IC Card Shinkansen Ticketing arrives in September

As my next trip to Japan is approaching sooner than I think, I have an update concerning shinkansen ticketing using IC cards.

IC cards go by many monikers in Japan (Suica and PASMO in Tokyo, Toica in central Japan, Icoca in western Japan, etc), but no matter the name, the IC card is an indispensable piece of hardware that make traveling on trains easy. No need to figure out how much a train or a bus costs between point A and point B… just tap your IC card when getting on and getting off, and the correct fare will be deducted from the stored balance on the card. Cards can easily be topped up at train stations and convenience stores, and can be used to pay for items at shops and a growing number of vending machines.

As reported on this blog in February 2016, JR Central and JR West, operators of the Tokaido and San’yo Shinkansen – arguably the two most important bullet train lines in the country – were said to be making plans to introduce some sort of mobile ticketing system for their bullet trains that would be tied to IC cards.

These plans have now been confirmed in a Japanese-language press release from both companies. Starting September 30, 2017, a new service called SMART EX will begin operation, allowing passengers to purchase bullet train tickets on the Tokaido and San’yo Shinkansen using a major credit card and then “store” the details onto a linked IC card. The IC card would then be used to enter through the ticket barriers.

Earlier indications were that the new system would be foreigner-friendly. Following the recent JR press release, the travel site Japan-Guide.com has reported that a dedicated, bilingual website will be created. Passengers would need to create an account, register a credit card, and register a valid IC card.

Of course, if you don’t have an IC card in your possession, you will need to obtain one in Japan before you register for the service. When you use SMART EX to make a shinkansen reservation, you will get a small discount of 200 yen off of the normal fare.

The following brands of IC cards can be used with the new service: Kitaca, Pasmo, Suica, Manaca, Toica, Pitapa, Icoca, Hayakaken, Nimoca and Sugoca.

The following credit cards can be used to purchase tickets: Visa, Mastercard, American Express, Diner’s Club and JCB. J-West credit cards, exclusive to Japan, are also eligible.

The service can only be used to make seat reservations for Tokaido Shinkansen and San’yo Shinkansen services, as well as through services between the two lines. Tokaido Shinkansen trains run from Tokyo to Nagoya, Kyoto and Osaka, while the San’yo Shinkansen runs from Osaka to Kobe, Okayama, Hiroshima, Kita-Kyushu (Kokura station) and Fukuoka (Hakata station).

You cannot make reservations for Kyushu Shinkansen trains (those that run from Fukuoka to Kumamoto or Kagoshima), and you can’t reserve any bullet train services operated by JR East… in fact, JR East already has a website where you can make train reservations.

If you don’t have a Japan Rail Pass, the SMART EX can be a good way to make bullet train reservations without having to stop at a ticket machine or a ticket counter beforehand. The downside is that you need an IC card in your possession before you can register for the service.

If the reports are true and there indeed is an English option for SMART EX, I may give it a shot on my next trip and report my results!

HT: Japan Guide

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Itinerary – Train Cruising on the Cheap, Vol. 2

I am thankful for the feedback that I have received from my previous post about Train Cruising on the Cheap. Now I will admit that the experience of the cruising train is an important selling point in the cost of the trip. As much as I yearn to try a train like the Shiki-shima, or any of the other cruising trains in existence or in the process of coming out, let’s face it… with both the high cost and the lottery systems in place due to the overflow of interest, it’s highly unlikely that I will get the coveted chance to take such a train in the future.

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

Today I’ll look at how we can turn another cruise train itinerary into something that’s more manageable for tourists. Here is the JR West version of the Shiki-shima: The Twilight Express Mizukaze. This is the newest incarnation of the former Twilight Express overnight train that ran a few times a week from Osaka and Kyoto up to Sapporo. This overnight service, and the rest of the ones to and from Sapporo that existed, ended operations by March 2015 before the Seikan rail tunnel connecting Honshu and Hokkaido was re-purposed for the new Hokkaido Shinkansen operations.

I’ll admit that the Twilight Express was a train that I was looking forward to traveling on, and it’s a shame that it had to go away. The new Twilight Express Mizukaze will begin services in June 2017, and like the Shiki-shima train it has a small capacity – no more than 34 passengers per service.

There are five routes that the cruising train will operate on: Four courses are 2 day, 1 night in duration, and one course is 3 days, 2 nights in duration. The trips from to/from the Kansai region, covering two main paths: The San’yo Main Line, along the southern coast of west Japan, and the San’in Line, along the northern coast.

I’ll take on the longest course, the 3 day and 2 night journey that loops around both coasts of Western Japan operating in the fall, and see what I can come up with. We will start the journey at Osaka Station and end at Kyoto Station.

First, let’s see what the itinerary is if you took the cruising train.

Twilight Express Mizukaze Itinerary – 3 day, 2 night course

Day 1: Depart Kyoto Station or Osaka Station – Okayama Station – Overnight on the train (train changes from San’yo to San’in Line at Shimonoseki)
Day 2: Shinji Station/Matsue Station – Overnight on the train
Day 3: Higashihama Station – End at Kyoto Station or Shin-Osaka Station

Cost: Starting at 670,000 yen single occupancy or 520,000 yen per person double occupancy. (About USD $6,000 and $4,600, respectively, at present exchange rates)

If you understand some Japanese, the full itinerary in Japanese can be found at this link on the Nippon Travel Agency website.

