The Railway Museum

Last year Japan Railway celebrated 50 years since the inauguration of the world-famous Shinkansen (Bullet Train). Originally built in time for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the Shinkansen made travel faster (cutting the travel time between Tokyo and Osaka in half) as well as rapidly expanding the number of passengers between the two major economic hubs of Japan. The Shinkansen is still going strong today. It runs in an almost ridiculously timely manner. It is still considered a major event not merely in Japanese railway history, but as an announcement to the world of Japanese capabilities less than two decades after emerging from the ashes of the Second World War. In light of this fifty-year benchmark, I made my way to the Railway Museum (tetsudo-hakubutsukan, entrance 1000yen) at Omiya Station, 35 minutes north of Shinjuku Station, Tokyo on the Saikyo Line.

The railway museum at Omiya Station

The museum itself is extremely impressive. It stands within an enormous modern structure, and the moment you get off the ‘New Shuttle Line’ (one stop north from Omiya Station, 3 minutes), you step into an entirely railway-themed world. The walkway leading towards the main entrance is lined with historical Shinkansen timetables. The timetable for my local line has barely changed in the three decades since I was born. In order to enter you must pay with either your regular train card, or purchase a day ticket from a dispenser, before walking through the exact same gates you would see in any train station in Japan. The rest areas include platform-style seating. And so on. Outside there is an area for children, as well as empty train carriages, which have been heated to allow space for eating lunch. Many people who travel to Japan come to love the ‘ekiben’ (eki meaning station, and ben short for bento, or ‘lunchbox’) which are sold in the museum and can be enjoyed within these carriages.

The railway museum at Omiya Station

Inside the museum there is one hall full of original train carriages stretching throughout the entirety of Japanese railway history. This exhibition includes the first Shinkansen train of course, but also the first passenger carriage, the first refrigerated carriage, and perhaps most interestingly, the Imperial Train carriages used exclusively by the Emperor and his family. As an Englishman, I was taken by the amount of Meiji period trains that were built by English companies. Preston, Leeds, Lancashire. 1881, 1878, 1871. The Meiji government of this period essentially selected the best assets of other nations to imitate in order to aid its modernization. A German-style military, French-style Law, and evidently British railways (as well as a British Parliamentary system, of course). The spirits of Isambard Kingdom Brunel and George Stephenson would be beaming with pride.

The railway museum at Omiya Station

Aside from the numerous train carriages on display, there is an hourly exhibition by staff in which an (incredibly loud) steam locomotive horn is blown at full blast and three drivers dressed in traditional train uniform wave to the crowd while the entire train rotates. There are scale models, and plenty of information on the history of trains in Japan. Most exciting of all, however, are the train simulators. In this section of the museum you are able to feel the thrill of operating one of half a dozen actual trains on real life routes. I simulated the route of the Yamanote train that circles the major stations of inner Tokyo. In a just a handful of bleary seconds I moved from utterly confused to a sort of James Bond figure exuding confidence to the detriment of my imaginary passengers. I went for a quick sit down afterwards.

The railway museum at Omiya Station

Where the Railway Museum truly comes into its own is in its versatility. It is a perfect spot not only for those interested in trains or history in general, but also for families with children. There is space to run, its interactive, informative, and there are plenty of places to eat. It is really a marvelous museum. Omiya itself is also well worth a visit if you are interested in visiting the Bonsai Tree Museum or Hikawa Shrine (Emperor Meiji’s favourite shrine) and is famous for both football and rugby. Since Omiya Station is a bullet train stop en route from Tokyo to Nagano and Kanazawa, it makes a good option to stop by at the Railway Museum before continuing your onward journey to either of those cities. Give it a go and discover the geek in new – you will love it.

Getting around Japan

Japanese bullet train

Japanese bullet train

So you’re going on holiday to Japan. One of the first questions you’ll probably ask yourself is: how are you going to get around?

Japan has one of the safest, cleanest, fastest, most efficient, punctual and convenient public transportation networks in the world, comprising city subways, cross-country trains, bullet trains, highway buses, local buses, funicular railways, cable cars, ferries, monorails, domestic flights, taxis… the list goes on! But for the most part, the best way to get around Japan is undoubtedly by train.

