Posted by: jrhorse | May 31, 2017

Itinerary – Train Cruising on the Cheap, Vol. 2

I am thankful for the feedback that I have received from my previous post about Train Cruising on the Cheap. Now I will admit that the experience of the cruising train is an important selling point in the cost of the trip. As much as I yearn to try a train like the Shiki-shima, or any of the other cruising trains in existence or in the process of coming out, let’s face it… with both the high cost and the lottery systems in place due to the overflow of interest, it’s highly unlikely that I will get the coveted chance to take such a train in the future.

Twilight_Express_Mizukaze_test_run_Saijo_Station_20170408

Twilight Express Mizukaze. Photo by khws4v1 (CC BY 2.0)

Today I’ll look at how we can turn another cruise train itinerary into something that’s more manageable for tourists. Here is the JR West version of the Shiki-shima: The Twilight Express Mizukaze. This is the newest incarnation of the former Twilight Express overnight train that ran a few times a week from Osaka and Kyoto up to Sapporo. This overnight service, and the rest of the ones to and from Sapporo that existed, ended operations by March 2015 before the Seikan rail tunnel connecting Honshu and Hokkaido was re-purposed for the new Hokkaido Shinkansen operations.

I’ll admit that the Twilight Express was a train that I was looking forward to traveling on, and it’s a shame that it had to go away. The new Twilight Express Mizukaze will begin services in June 2017, and like the Shiki-shima train it has a small capacity – no more than 34 passengers per service.

There are five routes that the cruising train will operate on: Four courses are 2 day, 1 night in duration, and one course is 3 days, 2 nights in duration. The trips from to/from the Kansai region, covering two main paths: The San’yo Main Line, along the southern coast of west Japan, and the San’in Line, along the northern coast.

I’ll take on the longest course, the 3 day and 2 night journey that loops around both coasts of Western Japan operating in the fall, and see what I can come up with. We will start the journey at Osaka Station and end at Kyoto Station.

First, let’s see what the itinerary is if you took the cruising train.

Twilight Express Mizukaze Itinerary – 3 day, 2 night course

Day 1: Depart Kyoto Station or Osaka Station – Okayama Station – Overnight on the train (train changes from San’yo to San’in Line at Shimonoseki)
Day 2: Shinji Station/Matsue Station – Overnight on the train
Day 3: Higashihama Station – End at Kyoto Station or Shin-Osaka Station

Cost: Starting at 670,000 yen single occupancy or 520,000 yen per person double occupancy. (About USD $6,000 and $4,600, respectively, at present exchange rates)

If you understand some Japanese, the full itinerary in Japanese can be found at this link on the Nippon Travel Agency website.

Jose’s Itinerary

Osaka_Station_clock_(30877907315)

Osaka Station concourse at night. Photo by Cheng-en Cheng (CC BY-SA 2.0)9:00 – Osaka Station

Day 1: 9:00 – Osaka Station

You might as well spend the first part of your day wandering Osaka Station as the morning rush tapers off. It went through an overwhelming renovation and refreshing that completed in 2011 with new shopping and entertainment options, and a dramatic sloping roof above the train tracks and concourse that in a way attempts to rival Kyoto Station, or more likely a modern airport terminal. I last visited the Osaka Station complex in 2008, right as they were starting the reconstruction. On my next trip I’d like to make it a point to visit the new surroundings to see how things turned out.

At around 10 AM or so, depart west via the JR Tokaido Line, which is referred to as the JR Kobe Line in these parts. The fastest of the local services out of Osaka is the Special Rapid, or Shin-Kaisoku (新快速) service; we’ll take this as the first of three regular services to Okayama.

JR Kobe Line Special Rapid, depart Osaka 10:00, Arrive Himeji 11:06 (Weekends/Holidays arrives 11:03)
JR San’yo Line Local, Depart Himeji 11:07, Arrive Aioi 11:26
JR San’yo Line Local, Depart Aioi 11:28, Arrive Okayama 12:38
Fare: 3,020 yen

640px-December_view_-_Korakuen_(Okayama)_-_DSC01696

Korakuen Garden. Photo by Daderot (PD)

Spend an afternoon in Okayama – first having lunch at one of the various restaurants in the station, and then by exploring some of the city’s most popular symbols, including Korakuen Garden – one of Japan’s three gardens that we’ve touched base on before – and a reconstruction of Okayama castle.

Later in the day, we’ll hop on the bullet train to continue our westward journey.

Shinkansen Sakura #565, Depart Okayama 16:56, Arrive Hiroshima 17:36
Fare: 6,020 yen reserved standard class, 8,250 yen reserved green car (first class)

Hiroshima is a city that is remembered by so many people as the first city in the world to be targeted by a nuclear weapon. After that horrendous event, Hiroshima has been at the forefront of promoting peace and extending friendship to everyone who visits.

640px-HiroshimaGembakuDome6853

Hiroshima Genbaku Dome. Photo by Fg2 (PD)

First, pick up a day pass for the Hiroshima Tram, also known as the Hiroden, for 600 yen. Then, take line #2 or line #6 from Hiroshima Station to the Genbaku Dome-mae Station, which is a 15 minute trip. Spend a few quiet moments in front of the Atomic Bomb Dome, the preserved remnants of a structure located very close to the epicenter of the blast and stands as a reminder of the events of that summer morning in August of 1945.

Next, go back to the Tram and take line #2 or line #6 to Hatchobori station. Here you can access the large downtown arcade for dinner, shopping and entertainment. Nearby is an area called Okonomimura, which is a perfect place to try out Hiroshima’s staple food called Okonomiyaki. This food mixes meats and vegetables within layers of batter and cabbage, topped off with a sweet sauce after it’s cooked. Some places will also top the “pancake” of sorts off with mayonnaise and bonito flakes.

The Twilight Express Mizukaze spends this evening traveling down the southern coast and then back up the northern coast. Since local trains are quite sparse on this part of the route, we will go part of the way to Shin-Yamaguchi and spend the night there.

Shinkansen Sakura #573, Depart Hiroshima 21:37, Arrive Shin-Yamaguchi 22:07
Fare: 5,270 yen reserved standard class, 7,500 yen reserved green car (first class)

Spend the night near Shin-Yamaguchi station.

