Travel to Japan – What’s Next?

It seems like it has been ages since I last published a post here on my travel blog. Unfortunately, we are still in the midst of a pandemic that is choking our world and delaying many well-deserved holidays and vacations. COVID is still a threat as of this writing, and my thoughts and prayers are with those that have been affected, especially the first responders that continue to put themselves on the line.

If COVID wasn’t a thing, I would be in Japan this coming December. Soon after the threat of COVID became a reality, Japan slowly closed its borders, enacting one of the strictest entry bans in the world: No foreign nationals who have stayed in most countries and territories affected by the virus – 159, as of this writing – are being allowed to enter Japan in principle, except for extraordinary circumstances. Those foreign nationals who lived in Japan and left the country were generally not permitted to come back.

In recent months, Japan has begun to allow some foreigners to enter or re-enter the country. Foreigners with permanent resident status in Japan were allowed to re-enter Japan earlier this month. In recent weeks, business travelers and long-term residents from certain Asian countries where the virus was deemed to be under control were permitted to enter Japan.

Those allowed to enter Japan are required to follow a strict framework:

  1. Apply for permission (i.e. permit) to enter or re-enter Japan from the local Japanese embassy or consulate.
  2. Take a COVID PCR test within 72 hours of departure, and receive proof of a certified negative result.
  3. Take a second COVID PCR test after landing at an airport in Japan with a negative result.
  4. Self-quarantine at a residence, hotel, or other designated facility for 14 days, avoiding the use of public transportation (certain short-term business travelers do not have to quarantine if they submit their travel plans to the Japanese government in advance).
  5. Install a contact tracing app on their smartphone.

In the last week, the new Japanese government led by new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga was formed. Suga was the Chief Cabinet Secretary for former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who stepped down for health reasons. Suga appears to be placing a priority on revitalizing the economy, telling a government panel on September 25 that it is “indispensable to resume international travel.” To that end, Japan has decided that starting in October, entry restrictions will be lifted on all foreign nationals who will enter the country for purposes other than tourism or short-term stays. (source: Kyodo News)

Those who intend to stay in Japan for at least 90 days for professional purposes (i.e. students, medical, cultural, sports-related activities) will be permitted to enter Japan, provided they follow the new protocols for permit application, COVID testing, entry and quarantine.

Entry into Japan for tourism will still not be permitted for the time being, as will stays of less than 90 days unless it is for business purposes.

This news is a positive step for foreigners wishing to go to one of the most beautiful places in the world. However, absent of further mitigation and treatment of COVID-19, it will likely be some time before Japan reopens its gates to international tourism.

In the coming weeks I hope to share my thoughts on some things you can check out when visiting Japan… when it is permitted and it is safe to do so.

Stay health and safe, and thanks so much for your continued support of this blog.

QR Codes coming to the Japan Rail Pass

As I have mentioned in previous posts (here and here), Japan Railways (JR) is planning to make a cosmetic change to the appearance to the national Japan Rail Pass.

Given that the coronavirus pandemic is still an issue, JR is still planning to implement the Rail Pass changes on June 1, 2020 as of the time of this post.

The newly upgraded Japan Rail Pass will turn the pass into a magnetic ticket. You will be able to use the ticket to pass through automatic ticket gates at JR stations as opposed to using the manned gates. Furthermore, you will be able to use ticket reservation machines at JR stations to make a free seat reservation or pick up existing reservations.

It appears from images just recently posted on the Japan Rail Pass website that access to the machines will be a two-step process. All of the new Japan Rail Pass tickets will be printed with a QR code on them. To access, you will select the Japan Rail Pass option on the home screen and hold up your ticket’s QR code to the machine’s QR scanner. (If there is no QR scanner then you will type in the ticket number on your rail pass using the touch screen.) After that, you will enter your passport number to confirm that you are the owner of the ticket.

Entering your passport number into the machine might cause concern for a few, though I believe the option will still exist of going to a manned counter to make seat reservations if needed.

Regardless, you will have to go to a manned counter once in order to receive the actual rail pass. You will be asked to show your passport to the clerk to confirm your eligibility, and you will also be required to turn in your exchange voucher or show proof of payment.

As mentioned before, the Japan Rail Pass will be sold directly by JR on a dedicated website. The prices will be in Japanese Yen and will be slightly higher than the prices for exchange vouchers. However, one perk of purchasing your pass through JR directly is that you will have access to JR’s reservation system to make free seat reservations beforehand if you wish, within the validity of your pass.

The exchange voucher system will be in place until at least 2023. Exchange vouchers are sold by authorized travel agencies and retailers in your local country (in person and online) and in your local currency, plus any markups/shipping fees that may be added by the seller. It appears to have been clarified – contrary to earlier posts – that even if you use an exchange voucher, you will still receive a Japan Rail Pass ticket with a QR code, you can still use a ticket machine to make seat reservations and pick up reservations after receiving your pass, and you can still use the automatic ticket gates. However, you cannot make advance train reservations before your trip and must wait until you arrive in Japan to make the reservations.

It might make sense, then, to purchase directly through JR if there is a specific train or two you would like to reserve in advance, or if you are traveling when it might be busy and a seat reservation might be hard to obtain at the last minute. Otherwise, purchasing an exchange voucher the old way may save you some money.

Remember that in some instances you may not need a reserved seat ticket… if you are able to access non-reserved seating then you can simply walk into a non-reserved car and find any open seat. Your Japan Rail Pass will be enough for the journey.

Also, don’t forget that depending on your situation, you might not need to get a Japan Rail Pass. Please read my post on whether or not the Japan Rail Pass is right for you.

Learning more about the advantages the refreshed Japan Rail Pass offers gives me more inspiration to plan for my next Japan trip… whenever it happens.