This post will cover all the main forms of transport that you might use on a holiday to Japan.

 

TRAINS

The Japan Railways (JR) group is Japan’s largest train network and comprises six regional rail companies: JR Hokkaido, JR East, JR Central, JR West, JR Shikoku and JR Kyushu and JR Freight. Combined, these networks cover the whole of Japan’s four main islands: Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku, encompassing a variety of subway lines, local railways and bullet trains.

In addition to the extensive JR network, there are numerous private railway companies operating throughout the country (more in-depth information about which can be found here).

 

Shinkansen in rural setting

Shinkansen in rural setting

Bullet train

Ah, the famous bullet train. How I could rhapsodise about its speed, efficiency and general enjoyableness. Oh wait – I did!

The JR bullet train, or Shinkansen as it is known in Japanese, was 50 years old last year and is an amazing feat of engineering, whisking passengers across distances of hundreds of miles at speeds of up to 320 kph (200 mph). Not only is it speedy (and hella punctual, with an annual average delay measured in seconds), it’s an experience in itself – the seats are comfy, the staff wear cute uniforms and bow whenever they leave the carriage, and the edibles from the food trolley are actually – well – edible.

I know I say this about a lot of things, but you really haven’t been to Japan until you’ve been on the Shinkansen. And with a Japan Rail Pass (see below), you get unlimited journeys across the whole network!

Operation areas of the regional JR companies and bullet train lines (source: japanguide.com)

Operation areas of the regional JR companies and bullet train lines (source: japanguide.com)

 

Subway

At first look, an underground railway network such as that of Tokyo can seem bewildering – but once you get used to it they are very simple and easy to use. Nearly every station will have subway maps with the station names in English, so there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to find your way around.

 

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Tokyo Subway

If you plan to use the subway system whilst in Japan (and we recommend that you do!), to make your life easier we suggest that you purchase an IC card (equivalent to a London Oyster card). These are sold under various different brand names in different cities (Pasmo and Suica in Tokyo, Manaca in Nagoya, Icoca and PiTaPa in Osaka, for example), but the cards are in fact interchangeable – a Manaca will work in Tokyo, while a Pasmo will work in Fukuoka, and so on. All you need to do is top up, then touch in and out of the ticket barriers at the beginning and end of each journey.

Besides subways, the cards can also be used on most overground trains and buses in the majority of Japanese cities. For more information on IC cards and their compatibility, see here. And remember, if you have a Japan Rail Pass, you can save money by using it on JR-operated subway lines!

If you are purchasing a Japan Rail Pass from InsideJapan Tours on our website, you can also order an IC card at the same time.

Tokyo subway map - less daunting than it might look, promise!

Tokyo subway map – less daunting than it might look, promise!

 

Local train

Japanese local trains are just normal, everyday trains. It can be useful to familiarise yourself with the categories of train that are available – if only to avoid getting on a super-slow variety that stops at every stop!

Local trainsThese are:

Local (kakueki-teisha or futsu-densha) – Very slow! These trains stop at every station.

Rapid (kaisoku) – Misleadingly, these are not the most rapid trains. They cost the same as local trains but skip some of the stations.

Express (kyuko) – Express trains skip more stations than the rapid trains, and may be more expensive.

Limited Express (tokkyu) – These are the fastest local trains, only stopping at major stations. You will usually need to pay an extra limited express fee if you use these trains.

If you keep an eye on the screens on the train platform, you’ll find that most Japanese stations will display the train categories in English as well as Japanese.

If you are purchasing a rail ticket at a Japanese train station, all you need to do is find your destination station on a map and look at the little number beside the station name. This number is your fare. Put your money into the machine, select the appropriate fare and hey presto – you’ll receive a generic ticket that’ll take you as far as you need to go.

 

Japan Rail Pass

If you’ve already begun researching your Japan holiday, you’ll probably already have heard of the Japan Rail Pass. This extremely economical deal promises unlimited travel on the entirety of the Japan Rail (JR) network (which includes all bullet trains except the “Nozomi” and “Mizuho”, certain subway lines, and most local and cross-country rail services), and is available for periods of 7, 14 or 21 days at either ordinary class or “green” class (first-class).

