Posted by: jrhorse | September 27, 2015

Japan Radio Show Tonight

Join us tonight at 8:30 PM Eastern for our Side Project Japan Travel Show, where we will talk about the latest news in Japanese culture and trends, talk about travel, answer any questions you might have about Japan travel, and give away some prizes! Tune in to the show at

Posted by: jrhorse | September 24, 2015

Japan Radio Show Sunday night Sept. 27

On Sunday night September 27 at 8:30 PM Eastern (0:30 GMT/9:30 JST Monday morning) I will be presenting a special radio show on Extreme Anime Radio. The 90 minute-ish show will be dedicated to Japan, talking about the news of the day and trends in culture and travel. We will answer any questions you might have about travel in Japan and give a small prize or two away to some lucky listeners! More details will be announced closer to the broadcast.
If you have any questions about Japan travel that you’d like answered on the show, feel free to leave a message, then tune in to the show by logging on to on Sunday night.

Today JR East and JR Hokkaido announced that Saturday, March 26, 2016, will be the opening date of the country’s newest bullet train line, the Hokkaido Shinkansen. It will extend almost 150 km north of Shin-Aomori, the current northern terminal of the bullet train system, through the Seikan Tunnel to the outskirts of Hakodate in Hokkaido. A total of 26 runs will be made through the tunnel using the bullet train every day (13 in each direction), though speeds through the tunnel will be limited to 140 km/h – much slower than the 320 km/h that will operate on most of the route from Tokyo.

As part of the the preparations to bring full-time bullet train service through the Seikan Tunnel, there will be two periods when conventional train travel between Hokkaido and mainland Japan will be shut down. This affects trains operating from Aomori station to Hakodate station:

  • January 1, 2016: Daily and overnight limited express services through the Seikan Tunnel will be shut down for one day for inspections.
  • March 21, 2016: This will be the final day that conventional trains operate through the Seikan Tunnel.
  • March 22-25, 2016: The Seikan Tunnel will be closed for final track alignment and checks.
  • March 26, 2016: The Hokkaido Shinkansen between Shin-Aomori and Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto stations will begin full operation.

Keep these dates in mind if you will be in Japan, as there will be no rail access from mainland Japan to Hokkaido on the days when the Seikan Tunnel is closed.

Posted by: jrhorse | September 16, 2015

A Thank You Note from Australia

This is a few months overdue, so with apologies for the delay I’d like to share a thank you that I received from a traveler in Australia.

I love Japan and the Japanese culture, and that is why one of my hobbies is to operate this blog, post some suggestions and travel updates, and do the best that I can to answer anyone’s questions about Japan travel. (on that note, please read the disclaimer!)

In the spring, Peter from Australia visited Japan and requested that I put together a whirlwind rail tour for him that would take him around the country in the limited amount of time that he had. Or in his words, not heavy on sightseeing.

I was able to do just that, and for the most part Peter used the itinerary to travel around the country.

Here’s Peter’s thank you note, which he allowed me to share:

I can’t thank Jose enough for helping me plan my rail trip around Japan in March 2015. I wanted to use a 14 day Japan Rail Pass to see as much of Japan as possible without too much on the ground sight-seeing. The programme Jose gave me was perfect. I was able to give the programme to the Japan Rail booking office in Tokyo and reserve seats for most of the trip. The trip included travel on bullet trains and on limited express trains. Everything went like clockwork. I joined the Toyoko Club which gave me discount bookings at their chain of business hotels which are generally located within a few minutes walk from each major railway station. Normally I arrived at my destination early afternoon, checked my bags into the hotel and then visited the recommended sites and enjoyed great food at the lower end restaurants. The next day I would catch a train mid morning and so on. I only stayed at one place for two nights to catch up on laundry etc. In 14 days I got an overview of Honshu, Kyushu and Shikoku. I’ve saved Hokkaido for another trip.
Thanks again Jose for making my trip so memorable.
Kind regards
Peter Coghlan
Perth, Western Australia

He also sent me a thank you gift … I’ll share a photo of it soon on my Facebook page, … be sure to look out for it!

