Itinerary – Train Cruising on the Cheap, Vol. 2

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.

Twilight Express Mizukaze. Photo by khws4v1 (CC BY 2.0)

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.

Jose’s Itinerary

Osaka Station concourse at night. Photo by Cheng-en Cheng (CC BY-SA 2.0)9:00 – Osaka Station

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

Korakuen Garden. Photo by Daderot (PD)

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.

Hiroshima Genbaku Dome. Photo by Fg2 (PD)

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.

Day 2:

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)

Lafcaido Hearn residence. Photo by 663highland (CC BY 2.5)

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).

Day 3:

Eat breakfast in Matsue, then continue to Osaka or Kyoto to finish your trip.

Option 1:
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.

Kinosaki Onsen is a wonderful place for a meal… or maybe even a stay! Photo by 663highland (CC BY 2.5)

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.

If you want to shorten your return trip, just head back to Okayama and wait for the next bullet train. Photo by soramimi (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Option 2:
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.

Limited Express Yakumo #16, Depart Matsue 12:01, Arrive Okayama 14:38
Shinkansen Sakura #554, Depart Okayama 15:03, Arrive Shin-Osaka 15:48

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.

Trip Costs

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

Day 3, Matsue to Shin-Osaka
Limited Express Yakumo #16, Depart Matsue 12:01, Arrive Okayama 14:38
Shinkansen Nozomi #32, Depart Okayama 14:53, Arrive Shin-Osaka 15:38

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.

Links to Creative Commons licenses: CC BY 2.0, CC BY-SA 2.0, CC BY 2.5, CC BY-SA 4.0

Travel around Japan for $20 per day with the Seishun 18 Ticket

One of the most popular ways for the Japanese to travel around the country – but not known to many foreign tourists – is using a national rail ticket offered by Japan Railways called the Seishun 18 Ticket. It is only available to use during three peak travel periods in the year, but if you want to travel long distances, or if you are traveling with a group, the Seishun 18 is one of the greatest bargains in Japan.

I have alluded to the Seishun 18 Ticket in previous posts such as Tokyo to Kyoto for 2,300 yen. The literal translation of “Seishun” is youth. Despite the name, though, the “Youth 18” ticket can be used by anyone, regardless of age.

The travel periods for the Seishun 18 Ticket are as follows:
* March 1 – April 10
* July 20 – September 10
* December 10 – January 10
Tickets are sold 10 days before the first day of validity until 10 days before the last day of validity.

The Seishun 18 costs 11,850 yen and can be used for conventional local and rapid JR trains across the country – that is to say, standard commuter trains only. You cannot use the Seishun 18 for bullet trains (shinkansen), the higher-speed limited express trains, or most overnight services.

Each individual Seishun 18 Ticket contains 5 spaces. Each space is stamped manually for every person that uses the ticket for the first time on any given day, and the ticket is valid for the remainder of the calendar day until the first station after midnight – or in major cities like Tokyo and Osaka, until the final trains of the calendar day run.

This means that one person can travel up to 5 times during the validity period for a cost of 2,370 yen… OR, up to five people can travel in one calendar day for 2370 yen each. That’s around US $20 (as of September 2015). You can break the daily travel costs down by just dividing the cost of the ticket by the number of passengers, up to a maximum of five. So, two spaces is 5,925 yen; three spaces is 3,950 yen; four spaces is 2,962 yen and five spaces is 2,370 yen.

A Seishun 18 ticket is not for the traveler that hops around one city alone… but for the traveler that wants to travel long distance between cities, it should definitely be considered as long as you are traveling during the valid travel periods. For comparison, a regular ticket from Tokyo to Nagoya costs 6,260 yen, and from Tokyo to Osaka, 8,750 yen.

You should consider the following when using the Seishun 18 Ticket:
– As stated, it is only valid during three periods during the year. Outside of these periods, you’ll have to pay standard fares.
– There are no child fares for the Seishun 18, whereas child fares (6-11 years old) are usually available for a 50% discount off the cost of regular fares.
– Since the Seishun 18 Ticket is only valid for the standard trains, you will need to budget extra time to make a long trip, and plan on making lots of train transfers along the way.
– There are a few local JR  services with reserved seating, or unreserved Green Car seating. Examples of this include the Marine Liner (Okayama-Takamatsu) and the open Green Cars on JR commuter lines in Tokyo, respectively. Seishun 18 Tickets can be used for these specific cabins with payment of an additional fare. There are also morning and evening services called “Home Liner” trains that require a small surcharge for a seat. With a few exceptions, “Home Liner” trains can also be used by Seishun 18 Ticket holders by paying the extra “liner” fare.
– If you are traveling to Hiroshima and decide to visit Miyajima island, the Seishun 18 Ticket gives you free access to the JR Ferry to and from the island.
– There are special arrangements in place for Seishun 18 Ticket holders to use a small number of non-JR lines. These lines were originally operated by JR, but were transferred off when new bullet train segments opened. These arrangements are in place to access JR lines that are now isolated from the rest of the national JR network.

