Posted by: jrhorse | September 2, 2014

Toyota car rental specials for Gotemba and Tokai areas

The Gotemba Premium Outlets are part of a national network of nine outlet stores in Japan. There are over 200 stores in the outlets from many popular brands such as Gap and Coach. It’s also in a unique location – not too far away from the foot of Mount Fuji and the historical / touristy Hakone region.

Gotemba Premium Outlets make special offers available to foreigners from their information center – coupons are distributed to those showing non-Japanese passports. Now, Toyota Rent-a-Car, in partnership with Gotemba Premium Outlets, is offering special tourist rates on rental cars from certain locations. These include the rental stations outside of the Tokaido Shinkansen bullet train stops at Mishima and Shin-Fuji, as well as the JR station in Gotemba. These are ideally situated for those who want to drive to certain areas that are out of reach, or just want the convenience of a car to go to areas such as the Gotemba outlets, Mount Fuji or Hakone.

As a sample, a 6-hour rental of a standard car goes for around 6,000 yen, while a full day’s rental goes for around 8,000 yen. Of course larger and more luxurious vehicles will cost extra. They are also offering a 10% discount off of all of these rates by printing a coupon from the Gotemba Premium Outlets website. Just click on the “Rent a car plan” graphic. 

Of course, not only do you have to consider the expenses for renting a car, you must also adhere to Japanese traffic laws and you must have a drivers license recognized in Japan. Fortunately, the official English web site for Toyota Rent-a-Car explains a lot if you are interested in a car rental. Also you must keep in mind that a reservation must be made by telephone – presumably the “Toll Free” number listed on their web site is for reservations in English, and they take reservations 7 days a week from 7 AM to 7 PM *Japan Time*. Which means for us in North America, an evening or early morning call to make the reservation.

One of the things that is offered in the Gotemba Premium Outlets offer, according to their brochure, is a free ETC card rental. ETC is Electronic Toll Collection which is used on Japan’s major highways. It’s the EZPass, TollTag and FasTrak of Japan, basically. The toll charges are lower than cash, and presumably any charges are placed on your final bill. Also, a GPS device which can operate in English is available to use.

The 24 hour rental seems to be a good deal if you will be visiting any areas around Fuji, Hakone or Gotemba, or visiting/staying at any surrounding areas that might be out of reach. For example, know of a good onsen near Mishima that you want to visit? If it’s nowhere near public transit, driving a car there may be beneficial. 

Some news to come out of Japan tourism in the last few days is the availability of new rail passes to foreign tourists. Both are offered by JR Central and JR West, which operate the main bullet train lines in Japan.

The first pass is the Tokaido / Sanyo Shinkansen Tourist Pass. This pass permits unlimited travel on ANY bullet train service between Tokyo, Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, Okayama, Hiroshima and Fukuoka (Hakata) station for 5 consecutive days at a cost of 35,000 yen. I said ANY because this pass allows the use of the faster Nozomi and Mizuho trains that the Japan Rail Pass does not permit. The pass also includes travel on selected non-shinkansen routes, including unlimited use of local JR lines in Osaka City, access to the Okayama Tramway, access to a bus service to the foot of Mount Fuji, and free admission to certain museums like the JR Central Transit Museum, aka SCMAGLEV and Rail Park. You can also make up to four seat reservations with the pass on any bullet train service offering reserved seating.

The second pass is the Takayama / Hokuriku Area Tourist Pass, which permits unlimited travel on the “limited express” or premium train services between Osaka, Kyoto and Kanazawa, or Nagoya and Takayama, as well as bus service from Takayama to Kanazawa via Shirakawa-go, the world heritage site. Like the Tokaido / Sanyo tourist pass, it is also valid for 5 consecutive days. The Takayama / Hokuriku Area pass costs 10,500 yen. You can also a local bus in Takayama City, the “Sarubobo” bus service.

