Are you sure you need a Japan Rail Pass?

I have a new video update that was posted today to my Facebook page, located at facebook.com/myjapantips.

Amidst the unusually cool weather for a late August day in Upstate New York, I tackled the issue of the national Japan Rail Pass. Many online sites have articles that claim that the Japan Rail Pass is the best deal for train travel in Japan, and you have to get your hands on one.

The first part of that statement is true. The second? Not necessarily.

The Japan Rail Pass provides unlimited travel on Japan Railways lines, including all shinkansen trains (except Nozomi and Mizuho) for 7, 14 or 21 consecutive days in either ordinary class or green class (first class). You can also make free seat reservations on all services that offer them, which include bullet trains and many limited express services, such as the Narita Express and Haruka trains to/from Narita Airport and Kansai Airport, respectively.

To obtain a Japan Rail Pass, you purchase a voucher in your home country from a travel agency, and exchange the voucher for the actual pass when you arrive in Japan. This year JR has started trial sales for the pass in Japan with no voucher exchange necessary, but at higher prices.

The most important question – or perhaps the only question – that you have to ask yourself is: Will getting a pass be cheaper than buying regular tickets?

To answer this question, put together a list of cities that you would like to visit in Japan. Then, figure out the fares between the two cities. Several online sites will tell you the amount. Two sites I recommend are HyperDia and the JR East site (the latter only lets you search bullet train fares by individual line).

One example: If you’re in Japan for a week, and will only travel between Tokyo and Kyoto, a 7-Day Rail Pass (29,110 yen for ordinary class) might not work out, as the regular round-trip fare between these two cities is cheaper (27,820 yen). If, on the other hand, you add another side trip, then the rail pass might pay off.

If your trip includes visits to, say, Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Fukuoka or Hokkaido – which just gained access to the bullet train network recently – then you most certainly can look into a national rail pass. There are also a plethora of regional and local passes that are available… if you’re just meandering around Tokyo for example, consider one of several day passes, including the Tokunai Pass for unlimited JR travel in one day for 750 yen, or the 24-hour Tokyo Metro open ticket for 600 yen. You could also use a stored fare card such as a Suica or PASMO card.

Be sure to do your homework to see if a Rail Pass is something you really need!

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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.

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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

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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

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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.

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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

Overnight by Train in Japan: The Options – March 2016 Update

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.

 

Hokkaido Shinkansen – New train line, new rail pass

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

Happy New Year, and welcome to the first post on myjapantips.com in 2016!

In a few months, Japan’s iconic bullet train system will be extended to the northern island of Hokkaido for the very first time. The shinkansen has been running there for the past few months on test runs, but it officially opens to the public on March 26.

Plans for a bullet train line in Hokkaido were laid out over four decades ago, with proposals for several routes on Hokkaido itself. The 33 1/2 mile Seikan Tunnel linked Hokkaido to the Japanese mainland in 1988, and with the 17-year construction project came provisions to eventually add the bullet train.

The new bullet train line extends a distance of 92 1/2 miles from the northernmost terminal at Shin-Aomori, through the Seikan Tunnel to a bullet train station outside of Hakodate, called Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto. From here, a shuttle train called the “Hakodate Liner” makes the 11 mile trip south to Hakodate station in the center of the city.

It will also be possible to hook up to the Hokuto limited express service for the journey north to Sapporo. You can enjoy the scenic trip up to Sapporo on the limited express, as the bullet train probably won’t reach Sapporo for another 15 years or so.

Here are some additional details on the new services to Hakodate, which will extend as far south as Tokyo itself.

Up until the start of services on March 26, 2016: Train travelers from Tokyo heading north to Hokkaido have to change in Aomori for conventional express trains that run under the Seikan Tunnel to Hakodate. The fastest journey from Tokyo to Hakodate is 5 hours 22 minutes. From Tokyo to Sapporo (with an additional change of trains) the fastest journey time is just over 9 hours.

When the bullet train opens on March 26, 2016: Travel times from Tokyo to Hakodate will be cut by almost an hour, to 4 1/2 hours on the fastest services. With just one transfer at Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto to an express, Tokyo to Sapporo journey times will be reduced to 7 hours, 44 minutes on the fastest services.

