As my next trip to Japan is approaching sooner than I think, I have an update concerning shinkansen ticketing using IC cards.
IC cards go by many monikers in Japan (Suica and PASMO in Tokyo, Toica in central Japan, Icoca in western Japan, etc), but no matter the name, the IC card is an indispensable piece of hardware that make traveling on trains easy. No need to figure out how much a train or a bus costs between point A and point B… just tap your IC card when getting on and getting off, and the correct fare will be deducted from the stored balance on the card. Cards can easily be topped up at train stations and convenience stores, and can be used to pay for items at shops and a growing number of vending machines.
As reported on this blog in February 2016, JR Central and JR West, operators of the Tokaido and San’yo Shinkansen – arguably the two most important bullet train lines in the country – were said to be making plans to introduce some sort of mobile ticketing system for their bullet trains that would be tied to IC cards.
These plans have now been confirmed in a Japanese-language press release from both companies. Starting September 30, 2017, a new service called SMART EX will begin operation, allowing passengers to purchase bullet train tickets on the Tokaido and San’yo Shinkansen using a major credit card and then “store” the details onto a linked IC card. The IC card would then be used to enter through the ticket barriers.
Earlier indications were that the new system would be foreigner-friendly. Following the recent JR press release, the travel site Japan-Guide.com has reported that a dedicated, bilingual website will be created. Passengers would need to create an account, register a credit card, and register a valid IC card.
Of course, if you don’t have an IC card in your possession, you will need to obtain one in Japan before you register for the service. When you use SMART EX to make a shinkansen reservation, you will get a small discount of 200 yen off of the normal fare.
The following brands of IC cards can be used with the new service: Kitaca, Pasmo, Suica, Manaca, Toica, Pitapa, Icoca, Hayakaken, Nimoca and Sugoca.
The following credit cards can be used to purchase tickets: Visa, Mastercard, American Express, Diner’s Club and JCB. J-West credit cards, exclusive to Japan, are also eligible.
The service can only be used to make seat reservations for Tokaido Shinkansen and San’yo Shinkansen services, as well as through services between the two lines. Tokaido Shinkansen trains run from Tokyo to Nagoya, Kyoto and Osaka, while the San’yo Shinkansen runs from Osaka to Kobe, Okayama, Hiroshima, Kita-Kyushu (Kokura station) and Fukuoka (Hakata station).
You cannot make reservations for Kyushu Shinkansen trains (those that run from Fukuoka to Kumamoto or Kagoshima), and you can’t reserve any bullet train services operated by JR East… in fact, JR East already has a website where you can make train reservations.
If you don’t have a Japan Rail Pass, the SMART EX can be a good way to make bullet train reservations without having to stop at a ticket machine or a ticket counter beforehand. The downside is that you need an IC card in your possession before you can register for the service.
If the reports are true and there indeed is an English option for SMART EX, I may give it a shot on my next trip and report my results!
Wednesday, June 2, 2004 was my first full day as a tourist in Japan. The day was spent in Tokyo, with stops at the Imperial Palace, Asakusa and Odaiba. Here I posed with some school kids that were interviewing foreign tourists in English outside of Sensoji Temple, the oldest buddhist temple in the city. They gave out small gifts, which included the mailing address of their school. I regret that I never sent them a thank you gift in return. Nevertheless, meeting these young children speaking my language on my first day in another country – a day filled with anticipation and apprehension – made me feel very welcome, and helped deepen my appreciation for Japan even more.
I enjoy reminiscing about the first trip… and I can’t wait for the fourth trip, now less than two months away!
Today I’d officially like to share on my blog news that was posted earlier in the week.
I felt like I was due for a fourth trip to my favorite country outside of North America, having visited Japan in 2004, 2008 and 2013. A couple of weeks ago, at the end of my quick trip to Boston, I was able to secure an award ticket through frequent flier points from American Airlines. In other words… barring any circumstances that might come up, my fourth trip to Japan is booked for the fall of this year!
As I think I’ve stated on this blog before, my hope is to travel at a leisurely pace from Tokyo to Kyoto. Sure, you could do it in around 2 hours and change on the fastest bullet train, but what I’d like to do this time is follow the route, more or less, of the OLD Tokaido Road… the road established centuries ago during the Edo period as a means of connecting the cities of Edo (Tokyo) and Kyoto. In this way, I hope to experience many facets of Japan that many tourists would likely overlook.
Now that the airfare is out of the way and I’ve purchased my travel insurance, I’ve been starting to map out my plans for where to stay, keeping my travel goals in mind. I’ve got a few hotels lined up in some places, and all I need to do is reserve them.
My view is that since it will be a fairly popular time to visit and travel Japan (autumn) I will want to look into reserving places as soon as I can.
I also look for places that I can pay for later. More and more properties in Japan are offering cheaper, non-refundable rates, which you need to pay for right away; unfortunately you would lose that money should your plans change and need to cancel. In my instance I need to be flexible… I’ll make bookings now and then check other hotels later to see if any better deals show up. I am keeping location and prices in mind, but also the exchange rate (the prices I am quoted in US dollars now may not necessarily be the same in a few months). If something better were to surface closer to the trip, I’ll cancel and rebook as necessary… which I have done multiple times before my previous Japan trips.
At the same time I’ll also want to look into my travel plans within Japan to see the best way to get myself around. Right now it doesn’t seem like a long Japan Rail Pass will be in my best interests; I might look into some day or regional passes instead.
This, my friends, is is what I think about before these sorts of trips. I also think it’s important that all travelers be prepared for what they want to do, then be a little flexible in case things happen once the journey has begun.
It’s going to be an exciting trip, and I am looking forward to it! I’ll do my best to share more updates here, in addition to my Facebook page (facebook.com/myjapantips).
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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)
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).
Eat breakfast in Matsue, then continue to Osaka or Kyoto to finish your trip.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
*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.
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.
*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.
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.
Check into a hotel in Ichinoseki, have dinner and spend the evening.
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
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!
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.