Will you take advantage of the new Japan Rail Pass product? Let me know in the comments below.

So You’ve Landed In Japan – Arrival Procedures

Back in… 2014 (?!) I did a blog series called “So You’ve Landed in Japan.” One of the posts ended up turning into my most popular post on this entire blog. The post is with regards to Customs and Immigration and discussed the procedures a traveler faces when entering Japan from another international destination.

Looking back on that post, I feel as if the title of the post was a little misleading. Most of the comments on the post were specific questions about immigration status, visa inquiries, and that sort of thing. This blog is meant to offer advice on travel to Japan, but in no way am I qualified to handle specific immigration questions.

Based on this, and because arrival procedures and forms have changed in recent years, I’ve decided to renew this post and title it, more appropriately, Arrival Procedures.

At the outset, I wish to reiterate that if you have any specific questions about Japanese immigration or visas, please contact your local Japanese embassy or consulate. I will discuss this information in a very broad scope (as I did in the previous post) but, again, I am not equipped to answer specific questions on this. A great resource is on the web site of Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The link to all of their consulates and embassies can be found here. Please contact them for all of your specific inquiries. I’ve updated the site-wide disclaimer with this information as well.

Prerequisites

Of course, before visiting Japan, you will need a Passport and, in certain circumstances, you will also need a visa. People visiting Japan from 68 countries and regions do not require a visa if visiting as a tourist, or if visiting relatives, attending conferences, etc. All but four of these are eligible for visa exemptions of 90 days. If you are engaging in paid work in Japan, or if you will be staying in the country longer than the amount of time granted for a visa exemption, you will have to apply for a visa.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs maintains a list of countries and regions eligible for visa exemptions.

Forms to fill out

Many international travelers are used to filling out immigration and/or customs forms to be submitted upon arrival to wherever they are going. Many countries are starting to phase out physical paperwork in favor of automatic kiosks. Japan, with some exceptions, still uses paperwork.

Visitors to Japan typically fill out two or three different forms prior to their arrival.

  • All visitors fill out a disembarkation form for immigration (one per person) and a customs form (one per family).
  • If you are bringing pets or plant/animal products into Japan, you will have to fill out a quarantine form. Visitors from certain parts of the world with health concerns may also have to fill out a quarantine form or questionnaire.

Unlike countries where one entity handles all entry procedures (such as Customs and Border Protection in the United States), Japan has separate ones:

  • Pet, Animal and Plant Quarantine is under the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries
  • Health Quarantine is under the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare
  • Immigration had been its own ministry until 2019, and is now under the Ministry of Justice
  • Customs is under the Ministry of Finance (which includes the Customs and Tariff Bureau).

Disembarkation Form (Immigration)

japanimmigrationform (2)Shown here is a photo of the new disembarkation card that Japan has been using since 2016. Each passenger should fill out their own disembarkation card.

Let’s go through each of the steps to fill out.

Fill out your family name and given names as they are listed on your passport, your date of birth (in the form of day, month and year) and the country and city where you currently reside. You do not need to enter a passport number, gender or nationality, which was the case with previous versions of the form.

Check the box next to the purpose of your visit. Most visitors will select the box for tourists.

Next to this, you’ll see Last Flight No./Vessel. Write down the flight number (or vessel if you arrive by boat) that you used to enter Japan. For example, if you were flying into Japan on United Airlines Flight 79 from Newark, New Jersey, you’d write down either United 79 or UA 79 in this box.

Below this, write down the number of days you plan to stay in Japan.

The next field asks for your intended address in Japan. The rule of thumb I’ve always used is to enter the first location that you plan to stay in when visiting the country. If you will go from the airport to a friend’s residence, enter their residence here and their telephone number. Otherwise, if you are going to a hotel, enter the hotel name, address and telephone number as best as you can. Even if you are staying in multiple locations, just write down the first one you will be using.

The last few questions must be asked to comply with the laws of Japan, so you have to answer them:

  • Have you ever been deported or refused entry into Japan?
  • Have you ever been convicted of a crime in Japan or another country?
  • Are you in possession of controlled substances, guns, bladed weapons or gunpowder?

Sign your disembarkation form, and that’s it!

Customs Form

japancustomsformHere is a photo of form C5360-B, otherwise known as the Declaration of Personal Effects and Unaccompanied Articles, or the Customs Declaration. Note that this is a double-sided form; both sides are shown here.

Here you will fill out some of the same details you entered on the immigration form, plus a few other particulars.

In addition to your flight or vessel number, you will need to write down the point of embarkation, or in other words, the location you departed from to enter Japan. For our example of United Flight 79, you’d write down Newark.

Here you must also enter your nationality, occupation, passport, and number of family members traveling with you. Remember that one customs declaration can be submitted per family.

Next, answer the questions about articles you are bringing into Japan. Follow the instructions to declare this information on the back of the form if necessary.

The back of the form will include the duty-free allowance per person for items being brought into Japan, along with a list of prohibited and restricted articles.

Once you have completed the form, all that’s left to do is to sign it.

Quarantine Form

If you are entering Japan with pets, or with plant/animal products, you will have to fill out specific quarantine forms. Please visit the website of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries for more information on this type of quarantine.

Depending on health circumstances, some visitors may also be asked to fill out a health quarantine form or questionnaire. This varies depending on the situation. For example, as of this post (25 February 2020) there are concerns about the coronavirus outbreak, and some information published by the Japanese Embassy in New York suggests that quarantine forms are being circulated asking passengers if they have visited, or plan to visit, certain regions of China within 14 days of their arrival into Japan.

Entry Procedures

Now that all of the paperwork is done, let’s look into the steps of arriving into Japan.