Jose’s Itinerary

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

Day 1: 9:00 – Osaka Station

You might as well spend the first part of your day wandering Osaka Station as the morning rush tapers off. It went through an overwhelming renovation and refreshing that completed in 2011 with new shopping and entertainment options, and a dramatic sloping roof above the train tracks and concourse that in a way attempts to rival Kyoto Station, or more likely a modern airport terminal. I last visited the Osaka Station complex in 2008, right as they were starting the reconstruction. On my next trip I’d like to make it a point to visit the new surroundings to see how things turned out.

At around 10 AM or so, depart west via the JR Tokaido Line, which is referred to as the JR Kobe Line in these parts. The fastest of the local services out of Osaka is the Special Rapid, or Shin-Kaisoku (新快速) service; we’ll take this as the first of three regular services to Okayama.

JR Kobe Line Special Rapid, depart Osaka 10:00, Arrive Himeji 11:06 (Weekends/Holidays arrives 11:03)
JR San’yo Line Local, Depart Himeji 11:07, Arrive Aioi 11:26
JR San’yo Line Local, Depart Aioi 11:28, Arrive Okayama 12:38
Fare: 3,020 yen

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Korakuen Garden. Photo by Daderot (PD)

Spend an afternoon in Okayama – first having lunch at one of the various restaurants in the station, and then by exploring some of the city’s most popular symbols, including Korakuen Garden – one of Japan’s three gardens that we’ve touched base on before – and a reconstruction of Okayama castle.

Later in the day, we’ll hop on the bullet train to continue our westward journey.

Shinkansen Sakura #565, Depart Okayama 16:56, Arrive Hiroshima 17:36
Fare: 6,020 yen reserved standard class, 8,250 yen reserved green car (first class)

Hiroshima is a city that is remembered by so many people as the first city in the world to be targeted by a nuclear weapon. After that horrendous event, Hiroshima has been at the forefront of promoting peace and extending friendship to everyone who visits.

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Hiroshima Genbaku Dome. Photo by Fg2 (PD)

First, pick up a day pass for the Hiroshima Tram, also known as the Hiroden, for 600 yen. Then, take line #2 or line #6 from Hiroshima Station to the Genbaku Dome-mae Station, which is a 15 minute trip. Spend a few quiet moments in front of the Atomic Bomb Dome, the preserved remnants of a structure located very close to the epicenter of the blast and stands as a reminder of the events of that summer morning in August of 1945.

Next, go back to the Tram and take line #2 or line #6 to Hatchobori station. Here you can access the large downtown arcade for dinner, shopping and entertainment. Nearby is an area called Okonomimura, which is a perfect place to try out Hiroshima’s staple food called Okonomiyaki. This food mixes meats and vegetables within layers of batter and cabbage, topped off with a sweet sauce after it’s cooked. Some places will also top the “pancake” of sorts off with mayonnaise and bonito flakes.

The Twilight Express Mizukaze spends this evening traveling down the southern coast and then back up the northern coast. Since local trains are quite sparse on this part of the route, we will go part of the way to Shin-Yamaguchi and spend the night there.

Shinkansen Sakura #573, Depart Hiroshima 21:37, Arrive Shin-Yamaguchi 22:07
Fare: 5,270 yen reserved standard class, 7,500 yen reserved green car (first class)

Spend the night near Shin-Yamaguchi station.

Day 2:

In the morning we will depart for the coastal city of Matsue using the “Super Oki” limited express. Note that this trip is long (over 3 1/2 hours) and the train does not have food or wagon sales on board, so be sure to stock up on some snacks, drinks, and perhaps a bento box before leaving Shin-Yamaguchi.

Super Oki #2, Depart Shin-Yamaguchi 8:52, Arrive Matsue 12:34
Fare: 7,650 yen reserved standard class seat (no Green Car on the train)

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

Matsue will be the home for our second night on this trip. Have a lunch if you went starving on the train, then head out to some of Matsue’s attractions. Some of the attractions include Matsue Castle, one of the small number of surviving castles in Japan, a preserved samurai residence, and the old home of Lafcadio Hearn, an Irish-Greek immigrant to Japan in the 19th Century. Hearn was fascinated about Japanese culture and was one of the first international visitors to write about it. He is well known for his stories about Japanese ghosts and legends, which the people of Matsue pass down today.

Sightseeing buses conveniently travel around the city’s attractions. A one day pass costs just 500 yen. Note, however, that the last departure of these buses is at 17:00 (16:00 during the fall and winter). For meals, consider Izumo Soba (named for Izumo, Matsue’s nearby neighbor), Zenzai (red bean soup with rice cakes) or the local Wagashi (confectionary).

Day 3:

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

Option 1:
If you would like to follow the route of the Twilight Express Mizukaze a little more closely on the way to the finish line, you’ll need to turn it into a day trip.