Day 2:

In the morning we will depart for the coastal city of Matsue using the “Super Oki” limited express. Note that this trip is long (over 3 1/2 hours) and the train does not have food or wagon sales on board, so be sure to stock up on some snacks, drinks, and perhaps a bento box before leaving Shin-Yamaguchi.

Super Oki #2, Depart Shin-Yamaguchi 8:52, Arrive Matsue 12:34
Fare: 7,650 yen reserved standard class seat (no Green Car on the train)

640px-Lafcadio_Hearns_Old_Residence01bs3200

Lafcaido Hearn residence. Photo by 663highland (CC BY 2.5)

Matsue will be the home for our second night on this trip. Have a lunch if you went starving on the train, then head out to some of Matsue’s attractions. Some of the attractions include Matsue Castle, one of the small number of surviving castles in Japan, a preserved samurai residence, and the old home of Lafcadio Hearn, an Irish-Greek immigrant to Japan in the 19th Century. Hearn was fascinated about Japanese culture and was one of the first international visitors to write about it. He is well known for his stories about Japanese ghosts and legends, which the people of Matsue pass down today.

Sightseeing buses conveniently travel around the city’s attractions. A one day pass costs just 500 yen. Note, however, that the last departure of these buses is at 17:00 (16:00 during the fall and winter). For meals, consider Izumo Soba (named for Izumo, Matsue’s nearby neighbor), Zenzai (red bean soup with rice cakes) or the local Wagashi (confectionary).

Day 3:

Eat breakfast in Matsue, then continue to Osaka or Kyoto to finish your trip.

Option 1:
If you would like to follow the route of the Twilight Express Mizukaze a little more closely on the way to the finish line, you’ll need to turn it into a day trip.

161029_Kinosaki_Onsen_Toyooka_Hyogo_pref_Japan02s

Kinosaki Onsen is a wonderful place for a meal… or maybe even a stay! Photo by 663highland (CC BY 2.5)

Limited Express Super Matsukaze #6, Depart Matsue 9:24, Arrive Tottori 10:58
(11 minute layover)
San’in Line Local, Depart Tottori 11:09, Arrive Hamasaka 11:52
(15 minute layover)
San’in Line Rapid, Depart Hamasaka 12:07, Arrive Kinosaki-Onsen 13:05
(Kinosaki Onsen is a historic hot spring town with a unique charm, and so I recommend a lunch stop here)
Limited Express Kounotori #20, Depart Kinosaki-Onsen 15:30, Arrive Osaka 18:20, Arrive Shin-Osaka 18:28
Fare to Osaka: 10,860 yen, including reserved seating on the limited express trains

If going to Kyoto, exit the Kounotori at Fukuchiyama (16:40) and transfer to the Kinosaki #18, Departing 16:44 and arriving Kyoto 18:08. There is also a direct train from Kinosaki Onsen, Kinosaki #20, leaving 16:12 and arriving Kyoto 18:49.

Fare: 10,540 yen, including reserved seating on the limited express trains

Note that there is no food or wagon service on any of these services so you may wish to get a drink or quick snack during your layovers in Tottori or Hamasaka, and lunch in Kinosaki Onsen.

Electronic_signage_of_Okayama_Station_(San'yo_Shinkansen)

If you want to shorten your return trip, just head back to Okayama and wait for the next bullet train. Photo by soramimi (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Option 2:
There are faster ways to reach Osaka and Kyoto by connecting to the bullet train, if you want to spend some more time in Matsue. Here is an example of a noontime departure, though you’ll find Yakumo services leaving around once every hour.

Limited Express Yakumo #16, Depart Matsue 12:01, Arrive Okayama 14:38
Shinkansen Sakura #554, Depart Okayama 15:03, Arrive Shin-Osaka 15:48

From Shin-Osaka, you can connect to the next Tokyo-bound Kodama service to Kyoto, or you can take a commuter service to Kyoto on what’s known as the JR Kyoto Line.

Fare to Osaka: 10,600 yen reserved standard class, 15,320 yen reserved Green Car

There is no food or wagon service on the Yakumo. You can pick up food and drinks during your layover in Okayama. The bullet train will have a wagon service.

Trip Costs

For this itinerary, a 7-day Japan Rail Pass (29,110 yen ordinary, 38,880 yen Green Car) will easily cover all of the trains noted here. By using an ordinary pass you’ll save around 3,000 yen compared to local tickets.

If you decide to forego Kinosaki Onsen and fast track back to Osaka or Kyoto on Day 3 (using Option 2), there’s an even better deal: the 7-Day JR West San’yo-San’in Pass at 20,000 yen (1,000 yen discount if purchased from overseas). Not only does it cover reserved seats, but it will also allow you to use the premium Nozomi and Mizuho services on the San’yo Shinkansen (the regular Japan Rail Pass does NOT allow this).

If you decide to use the San’yo-San’in Pass, then you can be a little bit more flexible when going to Okayama to Hiroshima and Hiroshima to Shin-Yamaguchi on Day 1, and from Okayama to Shin-Osaka on Day 3. An updated itinerary could be as follows:

Day 1, Okayama to Hiroshima
Nozomi #37, Depart Okayama 16:51, Arrive Hiroshima 17:26

Day 1, Hiroshima to Shin-Yamaguchi
Nozomi #57, Depart Hiroshima 22:05, Arrive Shin-Yamaguchi 22:35

Day 3, Matsue to Shin-Osaka
Limited Express Yakumo #16, Depart Matsue 12:01, Arrive Okayama 14:38
Shinkansen Nozomi #32, Depart Okayama 14:53, Arrive Shin-Osaka 15:38

The JR West pass does NOT cover the Shinkansen past Shin-Osaka, so to reach Kyoto you’ll have to change to a commuter service on the JR Kyoto Line at Kyoto Station.

If you want to float in the middle of the road as far as accommodations are concerned, you can certainly look into cheap business hotels. For a random weekday in June 2017, a business hotel in Shin-Yamaguchi went for around 3,800 yen per person double occupancy, while a Matsue accommodation went for 5,500 yen per person double occupancy. Matsue also has some traditional Japanese inns (or ryokan) at higher prices if you are so inclined.

For meals, my conservative estimate would be around 5,000 yen per person a day, counting all meals. Bento box meals and convenience store meals will certainly reduce this cost.