When you step off of a plane or boat, your entry procedures will follow these basic steps:

  • Health Quarantine
  • Immigration
  • Baggage Claim
  • Pet / Animal / Plant Quarantine
  • Customs

The first step is health quarantine. Most passengers entering Japan will walk by an infrared scanner which checks your body temperature. If a quarantine officer notices anything amiss, you will be asked to enter the health consultation room and speak to a doctor. You can also voluntarily check in to this room if you feel sick or unwell for any reason. If you were handed a health quarantine form/questionnaire, you will probably be asked to submit it here.

Immigration is the next step. Step up when you are called, one person at a time, to the immigration officer. Submit your passport, your disembarkation form, and your visa if required. The immigration officer will check your documents, take your photo and collect your fingerprints. You might also be asked a few questions to determine your entry status. The officer will then stamp your passport and you can then proceed to baggage claim to collect your checked belongings. Note that in a few locations, you might be checked by a clerk before you arrive at the immigration desk to take your photograph and fingerprints… this happened to me at Narita during my last trip in 2017.

If you have pets, or plant/animal products, this is the point where you will check in to the respective quarantine desk to handle those procedures.

The last step is to go to customs. As with most countries, there will be a green channel if you have nothing to declare or within duty-free exemptions, and a red channel if you have items to declare or if you are not sure. Whatever the case, you will speak to another manned officer at customs. Here the officer will check your passport and review your customs declaration. Remember, customs has the right to search your belongings to ensure there are no prohibited or restricted articles. The officer may ask you some questions, such as where you are from, and if you have any items to declare. One time, I was asked about my precise itinerary when I was in the country. There is a cashier nearby if you need to pay any duty.

If you are in doubt about anything that you are bringing into Japan, visit the red channel.

acs-drugs-medications-infographic-1

On a side note, do remember that Japan has strict laws with regard to certain drugs and medications, as the above graphic from the U.S. Department of State indicates. For example, stimulants cannot be brought into Japan under any circumstances. Visitors to Japan may not be aware that certain over-the-counter or behind-the-counter medications use to treat pain, decongestion, cold/flu, ADHD and depression cannot be brought in to Japan. So leave your Sudafed, Actifed, NyQuil and Vicks inhalers at home, and don’t bring medicine containing things such as codeine, pseudoephedrine, phenylephrine, dexamphetamine or anything with HCl (hydrochloride) in the name. Also, even though marijuana and CBD/THC oils are gaining popularity in a lot of places, these are also illegal in Japan. You could be detained by Customs (or worse) if you are caught with these drugs and medications.

Certain prescription medications may also have to be declared in advance… please consult your local Japanese embassy or consulate for more information. Alternatively, you can e-mail your inquiries directly to the Japanese government at this e-mail: yakkan@mhlw.go.jp.

You’ve arrived!

Congratulations, and welcome to Japan!

There are just a few more things you may want to be aware about when it comes to arrival procedures:

International Transit

If you are landing in an airport in Japan for the purpose of changing to another international flight, and you do not plan to leave the airport, you do not need to go through immigration and customs procedures in Japan. All that is required is another security check. Remember the restrictions on liquids… if you have any duty-free liquids on your person that are not in tamper evident bags, they will be confiscated at the transit security checkpoint.

If you are a connecting to a domestic flight, or if you are changing from one airport to another (i.e changing from a flight landing at Narita to a flight departing from Haneda), you’ll need to undergo customs and immigration.

Automated Immigration Kiosk

Japan’s major ports of entry (i.e. the major airports) have automated kiosks for entry into Japan. However, while major countries have some kind of automatic kiosks in place, Japan’s kiosks are not available for all foreigners. You must enroll in a special trusted traveler program and meet specific requirements, one of which states that you must have visited Japan at least twice in the last twelve months. Aside from this, only Japanese nationals and foreigners residing in Japan currently qualify to use the automated kiosks.

Videos on Arrival Procedures

Japan Airlines has some links on their website to videos about arrival procedures for JAL flights into Japan’s four major international airports of Haneda, Narita, Chubu Centrair and Kansai. Visit JAL’s excellent Guide to Japan, and from that page, click on “More Fun”, select “Travel Information” and scroll down to the Immigration Guidance section. Just don’t mind the (rather catchy) elevator music.

UPDATE April 3, 2020: Japan Airlines has recently updated their website, so the above link to the immigration guidance videos MIGHT be going away soon.

I hope this post answers your questions about arrival procedures in Japan.

Once again, if you have any detailed questions about immigration, customs, visas, etc., please contact your local Japanese embassy or consulate. Such questions will NOT be answered on this blog.

This article was written in February 2020 and is accurate at the time of publication, subject to the site-wide disclaimer.

Images of Japanese immigration and customs documentation are public domain pursuant to Article 13(ii) of the Copyright Law of Japan.

The graphic about prohibited drugs in Japan is from the United States Department of State and is public domain pursuant to Title 17, Section 105 of the United States Code.

More Details on Japan Rail Pass Changes – Prices Increasing

As I wrote in a previous post, changes are coming to the Japan Rail Pass this year. Originally announced in December, it will soon be easier to use the Rail Pass in Japan when it comes to purchasing, seat reservations, ticket collection and entering/exiting the JR system.

The JR Group put out another news release in Japanese on Monday, February 17, which details more information about the changes that will be coming. I’ve done my best to try to decipher the details from the press release. The most important part to take away is that the prices of the Japan Rail Pass under the new system will be increasing.

The new Japan Rail Pass

*The official launch date for the “new and improved” Japan Rail Pass will be June 1, 2020. 

A new official website will be launched, www.japanrailpass-reservation.net … you can’t access it now as of this writing (February 2020) but it will be activated by Japan Railways prior to the launch date.

