Posted by: jrhorse | January 30, 2017

Destination of the Week: Fushimi Inari Shrine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: jrhorse | January 24, 2017

Destination of the Week: Ryogoku Kokugikan

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

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

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

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

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Ryogoku Kokugikan in 2006. Photo from flickr/CC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: jrhorse | January 18, 2017

New Trusted Traveler Program in Japan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: jrhorse | December 13, 2016

Japan Rail Online Ticketing to Expand for Foreigners

Welcome to another Christmas season everyone! This year has been a real roller-coaster ride for me. Lots of things going on in my life, including a recent heart infection that hospitalized me for a few days. With bills to pay, I am not sure if I will be able to make a return trip to Japan next year like I want to, but I will try my very best!

If you plan on visiting Japan next year, there’s a little bit of good news… it’s a big step forward for tourists visiting Japan, though I think there is still much more to do.

In a Japanese-language press release issued last week by East Japan Railway Company, there is news that the online foreign-language JR East Reservation System will extend online booking of Japanese trains to include more bullet train services, as well as all conventional limited express trains in Hokkaido.

Currently, you are only limited to reserving trains that are within JR East’s territory. This includes a myriad of bullet trains and limited express trains to reach far-away destinations. Two of JR East’s primary bullet trains are the Tohoku Shinkansen, which now extends into Hakodate in Hokkaido (as the Hokkaido Shinkansen), and the Hokuriku Shinkansen which runs northwest from Tokyo to the northern coastal cities of Toyama and Kanazawa. The issue currently is that you cannot reserve train tickets using the foreign-language reservation website for lines that travel outside of JR East’s territory. So this means you cannot make an online reservation on the Tohoku Shinkansen north of Aomori into Hakodate, and you cannot reserve for the Hokuriku Shinkansen past Joetsu-Myoko, which is en route to Toyama and Kanazawa. These zones are part of the territories of JR Hokkaido and JR West respectively.

Now, under a new agreement with JR Hokkaido and JR West that starts on February 1, 2017, you will be able to reserve seats on the full length of these lines, which means you can reserve the Tohoku/Hokkaido Shinkansen trains between Tokyo and Hakodate, and the Hokuriku Shinkansen trains between Tokyo, Toyama and Kanazawa.

In addition, the agreement with JR Hokkaido will also allow users of the foreign language reservation website to make seat reservations on all of JR Hokkaido’s limited express services, including one of the primary ones that run from Hakodate to Sapporo and the ones running out of Sapporo to different parts of the island. You can also make seat reservations for the Airport Rapid services operating from Sapporo to the city’s airport, New Chitose.

This is big news for foreign tourists who will now able to reserve longer bullet train journeys more easily online, whether buying regular tickets or reserving seats for use with rail passes. The only caveat that remains is that you still won’t be able to book the most important bullet train lines on the JR East system, that being the Tokaido, San’yo and Kyushu Shinkansen that run from Tokyo to Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, and further west into the Chugoku and Kyushu areas. This might change sometime in 2017, as reported in an earlier blog post, though I haven’t heard much news on this topic since then.

Will you plan to use JR East’s newly expanded ticketing system for foreigners next year?

Thanks for reading!

Posted by: jrhorse | August 30, 2016

Thanks for visiting!

It’s been a while… again… since I posted anything here, so I just wanted to say hello again and thank everyone for their support of this page. I’ve also finished a backlog of questions to be answered from the last few weeks. A lot of foreigners are visiting a wonderful country these days – maybe because there are fewer worries there than the rest of the world.

I would like to share with everyone the possibility that I will make a return trip to Japan next year, either in the spring or in December, providing I have enough resources and my journey through life doesn’t take a detour.

This would be my fourth trip to Japan – having gone in 2004, 2008 and 2013, I think the time has come for another experience. This time I will want to try and travel from Tokyo to Kyoto by local trains, in order to experience a Japan that I’ve always whizzed through while looking out the window of a bullet train.