Posted by: jrhorse | September 16, 2015

Japan Itinerary: The *Four* Castles

The castle is one of Japan’s most iconic symbols, and one of the most enduring… or, to a certain degree, the least enduring. Built as fortresses to guard important sites while taking the landscape into consideration, many of Japan’s castles fell victim to feuds and wars, whether it be from the time of shogun and samurai, or World War II. While there were as many as 5,000 castles in Japan at one point by some estimates, there are now just over 100 in complete or partial form.

As Japan has lists of three most famous views, gardens, and other locations, there seem to be several different lists out there that rank Japan’s top three castles.

Accordingly, I’ve put together itineraries that take travelers to the four castles in Japan that were ranked at the top of TripAdvisor Japan’s annual survey of castles, based on the public reviews given on that site. Those castles are, in ranked order:

Kumamoto Castle. Photo by 663highland (CC BY 2.5)

Kumamoto Castle. Photo by 663highland (CC BY 2.5)

1) Kumamoto Castle
Despite it being a reconstruction, this is one of the most beloved castle sites in all of Japan, and in the last few years has been consistently ranked as the best among Travelocity reviewers. The original fortifications were laid down almost 450 years ago, but the castle was burned down during the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877. A few of the other buildings that are part of the castle keep are original, and the area has been designated as an important cultural property.
Admission to the castle costs 500 yen and it’s open daily from 8:30 AM to 6 PM (until 5 PM during the winter months). Kumamoto Tram’s A Line stops right in front of it – it’s a 15 minute trip from JR Kumamoto Station. The flat fare for the tram is 150 yen, payable when you exit. A one day tram pass is 500 yen, and a two day pass is 800 yen.

Matsumoto Castle. Photo by MOILIP (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Matsumoto Castle. Photo by MOILIP (CC BY-SA 3.0)

2) Matsumoto Castle
This castle is one of Japan’s originals, dating back to 1504. The keep’s exterior is all black, giving the castle the nickname “karasujo” or crow castle. It has survived since then, being saved from demolition during the start of the Meiji period, and has undergone several restorations, most recently in the 1950’s. At one point, the castle resembled the leaning tower of Pisa when part of the keep slouched to one side. Matsumoto Castle is in Nagano prefecture, with the Japanese Alps as the backdrop, and is an easy train or bus trip from Tokyo or Nagano.
Admission to the castle is 610 yen and it’s open daily except during the new year’s holiday from 8:30 AM to 5 PM. During the Golden Week and Obon holidays, it’s open longer. City buses run from Matsumoto’s train station to the castle, including the tourist bus known as the “flying sneaker” (200 yen per trip or 500 yen for a day pass). The North bus will take you to the castle, and note that the day pass includes discounted admission to the castle. One other option is Matsumoto City’s free bicycle rentals, available at various spots around town including the train station and castle.

Himeji Castle after restoration. Photo by Niko Kitsakis (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Himeji Castle after restoration. Photo by Niko Kitsakis (CC BY-SA 4.0)

3) Himeji Castle
Instantly recognizable as the most visited castle complex in Japan, Himeji has fallen in the Travelocity rankings over the last several years as the complex underwent a multi-year restoration project. Just recently completed, Himeji looks as beautiful as it did when it was first built, and is seeking to claw its way up to the top of the rankings. With origins dating back to the 1300’s, Himeji’s main castles were built in the late 1500’s and early 1600’s, and have survived everything from rebellions to World War II to devastating earthquakes. It was one of the first in the country to be on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites. I visited Himeji during my first trip in 2004, a few years before the renovations began.
Admission to the castle costs 1,000 yen and it’s open daily except December 29 and 30 from 9 AM to 5 PM (in the summer months, until 6 PM). Entry ends one hour before closing.
From Himeji’s main train stations (JR and Sanyo Railway) Himeji Castle is a 5 minute bus ride (100 yen) or taxi ride (~700 yen), or a 25 minute walk (which is what yours truly ended up doing).