In order to consider whether a Seishun 18 Ticket is right for you, you need to consider the number of people in your party, how far you want to travel, and the timetables. An excellent resource is HyperDia, which allows you to search train timetables between cities without having to include faster bullet trains or other limited express services. Just go into the options and just leave “Japan Railways” and “Local Train” checked. (You can leave “liner” checked too – see above for the explanation.)

If you are going to travel long distances, there *are* a few overnight services that run during the period of the Seishun 18 Ticket, but since these do tend to get full, I would suggest the overnight stay strategy that I brought up for Japan Rail Pass holders in an earlier post. I also suggest, as one might do on a long road trip, to stop for rest, bathroom breaks and food every few hours.

Since so many people have inquired on this blog in the past about ways to move about under the Seishun 18 Ticket, I will offer a few examples. Note that these are shared subject to the disclaimer of the blog. You can also use these suggestions even during times when the Seishun 18 Ticket is not valid and you would rather pay the local fare to enjoy a different slice of Japan not seen from services like the bullet train.

These itineraries are for weekday trips. Weekend trips will be slightly different.

Tokyo to Nagoya, Kyoto and Osaka

One of the more popular options using the Seishun 18 Ticket is the trip from Tokyo to the Nagoya and Kansai regions. The Tokaido Main Line, tracing in the steps of the old Tokaido Road dating back to the 1600’s,  is among the busiest in the country. Usually you will have to wait no more than 20 minutes for a service.

It’s easier now to start your journey from Tokyo and cities to the north – even Saitama prefecture and beyond – with the opening of the Ueno-Tokyo through line. You can start from Omiya, Akabane, Ueno, Tokyo, Shimbashi or Shinagawa. You can also take trains from Ikebukuro, Shibuya or Shinjuku and connect.

You can easily make the trip during the day, or take your time and spend the night somewhere along the way. Here are two ideas on weekdays, using timetable data from the Japanese site

Daytime Trip

Depart Ueno 6:20, Tokyo 6:30, Shimbashi 6:34, Shinagawa 6:43
Arrive Atami 8:20
– 3 minute transfer –
Depart Atami 8:23
Arrive Numazu 8:41
– 3 minute transfer –
Depart Numazu 8:44
Arrive Shizuoka 9:37
– 65 minute rest stop –
Depart Shizuoka 10:42
Arrive Hamamatsu 11:51
– 12 minute rest stop –
Depart Hamamatsu 12:03
Arrive Toyohashi 12:37
– 14 minute rest stop –
Depart Toyohashi 12:51 (Special Rapid)
Arrive Nagoya 13:42
Arrive Ogaki 14:17
– 24 minute rest stop –
Depart Ogaki 14:41
Arrive Maibara 15:16
– 2 minute transfer –
Depart Maibara 15:18
Arrive Kyoto 16:12
Arrive Osaka 16:42

With the above itinerary, the trip including rest stops takes around 10 1/4 hours from Tokyo Station to Osaka. Shortening your rest stops will result in earlier arrival times.
From Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, Shibuya: You should take the JR Yamanote Line or Chuo Line to one of the four starting stations.

Night Trip – requires two travel days on Seishun 18 Tickets

Day 1
Depart Ueno 17:01, Tokyo 17:07, Shimbashi 17:10, Shinagawa 17:16
Arrive Atami 18:53
– 1 minute transfer –
Depart Atami 18:54
Arrive Hamamatsu 21:29
[ Alternatively, get off at Numazu (19:12) and buy a 320 yen ticket for the Home Liner from Numazu (19:32) to Hamamatsu (21:11) ]
Spend the evening in Hamamatsu

Day 2
Depart Hamamatsu 6:01 (Special Rapid Train)
Arrive Nagoya 7:27
Arrive Ogaki 8:09
– 33 minute rest stop –
Depart Ogaki 8:42
Arrive Maibara 9:16
– 7 minute transfer –
Depart Maibara 9:23 (Local; becomes Special Rapid at Yasu)
Arrive Kyoto 10:28
Arrive Osaka 10:58

With the above itinerary you are traveling for about 4 hours on Day 1 and 4 1/2-5 hours on Day 2.
From Ikebukuro (17:38), Shinjuku (17:45), Shibuya (17:50): Take the Shonan-Shinjuku Line to Totsuka Station (18:31). It is a 4 minute wait across the platform to the Tokaido Line train leaving at 18:35, arriving Atami at 19:53. Continue as above.

