TRAVEL TIPS① TRAVELLING IN JAPAN

Traveling in Japan

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You’ve got your plane tickets, your accommodation, and your itinerary. But how are you going to get around Japan? How do you get the most out of your JR Pass, and what other options are available for longer term visitors, seasoned travellers, and the budget backpacker? While Japan is well known for its advanced transport systems, it can be daunting to navigate. Doing a bit of research and preparation before you land in Japan can save you a lot of time later.

The Japan Rail Pass is considered almost an essential by travellers to Japan. It offers very good value for money, but only if you are travelling between cities. If you are spending the first few days of your trip in a single city like Tokyo or Osaka, consider getting a shorter term JR Pass, and only activating it when you start on the inter-city portion of your trip.

Previously, travellers would activate their JR Passes as soon as they landed at Narita Airport, so they could ride the Narita Express (N’EX) train to central Tokyo without having to splash out 3020 yen for the privilege.

But with a new option for foreign visitors called the N’EX Tokyo Round Trip Ticket, you can take the Narita Express train from the airport to Tokyo and other major stations for just 4000 yen.

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COSMOPOLITAN TRAVEL

So you are in a bustling Japanese city, and you have held off on activating your JR Pass for now (or you didn’t get one in the first place). How will you get around?

The Japanese subway and metro area train networks are world famous for their punctuality, service frequency and coverage. For one-off trips, you can buy a ticket at a vending machine or over the counter. But if you anticipate making multiple trips, and you want to avoid the queues, deal with less loose change, and have greater flexibility, learn from the locals and get a prepaid IC card like a Pasmo or Suica. IC cards are convenient because you simply tap them at the ticket gates to enter or exit the platform areas. You can also use them to pay for purchases at vending machines, convenience stores and certain restaurants. Because the major

IC cards are interoperable, you can use a Pasmo, Suica, or an Icoca card to travel on virtually all trains, subways and buses in the major cities of Japan, although they will not allow you to travel between cities.

To get an IC card, look for the relevant ticket machines or ticket counters at a railway station. You will need to pay a deposit of 500 yen, plus an initial amount of preloaded credit between 1000 to 1500 yen or more. You can recharge your card with up to 20,000 yen at ticket machines or recharging machines. At the end of your trip, you can get your 500 yen deposit back by returning your card to the ticket counter of the issuing operator.

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For those who are more adventurous, One-day Passes may be a good option. These special one-day tickets allow unlimited travel on subways, trams, trains and buses within a single city. They are available in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Kyoto, Hokkaido, Kamakura Enoshima, and Kobe.

Another local tip: if you are on a budget, check out the discount ticket shops. Usually located around train stations, these small hole-in-the-wall operations buy tickets in bulk and resell them at a discount, and they are perfectly legitimate. If you know what you are looking for, you can save anywhere from 10 yen (for a local JR subway ticket) to 1000 yen (for a longer distance shinkansen ticket).

These discount ticket shops also offer cheap food/ drink vouchers, as well as discounted tickets to attractions like Disneyland and concerts.

RESERVING SHINKANSEN SEATS

The JR Pass allows you to use the shinkansen (bullet train), though not the ultra-fast Nozomi and Mizuho services.
An added benefit is the ability to reserve seats on the trains for free. Reserving seats requires some advance planning, but is a good idea if you have a strict schedule to stick to, are travelling during busy periods, or want to guarantee that your group can sit together. Some services like the Narita Express, or the fast Hayate/Komachi shinkansen, require compulsory seat reservations.

To reserve your seats, find the Reservation Office at a JR station. Show them your JR Pass, then inform the staff of the number of travellers, the date you want to travel, the departure and destination stations, the carriage
class (ordinary or Green), and train name/number or departure time.

For those who are less confident in their Japanese, it’s a good idea to put this information down on paper in advance, which you can show to the staff in order to minimise the risk of a misunderstanding.

ESSENTIAL TRAVEL APPS

The smartphone revolution has made it easier than ever before to access all the information we need while we are on the go, and travel is no exception. If you have mobile internet access while you are in Japan (by renting a phone, getting a local SIM card, or via a portable hotspot), the following apps will come in really handy.

TOHOKU 3 – Aomori & Akita

Aomori

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Dramatic landscapes abound in Aomori prefecture and Mt Hakkoda is yet another striking example. Like its southern cousin Zao, Hakkoda’s famous for its winter ice monsters and endless powder; whilst in summer, with the song of hummingbirds cheerfully filling the air, she’s a photographer, sightseer and hiker’s paradise; come autumn, she’s saturated in colour as the virgin forest and alpine flora turn crimson, gold and orange in preparation for their eventual hibernation in the white season.