JR Pass prices correct as of 11 Feb 2015

JR Pass prices correct as of 11 Feb 2015

To put these prices in perspective, a one-way journey on the bullet train from Tokyo to Hiroshima costs about half that of an adult 7-day Japan Rail Pass (ordinary class) – so if you’re travelling to Japan it’s really a no-brainer: buy a Japan Rail Pass!

You can see a full list of prices in pounds sterling and purchase a Japan Rail Pass at face value on our website.

 

BUSES

Japan has an excellent network of local buses within cities and highway buses that cover cross-country journeys.

 

Local buses

We usually recommend using subways and trains instead of buses in Japan, but in some cities where the subway network is not as comprehensive as that of Tokyo, taking the bus might be necessary. The most notable location in which you’ll find this is the case is Kyoto.

On most local Japanese buses, you should enter through the back door (if there is one), pick up a numbered ticket from a small machine by the door, and keep your eye on the screen above the driver. This screen will match your ticket number with the fare you need to pay. When you get off, pay at the front of the bus – using the changing machine beforehand if you don’t have the correct change. In some cities, however, you pay a flat fare for wherever you’re travelling.

To make things easier, cities in which buses are the main mode of transport will usually offer one-day passes for the bus systems. These are extremely useful for tourists – so if you are in a city without a subway network, ask at tourist information to find out the best card to buy.

 

Highway buses

Highway buses are an inexpensive alternative to trains and cover long distances over the whole of Japan. However, as the Japan Rail Pass offers such outstanding value, you’d be a fool to plump for buses!

The only instance in which we’d recommend using a highway bus is if you’re going to be resident in Japan for over 90 days, making you ineligible for a Japan Rail Pass.

Highway bus (photo: japanguide.com)

Highway bus (photo: japanguide.com)

RENTAL CAR

As much as we do love trains, there are some locations in Japan where rail travel doesn’t quite cut the mustard. The main locations where this is the case are Hokkaido (Japan’s northern island) and Okinawa (the southern, subtropical archipelago).

Hokkaido does have a rail network, but as the island is sparsely populated and consists largely of untamed wilderness, it is far from comprehensive. Driving in Hokkaido, on the other hand, is a complete breeze – long, empty roads, dramatic scenery, and the ability to make detours and stops whenever you like make this by far the best way to travel.

The various islands that make up Okinawa, meanwhile, do not have a rail network at all (well, there’s a single, one-track monorail in Naha – the prefectural capital – but that hardly counts). There is a bus system, but take it from me – it’s an infinitely better idea to rent a car. As in Hokkaido, the rental process is easy and the driving is an absolute doddle – plus it allows you to explore places that you might never have found if you’d taken the boring old bus.

Renting a car on mainland Japan is also a viable option if you feel particularly inclined to motor travel as opposed to rail – but be aware that driving long distances can be pretty dull, as Japanese motorways do just look pretty much like motorways anywhere else…  Probably best use the train.

…and remember, get your International Drivers Permit before you go to Japan!

Rental car

Rental car

DOMESTIC FLIGHT

These days, with budget operators such as Peach Aviation offering ridiculously cheap fares between destinations in Japan and surrounding countries, domestic flights are most definitely an option if you’re planning to visit far-flung corners of the archipelago. You are most likely to use a domestic airline if you’re planning to visit the islands of Okinawa, Yakushima or Hokkaido – but there are plenty of other routes available. Remember, however, that flying entails an awful lot of hanging around and faffing about – so if you are making a long-distance journey on Honshu or Kyushu Island, it’s usually easier and less stressful (yep, you guessed it) just to get the train.

Example flight map by Peach Aviation. Other airlines operate additional services.

Example flight map by Peach Aviation. Other airlines operate additional services.

Making Sense Of The Tokyo Metro

Tkyo Subway

You see that spaghetti dinner up there? That’s the map for Tokyo’s subway system, Tokyo Metro. Although it may look daunting at first glance, with a little explanation (and a lot of pictures) you’ll be riding the underground like a true Tokyoite in no time!

