Welcome to Japan: Kansai International Airport

640px-Kansai_International_Airport01n4272
Kansai Airport International Departures. Photo by 663highland (CC BY 2.5)

Welcome to the last in a series of blog posts called Welcome to Japan. In the first project since updating the layout of my blog, I am introducing a series that will explain the available transit options after arriving at some of Japan’s major airports.

In the free time that I’ve had to post articles here, I have written about Narita Airport, Haneda Airport and Centrair Airport. Now comes the last of Japan’s major airports, Osaka’s Kansai International Airport, which is a fairly recent addition; it only opened in 1994. It became so popular that a second runway was put into operation 13 years later. Kansai Airport, like Centrair Airport and a few others, sits on a man-made island in the southern part of Osaka Prefecture.

In September 2018, a strong typhoon halted operations for some time, with the runways flooded and the major bridge linking the airport to the mainland severely damaged by a drifting tanker. Repairs on the bridge have since been completed, and Kansai Airport once again welcomes visitors eager to explore the Kansai region, while at the same time serving as a springboard to western and southern Japan.

When Kansai Airport opened in the 1990s, it took most of the international operations away from Osaka’s much closer Itami Airport. Itami is still in use today; while restricted to domestic flights only, Itami is actually busier than its more modern counterpart in Osaka Bay.

Technically speaking, the airport property sits within three municipalities: Izumisano City, Tajiri City, and Sennan City. The main bridge from the airport leads you to Izumisano, home to the Rinku Town outlets and commercial zone. Japan’s third tallest building, the Rinku Gate Tower Building, is located here as well. It is also a junction for train services heading south on the Kii Peninsula.

Kansai Airport has two terminals. By far the main attraction is the main terminal building, or Terminal 1, which was designed by the famous Italian architect Renzo Piano. The terminal building is the longest in the world, stretching around 1.7 kilometers (1.06 miles) from end to end. A people mover system stretches the entire length of the facility. It is also built for easy interchanges and connections. International passengers complete arrival formalities on the first floor, while departures are handled on the fourth floor. The second floor is dedicated to domestic arrivals and departures. Shops and restaurants are located on the third floor. Directly connected to the airport is a retail complex known as the Aeroplaza.

Pale in comparison is the much more simpler Terminal 2, which is a facility built specifically for Low Cost Carrier (LCC) airlines. Facilities are much more limited compared to Terminal 1. Free shuttle buses make the approximately 10-minute trip between terminals regularly.

Now let’s go into depth about what transit options are available to and from the airport. We begin with the trains… like Narita and Haneda airports, there are two main train operators competing for your business: Japan Railways (JR) and the private Nankai Railway. Each of the two offer a premium service heading to and from Kansai Airport, as well as standard commuter service.

It’s important to point out that much like Tokyo (but on a smaller scale) there is a circular loop that goes around Osaka, called the Osaka Loop Line. A big difference compared to Tokyo, on the other hand, is that a plethora of both subway lines and private rail lines cross around and through the loop.

Japan Railways (JR)

The JR offers useful connections to the Osaka Loop Line, the bullet train, and Kyoto. You can also pick up the national Japan Rail Pass and a variety of regional JR passes at the airport.

Jrwest_281
JR West Haruka train. Photo by Chabata K (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Their flagship limited express service is called the Haruka. It operates twice per hour throughout most of the day. With the exception of certain rush-hour trains, Haruka services leaving Kansai Airport operate nonstop to Tennoji, at the bottom of the Osaka Loop near the Namba district. The train then runs clockwise around the loop and split off, arriving at Shin-Osaka where you can easily connect to the bullet train to head off towards western Japan and cities such as Okayama, Hiroshima and Fukuoka, or even go east towards Nagoya and Tokyo. From Shin-Osaka, the Haruka proceeds directly to the ancient capital of Kyoto. Most services terminate there, while a few rush-hour trains operate as far as Maibara in Shiga Prefecture.

Haruka trains offer a combination of reserved and non-reserved seats. As it is a limited express train, you will have to pay a surcharge on top of the basic fare. Here are the Haruka fares to three major destinations:

Tennoji: 1710 yen unreserved, 2230 yen reserved (about 35 minutes)
Shin-Osaka: 2330 yen unreserved, 2850 yen reserved (about 50 minutes)
Kyoto: 2850 yen unreserved, 3370 yen reserved (about 1 hour, 20 minutes)

The Haruka also offers the first class Green Car seats, which are bigger but more expensive.

