Friday, April 25, 2008


Rikishi (Sumo wrestlers) performing the ring entering ceremony, Osaka 2008

With the arrival of new carriers, eg Jetstar, bringing competition to the market and cheaper fares, many people who’ve always wanted to go to Japan are now taking the plunge. For the first time traveller who hasn’t a clue about travelling in Japan, but would like a good taste of the sights and experiences, I’ve tried to put together a few pointers to get you started. If you have already been to these places and fancy somewhere new, skip to the end for some information I’ve gathered after two holidays spent entirely down south on the island of Kyushu.

Tourists arrive year round in Japan, but most would agree it’s best to avoid Golden Week (last days of April, first week of May) when a number of public holidays fall close together and transport/accommodation is booked solid, usually with surcharges. Also the Obon festival (mid July or mid August depending on the area) sees lots of Japanese returning to their home towns.
If you are into skiing, winter is a great time to visit, if not, perhaps avoid it as some mountain bus services and tourist areas close for months, and the very cold weather makes it difficult to travel light. Similarly, Japan’s wet season /summer around June -July is not for those who dislike heat and humidity.
My favourite times in Japan are Spring and Autumn. If you are lucky you will catch sakura , cherry blossom season, late March, early April, depending on the weather and locality. There are websites which predict the start of sakura each year in the various parts of Japan - the warmer areas bloom first, and the cooler areas last. Similarly, in Autumn the leaves on trees turn colour and some people think it more beautiful than cherry blossom time.

Cherry blossom, Tochoji, Fukuoka

Most people when they think of Japan think of things like Mt Fuji, Bullet trains, sumo wrestlers, samurai warriors, tatami mats and sushi. Even if you can’t experience all of these in a typical 10 -14 day visit to Japan, you will still come home feeling you’ve had a good taste of Japanese life and culture provided you are prepared to get out and about on your own. Such everyday experiences as wandering the basement food halls of big department stores, riding the local trains and subways, freeloading with everyone else in the book stores, walking past noisy pachinko parlours and dodging the hundreds of bikes and riders on the footpaths - it’s all a window onto the way ordinary Japanese go about their lives.
If you do have your heart set on the iconic :

Mt Fuji - first, all those pictures you see are taken on the very rare days when the air is clear and the clouds are not around. Generally, you can get very close and have no idea where the thing is, even though it’s huge. I’ve stood on Mt Fuji and haven’t been able to see it, the fog was so bad. On a clear day you can actually see it from tall buildings in Tokyo, or out of the window of the Bullet train passing by on the way to Kyoto. If you want to get closer there are bus tours from Tokyo which actually take you up the mountain and you can walk around at the fifth station, which is quite high. Or you can buy the Odakyu Railway (not JR) Hakone “Free Pass”, which is valid for either 2 or 3 days , and either depart from Shinjuku in Tokyo, or pick up the train in Odawara, south of Tokyo, which you can reach by Shinkansen (Bullet train) using the JR pass. The “Free Pass” entitles you to use the zigzag train, cable car, ropeway, pirate ship across Lake Ashi, and bus back to Odawara, as you do a circuit around the Mt Fuji National Park. If Mt Fuji is not hiding, the view from the cable car and lake is amazing.

For a fuller description of a day trip around the park using the Odakyu pass, see the final entry to this blog.

Lake Ashi, Mt Fuji National Park

Bullet trains - the Shinkansen is quite expensive, but if you intend to venture afield from where your plane lands in Japan, there are various JR rail passes that you can buy which entitle you to ride most of the Shinkansens, with free seat reservations. The pass can also be used on some JR buses, local or rapid JR trains, and the JR ferry across to Miyajima island to see the famous floating red torii (Shrine gates), near Hiroshima.

To decide if a JR pass is value for your particular itinerary, visit the Hyperdia website to find travel times and fares. The classic version of Hyperdia is much more user friendly than the newer one. Note that the base fare and surcharge must be added together to get the fare for a Shinkansen ticket. If you are having difficulty with destination names etc, the next link has useful information on using Hyperdia properly.

Sumo wrestlers - there are six grand sumo tournaments held each year. They are in the odd numbered months, 3 are in Tokyo, with one each in Osaka (March), Nagoya (July), Fukuoka (November). They run for 15 days, starting on a Sunday. Reserved seating is hard to get if you aren’t already in Japan and can’t speak Japanese, but every morning about 400 cheaper (Y2000 approx) unreserved seats go on sale at the door for that day’s matches, one ticket per customer. In March 2009 we were offered seats in all but one category of seating on the morning of the match, though this was the first Monday and was not well attended. If you happen to be in a city when a tournament is on, you should go. The matches start early, but the better ones begin about 3pm, and the best at 4pm, by which time seats are very hard to find. Otherwise, you can try to visit a sumo “stable” to watch early morning training, though this would require a bit of research.

Sumo Grand Champion (Yokozuna) Hakuho

Samurai warriors- Japanese feudal castles are everywhere, the trick is to find one that is not a ferro-concrete reproduction. Many castles were destroyed by the Japanese themselves during civil war, and others, like the one at Hiroshima, were destroyed or damaged by Allied Bombs in WW2. But even the repro ones are good to visit, the insides are usually museums, with displays of samurai armour, weapons etc. One of the best originals is at Himeji (undergoing lengthy restoration work starting late 2009)- and it’s easy to get to if you are staying near Osaka, Kyoto or Hiroshima. Another little gem is at Hikone (not Hakone), near Lake Biwa, an easy outing from Kyoto. Osaka castle (a repro) is very impressive, right in the heart of the city, and easily accessed on the JR Loop line if you have the rail pass, or the subway.
Osaka Castle

Tatami mats - you will really know you are in Japan if you spend a night or two in a ryokan - a traditional inn. These can cost a fortune, but there are some really nice ones that are the same price as a mid range hotel. Lots have English web sites, find a name and google it up. The fun starts from the moment you step inside the door and have to exchange your shoes for slippers.
People often ask if futons on the floor are too hard for sleeping - I’ve found mattresses in Japan are generally very firm anyway, and the futon on springy tatami mats in some cases is a bit softer.
Futons on tatami, Rickshaw Inn, Takayama

Sushi - Japan is the land of the convenience store -kombini. Prices are not a rip off, and shelves are restocked frequently. When you buy food and drink, you will automatically receive straws, disposable chop sticks, whatever, plus there are usually microwaves and hot water dispensers so you can prepare your dinner or noodle cup before leaving the store if you want. Most also stock beer at competitive prices, and some even have bottles of wine. Apart from the sushi and rice balls, there’s lots of bakery items (savoury and sweet). The Japanese have their own take on these things - that bread roll won’t be plain, it will have something injected inside - butter and jam, chocolate filling, sweet bean paste, banana butter…, if you are too shy to ask, enjoy the surprise. Similarly, that bottle of chocolate milk/iced coffee might be cold milk tea. Just fill your basket, line up and pay - you can always see the total on the cash register even if you can’t understand the language.

