Japan Trip #4 Is Booked!

Today I’d officially like to share on my blog news that was posted earlier in the week.

I felt like I was due for a fourth trip to my favorite country outside of North America, having visited Japan in 2004, 2008 and 2013. A couple of weeks ago, at the end of my quick trip to Boston, I was able to secure an award ticket through frequent flier points from American Airlines. In other words… barring any circumstances that might come up, my fourth trip to Japan is booked for the fall of this year!

As I think I’ve stated on this blog before, my hope is to travel at a leisurely pace from Tokyo to Kyoto. Sure, you could do it in around 2 hours and change on the fastest bullet train, but what I’d like to do this time is follow the route, more or less, of the OLD Tokaido Road… the road established centuries ago during the Edo period as a means of connecting the cities of Edo (Tokyo) and Kyoto. In this way, I hope to experience many facets of Japan that many tourists would likely overlook.

Now that the airfare is out of the way and I’ve purchased my travel insurance, I’ve been starting to map out my plans for where to stay, keeping my travel goals in mind. I’ve got a few hotels lined up in some places, and all I need to do is reserve them.

My view is that since it will be a fairly popular time to visit and travel Japan (autumn) I will want to look into reserving places as soon as I can.

I also look for places that I can pay for later. More and more properties in Japan are offering cheaper, non-refundable rates, which you need to pay for right away; unfortunately you would lose that money should your plans change and need to cancel. In my instance I need to be flexible… I’ll make bookings now and then check other hotels later to see if any better deals show up. I am keeping location and prices in mind, but also the exchange rate (the prices I am quoted in US dollars now may not necessarily be the same in a few months). If something better were to surface closer to the trip, I’ll cancel and rebook as necessary… which I have done multiple times before my previous Japan trips.

At the same time I’ll also want to look into my travel plans within Japan to see the best way to get myself around. Right now it doesn’t seem like a long Japan Rail Pass will be in my best interests; I might look into some day or regional passes instead.

This, my friends, is is what I think about before these sorts of trips. I also think it’s important that all travelers be prepared for what they want to do, then be a little flexible in case things happen once the journey has begun.

It’s going to be an exciting trip, and I am looking forward to it! I’ll do my best to share more updates here, in addition to my Facebook page (facebook.com/myjapantips).

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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

Destination of the Week: Kinkaku-ji

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Kinkaku-ji Temple. Photo ©Jose Ramos, September 2013

There is a Buddhist temple in Japan that is a must-see destination… another one of those places that you’ll commonly find photos of in many travel materials that you will come across. Nestled in the northern part of Kyoto city, it’s the one that features walls lined with the bright color of gold… Kinkaku-ji, or the golden pavilion.

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Kinkaku-ji Temple. Photo ©Jose Ramos, September 2013

About Kinkaku-ji: The temple is actually known as Rokuon-ji, but the gold leaf surrounding the three-story shariden (pavilion) is where the Kinkaku-ji name is derived from. The temple is dedicated to the Bosastu deity, which embodies the compassion of all Buddhas.

Kinkaku-ji, like the rest of Kyoto, was untouched by the Allied bombings in World War II, but nevertheless has burnt down and been rebuilt numerous times, including as part of civil wars. Most recently in 1950, a young monk attempted to set himself on fire in a suicide attempt; he survived, but the building did not.

The current Kinkaku-ji dates from 1955. The pavilion underwent restoration between 1987 and 2003.

 

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Blog author Jose at Kinkaku-ji. Photo by Jordan Martin, September 2013. ©Jose Ramos

Did you know? The pavilion is covered in gold leaf because it is believed that the gold color purifies any negative thoughts related to death. The effect of the gold leaf is enhanced through sunlight reflecting off of it, as well as from reflections off of nearby ponds in the temple complex.

 

Kinkaku-ji is not limited to the pavilion itself. A beautiful Japanese garden surrounds the pavilion and can be found throughout the temple grounds.