Of course this is all speculation and nothing is set in stone yet. I’ll be sure to keep you all informed as to what I will do! I also invite you to visit my Facebook page for more updates as well.

Please keep sending your questions… except about Immigration. I would like to reiterate my stance, as outlined in the disclaimer, that I do not wish to answer immigration questions. During these last few weeks I have received questions that are immigration-related. Please note that such questions will be ignored. Thanks for your understanding!

Posted by: jrhorse | April 28, 2016

Book more Japan buses in English!

During my random perusals of Japan travel on the Internet, I discovered for the first time that another of Japan’s highway bus companies has now opened its online reservations to the English language. This, in turn, might make bus bookings for foreign travelers much easier – and more competitive.

Two buses of the JR group JR Bus Kanto and JR Tokai Bus – have published English information about their bus services on their respective websites. Both companies link to their online bus reservation website, www.kousokubus.net, where you can look up bus availability, see what seats are available, and make a reservation request. It doesn’t go into how exactly you acquire your bus tickets, though…

Aside from this question, the JR buses can give you several seating and fare options depending on what route is selected. Some of the fares are what are called “hayatoku” fares, which are discounted fares for an advance purchase. Securing these types of tickets in advance could yield good savings on potential bus tickets!

A few other bus companies in Japan already offer English reservations for their buses. The biggest of these is Willer Express, the company known for its distinctive pink buses, which also offers online reservations in Chinese and Korean. Another bus company, Keio Bus, offers English reservations for their buses between Shinjuku and Mount Fuji.

One of the biggest routes that JR Bus offers online reservations for is the most important: the Tokyo-Kyoto/Osaka route. Here are some of my search results for a random weekday in May comparing JR Bus with Willer Express for a trip between Tokyo and Kyoto:

Day bus:
Willer Express
* 4 seats to a row, 4,320 yen

JR Bus
* 4 seats to a row, 3,900-4,300 yen
* 3 seats to a row, 4,700-5,700 yen
* “Gran Seat” (2 x 1 per row), 5,300-6,300 yen

Night bus:
Willer Express
* 4 seats to a row, 4,800-5,400 yen
* “New Premium” (2 x 1 per row), 7,000-8,600 yen

JR Bus
* 4 seats to a row, 4,500-5,400 yen
* Super Seat (3 seats to a row), 7,100-8,500 yen
* “Gran Seat” (2 x 1 per row), 7,500-8,900 yen
* Premium Seat, 11,500 yen

Have you relied on bus travel in Japan? Will you book your next Japan bus trip online?

Posted by: jrhorse | April 19, 2016

2016 Kumamoto Earthquakes

My thoughts and prayers are with the victims and families of last week’s devastating earthquakes in Kumamoto, Kyushu.

For the last few days, I’ve been providing or sharing up-to-date details concerning transit in Kyushu on my Facebook page, facebook.com/myjapantips. Be sure to head there for the latest updates.

With the opening of the Hokkaido Shinkansen this week, it’s time to once again update my blog concerning overnight train travel in Japan and share ideas when it comes to using the Japan Rail Pass for such journeys.

Overnight trains were once a staple of the country. Many stories have been told – real and fiction – about traveling life on these trains. Regular services peaked in the 1970′s, but then came the bullet trains – then cheap overnight highway buses – then aging train equipment – that sapped most life out of these so-called “Blue Trains” (nicknamed for their color).

When I wrote my first overnight by train article six years ago, there were still several overnight train options available, including the Cassiopeia and Hokutosei (Tokyo-Sapporo), Twilight Express and Nihonkai (Osaka-Kyoto-Sapporo). Those trains are now all discontinued from regular service with the opening of the Hokkaido Shinkansen to Hokkaido over the tracks formerly used by the sleeper trains.

There is now just one set of sleeper trains in regular service: The Sunrise Seto and Sunrise Izumo. These trains run every night, coupled together between Tokyo and Okayama, stopping at Himeji early in the morning. At Okayama the trains split, with the Sunrise Seto heading across the Seto Inland Sea to Takamatsu on the island of Shikoku, and the Sunrise Izumo heading north to the resort city of Izumo – home of a famous shrine of the same name.

