New regional rail pass unveiled for Kanto region

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tokyo to Kyoto via Northern Japan: The new bullet train stations (with Flags!)

It has been a month since the new extension of the bullet train opened from Nagano to the northern coast cities of Toyama and Kanazawa. This means that bullet trains now run from Tokyo directly to these cities and points in between, opening up a new world of possibilities for tourism. If you have a Japan Rail Pass, you will be covered for almost* any of the new bullet train services. Here’s a rundown of the new line and some suggestions for places to visit and itineraries.

The Hokuriku Shinkansen was known as the Nagano Shinkansen when its initial segment opened in October 1997, ahead of the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics. The new 228 km (141.7 mile) segment opened on March 13, 2015. You can read more about the Hokuriku Shinkansen service classifications by reading my blog post from last October.

Some of the stops along the route:

Flag_of_Iiyama,_Nagano

Iiyama – Located in the northernmost part of Nagano prefecture, Iiyama gets some of the heaviest snowfall in the country. The immediate area east of Iiyama station is clustered with various Buddhist temples, which is why some call it “Little Kyoto.” Generally, Hakutaka services from Tokyo run to Iiyama every 1-2 hours. Information: Shinshu-Iiyama Tourism Bureau

Flag_of_Joetsu,_NiigataJoetsumyoko – This is an interchange station with the Echigo Railway, a private (so-called “third sector”) rail line that JR used to operate trains on until the opening of the bullet train. There is not much to speak of around here, but it should be noted that if you are coming from Kanazawa or Toyama and heading to the coastal city of Niigata, there are a few trains that operate daily between Joetsumyoko and Niigata that are meant to connect with the shinkansen services. This service is called the Shirayuki. The Shirayuki runs to Naoetsu from which it continues to Niigata on JR tracks along the Sea of Japan. Since the first few kilometers are on the Echigo Railway, you will have to pay a 450 yen supplement if you are using a Japan Rail Pass. If you are going from Tokyo to Niigata, use the direct Joetsu Shinkansen instead.

Flag_of_Itoigawa,_NiigataItoigawa – This is the first bullet train stop on the coast as you come north from Tokyo. Itoigawa was named as Japan’s first “Geopark” by the UNESCO-funded Global Geoparks Network, and they proudly boast 24 different areas that you can visit in the region with various mixes of geology, culture and history. Most, but not all, Hakutaka services stop here. More information about the Geoparks can be found at their official website, and they have a wealth of information in English, including updates on which areas are open and closed.

The local JR Oito Line snakes down from Itoigawa towards the south, and you COULD take the scenic, local route all the way down to the castle city of Matsumoto cheaply in 3-4 hours, weather permitting. Nowadays, though, you can do it in about 90 minutes taking the bullet train to Nagano then the Shinano limited express service. Another stop on the Oito Line is Shinano-omachi – a local bus from here will take you to the start of the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route, which is open for transit from spring until autumn.

Flag_of_Kurobe,_ToyamaKurobe-Unazuki Onsen – This station is the gateway to one of the most popular hot springs in the area, Unazuki Onsen. To get there, walk to nearby Shin Kurobe Station on the Toyama Chiho Railway (not covered by the Japan Rail Pass) and go to the Unazuki Onsen stop. One of the attractions of Unazuki Onsen is the Kurobe Gorge Railway. Originally built for workers building Kurobe Dam, it operates passenger sightseeing trains from late spring until autumn threading through some stunning mountain scenery.

Flag_of_Toyama,_ToyamaToyama – Our first major stop on the newly-opened bullet train route. The next time I visit Japan and I am able to take the new bullet train line out here, I want FISH… and that’s the main attraction. Toyama is referred to as “Nature’s Fish Tank” because nearby Toyama bay is extremely deep. Yellowtail sushi and sashimi slices from Toyama are said to be among the best in the country.

Many sushi shops in the area participate in the Toyamawan Sushi program, which offers a set course of 10 pieces of freshly-caught sushi for between 2,000 and 3,500 yen. There is also a unique bento box from Toyama that uses fatty trout, called Masunosushi. It is pressed trout over rice, wrapped in bamboo leaves and packed in a wooden box. I was given a used box from a friend in Japan as a gift to take home in my 2004 trip, and even when empty the lovely trout smell lingered for weeks. I would breathe it a few times a day.