*Under the new system, you can purchase Japan Rail Passes online through the website. Once purchased, you will have up to one month to receive the pass. (Under the exchange order system you have three months to swap an exchange order for the pass)

*The prices for the Japan Rail Pass under the new system will be increasing. For the last few years, Japan Railways has trialed purchases of the Japan Rail Pass inside Japan at higher rates compared to purchasing an exchange order overseas and then exchanging it for the pass.

For example, a 7-day Standard Adult Rail Pass purchased in advance (via exchange order) currently costs 29,650 yen. If you wait to purchase it in Japan, it costs 33,610 yen.

The cost for Japan Rail Pass under the new system will be increased to the prices currently charged if purchasing a pass inside Japan. So, for example, if you purchase a 7-day Standard Adult Rail Pass in advance under the new system, it will cost 33,610 yen (up almost 4,000 yen from the previous cost).

*Once you have purchased a Japan Rail Pass through the new website, you can use the same website to make advanced seat reservations for trains. Reservations can be made between 4:00 and 23:30 Japan Time every day, which are the times that the regular JR reservation system is available.

*As stated previously, you must make one trip to a manned counter (such as a ticket office, or one of the travel service centers for foreigners) to pick up your Japan Rail Pass. At that point, your passport will be checked for eligibility… if your passport does not show you are a “Temporary Visitor” then you cannot receive the pass.

After your visit to the manned counter and receive your pass, you will be able to use ticket vending machines for reservations/pickup, and you will be able to use automatic ticket gates to enter and exit the JR system.

*The new system will only be available to foreign nationals. If you are a Japanese national, you must continue to use the exchange voucher system. It looks like the exchange voucher system will be available for at least three more years (until December 2023). If you still use the exchange voucher system, then many of the new features of the Japan Rail Pass might not be available for you to use.

My thoughts?

The upgrades to the Japan Rail Pass, while sorely needed after so many years, will now come at an increased cost. The new web site for purchases and reservations appears to be tied directly into Japan Railways’ reservation systems, thus the reason why the “buy the pass inside Japan” price will apply. While still providing great value, you now need to plot out your JR journeys even more than before to see if a national rail pass is justified.

For example, the old rule of thumb was that a 7-Day Standard Adult Rail Pass could cover your trip from Tokyo to Kyoto or Osaka and back. (A 28,800 yen round-trip reserved ticket between Tokyo and Osaka for a 29,650 yen Rail Pass.) This will no longer necessarily be the case if you choose to order a rail pass through the new system. 

One could argue that even with the new prices, a round-trip on the Narita Express between Narita Airport and Tokyo will be enough. However, remember that many international flights will be switching their Tokyo flights from Narita Airport to Haneda Airport at the end of March 2020, thanks to the addition of new arrival/departure routes and landing slots.

If you think that a trip to Japan is just Tokyo and Kyoto/Osaka, you’re wrong. Why limit yourself to Tokyo and Kansai when you can see much more?

For example, from the Kansai area, you could:
*Make an easy day trip to Himeji, home to one of Japan’s oldest surviving castles.
*Head to the picturesque traditional landscapes in Okayama or Kurashiki.
*Visit the Peace Park and museum in Hiroshima.
*Double back and spend a day in Nagoya, Japan’s third-largest city, which many tourists may skip over on the trip between Tokyo and Kansai.
*Cross the Seto-Ohashi Bridge into Shikoku and climb the 785 steps to the main shrine of Konpira-san in Kotohira, or visit the much-adored Ritsurin Garden in Takamatsu.

Do one of these day trips using the Shinkansen in and out of Kansai and your 7 Day Standard Pass will be more than justified. Just remember… your Rail Pass still won’t be valid on the fastest bullet train services, the Nozomi or the Mizuho.

Note that the price increases for the Green Car rail passes are steeper than the Standard passes: a 7-day Adult Green Car pass will cost 44,810 yen, an increase of over 5,200 yen. If you are looking for the 14-day Japan Rail Pass, a Green Car pass will cost an additional 8,200 yen (compared to a 5,700 yen increase for Standard). A 21-day Green Car pass for adults will increase by 8,280 yen (compared to 5,750 yen for Standard).

Conclusion

I’ll try to update this article when I learn more information, or when Japan Railways provides more details in English. In the meantime, if you are planning to visit Japan in the second half of 2020 or later (if I were you, preferably after the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics) then be sure to do your homework to see if the new Japan Rail Pass is for you.

This article was written in February 2020 and is accurate at the time of publication, subject to the site-wide disclaimer.

One final chance to watch me on J-Trip Plan

Happy New Year, and thanks for continuing to support one of my favorite side projects, my Japan travel and tips blog. May the year 2020 be a successful one for all of you reading.

My 2020 plans… may or may not include a trip to Japan. It’s too early to say, but I’ll try to keep you posted without giving too much away. If it doesn’t happen this year, it’s very likely to happen in 2021.

Meanwhile, this post is a quick self-promotion: As some of you remember, back in 2017 (the last time I visited Japan) I was fortunate enough to be a correspondent on one of NHK World-Japan’s English-language travel programs J-Trip Plan. In a short segment I offered tips and tricks on how to navigate Japan’s busy trains.

All J-Trip Plan episodes stay up for one year; the episode I was featured in originally aired in January 2018, which meant that the video expired in January 2019. Then, in February 2019, the episode that I took part in was renewed as part of NHK World-Japan’s focus on Miyazaki Prefecture for the month. The bulk of the episode features Nick Szasz, a Japan-based reporter, touring the mystical town of Takachiho with its rivers and gorges. One of the highlights of Takachiho is the Amano Iwato Shrine, which is located near the cave where it is said the sun goddess Amaterasu hid away after becoming so outraged by the cruel pranks of her brother.