If you book into a big western hotel chain and eat your meals in their dining room, only to venture out on organised tours, then yes, Japan can be very expensive. However, use the internet to find cheaper hotels, eat with the locals, and strike out on your own with maps and advice from tourist information offices, and you will find things are equal to, if not a good bit cheaper, than at home. For example:

*Stay in the Toyoko Inn chain hotels - a twin room with breakfast included is under Y9000 for 2 people. (about $90 early 2008) The compact but spotless rooms have private bathroom, TV, water boiler, green tea, cups, (unstocked) fridge, free internet, hairdryer and free toiletries. (Coin laundries downstairs as well, and good maps to locate the hotel on the website.)

A typical self-service Japanese breakfast, included at Toyoko Inn Hotels

*Eat in restaurant arcades (often near stations) for lunch - a set menu with main course, rice, soup/salad and free iced water/green tea will be around Y1000, ($10) and most have plastic replicas of meals outside and/or picture menus which you can show the waitress. A main meal on its own eg katsudon (tender sliced crumbed pork cutlet on a deep bed of vegetable rice with egg) is usually under Y700,($7) and is very filling.

A set meal Y900, this one suitable for a vegetarian.

*Buy supplies from supermarkets or convenience stores, prices are reasonable.

*Drink alcohol from supermarkets/convenience stores/vending machines back in your room, rather than in bars (many of which have seating charges and other hidden expenses.)

*Bring a mug and a box of teabags or jar of coffee from home. Fresh milk is available in convenience stores, and most places have either a water boiler in your room or down the hall near the beer vending machine, or they will give you a thermos of boiling water on request. Likewise there is usually a fridge in your room or a communal fridge close by. If you like a cuppa, check these details when booking accommodation.

*Look out for travel passes or combined entry tickets to attractions.

A wedding party outside Himeji castle.


Map from HGM2005 Travel Information

Some airlines (eg JAL and Jetstar) allow you to enter Japan through one port and leave from another at no extra cost. The usual is arrival in Tokyo, departure from Kansai airport (near Osaka). This allows a straightforward itinerary with minimal backtracking. In the past JAL also allowed us to fly onto any other major city in Japan after arrival in Tokyo for free- we chose Fukuoka.
Whatever my flights, I always buy at least one rail pass voucher before departure to Japan, and plan an itinerary that sees all of my long distance legs covered by the pass. I usually spend 3 nights or so in the city of arrival, using local trains and subways to get around, then activate the pass for a long journey to another city. I try to get value out of the pass for its duration, before settling in for the last nights of my holiday close to my city of departure.

If you have to use Kansai (Osaka) airport but prefer to stay in Kyoto, but your pass has already expired at the end of your holiday, or you don’t want to activate yet at the start because you plan to see all the local sights by bus for a couple of days, you can purchase another pass as well. The one day JR west Kansai area pass for Y2000 is valid for the Haruka airport express service, between Kansai airport and Kyoto, unreserved seating. This is a considerable saving, and the pass can also be used on that day for other JR local or rapid trains, eg for a trip to Nara.

Thursday, April 24, 2008


Umeda, Osaka city

Australians taking advantage of Jetstar’s low fares can choose to fly into or out of Kansai airport, the closest big city to which is Osaka.

The areas I’ve stayed in are Namba and Umeda. Both have lots of shopping and hotels, including a Toyoko Inn, and are close to the very handy Midosuji subway line. (One day subway passes are available, though the individual trips are not expensive. See .)Umeda is closer to the JR loop line around Osaka, which is a little fiddly to reach from JR Namba.
Both have good access options (bus/train) from Kansai airport, -recently we used the Nankai private railway into Nankai Namba station, and on a previous trip, the airport limousine bus to Umeda. If you are going to the sumo, the stadium is about 200 metres from Nankai Namba station in one direction, and 200 metres from the Toyoko Inn in another direction.

The escalators to the Floating Observatory, suspended between the sides of the Umeda Sky Building

Lots of people advise skipping Osaka and staying in Kyoto instead, it’s less than an hour further away from the airport, and definitely has more to offer tourists. If you have the time, Osaka does have its points though :

*Osaka castle - a reproduction, but has an excellent museum inside. At blossom time the grounds are lovely. Easy to reach by subway or the JR loop line.

*Osaka Aquarium -Buy a Kaiyu Kippu (Y2400 from Osaka), which entitles you to entry into the Kaiyukan (Aquarium), free subway and bus rides all day in Osaka city, and discounts for the Ferris Wheel and other attractions. We purchased our ticket from Namba subway station. Entry to the Aquarium only is Y2000, catch the subway Chuo line to Osakako stop, walk 5 minutes in the direction of the Ferris Wheel.

*Floating Garden Observatory Umeda Sky Building.
*Dotombori for night life, shopping and people watching.
*Sumo tournament in March.
*Easy day trips on the Shinkansen to Hiroshima, Himeji, Kyoto, and on local trains to Kobe or Nara, which is about halfway between Kyoto and Osaka.
*Big city experience (if you can’t make it to Tokyo).

Umeda Sky Building

One of the shopping streets at Dotombori - also good for nightlife and people watching (image Albert Turiel)

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


Kinkakuji on a cloudy day

Spared the bombing by the Allies in WW2, Kyoto has a very long list of heritage attractions. If you only have time for a few,
Kinkakuji (the Golden Pavilion) is a highlight, though it is a fairly recent rebuild.
Nijo castle with its squeaky nightingale floors and lovely grounds is also impressive.
Kiyomizudera and Sanjuusangendo are popular as well. Check the guide books to see what appeals to you most.