These two trains have a carpeted floor space called a “Nobinobi Seat” where you sleep on the floor. These are a popular travel option… and with a Japan Rail Pass, you can use these carpeted spaces for free. The reason for that is because the carpeted space is technically classified as a “Reserved Seat” for booking purposes.

There are private bunks and rooms as well, if you want your own space, but if you want to use these spaces with a Japan Rail Pass you will have to pay for the room. These can be expensive, approximately 10,000-20,000 yen per room/compartment once additional surcharges are calculated. Each will fit one or two passengers.

For more details about these trains, I highly recommend the YouTube video created by John Daub describing life on the Sunrise Izumo. More of his videos from Japan can be found on his website, onlyinjapan.tv.

If you are worried about costs and just want to travel point-to-point overnight not worrying about sightseeing, you can use the Japan Rail Pass to your advantage by finding a stop along the route of travel where there are cheap accommodations, such as a business hotel, and then continue on to your destination in the morning. The advantage, besides the inexpensive cost, is that you have your own bed, shower and toilet. You can also enjoy just a little slice of what life is like in another part of Japan… Who knows, you might even get to try something – food for example – that’s unique to that particular region or city. And remember, as long as your rail pass covers the day of travel AND the following day, your rail fare will be fully covered.

We will now revisit all of the options for travel between major cities, as listed in the previous blog articles. We’ve used the reputable Toyoko Inn chain as an example to look at when it comes to inexpensive hotel accommodations, but now that web searches for hotels are pretty sophisticated, I’ll be using several resources including the booking site Agoda and look for accommodations for a random weekday evening in the spring.

TOKYO to KYOTO or OSAKA via Tokaido Shinkansen

Tokyo to Kansai is an essential trip for the tourist. The Tokaido Shinkansen easily connects these two areas in three hours or less… but if you want to cut back on lodging costs, you could stay at a lesser-known city along the way. Some stops along the route that you can consider include Hamamatsu, Toyohashi and Nagoya. In Hamamatsu, Agoda indicates solo accommodations starting at 3,500 yen, and double occupancy at 2,000 yen per person. Toyohashi has accommodations from 5,000 yen single and 3,750 yen p/p double, and the hotels at the bullet train station in Nagoya start from 4,000 yen single (there’s a guesthouse nearby at 2,500 yen) and 3,600 yen p/p double.

Hikari bullet trains, the fastest that can be used with the Japan Rail Pass, can easily get you to any of these cities with 1 or 2 departures every hour. The final trains leave from Tokyo station at 21:30 and 22:00, both terminating at Nagoya with stops at Hamamatsu and Toyohashi along the way.

In the morning, bullet trains from Hamamatsu and Toyohashi towards Kyoto and Osaka leave from 6:32 and 6:45 respectively. These are Kodama trains which stop at every single bullet train stop, and arrive in Kyoto and Osaka at 7:56 and 8:10 respectively. The Kodama trains do not have food or drink sales on board, so keep that in mind before boarding. You could also stop quickly at Nagoya for some food before continuing on the next Hikari or Kodama service.

From Nagoya, the first departure is a Hikari leaving at 6:35, followed by a Kodama leaving at 6:51. These trains reach Kyoto in around 45 minutes and one hour respectively.

TOKYO to KYOTO or OSAKA via Kanazawa

A second overnight option that has existed takes you through Kanazawa, home to one of Japan’s top Japanese gardens. Travel between Tokyo and Kanazawa has been easy since 2015, when the bullet train opened between these cities.

From Tokyo, Kagayaki and Hakutaka trains run the route to Kanazawa. The last Kagayaki trains from Tokyo leave at 19:56 and 21:04, arriving in Kanazawa at 22:30 and 23:35 respectively. Accommodations in Kanazawa sampled at 5,800 yen single and 3,900 yen p/p double.