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

Limited Express Super Matsukaze #6, Depart Matsue 9:24, Arrive Tottori 10:58
(11 minute layover)
San’in Line Local, Depart Tottori 11:09, Arrive Hamasaka 11:52
(15 minute layover)
San’in Line Rapid, Depart Hamasaka 12:07, Arrive Kinosaki-Onsen 13:05
(Kinosaki Onsen is a historic hot spring town with a unique charm, and so I recommend a lunch stop here)
Limited Express Kounotori #20, Depart Kinosaki-Onsen 15:30, Arrive Osaka 18:20, Arrive Shin-Osaka 18:28
Fare to Osaka: 10,860 yen, including reserved seating on the limited express trains

If going to Kyoto, exit the Kounotori at Fukuchiyama (16:40) and transfer to the Kinosaki #18, Departing 16:44 and arriving Kyoto 18:08. There is also a direct train from Kinosaki Onsen, Kinosaki #20, leaving 16:12 and arriving Kyoto 18:49.

Fare: 10,540 yen, including reserved seating on the limited express trains

Note that there is no food or wagon service on any of these services so you may wish to get a drink or quick snack during your layovers in Tottori or Hamasaka, and lunch in Kinosaki Onsen.

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

Option 2:
There are faster ways to reach Osaka and Kyoto by connecting to the bullet train, if you want to spend some more time in Matsue. Here is an example of a noontime departure, though you’ll find Yakumo services leaving around once every hour.

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

From Shin-Osaka, you can connect to the next Tokyo-bound Kodama service to Kyoto, or you can take a commuter service to Kyoto on what’s known as the JR Kyoto Line.

Fare to Osaka: 10,600 yen reserved standard class, 15,320 yen reserved Green Car

There is no food or wagon service on the Yakumo. You can pick up food and drinks during your layover in Okayama. The bullet train will have a wagon service.

Trip Costs

For this itinerary, a 7-day Japan Rail Pass (29,110 yen ordinary, 38,880 yen Green Car) will easily cover all of the trains noted here. By using an ordinary pass you’ll save around 3,000 yen compared to local tickets.

If you decide to forego Kinosaki Onsen and fast track back to Osaka or Kyoto on Day 3 (using Option 2), there’s an even better deal: the 7-Day JR West San’yo-San’in Pass at 20,000 yen (1,000 yen discount if purchased from overseas). Not only does it cover reserved seats, but it will also allow you to use the premium Nozomi and Mizuho services on the San’yo Shinkansen (the regular Japan Rail Pass does NOT allow this).

If you decide to use the San’yo-San’in Pass, then you can be a little bit more flexible when going to Okayama to Hiroshima and Hiroshima to Shin-Yamaguchi on Day 1, and from Okayama to Shin-Osaka on Day 3. An updated itinerary could be as follows:

Day 1, Okayama to Hiroshima
Nozomi #37, Depart Okayama 16:51, Arrive Hiroshima 17:26

Day 1, Hiroshima to Shin-Yamaguchi
Nozomi #57, Depart Hiroshima 22:05, Arrive Shin-Yamaguchi 22:35

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

The JR West pass does NOT cover the Shinkansen past Shin-Osaka, so to reach Kyoto you’ll have to change to a commuter service on the JR Kyoto Line at Kyoto Station.

If you want to float in the middle of the road as far as accommodations are concerned, you can certainly look into cheap business hotels. For a random weekday in June 2017, a business hotel in Shin-Yamaguchi went for around 3,800 yen per person double occupancy, while a Matsue accommodation went for 5,500 yen per person double occupancy. Matsue also has some traditional Japanese inns (or ryokan) at higher prices if you are so inclined.

For meals, my conservative estimate would be around 5,000 yen per person a day, counting all meals. Bento box meals and convenience store meals will certainly reduce this cost.

When the cost of a train pass, maximum conservative food budget and accommodation charges are added over a period of 3 days, the estimated cost per person comes out to around around 54,000 yen ($488) if using Option 1 on Day 3, or 44,300 yen ($400) if using Option 2 … well under the 520,000 yen charged per person double occupancy on the Twilight Express Mizukaze. Costs to visit attractions, and costs for souvenirs, are not included. Add an additional 600 yen for the Hiroshima Tram One-Day Pass.

It helps to make seat reservations on the shinkansen and limited express trains before you start your trip. Be sure to take care of this in Osaka or Kyoto.

Once again, it’s my hope that as you consider this, you will make your own travel plan for Japan… whether it be around these areas or other parts of this wonderful country… at a budget that suits you. Please feel free to share your thoughts, or perhaps any other itineraries that you may come up with.

All itineraries are posted pursuant to the disclaimer.

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

Itinerary – Train Cruising On The Cheap

Greetings all! This is the first of what could be a series of posts that will highlight the newest trend in Japanese train travel, and how you can experience the same journeys at a lower cost.

The various regional companies of the Japan Railways, or JR, have begun branching out over the years to offer new, high-end, luxurious, train trips. These new trains have taken on the nickname of “Cruising Trains”. Like a cruise on the open seas, these new train cruises aim to offer some of the finest experiences in train travel, allowing travelers to see wonderful parts of the country at a relaxed pace. They are successors to most overnight train services – the so-called “Blue Trains” – that used to run all across Japan for decades before their popularity declined thanks to the advent of bullet trains, regional airports and low cost air carriers.

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JR East Train Suite Shiki-shima. Photo by Rsa (CC BY-SA 3.0)

One such trains that has been making headlines over the last few weeks is the cruise train called the Shiki-shima, operated by JR East.