If you have the time, a few hours in the Kyoto Handicraft Centre could be good, particularly if you like to shop. Each time I have visited, this centre has changed its layout and offerings, but it still draws the tourists.

Kyoto has an extensive bus system which will take you to the above attractions, Y500 for a one day pass, Y220 for individual trips. Stops are announced as well as displayed up the front. Ask for the bus map when you buy your first pass, it is very detailed.
The subway, while much faster than the bus, is of limited use to tourists. There is a combined 1 or 2 day subway/bus pass available, the Kyoto Sightseeing Card, though you would need to make a few trips for it to be worthwhile. One day cost Y1200, 2 day Y2000.
Likewise, train lines skirt around the city and are really best for day trips beyond Kyoto - eg to Nara, or Fushimi Inari (see photos -2 stops from Kyoto on the Nara bound local train), or Hikone on Lake Biwa. From Kyoto, you can take day trips on the Shinkansen bullets as well, eg to Nagoya, but westbound trips (Himeji, Hiroshima) will mostly involve a change at Shin-Osaka station for the Hikari Shinkansen, which is the one covered by the ordinary 7 day JR rail pass.
Fushimi Inari Jinja, near Kyoto

Remember, the JR West one day pass for Y2000 is valid for the Haruka airport express between Kyoto and Kansai airport. (Normal fare Y3490) You can’t reserve a seat, but if you line up on the platform for the unreserved carriages about 10 minutes before departure, you should get a seat, either at the airport end, or the Kyoto end. This pass can also be used that day for local JR services, and is extremely handy if you have an expensive 7 day JR pass that you don’t want to waste while you spend a few days exploring Kyoto by bus.

The grounds of Nijo-jo, Kyoto

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


About 90 minutes west of Osaka on the Tokaido/Sanyo Shinkansen (Bullet train) is Hiroshima. The main reason to go there is to visit the Peace Park and Museum, which are only a few stops from the JR station on the tram. You could do this in about two hours.

Hiroshima a bomb dome image Panoramio by Tomi Mäkitalo

Back at the station, you can catch a local JR service to Miyajimaguchi station (about 20 minutes), from where it is a 5 minute walk to the ferry which crosses to Miyajima island. If you have a JR pass, it is valid on one of the ferries, the trip taking about 10minutes. As you approach the island , you will see the famous red floating torii gates of Itsukushima shrine. This place is a very popular tourist draw card for foreigners and Japanese, and you can easily spend a couple hours wandering around, avoiding the attentions of the local deer. There are cable cars, restaurants, souvenir shops, temples and the shrine to explore if you have more time.

Should you wish to stay overnight, accommodation in ryokan (traditional inns) is available, though not cheap. You may prefer to stay a night in Hiroshima instead.

Torii- image Panoramio Masken

I have got up very early in Kyoto and visited both Hiroshima and Miyajima in a (long) daytrip, but if you can afford the time, spend a night or two out there, and explore the city a bit more. The castle ruins are interesting and within walking distance of the Peace Park, and you will have time to break your journey to or from Hiroshima at Himeji.

About 30 minutes from Shin-Osaka station or an hour from Hiroshima, is Himeji, home of one of Japan’s top 3 original castles.
JR Himeji station is only a 10 minute walk from the castle, which you can see from the train. As with most Japanese stations, there are lockers for your luggage, so you could stop here on the way to your next hotel, or just make a half day trip. Allow a couple of hours to explore the castle, which is fascinating. The park is beautiful in cherry blossom season.

Sunday, April 20, 2008


Takayama, a small town in the Japan Alps, is popular with both Japanese and foreign tourists. If you have a JR pass, a very comfortable and picturesque way to reach it is on the Wide View Hida express train which departs from Nagoya, and takes about 2.5 hours. Nagoya is a main stop on the Shinkansen (Bullet train) line from Tokyo to Osaka. The transfer between trains is quite straightforward.

Takayama has a couple of important festivals (see for events), during which accommodation is booked out long in advance, but it is also very pleasant to visit in the off peak. It snows into March, so warm clothing is advised for winter and early spring. We spent two nights there mid March 2008, and walked everywhere.

Hida no Sato

The Higashiyama Teramachi (eastern hills temple district), is a good place to wander for a couple of hours, and the Hida no Sato (Y700) folk village on the other side of town is the big highlight. Here is a collection of traditional country houses from over the centuries, with their steep roofs designed to cope with heavy snow falls, all of which you can enter. It’s a bit of a hike from the station, but only a few minutes in the bus. (The tourist information office right outside JR Takayama station has good maps and information about the combination bus ride/entry to Hida no Sato for Y900). This year there was still snow in the village and we were delighted to find free use of waterproof boots, adults' and children's sizes available. There are also some traditional buildings in town (San no machi) near the river which are now interesting shops, and the decorated floats used in the annual festivals can also be viewed, see the tourist map.

Hida no Sato folk village, Takayama
The Rickshaw Inn is often recommended by fellow travellers, and didn’t disappoint. It’s quiet, central, spotless, and has lovely staff. The guest lounge and kitchen were a bonus, and our traditional tatami room was quite spacious. They have quite a choice of accommodation, and a good website We self catered in this town, taking advantage of the excellent little supermarket near the river and the kitchen/dining facilities at our inn.

Communal lounge/dining area Rickshaw Inn

If you would like to see more of the old style mountain farmhouses, it is now easier to access the town of Shirakawago.

As of July 2008, a new expressway has cut the travel time between Takayama and Shirakawago down to under an hour by tourist bus. The traditional farm houses here are considered better than those at Hida no Sato, and can be visited as a day trip from Takayama, or you can stay overnight in one of the farmhouses which serve as minshuku (a sort of bed and breakfast experience).

About an hour south of Takayama, on the way to Nagoya, you will pass through Gero, a very popular hot springs town. You don't need to stay here to enjoy the onsen, there are three public baths, and lots of ryokan open their baths to the public as well. Check the website for details.

Saturday, April 19, 2008


Inside the Sakuda gold and silver leaf shop.