When the cost of a train pass, maximum conservative food budget and accommodation charges are added over a period of 3 days, the estimated cost per person comes out to around around 54,000 yen ($488) if using Option 1 on Day 3, or 44,300 yen ($400) if using Option 2 … well under the 520,000 yen charged per person double occupancy on the Twilight Express Mizukaze. Costs to visit attractions, and costs for souvenirs, are not included. Add an additional 600 yen for the Hiroshima Tram One-Day Pass.

It helps to make seat reservations on the shinkansen and limited express trains before you start your trip. Be sure to take care of this in Osaka or Kyoto.

Once again, it’s my hope that as you consider this, you will make your own travel plan for Japan… whether it be around these areas or other parts of this wonderful country… at a budget that suits you. Please feel free to share your thoughts, or perhaps any other itineraries that you may come up with.

All itineraries are posted pursuant to the disclaimer.

Links to Creative Commons licenses: CC BY 2.0, CC BY-SA 2.0, CC BY 2.5, CC BY-SA 4.0

Posted by: jrhorse | May 13, 2017

Itinerary – Train Cruising On The Cheap

Greetings all! This is the first of what could be a series of posts that will highlight the newest trend in Japanese train travel, and how you can experience the same journeys at a lower cost.

The various regional companies of the Japan Railways, or JR, have begun branching out over the years to offer new, high-end, luxurious, train trips. These new trains have taken on the nickname of “Cruising Trains”. Like a cruise on the open seas, these new train cruises aim to offer some of the finest experiences in train travel, allowing travelers to see wonderful parts of the country at a relaxed pace. They are successors to most overnight train services – the so-called “Blue Trains” – that used to run all across Japan for decades before their popularity declined thanks to the advent of bullet trains, regional airports and low cost air carriers.

E001-10_Shim-Maebashi_2016_1103

JR East Train Suite Shiki-shima. Photo by Rsa (CC BY-SA 3.0)

One such trains that has been making headlines over the last few weeks is the cruise train called the Shiki-shima, operated by JR East.

The design of the train and amenities are impeccable. There are observation cars with lounges, suite rooms, and a first class dining car showcasing the best of Eastern Japan. As part of the planned itineraries, there is a mix of dining and sleeping on the train, with dining and sleeping in high-end accommodations at certain points of interest. The launching pad for the train trips is at Ueno Station in Tokyo, the traditional starting point for Japan’s train journeys to the north – though these days bullet trains, and more recently the opening of the Ueno-Tokyo through line, make Tokyo Station slightly more ideal.

There are two downsides to attempting a trip on the Shiki-Shima. First, the cost: expect to pay anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000 for a journey that takes no longer than 4 days. For the most recent offered itinerary – 3 days and 2 nights this winter – fares started at $6,500 single occupancy and $4,400 per person double occupancy for a… “standard” suite in US dollars at present exchange rates.

The second downside is whether or not you are able to secure a trip in the first place. Despite the exorbitant cost, travelers want to take trains like these. JR East is overwhelmed with trip applications that they conduct a lottery to see who will receive the privilege of taking a trip. Occasionally, travel agencies will secure a small number of trips on trains like these and sell them, tacking a large commission on top of the original price.

Don’t let this get you down though… you can still plan your own trip using Japan’s renowned transit systems, which include bullet trains and nice-looking limited express and tourist trains, with a more respectable budget.

To demonstrate, I’ve taken apart one of the itineraries that will be offered on the Shiki-Shima and will show you how to make a similar journey using regularly scheduled train services.

Original Shiki-shima Itinerary

What follows is the original itinerary for the most recent journey to sell out: the 3-day, 2-night Winter cruise on the Shiki-shima train, per the information on the JR East website.

Day 1: Ueno – (lunch on the train) – Shiroishi (sightseeing) – (Dinner outside the train) – Board the Shiki-shima at Matsushima and spend the night on the train.
Day 2: (Breakfast on the train) – Aomori – Hirosaki (sightseeing) – (lunch outside the train) – return to the train at Aomori (dinner inside the train) – Ichinoseki (sightseeing) – spend the night on the train.
Day 3: Naruko-Onsen station – (breakfast on the train) – Sightseeing in Naruko-Onsen – (lunch on the train) – Arrive at Ueno Station.

With this itinerary in mind, let’s see what a trip would look like by taking the regular services… that is, anything regularly scheduled, including bullet trains. While the cruising train starts and ends at Ueno Station, I’ll include a few other options for consideration.

Jose’s Itinerary

Day 1:
*Shinkansen Yamabiko/Tsubasa #131, Depart Tokyo 9:24, Omiya 9:48, Arrive Fukushima 10:46
Every day, this Yamabiko service makes a fast run from Tokyo to Fukushima in only 82 minutes, stopping only at Omiya. The Yamabiko continues to Sendai, and the Tsubasa continues to Yamagata and Shinjo.
If leaving from Ueno, you can board the Nasuno #255 departing Ueno 9:22 and arriving Omiya at 9:41 to connect to the above service.

749px-Shiroishijo_Castle_&_statue_of_Ōzutsu_Man'emon

Shiroishi Castle. Photo by neuropower (PD)

Spend an hour in the Fukushima station surroundings… perhaps have a quick meal while you are there. Then, travel to Shiroishi by regular JR train:

*JR Tohoku Line Local, Depart Fukushima 11:47, Arrive Shiroishi 12:22

Spend the afternoon in Shiroishi. Enjoy the restored Shiroishi Castle, or sample one of the staples of Shiroishi’s cuisine… Umen noodles, which are cooked without oil.

In the late afternoon, depart for Aomori.

Aomori_bay

Aomori Bay at night. Photo by Angaurtis (CC BY-SA 3.0)

*JR Tohoku Line Local, Depart Shiroishi 16:19, Arrive Sendai 17:09
(Alternate: Go a bit further east to Shiroishi-Zao station, take Shinkansen Yamabiko #143, Depart Shiroishi-Zao 16:50, Arrive Sendai 17:04)
*Shinkansen Hayabusa #27, Depart Sendai 17:54, Arrive Shin-Aomori 19:37
*Take a shuttle train to Aomori, arriving 19:57

 

Check into a hotel in Aomori and spend the evening. For dinner you could have something quick in Sendai, or perhaps buy a bento box in Sendai Station to have on the Hayabusa service. You could also have a late dinner in Aomori.