Regular limited express trains called Thunderbird run from Kanazawa to Kyoto and Osaka via the northern side of Lake Biwa. In the morning, the first train leaves at 5:35 if you are eager enough. Kanazawa also has trains running to Maibara, from which you can transfer to the Tokaido Shinkansen. While you’re in Kanazawa, though, why not spend the early hours in Kenroku-en, the aforementioned Japanese garden? Visit early before the tourist crowds arrive, then continue on your way.

TOKYO to TAKAMATSU and the rest of Shikoku

The port city of Takamatsu is one of the major cities on the Japanese island of Shikoku. Previously only accessible by ferry, Shikoku was connected to the Japanese mainland in 1988 with a series of bridges known collectively as the Great Seto Bridge. Two more bridges connecting Honshu and Shikoku would open in the late 1990’s, but the Seto Ohashi bridge is the only one able to accomodate both vehicular and railroad traffic.

The previously-mentioned Sunrise Seto overnight train provides a one-seat ride between the cities. But if this is not an option for you, for one reason or another?

Let’s look at one of the major stops on the Shinkansen, Okayama. All of the major bullet trains that run this far stop in Okayama. It is also the connection point for trains to Shikoku.

There is one direct Hikari service every hour from Tokyo to Okayama, taking four hours. The last of these services departs at 17:03, arriving Okayama at 21:11. There are a few more options after that, but you’ll need to change trains in Osaka. The last departure is the Hikari leaving at 19:33 – when you reach Shin-Osaka, change to the Kodama which will get you to Okayama at 23:47.

Accommodations around Okayama were found for 6,000 yen single and 4,000 yen p/p double.

The next morning, take the “Marine Liner” rapid train service to reach Takamatsu, or if you are heading to another destination on Shikoku then take one of the Limited Express trains in that direction. The first two Marine Liner trains for Takamatsu at 5:27 and 6:01, arriving Takamatsu at 6:31 and 6:56 respectively. Marine Liner trains depart on a regular basis to Takamatsu so you can take your time in Okayama if you wish… perhaps visit another renowned Japanese garden, Koraku-en.

TOKYO to HIROSHIMA and FUKUOKA (and Kyushu)

If you wanted to travel from Tokyo directly to Fukuoka by train, it’s a six hour trip with a change in bullet trains required along the way. If you want to travel by night, Okayama is an excellent transfer point, as described above.

Another stop you can consider is Himeji, known for its iconic castle. The options described above to go from Tokyo to Okayama are also valid to reach Himeji.

Himeji’s rates were checked from 5,000 yen single and 3,000 yen p/p double… In my particular search a rate of 7,000 yen single at a 4-star luxury hotel was discovered – what a steal!

The first train from Himeji is a Hikari service, which leaves at 6:38 for Fukuoka (called Hakata station)… but another service right behind it, a Sakura service, leaves at 6:55 and will actually beat the Hikari service to Fukuoka by around a half-hour. This Sakura service is what you should consider using for trips to Hiroshima, Fukuoka, and other destinations in Kyushu such as Kumamoto (Arrive 9:47) and the end of the line at Kagoshima (Arrive 10:44).

Since trains leave Himeji 1 or 2 times per hour, you could consider sneaking out for an early trip to Himeji Castle before continuing on your way.

TOKYO to HAKODATE and SAPPORO (and Hokkaido)

This is where things have changed dramatically with the recent opening of the Hokkaido Shinkansen from the northern Tohoku region into Hokkaido.

Trips from Tokyo to Hakodate in southern Hokkaido now take an average of 4 1/2 hours. If you want to make this short journey into an overnight excursion, you can stop in Aomori, where hotels are 5,500 yen single or 4,000 yen p/p double. To reach Aomori, you’ll need to get off the shinkansen at Shin-Aomori then continue to Aomori on a shuttle train. In the morning, return to Shin-Aomori to pick up the shinkansen towards Hokkaido. In the morning, the first train to Hokkaido leaves Shin-Aomori at 6:32, but the shuttle train from Aomori leaves at 5:45, so you have a lot of time sitting in Shin-Aomori prior to the departure. The Aomori departure at 7:35, connecting to the Shinkansen departure at 7:57, is a little more reasonable.