Located on the coast of the sea of Japan, about 270 kms NNE of Osaka, lies the city of Kanazawa, famous for the Kenrokuen garden, one of the top three in Japan. If you visit on a weekend or a public holiday, you need only step out of the modern station to the closest bus bay to board the Kenrokuen shuttle, Y100 flat fare. Across the road from the main entrance to the garden is the castle park, though most of the buildings here are modern reconstructions. If you are only interested in the garden, you could make a flying visit to this city, the Lex Thunderbird takes about 2 hours 10 minutes from Kyoto, 30 minutes longer from Osaka.
However, it’s a long way to come just for the garden, which I found a little disappointing compared to the one in Okayama, though this may have been due to visiting in early March. We stayed 3 nights and found some other very interesting sights and experiences.
First, after getting off the train, head into the large tourist information office near the station exit and pick up the sightseeing map, which shows the bus routes for the Kanazawa tour bus (Y200 flat fare or Y500 for an all day pass), and the Kanazawa flat-bus (Y100), which is a community bus that travels via narrow back streets picking up locals around the city. The major tourist spots are listed on the back of the leaflet, with opening hours, closing days, nearest bus stop, and entry fee listed. I have read that Kanazawa is a city best explored on foot, which is misleading because it is not a small town. We found catching the bus across town then wandering around on foot before bussing somewhere else was the way to go, and we are fit/good walkers.

Kanazawa Loop bus (aka tour bus)

Top of the list to visit is the Higashi Chaya District. The Geisha House area is delightful, and some of these have discounted admission for sightseeing bus pass holders, though you can enjoy the area without paying to enter buildings. Close by is the Sakuda Gold and Silver Leaf shop, with a free tour of the workshop and free sampling of gold leaf. The goods on sale are eyecatching and some are inexpensive, though no pressure is applied. Upstairs the golden rest rooms are something to behold.

Tea with gold flakes, complimentary at the Sakuda shop.

Another favourite (and free) place to visit is the Omi-cho Market, closed on Sundays, with fresh vegetables, seafood and meats for sale. Three of the small buses mentioned above pass by the market, and with some map reading skills (or asking for directions), you can walk from the market to the Kanazawa castle park, then onto the garden.

Oyama jinja

Also in the general area of the castle grounds is Oyama jinja, a lovely shrine. The green flat bus passes by, we picked it up outside the garden and did a grand tour three quarters of the way around the circuit (buses only go in one direction), resting our feet and rubber-necking at the town.

We chose to stay in the station precinct, catching the bus downtown each day. The station itself has a lot of restaurants and souvenir shops, though the prices seemed high and the words "tourist trap" were never far from our minds. There is a post-office where we withdrew cash, and the usual bakery and convenience store. Be aware that lots of hotels have the word "castle" in their names, when in fact they are no-where near it.

Kanazawa station

Luckily we found a supermarket just past our hotel, the Econo Kanazawa Eki-mae, a standard business hotel with complimentary, substantial breakfast, and free internet. This hotel is 5 minutes from the station and bus terminal.

Friday, April 18, 2008


If possible , you should spend a few nights in a big Japanese city, and Tokyo is the biggest. It has an extensive subway network which is not operated by JR, and a very handy above ground loop line (Yamanote), which is JR, as well as other JR lines and private railways. Fares are not expensive, and various passes are available, so generally speaking, you will not get good value out of the 7 /14/21 day JR rail pass here.

Part of 360 degree outlook from free observation floor of TMG Builing near Shinjuku station - Mt Fuji can be seen from here on a clear day.

If you arrive in Japan through Narita airport, which is a long way from downtown Tokyo, there is the private Keisei railway which is much cheaper than the JR airport service, or the limousine buses which may be more convenient for your hotel, so you should think about delaying your JR pass until you are ready to do some long trips out of Tokyo. You can of course activate your pass at Narita airport for the trip into town on the luxury JR Narita express if you want, but the clock starts ticking from then. There is a fairly new deal available which may suit that doesn’t involve your JR pass - a Suica card combined with a one way trip on the luxury Narita Express.

Tourist draw cards in Tokyo include:
*Sensoji - aka the Asakusa Kannon Temple, with the Nakamise shopping arcade. Asakusa can be reached by subway, or by the Sumida river cruise (Y760)one way, which departs from Hinoide Pier, near Hamamatsucho.

*Ueno Park - after visiting Asakusa, you could catch the Ginza subway line 3 stops to Ueno and spend some time in the Park. This is a top hanami (flower viewing) spot at cherry blossom time.

Ueno Park

*Harajuku- reached by subway or the Yamanote loop line, this area has the famous Meiji Jingu shrine on one side of the station, and Takeshita dori on the other. This narrow lane is crowded with small fashion shops and young Japanese trendies flaunting their rather outrageous hair and clothing. It also has a Daiso store, about 4 storeys of bargains, where most stock is Y100 (plus 5%tax). Parallel to this street runs the wider Omotesando dori, with more mainstream shops, including Kiddyland and a handicraft/souvenir shop.

Some of the fashions for sale in Takeshita dori

*The free observatories above the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, twin towers about 10 minutes walk from the west of Shinjuku station. The walk is well signposted along arcades and tunnels, some with moving footways.

*Tokyo Tower area, Shiba Koen (park). This Eiffel tower clone is a bit expensive to enter, and the free view from the TMG building is probably better, but the park near it has a favourite temple of mine, Zojoji. In the grounds are hundreds of jizo statues for dead babies. Each stone statue, about the size of a ten pin, has a red bonnet and bib and a little holder for a colourful windmill toy. Daimon station on the Asakusa subway line, or Shibakoen on the Mita line.

*Ginza shopping district, with its designer stores and upmarket shopping, not too far from the Imperial Palace and its parks.

Daytrips from Tokyo include:
*Nikko - for Shrines and temples, and further afield, waterfalls and forests.
*Kamakura - for the outdoor Daibutsu, (Big Bronze Buddha), and lots of temples
*Mt Fuji National Park - covered later and in the section above “What to see”

Where to stay:

There are so many options - though I can recommend the Sakura Hotel in Ikebukuro. This hotel is part of a chain offering inexpensive short and long term accommodation, from dorm beds to apartments.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

KYUSHU - Fukuoka, Nagasaki, Kumamoto, Kagoshima, Beppu.

For a first time traveller in Japan, the places covered so far, all on the main island of Honshu and within reasonable travelling distance of either Tokyo airport or Kansai airport, are plenty to choose from to make an itinerary for a great holiday in Japan.
However, if you have a lot of time, or want to see someplace a little different, I can recommend the southern main island, Kyushu.