Matsuyama Castle. Photo by Jyo81 (CC BY 3.0)

Matsuyama Castle. Photo by Jyo81 (CC BY 3.0)

4) Matsuyama Castle
Located on the island of Shikoku in an area known for its hot springs, Matsuyama Castle is another of Japan’s original castles. It was built on a small mountain – Mount Katsuyama – and the location affords a great view of the city and the Seto Sea. It has largely survived intact; the castle tower was originally destroyed by lightning and rebuilt in the 1800’s, while certain sections were rebuilt as a result of World War II bombing damage.
Due to its high location, the castle is easily accessed by chairlift or ropeway. The castle is open almost every day of the year from 9 AM to around 5 PM and the admission fee is 510 yen. If you want to save yourself the steep climb on foot, the chairlift/ropeway is 510 yen for the round trip.
The nearest tram stop to the bottom of the mountain is Okaido, which houses a shopping arcade. It’s 10 minutes from JR Matsuyama station, and 11 minutes from Dogo Onsen hot spring. One trip costs 190 yen, and a day pass costs 400 yen.

Matsuyama Castle is not to be confused with another castle of the same name located near Okayama.

As with itineraries that I have shared in the past:
– There are two itineraries given for each mode of transit. One starts and ends in Tokyo for those coming into the country at Narita or Haneda Airport. The other starts and ends in Osaka for those utilizing Kansai Airport instead.
– All itineraries are offered subject to the Jose’s Japan Tips DISCLAIMER.

In the case of these journeys, I have opted to just provide rail itinerary suggestions.

From Tokyo By Rail

Day 1:
In the morning, depart from Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station on the Azusa Limited Express to Matsumoto (2 1/2-3 hours, 6,900 yen, no charge with Japan Rail Pass)
Alternatively, depart from Tokyo or Ueno station on the Hokuriku Shinkansen and change in Nagano to the “Shinano” Limited Express service (2 1/2-3 hours, 10,130 yen, no charge with the Japan Rail Pass)
Once your visit is complete, depart for Kyoto using two trains: The “Shinano” limited express from Matsumoto to Nagoya, and the Tokaido Shinkansen from Nagoya to Kyoto. Connecting to the “Nozomi” in Nagoya, the entire trip takes 3 hours and costs 10,170 yen. With a Japan Rail Pass, you will have to take the “Hikari”, increasing the trip time by 30-45 minutes.
Spend the night in Kyoto. Alternatively, continue 15 minutes along the line to Shin-Osaka to stay in that area.
*NOTE: There are no on-board food or drink sales on the “Shinano”

Day 2:
In the morning, depart for Himeji on the Shinkansen. From Kyoto the trip takes 45 minutes by direct Nozomi (5,590 yen) and up to 60 minutes using other services. For Japan Rail Pass holders, there are three Hikari services from Kyoto to Himeji departing between 7 AM and 8:30 AM, after which there is one direct service per hour. Otherwise you’ll need to change trains in Shin-Osaka.
In the afternoon, depart for Matsuyama using the bullet train and limited express across the Seto Sea to Shikoku. You’ll need to take the bullet train a short distance from Himeji to Okayama, then board the “Shiokaze” limited express from Okayama to Matsuyama. The trip takes approximately 3 1/2 hours (9,570 yen). You can use the “Nozomi” or the “Sakura” depending on whether or not you have a rail pass, or your preference – both trains will offer ample connections to the Shiokaze.

Day 3:
Get up early to enjoy the historic hot springs and VISIT MATSUYAMA CASTLE.
In the afternoon, return to Okayama at your leisure using any of the “Shiokaze” services (2 3/4 hours, 6,830 yen) and spend the night in Okayama.

