So You’ve Landed In Japan – Airport to Hotel

Last week I wrote about what you can expect during customs and immigration procedures when landing in Japan. Today I’ll write about the best ways to get to your hotel, or wherever you may be staying the first night. Consider this an update to what I wrote several years ago.

Many of Japan’s major airports are a good distance away from city centers. This is true for Narita Airport serving Tokyo, Kansai Airport serving Osaka, and Chubu (Centrair) Airport serving Nagoya – the latter two of which were built in the middle of the sea on man-made islands.

When traveling from the airport to the place of your first stay, you must carefully consider the options that are available, and determine what will be best for your budget.

Cash

First, naturally, you will want to make sure that you have some cash on hand, especially in a country where cash is still king (but contact-less cards are still trying to change that). As soon as you finish the arrival formalities, the first thing you will want to look for is a place to obtain cash – either an ATM machine or currency exchange.

Preferably, you will want to look for an ATM machine as they tend to offer better exchange and conversion rates than the staffed currency exchange counters. Many of the major banks in Japan will have ATMs in the arrivals area of the international airports. The ones that you will want to look for are: JP Bank (Japan Post), Seven Bank (7 Eleven) and Citibank. These ATMs will accept International banking cards, not just at the airport but at all of their locations. They also offer an option to conduct your transaction in English. When you continue around the country, you can access JP Bank ATMs at many Japan Post Office branches, and Seven Bank at a nearby 7 Eleven convenience store. Citibank can be found in major cities in Japan – though bear in mind that Citibank is looking to sell its personal banking services and therefore their ATMs will probably not be along for much longer.

If you need to go to a currency exchange counter, then my recommendation is to take only what you need for a short period of time (including transit out of the airport, meals for the first day or two, etc). Once you have arrived at where you are staying, locate an ATM so that you can get a better exchange rate.

Luggage Delivery Service

If you have any large pieces of luggage, it could be cumbersome to haul them around. That’s when the Luggage Delivery Service, sometimes called Takkyubin or Takuhaibin, can come in handy.

True story – I knew nothing about luggage delivery service when I visited Japan for the first time, and so proceeded from Narita Airport into Tokyo by train. Upon arrival, it was a mistake for me to go up the escalator with my two pieces of large luggage. When I got to the top, a wheel from one of my luggage pieces got caught and I tumbled over to the ground. Japanese people behind me were quick to hop over me as if they were in a hurdle race, with cries of “Daijoubu desu ka?” (Are you all right?)

I vowed never to make the mistake of hauling all of my luggage on my own again! So on successive journeys I would pack whatever I didn’t need for the short term in my large suitcase, and any items I absolutely need in a smaller suitcase. Then I pay to have the larger piece of luggage forwarded to my hotel, which typically occurs the very next day (in occasional instances, two days).

What I would also do is print out, in English and Japanese, the address of where I would like my luggage to be forwarded – in my case, the hotel. The address of your hotel should be on the confirmation e-mail that you receive for your stay. To find the address in Japanese, look up the hotel on the Internet. In some instances, a Google search will turn up the hotel address in Japanese. Otherwise you can go to the hotel’s Japanese web page. You’ll want to look for a mark that looks like this: 〒  This is the postal mark for addresses in Japan. It will be followed by a series of numbers (the postal code) and the address of the hotel.

Here’s an example: For the hotel I stayed at in Kyoto last time, Citadines Karasuma Hotel Kyoto… If you were to search this on Google: Well what do you know, they have the Japanese address right there:
下京区五条通烏丸東入松屋町432, 京都市, Kyoto 600-8105, Japan
You can easily copy and paste this into a printout that you can show to the person at the luggage delivery service desk, in case they cannot understand English.

The Luggage Delivery Service charges by piece, with different pricing brackets based on the size of your item and its weight. Whatever falls into the larger of these two is the price that is charged.

For a piece of luggage that falls into the bracket where the maximum weight is 20 kg (44 lbs), you can currently expect to pay around 1,600 yen to send your luggage short range, from the airport to the major city closest to the airport. This drops to as low as around 800 yen for light or small-sized luggage and/or parcels. You can also use luggage delivery service when traveling across Japan, and for return service to the airport – your hotel’s front desk will arrange the service and process payment for you, or you can bring your luggage to a convenience store and they will probably be able to offer the service as well. Note that if you use the service back to the airport, you will normally have to send your luggage two days in advance of your travel date, and a small surcharge will be added to the regular rate.