To see Takachiho and my segment about taking trains in Japan, here’s the link to the NHK World Video-on-Demand page for J-Trip Plan, which is hosted by Thane Camus and Amy Ota. I highly recommend seeing all of the available videos for J-Trip Plan to help you plan for your next trip to the country… and for that matter, all of NHK’s videos on demand. You can easily make a day out of their informative programs covering everything from Japanese travel, food, documentaries, politics, sports and everything in between.

Anyway, the J-Trip Plan episode that I am in is called A Mystical Land of Myths and Getting Around Japan, so scroll down until you see that episode title with a picture of a large waterfall. The episode expires on February 11, 2020, so you will have until then to see it before it goes away again.

Enjoy the episode, and once again, may 2020 bring you happiness, health and fortune… and perhaps your first visit to a wonderful country, if you haven’t been to Japan already!

Japan Rail Pass upgrades coming in Spring 2020

Update 12/27/19: An official English translation of JR’s press release is now out, specifying that in addition to the new features coming with the Japan Rail Pass, it will also be possible for Rail Pass holders to reserve seats at the ticket machines. Yet another win for tourists!

Hello everyone! I hope you are having fun and staying warm this holiday season.
Unfortunately real life has gotten in the way of some additional posts and updates… however, there IS an update that is worth sharing this morning, and it could be a real game changer if you are considering a visit to Japan.

Takeshi over at JPRail.com posted on his Facebook page earlier today about an announcement made by Japan Railways. According to his post, the Japan Rail Pass will soon be sold online, directly by Japan Railways. In recent years, they have permitted online sales of the national pass by third-party travel agents at slightly increased prices. Now, in addition to the above methods, Japan Railways will handle online sales directly.

But what may come as a true “upgrade” to the Rail Pass to make it very useful is the fact that Rail Pass holders would be permitted to make online seat reservations for trips where reservations are available. Presumably, this will include shinkansen (bullet train) and limited express journeys operated by JR.

I took a moment to look at JR’s press release from December 18. The JR group cites the increase in the number of foreign visitors to Japan as the reason for these changes.

The JR release suggests that one could purchase a pass and make seat reservations through JR, pick up the rail pass at a manned counter, and then pick up reserved seat tickets at either the counter or at a ticket vending machine. Pass holders could then use automatic ticket gates to go through the wickets.

These changes are planned to be implemented in the Spring of 2020. If these changes are implemented as announced, it will mark a giant leap in the usefulness of the Japan Rail Pass. In particular, there will be two new features that will save tourists a whole lot of time.

First, the ability to reserve seats online and pick up reserved seat tickets at a ticket vending machine. I presume the option to pick up the tickets at the manned counter will still be available, but this will save some time as you do not have to get into a long line and then attempt to communicate your travel intentions to the clerk.

Second, the ability to use automatic ticket gates. Currently, all Rail Pass holders have to present their paper rail passes to a manned station agent at the ticket barriers in order to cross in and out. It remains to be seen how the automatic gates would be used in conjunction with rail pass users. Will the rail passes be upgraded to an IC-type card that holders can then tap in and out? Will the reserved seat tickets themselves permit access to the train in the place of basic fare tickets? Will there be measures in place so that only the passenger authorized to do so can cross through the automatic gates? The exact details of how the system would work are yet to be revealed by Japan Railways.

I will certainly pass along any more details once I hear about them, but this news about the Japan Rail Pass, and the measures that will be implemented, is a wonderful Christmas gift for those looking to visit Japan in the future.

New Luggage Reservation Requirements for Bullet Trains

News has come out of some of the Japan Railways companies that I think warrants special attention. Starting in May 2020, if you plan on bringing large luggage onto the Tokaido, San’yo and Kyushu Shinkansen lines, you will be required to make a special reservation.

The Tokaido, San’yo and Kyushu Shinkansen are among the most important bullet train lines in the country, stretching from Tokyo all the way to Kagoshima in southern Kyushu. Major stops along the way include Yokohama, Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, Okayama, Hiroshima and Fukuoka.

The relevant JR companies state that the changes are being made in response to an increase of overseas visitors, especially as the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics approach.

Starting in May 2020, if you plan to bring large luggage onto one of these lines (defined as total combined length, width and height between 160 cm and 250 cm, or approx. 63-98 inches) you must make an advance reservation at the same time that you book your ticket. This will book you into the last row of seats in a particular car, and allow you to use the area behind the seats to store your luggage.

If you do NOT make an advance reservation, you will be charged 1,000 yen on board and will be asked to move your luggage into an area designated by the conductor.

As this is a free service when booking your ticket, this sounds like a good idea. But until the details of this new program become clearer, I personally still like the idea of paying for a luggage delivery service and traveling light.

Japan 2017 Video Log Project Started!

vlog2Hello all!

Last week I began what I am now referring to as my Japan 2017 Video Log project.

If you saw my last post, I announced that I would put together some sort of compilation video with the highlights from my 2017 trip to Japan. I’ve decided to put them into a video log and release the content on YouTube in small chunks so that I can share Japan with you from my perspective. Some of the video content that will be introduced has not been released before.

This series will revisit my trip from two years ago in a simplified manner, using video clips with text descriptions and occasional musical soundtracks obtained license-free from the Internet. Since I have to start saving these videos and take them off of my phone before my next big global journey, I decided to share the videos to the public in a way that differs from the original online series that was created and uploaded entirely from my phone.

As of this writing, I have completed three videos. The fourth video should be up later today.

Here is the direct link to the Video Log playlist.
If you want to revisit my original video series, that playlist can be found here.