First off, let’s learn a bit about the subway situation in the big city. There are two main subway operators in Tokyo: the Tokyo Metro and the government-owned Toei subway. Altogether, these two operators combine to make 290 stations on 13 separate lines. With over six million passengers per day, sometimes the carriages can get pretty packed.

And this is before the rush...

And this is before the rush…

Wait, TWO different operators, you say? Doesn’t that confuse things even more, you wonder? Has Tokyo gone mad, you exclaim?!
Well, you’re correct on all accounts. Both the Tokyo Metro and the Toei subway form completely separate networks, and the tickets procured from one will not work on the other. Fares can be different, and to transfer from one operator to the other necessitates purchasing transfer tickets, further complicating things. As mentioned earlier, daunting, right?

Will the ticket you just bought get you home?Possibly!

Will the ticket you just bought get you home? Possibly!

You may, at this point, just throw up your hands and resign yourself to spending a fortune on taxis for your holiday in Japan. However, we’re here to help! Perhaps realizing how intimidating the Tokyo subway system can be for foreign visitors, much effort has been made recently to help accommodate those looking to travel underground comfortably.

You can breathe a big sigh of relief and put away your change purse and calculator watches, as there is another, better way to pay your fares. There are a variety of contactless, RFID pay cards available for purchase at certain train stations. These cards can be charged up with cash and then just waved over the card reader at one of the many gates leading to the platforms. And the best part? These cards work between lines and operators, cutting out the need to buy individual tickets and saving time and money in the long run! Easy, right? And with names such as Pasmo, Suica, and Manaca, the cards are as fun to say as to use.

One of the best purchases you can make on your holiday to Tokyo!

One of the best purchases you can make on your holiday to Japan!

 

Just touch your newly bought card to one of these, and you're in!

Just touch your newly bought card to one of these, and you’re in!

What’s that? You can’t understand Japanese? No problem! Subway station signs are in English, as are most maps and other signage. There’s even an English option on the ticket machines. Once you’ve boarded the train, announcements are in both English and Japanese, ensuring a stress-free, smooth transition whether you’re getting off at the next stop or transferring onward.

And, if you don’t want to read anything, English or Japanese (hey, you’re on vacation, right?), each subway line is numberd, signposted, and color-coded, making catching your train that much simpler. For example, you want to catch the Tozai Line to Nakano? Just take the blue colored line with a “T” in the middle. You’ll be browsing manga and anime goods at Nakano Broadway in no time!

 

Helpful signs in English will get you where you need to go.

Helpful signs in English will get you where you need to go.

Of course, for the tech savvy among us, Tokyo Metro provides a free tourist information app. Using this app, you can search areas by popular landmarks, chart the best course there, and enjoy restaurants and tourist information all in English. And with free wifi available at over 140 subway stations in Tokyo, it’s easier than ever to stay connected. However, be sure to factor in to your crazy night out that the Tokyo Metro does not run 24 hours! If you find yourself out past midnight, prepare to stay out a little while longer, as the trains don’t start again until around five.

I think you'll find something to do...

I think you’ll find something to do…

Phew. That was a lot to take in, I’m sure. But, now that you know the basics of the Tokyo Metro, you can ride with confidence on your next holiday to Japan….and of course, if you are travelling with IJT, you will have your Info Pack to help you along and make you travels easy!

 

8 Things to look out for when in Akihabara

Akihabara is truly the Japan’s capital of “otaku” – often translated as ‘someone who has obsessive interests in video games, manga, anime, electronics and the like’. There’s more manga and anime in this little district of Tokyo than exists anywhere else in the world. But whether you consider yourself a fan of such things completely misses the point; this neighborhood is a traveler’s dream because it is unlike anywhere else any of us have ever been and will ever go to. And isn’t that why we travel in the first place?

Akihabara

In a simple stroll through “Akiba” (as it is commonly and affectionately known by most Tokyo-ites) there are more things to point out, talk about and be astonished by then would ever fit in a single blog post so instead I’ve chosen 8 things that I love about this quirky part of town. If you are coming to the area be sure to keep an eye out for the following!