Japan Railways has a cheaper version of its standard pass, the JR 3 day (Y13000) or 5 day (Y16000) Kyushu rail pass, valid on all the express trains and the new Shinkansen which goes down to Kagoshima. If you haven't time to get to the south, there is a cheaper pass, for 3 consecutive days, for Y7000. It is valid on all the express trains from Hakata to Nagasaki, Beppu, Aso and Kumamoto as well as other northern cities. These passes are excellent if you fly into Fukuoka.
The 7 ,14, 21 day ordinary JR rail passes which you buy for Honshu are also valid for these services on Kyushu, should you wish to pop down for a quick visit from Hiroshima, for example.

FUKUOKA ( called HAKATA on train timetables)

This is the terminus of the main Bullet line that starts in Tokyo, heading for Osaka and beyond. From here, lines radiate out to the major towns on Kyushu. Fukuoka is a medium sized modern Japanese city, with enough attractions to keep you busy for a few days, and is an excellent base for day trips. If you can fly directly into Fukuoka, this is one international airport which is only a few minutes by subway away from the centre of town.

I prefer to stay within walking distance of the main JR station (Hakata), so that I can get an early start on my day trips. There are many hotels in this area, the Toyoko Inn Hakataguchi ekimae is inexpensive and very convenient. (see "Is Japan very expensive?" in the Basics.)

Things to see in Fukuoka (pick up a Visitors’ Guide first):
*Canal City - a shopping complex with unusual architecture. It's on the Y100 bus route, which has a stop outside Hakata station.
Canal City, Fukuoka

*Kami Kawabata- across the overhead walkway from Canal City is Kami Kawabata, a very long covered arcade of interesting shops.

*Kushida Jinja- before exploring the arcade, step outside Kami Kawabata at the foot of the escalators to the walkway. This attractive shrine houses one of the colourful floats used in the annual street parade.

Festival float, Kushida Jinja, Fukuoka

*Machiya Folklore Museum - down a side street from the Kushida Jinja- Y200 entry fee. Heritage buildings housing a museum and a working loom which makes the local fabric. The old artisan there encourages you to have a go, though he doesn’t speak English. Working the loom, Machiya Folklore Museum, Fukuoka

*Tochoji- a temple about 5 minutes walk from the Folklore Museum, housing a beautiful Daibutsu (big wooden Buddha), free entry. In cherry blossom time, the tree in the courtyard is stunning.

*Shofukuji - a famous old temple in the lane behind Tochoji.

*Tenjin - also on the Y100 bus route, shoppers’ paradise and transport hub.

*Fukuoka Tower - 25 minute bus trip from Hakata station area (Y220 fare). Y800 for the tower, 20% discount if you have a Fukuoka city welcome card.

*Ohori Park - on the subway line. A large park near the ruins of Fukuoka castle, with a pond and pedal boats for hire, and a lovely traditional Japanese garden in the far corner. (Y240)
Fukuoka tower


About 150 kms from Fukuoka on the western coast is Nagasaki. It is a hilly city, famous for being the second city to be destroyed by an atomic bomb. If you have a JR pass, Nagasaki is only 2 hours from Hakata station on the LEX (limited express) Kamome, making a day trip a possibility. After stopping at the tourist information counter at the station for a map, don’t miss:

*The Peace Park

*The Atomic Bomb Hypocentre Park

*The Atomic Bomb Museum. (Y200)

These 3 places are close together, catch a northbound tram #1 or #3, flat fare Y100, (or one day pass Y500) from the tram stop in the middle of the road outside Nagasaki JR station. Get off at the 8th stop, Matsuyama. The stairs up to the Peace Park are only a couple of minutes away from the tram stop, on the right. After the Park, head back down the stairs and the Hypocentre park is only a short walk south. In cherry blossom time, this area is fantastic for sakura. The Museum is a little further on, still heading back towards the station, up more stairs.

Back at the station (catch the tram) is a good place to have lunch, lots of eateries downstairs, and restaurants upstairs. For vegetarians, the Indian restaurant on the 5th floor of the building adjoining the station has quite a few options, and was very reasonably priced. I recommend the Naan bread rather than rice.

Other interesting things to see:

*Site of the Martyrdom of the 26 Saints of Japan, uphill, across from the main station.

*Nagasaki Harbour (2 daily cruises from Ohata Pier, 11.40 , 15.15).

A common question from would-be travellers is which is the better city to visit - Hiroshima or Nagasaki? Having been to Hiroshima a few times and Nagasaki twice, I always say they feel very different, and their memorials to the victims of the bombing are very moving, but also different. My answer is - whichever is closer, but you won’t be disappointed by one after you’ve seen the other.

Thousands of origami paper cranes, Nagasaki


Located about 118km south of Fukuoka is the small Japanese city of Kumamoto, a favourite place of mine.
It is possible to visit on a day trip, with the limited express LEX Relay Tsubame taking about 1 hour 20 minutes from Hakata (Fukuoka), or the LEX Ariake a few minutes more. (Both services covered by the ordinary JR pass or the Kyushu JR pass, and the Tsubame has a good luggage area in the carriage). However, a day trip would probably only allow time for a visit to the castle and the garden.


If you want to stay a few nights in a Japanese city because you’re tired of constantly packing up and checking out, Kumamoto could be rather good. It’s fairly compact, the trams (only 2 lines) are easy to navigate, there’s plenty of shopping and restaurants, lots of it in long covered arcades, and it’s possible to do day trips to Mt Aso and Kagoshima, using Kumamoto as your base.
There is plenty of accommodation, including 3 Toyoko Inn Hotels within walking distance of the castle, which itself is close to a very busy shopping area of town. The Daiei department store has a great basement supermarket, and a Y100 store upstairs. Remember to get maps and info from the Tourist desk at the station.

What to see in Kumamoto:
*Kumamoto castle (Y500)- especially beautiful in cherry blossom time. Catch #2 tram from JR Kumamoto station, Y150.

*Gyobu-Tei residence (Y300)- Residential Mansion of a powerful Hosokawa lord, only a few minutes walk from the castle. Combined ticket, castle and residence, Y640

*Traditional Handicraft Centre, close to castle, free entry.