I think that the Takayama / Hokuriku pass is a good deal for 10,500 yen if you intend to travel specifically to Takayama or Shirakawa. The Tokaido / Sanyo pass, on the other hand, is NOT a good deal in my opinion. Consider that the 5 day Tokaido/Sanyo pass costs 35,000 yen and only offers up to 4 reserved seats in 5 days, while the national Japan Rail Pass costs a little over 29,000 yen in standard class for 7 days and you can make unlimited seat reservations in that time frame. With the costs of traveling around Osaka pretty marginal – and with plenty of subway lines to bring you around Osaka anyway – the Japan Rail Pass – even if it does not offer the ability to travel on the faster trains – is a cheaper and better offer. The only difference is if you want to use the Tokaido / Sanyo pass to gain access to the additional sightseeing areas or routes that are offered.

To book any of these passes you must contact a travel agency in your home country that offers the pass – just like you would with the national rail pass – and purchase an exchange order that is then traded in for the real pass in Japan. Also, the passes are only offered from October 1 until June 30, 2015.

You can download brochures for these passes at touristpass.jp

Posted by: jrhorse | August 23, 2014

Price War leads to cheap airfare to Japan for the fall

After searching more airfares today, it appears that a Price War is yielding cheaper-than-usual airfare for immediate travel to Japan in September, October and November. If you’ve thought of visiting Japan and haven’t had the chance, or you are desperate for the return trip, then you should seriously take these airfares into consideration… and don’t waste time purchasing the tickets!

The price war essentially focuses around flights operated by American Airlines and United Airlines from the hub and focus cities of their competitors. Many of these flights will require connections somewhere in the US.

American Airlines has hubs in New York – JFK, Chicago O’Hare, Dallas Fort Worth, Los Angeles and Miami, with added hubs from the acquisition of US Airways in Philadelphia, Charlotte and Phoenix. United’s hubs are in Newark, Washington Dulles, Chicago O’Hare (shared with United), Houston, Denver and San Francisco.

United has sale fares from American Airlines hubs: As low as $940 round/trip from Dallas, $942 r/t from Los Angeles (nonstop on their 787) and even $940 r/t from Miami! From US Airways hubs, $940 r/t from Philadelphia, $939 r/t from Charlotte.  Delta Air Lines also has matched the $942 fare from Los Angeles.

Conversely, American Airlines sale fares are from the United hubs: $943 round/trip from Newark, $943 r/t from Washington Dulles AND National, $942 r/t from Houston, $943 r/t from Denver. 

All of these fares require purchase no later than September 3 for travel in the fall on most Sundays through Thursdays until early December. The exception is the Delta airfare from Los Angeles, which has to be purchased by August 25.

Sale Fares from US to Japan for Fall Travel

I’m writing this post today to make readers aware of great discounts for travel to Japan during Fall 2014. It’s possible that these airlines need to fill some seats, so if you would like to visit the land of the rising sun, even 2 weeks from when I write this, the time to act is now!

NEW YORK TO TOKYO (from Newark) and WASHINGTON TO TOKYO (from Dulles)

American Airlines has sale fares from both Newark Airport near New York, and Dulles Airport near Washington DC, to Tokyo Narita via connections in their US hubs for travel through early December starting as low as $943 round-trip. Travel must take place Monday through Thursday and you must return within 90 days or by December 24.

LOS ANGELES TO TOKYO

United Airlines has put their nonstop service from Los Angeles to Tokyo Narita – on a new Boeing 787 Dreamliner – on sale recently, and now it looks like Delta has joined the price war. For most departures through early December flights on either airline – both nonstop – can be had for as low as $929 round-trip.

Good luck on booking these, and enjoy your trip to Japan!

Posted by: jrhorse | April 21, 2014

Jose’s Japan Tips is #Tweeting!

Happy to announce that I now have a dedicated twitter account for my Japan Travel Tips blog. Follow me at twitter.com/myjapantips or @myjapantips and whenever I can find out something cool about travel to and around Japan, I might share it there! Of course I’ll keep this blog open as well :)

One of the most difficult aspects – and one of the biggest expenses – of a trip to Japan is the airfare. Right now (April 14, 2014) the round-trip airfares from New York, for example, are a staggering $1,500 per person. So it helps to occasionally do some research to see if there are any good airfare deals.