Oden Vending Machine

1) Japan has become famous for vending machines and they can now be found throughout the country. Indeed, I’ve seen them in the middle of rice paddies and on top of Mount Fuji. I’ve seen banana vending machines, french fry vending machines, flower vending machines and some others too sorted and seedy to mention here. But there’s nothing quite like a hot cup of oden or ramen noodles from a vending machine (pictured above). The perfect place for a pick-me-up during a day of sightseeing in Akihabara.

One Person Karaoke

2) In Japan, as in most places, karaoke tends to be a social event. Something you do with your friends or even family to have a bit of fun and enjoy one another’s company, if not their singing voice. But in a neighborhood known as a haven for nerds and outcasts it is no surprise that you can find one person karaoke booths. The perfect place to let out your inner rock star or let off some steam, perhaps by belting out a few Journey songs (an advert for the booths is pictured above).

All girl sushi

3) Sushi in Japan is a craft, even an artform at times. It has spread throughout the world but there is nothing like the sushi that can be had in one of Tokyo’s premier upscale sushi shops. Unfortunately, sushi chefs have traditionally been and remain almost entirely male. This is largely said to be because most women’s hands are too hot and this in turn affects the flavor of the sushi. But in Akihabara you can put that myth to the test at this all girl sushi restaurant (pictured above is Nadeshiko Sushi – http://www.nadeshico-sushi.com).

Shrine in Akihabara

4) Akihabara is closely associated with electronics and it is known for being at the cutting edge of manga, anime and the Japanese video gaming world so it can be quite a surprise to see all the traditional culture that remains side by side the bright and brash billboards and advertisements. Visit a local Shintō shrine or stop off at a traditional eatery while strolling about.

Live Idol Show

5) One of the things that brought Akihabara to the forefront of otaku culture was the ability to see live music shows by “idol” groups on a daily basis. Although these no longer take place on the street like they used to, you can still see some talented and fun shows every day of the year. Both during the day and at night are venues where you can let your inner fan shine. Find an idol club and dance your cares away while waving different coloured light sticks (the venue pictured above is called Dear Stage and typically has live shows everyday from 5-6pm till around 11:30pm – http://dearstage.com).

6) Not pictured but entirely worth checking out are Akihabara’s retro video game arcades. Sure it’s fun to come and see the newest gadgets and most up-to-date driving and shooting games but nothing will bring you back to your childhood faster than a go at one of the games you grew up playing!

Traces of the past

7) A bit different from number 4, try looking for traces of Akihabara’s past as you wander throughout the area. Though not always traditional, there is plenty of evidence of what the electronic district was like before manga, anime and pornography took over. After all, a place as unique as Akihabara isn’t made overnight!

Assemblage

8) Assemble your own electronics. As you leave Akihabara JR Station on the ‘Electric City’ side, continue under the tracks and you will find a plethora of vacuum tubes, radio innards, computer wires, various kits and loads of speciality shops selling the pieces that make our electronics tick. Although you might not have the confidence to put one of these kits together on your own, you can get some help at the Assemblage desk. Make a little radio, assemble a robot or throw together a blinking doodad. (The staff won’t be fluent in English but they always make an effort and they certainly know what they are doing. Make sure to leave plenty of time for this.)

Akihabara

8) You’d have a hard time missing the colorful billboards and advertising that dons the various buildings of Akihabara but surprisingly few people take the time to really look at these and appreciate the aesthetic – and even artistry – that is so uniquely Akiba. From adverts for maid cafes to posters announcing the latest video game release, you’ll know that you are a long way from home when take a little bit of time to look towards the sky and admire the scenery.

 

As I said at the beginning of this post, you don’t need to be an “otaku” to enjoy a day out in Akihabara!

Our top 15 favourite ryokan inns

Ryokan experience

Last week I explained why you haven’t been to Japan until you’ve stayed in a ryokan inn. For those who can’t quite be bothered to go back and read it, it’s quite simple: the food, the baths, and a little something the Japanese call omotenashi (which is kind of like hospitality, but BETTER).

Now, to celebrate fifteen years of InsideJapan, we would like to introduce you to our fifteen favourite ryokan inns in all of Japan (and let me tell you, we’ve visited a few in our time). These are the places we’ve revisited time and time again over the past fifteen years – whether it’s for the divine baked oysters at dinner, stunning onsen overlooking the sea, the beautifully decorated guest rooms or just for the wonderful welcome we always receive.