The fares seem outrageously expensive at first, but remember that you are paying for the convenience of reaching Kansai’s major stations and connection points in a hassle-free and efficient manner.

The cheaper commuter train version of JR trains is the Kanku-Kaisoku, or Kansai Airport Rapid train service. These make more stops; moreover, a major difference from the Haruka is that the commuter trains stay on the Osaka Loop Line, in most instances making a complete circuit. Rapid trains stop at Nishi-Kujo, which is a transfer point to reach Universal Studios Japan, and at plain Osaka station, which is the gateway to the Umeda area and features a newly renovated train station that I saw firsthand in 2017. Since the Kanku-Kaisoku stays on the Osaka Loop Line, you’ll have to generally change trains to reach other destinations in Kansai such as Kyoto. To reach Shin-Osaka or Kyoto, you’ll have to change trains at Osaka station and change to an eastbound train on the JR Kyoto Line (aka Tokaido Line). Sample fares:

Tennoji: 1060 yen (55 minutes)
Nishi-Kujo: 1190 yen (65 minutes)
Osaka: 1190 yen (70 minutes)
Shin-Osaka: 1360 yen (about 80 minutes; change at Osaka Station)
Kyoto: 1880 yen (about 2 hours; change at Osaka Station)

The above trains are all covered by the Japan Rail Pass and a variety of regional rail passes offered by West Japan Railway (JR West). Foreign tourists traveling out of Kansai Airport may wish to consider the short-range Kansai Area Pass, sold online starting at 2,250 yen for one day. It includes unlimited usage of trains in the Kansai region for one day, and also includes travel on the Haruka limited express in unreserved cars. Multiple day versions of the Kansai Area Pass are sold, but what’s interesting to note is that if your destination on the JR is either Shin-Osaka or Kyoto, purchasing a one-day Kansai Area Pass just for your trip on the Haruka is cheaper than buying regular unreserved tickets.

The ICOCA and Haruka ticket is also available for foreign tourists, and includes a one-way or round-trip on the Haruka in unreserved seats and a 2000 yen IC card (includes 500 yen deposit) that can be used for train travel, shopping, restaurants and vending machines.

Also note that Tennoji station connects to two of Osaka’s subway lines: the Midosuji Line and the Tanimachi Line. The Midosuji Line is among Osaka city’s most useful subway routes, as it runs north and south stopping at some major transportation hubs.

Nankai Railway

The competitor to Japan Railways is the Nankai Railway. Like JR, Nankai has a premium train as well as a regular commuter service.

Nankai trains run into southern Osaka, terminating at Namba Station, so if you are heading to this area then taking the Nankai can be a convenient option. Namba station is very large, so it may take a bit of time to navigate, but there are connections to the Midosuji, Sennichimae and Yotsubashi subway lines, as well as a connection to the Kintetsu and Hanshin railways. The Hanshin railway will take you west towards Amagasaki and Kobe (with connections available as far as Himeji) and the Kintetsu will take you east towards Nara (with connections all the way to Ise Bay and Nagoya if you feel so inclined). Nankai trains also stop at two other important hubs: Shin-Imamiya will connect you on to the JR Osaka Loop Line, and Tengachaya connects you to the Sakaisuji subway line, which provides an alternate means of traveling to Kyoto via the Hankyu Railway.

640px-Nankai_50000_series_50002F
Nankai Rapi:t train. Photo by 日根野 (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Nankai’s premier airport service is called the rap:t (pronounced ra-PEET). The trains have a very unique, streamlined/steampunk-ish look. Inside you have a choice of standard seats and slightly wider super seats. Unlike JR’s Haruka, all seats on the rap:t require a reservation. Trains leave every 30 minutes or so, and the fastest trains reach the Namba terminal in around 39 minutes. The fare between Kansai Airport and Namba, Shin-Imamiya and Tengachaya stations is the same: 1430 yen for regular seats and 1640 yen for super seats. It’s possible to purchase rap:t tickets in advance on the Nankai Railway website for a discount of 300 yen; you would then bring the voucher to one of the rap:t train stations and exchange it for an actual ticket.

Running more frequently (around 4 trains per hour) is Nankai’s commuter service, the Airport Express. The fare between Kansai Airport and Namba, Shin-Imamiya and Tengachaya stations is only 920 yen for the commuter trains.