800px-Hirosaki-castle_Aomori_JAPAN

Hirosaki Castle. Photo by Si-take. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Day 2:
After breakfast in Aomori, take a limited express train to Hirosaki:
*Tsugaru #2, Depart Aomori 9:05, Arrive Hirosaki 9:36

Spend the day in Hirosaki, visiting the Hirosaki Castle with its preserved samurai buildings nearby.  After sightseeing and lunch, depart for Ichinoseki.

*Tsugaru #3, Depart Hirosaki 14:52, Arrive Shin-Aomori 15:22
*Hayabusa #26, Depart Shin-Aomori 15:52, Arrive Morioka 16:44
*Hayabusa #108, Depart Morioka 17:07, Arrive Ichinoseki 17:47

Check into a hotel in Ichinoseki, have dinner and spend the evening.

鳴子峡の紅葉_(Autumn_Leaves_at_Naruko_Gorge)_31_Oct,_2009_-_panoramio

Autumn leaves at Naruko Gorge. Photo by Hiroaki Kaneko (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Day 3:
After breakfast in Ichinoseki, depart for the scenic Naruko Gorge. The gorge offers spectacular views, and is especially popular in the fall and winter months.

*Hayabusa #104, Depart Ichinoseki 8:48, Arrive Furukawa 9:05
*JR Rikku East Line Local, Depart Furukawa 9:19, Arrive Naruko-Onsen 10:02

After sightseeing and lunch in Naruko, return to Tokyo to complete your trip.

*JR Rikku East Line Local, Depart Naruko-Onsen 14:10, Arrive Furukawa 14:57
*Shinkansen Yamabiko #50, Depart Furukawa 15:09, Arrive Omiya 16:58, Ueno 17:18, Tokyo 17:24

Trip Costs

800px-JR東日本E5系新幹線電車

Seat reservations are mandatory on Hayabusa services. Photo by sukhoi37 (CC BY 3.0)

For the three-day itinerary above, an excellent option if you do not have the national Japan Rail Pass is the JR East Tohoku Area Pass for 19,000 yen. With this pass you can travel anywhere in JR East territory from Tokyo to Tohoku (northern Honshu). You get five flexible days of travel over a 14 day period and can make free seat reservations in standard class on all the bullet trains mentioned above. Note that when you use the Hayabusa bullet train seat reservations are compulsory.

With the two other days remaining, why not explore other areas included in the pass? Perhaps check out Matsuyama (part of the Shiki-Shima tour but excluded from my itinerary), or make a quick bullet train run to Echigo-Yuzawa to cheaply sample many regional types of sake and possibly bring a bottle home with you!

800px-Aomori_station_ekimae

Exterior of Aomori Station with several business hotels. Photo by ぺ有家音 (PD)

If you want to float in the middle of the road as far as accommodations are concerned, you can certainly look into cheap business hotels. For a random weekday in June 2017, business hotels in Aomori were spotted two blocks east of Aomori Station for as low as 2,300 yen per person double occupancy. Near Ichinoseki Station they were spotted at 4,700 yen per person double occupancy.

For meals, my conservative estimate would be around 4,000 yen per person a day, counting all meals. Bento box meals and convenience store meals will certainly reduce this cost.

When the cost of the JR East Tohoku Pass, maximum conservative food budget and accommodation charges are added over a period of 3 days, the estimated cost per person comes out to around 38,000 yen ($335)… well under the 500,000 yen charged per person double occupancy on the Shiki-shima. Costs to visit attractions, and costs for souvenirs, are not included.

It helps to make seat reservations on the shinkansen and limited express trains; as mentioned above, Hayabusa reservations are compulsory. Make your seat reservations for the Hayabusa, Yamabiko, Tsubasa and Tsugaru at a JR train station in Tokyo, preferably at one of the JR East Travel Service Centers (Tokyo, Shinjuku or Ikebukuro Stations), before you start your trip.

It’s my hope that as you consider this, you will make your own travel plan for Japan… whether it be around these areas or other parts of this wonderful country… at a budget that suits you. Please feel free to share your thoughts, or perhaps any other itineraries that you may come up with.

All information is offered pursuant to the blog disclaimer.

Links to Creative Commons licenses: CC BY 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0

 

Posted by: jrhorse | April 25, 2017

A Video Update

I put together a quick video message on my Facebook page to thank people like you for visiting my blog! To see the video, please head on over to:

facebook.com/myjapantips

You’ll get a quick update on how things are going on my end. Thank you!

Almost five years ago I wrote up some itineraries on my blog to bring you to some of Japan’s best sights. The original set is Japan’s Three Views: Matsushima, Amanohashidate and Miyajima. This has spurred into a long list of official and unofficial “big three” sites covering a wide range of locations. One such list considered official is Japan’s Three Gardens: Kenroku-en, Kairaku-en and Koraku-en.

I have updated both of these itineraries with updated fare and travel information, given that travel options can change after several years… so be sure to check them out!

As far as I can recall, I do have another itinerary on my blog about Japan’s Four Castles, traveling around to see what were the top four castles in Japan at the time. This has changed a bit now that Kumamoto Castle, at the top of the list, was damaged in the April 2016 earthquakes. I hope to update this itinerary soon.

Posted by: jrhorse | February 13, 2017

Destination of the Week: Kinkaku-ji

dscf0050

Kinkaku-ji Temple. Photo ©Jose Ramos, September 2013

There is a Buddhist temple in Japan that is a must-see destination… another one of those places that you’ll commonly find photos of in many travel materials that you will come across. Nestled in the northern part of Kyoto city, it’s the one that features walls lined with the bright color of gold… Kinkaku-ji, or the golden pavilion.

dscf0057

Kinkaku-ji Temple. Photo ©Jose Ramos, September 2013

About Kinkaku-ji: The temple is actually known as Rokuon-ji, but the gold leaf surrounding the three-story shariden (pavilion) is where the Kinkaku-ji name is derived from. The temple is dedicated to the Bosastu deity, which embodies the compassion of all Buddhas.

Kinkaku-ji, like the rest of Kyoto, was untouched by the Allied bombings in World War II, but nevertheless has burnt down and been rebuilt numerous times, including as part of civil wars. Most recently in 1950, a young monk attempted to set himself on fire in a suicide attempt; he survived, but the building did not.