Tokyo to Hiroshima – Requires two days on Seishun 18 tickets

We will use this example to travel from Tokyo to Hiroshima using the Tokaido Main Line and San’yo Line, spending one night somewhere along the way.

Day 1
Depart Ueno (10:31), Tokyo (10:36), Shimbashi (10:40), Shinagawa (10:47) (Rapid “Acty”)
Arrive Atami 12:15
– 20 minute rest stop –
Depart Atami 12:35
Arrive Shizuoka 13:48
– 53 minute rest stop –
Depart Shizuoka 14:41
Arrive Hamamatsu 15:51
– 12 minute rest stop –
Depart Hamamatsu 16:03
Arrive Toyohashi 16:37
– 24 minute rest stop –
Depart Toyohashi 17:01 (Rapid)
Arrive Maibara 19:10
– 8 minute transfer –
Depart Maibara 19:18 (Special Rapid)
Arrive Kyoto 20:12
– 62 minute rest stop –
Depart Kyoto 21:14
Arrive Himeji 22:48
Spend the evening in Himeji

Day 2
Depart Himeji 7:04
Arrive Mihara 10:10
– 48 minute rest stop –
Depart Mihara 10:58
Arrive Hiroshima 12:13

All together it’s 12 hours of travel on Day 1 and 5 hours on Day 2, including rest stops. You can leave later and spend the night somewhere closer along the way if you want to balance out your travel times.
From Ikebukuro (10:24), Shinjuku (10:30), Shibuya (10:35): Take the Shonan-Shinjuku Line Rapid to Totsuka Station (11:11). It is a 3 minute wait across the platform to the Tokaido Line Rapid “Acty” train leaving at 11:14, arriving Atami at 12:15. Continue as above.


I hope these are starting points for you to build your own Seishun 18 Ticket itineraries. Remember to use web searches like HyperDia (and if you can understand Japanese kanji, to plot out trip times in advance, and always allow yourself some time along the way to stretch your legs, use the restroom and have a meal. The breaks that I have intentionally listed here keep those ideas in mind.

Once again, even if you don’t have – or can’t use – the Seishun 18 Ticket – local trains will offer you a different look at Japan compared to bullet trains. If you buy a local ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto (8,210 yen), you have up to four days to make your trip, with unlimited stopovers allowed as long as you stay on the ticketed route and don’t backtrack. Come to think of it.. if you do end up taking 4 days, it’s only 2,052 yen or $17 US per day. Tokyo to Hiroshima (11,660 yen) is valid for 6 days. So the more you stretch out the journey, the less per day it will cost regardless. The advantage with local tickets is that you can add a supplemental ticket for a faster service – such as the bullet train – for any part of the route at any time, whereas with the Seishun 18 it is not allowed. Also, as mentioned earlier, Child tickets can be used for half the cost.

Happy travels! Please reach out if you have any comments or questions.

Japan Itinerary: The *Four* Castles

February 2017 update: Please note that Kumamoto Castle was damaged in the April 2016 earthquakes, and so access to the castle is currently limited. I hope to provide a new itinerary for visiting castles in a future post.

The castle is one of Japan’s most iconic symbols, and one of the most enduring… or, to a certain degree, the least enduring. Built as fortresses to guard important sites while taking the landscape into consideration, many of Japan’s castles fell victim to feuds and wars, whether it be from the time of shogun and samurai, or World War II. While there were as many as 5,000 castles in Japan at one point by some estimates, there are now just over 100 in complete or partial form.

As Japan has lists of three most famous views, gardens, and other locations, there seem to be several different lists out there that rank Japan’s top three castles.