ANYWAY, I want to try this box for real on my next visit 🙂

The aforementioned Toyama Chiho Railway terminates here, at the nearby Dentetsu-Toyama Station. This, plus a series of tram lines, are great ways to get around Toyama and visit the cultural areas. Taking the Toyama Chiho Railway to Tateyama will bring you to the opposite end of the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route mentioned earlier. More information: Toyama Prefectural Tourism Association

Flag_of_Takaoka_ToyamaShin-Takaoka – This next city has more of a traditional flair. The new station is on the south side of town as opposed to the regular Takaoka station, though the two stations are connected with a brief trip on the JR Johanna line. On the north side of town is Kanaya-machi, a street filled with lattice houses from when iron and copper makers set up shop in the 1600s. A short distance from the south of Takaoka station, and from around the same time period as Kanaya-machi, is Zuiryuji Temple. North of Takaoka and directly on the coast is where weekly ferry services to Vladivostok, Russia operate from.

Flag_of_Kanazawa,_IshikawaKanazawa – The terminating station on the Hokuriku Shinkansen (for now) is a marvel to behold on the outside, with a new main entrance resembling a shinto torii gate. It is a popular city, and the primary reason is Kenroku-en, a large Japanese garden that is regarded as one of the three best in the country. There are also various museums and shopping districts in the area. Kanazawa and Toyama are good starting points for trips to Takayama, and the nearby UNESCO World Heritage site of Shirakawa. More information: Kanazawa City Tourism Association

Of course, Stefan and the folks over at japan-guide.com have a more comprehensive breakdown of what you can find in these cities. They also revamped their website, so be sure to check them out.

After Kanazawa? You can ride the JR Thunderbird limited express to south and west, passing Fukui and skirting Lake Biwa until you reach Kyoto and Osaka. The Shirasagi limited express will bring you to Maibara and Nagoya. If you have already traveled by direct bullet train between Tokyo and Kansai, or you just want something more from your first trip, a little detour through Toyama and Kanazawa (or any of the other places) is a different and potentially rewarding experience.

New E7 Series Shinkansen in service. Photo by Tokyo Sakura, CC by 2.0
New E7 Series Shinkansen in service. Photo by Tokyo Sakura, CC by 2.0

For example, you could opt to travel from Tokyo to Kanazawa, spend the day there, head to Kyoto in the evening, and then return to Tokyo by direct bullet train. Or you could spend a night at any of these stations if you want to pace yourself a bit… in this way, for example, you could try visiting Kanazawa’s Kenroku-en in the early morning before the tour groups arrive. Whether or not you visit any attractions, you can potentially save some money on accommodations compared to big cities like Tokyo and Kyoto by stopping over at one of these cities. Remember that the Japan Rail Pass will cover pretty much everything for your travels, except for Nozomi trains and for any service with the GranClass premium cabin.

As a general rule, Tokyo to Kanazawa is 2 1/2 hours on the fastest shinkansen service, and Tokyo to Toyama is 2 hours. Kanazawa to Kyoto by Thunderbird limited express service is around 2 hours 15 minutes, with Osaka a further 30 minutes down the line.

I hope I have given you a few ideas. Have fun exploring the new train route and unlocking all of the new secrets along it!

Note: All flags in this article are taken from Wikimedia Commons. Since there is no original ownership they are in the public domain. As per usual, all advice is given pursuant to the Japan Tips DISCLAIMER.

Tokyo to Kyoto for $21… and other cheap ways to transit Japan

Thanks to everyone for reading this hobby blog of mine for the last few years. For some reason or another, everyone keeps reading and commenting on my post about traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto for 2,300 yen (under September 2014 exchange rates, about $21)… So because so many people are interested, here is a list of some ways that you can travel around Japan on the cheap!

– Bring a few friends to Japan and travel with the Seishun 18 Ticket 

If you bring a few friends, or know a few friends willing to travel around with you, the Seishun 18 Ticket – a travel ticket offered at certain times of the year – could be your best friend. Literally translated “Youth 18” and initially targeted to those traveling on school breaks, the Seishun 18 is actually offered to everyone. The ticket has gone up in price slightly this year because of the national tax rate hike, but it’s still a value at 11,850 yen per ticket. The ticket is valid for unlimited travel on LOCAL trains all around the Japan Railways network – this means, you cannot use the bullet trains, you cannot use premium “limited express” services that run on conventional railways (with one exception), and you cannot use most overnight trains. You can also use the ticket for the JR Ferry that runs to the island of Miyajima (typically a 180 yen trip).