I stumbled upon a few cheap airfares that are worth mentioning if you are interested in making plans to visit Japan in the fall.

First is a fare sale that Air China (Star Alliance carrier) is having on its flights to Beijing from Houston-Intercontinental and Washington-Dulles, which then extends to connecting flights operating out of Beijing to Tokyo and Osaka. I am guessing these fares are on sale because they are relatively new air routes. If you don’t mind a longer trip (18-19 hours or so each way) and an evening arrival in Japan then you may want to look at what they are offering.

The second cheap airfare is something I’ve mentioned before – it’s the service from China Airlines (Skyteam carrier) that operates from New York-JFK nonstop to Osaka-Kansai three times a week, as part of its route that continues to Taiwan. While Air China also offers a similar fare sale from New York to Tokyo and Osaka via Beijing, China Airlines’ nonstop to Osaka is, in my opinion, the better and less time consuming deal.

Before continuing, a reminder that these airfares were researched independently by myself on April 14, 2014 and the expiration date for sales is not known. Information provided is for use at your own risk and subject to the Jose’s Japan Tips Disclaimer.

NEW YORK TO OSAKA KANSAI (Nonstop on China Airlines)
$1,111 round/trip including taxes and fees.
The fare is valid for outbound travel from September 15 through November 22 and requires a minimum stay of 6 nights in Japan. Maximum stay is 30 days or returning on November 29, 2014, whichever is sooner. Travel between New York and Osaka operates on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays in both directions. There is a free checked baggage allowance of two bags per person.

HOUSTON TO TOKYO HANEDA/NARITA (via Beijing on Air China)
$909 round/trip including taxes and fees.
As the Houston to Beijing flight is a redeye (leaving 1 AM and arriving 4:50 AM), you can choose a flight to either Haneda or Narita airport. The flight to Haneda is recommended since it arrives one hour sooner than the flight to Narita (12:50 PM vs 1:55 PM), and because Haneda is closer to Tokyo than Narita.

HOUSTON TO OSAKA KANSAI (via Beijing on Air China)
$913 round/trip including taxes and fees.

WASHINGTON, DC TO TOKYO HANEDA/NARITA (via Beijing on Air China)
$1,051 round/trip including taxes and fees.
The flight from Washington requires an overnight layover in Beijing, yielding an arrival in Japan two days later. You can choose a connecting flight to either Haneda or Narita airport. The flight to Haneda is recommended since it arrives one hour sooner than the flight to Narita (12:50 PM vs 1:55 PM), and because Haneda is closer to Tokyo than Narita. On the return trip the layover in Beijing is only 1 1/2 hours.

WASHINGTON, DC TO OSAKA KANSAI (via Beijing on Air China)
$1,054 round/trip including taxes and fees.

All of the AIR CHINA FLIGHTS are valid for outbound travel from September 5 through December 8, with a few blackout dates (more from Washington than Houston). The maximum stay is 30 days or returning on December 31, 2014, whichever is sooner. With Air China there is a free checked baggage allowance of two bags per person.

No matter how long your layover, Beijing has a transit visa waiver for passengers staying in the airport and connecting to another flight within 24 hours. When transiting in Beijing you will have to go through border inspection for your transfer, followed by a security checkpoint.

There is also a 72-hour transit visa waiver for citizens of over 50 countries, including the US and Canada, who stop and sightsee in Beijing en route to a destination outside of China.

Of course, if you live on the West Coast of the US, the flights are pretty competitive, with nonstop flights in the fall – particularly on ANA, as well as Singapore from Los Angeles – going for about $1,000 round/trip. :)

I hope this information helps you if you decide to go and experience the wonderful country of Japan in a few months!