With your bulkier luggage safely on its own, take your smaller luggage with you as you proceed to your final destination.

There might be one time where you do NOT need to use a luggage delivery service…

Airport Limousine Bus

The Limousine Bus is the name given to many of the public bus services operating between the airports and cities, either stopping at major hotels or transit hubs. Not only are the buses comfortable and convenient to use, they will naturally take your luggage as well. Each passenger is allowed two free bags to be “checked” into the belly of the bus.

If you are going to a hotel that happens to be served by a limousine bus, then it’s not necessary to use luggage delivery. On the other hand, if you are going to a major transit hub, such as a train station, and you have to continue from there to your final destination, luggage delivery might still want to be considered.

Many bus operators are offering competitive discounts for travel out of the airport, from discounted coupons to the actual fares. For example, one airport bus service runs from Narita to Tokyo Station every hour for as little as 900-1000 yen. These buses, however, usually allow just one piece of checked baggage per person.

Trains

Another way to travel out of the airport – and my personal preference – is by train. Each of the major airports will have at least one, sometimes two, train companies that run services into the main city and beyond. Japan Railways offers services out of Narita and Kansai airports. Other private companies compete for passengers too: Keisei Railway from Narita and Nankai Railway from Kansai. Only one train company – Meitetsu – runs trains out of Nagoya.

Services offered range from cheaper, regular commuter trains to premium limited-stop services. From Narita it’s the JR Narita Express or the Keisei Skyliner. From Kansai it’s the JR Haruka or Nankai Rapi:t. From Meitetsu Airport it’s myu-sky trains (symbolized μ-SKY). Like the limousine buses, many of the train operators are competing for passengers – something that has become very aggressive in recent years.

Taxis

Taxis from the airport to your hotel are only good in one of two situations – you either have a lot of money, or you have enough passengers to reasonably split the cost. Taxis, while offering a personalized service, are very expensive to use from the airport to a major city, simply because of the large distance in between. As an example, a cab hailed directly by yourself from Narita Airport to a random Tokyo hotel – let’s say the Hotel Mystays Asakusabashi, the last hotel I stayed in – costs approximately 20,000 yen for the distance traveled, PLUS highway toll fees of another 2,000-2,500 yen depending on the road used. This can change based on traffic congestion. For that price you could comfortably stay in a Tokyo business hotel for several nights.

The best bet, if you have to use a taxi from the airport, is to use a flat rate or fixed fare taxi. Taxi cabs from these lines offer a set price for your journey, and will generally be a little cheaper than a direct taxi hail – though highway tolls are usually NOT included in the price.

You can also book taxis in advance – which are sometimes referred to as hired taxis. Most of the fares from hires DO include highway tolls. Some travel agencies also sell airport transfers by taxi.

Remember to not accept taxi rides from strangers. Licensed taxis in Japan will have a GREEN license plate, as opposed to the white and yellow license plates of regular vehicles.

Shared Shuttle Van

A small number of companies also offer shared shuttles, much like SuperShuttle in the US, where you ride from the airport to your place of accommodation with other passengers. Example: at last check, there is a service from Narita Airport into Tokyo which runs the shared shuttle for 4,800 yen per person each way, while a service between Kansai Airport and Kyoto runs for 3,600 yen per person each way.

My recommendations

Obviously, you’ll want to do your research to figure out the best way to get from the airport to Tokyo, with your budget as a primary factor. Here’s a checklist for you to consider, assuming you have not made any advance booking of transportation.

– After leaving customs and immigration, do you need cash? If so, you can go to an ATM at the airport (or less recommended, currency exchange) to withdraw Japanese yen.

Does a direct bus serve the hotel that you are staying at? If so, go to the bus counter and purchase tickets for the bus.

Do you have a lot of luggage? If you do, go to the luggage delivery counter and make arrangements to have some of your luggage sent to your place of lodging, paying the appropriate fee.

– My suggestion for your next step is to take public transportation – bus or train – from the airport into the city.