As mentioned, the Nankai Railway offers connections to major train lines, so even though it stops short at Namba you can easily travel to other areas. Nankai sells a plethora of discount tickets that can be used to reach other parts of the Kansai and Hyogo regions:

Yokoso! Osaka Ticket: 1500 yen (online purchase). Sold only to foreigners, this includes a one-way trip on the rap:t from Kansai Airport, plus a one-day unlimited Osaka Subway/Bus pass.

Kyoto Access Ticket: 1230 yen. This ticket includes a one-way trip on regular Nankai trains from Kansai Airport to Tengachaya, and then a one-way trip from Tengachaya to Kyoto using the Sakaisuji subway line and Hankyu Railway. You can ride the Nankai rap:t train for an additional charge.

Nara Access Ticket: 1230 yen. This ticket includes a one-way trip on regular Nankai trains from Kansai Airport to Namba, and then a one-way trip from Namba to Nara using the Kintetsu Railway. You can ride the Nankai rap:t train and the Kintetsu limited express for an additional charge.

Kobe Access Ticket: 1130 yen. This ticket includes a one-way trip on regular Nankai trains from Kansai Airport to Namba, and then a one-way trip from Namba any station on the Hanshin Railway; you can travel as far as Kobe-Sannomiya and Motomachi, and apparently, you can also head towards Umeda (near JR Osaka Station) by changing trains at Amagasaki, which would still save you about 150 yen. You can ride the Nankai rap:t train for an additional charge.

Other useful passes are described on the Nankai website. One of the more useful tickets to get around the entire region is the Kansai Thru Pass, which gives you unlimited travel on private railways and many local buses in an vast area. Tickets are 4300 yen for 2 days or 5300 yen for 3 days, and you do not need to use the pass on consecutive days.

Buses

KATE_2404_at_Hanshin-Amagasaki_Station
Kansai’s Airport Limousine Buses are blue and white in color. Photo by KishujiRapid (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Highway Buses in and out of Kansai Airport are managed by Kansai Airport Transportation Enterprise. As mentioned in previous articles, they are convenient if you have lots of luggage and you don’t want to use baggage forwarding, or if you want to go to specific hotels. The only drawback is the potential for traffic.

Many buses go to Osaka’s dedicated terminal for airport buses, the Osaka City Air Terminal or OCAT in Namba, which offers access to Namba station. Buses leave every 20 minutes and are timetabled at 50 minutes between Terminal 1 and OCAT. The fare is 1100 yen one way, or 1900 yen round-trip.

Buses run every 20 minutes or so to the Sheraton Miyako Hotel Osaka, located next to Kintetsu Uehommachi station. Buses between Terminal 1 and the Sheraton take 55 minutes and cost 1550 yen one way or 2800 yen round-trip.

There are also buses that operate every 15-20 minutes to the Hotel New Hankyu and Herbis Osaka, adjacent to JR Osaka station. Buses between Terminal 1 and Hotel New Hankyu are timetabled at one hour, at a cost of 1550 yen one way or 2760 yen round-trip. Evening buses from the airport stop at more hotels in that area.

There are 1-2 direct buses every hour to Universal Studios Japan (70 minutes, 1550 yen one way or 2700 yen round-trip).

If you are connecting to a domestic flight at Itami Airport, there are regular buses that go there as well (75 minutes, 1950 yen one way or 3500 yen round-trip).

You’ll also find direct buses that go to Kyoto every 20-30 minutes (90 minutes, 2550 yen one way), Kobe every 20 minutes (65 minutes, 1950 yen one way), Nara every hour (90 minutes, 2050 yen one way) and Wakayama 1-2 times per hour (40 minutes, 1150 yen one way). Limited long distance buses also run to Okayama, Himeji, Takamatsu and Tokushima.

One other nice thing about these limousine buses is that some of the routes offer what is known as a transfer ticket, intended for passengers who are transiting at Kansai Airport. The transfer tickets offer a discount for round trips if you leave Kansai Airport and return on the same day. As an example, a transfer ticket to the JR Osaka station area and back on the same day costs 2200 yen (versus 2760 yen for a regular round-trip).

