I lived for a year in the heart of traditional Kyoto on a student visa, and though the temples and shrines in this city would take a lifetime to fully explore, I always wanted to ride the rails towards the furthest bounds of Japan. On my third visit to the “land of the rising sun,” after a three-month English teaching stint in Tokyo, I finally did some serious long-distance traveling with a Japan Rail Pass, the most economical choice for tourists.
I bought a two-week rail pass knowing that I wanted to go from Kyoto to Tokyo twice, and that cost in itself was worth investing in a pass.
My journey began by activating my pass in Hachioji – the Tokyo suburb where I was living – before transferring to Tokyo Station to catch one of the six high-speed bullet (Shinkansen) trains operated by Japan Rail. As I wanted to spend a few days in Kyoto reminiscing with friends from my exchange student days, the Tokaido & Sanyo Shinkansen Line worked for me. It runs southwest from Tokyo to Osaka, then extends to Fukuoka on Kyushu, the furthest south of Japan’s four major islands. Kyoto is about 2 hours, 15 minutes out of Tokyo.
My plan was to cut a diagonal from one corner of Japan to the other from Kyushu to Hokkaido in the north. On the way to Kyushu, I stopped at Hiroshima, the city of atomic bomb infamy during World War II. These days visitors from all over the world pay homage at its Peace Memorial Park.
Well worth a visit, Miya-jima Island is accessible via ferry from Hiroshima, and the fare is covered by the JR Rail Pass. Here the famous floating torii gate of the Itsuku- shima-jinga shrine is a common image in brochures and postcards. It’s a serene, calm place in a mountain setting, pleasant for strolling among tame deer, visiting the shrine and other colorful temples, even hiking up Mt Misen.
The following day I again hopped on the Tokaido & Sanyo Shinkansen for the 75-minute trip to Fukuoka where I expected to connect directly to Kagoshima, the island’s southernmost city and the birthplace of a famous samurai, Saigo Takamori. Seeing and admiring his statue in Tokyo’s Ueno Park had intrigued my imagination and sparked an interest in visiting his home. Beyond that plan, where I might end up along the way would be a surprise.
My first surprise: news of a typhoon greeted my arrival on the island. The railways and roads around Kagoshima were blocked, so no luck learning more about Saigo Takamori this time around.
“But come again in the summer,” said Kawahara-san, a graduate school student on his way to see his parents. “See the flat fields, there? When the rains collect in the paddies, we call them ‘Plate Fields.’ Like plates of water, the pools reflect the brilliant blue summer skies,” he offered consolingly.
I had to admire his appreciation of nature in flux and contented myself with a blustery, rainy visit to Kumamoto Castle, which, about 90 minutes south via the Kagoshima Line, was still accessible. Fortunately, I am a great admirer of Japanese castles, and Kumamoto was no disappointment.
In such weather there was no use hanging around Kyushu, so I backtracked north to Tokyo and caught the Joetsu Nagano Shinkansen to Nagano city.
Host of the 1998 Winter Olympics, this mountain city lies almost in the center of Japan. I found the tourist office easily, just across from the ticket gate exit. Until now I had been staying in nondescript hotels near the train stations, but this time, a kind woman directed me to a nearby family guest house (minshuku) where a room and breakfast cost Y3000 (C$38; US$25). Handing me a stack of colorful brochures, bus schedules, and maps, she suggested I visit Zenkoji temple, Nagano’s main attraction, sometime towards the evening, she said was best.
First, I checked into the minshuku, customarily removing my shoes and putting on slippers at the door. My host gave me the grand tour: common bath downstairs available 24 hours, here’s the washbasin, and now, this is your room. Sliding doors revealed a tatami (straw mat) floored room, a low kotatsu table, and a Japanese-style teapot with green tea packs at the ready. I thanked my host, put my bags down, and immediately went out to visit the temple, which is located up the slope of Nagano’s main street, Chuo-Dori.