It’s important to note that the ticket can only be purchased and used during school holidays. There are three periods of the year when the ticket is offered:

Spring: Purchase between February 20 and March 31 for use between March 1 and April 10
Summer: Purchase between July 1 and August 31 for use between July 20 and September 10
Winter: Purchase between December 1 and December 31 for use between December 10 and January 10

There are five “spaces” that are stamped by manned station staff every time the pass is used, with one space representing one person traveling in a single day (midnight to midnight). By maximizing the spaces used, you can save a considerable amount of money. If you are a solo traveler and chose to make five long trips in five days (which don’t have to be consecutive), each trip would cost only 2,370 yen! If you have four friends and make a long trip over the course of a day – such as Tokyo to Kyoto – each person pays only 2,370 yen! There are many combinations possible as far as usage – a group of four, for example, can travel a long distance in one day on the pass for 2,960 yen.

It’s important to do some research to see if the Seishun 18 is best for you. Long-distance journeys such as Tokyo to Kyoto or Osaka will pay off, but if you’re only doing a short trip from, say, Tokyo to Yokohama, it’s not worth it.

A few other notes: You are permitted unlimited stopovers on each day, and the price of the Seishun 18 is the same for children and adults – there are no discounts for kids.

– Buy a local ticket that allows stopovers

On any day of the year, buying a long-distance local ticket can save on per-day travel costs because under Japan Railways rules, the longer you travel from point-to-point, the longer you have to make the journey.

The rules are: Within a major Japanese city or for all journeys 100km or less, you have one day to make the trip, and in many cases stopovers are not allowed. From 101 to 200km, you have two days. From 201 to 400km, you have 3 days. For each additional 200km traveled you get one additional day.

To find out the distance of your trip, look it up on timetable search engines such as Hyperdia, being sure to clear the checkmarks on everything except “local train” and “Japan Railways” otherwise you will see a few bullet trains and airplanes!

A few examples:

Tokyo to Nagoya is 366km over the Tokaido Line at a cost of 6,260 yen. You can take the trip over a course of 3 days, so if you decide to stop and spend a night at two cities along the way you will be paying about 2,086 yen per day, and if you spend one night along the way it’s 3,130 yen per day.

Tokyo to Kyoto is 513km over the Tokaido Line at a cost of 8,210 yen. You can take the trip over 4 days! So, traveling over the course of 2 days splits the cost to 4,105 yen…. 3 days is 2,736 yen…. 4 days is 2,052 yen per day!

With this plan, you can direct the money saved on travel into reasonably-priced hotel accommodations along the way – many of which will be considerably cheaper compared to staying in larger cities. This will also allow you to enjoy more of Japan, including some areas that many foreign tourists will pass over.

You are allowed unlimited stopovers along the route that you are taking – it’s important not to stray from the route that you paid and are ticketed for, otherwise there may be a difference in fare. You’ll also want to know that since these are regular fares, there are discounts for children!

Also, major cities in Japan are designated into certain “zones”, and travel in between two major cities is sometimes designated as traveling from one zone to the other. For example, a trip from Tokyo to Osaka would be defined as the Tokyo ZONE to the Osaka ZONE. Stopovers are NOT allowed in zones of your origin or destination, but are permitted anywhere in between. Kyoto is close to Osaka, but since Kyoto has it’s own ZONE you could technically stop over in Kyoto on the trip from Tokyo to Osaka without any extra charge, as long as it’s within the days permitted to travel and, as mentioned earlier, you don’t stray away from the path ticketed. Once you stop anywhere in Osaka and get out of the system, the ticket is considered USED.

Please visit Takeshi’s JP Rail page which gives a lot of great information about this.

– Use the Japan Bus Pass for cheap trips on highway buses

The Willer Express Japan Bus Pass was introduced for foreign tourists in Japan a few years ago. At a cost of 10,000 yen for 3 days of bus travel and 15,000 yen for 5 days, you can make considerable savings over regular bus costs. There are many other bus operators in Japan, including those operated by branches of Japan railways, but the Willer web site allows reservations and bookings in English. Rather than go through a lot of the details, simply read my recent post about the Japan Bus Pass.