Taxis

Of course the taxi is another option that is available for you to consider, but due to their high costs I do not recommend a taxi unless you are traveling in a group, or unless absolutely necessary. Flat fare taxis are available if you are traveling to Osaka city, costing 13000 yen for regular taxis and 14000-14500 yen for medium sized taxis. These flat rates do not include tolls, and late night trips will be higher in price. If you are heading elsewhere, fares are by the meter.

If heading to Kyoto or Kobe, ride-share van service is available. MK Taxi offers a ride-share service to Kyoto (starting at 4200 yen one way) and Kobe (starting at 2500 yen one way). There are additional charges if you have more than one large suitcase. Yasaka Taxi also offers a similar service to Kyoto for the same price as MK.

High Speed Boat

If you are going to Kobe Airport or heading in that general direction, you can avail yourself of the Kobe-Kansai Airport Bay Shuttle, a high speed boat service which offers a fast shortcut. The boat is presently offering a lucrative deal to foreign tourists until March 2020, with the regular one way fare discounted from 1850 yen to just 500 yen. Boats leave every 1-2 hours and make the run in just 30 minutes. Tickets can be purchased at Kansai Airport terminal 1; once you have the tickets, a shuttle bus will take you to the boat pier. On arrival in Kobe, you can either walk or take a shuttle bus to Kobe Airport and the Port Liner automated train line which goes into central Kobe. All considered, tourists can travel from Kansai Airport to central Kobe for the low price of just 830 yen (500 yen boat discount ticket + 330 yen for the Port Liner train) and do it in around 75 minutes or so with good connections.

In theory, once you have completed the trip to Sannomiya you could then take a short hop on the Kobe Subway to Shin-Kobe station (210 yen) which provides an alternate connection to the Shinkansen for points west. Continuing past Shin-Kobe will take you in the direction of Arima Onsen.

Hotels

Two hotels are located on the island with Kansai Airport: the Hotel Nikko Kansai Airport of the respected Hotel Nikko chain, accessible from the first floor of the airport, and a hybrid capsule hotel on the third floor called First Cabin which offers a variety of sizes to suit different budgets. Note that the First Cabin has an early check out and a late check in time: 10:00 and 19:00 respectively.

A plethora of other hotels are available across the bridge by train, within close proximity of the Rinku Town and Izumisano stations. A train to Rinku Town by either JR or Nankai costs 370 yen, and a train to Izumisano by Nankai costs 490 yen.

Long-haul International Flights

Aside from domestic flights and regional flights around Asia, here is a select list of long-haul airlines that serve Kansai Airport with regular service as of this writing, in no particular order:

  • United Airlines flies to Kansai from San Francisco, United States.
  • Japan Airlines flies to Kansai from Los Angeles, United States.
  • British Airways flies to Kansai from London Heathrow, United Kingdom.
  • Air France flies to Kansai from Paris, France.
  • KLM flies to Kansai from Amsterdam, Netherlands.
  • Qantas flies to Kansai from Sydney, Australia.

All information and links were accurate as of July 2019, and subject to the disclaimer. Photos used in the article are either public domain or courtesy of creative commons licenses.

 

 

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_test_run_Saijo_Station_20170408
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_clock_(30877907315)
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

640px-December_view_-_Korakuen_(Okayama)_-_DSC01696
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.

640px-HiroshimaGembakuDome6853
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)

640px-Lafcadio_Hearns_Old_Residence01bs3200
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.

161029_Kinosaki_Onsen_Toyooka_Hyogo_pref_Japan02s
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.

Electronic_signage_of_Okayama_Station_(San'yo_Shinkansen)
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

Kintetsu Railway now accepts online reservations in English

kintetsu_50601_at_hasedera_station-1
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!

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.

 

A New Rail Pass For Tokyo-Osaka Train Travel

Stefan has pointed out on his excellent japan-guide.com site that a new rail pass will be made available to foreign visitors in Japan beginning in April. The ticket, sold jointly by JR East and JR West, will be called the Osaka-Tokyo Hokuriku Arch Pass.

Before you say anything – no, McDonald’s is not sponsoring the pass because it has the word ARCH in it. Rather, the word ARCH refers to the fact that the train pass is valid on an arching… er, arcing… route between Tokyo and the Kansai region, Kyoto and Osaka included. That route is the Hokuriku region, which includes the newly-extended Hokuriku Shinkansen from Tokyo to Nagano, Toyama and Kanazawa, and then conventional JR tracks from Kanazawa to Kyoto and Osaka, on which you can use the limited-stop express train known as the Thunderbird.

