than there are going TO lake Ashi… in fact, there are only 3 R buses on Saturdays, Sundays and Holidays, and none during the week.

– The H bus is a local bus operating along the winding roads of Hakone. Buses operate via Miyanoshita (the railway stop) and the hot springs resort Yunessun. Only take the H bus, though, if you are a fan of roller coasters, or if you do not suffer from motion sickness. It’s pretty twisty, as I can attest from first-hand experience.

– The K bus runs from Hakone-Yumoto to Moto-Hakone-Ko following the old Tokaido Road, established hundreds of years ago as part of the major trade route between Edo (Tokyo) and Kyoto. Note that buses operate the full route twice per hour from 9 AM to 5 PM daily, otherwise they will stop short. The K bus, though, is similarly windy to the H bus.

I hope this guide will help you if you want to explore more of Hakone and steer yourself around the uncertainty of the current Hakone Ropeway disruptions!

For more about Hakone travel and further updates, consult:

Hakone Navi – http://www.hakonenavi.jp/english/
Hakone Portal – http://www.hakone.or.jp/en/
Hakone Tozan Bus – http://www.hakone-tozanbus.co.jp/english/

Posted by: jrhorse | May 6, 2015

Volcano Alert at Hakone

The Japanese Meteorological Agency has issued a Level 2 Volcano Alert for the Owakudani area of Hakone, prompting an evacuation of that area and a suspension of the Hakone Ropeway, which is one of the most popular tourist routes in the area. Be prepared for potential detours if you are planning to visit Hakone in the coming days/weeks, and consult local transit operators or local media for more information. Of course, if I have more news to share, I’ll do so!

Posted by: jrhorse | April 14, 2015

Japan Airfare Deals on Facebook and Twitter

Going forward, I will most likely be sharing airfare deals only on my Facebook and Twitter feed. If you’d like to be informed about airfare deals as soon as I learn about them, just go to Facebook or Twitter:

facebook.com/myjapantips

twitter.com/myjapantips (@myjapantips)

If you look at the page now, there’s a new Tokyo fare war brewing, with airfares starting at $770 round-trip from many US cities!

It has been a month since the new extension of the bullet train opened from Nagano to the northern coast cities of Toyama and Kanazawa. This means that bullet trains now run from Tokyo directly to these cities and points in between, opening up a new world of possibilities for tourism. If you have a Japan Rail Pass, you will be covered for almost* any of the new bullet train services. Here’s a rundown of the new line and some suggestions for places to visit and itineraries.

The Hokuriku Shinkansen was known as the Nagano Shinkansen when its initial segment opened in October 1997, ahead of the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics. The new 228 km (141.7 mile) segment opened on March 13, 2015. You can read more about the Hokuriku Shinkansen service classifications by reading my blog post from last October.

Some of the stops along the route:

Flag_of_Iiyama,_Nagano

Iiyama – Located in the northernmost part of Nagano prefecture, Iiyama gets some of the heaviest snowfall in the country. The immediate area east of Iiyama station is clustered with various Buddhist temples, which is why some call it “Little Kyoto.” Generally, Hakutaka services from Tokyo run to Iiyama every 1-2 hours. Information: Shinshu-Iiyama Tourism Bureau

Flag_of_Joetsu,_NiigataJoetsumyoko – This is an interchange station with the Echigo Railway, a private (so-called “third sector”) rail line that JR used to operate trains on until the opening of the bullet train. There is not much to speak of around here, but it should be noted that if you are coming from Kanazawa or Toyama and heading to the coastal city of Niigata, there are a few trains that operate daily between Joetsumyoko and Niigata that are meant to connect with the shinkansen services. This service is called the Shirayuki. The Shirayuki runs to Naoetsu from which it continues to Niigata on JR tracks along the Sea of Japan. Since the first few kilometers are on the Echigo Railway, you will have to pay a 450 yen supplement if you are using a Japan Rail Pass. If you are going from Tokyo to Niigata, use the direct Joetsu Shinkansen instead.

Flag_of_Itoigawa,_NiigataItoigawa – This is the first bullet train stop on the coast as you come north from Tokyo. Itoigawa was named as Japan’s first “Geopark” by the UNESCO-funded Global Geoparks Network, and they proudly boast 24 different areas that you can visit in the region with various mixes of geology, culture and history. Most, but not all, Hakutaka services stop here. More information about the Geoparks can be found at their official website, and they have a wealth of information in English, including updates on which areas are open and closed.