I hope you enjoy a different perspective of my Japan trip. Thanks as always for your support!

New Post! New Logo! New News!

Hello everyone! It’s been a while…. again! Sorry to keep you all waiting. As real life continues, I am finding it harder lately to update this blog… but I realize that many people are still visiting this site every day to look at my Japan travel musings, and I appreciate everyone’s support very much.

Today I did two things on this blog: I finished off my Welcome to Japan series with a post introducing Kansai International Airport, and I introduced the new logo for this blog. The blog logo is a commission by Sorachuru, who was recommended to me by one of her twitter followers and my good friend Umi. Please follow them on both Twitter and Instagram; their handles are @sorachuru and @shojonoumi respectively!

One thing I would like to TRY and do soon is to put some of my videos from my last trip to Japan (back in 2017) into a compilation video. The reason for that is because later this year, my next big adventure to another part of the world will begin. Eventually, I will have to archive all of my previous videos from my phone and send them to the cloud so that I will have the room to take new videos. If this project comes to fruition, I will certainly keep you all posted!

Another thing I want to TRY and do soon? Return to Japan. I am not sure if there will be an opportunity to do this next year, but I’ll see what happens.

In the meantime, thank you all once again for your support, whether you check this blog regularly or you are a first time visitor. Please ask me any questions you may have and I’ll do my best to answer!

Welcome to Japan: Kansai International Airport

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Kansai Airport International Departures. Photo by 663highland (CC BY 2.5)

Welcome to the last in a series of blog posts called Welcome to Japan. In the first project since updating the layout of my blog, I am introducing a series that will explain the available transit options after arriving at some of Japan’s major airports.

In the free time that I’ve had to post articles here, I have written about Narita Airport, Haneda Airport and Centrair Airport. Now comes the last of Japan’s major airports, Osaka’s Kansai International Airport, which is a fairly recent addition; it only opened in 1994. It became so popular that a second runway was put into operation 13 years later. Kansai Airport, like Centrair Airport and a few others, sits on a man-made island in the southern part of Osaka Prefecture.

In September 2018, a strong typhoon halted operations for some time, with the runways flooded and the major bridge linking the airport to the mainland severely damaged by a drifting tanker. Repairs on the bridge have since been completed, and Kansai Airport once again welcomes visitors eager to explore the Kansai region, while at the same time serving as a springboard to western and southern Japan.

When Kansai Airport opened in the 1990s, it took most of the international operations away from Osaka’s much closer Itami Airport. Itami is still in use today; while restricted to domestic flights only, Itami is actually busier than its more modern counterpart in Osaka Bay.

Technically speaking, the airport property sits within three municipalities: Izumisano City, Tajiri City, and Sennan City. The main bridge from the airport leads you to Izumisano, home to the Rinku Town outlets and commercial zone. Japan’s third tallest building, the Rinku Gate Tower Building, is located here as well. It is also a junction for train services heading south on the Kii Peninsula.

Kansai Airport has two terminals. By far the main attraction is the main terminal building, or Terminal 1, which was designed by the famous Italian architect Renzo Piano. The terminal building is the longest in the world, stretching around 1.7 kilometers (1.06 miles) from end to end. A people mover system stretches the entire length of the facility. It is also built for easy interchanges and connections. International passengers complete arrival formalities on the first floor, while departures are handled on the fourth floor. The second floor is dedicated to domestic arrivals and departures. Shops and restaurants are located on the third floor. Directly connected to the airport is a retail complex known as the Aeroplaza.

Pale in comparison is the much more simpler Terminal 2, which is a facility built specifically for Low Cost Carrier (LCC) airlines. Facilities are much more limited compared to Terminal 1. Free shuttle buses make the approximately 10-minute trip between terminals regularly.

Now let’s go into depth about what transit options are available to and from the airport. We begin with the trains… like Narita and Haneda airports, there are two main train operators competing for your business: Japan Railways (JR) and the private Nankai Railway. Each of the two offer a premium service heading to and from Kansai Airport, as well as standard commuter service.

It’s important to point out that much like Tokyo (but on a smaller scale) there is a circular loop that goes around Osaka, called the Osaka Loop Line. A big difference compared to Tokyo, on the other hand, is that a plethora of both subway lines and private rail lines cross around and through the loop.

Japan Railways (JR)

The JR offers useful connections to the Osaka Loop Line, the bullet train, and Kyoto. You can also pick up the national Japan Rail Pass and a variety of regional JR passes at the airport.

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JR West Haruka train. Photo by Chabata K (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Their flagship limited express service is called the Haruka. It operates twice per hour throughout most of the day. With the exception of certain rush-hour trains, Haruka services leaving Kansai Airport operate nonstop to Tennoji, at the bottom of the Osaka Loop near the Namba district. The train then runs clockwise around the loop and split off, arriving at Shin-Osaka where you can easily connect to the bullet train to head off towards western Japan and cities such as Okayama, Hiroshima and Fukuoka, or even go east towards Nagoya and Tokyo. From Shin-Osaka, the Haruka proceeds directly to the ancient capital of Kyoto. Most services terminate there, while a few rush-hour trains operate as far as Maibara in Shiga Prefecture.

Haruka trains offer a combination of reserved and non-reserved seats. As it is a limited express train, you will have to pay a surcharge on top of the basic fare. Here are the Haruka fares to three major destinations:

Tennoji: 1710 yen unreserved, 2230 yen reserved (about 35 minutes)
Shin-Osaka: 2330 yen unreserved, 2850 yen reserved (about 50 minutes)
Kyoto: 2850 yen unreserved, 3370 yen reserved (about 1 hour, 20 minutes)

The Haruka also offers the first class Green Car seats, which are bigger but more expensive.