Also included in the pass are:
– Travel on JR Trains in the Tokyo Metropolitan District, consisting of stations on and inside the Yamanote Line loop and a limited number of stations outside the loop
– Travel on the Narita Express from Tokyo to Narita Airport
– Travel on the Tokyo Monorail from Tokyo to Haneda Airport
– Travel on JR trains in what is known as the “Keihanshin” district, including services around Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe and Nara
– Travel on the Haruka Limited Express train from Kyoto/Osaka to Kansai Airport
– Travel on certain private railways in the Hokuriku region that connect to the shinkansen

You can use reserved seats in ordinary class on any shinkansen or limited express service in the areas covered under the pass, except for the Haruka train to/from Kansai Airport where the pass will only cover unreserved seating. Presumably, you would be responsible for additional charges if you wanted reserved seating on the Haruka, or if you wanted to upgrade to the Green Car or Granclass on any service.

The cost for this pass is 24,000 yen if purchased in advance, or 25,000 yen if purchased inside the country. Children 6-11 years of age pay half price. You must have a passport with short-term visitor status (90 days or less) in order to qualify for the pass. The pass can be used on all days, starting on April 1, 2016.

A one-way ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto via Kanazawa is around 18,000 yen. So, there will be considerable savings if you use this pass for a return trip along the entire route. The pass can even be considered for a round-trip between Tokyo and Kanazawa – the arch pass would save you around 4,000 yen compared to regular round-trip reserved tickets.

The trip from Tokyo to Kanazawa takes approximately 2 1/2 – 3 hours by bullet train, and the trip from Kanazawa to Kyoto takes around 2 – 2 1/2 hours by Thunderbird limited express.

By comparison to the 24,000 yen arch pass, a 7-day National Japan Rail Pass costs 29,110 yen and covers just about all JR trains out there, including the Hokuriku Shinkansen and Thunderbird. Using the heavily-traveled Tokaido Shinkansen, you can travel from Tokyo to Kyoto in around 3 hours. The Japan Rail Pass also comes in a Green Car version, whereas the arch pass does not. Conversely, the Japan Rail Pass does not include trips on the Tokyo Monorail or any other private rail lines.

If you want to explore the Hokuriku region, or want a slightly more economical round-trip ticket between Tokyo and Kyoto/Osaka, the Osaka-Tokyo Hokuriku Arch Pass is definitely worth consideration. Though I would prefer you use the money saved on some unique Japanese eats instead of big macs with fries.

The announcement from the JR companies can be found here.

Long-distance Stopovers with the Japan Rail Pass

For travelers who want to explore a lot of Japan during their visit, the Japan Rail Pass is indispensable, offering tremendous value for using Japan Railways services all around the country. If you only plan on traveling in between the major cities of Tokyo and Kyoto or Osaka, or traveling shorter distances, the pass might not be for you. On the other hand, if traveling to many of Japan’s cities on a single trip, the Japan Rail Pass should seriously be considered.

You’ll need to know some of the basic rules for the Japan Rail Pass, which are outlined on the Japan Rail Pass web site and are also discussed on other pages on this blog.

One way to maximize your sightseeing time is to travel overnight. This has become harder to do by train in recent years. Once, Japan was full of overnight trains crisscrossing the country. These days, though, this mode of travel is becoming scarce as rail equipment ages and fierce competition between domestic trains, buses and airlines increase. This article will discuss a few concepts on how you could potentially use the Japan Rail Pass for overnight train travel while saving money in the process.

Only a few overnight train services remain in Japan. Others only run during peak travel periods like Golden Week, New Year’s and the summer months. Regardless, overnight trains in Japan are extremely popular and tend to get booked quickly. Since you cannot reserve train tickets in Japan until you are in the country – with few exceptions (like JR East’s English online reservation system) -your best bet is to try and book the tickets the moment you land in Japan.

Two of the overnight trains that run on a daily basis are the Sunrise Seto and Sunrise Izumo. These trains run coupled together from Tokyo to Okayama in western Japan, where they separate: The Seto runs south to the island of Shikoku, ending in the port city of Takamatsu, while the Izumo runs to the city of Izumo on the northern coast. These trains have compartments and rooms – if you want to secure one of these, you will have to pay the room accommodation and limited express surcharges. While the limited express surcharge varies based on your starting and ending point, the room accommodation is a fixed charge. The Japan Rail Pass will only cover the basic train fare between the two cities. A “solo” compartment will run 9,720 yen, while the high-end “single deluxe” runs for 16,970 yen – and these fares are just for one person. These trains do offer an option for carpeted floor spaces, on the other hand, which are treated as reserved seats – there are no extra surcharges for these spaces with a Japan Rail Pass…. but you have to sleep on the carpeted floor.