The local JR Oito Line snakes down from Itoigawa towards the south, and you COULD take the scenic, local route all the way down to the castle city of Matsumoto cheaply in 3-4 hours, weather permitting. Nowadays, though, you can do it in about 90 minutes taking the bullet train to Nagano then the Shinano limited express service. Another stop on the Oito Line is Shinano-omachi – a local bus from here will take you to the start of the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route, which is open for transit from spring until autumn.

Flag_of_Kurobe,_ToyamaKurobe-Unazuki Onsen – This station is the gateway to one of the most popular hot springs in the area, Unazuki Onsen. To get there, walk to nearby Shin Kurobe Station on the Toyama Chiho Railway (not covered by the Japan Rail Pass) and go to the Unazuki Onsen stop. One of the attractions of Unazuki Onsen is the Kurobe Gorge Railway. Originally built for workers building Kurobe Dam, it operates passenger sightseeing trains from late spring until autumn threading through some stunning mountain scenery.

Flag_of_Toyama,_ToyamaToyama – Our first major stop on the newly-opened bullet train route. The next time I visit Japan and I am able to take the new bullet train line out here, I want FISH… and that’s the main attraction. Toyama is referred to as “Nature’s Fish Tank” because nearby Toyama bay is extremely deep. Yellowtail sushi and sashimi slices from Toyama are said to be among the best in the country.

Many sushi shops in the area participate in the Toyamawan Sushi program, which offers a set course of 10 pieces of freshly-caught sushi for between 2,000 and 3,500 yen. There is also a unique bento box from Toyama that uses fatty trout, called Masunosushi. It is pressed trout over rice, wrapped in bamboo leaves and packed in a wooden box. I was given a used box from a friend in Japan as a gift to take home in my 2004 trip, and even when empty the lovely trout smell lingered for weeks. I would breathe it a few times a day.

ANYWAY, I want to try this box for real on my next visit :)

The aforementioned Toyama Chiho Railway terminates here, at the nearby Dentetsu-Toyama Station. This, plus a series of tram lines, are great ways to get around Toyama and visit the cultural areas. Taking the Toyama Chiho Railway to Tateyama will bring you to the opposite end of the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route mentioned earlier. More information: Toyama Prefectural Tourism Association

Flag_of_Takaoka_ToyamaShin-Takaoka – This next city has more of a traditional flair. The new station is on the south side of town as opposed to the regular Takaoka station, though the two stations are connected with a brief trip on the JR Johanna line. On the north side of town is Kanaya-machi, a street filled with lattice houses from when iron and copper makers set up shop in the 1600s. A short distance from the south of Takaoka station, and from around the same time period as Kanaya-machi, is Zuiryuji Temple. North of Takaoka and directly on the coast is where weekly ferry services to Vladivostok, Russia operate from.

Flag_of_Kanazawa,_IshikawaKanazawa – The terminating station on the Hokuriku Shinkansen (for now) is a marvel to behold on the outside, with a new main entrance resembling a shinto torii gate. It is a popular city, and the primary reason is Kenroku-en, a large Japanese garden that is regarded as one of the three best in the country. There are also various museums and shopping districts in the area. Kanazawa and Toyama are good starting points for trips to Takayama, and the nearby UNESCO World Heritage site of Shirakawa. More information: Kanazawa City Tourism Association

Of course, Stefan and the folks over at japan-guide.com have a more comprehensive breakdown of what you can find in these cities. They also revamped their website, so be sure to check them out.

After Kanazawa? You can ride the JR Thunderbird limited express to south and west, passing Fukui and skirting Lake Biwa until you reach Kyoto and Osaka. The Shirasagi limited express will bring you to Maibara and Nagoya. If you have already traveled by direct bullet train between Tokyo and Kansai, or you just want something more from your first trip, a little detour through Toyama and Kanazawa (or any of the other places) is a different and potentially rewarding experience.

New E7 Series Shinkansen in service. Photo by Tokyo Sakura, CC by 2.0

New E7 Series Shinkansen in service. Photo by Tokyo Sakura, CC by 2.0

For example, you could opt to travel from Tokyo to Kanazawa, spend the day there, head to Kyoto in the evening, and then return to Tokyo by direct bullet train. Or you could spend a night at any of these stations if you want to pace yourself a bit… in this way, for example, you could try visiting Kanazawa’s Kenroku-en in the early morning before the tour groups arrive. Whether or not you visit any attractions, you can potentially save some money on accommodations compared to big cities like Tokyo and Kyoto by stopping over at one of these cities. Remember that the Japan Rail Pass will cover pretty much everything for your travels, except for Nozomi trains and for any service with the GranClass premium cabin.