The current Kinkaku-ji dates from 1955. The pavilion underwent restoration between 1987 and 2003.

 

dscf0056

Blog author Jose at Kinkaku-ji. Photo by Jordan Martin, September 2013. ©Jose Ramos

Did you know? The pavilion is covered in gold leaf because it is believed that the gold color purifies any negative thoughts related to death. The effect of the gold leaf is enhanced through sunlight reflecting off of it, as well as from reflections off of nearby ponds in the temple complex.

 

Kinkaku-ji is not limited to the pavilion itself. A beautiful Japanese garden surrounds the pavilion and can be found throughout the temple grounds.

Kinkaku-ji is on UNESCO’s list of 17 Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto, making it a World Heritage Site.

Costs: It costs 400 yen for admission to the temple grounds. They are open every day of the year from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM.

How to get there: Kinkaku-ji is a little bit out of the way on the map of Kyoto’s attractions. The best way to access the temple is by bus , though Kyoto’s traffic conditions may make the going a little slow.

Several bus routes run to Kinkaku-ji, including the 101 and 205 buses from Kyoto Station, which are the limited-stop buses that run toward Kyoto’s major sightseeing destinations… and therefore tend to get crowded. These buses, like many that run within Kyoto, cost just a flat fare of 230 yen to ride.

When I visited Kyoto in 2013 and traveled to Kinkaku-ji, I followed some advice posted online and used a combination of subway and bus. This involved taking the subway north from Kyoto Station to Kitaoji Station (7 stops, 260 yen), then changing to one of the buses that goes to Kinkaku-ji – either the 101, 102, 204 or 205 bus (230 yen). While the subway was reasonably busy heading northbound during the morning hours, it ran on time. There was little wait for a bus when I got to Kitaoji, and the bus ride from there to the temple was pleasant and not at all crowded.

Using the subway/bus method effectively doubles your one-way fare to 490 yen, though the use of some sort of all-day pass might help mitigate this cost. Examples include a 1-day or 2-day Kyoto sightseeing pass valid for the bus and subway (1,200 yen and 2,000 yen respectively). Since I did a lot of traveling around Kansai on my trip, I utilized a Surutto Kansai Ticket (also called the Kansai Thru Pass) which permits 3 non-consecutive days of travel on Kansai’s private railways, subways and most buses. This pass costs 5,200 yen as of February 2017.

dscf0070

Ryoan-ji Temple garden. Photo by Jordan Martin, September 2013. ©Jose Ramos

What’s Nearby: I combined my trip to Kinkaku-ji with a visit to nearby Ryoan-ji temple, which is noted for its zen rock garden. The number 59 bus easily runs from Kinkaku-ji to Ryoan-ji, or you can take a quick taxi ride for around 1,000 yen.

If you have time later in the day, head southwest to charming Arashiyama, home to shops and restaurants, as well as a landmark bridge (Togetsukyo) with a monkey park on the other side. I recommend making the Randen, or Keifuku Railway Tram, part of your trip to Arashiyama. From Kinkaku-ji, take the 204 or 205 bus south to Kitano Hakubaicho (230 yen) and then take the Randen to Arashiyama (210 yen, one train change required). From Ryoan-ji, take a nice stroll south of the temple entrance for about 600 meters (10 minutes) to Ryoan-ji-mae station, and take the Randen to Arashiyama (210 yen, one train change required).

Returning to Kyoto Station, my recommendations:
*From Kinkaku-ji, bus number 101, 102, 204 or 205 to Kitaoji Bus Terminal (230 yen), change to Subway to Kyoto Station (260 yen).
*From Ryoan-ji, bus number 59 to Karasuma Imadegawa (230 yen), change to Subway to Kyoto Station (260 yen).
*From Arashiyama, you can walk northeast for approximately 800 meters (10-15 minutes) to the JR station at Saga Arashiyama and take a direct JR train to Kyoto Station (15 minutes, 240 yen). Alternatively, you can take the Randen to Tenjingawa Station (210 yen) and then take the subway (260 yen, one train change required).

Posted by: jrhorse | February 11, 2017

Kintetsu Railway now accepts online reservations in English

kintetsu_50601_at_hasedera_station-1

The Shimakaze, one of Kintetsu Railway’s flagship trains. Photo by KishujiRapid/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

One of the major… and if I’m not mistaken, the largest… private railway operator in Japan is now accepting online reservations for their premium trains in English.

Kintetsu Railway offers a reliable service connecting three major cities, as well as important cultural and seaside destinations, across FIVE prefectures. Trains primarily run from Kyoto and Nagoya (close to their JR counterparts) as well as from Namba in the southern part of Osaka city, out towards Nara (housing a Buddhist temple in the world’s largest wooden building), Ise (home to one of Japan’s most revered Shinto shrines), and the coastal towns of Toba and Shima. In addition to the seaside cities, you will find frequent premium trains from Kyoto to Nara, and from Osaka to Nagoya (a cheaper alternative compared to the Shinkansen).

All of this information is spelled out in English on Kintetsu’s website. I stumbled across this website after watching a feature on NHK World’s television program Japan Railway Journal, during a segment explaining how Kintetsu Railway aims to help foreign tourists who are visiting the areas that they serve. This episode will still be available on VOD, but only for a few more days.

The new Kintetsu site offers useful information on how to use their trains… and now also includes a new section for E-Tickets, which I believe has been offered for just a few months. That’s right, if you know what premium train you want to use on Kintetsu and when you want to go, you can now make reservations online in advance.

All of the premium Kintetsu trains require a seat reservation. You’ll need to pay for the reservation using a credit card. Then you print out the confirmation or save it on your smartphone, and when you come to Japan you will need to purchase your BASIC ticket that covers the same distance… If you need a refresher, remember that premium train services require a basic ticket (to cover the regular fare from point A to point B if you used a local train) and an express/limited express ticket surcharge (to cover a specific train and seat on the same route). You can use standard tickets, valid day passes or a stored fare (IC) card to cover your basic fare.