If you can secure room on one of these trains, not only is it a great option for travel to the northern coast or to Shikoku, but by changing in Okayama to the bullet train it is a great way to continue westward towards Hiroshima, Fukuoka and Kyushu.

The other service is called the Cassiopeia, which runs a few times a week between Tokyo and Sapporo, in Hokkaido. The prices are comparable or higher than the Sunrise Izumo/Seto, with a diner and no carpeted floor seats. The future of this service, though, is in doubt, with the pending opening of the Hokkaido Shinkansen in March 2016. A third overnight service only connects northern Honshu island with Hokkaido – the Hamanasu. The Hamanasu does offer comfortable reserved seats, which makes it a free option for Rail Pass holders, but again, the train’s future is uncertain.

With few options for overnight trains, the alternative is to simply split up your night journey into two legs, stopping somewhere along the way to sleep. As long as your Rail Pass covers both days of travel, there are so many benefits to splitting up your journey:

– You can get your own hotel room with a bed, bathroom and shower
– A hotel room located far from major cities could be less expensive
– You can experience a slice of life in a new part of Japan, and might be able to enjoy attractions or cuisines unique to that area
– There are no extra transportation costs, since your transportation is already covered under the Japan Rail Pass

By keeping these in mind, a whole new set of options can open up to you by simply doing some research.

A popular option to look out for is the business hotel – small hotels with minimal space, but all the amenities you’d need for a night’s stay. These business hotels tend to be inexpensive no matter where you book. Even in big cities such as Tokyo, they can be among the most economical options.

I will now offer a few suggestions for some long distance journeys. If you would like to explore such options for your next trip to Japan, I hope this information will be a starting point!

Tokyo to Kyoto/Osaka

This is one of the most heavily-trafficked travel routes in Japan, without question. There are so many things skipped in between, though, and with some research you can discover some new areas.

Nagoya: This is a major city, but so often skipped by many travelers on their way from Tokyo to Kyoto (including, I must admit, myself!) and the next time I visit for a while I will make Nagoya one of my priorities. Nagoya has Japan’s largest international trade port (thanks in part to Toyota’s headquarters nearby), the world’s largest train station by floor area, a reconstructed castle, a zoo, and a plethora of unique eats like miso katsu – pork or chicken cutlet served in a red miso sauce. (yum!)

Nagoya is centrally located on the Tokaido Shinkansen, the main train artery linking Tokyo with Kyoto, Osaka, and points beyond. It has been an ideal stop, and will continue to be for a while. But earlier this year, another city with its own history took center stage:

Kanazawa: This coastal city, known for having one of the top three gardens in all of Japan, was connected to Tokyo’s shinkansen network in March 2015. The city has done a lot to cater to visitors, including a rebuild of its main train station – complete with its own shinto-like Torii gate at its entrance. You can spend the night in town and go bright and early the next morning to the Kenrokuen garden before the tour groups arrive, then continue on your way.

The Hokuriku Shinkansen links Tokyo to Kanazawa in as little as 2 1/2 hours. Then from Kanazawa, you can travel by the Thunderbird Limited Express service directly to Kyoto (~2 1/4 hours) and Osaka (~2 3/4 hours). From Shin-Osaka you can connect to the bullet train for destinations to the west.

Matsumoto: A third possible option is to cut through the center of the country along the Chuo Line and visit the city of Matsumoto, known as the home of one of Japan’s original castles. Matsumoto is 2 1/2-3 hours from Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station by the Azusa limited express service. After staying in Matsumoto and potentially visiting the castle, take the Shinano limited express to Nagoya (~2 1/4 hours); you can either pick up the bullet train for destinations to the west, OR, just go around Nagoya for a while!

If you don’t want to worry about major sights and just focus on a place to stay the night, here are some cities to look at:

From Tokyo to Kyoto/Osaka via Nagoya along the Tokaido Shinkansen: Odawara, Atami, Shizuoka, Hamamatsu, Toyohashi, Maibara. A few of the other stations are left out, but it’s important to note that along this important travel artery you’ve got a good chance to find accommodations at every station.