Accordingly, I’ve put together itineraries that take travelers to the four castles in Japan that were ranked at the top of TripAdvisor Japan’s annual survey of castles, based on the public reviews given on that site. Those castles are, in ranked order:

Kumamoto Castle. Photo by 663highland (CC BY 2.5)
Kumamoto Castle. Photo by 663highland (CC BY 2.5)

1) Kumamoto Castle
Despite it being a reconstruction, this is one of the most beloved castle sites in all of Japan, and in the last few years has been consistently ranked as the best among Travelocity reviewers. The original fortifications were laid down almost 450 years ago, but the castle was burned down during the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877. A few of the other buildings that are part of the castle keep are original, and the area has been designated as an important cultural property.
Admission to the castle costs 500 yen and it’s open daily from 8:30 AM to 6 PM (until 5 PM during the winter months). Kumamoto Tram’s A Line stops right in front of it – it’s a 15 minute trip from JR Kumamoto Station. The flat fare for the tram is 150 yen, payable when you exit. A one day tram pass is 500 yen, and a two day pass is 800 yen.

Matsumoto Castle. Photo by MOILIP (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Matsumoto Castle. Photo by MOILIP (CC BY-SA 3.0)

2) Matsumoto Castle
This castle is one of Japan’s originals, dating back to 1504. The keep’s exterior is all black, giving the castle the nickname “karasujo” or crow castle. It has survived since then, being saved from demolition during the start of the Meiji period, and has undergone several restorations, most recently in the 1950’s. At one point, the castle resembled the leaning tower of Pisa when part of the keep slouched to one side. Matsumoto Castle is in Nagano prefecture, with the Japanese Alps as the backdrop, and is an easy train or bus trip from Tokyo or Nagano.
Admission to the castle is 610 yen and it’s open daily except during the new year’s holiday from 8:30 AM to 5 PM. During the Golden Week and Obon holidays, it’s open longer. City buses run from Matsumoto’s train station to the castle, including the tourist bus known as the “flying sneaker” (200 yen per trip or 500 yen for a day pass). The North bus will take you to the castle, and note that the day pass includes discounted admission to the castle. One other option is Matsumoto City’s free bicycle rentals, available at various spots around town including the train station and castle.

Himeji Castle after restoration. Photo by Niko Kitsakis (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Himeji Castle after restoration. Photo by Niko Kitsakis (CC BY-SA 4.0)

3) Himeji Castle
Instantly recognizable as the most visited castle complex in Japan, Himeji has fallen in the Travelocity rankings over the last several years as the complex underwent a multi-year restoration project. Just recently completed, Himeji looks as beautiful as it did when it was first built, and is seeking to claw its way up to the top of the rankings. With origins dating back to the 1300’s, Himeji’s main castles were built in the late 1500’s and early 1600’s, and have survived everything from rebellions to World War II to devastating earthquakes. It was one of the first in the country to be on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites. I visited Himeji during my first trip in 2004, a few years before the renovations began.
Admission to the castle costs 1,000 yen and it’s open daily except December 29 and 30 from 9 AM to 5 PM (in the summer months, until 6 PM). Entry ends one hour before closing.
From Himeji’s main train stations (JR and Sanyo Railway) Himeji Castle is a 5 minute bus ride (100 yen) or taxi ride (~700 yen), or a 25 minute walk (which is what yours truly ended up doing).

Matsuyama Castle. Photo by Jyo81 (CC BY 3.0)
Matsuyama Castle. Photo by Jyo81 (CC BY 3.0)

4) Matsuyama Castle
Located on the island of Shikoku in an area known for its hot springs, Matsuyama Castle is another of Japan’s original castles. It was built on a small mountain – Mount Katsuyama – and the location affords a great view of the city and the Seto Sea. It has largely survived intact; the castle tower was originally destroyed by lightning and rebuilt in the 1800’s, while certain sections were rebuilt as a result of World War II bombing damage.
Due to its high location, the castle is easily accessed by chairlift or ropeway. The castle is open almost every day of the year from 9 AM to around 5 PM and the admission fee is 510 yen. If you want to save yourself the steep climb on foot, the chairlift/ropeway is 510 yen for the round trip.
The nearest tram stop to the bottom of the mountain is Okaido, which houses a shopping arcade. It’s 10 minutes from JR Matsuyama station, and 11 minutes from Dogo Onsen hot spring. One trip costs 190 yen, and a day pass costs 400 yen.

Matsuyama Castle is not to be confused with another castle of the same name located near Okayama.