A note to foreign travelers to Japan that JR East’s “Suica & N’EX” package that had been sold for the last few years will be discontinued on April 1st, with the final sales taking place on March 31st. The “Suica and N’EX” package allowed tourists to travel on the Narita Express from Narita Airport to Tokyo and receive a SUICA card for travel around the Tokyo area at a reduced fare. One-way and round trip packages, as well as standard and green (first) class accommodations were all available. However, JR East has decided to retire this option. My guess is either due to low use or because of the pending increase in the consumption (aka sales) tax in Japan.

In any case, JR East is now pushing it’s one-way “N’EX Tokyo Direct Ticket” which is a flat 1,500 yen fare in standard class from Narita Airport to stations in Tokyo. The new package does not include a Suica card, does not include a round-trip (the return fare has to be paid in full), and does not include Green Car accommodation (which also has to be paid in full).

More details on the JR East Web Site: http://www.jreast.co.jp/e/pass/nex_oneway.html

Posted by: jrhorse | March 24, 2014

Japan sales tax increasing on April 1st

This is a short post to remind people traveling to Japan that the Japanese consumption tax, otherwise known as ‘sales tax’ or ‘GST’, will be increasing from 5% to 8% on April 1st. Everything and anything sold in Japan will go up in price slightly, from train and bus fares to convenience store products and lodging.

In most metropolitan areas, actual fares are rounded up to the nearest 10 yen. This practice will continue, though in Tokyo some of the major transit companies, including the subways and JR East, will introduce a special fare structure for those using contact-less IC cards (such as Suica and Pasmo) that round fares up to the nearest 1 yen, as they say this will more accurately reflect the new prices. This means that fares paid with IC cards will be slightly cheaper than paying with regular paper tickets.

For the casual tourist this may not be much, but continue using public transit frequently and the new savings will become more apparent.

Of course you could use a Japan Rail Pass… but of course, the consumption tax will be raising THOSE prices on April 1st as well. For example a 7-day ordinary rail pass for the Japan Railways will increase from 28,300 yen to 29,110 yen, while a 14-day ordinary pass goes up from 45,100 yen to 46,390 yen.

JR East has published some information in English, which can be viewed on their website, http://www.jreast.co.jp/e/

On a side note, I am hoping to continue sharing my Japan Diary soon. I’ve been swamped lately with marriage preparations :( Thanks for being patient!

I am re-posting my diary from my September 2013 trip to Japan. This is the report from September 14 with my girlfriend (now fiance) Jordan which recounts our visit to Hanshin Racecourse and Namba in Osaka.

Start of the 2nd race at Hanshin Racecourse. Photo by Jose Ramos, September 14, 2013

Start of the 2nd race at Hanshin Racecourse. Photo by Jose Ramos, September 14, 2013

It was an early start this morning as Jordan and I took a visit to the Hanshin Racecourse, one of Japan’s horse tracks. I was invited to the facility by representatives of the Japan Racing Association (JRA) through connections at work.

On the way to the track I noticed a lot of younger Japanese greeting older people with ‘Ohayou Gozaimasu” (Good morning) … this weekend is a holiday known as “Respect for the Aged”, so that’s probably one way it ties in.

I was surprised at the amount of people who exited the train at the stop next to the racecourse! The crowd that exited the train for the ordinary Saturday races would be typical in the US if a big race were being run… think the Belmont Stakes.

As promised, Mr. Tanaka, representative from the JRA, was waiting at the entrance and escorted us through the paddock area to the front of the grandstand.

The infield "Turf Vision" at Hanshin Racecourse. Photo by Jose Ramos, September 14, 2013

The infield “Turf Vision” at Hanshin Racecourse. Photo by Jose Ramos, September 14, 2013

The entire place was enormous, and the popularity of the sport in Japan justifies the very long grandstand. Mr. Tanaka pointed out the “Turf Vision” HD screen in the infield, then escorted us to our seats on the fourth floor, right in front of the CCTV operation.

After a few minutes, he brought us in for a tour of CCTV… there are about 20 control room operators and 20 camera operators at the track, and broadcast control was very spacious. Towards the end of our visit, Keisuke Morimoto, the CCTV producer that I met during his visit to Aqueduct earlier in the year, stopped by to say hello.