As a general rule, Tokyo to Kanazawa is 2 1/2 hours on the fastest shinkansen service, and Tokyo to Toyama is 2 hours. Kanazawa to Kyoto by Thunderbird limited express service is around 2 hours 15 minutes, with Osaka a further 30 minutes down the line.

I hope I have given you a few ideas. Have fun exploring the new train route and unlocking all of the new secrets along it!

Note: All flags in this article are taken from Wikimedia Commons. Since there is no original ownership they are in the public domain. As per usual, all advice is given pursuant to the Japan Tips DISCLAIMER.

Update 4/9/15: Looks like the deals are now gone, and at the current time the below flights can be had for just around $1,000 round-trip.

The amazingly cheap airfares that Delta has maintained on flights to Tokyo, Japan over the last few days are now… ridiculously cheaper. However, as the saying goes, “certain restrictions apply.”

Delta now has cheap airfares from select US cities… most of which have already been mentioned on this blog… connecting to their late-night flights to Haneda Airport. Depending on the arrival and timing, there are more limited travel options out of Haneda in the late night hours compared to an afternoon arrival at Narita, so keep this in mind… unless of course you’re willing to spend night #1 at the hotel inside the terminal :)

Delta’s fares connecting to Haneda are now under $700 round trip. Found this morning:

Philadelphia to Tokyo Haneda: $674 round trip.
Charlotte to Tokyo Haneda: $668 round trip.
Miami to Tokyo Haneda: $670 round trip.
Dallas to Tokyo Haneda: $665 round trip.
Phoenix to Tokyo Haneda: $665 round trip.

Yes, these fares to Japan were found from American Airlines hubs.

Flying on Delta, with the exception of Phoenix, you will have to take TWO flights to connect to the Haneda flight out of Seattle. The start of the return trip goes to the US on a Haneda flight to either Seattle or Los Angeles. The fare is good for all Monday-Thursday flights throughout the year, except for some summer dates.

I am wondering if these fare sales are going on because of the US Department of Transportation’s recent ruling concerning the slot, or authority, awarded to Delta for flights between Seattle and Tokyo Haneda. Delta only operated this flight on occasion over the last few months, and while I won’t get into more specifics, the US DOT is requiring that Delta maintain a daily service on this route or else their slot will be forfeited and handed over to… surprise! – American Airlines. Maybe this is a way for them to desperately fill seats on that Seattle to Haneda flight?

In any case, you are the winner. If you’re willing to do a few hops to reach Tokyo, this is a ridiculously low airfare, so go ahead and book while it’s hot!

Posted by: jrhorse | April 5, 2015

Low Fares to Japan continue – Sort of

This post is now out of date

Did you bite on those low airfares to Japan that the major US airlines posted a few days ago?

Most of the cheap airfares are now gone… so if you were hoping to fly out of Abilene Airport and fly to Tokyo, you’re now out of luck unless you drive to Dallas.

That’s because a few cheap airfares still remain from a few cities. Given their volatility (availability might be a better word), you will want to pounce on these pretty soon.

While American and United have mostly dropped their sale fares, airfare on Delta Air Lines is still available in the low to mid $800 range from hubs of their competitors. This includes:

Philadelphia (PHL) $820 r/t
Charlotte (CLT) $818 r/t
Miami (MIA) $820 r/t
Dallas (DFW) $820 r/t

From Los Angeles (LAX), several carriers including United, ANA, Delta and Singapore are offering flights for $756 round trip.

If you are in Boston (BOS), United doesn’t want you to fly the nonstop Japan Airlines service to Tokyo. Book with them for spring travel to Japan (connection required) for as low as $771 round trip.

Be sure to check the rules for your airfare as some are now more restrictive on time compared to the previous sale fares.

Posted by: jrhorse | April 2, 2015

FARE WAR! Buy your Japan Airfare NOW!

This post is now out of date

In the last 24 hours (since my last airfare post), prices on airfare to Tokyo have dropped significantly from a number of North American destinations. American, Delta and United are now in on the fare war for flights pretty much any time in 2015.