While I don’t think you need to make a reservation far ahead of time for Kintetsu, there are a few exceptions to consider in my opinion. First, you may wish to consider a reservation if you are traveling during times of high demand, such as Japan’s big travel holidays in late April-early May, August, and late December-early January. I would imagine that the autumn season also sees high demand because many travelers like to visit these regions to see nature’s fall colors. Also in high demand are Kintetsu’s flagship trains such as the Shimakaze, which generally runs a small number of services… one round trip in either direction between Ise/Shima/Toba and the major cities of Nagoya, Kyoto and Osaka. These trains offer all-deluxe seating, rooms for groups, and even an on-board cafe. Under these circumstances you may wish to consider reserving your ticket ahead of time. If your plans change, Kintetsu will allow you to change your reservation up to three times.

I can highly vouch for Kintetsu’s Limited Express services, which are very efficient. I used the premium train on services between Kyoto and Nara, and also used it for a slightly more expensive yet comfortable trip between Osaka and Kyoto, changing trains just outside of Nara. It was more pleasant to take this little detour – especially during the evening rush hour – so that I did not have to deal with the commuter trains on the more direct route. (And just for kicks, yes, this route CAN be reserved through Kintetsu’s online system!)

Keep in mind that the online reservation system for Kintetsu is not available during overnight hours (Japan Time), and that train reservations open up at 10:30 (Japan Time) one month before departure.

I’m happy to see more and more Japanese companies offer online reservations for foreigners visiting the country. Kintetsu is among the latest additions, and joins other companies like JR East, Odakyu, Tobu, Willer Express and JR Bus.

Have I left any other companies out? Please comment and let me know!

Posted by: jrhorse | February 9, 2017

Destination of the Week: Enoshima

100_1026

The entrance to Enoshima island is prefaced with this stone marker. © Photo by Jose Ramos, October 2008

One of the more pleasurable trips on my journeys to Japan has been the one to Enoshima. An easy day trip from Tokyo, Enoshima is a mountainous island that is connected to the mainland by a beach-lined causeway. It can get busy during summer months… but whatever time you decide to go, a trip to Enoshima is rewarded with seaside charm and beautiful views of the surrounding area… even of Mount Fuji on a clear day.

100_1028

Looking from the end of the causeway towards the main pedestrian path. ©Photo by Jose Ramos, October 2008

About Enoshima: Technically a part of the city of Fujisawa, I passed through Enoshima on my first trip to Japan in 2004. Having spent most of my day in and around Kamakura (more on that in a bit), I was unable to visit Kamakura due to prior commitments. I made it a point on my second trip in 2008 to devote some time to this charming place.

Enoshima is best discovered on foot. Once you get close enough to the island, just take the walkway along the road. It’s a few minutes walk, but it’s better than taking a cab or vehicle… especially when the weather is nice and you can smell the salt breeze that brings memories of the South Shore of Long Island (well, that’s what it did for me at least), and especially during summer months when there can be traffic. Besides, there are not too many roads on Enoshima, and most of the island’s attractions and gems require that you go on your own feet.

As you ascend the island, you will encounter several Shinto shrines, all part of the same shrine complex. Enoshima Shrine is dedicated to the kami Benten, which is derived from a Buddhist goddess.

100_1046

This photo from the Samuel Cocking Garden shows the portions of the original garden’s foundation that were discovered during construction. © Photo by Jose Ramos, October 2008

Also of note is the Samuel Cocking Garden, home to a lovely botanical garden. It is named after the Englishman Samuel Cocking, who grew up in Australia and arrived in Japan soon after the country ended its over two-century long period of isolationism in the mid 1800’s. He created a botanical garden with a greenhouse, which was destroyed in the big Kanto earthquake of 1923. Parts of the original garden’s foundation were discovered in 2002. Today you can see a wide mix of plants and flora.

100_1037

Enoshima Sea Candle seen from the Samuel Cocking Garden. © Photo by Jose Ramos, October 2008

Also part of the complex is the relatively modern observation tower, known as Enoshima Sea Candle, with commanding views of the Pacific Ocean and Fujisawa City. As mentioned, you may be able to see Mount Fuji on a good day.

Finally, there are a couple of caves called the Iwaya Caves on the southern end of the island. Update: blog follower Okkie has provided some tips regarding the caves, saying that there are a lot of up and down steps to navigate, but you are given a candle to help light the way. You can see photos of the caves and of more destinations on Enoshima by visiting Okkie’s tumblr.

100_1030

Primary Entrance to Enoshima Escar. © Photo by Jose Ramos, October 2008

Did You Know: There are paid escalators on Enoshima Island? While you could spend some time and effort climbing steps to ascend the island, there are three sets of escalators that will make it extremely easy for you. Dubbed Enoshima Escar, this will shave some time from your trip and save 46 meters of climbing. The escalators only go UP, but I’m sure it’ll be a more pleasant journey walking DOWN at the end of your visit. It costs 360 yen for a ticket to cover all three sections; the Escar is also included in various combination tickets for visits to Enoshima Island.

100_1045

View of the walkway and road leading from Enoshima to Fujisawa City on the mainland, taken from Enoshima Sea Candle. ©Photo by Jose Ramos, October 2008

Costs: At Enoshima Shrine there is a small charge to view the shrine’s large Benten statue, but otherwise the shrine grounds are free. At the Samuel Cocking Garden the admission charge is 200 yen for the garden and 300 yen for the observation tower. The Iwaya Caves cost 500 yen to enter.

There is also a 1,000 yen Enoshima One-Day Passport that includes the Escar, the garden, the observation tower and the caves.

How To Get There: There are several options available to visit Enoshima. By train, it’s possible to get close to Enoshima to then complete your journey to the island on foot.

The closest train station to Enoshima is Katase-Enoshima Station on the private Odakyu Railway. A few minutes walk inland is Enoshima Station on the charming Enoshima Electric Railway, or Enoden, which connects to Fujisawa and Kamakura. Near the Enoden stop is the Shonan Monorail, an elevated transit line that runs to Ofuna station on the Japan Railway (JR).

Odakyu trains leave from Shinjuku on the western end of the Tokyo metropolis. It takes 70-90 minutes to reach Katase-Enoshima, with one or two train transfers required, at a cost of 630 yen each way.

Odakyu offers two excursion tickets for Enoshima: The Enoshima 1-Day Freepass covers a round-trip to Enoshima, the Escar, the garden, the observation tower and the caves for 1,970 yen. This represents a savings of 650 yen compared to purchasing individual tickets. They also offer a cheaper Freepass that combines the Odakyu train with a pass that allows use of the Enoden to visit nearby Kamakura. However, the latter Freepass does NOT include admission to the attractions on Enoshima.