The grandness of nature makes way to grand design as we hit Aomori City, with a population of just under 300,000, it punches well above its weight in the architectural and art stakes. There’s the monolithic stark white Aomori Museum of Art designed by Jun Aoki featuring the mammoth 8.5 metre tall ‘Aomori-Ken’ dog statue by Yoshitomo Nara and a cavernous 8,379m3 space housing three gigantic backdrops for the ballet ‘Aleko’ created by Marc Chagall. The fun-filled Nebuta Festival Museum, ingeniously skinned in burnt red steel vertical louvres, contains a colourful array of illuminated festival floats and interactive displays which has me dreaming of seeing the annual parades that take place every August. Then there’s the landmark Aomori Tourist Information Center, a 15 storey triangle-shaped building representing the letter “A” for Aomori that glows apple green in the evening and the iconic cable stayed Aomori Bay Bridge that itself glows iridescent blue. The edgy Aomori night life complements this slick urban centre as Tohoku’s rich history and traditional culture makes way for cutting edge design and fun times in its northern most capital.

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Akita

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Across the border in Akita prefecture, a sense of heritage and tradition is restored at the historical castle town of Kakunodate established in 1620 and its prestigious samurai district. The half-a-dozen finely preserved samurai houses, set amongst 400 weeping cherry blossom trees, are a picture of dignified architecture, tranquil grounds, grand gates, austere black fences, interesting artefacts, antiques and museum pieces. Along the bank of the Hinokinai River the renowned 2km Cherry Blossom Tunnel is a nationally designated scenic spot that I can only imagine must glow pink in the spring and adds to Kakunodate’s reputation as “Little Kyoto”.

As we venture further north, the winding roads spiral through the breathtaking Akita mountainside which lead to pictures of natural beauty and amazing hidden gems such as Tsurunoyu Onsen and Tamagawa Onsen. Tsurunoyu, dates back to 1638 and was frequented by samurai and their escorts as a place of healing and relaxation. The thatched roofed tatami lodgings, churning water wheel, communal onsens, including a mixed onsen, of this tiny resort transport us back in time. By contrast Tamagawa Onsen’s deafening fissures whistle jets of sulphurous steam and a bubbling hot spring of 98˚C feeds pools of wellness in a cloud of mist for the many sick and elderly taking respite in this most unique somewhat harsh environ.

Sheer beauty in these parts are also found lakeside, riverside and in the local legends. Lake Tazawa, Japan’s deepest at 423.4m, is both a lovely place and the setting of the evocative story of the lovely Tatsuko who prayed to the gods for eternal beauty and upon drinking the waters of Tazawa-ko transformed into a water dragon and submerged into the lake. Ironically, a glorious golden statue of the enchanting Tatsuko a few metres off the lake’s western shore immortalises her beauty and saw her dream come true.

Not too far away the gorgeous Oirase Mountain Stream in Aomori prefecture is home to another legendary lovely, former geisha Omatsu, who would ambush young samurai in order to rob and sometimes kill them. This 400 year old tale is almost as enthralling as the crystal clear cascading rapids and spectacular white waterfalls surrounded in every direction by a thick wood of verdant lime green maple trees, white cedar and Japanese beech along with a blanket of furry moss covered boulders and felled timber. The 14 km nature trail is stunning, whether on foot, by bike, car or public bus and to quench my thirst a well-earned craft beer from Oirase Brewery certainly hit the spot.

Life is an odyssey to be undertaken with gusto, an open mind, light heart and empty stomach. Which is easy enough said, though not always possible in our frenetically connected ‘always on’ fast food world. Taking time to travel Tohoku’s treasures and sample her flavours provided a well needed tonic for the pressures of the day to day with a delightful dose of tranquillity, warmth and beauty that serves as yet another reminder of the genuine joy of journeying to Japan. In reverence to mother nature and all the people, poets, artisans, designers, craftspeople, gardeners, story tellers, architects, iron chefs, legends and samurai that have influenced this treasureland I dedicate a haiku of my own
– “Tohoku green land, water rich built legends breathe, spiritual oishii”.

TOHOKU 2 – Miyagi & Aomori

Miyagi

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Tohoku’s nature reveals her beauty and wonder as we head to Zao National Park and the 5 star Chikusenso Mt Zao Onsen Resort & Spa in Miyagi prefecture. With only 32 rooms it is a boutique lodging of understated luxury and opulence. Acclaimed architect Yukio Hashimoto is true to his goal “to design not the material, but the ambience” as the wonderful use of space, locally sourced chestnut flooring, Japanese stucco walls (wara juraku), richly woven soft furnishings, Towada stone quarried from Aomori and the impressive Bonshō (Buddhist bell) in the library lounge area immediately impress upon me that this is the height of Japanese design and style whilst maintaining a traditional feel in harmony with the lush green surrounding.