You may ask… if the bullet train is supposed to be fast, why can’t trains reach Hakodate faster? That’s because when the bullet train opens through the Seikan Tunnel, it will be sharing space with freight train traffic. Freight by rail is big in Japan, and more so to and from the island of Hokkaido with around 50 freight train trips through the tunnel every day. For the time being, bullet trains will have to reduce their speed from around 160 mph on the approach to the tunnel all the way down to 87 mph. Any faster than this, and the shock-waves of air generated by the train in the tunnel will cause the freight cars to fly off the tracks. There are some plans being discussed to offer faster trips, such as maintaining a 160 mph speed through the tunnel and then automatically slowing down when passing freight trains, or scheduling one return trip per day when freight trains are not using the tunnel. Such plans, though, are years off.

There will be ten daily round-trips on the Hokkaido Shinkansen from Tokyo to Hokkaido, and one each from the cities of Sendai, Morioka and Aomori. Services will use the E5 and new H5 shinkansen trains. All cars require a seat reservation: there are eight standard class cars, one green car (first class) and one GranClass car (premium first class).

The Japan Rail Pass will be valid on all of the new bullet train extensions. The exception is GranClass, which Rail Pass users will not be able to use unless supplement charges are paid. Green Car Rail Pass holders can still use the regular Green Car on these services, though.

JR East and JR Hokkaido are offering a new rail pass for foreign tourists who plan to only travel between Tokyo and Hokkaido, and it costs slightly less than a 7 day Japan Rail Pass. It’s called the JR East-South Hokkaido Rail Pass, and it costs 26,000 yen if purchased overseas (27,000 yen if purchased inside the country).

To be used on any six days within a 14 day period, the new pass covers all JR lines in Tokyo, and north of Tokyo through the Tohoku region and into Hokkaido, as far as Sapporo. You can use the shinkansen from Tokyo to Hakodate, as well as portions of several other JR East bullet train lines. A large number of conventional JR routes can also be used, and seat reservations on bullet trains and limited express trains can be made for free. You can use the Narita Express, the Tokyo Monorail to Haneda Airport, the Sendai Airport rail link, the JR rail line to Sapporo’s airport, and also access Nikko and the Izu peninsula. It’s a fantastic deal, considering that the pass is flexible, and does not need to be used on consecutive days…. you CAN use it on consecutive days if you wish, but it is not required. The pass is only good for standard class… it cannot be used for the Green Car or for GranClass.

Hakodate city was named Japan’s most attractive city of 2015 in a recent survey. Attractions from the famous morning market and the night view at the top of Mount Hakodate to a ride on one of the city’s old streetcars will be easier to access with the opening of the bullet train into Hokkaido in March. While you’re at it, why not continue your rail journey towards Sapporo, known for its annual snow festival, craft beers, and museums dedicated to the preservation of the Ainu culture.

As usual, your questions and comments are welcome. I am glad to offer advice whenever I am able, subject to the blog disclaimer.

New regional rail pass unveiled for Kanto region

JR East will begin selling an upgraded version of the Kanto Area pass for foreigners next month called the Tokyo Wide Pass. The cost of the pass will be 10,000 yen (adults) for three consecutive days of travel, up from the 8,300 yen cost of the old Kanto Area pass.

Sales of the new Tokyo Wide pass will commence on November 19, and can be used with a start date of December 19 or later. The Kanto Area pass will no longer be sold after December 18.

The coverage area of the Tokyo Wide pass covers includes the entire coverage area of the former Kanto Area pass, with these additions:

– Joetsu Shinkansen and Joetsu Main Line to Echigo-Yuzawa, and to Gala Yuzawa during the winter season
– Rinkai Line (Tokyo Waterfront Railway) for its entire length

If you plan to go to the Yuzawa region to hit the ski slopes or sample different varieties of sake – the latter of which I did in 2013 – the new Tokyo Wide Pass is a good investment considering a round-trip reserved ticket costs over 13,000 yen. The pass will also cover other JR services like the former Kanto pass, including trips to Nikko, Lake Kawaguchi near Mount Fuji, and the Izu Peninsula.

Visit the JR East web site to learn more about the Tokyo Wide Pass.

A Thank You Note from Australia

This is a few months overdue, so with apologies for the delay I’d like to share a thank you that I received from a traveler in Australia.

I love Japan and the Japanese culture, and that is why one of my hobbies is to operate this blog, post some suggestions and travel updates, and do the best that I can to answer anyone’s questions about Japan travel. (on that note, please read the disclaimer!)

In the spring, Peter from Australia visited Japan and requested that I put together a whirlwind rail tour for him that would take him around the country in the limited amount of time that he had. Or in his words, not heavy on sightseeing.

I was able to do just that, and for the most part Peter used the itinerary to travel around the country.