For an additional charge, you can ride in a comfortable limited express train called the Romancecar, which I’m sure I’ve mentioned often on this blog. With comfortable reserved seats, you can reach the end of the line at Katase-Enoshima without switching, and not have to worry about crowded commuter trains. These services cost an extra 620 yen each way. On weekdays there are four return trips to/from Shinjuku, and on weekends and holidays there are trains every 1-2 hours. Be sure to check the timetables carefully to examine your options before using the Romancecar.

Japan Railways (JR) run a little further away from the access point to Enoshima, but can be considered because you can more easily access JR trains from around Tokyo, and because your trip costs nothing if you already have some sort of JR Rail Pass.

You can take a JR train to a few stations. Here are the recommendations along with fares:
* Fujisawa station allows you to connect with the Odakyu Railway to Katase-Enoshima Station, or with the private Enoden railway to Enoshima station. Katase-Enoshima is closer to Enoshima Island than the Enoden station.
Tokyo area to Fujisawa by JR: 970 yen (no charge with Rail Pass); Fujisawa to Katase-Enoshima by Odakyu: 160 yen. Approximate travel time from Tokyo Station 60-70 minutes.
* Ofuna station allows a connection to the Shonan Monorail. From the terminal of the monorail it’s a longer walk to Enoshima.
Tokyo area to Ofuna by JR: 800 yen (no charge with Rail Pass); Ofuna to Shonan-Enoshima by Monorail: 310 yen. Approximate travel time from Tokyo Station 60-70 minutes.
* Kamakura station allows a connection to the Enoden railway. From Enoshima Station it’s a longer walk to Enoshima island.
Tokyo area to Kamakura by JR: 920 yen (no charge with Rail Pass); Kamakura to Enoshima by Enoden: 260 yen. Approximate travel time from Tokyo Station 90 minutes.

JR also sells a one-day Kamakura-Enoshima Pass for 700 yen which includes unlimited trips on the Shonan Monorail and Enoden, and unlimited trips on the JR between Ofuna and Fujisawa.

Also, on weekends and holidays, there is a ferry that runs from the causeway to the Iwaya Caves. The ferry takes 10 minutes and costs 400 yen. It is another good way to save considerable travel time if you plan on spending a lot of time on the island.

100_1060

A small photo of some guy who runs this blog, from Enoshima Sea Candle. ©Photo by Jose Ramos, October 2008

What’s Nearby: I would highly recommend a trip on the Enoden to experience a leisurely trip through beautiful residential areas combined with a lovely stretch between stations that runs along the beach, which I experienced first hand. You can easily see surfers riding the waves along the line if it’s a good day!

If you have time, Kamakura is home to some important historical landmarks such as the large bronze statue of Buddha (daibutsu), Hasedera Temple and Hachiman-gu Shrine.

I highly recommend the Odakyu website to research some of the other wonderful destinations in the area, such as the Enoshima Aquarium, and to plan your trip to the area.

Posted by: jrhorse | January 30, 2017

Destination of the Week: Fushimi Inari Shrine

When you learn about Japan, you may see this as one of the country’s “trademark” images…. a seemingly endless stretch of bright red and orange gates going down a path and through the mountains. This is Fushimi Inari Taisha (shrine), which I had the chance to visit on my first trip to Japan in 2004.

640px-kyotofushimiinarilarge

Torii gates of Fushimi Inari. Photo by Paul Vlaar (Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0)

About Fushimi Inari: Located in the ancient capital city of Kyoto in central Japan, Fushimi Inari is the head shrine of the kami, or deity, called Inari. Inari is a commonly-used phrase to refer to foxes. But this kami is known in the Shinto religion as the one for industry, agriculture, fertility, sake and rice… which explains the name behind inari sushi – a type of sushi that uses cooked tofu wrapped around rice.

There are many thousands of Inari shrines spread all over Japan, but the main one in Kyoto is the one that you see in photos and travel guides with thousands of Shinto torii gates donated by Japanese businesses as a tribute to the deity.

Did you know: The foxes are said to be the messengers of the Inari deity, which is why foxes are referred to as such.

Costs: There are no admission charges to visit Fushimi Inari, and you can go whenever you want. The grounds are open every day, day and night. Though you’ll probably have better luck when the trains run. 🙂

While I highly recommend that you stroll out to Fushimi Inari on your own, there are paid guided tours out there that combine trips to the shrine with visits to other nearby shrines/temples, or with a trip to a sake brewery. Information on these tours can be found by doing an Internet search.

How to get there: The closest train station to Fushimi Inari shrine is JR Inari station. It is only 2 stops and 5 minutes away from Kyoto station by JR Nara Line local at a cost of 140 yen. It is also served by the private Keihan railway at nearby Fushimi-Inari station; it is possible to take Keihan here from either the eastern part of Kyoto, or cheaply from central Osaka (About 50 minutes and 400 yen).

Once you’ve made your way to the main entrance and start up the path, you can turn around and go back whenever you wish, but on my trip I decided to take the entire trip around the path and shrine grounds. Eventually the torii gates will come to an end and you will find yourself on residential streets a bit from where you started. Back in 2004, I used the sounds of trains running in the distance to help guide me back to where I started. Obviously with smartphones and GPS in today’s day and age, returning to your point of origin is a cinch.

What’s nearby: The stop between Kyoto Station and Fushimi Inari on the JR line is Tofukuji, a 10-minute walk to the famous Zen Buddhist temple of the same name. It is well worth a visit, but during the autumn it can get crowded for fall foliage viewing.

Posted by: jrhorse | January 24, 2017

Destination of the Week: Ryogoku Kokugikan

Greetings! In an effort to try and be more active on my Japan Travel Tips blog, I will be starting a new segment called the Destination of the Week. Every Monday or Tuesday I will try to choose one particular part of Japan to talk about, be it a city or an attraction.

The first destination in this series is appropriate to discuss because it deals with the Japanese sport – and tradition – of Sumo wrestling. Recently the Ozeki wrestler Kisenosato, a native of Ibaraki prefecture, won the first Sumo tournament in his long career. This effort, combined with his performance last year (despite not winning a tournament he won more Sumo bouts than any other wrestler), has made him eligible for promotion to the sport’s highest rank of Yokozuna. This is expected to happen later this week.