As with itineraries that I have shared in the past:
– There are two itineraries given for each mode of transit. One starts and ends in Tokyo for those coming into the country at Narita or Haneda Airport. The other starts and ends in Osaka for those utilizing Kansai Airport instead.
– All itineraries are offered subject to the Jose’s Japan Tips DISCLAIMER.

In the case of these journeys, I have opted to just provide rail itinerary suggestions.

From Tokyo By Rail

Day 1:
In the morning, depart from Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station on the Azusa Limited Express to Matsumoto (2 1/2-3 hours, 6,900 yen, no charge with Japan Rail Pass)
Alternatively, depart from Tokyo or Ueno station on the Hokuriku Shinkansen and change in Nagano to the “Shinano” Limited Express service (2 1/2-3 hours, 10,130 yen, no charge with the Japan Rail Pass)
Once your visit is complete, depart for Kyoto using two trains: The “Shinano” limited express from Matsumoto to Nagoya, and the Tokaido Shinkansen from Nagoya to Kyoto. Connecting to the “Nozomi” in Nagoya, the entire trip takes 3 hours and costs 10,170 yen. With a Japan Rail Pass, you will have to take the “Hikari”, increasing the trip time by 30-45 minutes.
Spend the night in Kyoto. Alternatively, continue 15 minutes along the line to Shin-Osaka to stay in that area.
*NOTE: There are no on-board food or drink sales on the “Shinano”

Day 2:
In the morning, depart for Himeji on the Shinkansen. From Kyoto the trip takes 45 minutes by direct Nozomi (5,590 yen) and up to 60 minutes using other services. For Japan Rail Pass holders, there are three Hikari services from Kyoto to Himeji departing between 7 AM and 8:30 AM, after which there is one direct service per hour. Otherwise you’ll need to change trains in Shin-Osaka.
In the afternoon, depart for Matsuyama using the bullet train and limited express across the Seto Sea to Shikoku. You’ll need to take the bullet train a short distance from Himeji to Okayama, then board the “Shiokaze” limited express from Okayama to Matsuyama. The trip takes approximately 3 1/2 hours (9,570 yen). You can use the “Nozomi” or the “Sakura” depending on whether or not you have a rail pass, or your preference – both trains will offer ample connections to the Shiokaze.

Day 3:
Get up early to enjoy the historic hot springs and VISIT MATSUYAMA CASTLE.
In the afternoon, return to Okayama at your leisure using any of the “Shiokaze” services (2 3/4 hours, 6,830 yen) and spend the night in Okayama.

Day 4:
Depart for Hakata station in Fukuoka at your leisure and spend two nights in Fukuoka. Use the “Nozomi” or “Mizuho” unless you have a Rail Pass, in which case you’d use the “Hikari” or “Sakura” (1 3/4-2 hours). Before leaving Okayama, you could visit Okayama Korakuen Garden, one of the top three Japanese gardens.

Day 5:
Take a day trip from Fukuoka to Kumamoto by Shinkansen, using the “Sakura” or “Tsubame” (40-50 minutes, 5,130 yen each way).

Day 6:
Take the Shinkansen and return all the way to Tokyo at your leisure. By Nozomi it takes 5 hours and costs 22,950 yen with no change in trains necessary. With a Japan Rail Pass, the “Sakura” and “Hikari” will bring you to Tokyo in six hours, and you will need to change trains once.

For this itinerary, a 7 day Japan Rail Pass (29,110 yen) will save you a considerable amount of money compared to regular tickets. If you have an extra day left, why not stop at one or two other Japanese cities on the way back to Tokyo? Perhaps an overnight stopover?

From Osaka by Rail

Day 1:
In the morning, depart for Himeji on the Shinkansen. From Shin-Osaka the trip takes 30 minutes (3,740 yen). Remember if you have a Japan Rail Pass, you can’t use the “Nozomi”.
In the afternoon, depart for Matsuyama using the bullet train and limited express across the Seto Sea to Shikoku. You’ll need to take the bullet train a short distance from Himeji to Okayama, then board the “Shiokaze” limited express from Okayama to Matsuyama. The trip takes approximately 3 1/2 hours (9,570 yen). You can use the “Nozomi” or the “Sakura” depending on whether or not you have a rail pass, or your preference – both trains will offer ample connections to the Shiokaze.

Day 2:
Get up early to enjoy the historic hot springs and VISIT MATSUYAMA CASTLE.
In the afternoon, return to Okayama at your leisure using any of the “Shiokaze” services (2 3/4 hours, 6,830 yen) and spend the night in Okayama.