Day 4:
Depart for Hakata station in Fukuoka at your leisure and spend two nights in Fukuoka. Use the “Nozomi” or “Mizuho” unless you have a Rail Pass, in which case you’d use the “Hikari” or “Sakura” (1 3/4-2 hours). Before leaving Okayama, you could visit Okayama Korakuen Garden, one of the top three Japanese gardens.

Day 5:
Take a day trip from Fukuoka to Kumamoto by Shinkansen, using the “Sakura” or “Tsubame” (40-50 minutes, 5,130 yen each way).

Day 6:
Take the Shinkansen and return all the way to Tokyo at your leisure. By Nozomi it takes 5 hours and costs 22,950 yen with no change in trains necessary. With a Japan Rail Pass, the “Sakura” and “Hikari” will bring you to Tokyo in six hours, and you will need to change trains once.

For this itinerary, a 7 day Japan Rail Pass (29,110 yen) will save you a considerable amount of money compared to regular tickets. If you have an extra day left, why not stop at one or two other Japanese cities on the way back to Tokyo? Perhaps an overnight stopover?

From Osaka by Rail

Day 1:
In the morning, depart for Himeji on the Shinkansen. From Shin-Osaka the trip takes 30 minutes (3,740 yen). Remember if you have a Japan Rail Pass, you can’t use the “Nozomi”.
In the afternoon, depart for Matsuyama using the bullet train and limited express across the Seto Sea to Shikoku. You’ll need to take the bullet train a short distance from Himeji to Okayama, then board the “Shiokaze” limited express from Okayama to Matsuyama. The trip takes approximately 3 1/2 hours (9,570 yen). You can use the “Nozomi” or the “Sakura” depending on whether or not you have a rail pass, or your preference – both trains will offer ample connections to the Shiokaze.

Day 2:
Get up early to enjoy the historic hot springs and VISIT MATSUYAMA CASTLE.
In the afternoon, return to Okayama at your leisure using any of the “Shiokaze” services (2 3/4 hours, 6,830 yen) and spend the night in Okayama.

Day 3:
Depart for Hakata station in Fukuoka at your leisure and spend two nights in Fukuoka. Use the “Nozomi” or “Mizuho” unless you have a Rail Pass, in which case you’d use the “Hikari” or “Sakura” (1 3/4-2 hours). Before leaving Okayama, you could visit Okayama Korakuen Garden, one of the top three Japanese gardens.

Day 4:
Take a day trip from Fukuoka to Kumamoto by Shinkansen, using the “Sakura” or “Tsubame” (40-50 minutes, 5,130 yen each way).

Day 5:
In the morning, make your way from Fukuoka all the way to Matsumoto, taking the Shinkansen to Nagoya then the “Shinano” limited express to Matsumoto. Using the Nozomi, the trip takes 5 1/2 hours (21,400 yen). With a Japan Rail Pass you’ll need to take the “Sakura” and “Hikari” to Nagoya, changing trains once along the way. This increases the journey time to around 6 1/2 hours.
If you don’t want to spend time on trains for that long, you can optionally leave from Fukuoka on the evening of Day 4 and spend your evening in an intermediate city such as Kyoto or Nagoya. See my post on sample stopovers.
Spend the evening in Matsumoto.
*NOTE: There are no on-board food or drink sales on the “Shinano”

Day 6:
VISIT MATSUMOTO CASTLE in the morning. In the afternoon, return to Osaka by “Shinano” and the Shinkansen (190 minutes and 10,810 yen by “Nozomi”, slightly longer if switching to the “Hikari” for Japan Rail Pass holders).
*NOTE: There are no on-board food or drink sales on the “Shinano”

For this itinerary, once again a 7 day Japan Rail Pass (29,110 yen) is the way to go.

Posted by: jrhorse | September 15, 2015

Itinerary Update – The Three Gardens

I have recently updated an itinerary posted three years ago on how to go about visiting Japan’s top three gardens. If you have only a few days and want to visit all three of these popular locations, please check out my suggested travel plan on its original post.