We stayed for 8 races, including the featured Hanshin Jump Stakes which we enjoyed very much.

Of course, Jordan left very happy as she had a 3,000yen ($30) winner in one of the races! And of course I was broke….

Much thanks to the JRA for accommodating us, and for leaving us with some presents prior to our departure.

After the races Jordan looked to try some Okonomiyaki again, as today was our last full day in the Kansai region. We took a detour to the southern part of Osaka city, to Namba, home of a large shopping arcade and what Jordan would refer to as “The Times Square of Japan, only much larger”

We did some shopping and one of the shopkeepers recommended we go to Fugetsu Okonomiyaki… the same chain that we visited a couple of days ago in Tempozan.

Dotonbori Canal in Osaka. Photo by Jose Ramos, September 14, 2013

Dotonbori Canal in Osaka. Photo by Jose Ramos, September 14, 2013

After that it was a quick trip over to see Dotonbori canal and the “Glico Man”, one of the trademarks of Osaka – it is a neon advertisement of a running man that has been standing in Osaka since the 1930’s.

After some more shopping, we returned to Kyoto and called it an evening.

Tomorrow we go to Tokyo! I am starting to get a little worried since there is a hurricane heading straight for Tokyo… there will be rain tomorrow, and it looks like the heavy stuff will start hitting around Sunday night/Monday… hopefully we’ll make it in before the hard stuff hits…

ADDITIONAL COMMENTS

As you read, my first visit to a racetrack outside of the United States was phenominal. Jordan and I were both stunned, struggling to see how we could compare Hanshin to other tracks in the United States. We just could not. The atmosphere was great, and the fans were friendly and passionate.

Much as we would have loved to stay for all 12 races – which is typical of a JRA card – we had to press on with our plans.

It was nice to visit Namba and Dotonbori for the second time – Dotonbori is the area around the canal near Namba. We picked up a bag from a store in the shopping complex at Namba station for Jordan’s sister. It was the sales clerk that eventually redirected us to what winded up being another Fugetsu for another dose of okonomiyaki!

The Kansai Thru Pass ended up being a tremendous benefit for us today, as we had to do a lot of traveling to get around. Our route:
– Kyoto Subway to Karasuma
– Hankyu Kyoto Line to Juso (outside of Osaka)
– Hankyu Kobe Line to Nishinomiya-Kitaguchi
– Hankyu Imazu line to Nigawa – the station for Hanshin Racecourse
Then to Namba:
– Hankyu Imazu line to Nishinomiya-Kitaguchi, connecting to Imazu
– Hanshin Main Line to Osaka-Namba via Namba Line
When we were finished, we opted to take Kintetsu back to Kyoto
– Kintetsu Nara Line to Yamato-Saidaiji, outside of Nara
and finally
– Kintetsu Kyoto Line to get us back to Kyoto Station

Needless to say, we saved a lot of money today by using the Thru Pass for foreigners!

Since we had a little bit of extra money we opted to pay a surcharge to take Kintetsu’s premium train services back to Kyoto. A little circuitous, but it was very fast, very comfortable, and we were able to avoid the commuter train crowds during the evening hours. Oh yes, we could eat too. :) I believe the surcharge was 870 yen per person to go back this way.

As you may know, the storm I was worried about at the end of the post ended up being the powerful typhoon that lashed across Japan. Let’s see how we ended up…. :)

I am re-posting my diary from my September 2013 trip to Japan. This is the report from September 13 with my girlfriend (now fiance) Jordan which recounts our visit to Hikone and Kyoto Tower.

The "tenshu" or main keep at Hikone Castle, undamaged through the centuries. Photo by Jose Ramos, September 13, 2013

The “tenshu” or main keep at Hikone Castle, undamaged through the centuries. Photo by Jose Ramos, September 13, 2013

Today we rested somewhat after spending the last two days bouncing around at a breakneck pace. This morning I walked the very short distance to (a very small) McDonalds to bring back some breakfast… a sausage McMuffin for Jordan and a sausage, egg and cheese mcgriddle for me. The noticeable difference from the US is that most McDonalds breakfast sandwiches in Japan have the same egg white/yolk one would normally find on a McMuffin.