*Suizen-ji garden (Y400), board any tram from in front of castle, a few stops further on. Lots of souvenir shops near the entrance, one offering samples of foodstuffs and local wine.
Suizenji Koen, Kumamoto

Possible day trips :

*Mt Aso - 70 minutes by LEX KOT from Kumamoto, covered by the JR passes. Aso-san is an active volcano in incredible scenery. Ask for bus information at the tourist desk in the little station, the long ride up cost Y540. If the volcano is behaving, (which it wasn’t when we visited) you can catch a cable car to the crater’s edge. If not, you can check what’s happening down the crater on the surveillance camera whose live pictures are screened back at the Museum (Y840). Be aware that it can be much colder up there than down in Kumamoto.



With the opening of the first Kyushu Shinkansen service about 2 years ago, travel times down to Kagoshima at the very south of the island are much improved. The Relay Tsubame continues south past Kumamoto to Shin-Yatsushiro, where passengers make an easy transfer to the opposite side of the platform to join the new Bullet Train, down to Kagoshima. Travel time from Fukuoka (Hakata) to Kagoshima is around 2hours 25minutes, making Kagoshima only a little over an hour further on than Kumamoto.

The Bullet arrives at Kagoshima-Chuo station. Get your maps and tram guide from the tourist info office, and use the tram (flat fare Y160), to ride down to the pier where you can catch a ferry (Y150) across to Sakurajima, another active volcano. You can walk around to the lava fields on the shore, or join an organised bus tour of the island. Ask at the ferry terminal. The volcano was quiet on the day we visited, but can spew ash on the city anytime.


Back on the mainland, the Tenmonkan area, a few stops back towards the station on the tram, has good shopping and eating possibilities. for information on other attractions.


186km by train from Fukuoka (Hakata) on the LEX Sonic, taking about 2 hours, or 3 hours 40 minutes from Kumamoto on the LEX KOT (via Mt Aso), Beppu lies on the east coast of Kyushu. Its claim to fame is thermal activity - hot springs (onsen) for bathing, boiling springs of water or mud (jigoku) for sightseeing, and hot sand on the sea shore for being buried.

Eggs boiling in the Umi no Jigoku, Beppu

Beppu is not an attractive town, and has been described as tacky, but if you haven’t seen thermal activity before, you may want to visit. Check the “Welcome to Beppu” website and “Beppu City Guide”at

After looking around the town from the station to the sea, we returned to the station to catch a bus up to see some of the “Hells” -jigoku. There is a one day bus pass available for Y900, the fairly long trip up to three of the jigoku, which are all together, costs Y320 one way. These are the blue and red pools of the Umi no jigoku , and the mud pools and steam vents of the Boozu no jigoku, both of which I recommend, and the exotic animals at the Yama no jigoku, which didn’t appeal. Each jigoku costs Y400, or you can get a combined ticket if you want to go searching for them all, in which case the bus pass would be a must. Organised tours are available as well, but not cheap.

Bubbling mud, Boozu no Jigoku, Beppu

Back at the station, we caught a local train one stop to Beppu Daigaku station, where the sand baths are located right on the shore, about 2 minutes walk from the station. Bring your own towel, a Yukata (Japanese robe) is provided, and locker hire for your valuables is available. There is a hot spring bath in the change room area if you’d like a soak as well as being buried in the warm, black sand. (Y1000)

There is an ATM on the outside of JR Beppu station which accepts foreign cards. Ask at the tourist desk for directions.

Be aware that there are two Boozu no jigoku, both very similar inside. One seems newer and is right beside the Umi no Jigoku, the other, with a slightly different title and older buildings, is about 700 metres further up the hill on the main road. Best to get off the bus at Umi no Jigoku, even if you hear the Boozu one announced on the bus. This had me confused for a while.

Sand bath Beppu

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


*Travel light - Japanese people rarely travel with large cases - they use luggage forwarding services, takkyubin . Apart from special airport services, few trains have luggage areas. If you can’t hoist your bag up onto the over head luggage shelf, you need to try to beat others to the area behind the first row of seating on express trains, (which will accommodate a maximum of 5 bags per carriage), or travel with your case at your feet.
Most smaller stations don’t have lifts or escalators either, and you may find yourself having to use an overhead walkway or underground crossing on the street, both with flights of stairs. Most taxis also have limited space in the boot - a group of three people with a decent sized case each will have a problem here.

*You can keep the weight down by doing some laundry along the way. Many hotels and inns have coin operated washers and dryers for guests’ use, or you can ask for directions to the nearest “coin laundry”, or you can do some washing in your room. If you plan to spend more than one night somewhere, wash a few thing in the bathroom. I take some pegs and spare coat hangers, a lot of modular bathrooms have a retractable line over the bath, and most accommodation has air conditioning which dehumidifies the air and helps dry things.

*Look for tourist information offices - usually in the stations, these offices will give free maps, brochures and directions. If you can’t speak Japanese, just speak slowly, they are used to foreign tourists.

*Free tissues - if you are offered a free pack of tissues on the street (very common), take them. Lots of public toilets, while clean, don’t provide paper.

*Drink vending machines -These machines are everywhere and there are rows of drinks to chose from; if the light beneath the drink is blue, it’s cold, red, it’s hot. Some things are obvious, but the same can of milk coffee or tea will be available as both.

*Buses and trams- copy the locals. Usually you enter by the rear/middle door, you may need to take a ticket which has the section you boarded printed on it, and you exit via the front door, where you pay, by dropping your coins and section ticket into a box near the driver.
Generally, you have to work out the fare yourself and pay with the exact money. There are machines near the driver which give change, people access them any time during the journey. If the fare is not a flat fare, there will be an electronic board at the front of the bus/tram which regularly increases the fare as the journey progresses. You calculate from the section you boarded, it will have the minimum fare up for a while, and may not change if your journey is short.
If you can get an all day pass (available in lots of cities), it saves worry, and can be excellent value. Ask at your hotel or the tourist info office. In Kyoto the Y500 all day bus pass comes with a bus/transport route map, absolutely invaluable. (Individual journeys are a flat Y220 for the area most tourists will visit, so 3 trips and you’re in front. You feed your pass through a card slot near the driver, where it just checks the date.)

*Seat reservations on trains. If you have a JR pass, reserving a seat is free. You can do this days before, or up until a few minutes before departure.
Make sure you get a timetable booklet when you get your pass, and you will notice the train services all have a number up the top of the column. If you aren’t wanting the next train to depart, print clearly on a piece of paper the city where you will board the train, the destination, and the number and time of the train you want. Plus the date of travel.
Remember you generally can’t catch Nozomi Bullets, the number for these trains is preceded by the letter N. Choose a Hikari (H) or slower Kodama (K) service.