Zenkoji temple, built 1,400 years ago, is one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Japan, and because it belongs to no particular sect of Buddhism, many styles of statuettes adorn the spaces. The main hall has been designated a national treasure, and visitors are allowed to search for the “key to salvation” in a dark tunnel underneath the altar. I lingered on in this impressive place till after dark to muse among paper lanterns swaying in the wind, illuminating a pond of lotus blooms.
One thing about a two-week pass, it keeps you moving, and a day later I was back riding the rails long haul, first back to Tokyo (2 hours, 40 minutes). Then, joined by throngs of people eager to escape the suffocating heat of the city, I caught the Akita Shinkansen to Morioka (3 hours, 30 minutes), and from there a smaller JR line to Aomori (2 hours, 15 minutes). Stories about the “Blue Forests” of this city enchanted me, as did folk tales from the north of Japan, and I was tempted for a moment to see what I might find here. But instead, at 11pm, I caught an overnight train to the northernmost island of Hokkaido, arriving in its capital city, Sapporo, at dawn.
The least populated of Japan’s islands, Hokkaido is noted for its outdoors rather than gorgeous temples and castles. Except for its famous snow festival – Yuki-matsuri – held each February, most people quickly pass through Sapporo on their way to hiking, camping, skiing, and wilderness vacations. But I was on a Rail Pass holiday and had only enough time left to stroll the streets and see a few local sights.
Being summer, Odori Avenue Park was full of beer gardens, while in winter, during the snow festival, it would be lined with ice statues. I took an interesting tour of the Sapporo Brewery and Museum and learned something about the history of beer-making in Japan.
It seemed a fitting souvenir to finish my northern sojourn with a dish of the renowned Sapporo ramen noodles – brilliant! – but just as memorable is that morning’s first coffee after a day and a half on the rails.
Would I recommend the Rail Pass? Absolutely, if you like being on the move more than stopping in one place long enough to visit every attraction.
Japan is still a relatively safe place to travel, and, as a woman on my own, I was perfectly comfortable heading out for a bite to eat at nine or even ten at night.
I especially enjoyed the freedom to go anywhere along the JR lines, wandering about at will, even changing course easily when circumstances or a change of mood required.
Along the way I could stop and stretch at any major station, catching the scents and colors of dozens of unknown towns.
Seeing the country from the windows of trains, I felt closer to the land and to the people than I would were I plane-hopping from one city to another.
A JR Rail Pass is non transferable, and it must be validated within three months of purchase at one of the travel centers.
>> From Annamarie Wiersma: I'm 66 and just came back from three weeks of travel through Japan. I had a 3-week Japan Rail pass. This pass was the best investment ever. The Japanese railways were absolutely amazing. At first everything felt overwhelming – so many people! – I live in a isolated community of 700. However, being unable to speak Japanese was never an issue. The people I met were all really helpful, and you can say a lot with body language and some words on a piece of paper. I went from Tokyo to Kyoto, Hiroshima, Miyajima, Nagasaki, Dejima, Osaka, Nara, Yokkaichi City, Izo-kogen, and back to Tokyo – about 21 JR tickets and that's not counting all the times I just hopped on and off trains or a ferry.
I avoided all large hotels and mostly stayed at small hotels, hostels, local B and B, Capsule hotels, and Buddhist monasteries to get as much of the local flavour as possible. All accommodations supplied shampoo, conditioner, face wash, body wash, disposable toothbrushes, toothpaste, disposable hairbrushes, and razors. Also, slippers and kimonos were often supplied. I came across only two dirty bathrooms, otherwise all others were very high tech and clean. Food was mostly really good although I never was quite sure what I had ordered. A few times I just bought some yogurt, veggies, fruit, and bread at the local supermarket.
Japan is very safe to travel by yourself. Anyway, I loved it, loved it, loved it! If I can do it, anyone can. Just take a deep breath, go for it, and have a lovely time.