A memorable kaiseki banquet at the refined Kamajin restaurant in a semi-private dining room is nothing short of culinary indulgence as Head Chef Kiyakazu Naoi presents each of the delectable 9 courses like a piece of fine art that, but for my insatiable appetite, seem a shame to eat. From Sendai beef to sweet fish to a surprisingly delicate bite sized meat pie it was an outstanding feast of Japan’s highest form of cuisine. Of course accompanying such a meal with a fine bottle of La Forge Estate Chardonnay from Languedoc, France seemed only natural, though sake would probably have been more appropriate.

Ensconced within 16 acres of heavily forested bamboo, maple and water oak within the Zao National Park it’s an exceptional place for relaxation, reflection and appetite.

Chikusenso is probably not the place to take the kids, but the nearby Miyagi Zao Kokeshi Museum in Tōgatta Onsen certainly is. The large museum is home to over 5,000 intricately painted kokeshi dolls from all over Japan and other hand crafted items, and offers the opportunity to paint your own Tōgatta style kokeshi doll, which was actually a lot more fun than it initially sounded. Under the watchful and guiding eye of a master artisan we slowly and gently paint her petite face, ornate headpiece and a green and red kimono adorned with flowers, to create our own bespoke kokeshi. Traditionally adored by girls, whilst the boys had fun spinning tops, the origins of kokeshi date back to this area of Tohoku during the middle of the Edo Period, some 283 years ago, created by skilled woodworkers to sell as souvenirs to onsen visitors.

Whether it’s the unique ruggedness of Mt Zao or the unique kokeshi of Tōgatta, Miyagi prefecture also lays claim to the unique honour of having one of Japan’s three most scenic spots – Matsushima. Haiku poetry master Bashō Matsuo famously lost for words to describe the sheer beauty and wonder of Matsushima is said to have penned “Matsushima ya, a a Matsushima ya, Matsushima ya”. It’s an astonishing archipelago of 260 pine covered islets within the protected Matsushima Bay, half an hour north of Sendai, which escaped relatively unscathed from the 2011 tsunami. The view is wonderful from every angle, be it high at Saigyo Modoshi no Matsu lookout park, through the windows of Taritsu-an Restaurant feasting on scallops, fried oysters and tempura sea eel, partaking in a time honoured tea ceremony shore side at Kanrantei or on one of the tourist boats that cruise the bay.

The amazing beauty extends on shore to within the grounds of the Zuigan-ji Buddhist Temple which boasts manicured gardens, traditional buildings and a collection of exquisite gold plated panels dating back to the 17th century depicting intricate scenes of nature, such as hawks hunting white herons and scampering rabbits to chrysanthemums, pine and cherry trees blooming to regal peacocks and proud roosters painted by Hasegawa Toin, Sakuma Sakyo and others. The tile covered Hōjō, built of zelkova, cyprus and cedar by 130 master craftsmen was commissioned by Lord Date Masamune and declared a National Treasure in 1953.

Iwate

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Another National Treasure and personal highlight was Hiraizumi in Iwate prefecture – one of the prettiest towns I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting. To walk this quaint town with its expansive public spaces, shrines and temples, ornamental ponds, productive rice paddies, archaeological sites, heavenly parks, manicured gardens, breathing the fresh floral scented air to the tunes of birds singing, children playing and irrigation trickling is a sensory delight. The calming soulfulness of this place rested my mind and raised my spirit and is the idyllic backdrop to five UNESCO World Heritage sites representing the Buddhist Pure Land.

The magical Chūson- ji Temple occupies 284 acres of gently undulating forest with a complex of well-preserved buildings, lush greenery and the amazing Konjikidō (Golden Hall) nestled within a wood of giant maples and cyprus standing guard like sentinels. Completed in 1124 by the Ōshu Fujiwara warrior clan the 5 x 5m structure is blanketed in resplendent gold leaf shining on the walls, floors, ceiling and eaves. Amida, Buddha of Infinite Light, adorns the central altar and golden peacocks, elaborate paintings, scenes of nature, statues and inlaid mother-of-pearl decorate the first architectural structure in Japan to be designated a National Treasure. Pilgrims solemnly make offerings and bow their heads whilst an orange and black robed monk quietly recites prayers.

Nearby Mōtsū-ji Temple with one of Japan’s last pure land gardens centred around a large ornamental pond was awash with a rainbow of colour playing host to an iris festival which was a pure delight for a garden lover like myself.

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