From Tokyo to Kyoto/Osaka via Kanazawa along the Hokuriku Shinkansen and Thunderbird route: Nagano, Itoigawa, Toyama.

Tokyo to Western Japan (including Shikoku and Kyushu)

If you can’t get on board the Sunrise Izumo or Sunrise Seto, travel more comfortably (and perhaps cheaply) with a stopover.

Okayama: The name may not stand out to the regular tourist, but Okayama is a major city and transportation hub in Japan. If traveling from Tokyo and laying over in this city, you can continue on in the morning to Shikoku, Izumo, or continue on towards the west using the bullet train. Not to mention, another one of Japan’s most famous gardens – Korakuen – is located here.

Himeji: located between Osaka and Okayama, Himeji is home to Japan’s most important castle. In existence since original construction began in the 1300s, it has survived the test of time. It is now especially worth a visit, as a five-year project has restored the castle’s exterior to its original splendor.

Once again, every station on the shinkansen (now the Sanyo Shinkansen) gives you a good chance of lodging options.

Tokyo to Northern Japan/Hokkaido

The Tohoku Shinkansen is the main train artery running north from Tokyo towards Hokkaido. By March of 2016, the Shinkansen will actually extend into Hokkaido’s southern city of Hakodate for the very first time. In the meantime, trains terminate in the northernmost city of Aomori. This city makes a good stopping point, as does Hakodate itself if you were looking at a long-distance journey to Sapporo – but again, look at all stations.

Now for some SAMPLE ITINERARIES: For these samples, I have researched the price of lodging on different, random weekdays in September 2015 that are not holidays. This falls within the approximate 3 month range where many hotels have already opened up their reservations. I have also researched the train timetables for that period from sites such as HyperDia and Ekikara. Your results may vary. Hotels listed are for sample purposes only, and prices are listed in US dollars. No endorsements are implied!

#1: Tokyo to Kyoto/Osaka, stop in Nagoya: Board the evening Hikari service leaving Tokyo at 7:03 PM, arriving in Nagoya at 9:09 PM. Spend the evening at the Nagoya Ekimae Montblanc Hotel for $49 single, $37 per person double occupancy. Board a morning Hikari train at 8:21 AM. Arrive in Kyoto at 9:14 AM and Shin-Osaka at 9:30 AM.

#2: Tokyo to Kyoto/Osaka, stop in Hamamatsu: Board the evening Hikari service leaving Tokyo at 7:03 PM, arriving in Hamamatsu at 8:32 PM. Spend the evening at the four star Okura Act City Hotel Hamamatsu for $55 per person single or double occupancy (30 day advance booking rate). Board a morning Kodama train at 7:49 AM. Arrive in Kyoto at 9:34 AM and Shin-Osaka at 9:50 AM.

#3: Tokyo to Kyoto/Osaka, stop in Kanazawa: Board the evening Kagayaki service leaving Tokyo at 6:24 PM, arriving in Kanazawa at 8:58 PM. Spend the evening at the APA Hotel Kanzawa-Ekimae (part of a chain of national business hotels) for $65 single, $42 per person double occupancy. Board a morning Thunderbird train at 8:05 AM. Arrive in Kyoto at 10:11 AM and Shin-Osaka at 10:35 AM. Or, visit Kanazawa’s Kenrokuen Garden in the morning and take a later Thunderbird towards Kyoto/Osaka.

#4: Tokyo to western Japan/Shikoku/Kyushu, stop in Okayama: Board the evening Hikari service leaving Tokyo at 5:03 PM, arriving in Okayama at 9:11 PM. Spend the evening at one of a few Toyoko Inn hotels (another large chain) located around Okayama station for $52 single, $30 per person double occupancy. In the morning, you can depart in multiple directions:
– The bullet train westbound can take you to Hiroshima, Fukuoka, Kumamoto and Kagoshima.
– The Marine Liner rapid train services, leaving twice per hour, will take you to Takamatsu in Shikoku. I highly recommend paying the small surcharge for a reserved seat (320-980 yen per person depending on the seat and the season).
– The Shiokaze and Nanpu limited express trains run to the hot spring town of Matsuyama and the coast city of Kochi, respectively.
– The Yakumo limited express train runs north to Izumo in 3 hours.