With a high-profile scandal damaging the sport’s reputation in 2011, there is no doubt Kisenosato’s efforts have aimed to positively promote the sport of Sumo, not just for tourists but for the Japanese themselves – there has not been a Japanese-born wrestler promoted to Yokozuna in almost 20 years.

So with Kisenosato’s promotion as a backdrop, the Destination of the Week is the Ryogoku Kokugikan, the home of Sumo.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Ryogoku Kokugikan in 2006. Photo from flickr/CC

About the Ryogoku Kokugikan: This building is actually just over 30 years old, having been completed in 1985. The original Kokugikan opened in 1909, but was taken over by Allied Forces at the end of World War II. Tournaments were relocated to other venues in following years, before another Kokugikan opened in Kuramae, north of the original site, in 1950. Kuramae Kokugikan hosted Sumo tournaments until the end of 1984, at which point they returned to their original location in a new facility.

While the Ryogoku Kokugikan also hosts other sporting events, including boxing and professional wrestling, it’s main purpose is to host three of the six annual Sumo tournaments in Japan – in January, May and September. Each tournament lasts 15 days, with the Emperor’s Cup trophy going to the top-division wrestler with the most wins.

Did You Know: The Kokugikan is also home to the Sumo Museum, which helps to preserve and cultivate the sport. Located on the first floor of the Kokugikan, the museum is open on weekdays, except national holidays, from 10 AM to 4:30 PM.

Costs: If you visit the Kokugikan when there is NO tournament in progress, admission is free to everyone! But during tournaments admission is only open to those actually attending the tournament.

Purchasing tickets to Sumo tournaments requires some skill, especially for tourists. In most cases you have the option to purchase either regular seats on the upper level of the Kokugikan, or tatami-style box seating on the main level. Ringside seats are the most expensive to get, but as you’re the closest to the action there is no food or drink allowed in the ringside seats!

In recent years, sales of tickets in English have been possible through the Japan Sumo Association via their official ticketing website. Purchased tickets can be picked up at will call on the day you are scheduled to visit. Tickets should be purchased as soon as the ticketing window opens, as they are very popular… for example, in the January 2017 tournament all 15 days were eventually sold out.

There are other agencies whom you can purchase tickets from, but at a mark-up. One example is Buy Sumo Tickets, who will attempt to purchase tickets for you on your behalf. Their service charge is 1,200 yen for each ticket purchased. You can pick up your tickets at a 7-Eleven store in Japan, or they can be mailed to either your place of stay in Japan or to your residence overseas for an additional charge.

JTB, one of the top tour agencies in Japan, offers Sumo tickets starting at 9,500 yen per person. The tours includes a visit to the Sumo museum and a view of the day’s main bouts from the upper level reserved seating, accompanied by an English-speaking guide. For an additional charge you can enjoy eating chanko nabe – the protein-rich stew that is the traditional meal of Sumo wrestlers – after the matches are done. Bookings can be done through the Japanican.com website.

How to get there: The JR Sobu Line (the Yellow Line) stops at Ryogoku station, within a short walking distance of the Kokugikan. The Sobu Line connects with the Yamanote Line at Akihabara, two stops away, and with Shinjuku on the other end of the city.

What’s nearby: A short distance from the Kokugikan is the Edo-Tokyo Museum, which aims to show the Tokyo from centuries ago. (admission is charged)

Posted by: jrhorse | January 18, 2017

New Trusted Traveler Program in Japan

UPDATE: There were a few other rules to Japan’s Trusted Traveler program that I was not aware of. The information has been reflected in this updated post.

Welcome to the first post of 2017 on the Japan Tips blog. My thanks once again to those who have supported this page and I hope that your year will be full of happiness, good cheer… and maybe a trip to Japan!

Long time followers to this blog know that I do not answer questions about Japanese immigration (see the disclaimer) but for this post I will address one immigration topic that has come to light in recent months – and may just very well be a good thing for those looking to bypass immigration queues more quickly at the airport.

A few months ago, Japan started a Trusted Traveler Program. Like several other countries, including the United States, the purpose of the Trusted Traveler Program is to allow pre-screened, low-risk travelers the opportunity to bypass the lines for immigration and/or customs counters at certain ports of entry by allowing them to use computer kiosks. These kiosks will typically take your photo, scan your fingerprints and allow you to answer immigration/customs declaration questions before allowing you to proceed. I signed up for the US’ version of Trusted Traveler, Global Entry, in 2014. It’s probably the best $100 spent… since not only can I use kiosks entering the US, I also can get expedited security screening via TSA PreCheck.

In Japan’s case, eligibility for their version of Trusted Traveler is quite different. You must satisfy both criteria:
1) You must have visited Japan twice in the last 12 months, have not been deported from Japan, are visiting from a country where a visa to enter Japan is not required, and will be visiting for short-term business, sightseeing, or to visit relatives.
2) You must also prove that you work for a large business, or visit on business related to the Japanese government or a Japanese business.

If you are a United States citizen and are already enrolled in the US Trusted Traveler Program “Global Entry” then the business requirement (#2 above) is waived.

To sign up for the program, you must first go to the website for Japanese Immigration to submit an application. There are two steps: The first occurs during the online registration process. Once your online registration is approved, you then have three months to fly to Japan and complete an in-person interview with an immigration official who will take your photograph and fingerprints. The interview is done after you have cleared landing formalities, so you will have to go through the standard immigration queues.

During the interview you will have to pay a fee of 2,200 yen (About $20 USD with the current exchange rate). When the interview is completed, you will receive a registered user card that will allow you to use the automated gates wherever they are available – currently Narita and Haneda airports in the Tokyo area, Chubu Centrair airport in the Nagoya area, and Kansai airport in the Osaka area. The card is valid for either three years or until the expiration of your passport, whichever is shorter.

Note that this automated gates only cover the immigration portion of the arrival procedures. Customs, from my understanding, is a different story and you will need to go through those channels in the usual way.

This sounds like an excellent program to take advantage of, especially for those who already have Global Entry. However, as a Global Entry member I am still required to visit Japan at least twice a year before I receive the card, so this program would not be of good use to me.

For those who make trips to Japan on a regular basis for business, pleasure or family, Japan’s Trusted Traveler Program may be a wise investment.

HT to Brad on Travel Codex for his post on the topic today.

Older Posts »

Categories