Prices are now reflecting the higher consumption tax and new travel options, such as the Hokuriku Shinkansen which now offers a more direct trip between Tokyo and Kanazawa.

Time permitting I’ll try to update others and work on a few more to share with you!

Posted by: jrhorse | September 11, 2015

Travel Update – Nikko and Kinugawa

As you may have heard, this week portions of Ibaraki, Tochigi and Miyagi prefectures were hit with torrential rainfall and flooding. The weather has impacted routes to the tourist areas of Nikko and Kinugawa – all trains to these cities have been shut down as the damage is assessed.

Several people living in these areas are dead or missing. My thoughts and prayers are with those affected by the floods.

Posted by: jrhorse | June 29, 2015

Long-distance Stopovers with the Japan Rail Pass

For travelers who want to explore a lot of Japan during their visit, the Japan Rail Pass is indispensable, offering tremendous value for using Japan Railways services all around the country. If you only plan on traveling in between the major cities of Tokyo and Kyoto or Osaka, or traveling shorter distances, the pass might not be for you. On the other hand, if traveling to many of Japan’s cities on a single trip, the Japan Rail Pass should seriously be considered.

You’ll need to know some of the basic rules for the Japan Rail Pass, which are outlined on the Japan Rail Pass web site and are also discussed on other pages on this blog.

One way to maximize your sightseeing time is to travel overnight. This has become harder to do by train in recent years. Once, Japan was full of overnight trains crisscrossing the country. These days, though, this mode of travel is becoming scarce as rail equipment ages and fierce competition between domestic trains, buses and airlines increase. This article will discuss a few concepts on how you could potentially use the Japan Rail Pass for overnight train travel while saving money in the process.

Only a few overnight train services remain in Japan. Others only run during peak travel periods like Golden Week, New Year’s and the summer months. Regardless, overnight trains in Japan are extremely popular and tend to get booked quickly. Since you cannot reserve train tickets in Japan until you are in the country – with few exceptions (like JR East’s English online reservation system) -your best bet is to try and book the tickets the moment you land in Japan.

Two of the overnight trains that run on a daily basis are the Sunrise Seto and Sunrise Izumo. These trains run coupled together from Tokyo to Okayama in western Japan, where they separate: The Seto runs south to the island of Shikoku, ending in the port city of Takamatsu, while the Izumo runs to the city of Izumo on the northern coast. These trains have compartments and rooms – if you want to secure one of these, you will have to pay the room accommodation and limited express surcharges. While the limited express surcharge varies based on your starting and ending point, the room accommodation is a fixed charge. The Japan Rail Pass will only cover the basic train fare between the two cities. A “solo” compartment will run 9,720 yen, while the high-end “single deluxe” runs for 16,970 yen – and these fares are just for one person. These trains do offer an option for carpeted floor spaces, on the other hand, which are treated as reserved seats – there are no extra surcharges for these spaces with a Japan Rail Pass…. but you have to sleep on the carpeted floor.

If you can secure room on one of these trains, not only is it a great option for travel to the northern coast or to Shikoku, but by changing in Okayama to the bullet train it is a great way to continue westward towards Hiroshima, Fukuoka and Kyushu.

The other service is called the Cassiopeia, which runs a few times a week between Tokyo and Sapporo, in Hokkaido. The prices are comparable or higher than the Sunrise Izumo/Seto, with a diner and no carpeted floor seats. The future of this service, though, is in doubt, with the pending opening of the Hokkaido Shinkansen in March 2016. A third overnight service only connects northern Honshu island with Hokkaido – the Hamanasu. The Hamanasu does offer comfortable reserved seats, which makes it a free option for Rail Pass holders, but again, the train’s future is uncertain.

