Posted by: jrhorse | September 23, 2011

The Good and Bad of Visiting Japan – September 2011

Greetings to all viewers of my Japan Tips blog. It’s September 2011, about three months or so since my last blog post. Many events have happened personally over the last 3 months which is why I’m tardy in this post. A big thank you to everyone for supporting this blog and a special thank you to those who have kept me informed about the travel situation in Japan.

As I write this blog on September 23, 2011, there are good and bad things about visiting the wonderful country of Japan. The good is that most of Japan is back to normal following the March earthquake and tsunami. Tourism areas – except some directly affected by said disaster – are back to normal. The demand for electricity has passed the summer peak, and train services that had been cutting back and using power saving measures have returned to their regular timetables. All Narita Express and Skyliner trains, for example, have resumed normal service, and in fact as of Today the Tohoku Shinkansen, which suffered significant damage, completes all repairs in a span of 195 days and returns to a regular operating timetable.

Then there is the bad, which some people like myself find hard to fathom. With the way the economy is, the US Dollar is so weak and the Japanese Yen is so strong. The latest check as of this writing was 76.26 yen to the dollar. There appears to be little chance that the yen will reverse course against the dollar in the short term, which leaves serious questions about whether or not a trip to Japan is feasible at this time. If you have lots of money, then it’s a consideration. If not, then you may have to wait for the economy to rebound – or if you really have the passion or desire to go, you will have to search all around the Internet to get the best deals for your trip. You may have to make some sacrifices – for example, spending your entire trip in Tokyo instead of venturing out into other cities for example.

Airfare is perhaps the biggest cost that one will face at the moment, which is why a prospective tourist may want to look into frequent flyer programs and credit cards that come with them. A plus is that some airlines are now offering special perks for using their credit card: for example Delta Air Lines Gold Credit Card holders now have the benefit of priority boarding even if they are sitting in the middle of Economy… which is good if you want to jump on board and snatch that space in the overhead luggage bin before somebody else does.

Here are some of the sample airfares that I have looked up from New York and Los Angeles. From New York the lowest airfare at the moment is offered by Japan Airlines at $1147 + taxes (Approx $1243) for travel by December 15. Interestingly enough the lowest fare I quoted for that round trip was broken down as $477 for the airfare, $670 in fuel surcharges, and the rest in other taxes (PFC’s, etc). After that you’ll be looking to spend at least $1300 to travel to Tokyo by way of Delta Airlines. From Los Angeles Korean Air offers the cheapest round trip fare at $710 + tax for travel through November 15, thereafter going up to $779 for travel through December 8. It’s important to note that these airfares will likely go down a little bit starting in October when lower fuel surcharges go into effect.

Can we find a deal that’s somewhat more reasonable? A search on Kayak gives us a trip to Tokyo on Air China, flying from New York and flying via Beijing. A random query in November offers a round-trip for $927 including taxes on Vayama.com. Note however that this round trip takes an incredible amount of time… you leave New York on Day 1, arrive in Beijing at night on Day 2, then stay overnight in Beijing and then depart for Tokyo on Day 3. A similar situation exists on the return trip. The benefit is, of course, the lower fare… also keep in mind that if you connect in Beijing you do not require some sort of Chinese visa.

In the past we have mentioned that a second option exists for visits to Tokyo – flying to the closer Haneda airport instead of Narita. Air China offers flights to Haneda from Beijing at a reasonable hour compared to nonstops from the US that generally arrive in Haneda very late in the evening.

What about flying into another airport on another airline? China Airlines offers a November trip from New York to Osaka’s Kansai Airport for $1030 including all taxes and fees… this is a service that was initiated a few months ago on China Airlines, which flies three times per week from New York nonstop to Osaka, then on to Taiwan. You can find the same trip for flying in January. You can then use the money saved on something like the Japan Rail Pass to travel to Tokyo or anywhere around Japan.

Now that the airfare is settled, it’s time to look into hotels. With the way the economy is going, what seems to be a budget option may in fact turn out to be a huge expense… a business hotel that runs 7,500 yen per night, for example, will set you back $100. Once again, check carefully. Now is a good time to search for hotels, as Japan is recovering from the March Earthquake and Tsunami and is attempting to lure prospective travelers with interesting deals. You can search through my earlier blog articles for the different types of accomodations that are available.

For Transportation, you will want to make a list of destinations that you would like to visit, then see if purchasing some sort of rail pass or discount ticket will make the cost cheaper for you. The Japan Rail Pass is good for making a lot of train trips in a short amount of time, but if you plan to focus on a specific area of Japan, then something like an all-day city bus or train pass may do the trick. Also, if you have lots of time on your hands, Willer Express offers the Japan Bus Pass, which allows you to take a certain number of long-distance bus journeys at very low rates.

If you do decide to get a Japan Rail Pass, then I continue to offer the suggestion of doing a split overnight trip to your next long-range destination. For a long-distance journey from Tokyo, for example, you can take an evening bullet train and stop at a non-descript city where you are likely to find cheap, no-frills accomodations before continuing to your destination on the first train the next day.

I now offer updated example itineraries of my… er… example.

TOKYO west to KANSAI (i.e. Kyoto, Osaka)
Leave on a Hikari service departing Tokyo at 8:03 PM, arriving in Hamamatsu at 9:38 PM. Stay at the Toyoko Inn in Hamamatsu for as low as 4000 yen for a solo traveller or 3500 yen per person double occupancy. In the morning, leave on the 6:32 AM Kodama service which will get you to Kyoto just before 8 AM, and Shin-Osaka just before 8:15 AM. You can just hop onto almost any car of the Kodama train with your rail pass, as the seats are unreserved except for First Class (Green Class)… if you have a Green Car rail pass, reserving the Green Car for this service is the plan.

TOKYO west to CHUGOKU, KYUSHU and SHIKOKU (i.e. Hiroshima, Fukuoka)
Leave on a Hikari service departing Tokyo at 6:03 PM, and arrive in the city of Aioi (which is not one of the top cities that comes up in tourism books) at 10:07 PM. A new Toyoko Inn just opened near there offering rooms for as low as 4980 yen solo or 3740 yen per person double occupancy. The first bullet train, a Kodama, leaves from Aioi at 6:50 AM; a quick connection at the next station – Okayama – to a Hikari service will bring you onward to Hiroshima and Fukuoka on the island of Kyushu. Change at Fukuyama Station instead and you can pick up the Sakura service that runs further into Kyushu; you can get all the way down to Kagoshima by 11:30 in the morning. A transfer at Okayama will also get you to the trains that run across the Seto Sea to the island of Shikoku.

TOKYO north to HOKKAIDO
Leave on a Hayate service departing Tokyo at 7:56 PM, and arrive at Hachinohe at 10 PM. Stay at Hachinohe’s Toyoko Inn for 4480 yen per solo traveller or 3240 yen per person double occupancy. The next morning take the 7:28 AM all stations Hayate to Shin-Aomori, then connect to the Super Hakucho which will bring you to Hakodate, at the southern part of Hokkaido, by 10:30 AM.

I am more than happy to answer any questions about travel to Japan. Although I haven’t done much actual travel in Japan, I research everything about Japan travel in my spare time and so I will do my best to find the answers to any questions.

Thanks for reading. Ganbare Nippon!

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