Remember, when you get to the terminal stop in Hakodate, called Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto, you have to take another shuttle train which will get you to Hakodate city.

Tokyo to Sapporo, end to end, takes as little as 7 hours 45 minutes on the fastest train services. Here, you could make the argument of spending the night in Hakodate before continuing on your way to Sapporo… why not make a day of it in Hakodate? In Hakodate city, prices were seen for around 4,500 yen single or 3,600 yen p/p double.

If you’re pinched for time, the last two services from Tokyo to Hakodate leave at 17:20 and 19:20. Arrival times in Hakodate are at 22:29 and 24:05 respectively. From Hakodate to Sapporo, the first trains depart at 6:10 and 7:28, arriving Sapporo at 9:48 and 11:27 respectively.

OSAKA and KYOTO to HAKODATE and SAPPORO

This route used to be covered by several popular overnight trains, including the Twilight Express. All of the overnight train options have been discontinued, leaving us to make use of the existing shinkansen and limited express services. I’d recommend a stopover for an overnight trip in Hakodate, with Aomori coming a close second.

You can easily take the Hikari shinkansen from Osaka and Kyoto to Tokyo and continue northbound on the Hayabusa towards Hakodate. Leaving on the 13:40 Hikari from Osaka (13:56 from Kyoto) will get you to Tokyo at 16:40, giving you 40 minutes before the Hayabusa departure to Hakodate as described above.

Via northern coast

Another option, if you want to consider it, is a longer journey that routes you along the northern Japanese coast, following the sea of Japan. This is the route formerly covered by the Twilight Express service. If you’re a true train lover like I am and really want to contribute to green commutes, this is the trip for you. Part of this journey is now operated by the Hokuriku Shinkansen.

Thunderbird 7 – Depart Osaka 8:10, Shin-Osaka 8:14, Kyoto 8:41, Arrive Kanazawa 11:02

In Kanazawa you have a layover of almost one hour, perfect for grabbing a quick bite to eat or two. The next several trains require quick connections.

Hakutaka 562 – Depart Kanazawa 11:56, Arrive Joetsu-Myoko 12:58
Shirayuki 5 – Depart Joetsu-Myoko 13:07, Arrive Nagaoka 14:14
Max Toki 321 – Depart Nagaoka 14:27, Arrive Niigata 14:50
Inaho 7 – Depart Niigata 15:01, Arrive Akita 18:41

There is a layover of 50 minutes in Akita.

Tsugaru 5 – Depart Akita 19:32, Arrive Aomori 22:16

Overnight in Aomori as described earlier, then depart on the 7:35 train from Aomori to catch the 7:57 Hayate train to Hakodate. You can reach Hakodate by 9:30, or connect to the train to Sapporo with an arrival time of 12:41. You can also elect to take the 5:45 departure and wait it out at Shin-Aomori until the 6:32 departure, which will get you to Hokkaido sooner.

An alternative route after Akita is to take the Komachi shinkansen service from Akita (Departing 19:11) to Morioka (Arriving 20:49) and spend the night in Morioka. In the morning, take the 6:54 Hayate service to Hakodate. As with the first option, you can reach Hakodate by 9:30, or connect to the train to Sapporo with an arrival time of 12:41.

 

There are many other routes that you can choose from… including a scenic trip through the central Japanese alps! Many of the routes can be sorted out using English planning sites like HyperDia (www.hyperdia.com). I also like using the Japanese site ekikara.jp to look up the timetables, though some understanding of Japanese is needed.

Whatever you decide – however you decide to do it – enjoy traveling around Japan and enjoy the new slice of life experience that comes with a stay in a non-touristy city.

As always, all advice on my blog is offered pursuant to my Disclaimer.

 

Posted by: jrhorse | March 27, 2016

The Shinkansen is now in Hokkaido!