The design of the train and amenities are impeccable. There are observation cars with lounges, suite rooms, and a first class dining car showcasing the best of Eastern Japan. As part of the planned itineraries, there is a mix of dining and sleeping on the train, with dining and sleeping in high-end accommodations at certain points of interest. The launching pad for the train trips is at Ueno Station in Tokyo, the traditional starting point for Japan’s train journeys to the north – though these days bullet trains, and more recently the opening of the Ueno-Tokyo through line, make Tokyo Station slightly more ideal.

There are two downsides to attempting a trip on the Shiki-Shima. First, the cost: expect to pay anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000 for a journey that takes no longer than 4 days. For the most recent offered itinerary – 3 days and 2 nights this winter – fares started at $6,500 single occupancy and $4,400 per person double occupancy for a… “standard” suite in US dollars at present exchange rates.

The second downside is whether or not you are able to secure a trip in the first place. Despite the exorbitant cost, travelers want to take trains like these. JR East is overwhelmed with trip applications that they conduct a lottery to see who will receive the privilege of taking a trip. Occasionally, travel agencies will secure a small number of trips on trains like these and sell them, tacking a large commission on top of the original price.

Don’t let this get you down though… you can still plan your own trip using Japan’s renowned transit systems, which include bullet trains and nice-looking limited express and tourist trains, with a more respectable budget.

To demonstrate, I’ve taken apart one of the itineraries that will be offered on the Shiki-Shima and will show you how to make a similar journey using regularly scheduled train services.

Original Shiki-shima Itinerary

What follows is the original itinerary for the most recent journey to sell out: the 3-day, 2-night Winter cruise on the Shiki-shima train, per the information on the JR East website.

Day 1: Ueno – (lunch on the train) – Shiroishi (sightseeing) – (Dinner outside the train) – Board the Shiki-shima at Matsushima and spend the night on the train.
Day 2: (Breakfast on the train) – Aomori – Hirosaki (sightseeing) – (lunch outside the train) – return to the train at Aomori (dinner inside the train) – Ichinoseki (sightseeing) – spend the night on the train.
Day 3: Naruko-Onsen station – (breakfast on the train) – Sightseeing in Naruko-Onsen – (lunch on the train) – Arrive at Ueno Station.

With this itinerary in mind, let’s see what a trip would look like by taking the regular services… that is, anything regularly scheduled, including bullet trains. While the cruising train starts and ends at Ueno Station, I’ll include a few other options for consideration.

Jose’s Itinerary

Day 1:
*Shinkansen Yamabiko/Tsubasa #131, Depart Tokyo 9:24, Omiya 9:48, Arrive Fukushima 10:46
Every day, this Yamabiko service makes a fast run from Tokyo to Fukushima in only 82 minutes, stopping only at Omiya. The Yamabiko continues to Sendai, and the Tsubasa continues to Yamagata and Shinjo.
If leaving from Ueno, you can board the Nasuno #255 departing Ueno 9:22 and arriving Omiya at 9:41 to connect to the above service.

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Shiroishi Castle. Photo by neuropower (PD)

Spend an hour in the Fukushima station surroundings… perhaps have a quick meal while you are there. Then, travel to Shiroishi by regular JR train:

*JR Tohoku Line Local, Depart Fukushima 11:47, Arrive Shiroishi 12:22

Spend the afternoon in Shiroishi. Enjoy the restored Shiroishi Castle, or sample one of the staples of Shiroishi’s cuisine… Umen noodles, which are cooked without oil.

In the late afternoon, depart for Aomori.

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Aomori Bay at night. Photo by Angaurtis (CC BY-SA 3.0)

*JR Tohoku Line Local, Depart Shiroishi 16:19, Arrive Sendai 17:09
(Alternate: Go a bit further east to Shiroishi-Zao station, take Shinkansen Yamabiko #143, Depart Shiroishi-Zao 16:50, Arrive Sendai 17:04)
*Shinkansen Hayabusa #27, Depart Sendai 17:54, Arrive Shin-Aomori 19:37
*Take a shuttle train to Aomori, arriving 19:57

 

Check into a hotel in Aomori and spend the evening. For dinner you could have something quick in Sendai, or perhaps buy a bento box in Sendai Station to have on the Hayabusa service. You could also have a late dinner in Aomori.

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Hirosaki Castle. Photo by Si-take. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Day 2:
After breakfast in Aomori, take a limited express train to Hirosaki:
*Tsugaru #2, Depart Aomori 9:05, Arrive Hirosaki 9:36

Spend the day in Hirosaki, visiting the Hirosaki Castle with its preserved samurai buildings nearby.  After sightseeing and lunch, depart for Ichinoseki.

*Tsugaru #3, Depart Hirosaki 14:52, Arrive Shin-Aomori 15:22
*Hayabusa #26, Depart Shin-Aomori 15:52, Arrive Morioka 16:44
*Hayabusa #108, Depart Morioka 17:07, Arrive Ichinoseki 17:47

Check into a hotel in Ichinoseki, have dinner and spend the evening.

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Autumn leaves at Naruko Gorge. Photo by Hiroaki Kaneko (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Day 3:
After breakfast in Ichinoseki, depart for the scenic Naruko Gorge. The gorge offers spectacular views, and is especially popular in the fall and winter months.