Low fares were found from the following cities – connections may or may not be required

Abilene ABI – $871 r/t
Atlanta ATL – $920 r/t
Boston BOS – $871 r/t
Charlotte CLT – $869 r/t
Chicago O’Hare ORD – $785 r/t
Dallas DFW – $856 r/t
Detroit DTW – $920 r/t
El Paso ELP – $851 r/t
Miami MIA – $862 r/t
Memphis MEM – $915 r/t
Los Angeles LAX – $765 r/t
New Orleans MSY – $989 r/t
Philadelphia PHL – $871 r/t
San Antonio SAT – $871 r/t

There might be more cities on sale… Heck, ABILENE which is only served by ONE AIRLINE in the middle of Texas is on sale for $871 round trip??

I say BOOK NOW. You never know how long these prices will last.

Posted by: jrhorse | March 31, 2015

Airfare Alert – $971 R/t on Delta from Dallas to Tokyo

This post is now out of date

Discovered today is a $971 round/trip airfare from Dallas-Ft Worth to Tokyo on Delta Airlines.

The good news about this airfare is that it only requires a 3 day advance purchase. Want to do a spur of the moment trip to Japan? Buy this airfare!

It is also valid for travel until the end of the year, and into early NEXT YEAR, on pretty much any day except for a few dates over the summer. Want to experience a Japan Christmas or New Year? Buy this airfare!

I am not sure how long this fare will be around. A change of planes will be required, but you do have the option to arrive/depart from Tokyo on an afternoon Narita flight or a late night Haneda flight.

If you are from around Dallas and want to experience Japan, book this trip while it lasts! Otherwise you are then looking at around $1,800-$2,000 round/trip for nonstop flights.

I was all excited to see that the first leg of my favorite reality TV show, the Amazing Race on CBS, was set in Japan! The theme of this season’s competition is that all of the pairs that are racing are either dating or blind-dating.

The first 90 minute episode, which just concluded, saw teams fly from Los Angeles to Tokyo’s Narita Airport. Interestingly they used Taiwan as a connecting city. I have my reasons for why they planned this to be the case, but this article is not about that!

If you landed in Tokyo’s Narita airport, how would YOU start your Amazing Race in the land of the rising sun?

I have written an article on my blog that explains options for traveling from airports in Japan, which I hope you will look at. But in the meantime, here’s a brief summary of what was featured on The Amazing Race:

Teams pretty much went in one of three ways: Taxi, Skyliner (train), or Narita Express (train). At first I thought to myself, TAXI?! If you are starting your Amazing Race on a budget, the Taxi is the LAST thing that you want to take from Narita. Considering Narita’s large distance away from Tokyo, you would be better off saving money by taking public transport into Tokyo, using the train or bus, then if needed take a Taxi to your final destination. Taxis in Japan are pricey already, but they will be far less expensive to use when you get into the city compared to picking one up at the airport. In addition, Taxis MAY be subject to delays when traveling on the highway… I forgot how each team fared on the way from the airport, so if you want to check, just go to CBS and look at Season 26, Episode 1 of the Amazing Race on demand :)

In a nutshell, here is a speed and price comparison for the main travel methods going into Tokyo Station, one of the main transit hubs in the city. By the way… you can get more of Japan by tuning in to the Amazing Race on Friday (February 27) when the teams will visit Nagano!

TRAIN
JR Narita Express, One Hour, 3,020 yen each way

Keisei Skyliner, One Hour (Change at Nippori Station), 2,470 yen for Skyliner + 160 yen JR Yamanote Line = 2,630 yen

Local JR Commuter Train, 90 minutes, 1,320 yen each way

Local Keisei Commuter Train, 90-120 minutes depending on route, ~1,200-1,500 yen depending on route

BUS
Airport Limousine Bus, 1 hour 45 minutes depending on traffic, 3,100 yen each way

Discount Bus to Tokyo Station (Keisei/Be-Transse/JR Bus), 70 minutes depending on traffic, 1,000 yen each way

TAXI
Flat-fare taxi from Narita Airport to Tokyo Station 19,000 yen

Hailed taxi from Narita Airport to Tokyo Station ~20,000-30,000 yen and up depending on the meter and traffic conditions

Here’s a Youtube video that I posted from my 2013 trip to Japan explaining how to purchase Shinkansen tickets from a vending machine. I hope to share more video from my trip in the weeks/months to come :)

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