A remote control to operate the toilet.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


ATM’s are common in Japan, but those which accept foreign cards take a bit of finding. First, check with your financial institution before you leave home that your card will work overseas, and what the bank will charge you for each withdrawal. You can carry large amounts of cash in Japan, so when you find a co-operative ATM, withdraw a fair amount, and start looking for another machine before you run out of cash.

Credit cards are not so widely accepted, though the situation is improving. It doesn’t hurt to ask at your hotel or inn, but have cash as a back up. Large hotels in my experience are happy to cash travellers cheques, I have taken Amex cheques in yen and had them changed at reception in moments. But when my small business hotel told me to try the bank, it was a lengthy farce to do the transaction. Since that time, I’ve relied on left over yen from previous trips, just so I don’t arrive penniless, and head straight for the ATM in the arrivals’ hall of the airport.

Suggestions for using ATM's:

*Cash up big at the airport when you arrive; if you can’t find the ATM, ask at the info counter.

* Japanese post offices, even the little ones, will have an ATM corner (it may be in the foyer or even upstairs.) Debit cards with the VISA network will work here, and you do not have to withdraw in multiples of Y10,000.

* Citibank ATM’s, while hard to find, accept foreign cards.

* 7 eleven stores have international card machines, and are your best option for out of hours banking, though there may be a usage fee on top of what your home bank will charge.

*It’s worth asking at the tourist info office for foreigner friendly ATM’s, sometimes they are quite close to the station.

*All of the machines I’ve used have a touch screen with an ENGLISH option on the first page, some only dispense Y10,000 notes, others do odd amounts, eg Y32,000.

Symbol indicating a Post Office.


Monday, April 14, 2008


by MrJulie

Lake Ashi with spectacular Fuji in the background - image Odakyu Electric Railway
There are many ways to do the Mt Fuji area. On an earlier trip Julie took an organised tour bus to the 5th station on the mountain, did a short walk on the mountain track, followed by a cruise on nearby Lake Ashi, a cable car ride up Komagatake mountain and then had the choice of an overnight stay in a hot-spring hotel in one of the mountain villages or a return to Tokyo. She took the hotel stay.
I’ve heard the 5 lake trip is popular in the Fuji National Park.
I also read recently that the climb to the summit is one of the more popular and easier treks to a major world peak (easier is maybe a relative term) - apparently many people time their climb to be at the top at daybreak, to beat the usual build-up of cloud. Most of the guide books have outlines on how to best do this.
My visit was a bit less strenuous - a circuit combining normal rail, zig zag rail, cable-rail, cable-car, pirate ship, trekking and bussing through major attractions in the Mount Fuji National Park without actually walking on the mountain itself. There is the opportunity of lots of fantastic views of the nearby mountain if the day has little cloud - which is not all that common.

This circuit is known as the Hakone Course. Julie and I started this at Odawara Station where we jumped off the bullet train after taking advantage of our 7 day JR rail pass for a quick 40 minute trip down from Tokyo. The Odakyu Rail Line office at Odawara station sells passes for all the transport on the circuit - the cheapest is actually a 2 day pass weekdays which in March 08 cost us 3900 yen (about $us38 - $aud40 at the time).
If you haven’t got a JR Rail Pass, you can buy a Hakone Course pass at Shinjuku station in Tokyo which brings you down to the circuit and takes you back to Tokyo for an extra 1100 yen, which is a pretty good deal. You can ride the luxury Romance Car for a small surcharge.
You can check latest prices etc at the Odakyu Electric Railway website. Holders of the pass are also entitled to quite a lot of discounts from businesses and attractions within the circuit.
The Hakone circuit - starting point Odawara far right. Lake Ashi is bottom left. Mt Fuji is out of frame to the top left - image Odakyu Electric Railways.

I modified this Google Earth image to make our route more clear - normal rail into Hakone Yumoto at left (yellow) then zig -zag railway up to Gora (light green), a cable train the short distance higher to Sounsan /aka Sounzan (red) then rope-car to the north end of Lake Ashi (white), pirate ship to Hakone Machi (blue), walk to Moto Hakone/shrine (green-blue), bus from Moto Hakone back to the station (purple). A distance scale is difficult to construct on such undulating landscape - the straight line distance between the Yumoto station and Lake Ashi place-markers is 9.5km.

The first leg was a pretty short normal rail trip along the private Odakyu line from Odawara to Hakone-Yumoto station.
Here we transferred to the zig-zag railway train known as the Hakone Tozan Train. This moves up a picturesque valley on a steep and winding track - at times the train reverses up the next section because the valley is too tight for a normal railway bend. Scenery here is pretty nice - lots of dense forest, views down the steep valley sides to fast flowing streams and post-card villages. If you have just missed Cherry Blossom in Tokyo, the trees may still be in bloom at the higher altitudes along the track.
The zig-zag Hakone Tozan Train goes thru some very nice countryside - image Odakyu Electric Railway

After about 40 minutes we reached Gora station where we transferred to the cable-train - a small 2 carriage train pulled up an awesome slope by a steel cable. The slope is so steep the carriages are actually stepped in sections so that the floor and seats are horizontal. Note the Japanese actually call this a cable-car. The trip is not a particularly long, maybe only 2km and goes up through a mountain village with lots of neat houses and a few quite attractive looking hotels. There is an option of walking this leg - I’m pretty fit but after seeing the steepness of the route, I’m glad Julie insisted on the cable-train. Hakone-tozan cable train (image Odakyu Electric Railway)
The cable-train terminates at Sounzan where what the Japanese call a rope-car and I’d call an alpine type cable-car begins its route. The first section to the mountain lookout/restaurant of Owakudani still climbs steeply upwards although the land initially drops away so that you look waaay down to a valley full of steaming thermal pools and vents which have quite a lot of stabilisation activity going on. This is where you will first catch sight of Mt Fuji on the right if it's not too cloudy and you don't keep looking down at the gas-spewing earthworks.