With few options for overnight trains, the alternative is to simply split up your night journey into two legs, stopping somewhere along the way to sleep. As long as your Rail Pass covers both days of travel, there are so many benefits to splitting up your journey:

– You can get your own hotel room with a bed, bathroom and shower
– A hotel room located far from major cities could be less expensive
– You can experience a slice of life in a new part of Japan, and might be able to enjoy attractions or cuisines unique to that area
– There are no extra transportation costs, since your transportation is already covered under the Japan Rail Pass

By keeping these in mind, a whole new set of options can open up to you by simply doing some research.

A popular option to look out for is the business hotel – small hotels with minimal space, but all the amenities you’d need for a night’s stay. These business hotels tend to be inexpensive no matter where you book. Even in big cities such as Tokyo, they can be among the most economical options.

I will now offer a few suggestions for some long distance journeys. If you would like to explore such options for your next trip to Japan, I hope this information will be a starting point!

Tokyo to Kyoto/Osaka

This is one of the most heavily-trafficked travel routes in Japan, without question. There are so many things skipped in between, though, and with some research you can discover some new areas.

Nagoya: This is a major city, but so often skipped by many travelers on their way from Tokyo to Kyoto (including, I must admit, myself!) and the next time I visit for a while I will make Nagoya one of my priorities. Nagoya has Japan’s largest international trade port (thanks in part to Toyota’s headquarters nearby), the world’s largest train station by floor area, a reconstructed castle, a zoo, and a plethora of unique eats like miso katsu – pork or chicken cutlet served in a red miso sauce. (yum!)

Nagoya is centrally located on the Tokaido Shinkansen, the main train artery linking Tokyo with Kyoto, Osaka, and points beyond. It has been an ideal stop, and will continue to be for a while. But earlier this year, another city with its own history took center stage:

Kanazawa: This coastal city, known for having one of the top three gardens in all of Japan, was connected to Tokyo’s shinkansen network in March 2015. The city has done a lot to cater to visitors, including a rebuild of its main train station – complete with its own shinto-like Torii gate at its entrance. You can spend the night in town and go bright and early the next morning to the Kenrokuen garden before the tour groups arrive, then continue on your way.

The Hokuriku Shinkansen links Tokyo to Kanazawa in as little as 2 1/2 hours. Then from Kanazawa, you can travel by the Thunderbird Limited Express service directly to Kyoto (~2 1/4 hours) and Osaka (~2 3/4 hours). From Shin-Osaka you can connect to the bullet train for destinations to the west.

Matsumoto: A third possible option is to cut through the center of the country along the Chuo Line and visit the city of Matsumoto, known as the home of one of Japan’s original castles. Matsumoto is 2 1/2-3 hours from Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station by the Azusa limited express service. After staying in Matsumoto and potentially visiting the castle, take the Shinano limited express to Nagoya (~2 1/4 hours); you can either pick up the bullet train for destinations to the west, OR, just go around Nagoya for a while!

If you don’t want to worry about major sights and just focus on a place to stay the night, here are some cities to look at:

From Tokyo to Kyoto/Osaka via Nagoya along the Tokaido Shinkansen: Odawara, Atami, Shizuoka, Hamamatsu, Toyohashi, Maibara. A few of the other stations are left out, but it’s important to note that along this important travel artery you’ve got a good chance to find accommodations at every station.

From Tokyo to Kyoto/Osaka via Kanazawa along the Hokuriku Shinkansen and Thunderbird route: Nagano, Itoigawa, Toyama.

Tokyo to Western Japan (including Shikoku and Kyushu)

If you can’t get on board the Sunrise Izumo or Sunrise Seto, travel more comfortably (and perhaps cheaply) with a stopover.

Okayama: The name may not stand out to the regular tourist, but Okayama is a major city and transportation hub in Japan. If traveling from Tokyo and laying over in this city, you can continue on in the morning to Shikoku, Izumo, or continue on towards the west using the bullet train. Not to mention, another one of Japan’s most famous gardens – Korakuen – is located here.

