February 5th Update: Please read my latest post which talks about the official decisions regarding the Japan Rail Pass.
It’s the end of January, and train travel in Japan is reaching another milestone: the opening of the final segment of the Kyushu Shinkansen, which is scheduled to take place on March 12, 2011.
With this comes some new, distinct bullet train services for the busy bullet train corridor linking Osaka with Kagoshima at the southern end of the main Japanese archipelago: the “Mizuho” and the “Sakura”.
I’ve been checking on a regular basis to see how the Japan Rail Pass will be affected by these new services. As you may or may not know, the Japan Rail Pass is good to use for all of Japan’s bullet train services, with the notable exception of “Nozomi” trains. The “Mizuho” has been designated as a Nozomi-type service by Japan Railways; in other words, the “Mizuho” will only make stops at major cities just like the “Nozomi” does. The “Sakura”, meanwhile, is the “Hikari” type, making a few more stops than the “Mizuho” will. There will also be different versions of the “Sakura”, with one running from Osaka to Kagoshima and the other restricted mainly to Kyushu (Fukuoka-Kagoshima).
Japan Railways has not yet made an official announcement regarding the validity of the pass on these new services, although my guess is that this decision has already been made. Some of the Japan travel sites are assuming the pass will be valid on “Sakura” trains but not “Mizuho” trains, just as it is valid on “Hikari” services but not the “Nozomi”. I am hoping that this information will be made available by February 12, which is when reservations for the new “Mizuho” and “Sakura” trains will start to be taken in Japan.
When it is known for sure what the Rail Pass will and will not cover, I will embark on a project to update the Japan Rail Pass connection chart. This will be an ambitious project to say the least, and I can’t guarantee that I’ll have it completed in a timely manner. But I hope that this project, when it is made available, will make it easier for Japan Rail Pass holders to travel quicklyand easily along the Tokyo-Osaka-Fukuoka-Kagoshima bullet train corridor with services that the Rail Pass holders will be permitted to use.
In the meantime, I’ve discovered a few more travel deals, as well as a bit of news for those living in the northeast. China Airlines, the flag airline of the Republic of China (better known as Taiwan) will be rerouting its 3x weekly service from New York’s JFK Airport to Taipei. Currently the plane stops over in Anchorage, Alaska, but starting in late April of this year the plane will make a stop in Osaka, Japan. This will be the first ever nonstop plane service offered to Osaka’s Kansai Airport from the East Coast of the United States. The only problem is, according to the JNTO website, the flight to Osaka will depart from JFK at 2:10 AM, arriving in Osaka at 5:30 AM the next day. The return leaves Osaka at 9:50 PM and lands at JFK at 10 PM the same day. But the good news, in the long term, is that China Airlines will be joining the Skyteam alliance of airlines later this year. When that happens, Skyteam frequent flier members (including Delta Airlines) will be able to earn and redeem miles on China Airlines flights. If you do not mind the redeye departure and arrival times flying westbound to Osaka, this may be a flight option worth considering, especially if your plans mainly focus on western Japan or the Kansai region (i.e. Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, Nara).
Some other travel deals and interesting tour packages as of this writing:
JTB Corp. is offering a special “Hanami” guided tour package for foreigners who want to enjoy Japan’s signature cherry blossom season. The package with airfare goes for $1,885+tax from Los Angeles and $2,059+tax from New York, and includes airfare from the US to Tokyo, a three night stay in Tokyo including a full-day guided tour, a one-way bullet train trip to Kyoto, three nights in Kyoto, and airfare from Osaka back to the US. Land packages only are available for $1,180. The prices are per person, double occupancy, and the tour commences with departure from the US on Wednesday, March 23.
Also being offered by JTB is the annual Anime Otaku tour package that coincides with the 2011 Tokyo International Anime Fair. The package includes 5 nights in Tokyo, including two days of Anime-themed guided tours in Akihabara and Nakano, and a one-day pass to the Tokyo International Anime Fair. The tour begins with departure from the US on Tuesday, March 22. With round-trip airfare the package costs $1,585+tax from Los Angeles and $1,745+tax from New York. The land package only goes for $860. The prices are per person, double occupancy.
If you live in Los Angeles, Singapore Airlines Vacations is offering a good deal for trips to Tokyo on its new Airbus A380 plane. The A380 Fabulous Tokyo Package starts as low as $1,249+tax per person, double occupancy, and includes round-trip airfare to Tokyo on the Singapore A380, airport transfers, five nights at the Tokyo Hilton and a half-day sightseeing tour. The package must be purchased by April 15.
You’ll be hearing from me next time with the official word on the Rail Pass and more details about the Kyushu Shinkansen.