Owakudani is a great rest stop. Nowadays you have to get off the rope-way here as the cars from Sounzan terminate, and you rejoin the ride a few metres on on cars that have come up from the lake. On clear days the view of adjacent Fuji and of the surrounding lower areas is supposed to be awesome. This area was quite crowded largely because the up-mountain road brings a bunch of coaches with enthusiastic domestic tourists, plus quite a few private cars. There is a number of restaurants, cheaper food/drink opportunities and souvenir-type places here.
There is also a short walk upslope to thermal springs and vents spewing steam and sulphurous fumes into the air. A sign warns that this walk may not be a good idea for asthmatics.
Nevertheless, there were several hundred domestic visitors crowding this area, largely to purchase boiled eggs which are supposed to promote longevity. The eggs are cooked in the thermal springs and have blackened shells because of the fumes. I can report they are pretty okay to eat, even when you don’t find the little bag of salt until the bag is empty. Y500 for a bag of 6 eggs, (including salt).
I initially took the wrong track to try to reach this place and quickly ended up quite a bit higher on a deteriorating path - when I passed a group of hikers heading down-slope I realised I was on one of the hiking tracks that leave from Owakudani - one for you keen trekkers maybe.
Onwards from Owakudani, the rope-car initially climbs higher and then starts its downward journey to Lake Ashi, one of several crater lakes in the area. The views of the lake are pretty special from the rope car, as is Fuji on a clear day.
The terminal at Togendai at the northern end of the lake is similar in facilities to Owakudani, but we didn’t linger and headed directly for the down-lake ferry which is in the form of a PIRATE SHIP!! Sounds corny I know, but I thought the whole concept neat. The cruise itself took maybe 20 minutes and is pretty nice because the longish narrow lake is surrounded mainly by steep forested hill and mountain sides. I elected to stay outside on the upper deck to take maximum advantage of the scenery despite the slight drizzle and cold (it is fairly high up here - note it was a warmish sunny Spring day down in Odawara).
Like Owakudani, there was a good crowd of people in this section. It seemed the coaches we saw up on the mountain were making Ashi and the cruise the next leg for their passengers. Despite the crowd the pirate ship loaded quickly without undue waiting. As ours left dock another was approaching. Remember to keep your pass handy to flash to the attendants at each change of transport.
Arrival in Hakone Machi - pretty washed out looking pirates IMHO

There are two stops at the other end of the lake - Hakone Machi and Moto-Hakone. We got off at the first because our map showed a promising lakeside walk around to Moto-Hakone. Both places by the way are neat lakeside tourist towns with the usual restaurants, hotels etc.
The walk met its promise, going mainly thru natural forest and bush-land sometimes at immediate lakeside, other times climbing steeply up to viewpoints over the lake and towards Fuji. The path in parts is actually part of the old Tokaido Highway which was THE main route along eastern Honshu back in the 16th century. There is a Highway museum near the start on the outskirts of Hakone Machi, an old Edo Shogunate (early 1600s) Checkpoint Gate where the shogun’s soldiers would look out for the bad guys and pirated Taiwanese DVDs, an ancient cedar avenue planted in the same era plus a nice viewpoint about half way at the Hakone Detached Palace Garden. Total distances seemed around 4 to 5 km and took us maybe 90 minutes with frequent stops. This walk is good for those who like solitude, with few other tourists.
Ancient cedar avenue on the lakeside walk (image Panoramio-Masahiko Nagao)

Moto-Hakone seemed a smaller more picturesque version of Hakone Machi with a nice waterfront walk. Lots of guys fishing along here and we noticed those neat Japanese swan pedal-boats for hire which would be a good way to spend some time on a nice day.

We gave the boats a miss and headed on to the Hakone-jinja shrine less than 2 km further around the lakeside. The first gates can be seen in the water at the lake's edge - these lead uphill to the shrine itself in a thickly wooded hillside area. Once again the tourist coaches had converged on the parking area - no surprises, as temples/shrines go this is one of the better ones in a very attractive area and has historical value being over 1200 years old.

Steps leading up from lakeside gates to the Hakone shrine - the orange lakeside gates can be seen to the right on the opening photograph of this page (image Panoramio-j.adamson)
We walked back to Moto-Hakone for the start of the last leg - the return by bus to Odawara station for the Tokyo bullet, or to Hakone-Yumoto station for those catching the train back to Shinjuku.
If you want, you can simply hop back on the pirate ship and retrace your steps via the rope-car, cable-train etc. Or you can take advantage of the second day on your pass by spending overnight at somewhere like the Moto- Hakone Guest House. Or you can use your pass on one of the local buses heading up over the low rim of the crater and down the slopes to Odawara station via Hakone-Yumoto.
You have a choice of buses here - a slow one which winds down one of the narrower mountain roads thru scenic forested countryside and a series of villages with hot spring resorts, and a faster one which does a lot of the route on a mountain express-road. Julie has done the former in the past and says it is a very scenic trip, but it was getting late and so we took the fast option this time. Hur hur hur - roadworks had the traffic banked up some way. No worries - even the multi -stop bullets (called Kodama) run fairly frequently (most bullet trains are express thru services) so we did not have to wait too long for a train. Time lakeside to Odawara is normally about 50 minutes.

Hey, pretty excellent trip. Some lovely country, awesome scenery and neat transport options. And the thing is, because of the weather I didn’t see Fuji itself at all! I was prepared for this - Julie has seen it once briefly in 3 trips into the park and numerous passes in the Tokyo-Nagoya bullet. I reckon all those gorgeous clear pix you see are probably taken in winter when the dry-dry (and super-cold) north-westerlies are coming in from unpolluted Siberia.
Now there is no chance of me ever doing a winter trip, but next time we return I wouldn’t mind taking advantage of the 2 day nature of the cheapest pass and actually staying a night somewhere in the Park, even though I might again not get to see Fuji. The area is that nice.

Lake Ashi from the lakeside walk to Moto-Hakone. Fuji in background (image Panoramio-Andrew Royle)

Position of trip area to Tokyo

Let me take my only appearance on this blog to say how impressed I am with travelling Japan (this was my first visit). The scenery is often great, urban landscapes and lifestyles are interesting, the Japanese are so polite, good service is a must, the transport services are brilliant (clean, good value, on-time, fast), accommodation and food costs are value compared to Australia (so even better on average than Western Europe), everything seems to work, and for you guys - the girls are cute - and for you ladies, very fashion conscious in a non-derivative way.