– Fly to Japan on a Star Alliance or oneworld airline and take advantage of domestic air passes for tourists

If you travel to Japan on a certain airline, you may qualify for an air pass for tourists. The Star Alliance Japan Airpass is valid for travel on All Nippon Airways (ANA) and can be used if you travel on Star Alliance airlines (including ANA, United, Air Canada, Air New Zealand, Lufthansa). The Oneworld Yokoso Japan pass is valid for travel on Japan Airlines (JAL) and can be used if you travel on oneworld airlines (including JAL, American, British Airways, Qantas).

For each pass, you can take between one and five trips by plane, with each trip costing just 10,000 yen plus tax. It’s a great and quick way to travel around several regions of Japan. You will always find flights from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport to Osaka’s Itami Airport as they continue to compete with the bullet train – but longer distance flights can pay off if you don’t have much time to spare – Tokyo to Fukuoka or Tokyo to Sapporo are great examples. Note though, that there ARE a number of blackout dates where these passes cannot be used.

If you do not qualify for these fares, i.e. by traveling on a different airline, both ANA and JAL offer regular tourist passes – up to 5 trips at a cost of 13-14,000 yen per trip. A minimum of two trips is required.

– Fly domestically on low cost airlines

Over the last few years, the low cost airline concept has boomed in Japan. A number of carriers are springing up offering tremendous fare discounts. Some of the top airlines that you can make reservations with in English include Skymark, Peach Aviation, Jetstar and Vanilla Air.

As these are low cost carriers, services and amenities are reduced compared to carriers JAL and ANA, and the airlines sometimes serve airports that are not close to the center of the city… but the airfares are sometimes hard to beat.

A random fare search for a weekday in November yielded these one-day fares:

Skymark: Tokyo Haneda to Sapporo for 8,500 yen
Peach Aviation: Tokyo Narita to Osaka Kansai for 3,390 yen … ?!?!
Jetstar Japan: Nagoya Centrair to Sapporo for 6,590 yen
Vanilla Air: Tokyo Narita to Okinawa for 8,200 yen

– Use a Japan Rail Pass

If you’ve got a limited amount of time and intend to visit a lot of places around the country, a Japan Rail Pass is still a great way to go around. You get unlimited travel on Japan Railways, and unlimited seat reservations on nearly ALL bullet trains and limited express services for 7, 14 or 21 consecutive days. Prices start at 29,110 yen for seven consecutive days of travel, or about 4,160 yen per day. The 14-day pass starts at around 3,300 yen per day, and if you do the 21-day pass it’s about 2,800 yen per day. Green class (first class) passes are higher.

– Use a Japan Rail Pass and stay on the cheap

Utilizing a Japan Rail Pass when traveling between major cities, you can make an intermediate stop at a small city along the way and potentially save with hotel rates that are cheaper than in major cities. For example, if you travel from Tokyo to Osaka by bullet train, you could opt to begin your travel in the evening and stop at one of the intermediate bullet train stations such as Hamamatsu. In Hamamatsu there are hotels where you could spend as little as 4,800 single occupancy or 6,800 yen double occupancy, complete with your own bed, bathroom and shower – then just move on the following morning to Kyoto and Osaka. (The quote is from the Toyoko Inn, a national chain of business hotels)

– RESEARCH!

The best way to save on your trip is with research. I’ve presented you with a few options, but these just scratch the surface. There are so many deals out there that one can take advantage of in Japan. The key is to price what you want to do (transit, food, lodging), and do price comparisons to see what is best for you.

Of course, if you ever need advice about your next trip to Japan, leave a message and I’ll be happy to reply when I can.

Yes, you can use the Nozomi with a pass (but not the pass you are thinking)

Some news to come out of Japan tourism in the last few days is the availability of new rail passes to foreign tourists. Both are offered by JR Central and JR West, which operate the main bullet train lines in Japan.

The first pass is the Tokaido / Sanyo Shinkansen Tourist Pass. This pass permits unlimited travel on ANY bullet train service between Tokyo, Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, Okayama, Hiroshima and Fukuoka (Hakata) station for 5 consecutive days at a cost of 35,000 yen. I said ANY because this pass allows the use of the faster Nozomi and Mizuho trains that the Japan Rail Pass does not permit. The pass also includes travel on selected non-shinkansen routes, including unlimited use of local JR lines in Osaka City, access to the Okayama Tramway, access to a bus service to the foot of Mount Fuji, and free admission to certain museums like the JR Central Transit Museum, aka SCMAGLEV and Rail Park. You can also make up to four seat reservations with the pass on any bullet train service offering reserved seating.