We went to Kyoto station and departed for our trip to one of Japan’s national treasures, Hikone Castle. It was a surprise for me as the visit was wonderful. Hikone Castle is one of only 12 castles in Japan whose original keep has been undamaged and preserved through the centuries, and one of 4 castles designated as a national treasure. Jordan made a great call on visiting Hikone… the other alternative is the more famous Himeji, although Himeji is currently housed under large scaffolding for reconstruction works.

We opted to take the short ride on the bullet train from Kyoto to Maibara in both directions in order to relax… it was only a 20 minute ride between the two stations; Maibara is connected to Hikone by a 3 minute ride.

After returning to Kyoto station and partaking of some pork buns (again!), it was off to Kyoto Tower, the observation deck that is adjacent to Kyoto station. Apparently it was refurbished AGAIN, so I can now say that I have been to Kyoto Tower three times with three different scenarios: Before renovations (2004), after the first renovation (2008) and this year after the second renovation.

We then decided to go back to hotel and call it a day, but not before making seat reservations for our bullet train trip to Tokyo on Sunday.

Noodle dinner at Yoshimura, Kyoto. Photo by Jose Ramos, September 13, 2013

Noodle dinner at Yoshimura, Kyoto. Photo by Jose Ramos, September 13, 2013

Jordan and I just came back from a noodle restaurant called Yoshimura, which is between the McDonald’s and our hotel. It is a small place but very charming. It’s a two story restaurant.. chefs prepare the noodles from scratch in an open viewing room on the first floor, and then the chefs cook them upstairs where we sat. The set meal included hot or cold soba (we went for hot), prawn and vegetable tempura, a sashimi appetizer and a drink – we went for the specialty drink known in the country as “Nihonshu”… which us Americans call SAKE. We were a bit nervous at first when ordering, but one of the waitresses had a fairly good command of English which was a big plus.

Tomorrow we forward part of our luggage to our Tokyo hotel for Sunday arrival, and then spend a good part of the day visiting the Hanshin Racecourse near Osaka.

ADDITIONAL COMMENTS

What a treat it was to seem to be away from the bustle of Kyoto and discover the charm of Hikone. Of course, Himeji is a must on the typical itinerary of a visitor to Japan. Since 2010, though, Himeji’s castle has been covered by large scaffolding for a big renovation project. Many parts of the Himeji keep were closed to visitors at the time of our visit to Japan, and it is estimated that the entire renovation will not be completed until March, 2015.

It is a bit of a hike to get from the Hikone train station to Hikone castle… but it really is a pleasant walk to get there. Hopefully videos documenting this, and many other aspects of our trip, will be shared soon :(

If going from Kyoto to Hikone, the easier option is to just take a JR commuter train (50 minutes, 1110 yen) that will take you the entire way. We opted for an alternative: we took the bullet train a short hop to Maibara, which actually goes past Hikone station a bit, then retraced and took a JR commuter train the opposite direction and went just one stop to Hikone station.

The "shinkansen" or bullet train as seen from Kyoto Tower. Photo by Jose Ramos, September 13, 2013

The “shinkansen” or bullet train as seen from Kyoto Tower. Photo by Jose Ramos, September 13, 2013

The bullet train selected for Kyoto-Maibara was the Kodama, which is the all stations bullet train service. A good majority of the seats on the Kodama are un-reserved – and cheaper – so the un-reserved tickets let us sit in any un-reserved seat on the train. This surcharge on top of the regular 1,110 yen fare is only 950 yen – so we paid 2,060 yen each for these tickets to Maibara. Then we purchased separate tickets (180 yen each) to go from Maibara to Hikone on the regular train. This was repeated for the journey back to Kyoto.

We opted for this alternative not just for the faster speed, but for the comfortable seating – not to mention the tray tables that allowed us a quick snack while on the 20 minute bullet train trip. These were things that we would not have gotten if just sticking on a commuter train for the entire trip.

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