Himeji: located between Osaka and Okayama, Himeji is home to Japan’s most important castle. In existence since original construction began in the 1300s, it has survived the test of time. It is now especially worth a visit, as a five-year project has restored the castle’s exterior to its original splendor.

Once again, every station on the shinkansen (now the Sanyo Shinkansen) gives you a good chance of lodging options.

Tokyo to Northern Japan/Hokkaido

The Tohoku Shinkansen is the main train artery running north from Tokyo towards Hokkaido. By March of 2016, the Shinkansen will actually extend into Hokkaido’s southern city of Hakodate for the very first time. In the meantime, trains terminate in the northernmost city of Aomori. This city makes a good stopping point, as does Hakodate itself if you were looking at a long-distance journey to Sapporo – but again, look at all stations.

Now for some SAMPLE ITINERARIES: For these samples, I have researched the price of lodging on different, random weekdays in September 2015 that are not holidays. This falls within the approximate 3 month range where many hotels have already opened up their reservations. I have also researched the train timetables for that period from sites such as HyperDia and Ekikara. Your results may vary. Hotels listed are for sample purposes only, and prices are listed in US dollars. No endorsements are implied!

#1: Tokyo to Kyoto/Osaka, stop in Nagoya: Board the evening Hikari service leaving Tokyo at 7:03 PM, arriving in Nagoya at 9:09 PM. Spend the evening at the Nagoya Ekimae Montblanc Hotel for $49 single, $37 per person double occupancy. Board a morning Hikari train at 8:21 AM. Arrive in Kyoto at 9:14 AM and Shin-Osaka at 9:30 AM.

#2: Tokyo to Kyoto/Osaka, stop in Hamamatsu: Board the evening Hikari service leaving Tokyo at 7:03 PM, arriving in Hamamatsu at 8:32 PM. Spend the evening at the four star Okura Act City Hotel Hamamatsu for $55 per person single or double occupancy (30 day advance booking rate). Board a morning Kodama train at 7:49 AM. Arrive in Kyoto at 9:34 AM and Shin-Osaka at 9:50 AM.

#3: Tokyo to Kyoto/Osaka, stop in Kanazawa: Board the evening Kagayaki service leaving Tokyo at 6:24 PM, arriving in Kanazawa at 8:58 PM. Spend the evening at the APA Hotel Kanzawa-Ekimae (part of a chain of national business hotels) for $65 single, $42 per person double occupancy. Board a morning Thunderbird train at 8:05 AM. Arrive in Kyoto at 10:11 AM and Shin-Osaka at 10:35 AM. Or, visit Kanazawa’s Kenrokuen Garden in the morning and take a later Thunderbird towards Kyoto/Osaka.

#4: Tokyo to western Japan/Shikoku/Kyushu, stop in Okayama: Board the evening Hikari service leaving Tokyo at 5:03 PM, arriving in Okayama at 9:11 PM. Spend the evening at one of a few Toyoko Inn hotels (another large chain) located around Okayama station for $52 single, $30 per person double occupancy. In the morning, you can depart in multiple directions:
– The bullet train westbound can take you to Hiroshima, Fukuoka, Kumamoto and Kagoshima.
– The Marine Liner rapid train services, leaving twice per hour, will take you to Takamatsu in Shikoku. I highly recommend paying the small surcharge for a reserved seat (320-980 yen per person depending on the seat and the season).
– The Shiokaze and Nanpu limited express trains run to the hot spring town of Matsuyama and the coast city of Kochi, respectively.
– The Yakumo limited express train runs north to Izumo in 3 hours.

#5: Tokyo to Hakodate (southern Hokkaido), stop in Aomori: Board the afternoon Hayabusa service leaving Tokyo at 5:20 PM, arriving at Shin-Aomori at 8:40 PM. Change to the local shuttle train to Aomori, arriving at 8:55 PM. Spend the evening at the Toyoko Inn Aomori-eki Shomen-guchi for $46 single or $32 per person double occupancy. Leave in the morning on the first Hakucho service of the morning, departing Aomori at 8:25 AM and arriving in Hakodate at 10:26 AM.