Day 3:
Depart for Hakata station in Fukuoka at your leisure and spend two nights in Fukuoka. Use the “Nozomi” or “Mizuho” unless you have a Rail Pass, in which case you’d use the “Hikari” or “Sakura” (1 3/4-2 hours). Before leaving Okayama, you could visit Okayama Korakuen Garden, one of the top three Japanese gardens.

Day 4:
Take a day trip from Fukuoka to Kumamoto by Shinkansen, using the “Sakura” or “Tsubame” (40-50 minutes, 5,130 yen each way).

Day 5:
In the morning, make your way from Fukuoka all the way to Matsumoto, taking the Shinkansen to Nagoya then the “Shinano” limited express to Matsumoto. Using the Nozomi, the trip takes 5 1/2 hours (21,400 yen). With a Japan Rail Pass you’ll need to take the “Sakura” and “Hikari” to Nagoya, changing trains once along the way. This increases the journey time to around 6 1/2 hours.
If you don’t want to spend time on trains for that long, you can optionally leave from Fukuoka on the evening of Day 4 and spend your evening in an intermediate city such as Kyoto or Nagoya. See my post on sample stopovers.
Spend the evening in Matsumoto.
*NOTE: There are no on-board food or drink sales on the “Shinano”

Day 6:
VISIT MATSUMOTO CASTLE in the morning. In the afternoon, return to Osaka by “Shinano” and the Shinkansen (190 minutes and 10,810 yen by “Nozomi”, slightly longer if switching to the “Hikari” for Japan Rail Pass holders).
*NOTE: There are no on-board food or drink sales on the “Shinano”

For this itinerary, once again a 7 day Japan Rail Pass (29,110 yen) is the way to go.

Itinerary Update – The Three Gardens

I have recently updated an itinerary posted three years ago on how to go about visiting Japan’s top three gardens. If you have only a few days and want to visit all three of these popular locations, please check out my suggested travel plan on its original post.

Prices are now reflecting the higher consumption tax and new travel options, such as the Hokuriku Shinkansen which now offers a more direct trip between Tokyo and Kanazawa.

Time permitting I’ll try to update others and work on a few more to share with you!

Tokyo to Kyoto for only 2,300 Yen!?

For more up-to-date information, please read the September 2014 post Tokyo to Kyoto for $21… and other cheap ways to transit Japan

I’d like to take an opportunity to thank those of you who are reading my blog. I’m happy to share my thoughts about Japan travel and assist people in any way that I can!

My most popular post on this blog is how to travel from Tokyo to Kyoto for just 2,300 yen. That post was written back in 2009, so I think it’s time for me to update this information to reflect current events.

Without question, Tokyo and Kyoto are THE two destinations that should be included if you are intent on visiting Japan for the very first time. Of course, Tokyo and Kyoto are separated by some 231 miles (372 km) if you were to draw a straight line.

Between Tokyo and Kyoto, the two major methods of public transportation are the train and the highway bus. (You might also add air, if continuing to Osaka, but this article will focus on the first two methods of transit.)

So how much will you pay for a ride between Tokyo and Kyoto? This article breaks down the various bus and train options by price.

Obviously if you have a Japan Rail Pass then this question is moot; simply use your rail pass (Hikari or Kodama only) to make the journey.

But if you do not have a Japan Rail Pass, then you’ll want to examine the prices carefully to see what fits your budget. Note that the prices listed here are rounded to the nearest 100 yen, and are subject to change, including a variance of a few hundred yen either way depending on the time of the year.

18,200 yen: For this price you will get a reserved first-class seat (called the “Green Car”) in the premium Nozomi service. You may expect to be personally greeted by a Green Car attendant as you enter the train, and the attendant will check your ticket. Hot towel service is provided and you can order food and drinks on board. The seats are wide and comfortable, and the lighting is noticeably softer than in the other seating areas.

13,300 yen: For this price you will get a reserved standard-class seat in the premium Nozomi service. You sit in the standard bullet train seats, and food and drinks are sold on board. In these first two instances the travel time from Tokyo to Kyoto is 2 hours, 20 minutes.