Here’s Peter’s thank you note, which he allowed me to share:

I can’t thank Jose enough for helping me plan my rail trip around Japan in March 2015. I wanted to use a 14 day Japan Rail Pass to see as much of Japan as possible without too much on the ground sight-seeing. The programme Jose gave me was perfect. I was able to give the programme to the Japan Rail booking office in Tokyo and reserve seats for most of the trip. The trip included travel on bullet trains and on limited express trains. Everything went like clockwork. I joined the Toyoko Club which gave me discount bookings at their chain of business hotels which are generally located within a few minutes walk from each major railway station. Normally I arrived at my destination early afternoon, checked my bags into the hotel and then visited the recommended sites and enjoyed great food at the lower end restaurants. The next day I would catch a train mid morning and so on. I only stayed at one place for two nights to catch up on laundry etc. In 14 days I got an overview of Honshu, Kyushu and Shikoku. I’ve saved Hokkaido for another trip.
Thanks again Jose for making my trip so memorable.
Kind regards
Peter Coghlan
Perth, Western Australia

He also sent me a thank you gift … I’ll share a photo of it soon on my Facebook page, facebook.com/myjapantips … be sure to look out for it!

New Narita Express Ticket to be sold starting March 2015

Welcome to the first post of 2015. Before I begin, a quick thanks to those who are reading my blog entries and asking their questions. I will continue to help to the best of my ability and notify you of any interesting news regarding travel around Japan. For example, in this post.

East Japan Railway (aka JR East) has announced in a Japanese press release from last week that they are introducing a new ticket for foreigners traveling into and out of Narita Airport: The N’EX Tokyo Round-Trip Ticket. For a fare of 4,000 yen, the ticket includes an inbound trip from Narita Airport into Tokyo on the Narita Express, and then transportation by commuter service to any JR station in a designated area – the area of which includes most of Tokyo and the area around Yokohama, extending all the way towards Ofuna and Kamakura (home of the great daibutsu and gateway to Enoshima). Then, within 14 days of your initial trip you reverse the steps to board the Narita Express on the way back to Narita Airport.

The Narita Express is one of the premium trains that operates to and from Narita Airport. It has all-reserved seating and, with few exceptions, makes no stops between Tokyo station and the airport. It is clearly the most accessible train as well, as it stops at some of the major train stations in and near Tokyo – including Shinagawa, Shibuya, Shinjuku and Yokohama. A few trains also serve Ikebukuro, Omiya and Ofuna, and one service even reaches out all the way to Mount Takao on the western edge of Tokyo.

Regular fares on the Narita Express range anywhere from 3,020 yen one-way for a trip to Tokyo, up to 4,290 yen for a trip to Yokohama. With this discounted ticket for foreigners, on the other hand, it costs just 2,000 yen each way.

You will certainly see more details about this new round-trip ticket on the JR East English website soon.

There is a drawback to this, however…. the excellent 1,500 yen one-way ticket (Tokyo Direct Ticket), valid for a one-way trip out of Narita Airport, will be discontinued on March 14, 2015 – the same day that the new Round Trip ticket will be introduced.

The new deal is still good, and it’s still worth considering if you are planning to arrive and depart Narita Airport in Tokyo on your next Japan journey. There are a few conditions, though, where this new ticket would NOT be the best value, namely:

– If you are traveling “Open Jaw”, that is, landing at Narita Airport and departing Japan from another airport, or vice versa
OR
– If you are traveling on a rail pass such as the Japan Rail Pass, JR East Rail Pass or JR Kanto Area Pass

If you are on an open jaw, or if your rail pass will not cover the day you are traveling out of the airport (if, for example, you plan to start using your pass on another date), then the better values for train travel out of Narita is the Keisei Skyliner, which costs 2,200 yen for a trip if you buy an online voucher in advance. Once you are in the city, transfer to the subway or JR to reach your final destination. A trip to Tokyo station using this method costs a total of 2,360 yen, while a trip to Shinjuku costs 2,400 yen. A transfer at Nippori is recommended, as it directly connects to several JR lines including the Yamanote Line (which loops around the city).

Naturally, if you use a rail pass that covers both journeys to and from Narita Airport – such as the ones listed above – there is no need to buy the new Round Trip Ticket, and you can make seat reservations at a staffed JR ticket counter by showing your pass.

Take the time to research your trip, and see what sort of trip is the better deal for you!

Of course, remember there are other ways to travel from Narita Airport. Here is my primer on travel from an airport to your hotel.