H5 shinkansen

H5 series Shinkansen on a test run. By Sukhoi37, CC BY-SA 4.0

It’s now official – Japan’s iconic Shinkansen network is now linked to the country’s northernmost island of Hokkaido! Services through the Seikan Tunnel linking Hokkaido and Honshu began operating on March 26. The direct services now link Tokyo to Hokkaido in as little as four hours.

One of the great online tools to look up train timetables in Japan is the English website HyperDia (www.hyperdia.com), and the new train services to Hokkaido are now included in search results…. first, though, you’ll want to go into the search parameters and untick that one box next to the word “Airplane”. Yes, the HyperDia site will also give you results for scheduled domestic air flights, so in order to search only rail results you’ll need to make sure that the Airplane search is de-selected.

shin hakodate hokuto

Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto station. Photo by DF200, CC BY-SA 4.0

The new shinkansen terminal in Hokkaido is located a few kilometers north of Hakodate city, at a station called Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto. From this terminal station, a shuttle service called the Hakodate Liner whisks passengers to the center of Hakodate in approximately 10 to 15 minutes. This is why search results from south of Hokkaido will take you to take two trains when the destination is Hakodate.

Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto is also the connecting point for passengers who want to go straight on to Sapporo using Limited Express trains… which won’t be replaced by bullet trains for another 15 years or so. Be sure not to skip Hakodate, however, as the vibrant city has many things to offer tourists… from the morning markets, to the historical district of Motomachi, to the stunning views of the area from the top of Mount Hakodate.

Whether it’s for a few days or just for the night to sleep somewhere, Hakodate is an excellent stopover if you are utilizing the Japan Rail Pass to journey towards Sapporo. Keep in mind that there are no more overnight trains to Sapporo because the tunnel has now been upgraded to bullet time operations… so Hakodate city becomes the ideal place to either visit or rest.

If you plan to use the new Hokkaido Shinkansen extension to Hakodate, give me a shout and let me know what you think of the ride, and of the city!

Posted by: jrhorse | February 23, 2016

New Mobile Ticketing for Shinkansen arriving next year

This afternoon I came across a press release from the Shinkansen timetable site Tabi-O-Ji, and I thought it might be nice to share here on the blog.

If you want to travel by bullet train in Japan, under most circumstances you cannot book your ticket until you arrive in Japan. There are a few exceptions, most notably the online reservation system of JR East, allowing travelers to reserve – in English – trips on bullet trains that they operate. While many routes to the north are covered, the most important routes – the Tokaido and San’yo Shinkansen connecting Tokyo to Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima, Fukuoka and points in between – does not offer advance ticketing in English.

This MIGHT change in the Summer of 2017, when JR Central and JR West are set to unveil a new mobile ticketing system for Tokaido and San’yo Shinkansen trains. According to the press release, you will be able to use the new ticketing system by linking your credit card and an IC card, such as a SUICA, TOICA, ICOCA, etc. You’d have to pick up an IC card in Japan if you don’t have one already, but once you have one you can add it to the account.

Purchases in the new system would be charged to your credit card, then when you are ready to travel you simply tap in and out of the ticket barriers using your IC card.

I bring this up because apparently there is some language in the JR press release saying that “Even foreign travelers can use the system”. This might suggest that in the future, there could be an English option to purchase shinkansen tickets on the Tokaido and San’yo Shinkansen using a mobile device.

There are a few points to note:
– As the release says, you must be in possession of an IC card BEFORE you make a purchase. If you have acquired an IC card from a previous trip to Japan, it is valid for five years after purchase.
– There is no option mentioned regarding purchases for Japan Rail Pass holders. I honestly do not expect such an option to be made available – instead, rail pass holders would have to continue making ticket reservations in person, and pass through manned ticket barriers to access trains.

Further details are yet to be announced (including whether or not there will be an English option) but if you plan to go around on the Tokaido and San’yo Shinkansen using regular tickets, the new mobile ticketing system that will be in place next year might just make purchases easier.

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