– After you are in the city, then take either local trains or a short-range taxi to your final destination.

Here’s how I would apply my checklist if I were traveling from Narita Airport to Hotel Mystays Asakusabashi:

– When I land, I could probably use some cash to cover any expenses during my first few days, so I will want to go to an ATM.

– Learning from my mistake on trip #1, I would go to the luggage delivery counter to forward my large piece(s) of luggage.

– After that, there are a few things that I can consider, noting that the hotel is near two train stations: a JR station that is one stop away from Tokyo’s Akihabara, the electronics district, as well as a subway line that offers direct and connecting service to Narita and Haneda Airports.

Note: Number 1 will change from March 2015 when the special one-way price is discontinued.

1) If I wanted to take something comfortable, I could take the Japan Railways Narita Express. Right now, they are offering a special one-way price of 1,500 yen per person for foreign tourists, traveling from Narita Airport to ANY JR station in Tokyo. You take the Narita Express into the city, then change to a regular commuter train to go to a station near your destination. So, I could take three trains – Narita Express to Tokyo Station, Yamanote Line to Akihabara, and Sobu Line to Asakusabashi  – and pay just 1,500 yen for the entire trip. If I feel like taking three trains is too much, I could get off at Tokyo Station and change to a taxi, which would cost an extra 1,600 yen (800 yen per passenger for 2 people).

2) I could take the Keisei Skyliner, which is on the other train line that runs out of Narita Airport. It’s the fastest, traveling between the airport and Tokyo’s Ueno in as little as 41 minutes. Keisei sells discounted vouchers for foreign tourists at a cost of 2,200 yen (a 270 yen discount) on their website, which are then turned in for tickets on the next available Skyliner. With this I could go to Keisei Ueno station and take a taxi from there to the hotel at a cost of around 1,100 yen (550 yen per passenger for 2 people). If I felt like continuing on by train, I could get off at Nippori, which is directly connected by the JR, and take two trains to Asakusabashi for only 160 yen.

3) If I arrived early enough in the day, I could just take a commuter train from Narita Airport directly to Asakusabashi station on the Toei Asakusa Subway Line – only a few blocks from the hotel – for 1,290 yen if I didn’t mind the other commuters. If arriving later in the day I’d have to change trains once but the fare would still be the same.

4) If I wanted to, I could still use the limousine bus…. Right now, the limousine bus service is offering an anniversary campaign fare of 1,900 yen (a discount of 1,100 yen) from Narita Airport to the company’s Tokyo City Air Terminal (TCAT) in Hakozaki, good until the end of 2014. From TCAT I could go to the connected subway station and take two subway trains to Asakusabashi (280 yen) or take a taxi to the hotel (1,600 yen for the ride).

5) I could also take the budget 1,000 yen bus into Tokyo. I could get off at Tokyo Station and take two JR trains to Asakusabashi (160 yen) or take a taxi to the hotel (1,600 yen).

Once I’ve finally decided how to get in to the city and I finally arrive, my luggage that was sent from the airport can be expected to arrive the next day.

So as you can see, there are so many things to consider. With a little bit of planning, you can find the best option for your needs at the price that you want to pay.

One more thing – if you plan to do a lot of travel in Japan then you might want to consider some form of rail pass. If you use the rail pass from the day that you arrive, and it’s valid for a journey that you want to use, then that journey should be your primary option. For example, if I was on a Japan Rail Pass going from Narita Airport to Asakusabashi, I would stick with the Narita Express and JR trains to my destination. My travel is included in the Japan Rail Pass completely. Or I could just pay for a taxi to go from Tokyo Station to the hotel, as described above.

Any questions? I’ll be happy to answer them. Thanks!

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Japan Diary – September 13, 2013 – Hikone and Kyoto Tower

I am re-posting my diary from my September 2013 trip to Japan. This is the report from September 13 with my girlfriend (now fiance) Jordan which recounts our visit to Hikone and Kyoto Tower.

The "tenshu" or main keep at Hikone Castle, undamaged through the centuries. Photo by Jose Ramos, September 13, 2013
The “tenshu” or main keep at Hikone Castle, undamaged through the centuries. Photo by Jose Ramos, September 13, 2013

Today we rested somewhat after spending the last two days bouncing around at a breakneck pace. This morning I walked the very short distance to (a very small) McDonalds to bring back some breakfast… a sausage McMuffin for Jordan and a sausage, egg and cheese mcgriddle for me. The noticeable difference from the US is that most McDonalds breakfast sandwiches in Japan have the same egg white/yolk one would normally find on a McMuffin.