*Hayabusa #104, Depart Ichinoseki 8:48, Arrive Furukawa 9:05
*JR Rikku East Line Local, Depart Furukawa 9:19, Arrive Naruko-Onsen 10:02

After sightseeing and lunch in Naruko, return to Tokyo to complete your trip.

*JR Rikku East Line Local, Depart Naruko-Onsen 14:10, Arrive Furukawa 14:57
*Shinkansen Yamabiko #50, Depart Furukawa 15:09, Arrive Omiya 16:58, Ueno 17:18, Tokyo 17:24

Trip Costs

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Seat reservations are mandatory on Hayabusa services. Photo by sukhoi37 (CC BY 3.0)

For the three-day itinerary above, an excellent option if you do not have the national Japan Rail Pass is the JR East Tohoku Area Pass for 19,000 yen. With this pass you can travel anywhere in JR East territory from Tokyo to Tohoku (northern Honshu). You get five flexible days of travel over a 14 day period and can make free seat reservations in standard class on all the bullet trains mentioned above. Note that when you use the Hayabusa bullet train seat reservations are compulsory.

With the two other days remaining, why not explore other areas included in the pass? Perhaps check out Matsuyama (part of the Shiki-Shima tour but excluded from my itinerary), or make a quick bullet train run to Echigo-Yuzawa to cheaply sample many regional types of sake and possibly bring a bottle home with you!

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Exterior of Aomori Station with several business hotels. Photo by ぺ有家音 (PD)

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, business hotels in Aomori were spotted two blocks east of Aomori Station for as low as 2,300 yen per person double occupancy. Near Ichinoseki Station they were spotted at 4,700 yen per person double occupancy.

For meals, my conservative estimate would be around 4,000 yen per person a day, counting all meals. Bento box meals and convenience store meals will certainly reduce this cost.

When the cost of the JR East Tohoku 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 38,000 yen ($335)… well under the 500,000 yen charged per person double occupancy on the Shiki-shima. Costs to visit attractions, and costs for souvenirs, are not included.

It helps to make seat reservations on the shinkansen and limited express trains; as mentioned above, Hayabusa reservations are compulsory. Make your seat reservations for the Hayabusa, Yamabiko, Tsubasa and Tsugaru at a JR train station in Tokyo, preferably at one of the JR East Travel Service Centers (Tokyo, Shinjuku or Ikebukuro Stations), before you start your trip.

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 information is offered pursuant to the blog disclaimer.

Links to Creative Commons licenses: CC BY 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0

 

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

With the opening of the Hokkaido Shinkansen this week, it’s time to once again update my blog concerning overnight train travel in Japan and share ideas when it comes to using the Japan Rail Pass for such journeys.

Overnight trains were once a staple of the country. Many stories have been told – real and fiction – about traveling life on these trains. Regular services peaked in the 1970′s, but then came the bullet trains – then cheap overnight highway buses – then aging train equipment – that sapped most life out of these so-called “Blue Trains” (nicknamed for their color).

When I wrote my first overnight by train article six years ago, there were still several overnight train options available, including the Cassiopeia and Hokutosei (Tokyo-Sapporo), Twilight Express and Nihonkai (Osaka-Kyoto-Sapporo). Those trains are now all discontinued from regular service with the opening of the Hokkaido Shinkansen to Hokkaido over the tracks formerly used by the sleeper trains.

There is now just one set of sleeper trains in regular service: The Sunrise Seto and Sunrise Izumo. These trains run every night, coupled together between Tokyo and Okayama, stopping at Himeji early in the morning. At Okayama the trains split, with the Sunrise Seto heading across the Seto Inland Sea to Takamatsu on the island of Shikoku, and the Sunrise Izumo heading north to the resort city of Izumo – home of a famous shrine of the same name.

These two trains have a carpeted floor space called a “Nobinobi Seat” where you sleep on the floor. These are a popular travel option… and with a Japan Rail Pass, you can use these carpeted spaces for free. The reason for that is because the carpeted space is technically classified as a “Reserved Seat” for booking purposes.

There are private bunks and rooms as well, if you want your own space, but if you want to use these spaces with a Japan Rail Pass you will have to pay for the room. These can be expensive, approximately 10,000-20,000 yen per room/compartment once additional surcharges are calculated. Each will fit one or two passengers.

For more details about these trains, I highly recommend the YouTube video created by John Daub describing life on the Sunrise Izumo. More of his videos from Japan can be found on his website, onlyinjapan.tv.

If you are worried about costs and just want to travel point-to-point overnight not worrying about sightseeing, you can use the Japan Rail Pass to your advantage by finding a stop along the route of travel where there are cheap accommodations, such as a business hotel, and then continue on to your destination in the morning. The advantage, besides the inexpensive cost, is that you have your own bed, shower and toilet. You can also enjoy just a little slice of what life is like in another part of Japan… Who knows, you might even get to try something – food for example – that’s unique to that particular region or city. And remember, as long as your rail pass covers the day of travel AND the following day, your rail fare will be fully covered.