#5: Tokyo to Hakodate (southern Hokkaido), stop in Aomori: Board the afternoon Hayabusa service leaving Tokyo at 5:20 PM, arriving at Shin-Aomori at 8:40 PM. Change to the local shuttle train to Aomori, arriving at 8:55 PM. Spend the evening at the Toyoko Inn Aomori-eki Shomen-guchi for $46 single or $32 per person double occupancy. Leave in the morning on the first Hakucho service of the morning, departing Aomori at 8:25 AM and arriving in Hakodate at 10:26 AM.

#6: Tokyo to Sapporo, stop in Hakodate: Board the afternoon Hayabusa service leaving Tokyo at 3:20 PM, arriving at Shin-Aomori at 6:43 PM. Change to the Hakucho departing Shin-Aomori at 6:53 PM, arriving in Hakodate at 8:56 PM. Spend the evening at the Comfort Hotel Hakodate (as in the Comfort Inn brand) for $46 single or $37 per person double occupancy. Leave in the morning on the Hoktuto service from Hakodate to Sapporo – the first two trains leave at 6:22 AM and 8:13 AM, arriving in Sapporo at 9:58 AM and 11:47 AM, respectively.

#7: Osaka to Sapporo: There used to be an overnight train service called the Twilight Express, which ran a few times a week and was comparable to the Cassiopeia. If I ever wanted to ride an overnight train in Japan, this was the one I was aiming for. Sadly those plans never materialized, and the Twilight Express has already been discontinued. Here’s one way to make the Osaka-Sapporo trip now. Leave Shin-Osaka at 11:40 AM on the Hikari service to Tokyo, arriving at 2:40 PM. At Tokyo Station you will have 40 minutes to mill about and do some quick shopping until leaving on the 3:20 PM Hayabusa service to Shin-Aomori. Then, the instructions are exactly as above, laying over in Hakodate en route to Sapporo.

By now I hope you are inspired to create your own overnight itineraries to maximize your Rail Pass, and your sightseeing and enjoyment of Japan. If you have any questions or comments, please ask!

Delta plans to resume Tokyo-Osaka flights for International Passengers

With Japanese tourism booming thanks to the weak yen and tax breaks on purchases for foreigners, Delta appears to be resuming inter-Japan service from Tokyo Narita to Osaka Kansai.

You wouldn’t know about this unless you looked at Delta’s official press release in Japanese. Starting in late march 2016, Delta will offer one daily trip from Narita to Kansai, and one flight from Kansai to Narita, using a Boeing 757. The flights to/from Osaka will only be available for international Delta passengers connecting at Narita to/from an international Delta flight. Currently, Delta operates nonstop flights between Tokyo Narita and sixteen destinations in the United States and Asia.

It is interesting to see how these connections in Tokyo will be arranged. It’s possible (but not certain, at least from my current understanding) that the connections will be treated as International Transfers – that is, there would be no immigration or customs formalities handled at Narita Airport. This sort of arrangement has been used in the past…. as an example, if you flew into Japan on Delta and you are booked onto this new flight with Osaka as your destination, you would go through international transfers, fly to Osaka, and go through customs/immigration at Kansai Airport. On the return from Osaka, you would go through Osaka’s immigration to receive your departure stamp. When landing at Narita, again, you would go through international transfers to board your flight back home.

This is a very convenient arrangement if it will be implemented in this fashion. In addition to the above, your checked luggage can be checked through to your final destination. One important thing to note, though: When you go through international transfers in Narita, you will have to go through a security check. This means that if you purchase and bring DUTY FREE LIQUIDS beforehand, you must ensure that they are in tamper-evident bags. If they are not in tamper-evident bags, they will be confiscated as the 3 oz / 100 ml liquid rule will apply.

Osaka has several cool places to visit, including the Umeda Sky Building, Kaiyukan Aquarium, and the Dotonbori Canal. It is also the gateway to the ancient capital of Kyoto, which can be accessed by direct train or bus from Kansai Airport. If your trip’s focus is on western Japan, including areas such as Hiroshima, Fukuoka, Shikoku and Kyushu, Kansai is a convenient starting point – you can take westbound bullet trains from Shin-Osaka station.

If you have a voucher for the Japan Rail Pass it can be exchanged at the JR ticket office in Kansai Airport, open daily until 11 PM.

The airport itself is a site to behold, built on a man-made island and featuring one of the world’s longest airport concourses.