#6: Tokyo to Sapporo, stop in Hakodate: Board the afternoon Hayabusa service leaving Tokyo at 3:20 PM, arriving at Shin-Aomori at 6:43 PM. Change to the Hakucho departing Shin-Aomori at 6:53 PM, arriving in Hakodate at 8:56 PM. Spend the evening at the Comfort Hotel Hakodate (as in the Comfort Inn brand) for $46 single or $37 per person double occupancy. Leave in the morning on the Hoktuto service from Hakodate to Sapporo – the first two trains leave at 6:22 AM and 8:13 AM, arriving in Sapporo at 9:58 AM and 11:47 AM, respectively.

#7: Osaka to Sapporo: There used to be an overnight train service called the Twilight Express, which ran a few times a week and was comparable to the Cassiopeia. If I ever wanted to ride an overnight train in Japan, this was the one I was aiming for. Sadly those plans never materialized, and the Twilight Express has already been discontinued. Here’s one way to make the Osaka-Sapporo trip now. Leave Shin-Osaka at 11:40 AM on the Hikari service to Tokyo, arriving at 2:40 PM. At Tokyo Station you will have 40 minutes to mill about and do some quick shopping until leaving on the 3:20 PM Hayabusa service to Shin-Aomori. Then, the instructions are exactly as above, laying over in Hakodate en route to Sapporo.

By now I hope you are inspired to create your own overnight itineraries to maximize your Rail Pass, and your sightseeing and enjoyment of Japan. If you have any questions or comments, please ask!

With Japanese tourism booming thanks to the weak yen and tax breaks on purchases for foreigners, Delta appears to be resuming inter-Japan service from Tokyo Narita to Osaka Kansai.

You wouldn’t know about this unless you looked at Delta’s official press release in Japanese. Starting in late march 2016, Delta will offer one daily trip from Narita to Kansai, and one flight from Kansai to Narita, using a Boeing 757. The flights to/from Osaka will only be available for international Delta passengers connecting at Narita to/from an international Delta flight. Currently, Delta operates nonstop flights between Tokyo Narita and sixteen destinations in the United States and Asia.

It is interesting to see how these connections in Tokyo will be arranged. It’s possible (but not certain, at least from my current understanding) that the connections will be treated as International Transfers – that is, there would be no immigration or customs formalities handled at Narita Airport. This sort of arrangement has been used in the past…. as an example, if you flew into Japan on Delta and you are booked onto this new flight with Osaka as your destination, you would go through international transfers, fly to Osaka, and go through customs/immigration at Kansai Airport. On the return from Osaka, you would go through Osaka’s immigration to receive your departure stamp. When landing at Narita, again, you would go through international transfers to board your flight back home.

This is a very convenient arrangement if it will be implemented in this fashion. In addition to the above, your checked luggage can be checked through to your final destination. One important thing to note, though: When you go through international transfers in Narita, you will have to go through a security check. This means that if you purchase and bring DUTY FREE LIQUIDS beforehand, you must ensure that they are in tamper-evident bags. If they are not in tamper-evident bags, they will be confiscated as the 3 oz / 100 ml liquid rule will apply.

Osaka has several cool places to visit, including the Umeda Sky Building, Kaiyukan Aquarium, and the Dotonbori Canal. It is also the gateway to the ancient capital of Kyoto, which can be accessed by direct train or bus from Kansai Airport. If your trip’s focus is on western Japan, including areas such as Hiroshima, Fukuoka, Shikoku and Kyushu, Kansai is a convenient starting point – you can take westbound bullet trains from Shin-Osaka station.

If you have a voucher for the Japan Rail Pass it can be exchanged at the JR ticket office in Kansai Airport, open daily until 11 PM.

The airport itself is a site to behold, built on a man-made island and featuring one of the world’s longest airport concourses.

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 –
Hakone Portal –
Hakone Tozan Bus –

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