Running about 500 or 600 yen cheaper than the above prices are the respective surcharges for travel on the Hikari and Kodama services, which are slower than the premium Nozomi because they make more stops. In the Hikari service, hot towel service is provided in the Green Car, but you are not “greeted” as you board. There is no “greeting” or hot towel service in Kodama trains, and as of 2013, there is no food or drink service on board Kodamas either. Hikari trains make the run to Kyoto in 2 hours, 45 minutes; Kodamas, which stop at EVERY station, take 3 hours, 45 minutes.

My recommendation if you’re purchasing tickets “a la carte” is to spend the extra 500-600 yen and take the Nozomi. There are more Nozomi trains than the others and it is the fastest way to get from Tokyo to Kyoto. Fall back only to the Hikari (and worst case, Kodama) if the Nozomi sells out.

9,800 yen: You can make a cheap trip aboard the bullet train at this price, but it is strange why it’s only marketed to Japanese travelers. I haven’t tried this, but I have read reports of other foreign travelers that have used this method successfully. For 9,800 yen you can purchase a “Puratto Kodama Ticket”, which is a discounted one-way ticket on the Kodama (the slowest bullet train service). You must make a reservation at least one day in advance at a JR Tours office located at a station served by the Shinkansen, i.e. Tokyo or Shinagawa in Tokyo, or at Kyoto station. The JR Tours office is operated by JR Central, and is recognizable by their orange colors. As a bonus, when you purchase this ticket you are entitled to one free drink – since food and drinks are no longer sold on board Kodama services, you pick one up at the train station before getting on. The “Puratto Kodama Ticket” is also available in the Green Car for 11,300 yen. The prices go up during times of high demand. If you get stumped, you can visit the website for the Puratto Kodama Ticket (, print the page and show it when you want to purchase your ticket.

8,000 yen: At this price you can make a journey on local JR trains from Tokyo to Kyoto, via the Tokaido Main Line.  You will be sitting in regular commuter trains and will have to change trains frequently along the way. On the other hand you’ll be passing through the rural and urban Japanese landscape, getting a better and closer look at areas that the bullet train will just whiz through. Connection times can range anywhere from 2 to 20 minutes for each train that you take. The travel time is approximately nine hours – but that doesn’t figure in the time that you might need for pit stops or a meal.

Extra Tip (Added 6/9/13): As pointed out on the Rocketnews blog, regular tickets allow you to hop on and off as many times as you like within a certain time period, as long as your ticketed journey is at least 200 kilometers. If your journey is between 200 and 400 kilometers you can complete your trip in a two-day period. You gain an extra day of travel for every additional 200 kilometers. Since the route from Tokyo to Kyoto via the Tokaido Line is 513.6 kilometers, you have up to three days to make the journey… you’ll have to stop along the way once or twice to rest (Nagoya makes a nice destination for a few nights) but if you factor only the trains this will make the travel cost 2,660 yen per day.

7,000 yen: For this price you can travel overnight between Tokyo and Kyoto by bus. There are many bus operators between Tokyo and Kyoto, and JR is one of them – bus tickets can be reserved at several channels, including green ticket windows at major JR train stations. On their “Dream” service, which is their standard overnight bus service, you are entitled to a comfortable reclining seat with head and foot rests on a double-decker bus that is configured in a 1 x 1 x 1 configuration; in other words you will have no other passengers directly next to you – you’ll either have an aisle or window. There are also blankets and slippers at your seat, and a toilet is on the first floor of the bus. The price is valid for weekday travel; add about 1,000 yen or so for weekend or holiday travel. An advance purchase of 5 days lobs 1,000 yen OFF of the price. Travel time is 7 1/2 hours from Tokyo Station; buses also run from Shinjuku Station on a different route, taking eight hours. A bus also operates from Tokyo Station restricted to female travelers.

6,000 yen: At this price you can use the same buses described above for a DAYTIME journey between Tokyo and Kyoto. The trip takes eight hours and the bus makes several stops along the way, including a few stops at service areas. There is a discount of 1,000 yen for a 5-day advance purchase. The price does not change depending on the day of the week or whether or not it’s a holiday.

5,000 yen: This is the price for a bus trip from Tokyo to Kyoto on the “Seishun Dream”, translated as “Youth Dream”. It is discounted because it offers less amenities than the regular bus service. Seats are configured 2×2, just like you’d find on a North American Greyhound bus. Seats offer recline, and there is a toilet on board. Regardless of time of day or holiday, the price is 5,000 yen with a 500 yen discount for a 5-day advance purchase. Travel times are similar to the other bus services.