Kinkaku-ji is on UNESCO’s list of 17 Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto, making it a World Heritage Site.

Costs: It costs 400 yen for admission to the temple grounds. They are open every day of the year from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM.

How to get there: Kinkaku-ji is a little bit out of the way on the map of Kyoto’s attractions. The best way to access the temple is by bus , though Kyoto’s traffic conditions may make the going a little slow.

Several bus routes run to Kinkaku-ji, including the 101 and 205 buses from Kyoto Station, which are the limited-stop buses that run toward Kyoto’s major sightseeing destinations… and therefore tend to get crowded. These buses, like many that run within Kyoto, cost just a flat fare of 230 yen to ride.

When I visited Kyoto in 2013 and traveled to Kinkaku-ji, I followed some advice posted online and used a combination of subway and bus. This involved taking the subway north from Kyoto Station to Kitaoji Station (7 stops, 260 yen), then changing to one of the buses that goes to Kinkaku-ji – either the 101, 102, 204 or 205 bus (230 yen). While the subway was reasonably busy heading northbound during the morning hours, it ran on time. There was little wait for a bus when I got to Kitaoji, and the bus ride from there to the temple was pleasant and not at all crowded.

Using the subway/bus method effectively doubles your one-way fare to 490 yen, though the use of some sort of all-day pass might help mitigate this cost. Examples include a 1-day or 2-day Kyoto sightseeing pass valid for the bus and subway (1,200 yen and 2,000 yen respectively). Since I did a lot of traveling around Kansai on my trip, I utilized a Surutto Kansai Ticket (also called the Kansai Thru Pass) which permits 3 non-consecutive days of travel on Kansai’s private railways, subways and most buses. This pass costs 5,200 yen as of February 2017.

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Ryoan-ji Temple garden. Photo by Jordan Martin, September 2013. ©Jose Ramos

What’s Nearby: I combined my trip to Kinkaku-ji with a visit to nearby Ryoan-ji temple, which is noted for its zen rock garden. The number 59 bus easily runs from Kinkaku-ji to Ryoan-ji, or you can take a quick taxi ride for around 1,000 yen.

If you have time later in the day, head southwest to charming Arashiyama, home to shops and restaurants, as well as a landmark bridge (Togetsukyo) with a monkey park on the other side. I recommend making the Randen, or Keifuku Railway Tram, part of your trip to Arashiyama. From Kinkaku-ji, take the 204 or 205 bus south to Kitano Hakubaicho (230 yen) and then take the Randen to Arashiyama (210 yen, one train change required). From Ryoan-ji, take a nice stroll south of the temple entrance for about 600 meters (10 minutes) to Ryoan-ji-mae station, and take the Randen to Arashiyama (210 yen, one train change required).

Returning to Kyoto Station, my recommendations:
*From Kinkaku-ji, bus number 101, 102, 204 or 205 to Kitaoji Bus Terminal (230 yen), change to Subway to Kyoto Station (260 yen).
*From Ryoan-ji, bus number 59 to Karasuma Imadegawa (230 yen), change to Subway to Kyoto Station (260 yen).
*From Arashiyama, you can walk northeast for approximately 800 meters (10-15 minutes) to the JR station at Saga Arashiyama and take a direct JR train to Kyoto Station (15 minutes, 240 yen). Alternatively, you can take the Randen to Tenjingawa Station (210 yen) and then take the subway (260 yen, one train change required).

Kintetsu Railway now accepts online reservations in English

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The Shimakaze, one of Kintetsu Railway’s flagship trains. Photo by KishujiRapid/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

One of the major… and if I’m not mistaken, the largest… private railway operator in Japan is now accepting online reservations for their premium trains in English.