We went to Kyoto station and departed for our trip to one of Japan’s national treasures, Hikone Castle. It was a surprise for me as the visit was wonderful. Hikone Castle is one of only 12 castles in Japan whose original keep has been undamaged and preserved through the centuries, and one of 4 castles designated as a national treasure. Jordan made a great call on visiting Hikone… the other alternative is the more famous Himeji, although Himeji is currently housed under large scaffolding for reconstruction works.

We opted to take the short ride on the bullet train from Kyoto to Maibara in both directions in order to relax… it was only a 20 minute ride between the two stations; Maibara is connected to Hikone by a 3 minute ride.

After returning to Kyoto station and partaking of some pork buns (again!), it was off to Kyoto Tower, the observation deck that is adjacent to Kyoto station. Apparently it was refurbished AGAIN, so I can now say that I have been to Kyoto Tower three times with three different scenarios: Before renovations (2004), after the first renovation (2008) and this year after the second renovation.

We then decided to go back to hotel and call it a day, but not before making seat reservations for our bullet train trip to Tokyo on Sunday.

Noodle dinner at Yoshimura, Kyoto. Photo by Jose Ramos, September 13, 2013
Noodle dinner at Yoshimura, Kyoto. Photo by Jose Ramos, September 13, 2013

Jordan and I just came back from a noodle restaurant called Yoshimura, which is between the McDonald’s and our hotel. It is a small place but very charming. It’s a two story restaurant.. chefs prepare the noodles from scratch in an open viewing room on the first floor, and then the chefs cook them upstairs where we sat. The set meal included hot or cold soba (we went for hot), prawn and vegetable tempura, a sashimi appetizer and a drink – we went for the specialty drink known in the country as “Nihonshu”… which us Americans call SAKE. We were a bit nervous at first when ordering, but one of the waitresses had a fairly good command of English which was a big plus.

Tomorrow we forward part of our luggage to our Tokyo hotel for Sunday arrival, and then spend a good part of the day visiting the Hanshin Racecourse near Osaka.

ADDITIONAL COMMENTS

What a treat it was to seem to be away from the bustle of Kyoto and discover the charm of Hikone. Of course, Himeji is a must on the typical itinerary of a visitor to Japan. Since 2010, though, Himeji’s castle has been covered by large scaffolding for a big renovation project. Many parts of the Himeji keep were closed to visitors at the time of our visit to Japan, and it is estimated that the entire renovation will not be completed until March, 2015.

It is a bit of a hike to get from the Hikone train station to Hikone castle… but it really is a pleasant walk to get there. Hopefully videos documenting this, and many other aspects of our trip, will be shared soon 😦

If going from Kyoto to Hikone, the easier option is to just take a JR commuter train (50 minutes, 1110 yen) that will take you the entire way. We opted for an alternative: we took the bullet train a short hop to Maibara, which actually goes past Hikone station a bit, then retraced and took a JR commuter train the opposite direction and went just one stop to Hikone station.

The "shinkansen" or bullet train as seen from Kyoto Tower. Photo by Jose Ramos, September 13, 2013
The “shinkansen” or bullet train as seen from Kyoto Tower. Photo by Jose Ramos, September 13, 2013

The bullet train selected for Kyoto-Maibara was the Kodama, which is the all stations bullet train service. A good majority of the seats on the Kodama are un-reserved – and cheaper – so the un-reserved tickets let us sit in any un-reserved seat on the train. This surcharge on top of the regular 1,110 yen fare is only 950 yen – so we paid 2,060 yen each for these tickets to Maibara. Then we purchased separate tickets (180 yen each) to go from Maibara to Hikone on the regular train. This was repeated for the journey back to Kyoto.

We opted for this alternative not just for the faster speed, but for the comfortable seating – not to mention the tray tables that allowed us a quick snack while on the 20 minute bullet train trip. These were things that we would not have gotten if just sticking on a commuter train for the entire trip.