The fares seem outrageously expensive at first, but remember that you are paying for the convenience of reaching Kansai’s major stations and connection points in a hassle-free and efficient manner.

The cheaper commuter train version of JR trains is the Kanku-Kaisoku, or Kansai Airport Rapid train service. These make more stops; moreover, a major difference from the Haruka is that the commuter trains stay on the Osaka Loop Line, in most instances making a complete circuit. Rapid trains stop at Nishi-Kujo, which is a transfer point to reach Universal Studios Japan, and at plain Osaka station, which is the gateway to the Umeda area and features a newly renovated train station that I saw firsthand in 2017. Since the Kanku-Kaisoku stays on the Osaka Loop Line, you’ll have to generally change trains to reach other destinations in Kansai such as Kyoto. To reach Shin-Osaka or Kyoto, you’ll have to change trains at Osaka station and change to an eastbound train on the JR Kyoto Line (aka Tokaido Line). Sample fares:

Tennoji: 1060 yen (55 minutes)
Nishi-Kujo: 1190 yen (65 minutes)
Osaka: 1190 yen (70 minutes)
Shin-Osaka: 1360 yen (about 80 minutes; change at Osaka Station)
Kyoto: 1880 yen (about 2 hours; change at Osaka Station)

The above trains are all covered by the Japan Rail Pass and a variety of regional rail passes offered by West Japan Railway (JR West). Foreign tourists traveling out of Kansai Airport may wish to consider the short-range Kansai Area Pass, sold online starting at 2,250 yen for one day. It includes unlimited usage of trains in the Kansai region for one day, and also includes travel on the Haruka limited express in unreserved cars. Multiple day versions of the Kansai Area Pass are sold, but what’s interesting to note is that if your destination on the JR is either Shin-Osaka or Kyoto, purchasing a one-day Kansai Area Pass just for your trip on the Haruka is cheaper than buying regular unreserved tickets.

The ICOCA and Haruka ticket is also available for foreign tourists, and includes a one-way or round-trip on the Haruka in unreserved seats and a 2000 yen IC card (includes 500 yen deposit) that can be used for train travel, shopping, restaurants and vending machines.

Also note that Tennoji station connects to two of Osaka’s subway lines: the Midosuji Line and the Tanimachi Line. The Midosuji Line is among Osaka city’s most useful subway routes, as it runs north and south stopping at some major transportation hubs.

Nankai Railway

The competitor to Japan Railways is the Nankai Railway. Like JR, Nankai has a premium train as well as a regular commuter service.

Nankai trains run into southern Osaka, terminating at Namba Station, so if you are heading to this area then taking the Nankai can be a convenient option. Namba station is very large, so it may take a bit of time to navigate, but there are connections to the Midosuji, Sennichimae and Yotsubashi subway lines, as well as a connection to the Kintetsu and Hanshin railways. The Hanshin railway will take you west towards Amagasaki and Kobe (with connections available as far as Himeji) and the Kintetsu will take you east towards Nara (with connections all the way to Ise Bay and Nagoya if you feel so inclined). Nankai trains also stop at two other important hubs: Shin-Imamiya will connect you on to the JR Osaka Loop Line, and Tengachaya connects you to the Sakaisuji subway line, which provides an alternate means of traveling to Kyoto via the Hankyu Railway.

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Nankai Rapi:t train. Photo by 日根野 (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Nankai’s premier airport service is called the rap:t (pronounced ra-PEET). The trains have a very unique, streamlined/steampunk-ish look. Inside you have a choice of standard seats and slightly wider super seats. Unlike JR’s Haruka, all seats on the rap:t require a reservation. Trains leave every 30 minutes or so, and the fastest trains reach the Namba terminal in around 39 minutes. The fare between Kansai Airport and Namba, Shin-Imamiya and Tengachaya stations is the same: 1430 yen for regular seats and 1640 yen for super seats. It’s possible to purchase rap:t tickets in advance on the Nankai Railway website for a discount of 300 yen; you would then bring the voucher to one of the rap:t train stations and exchange it for an actual ticket.

Running more frequently (around 4 trains per hour) is Nankai’s commuter service, the Airport Express. The fare between Kansai Airport and Namba, Shin-Imamiya and Tengachaya stations is only 920 yen for the commuter trains.

As mentioned, the Nankai Railway offers connections to major train lines, so even though it stops short at Namba you can easily travel to other areas. Nankai sells a plethora of discount tickets that can be used to reach other parts of the Kansai and Hyogo regions:

Yokoso! Osaka Ticket: 1500 yen (online purchase). Sold only to foreigners, this includes a one-way trip on the rap:t from Kansai Airport, plus a one-day unlimited Osaka Subway/Bus pass.

Kyoto Access Ticket: 1230 yen. This ticket includes a one-way trip on regular Nankai trains from Kansai Airport to Tengachaya, and then a one-way trip from Tengachaya to Kyoto using the Sakaisuji subway line and Hankyu Railway. You can ride the Nankai rap:t train for an additional charge.

Nara Access Ticket: 1230 yen. This ticket includes a one-way trip on regular Nankai trains from Kansai Airport to Namba, and then a one-way trip from Namba to Nara using the Kintetsu Railway. You can ride the Nankai rap:t train and the Kintetsu limited express for an additional charge.

Kobe Access Ticket: 1130 yen. This ticket includes a one-way trip on regular Nankai trains from Kansai Airport to Namba, and then a one-way trip from Namba any station on the Hanshin Railway; you can travel as far as Kobe-Sannomiya and Motomachi, and apparently, you can also head towards Umeda (near JR Osaka Station) by changing trains at Amagasaki, which would still save you about 150 yen. You can ride the Nankai rap:t train for an additional charge.