Kintetsu Railway offers a reliable service connecting three major cities, as well as important cultural and seaside destinations, across FIVE prefectures. Trains primarily run from Kyoto and Nagoya (close to their JR counterparts) as well as from Namba in the southern part of Osaka city, out towards Nara (housing a Buddhist temple in the world’s largest wooden building), Ise (home to one of Japan’s most revered Shinto shrines), and the coastal towns of Toba and Shima. In addition to the seaside cities, you will find frequent premium trains from Kyoto to Nara, and from Osaka to Nagoya (a cheaper alternative compared to the Shinkansen).

All of this information is spelled out in English on Kintetsu’s website. I stumbled across this website after watching a feature on NHK World’s television program Japan Railway Journal, during a segment explaining how Kintetsu Railway aims to help foreign tourists who are visiting the areas that they serve. This episode will still be available on VOD, but only for a few more days.

The new Kintetsu site offers useful information on how to use their trains… and now also includes a new section for E-Tickets, which I believe has been offered for just a few months. That’s right, if you know what premium train you want to use on Kintetsu and when you want to go, you can now make reservations online in advance.

All of the premium Kintetsu trains require a seat reservation. You’ll need to pay for the reservation using a credit card. Then you print out the confirmation or save it on your smartphone, and when you come to Japan you will need to purchase your BASIC ticket that covers the same distance… If you need a refresher, remember that premium train services require a basic ticket (to cover the regular fare from point A to point B if you used a local train) and an express/limited express ticket surcharge (to cover a specific train and seat on the same route). You can use standard tickets, valid day passes or a stored fare (IC) card to cover your basic fare.

While I don’t think you need to make a reservation far ahead of time for Kintetsu, there are a few exceptions to consider in my opinion. First, you may wish to consider a reservation if you are traveling during times of high demand, such as Japan’s big travel holidays in late April-early May, August, and late December-early January. I would imagine that the autumn season also sees high demand because many travelers like to visit these regions to see nature’s fall colors. Also in high demand are Kintetsu’s flagship trains such as the Shimakaze, which generally runs a small number of services… one round trip in either direction between Ise/Shima/Toba and the major cities of Nagoya, Kyoto and Osaka. These trains offer all-deluxe seating, rooms for groups, and even an on-board cafe. Under these circumstances you may wish to consider reserving your ticket ahead of time. If your plans change, Kintetsu will allow you to change your reservation up to three times.

I can highly vouch for Kintetsu’s Limited Express services, which are very efficient. I used the premium train on services between Kyoto and Nara, and also used it for a slightly more expensive yet comfortable trip between Osaka and Kyoto, changing trains just outside of Nara. It was more pleasant to take this little detour – especially during the evening rush hour – so that I did not have to deal with the commuter trains on the more direct route. (And just for kicks, yes, this route CAN be reserved through Kintetsu’s online system!)

Keep in mind that the online reservation system for Kintetsu is not available during overnight hours (Japan Time), and that train reservations open up at 10:30 (Japan Time) one month before departure.

I’m happy to see more and more Japanese companies offer online reservations for foreigners visiting the country. Kintetsu is among the latest additions, and joins other companies like JR East, Odakyu, Tobu, Willer Express and JR Bus.

Have I left any other companies out? Please comment and let me know!

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.

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.

 

New J-Trip Plan Show on NHK World

jtripplanToday I watched the pilot episode of J-Trip Plan, a brand new Japan travel planning program on NHK World. Hosted by Thane Camus (a fellow New Yorker!) and Amy Ota, J-Trip Plan offers suggestions and tips for Japan travel. The focus of the pilot episode was Winter, with looks at the Sapporo Snow Festival, the Hadaka Matsuri in Okayama, and food tours in Kyoto Prefecture with one segment focused on crab.

The show will be airing once every two weeks from April, and the pilot episode is available for free viewing on NHK World’s VOD service until February 11.

To view the episode: http://www3.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/en/vod/jtrip-plan/20160129.html

To visit the show’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/NHKjtripplan

I highly recommend NHK’s newest program, J-Trip Plan, and I hope you’ll use the show as one of your guides to plot your next Japan itinerary!