We will now revisit all of the options for travel between major cities, as listed in the previous blog articles. We’ve used the reputable Toyoko Inn chain as an example to look at when it comes to inexpensive hotel accommodations, but now that web searches for hotels are pretty sophisticated, I’ll be using several resources including the booking site Agoda and look for accommodations for a random weekday evening in the spring.

TOKYO to KYOTO or OSAKA via Tokaido Shinkansen

Tokyo to Kansai is an essential trip for the tourist. The Tokaido Shinkansen easily connects these two areas in three hours or less… but if you want to cut back on lodging costs, you could stay at a lesser-known city along the way. Some stops along the route that you can consider include Hamamatsu, Toyohashi and Nagoya. In Hamamatsu, Agoda indicates solo accommodations starting at 3,500 yen, and double occupancy at 2,000 yen per person. Toyohashi has accommodations from 5,000 yen single and 3,750 yen p/p double, and the hotels at the bullet train station in Nagoya start from 4,000 yen single (there’s a guesthouse nearby at 2,500 yen) and 3,600 yen p/p double.

Hikari bullet trains, the fastest that can be used with the Japan Rail Pass, can easily get you to any of these cities with 1 or 2 departures every hour. The final trains leave from Tokyo station at 21:30 and 22:00, both terminating at Nagoya with stops at Hamamatsu and Toyohashi along the way.

In the morning, bullet trains from Hamamatsu and Toyohashi towards Kyoto and Osaka leave from 6:32 and 6:45 respectively. These are Kodama trains which stop at every single bullet train stop, and arrive in Kyoto and Osaka at 7:56 and 8:10 respectively. The Kodama trains do not have food or drink sales on board, so keep that in mind before boarding. You could also stop quickly at Nagoya for some food before continuing on the next Hikari or Kodama service.

From Nagoya, the first departure is a Hikari leaving at 6:35, followed by a Kodama leaving at 6:51. These trains reach Kyoto in around 45 minutes and one hour respectively.

TOKYO to KYOTO or OSAKA via Kanazawa

A second overnight option that has existed takes you through Kanazawa, home to one of Japan’s top Japanese gardens. Travel between Tokyo and Kanazawa has been easy since 2015, when the bullet train opened between these cities.

From Tokyo, Kagayaki and Hakutaka trains run the route to Kanazawa. The last Kagayaki trains from Tokyo leave at 19:56 and 21:04, arriving in Kanazawa at 22:30 and 23:35 respectively. Accommodations in Kanazawa sampled at 5,800 yen single and 3,900 yen p/p double.

Regular limited express trains called Thunderbird run from Kanazawa to Kyoto and Osaka via the northern side of Lake Biwa. In the morning, the first train leaves at 5:35 if you are eager enough. Kanazawa also has trains running to Maibara, from which you can transfer to the Tokaido Shinkansen. While you’re in Kanazawa, though, why not spend the early hours in Kenroku-en, the aforementioned Japanese garden? Visit early before the tourist crowds arrive, then continue on your way.

TOKYO to TAKAMATSU and the rest of Shikoku

The port city of Takamatsu is one of the major cities on the Japanese island of Shikoku. Previously only accessible by ferry, Shikoku was connected to the Japanese mainland in 1988 with a series of bridges known collectively as the Great Seto Bridge. Two more bridges connecting Honshu and Shikoku would open in the late 1990’s, but the Seto Ohashi bridge is the only one able to accomodate both vehicular and railroad traffic.

The previously-mentioned Sunrise Seto overnight train provides a one-seat ride between the cities. But if this is not an option for you, for one reason or another?

Let’s look at one of the major stops on the Shinkansen, Okayama. All of the major bullet trains that run this far stop in Okayama. It is also the connection point for trains to Shikoku.

There is one direct Hikari service every hour from Tokyo to Okayama, taking four hours. The last of these services departs at 17:03, arriving Okayama at 21:11. There are a few more options after that, but you’ll need to change trains in Osaka. The last departure is the Hikari leaving at 19:33 – when you reach Shin-Osaka, change to the Kodama which will get you to Okayama at 23:47.

Accommodations around Okayama were found for 6,000 yen single and 4,000 yen p/p double.

The next morning, take the “Marine Liner” rapid train service to reach Takamatsu, or if you are heading to another destination on Shikoku then take one of the Limited Express trains in that direction. The first two Marine Liner trains for Takamatsu at 5:27 and 6:01, arriving Takamatsu at 6:31 and 6:56 respectively. Marine Liner trains depart on a regular basis to Takamatsu so you can take your time in Okayama if you wish… perhaps visit another renowned Japanese garden, Koraku-en.

TOKYO to HIROSHIMA and FUKUOKA (and Kyushu)

If you wanted to travel from Tokyo directly to Fukuoka by train, it’s a six hour trip with a change in bullet trains required along the way. If you want to travel by night, Okayama is an excellent transfer point, as described above.

Another stop you can consider is Himeji, known for its iconic castle. The options described above to go from Tokyo to Okayama are also valid to reach Himeji.

Himeji’s rates were checked from 5,000 yen single and 3,000 yen p/p double… In my particular search a rate of 7,000 yen single at a 4-star luxury hotel was discovered – what a steal!