Other useful passes are described on the Nankai website. One of the more useful tickets to get around the entire region is the Kansai Thru Pass, which gives you unlimited travel on private railways and many local buses in an vast area. Tickets are 4300 yen for 2 days or 5300 yen for 3 days, and you do not need to use the pass on consecutive days.

Buses

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Kansai’s Airport Limousine Buses are blue and white in color. Photo by KishujiRapid (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Highway Buses in and out of Kansai Airport are managed by Kansai Airport Transportation Enterprise. As mentioned in previous articles, they are convenient if you have lots of luggage and you don’t want to use baggage forwarding, or if you want to go to specific hotels. The only drawback is the potential for traffic.

Many buses go to Osaka’s dedicated terminal for airport buses, the Osaka City Air Terminal or OCAT in Namba, which offers access to Namba station. Buses leave every 20 minutes and are timetabled at 50 minutes between Terminal 1 and OCAT. The fare is 1100 yen one way, or 1900 yen round-trip.

Buses run every 20 minutes or so to the Sheraton Miyako Hotel Osaka, located next to Kintetsu Uehommachi station. Buses between Terminal 1 and the Sheraton take 55 minutes and cost 1550 yen one way or 2800 yen round-trip.

There are also buses that operate every 15-20 minutes to the Hotel New Hankyu and Herbis Osaka, adjacent to JR Osaka station. Buses between Terminal 1 and Hotel New Hankyu are timetabled at one hour, at a cost of 1550 yen one way or 2760 yen round-trip. Evening buses from the airport stop at more hotels in that area.

There are 1-2 direct buses every hour to Universal Studios Japan (70 minutes, 1550 yen one way or 2700 yen round-trip).

If you are connecting to a domestic flight at Itami Airport, there are regular buses that go there as well (75 minutes, 1950 yen one way or 3500 yen round-trip).

You’ll also find direct buses that go to Kyoto every 20-30 minutes (90 minutes, 2550 yen one way), Kobe every 20 minutes (65 minutes, 1950 yen one way), Nara every hour (90 minutes, 2050 yen one way) and Wakayama 1-2 times per hour (40 minutes, 1150 yen one way). Limited long distance buses also run to Okayama, Himeji, Takamatsu and Tokushima.

One other nice thing about these limousine buses is that some of the routes offer what is known as a transfer ticket, intended for passengers who are transiting at Kansai Airport. The transfer tickets offer a discount for round trips if you leave Kansai Airport and return on the same day. As an example, a transfer ticket to the JR Osaka station area and back on the same day costs 2200 yen (versus 2760 yen for a regular round-trip).

Taxis

Of course the taxi is another option that is available for you to consider, but due to their high costs I do not recommend a taxi unless you are traveling in a group, or unless absolutely necessary. Flat fare taxis are available if you are traveling to Osaka city, costing 13000 yen for regular taxis and 14000-14500 yen for medium sized taxis. These flat rates do not include tolls, and late night trips will be higher in price. If you are heading elsewhere, fares are by the meter.

If heading to Kyoto or Kobe, ride-share van service is available. MK Taxi offers a ride-share service to Kyoto (starting at 4200 yen one way) and Kobe (starting at 2500 yen one way). There are additional charges if you have more than one large suitcase. Yasaka Taxi also offers a similar service to Kyoto for the same price as MK.

High Speed Boat

If you are going to Kobe Airport or heading in that general direction, you can avail yourself of the Kobe-Kansai Airport Bay Shuttle, a high speed boat service which offers a fast shortcut. The boat is presently offering a lucrative deal to foreign tourists until March 2020, with the regular one way fare discounted from 1850 yen to just 500 yen. Boats leave every 1-2 hours and make the run in just 30 minutes. Tickets can be purchased at Kansai Airport terminal 1; once you have the tickets, a shuttle bus will take you to the boat pier. On arrival in Kobe, you can either walk or take a shuttle bus to Kobe Airport and the Port Liner automated train line which goes into central Kobe. All considered, tourists can travel from Kansai Airport to central Kobe for the low price of just 830 yen (500 yen boat discount ticket + 330 yen for the Port Liner train) and do it in around 75 minutes or so with good connections.

In theory, once you have completed the trip to Sannomiya you could then take a short hop on the Kobe Subway to Shin-Kobe station (210 yen) which provides an alternate connection to the Shinkansen for points west. Continuing past Shin-Kobe will take you in the direction of Arima Onsen.

Hotels

Two hotels are located on the island with Kansai Airport: the Hotel Nikko Kansai Airport of the respected Hotel Nikko chain, accessible from the first floor of the airport, and a hybrid capsule hotel on the third floor called First Cabin which offers a variety of sizes to suit different budgets. Note that the First Cabin has an early check out and a late check in time: 10:00 and 19:00 respectively.

A plethora of other hotels are available across the bridge by train, within close proximity of the Rinku Town and Izumisano stations. A train to Rinku Town by either JR or Nankai costs 370 yen, and a train to Izumisano by Nankai costs 490 yen.

Long-haul International Flights

Aside from domestic flights and regional flights around Asia, here is a select list of long-haul airlines that serve Kansai Airport with regular service as of this writing, in no particular order:

  • United Airlines flies to Kansai from San Francisco, United States.
  • Japan Airlines flies to Kansai from Los Angeles, United States.
  • British Airways flies to Kansai from London Heathrow, United Kingdom.
  • Air France flies to Kansai from Paris, France.
  • KLM flies to Kansai from Amsterdam, Netherlands.
  • Qantas flies to Kansai from Sydney, Australia.

All information and links were accurate as of July 2019, and subject to the disclaimer. Photos used in the article are either public domain or courtesy of creative commons licenses.