The second pass is the Takayama / Hokuriku Area Tourist Pass, which permits unlimited travel on the “limited express” or premium train services between Osaka, Kyoto and Kanazawa, or Nagoya and Takayama, as well as bus service from Takayama to Kanazawa via Shirakawa-go, the world heritage site. Like the Tokaido / Sanyo tourist pass, it is also valid for 5 consecutive days. The Takayama / Hokuriku Area pass costs 10,500 yen. You can also a local bus in Takayama City, the “Sarubobo” bus service.

I think that the Takayama / Hokuriku pass is a good deal for 10,500 yen if you intend to travel specifically to Takayama or Shirakawa. The Tokaido / Sanyo pass, on the other hand, is NOT a good deal in my opinion. Consider that the 5 day Tokaido/Sanyo pass costs 35,000 yen and only offers up to 4 reserved seats in 5 days, while the national Japan Rail Pass costs a little over 29,000 yen in standard class for 7 days and you can make unlimited seat reservations in that time frame. With the costs of traveling around Osaka pretty marginal – and with plenty of subway lines to bring you around Osaka anyway – the Japan Rail Pass – even if it does not offer the ability to travel on the faster trains – is a cheaper and better offer. The only difference is if you want to use the Tokaido / Sanyo pass to gain access to the additional sightseeing areas or routes that are offered.

To book any of these passes you must contact a travel agency in your home country that offers the pass – just like you would with the national rail pass – and purchase an exchange order that is then traded in for the real pass in Japan. Also, the passes are only offered from October 1 until June 30, 2015.

You can download brochures for these passes at touristpass.jp

Japan sales tax increasing on April 1st

This is a short post to remind people traveling to Japan that the Japanese consumption tax, otherwise known as ‘sales tax’ or ‘GST’, will be increasing from 5% to 8% on April 1st. Everything and anything sold in Japan will go up in price slightly, from train and bus fares to convenience store products and lodging.

In most metropolitan areas, actual fares are rounded up to the nearest 10 yen. This practice will continue, though in Tokyo some of the major transit companies, including the subways and JR East, will introduce a special fare structure for those using contact-less IC cards (such as Suica and Pasmo) that round fares up to the nearest 1 yen, as they say this will more accurately reflect the new prices. This means that fares paid with IC cards will be slightly cheaper than paying with regular paper tickets.

For the casual tourist this may not be much, but continue using public transit frequently and the new savings will become more apparent.

Of course you could use a Japan Rail Pass… but of course, the consumption tax will be raising THOSE prices on April 1st as well. For example a 7-day ordinary rail pass for the Japan Railways will increase from 28,300 yen to 29,110 yen, while a 14-day ordinary pass goes up from 45,100 yen to 46,390 yen.

JR East has published some information in English, which can be viewed on their website, http://www.jreast.co.jp/e/

On a side note, I am hoping to continue sharing my Japan Diary soon. I’ve been swamped lately with marriage preparations 😦 Thanks for being patient!

Japan Rail Pass change coming in April

Happy March, everyone. I wanted to quickly pass along some news regarding the Japan Rail Pass. I first discovered this change a few days ago: One of the benefits of using the Japan Rail Pass has been, for some reason or another, the utilization of JR highway buses. That will now be coming to an end, however: Effective with Rail Passes issued on or after April 1 (which is traditionally the start of the new fiscal and school year in Japan), the Japan Rail Pass can no longer be used on any highway bus service. It will still be valid for LOCAL buses that are operated by JR, but not for the highway buses.

The condition as currently stated on the Rail Pass’ official web page refers to “Express buses” being discontinued from pass validity. That term is somewhat confusing, however two other sources that I wrote to confirmed to me that this likely means highway buses.

The discontinuation of this provision likely means two things: Not enough Rail Pass users are using highway buses (why would you when you can take the train), AND/OR more people are perhaps using the Japan Bus Pass offered by Willer Express for their highway bus travel.

Of course, I am still rooting for the day that we can use Nozomi and Mizuho shinkansen trains with the Japan Rail Pass, but much to my chagrin (and my expectation) this restriction will remain in effect. 😦