The first train from Himeji is a Hikari service, which leaves at 6:38 for Fukuoka (called Hakata station)… but another service right behind it, a Sakura service, leaves at 6:55 and will actually beat the Hikari service to Fukuoka by around a half-hour. This Sakura service is what you should consider using for trips to Hiroshima, Fukuoka, and other destinations in Kyushu such as Kumamoto (Arrive 9:47) and the end of the line at Kagoshima (Arrive 10:44).

Since trains leave Himeji 1 or 2 times per hour, you could consider sneaking out for an early trip to Himeji Castle before continuing on your way.

TOKYO to HAKODATE and SAPPORO (and Hokkaido)

This is where things have changed dramatically with the recent opening of the Hokkaido Shinkansen from the northern Tohoku region into Hokkaido.

Trips from Tokyo to Hakodate in southern Hokkaido now take an average of 4 1/2 hours. If you want to make this short journey into an overnight excursion, you can stop in Aomori, where hotels are 5,500 yen single or 4,000 yen p/p double. To reach Aomori, you’ll need to get off the shinkansen at Shin-Aomori then continue to Aomori on a shuttle train. In the morning, return to Shin-Aomori to pick up the shinkansen towards Hokkaido. In the morning, the first train to Hokkaido leaves Shin-Aomori at 6:32, but the shuttle train from Aomori leaves at 5:45, so you have a lot of time sitting in Shin-Aomori prior to the departure. The Aomori departure at 7:35, connecting to the Shinkansen departure at 7:57, is a little more reasonable.

Remember, when you get to the terminal stop in Hakodate, called Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto, you have to take another shuttle train which will get you to Hakodate city.

Tokyo to Sapporo, end to end, takes as little as 7 hours 45 minutes on the fastest train services. Here, you could make the argument of spending the night in Hakodate before continuing on your way to Sapporo… why not make a day of it in Hakodate? In Hakodate city, prices were seen for around 4,500 yen single or 3,600 yen p/p double.

If you’re pinched for time, the last two services from Tokyo to Hakodate leave at 17:20 and 19:20. Arrival times in Hakodate are at 22:29 and 24:05 respectively. From Hakodate to Sapporo, the first trains depart at 6:10 and 7:28, arriving Sapporo at 9:48 and 11:27 respectively.

OSAKA and KYOTO to HAKODATE and SAPPORO

This route used to be covered by several popular overnight trains, including the Twilight Express. All of the overnight train options have been discontinued, leaving us to make use of the existing shinkansen and limited express services. I’d recommend a stopover for an overnight trip in Hakodate, with Aomori coming a close second.

You can easily take the Hikari shinkansen from Osaka and Kyoto to Tokyo and continue northbound on the Hayabusa towards Hakodate. Leaving on the 13:40 Hikari from Osaka (13:56 from Kyoto) will get you to Tokyo at 16:40, giving you 40 minutes before the Hayabusa departure to Hakodate as described above.

Via northern coast

Another option, if you want to consider it, is a longer journey that routes you along the northern Japanese coast, following the sea of Japan. This is the route formerly covered by the Twilight Express service. If you’re a true train lover like I am and really want to contribute to green commutes, this is the trip for you. Part of this journey is now operated by the Hokuriku Shinkansen.

Thunderbird 7 – Depart Osaka 8:10, Shin-Osaka 8:14, Kyoto 8:41, Arrive Kanazawa 11:02

In Kanazawa you have a layover of almost one hour, perfect for grabbing a quick bite to eat or two. The next several trains require quick connections.

Hakutaka 562 – Depart Kanazawa 11:56, Arrive Joetsu-Myoko 12:58
Shirayuki 5 – Depart Joetsu-Myoko 13:07, Arrive Nagaoka 14:14
Max Toki 321 – Depart Nagaoka 14:27, Arrive Niigata 14:50
Inaho 7 – Depart Niigata 15:01, Arrive Akita 18:41

There is a layover of 50 minutes in Akita.

Tsugaru 5 – Depart Akita 19:32, Arrive Aomori 22:16

Overnight in Aomori as described earlier, then depart on the 7:35 train from Aomori to catch the 7:57 Hayate train to Hakodate. You can reach Hakodate by 9:30, or connect to the train to Sapporo with an arrival time of 12:41. You can also elect to take the 5:45 departure and wait it out at Shin-Aomori until the 6:32 departure, which will get you to Hokkaido sooner.

An alternative route after Akita is to take the Komachi shinkansen service from Akita (Departing 19:11) to Morioka (Arriving 20:49) and spend the night in Morioka. In the morning, take the 6:54 Hayate service to Hakodate. As with the first option, you can reach Hakodate by 9:30, or connect to the train to Sapporo with an arrival time of 12:41.

 

There are many other routes that you can choose from… including a scenic trip through the central Japanese alps! Many of the routes can be sorted out using English planning sites like HyperDia (www.hyperdia.com). I also like using the Japanese site ekikara.jp to look up the timetables, though some understanding of Japanese is needed.

Whatever you decide – however you decide to do it – enjoy traveling around Japan and enjoy the new slice of life experience that comes with a stay in a non-touristy city.

As always, all advice on my blog is offered pursuant to my Disclaimer.

 

The Shinkansen is now in Hokkaido!

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

It’s now official – Japan’s iconic Shinkansen network is now linked to the country’s northernmost island of Hokkaido! Services through the Seikan Tunnel linking Hokkaido and Honshu began operating on March 26. The direct services now link Tokyo to Hokkaido in as little as four hours.