2,300 yen: At last, the price tag of 2,300 yen. Is it possible to travel from Tokyo to Kyoto at such a low price?? Indeed, it IS possible, but as the old saying goes, “Certain restrictions apply.”

The rules are as follows: First, you must travel to and within Japan during one of the country’s three designated school holiday periods: March 1 – April 10, July 20 – September 10, and December 10 – January 20.

Secondly, you must travel with four other people… either four of your friends who want to go to Japan, or four Japanese friends, etc… finding the four people to go with you is your choice, and of course, your responsibility.

Finally, one person must purchase a ticket sold DURING the school holiday periods, called the “Seishun 18 Ticket”. This ticket sells for 11,500 yen and allows for unlimited travel on JR’s LOCAL TRAINS only: NO BULLET TRAINS!

The Seishun 18 Ticket essentially has five “SPACES” that can be used. Each space is good for one person on one day. So one person could use it for five separate days within the validity of the ticket. Or two people could use it together for two days, etc.

Indeed, FIVE people can use the seishun 18 ticket on a single day, as long as travel is completed by 12 midnight. What a cheap way to travel! Simply purchase the ticket, and make sure everyone stays together. As you go into the system, your ticket is stamped five times. So all five of you are set for the journey.

As mentioned above, you will travel on local trains only – no bullet trains. The travel time is about 9 hours, not accounting for pit stops or meal stops. But here’s a good thing: with the Seishun 18 ticket, if you all stay together, you can exit the system at any station and return to the system on the same day – just show your stamped ticket. With this in mind, perhaps you can exit the system at a major train station – say for example, Odawara, Shizuoka, Hamamatsu, Toyohashi or Nagoya – and head into a restaurant within the station, or enjoy some treats within the floors of a Japanese department store.

This 2,300 yen plan also works for other long-haul trips such as Tokyo to Nagoya or Tokyo to Osaka. The ticket price of 11,500 yen, divided by five, equals 2,300 yen. Even if four or three were to take the trip, the trip breaks down to 2,875 yen or 3,830 yen per person respectively – which can very well be a TREMENDOUS savings compared to standard train prices, or even bus prices.

My motto when it comes to Japan travel: always research as much as possible about your trip. This way it will make your trip much more enjoyable when it happens – not to mention it MAY just be a little lighter on the wallet!

With that, here is an idea that someone could use to travel from Tokyo to Kyoto by local JR trains. This itinerary assumes a regular weekday in May of 2013, leaving at 6:30 in the morning – just as the morning rush begins to ramp up.

Train 1: Tokyo-Numazu
Leave Tokyo at 6:34 (Platform 8)
Leave Shinagawa at 6:43
Leave Yokohama at 7:00
Arrive Odawara at 7:57
Arrive Atami at 8:20
Arrive Numazu at 8:39

From other parts of Tokyo, you can take the JR Yamanote Line to Shinagawa and change to the above train. These Yamanote Line departures will give you about 10 minutes to transfer at Shinagawa:
Ikebukuro: 6:05
Shinjuku: 6:13
Shibuya: 6:20
Ueno: 6:12 (Keihin-Tohoku Line)

Train 2: Numazu-Shizuoka
Leave Numazu at 8:42
Arrive Fuji at 9:01
Arrive Shizuoka at 9:36

Stay in Shizuoka one hour for a bathroom and meal break.

Train 3: Shizuoka-Hamamatsu
Leave Shizuoka at 10:42
Arrive Hamamatsu at 11:51

Train 4: Hamamatsu-Toyohashi
Leave Hamamatsu at 12:02
Arrive Toyohashi at 12:36

Train 5: Toyohashi-Nagoya (Special Rapid Train)
Leave Toyohashi at 12:51
Arrive Nagoya at 13:41

Stay in Nagoya one hour for a bathroom and meal break.

Train 6: Nagoya-Ogaki (Special Rapid Train)
Leave Nagoya at 14:45
Arrive Ogaki at 15:16

Train 7: Ogaki-Maibara
Leave Ogaki at 15:37
Arrive Maibara at 16:12

Train 8: Maibara-Kyoto (Special Rapid Train)
Leave Maibara at 16:18
Arrive Kyoto at 17:12
(Train continues to Osaka at 17:43, Sannomiya/Kobe at 18:06, Himeji at 18:47)

The total travel time from Tokyo, including breaks, is approximately 10 1/2 hours. Of course, you can tailor the breaks/rests to suit your needs.