One of the great online tools to look up train timetables in Japan is the English website HyperDia (www.hyperdia.com), and the new train services to Hokkaido are now included in search results…. first, though, you’ll want to go into the search parameters and untick that one box next to the word “Airplane”. Yes, the HyperDia site will also give you results for scheduled domestic air flights, so in order to search only rail results you’ll need to make sure that the Airplane search is de-selected.

shin hakodate hokuto
Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto station. Photo by DF200, CC BY-SA 4.0

The new shinkansen terminal in Hokkaido is located a few kilometers north of Hakodate city, at a station called Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto. From this terminal station, a shuttle service called the Hakodate Liner whisks passengers to the center of Hakodate in approximately 10 to 15 minutes. This is why search results from south of Hokkaido will take you to take two trains when the destination is Hakodate.

Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto is also the connecting point for passengers who want to go straight on to Sapporo using Limited Express trains… which won’t be replaced by bullet trains for another 15 years or so. Be sure not to skip Hakodate, however, as the vibrant city has many things to offer tourists… from the morning markets, to the historical district of Motomachi, to the stunning views of the area from the top of Mount Hakodate.

Whether it’s for a few days or just for the night to sleep somewhere, Hakodate is an excellent stopover if you are utilizing the Japan Rail Pass to journey towards Sapporo. Keep in mind that there are no more overnight trains to Sapporo because the tunnel has now been upgraded to bullet time operations… so Hakodate city becomes the ideal place to either visit or rest.

If you plan to use the new Hokkaido Shinkansen extension to Hakodate, give me a shout and let me know what you think of the ride, and of the city!

New Mobile Ticketing for Shinkansen arriving next year

This afternoon I came across a press release from the Shinkansen timetable site Tabi-O-Ji, and I thought it might be nice to share here on the blog.

If you want to travel by bullet train in Japan, under most circumstances you cannot book your ticket until you arrive in Japan. There are a few exceptions, most notably the online reservation system of JR East, allowing travelers to reserve – in English – trips on bullet trains that they operate. While many routes to the north are covered, the most important routes – the Tokaido and San’yo Shinkansen connecting Tokyo to Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima, Fukuoka and points in between – does not offer advance ticketing in English.

This MIGHT change in the Summer of 2017, when JR Central and JR West are set to unveil a new mobile ticketing system for Tokaido and San’yo Shinkansen trains. According to the press release, you will be able to use the new ticketing system by linking your credit card and an IC card, such as a SUICA, TOICA, ICOCA, etc. You’d have to pick up an IC card in Japan if you don’t have one already, but once you have one you can add it to the account.

Purchases in the new system would be charged to your credit card, then when you are ready to travel you simply tap in and out of the ticket barriers using your IC card.

I bring this up because apparently there is some language in the JR press release saying that “Even foreign travelers can use the system”. This might suggest that in the future, there could be an English option to purchase shinkansen tickets on the Tokaido and San’yo Shinkansen using a mobile device.

There are a few points to note:
– As the release says, you must be in possession of an IC card BEFORE you make a purchase. If you have acquired an IC card from a previous trip to Japan, it is valid for five years after purchase.
– There is no option mentioned regarding purchases for Japan Rail Pass holders. I honestly do not expect such an option to be made available – instead, rail pass holders would have to continue making ticket reservations in person, and pass through manned ticket barriers to access trains.

Further details are yet to be announced (including whether or not there will be an English option) but if you plan to go around on the Tokaido and San’yo Shinkansen using regular tickets, the new mobile ticketing system that will be in place next year might just make purchases easier.

Hokkaido Travel Notice – March 22-25

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

With roughly one month to go until Japan’s iconic bullet train enters the northern island of Hokkaido for the fist time, here’s an important travel advisory for potential visitors to Hokkaido.

Between March 22 and 25, train services from the Japanese mainland to Hokkaido will be shut down in order to make final preparations for bullet train services. This means that during this four-day period, the only way to travel into and out of Hokkaido is by airplane, or by ferry to one of the northernmost ports in Honshu (i.e. Aomori).

The Seikan Tunnel is the long, 33 1/2 mile tunnel connecting Hokkaido with the Japanese mainland under the Tsugaru Strait. Since 1988, passenger trains have made the journey through this tunnel on journeys to and from the southern Hokkaido city of Hakodate. Considering the amount of freight traffic that also uses the tunnel, the Seikan Tunnel is one of the country’s most vital transportation links.

During the four day period that the tunnel is closed, construction crews will make final preparations for the introduction of the new shinkansen services. One of these steps is to raise the overhead voltage into the tunnel from 20 kV to the shinkansen standard of 25 kV.

When the Seikan Tunnel opens to Shinkansen traffic on 26 March, the vital freight services will resume operation. Naturally, JR is on top of things – two years ago, it introduced a new electric locomotive, the EH800, capable of operating at both 20 kV and 25 kV. It will be the sole locomotive hauling freight through the tunnel moving forward.

The opening of the Shinkansen stands to revitalize Hakodate – and in turn, Hokkaido – with new visitors. In the meantime, if you are planning a trip to Japan in the next month, please take note of these dates when the Seikan Tunnel will be closed.