Although some of the ryokan on this list are super-deluxe, super-exclusive, and super-out-of-the-price-range-of-your-average-Joe; many of them are not, and here you’ll find establishments to cater for every price range.

To demystify a bit of travel jargon before we begin – Japan’s hotels and inns do not operate using a “star” rating system, so we have sorted these ryokan into four categories: Budget, Moderate, Superior and Deluxe – Budget being (obviously) the least pricey, and Deluxe being the most.

And so, without further ado, here are the pick of the bunch – in no particular order:

Yamaichi Bekkan, Miyajima Island (Moderate)

InsideJapan's Harry and James with Yamaichi Bekkan's perennially lovely proprietress

InsideJapan’s Harry and James with Yamaichi Bekkan’s perennially lovely proprietress

Where better to begin than with one of our best and longest-loved establishments, the Yamaichi Bekkan on Miyajima Island? Located in an unassuming building looking out over the port, the Yamaichi is a small, family-run establishment with simple, comfortable rooms. You may not be paying top dollar for a swanky suite and private onsen, but you will be treated like royalty by the ryokan’s eternally lovely proprietress (pictured). Not to mention you’ll get to try some of the most delicious food imaginable. You know those oysters I keep mentioning? The ones I still dream about sometimes? You’ll find those here.

 Ichinoyu Honkan, Hakone (Moderate)

Exterior of the Ichinoyu Honkan

Exterior of the Ichinoyu Honkan

Another great value ryokan, the Ichinoyu Honkan is located in the beautiful Hakone National Park – AKA Mount Fuji’s back yard – and has been welcoming guests for nearly 400 years. The original inn was opened in 1630 and essentially pioneered the hot spring industry of Hakone – now one of the most popular onsen getaways in Japan. It even appears in ukiyo-e prints by the famous artist Ando Hiroshige! We recommend the Ichinoyu for its bar facilities (unusual for a ryokan) and excellent hot spring baths, which can be reserved for private use if you’re feeling a bit shy.

Koemon, Shirakawago (Budget)

Exterior of the Koemon

Exterior of the Koemon

The Koemon in Shirakawago may be a low-cost accommodation option, but that certainly doesn’t mean that you’re losing out. In fact, staying at the Koemon is such a great experience that we recommend it to many of our top-level customers too. Here you have the chance to experience life in one of the traditional farmhouses – known as gassho-zukuri (“praying hands”) for the steep pitch of their thatched roofs – that have made the alpine village of Shirakawago famous, and earned the area its World Heritage status.

Do not expect: creature comforts, a place to charge your iPhone, or en suite bathrooms. Do expect: a memorable and authentic experience, a warm welcome and great home-cooked food.

Iwaso, Miyajima Island (Superior)

onsen hot spring bath at the Iwaso ryokan

Onsen hot spring bath at the Iwaso ryokan

Giving the Yamaichi Bekkan a run for its money, the Iwaso is another excellent ryokan in one of our favourite Japan destinations – Miyajima Island. Located in a lovely part of the Momijidani Park – well off the beaten track for most visitors to Miyajima – the Iwaso was the first establishment to open its doors on the island back in 1893. When previous guests have included famous authors, artists, and members of the Imperial family – you know you can expect something pretty special! We especially recommend visiting during autumn, when the surrounding maple trees become a blaze of reds and oranges.

Yumoto Kansuiro, Hakone (Superior)

InsideJapan's Enfys and Matt enjoying tea at the Yumoto Kansuiro on a recent visit

InsideJapan’s Enfys and Matt enjoying tea on a recent visit to the Yumoto Kansuiro

The second of three Hakone ryokan to feature on this list, the Yumoto Kansuiro ryokan is located in the Motoyu district and is one of the region’s most historic establishments – dating all the way back to 1614. Like the Iwaso, the Kansuiro has seen many illustrious guests pass its threshold – from artists and politicians to samurai and sumo wrestlers – and manages to convey a sense of history and authenticity through its carefully maintained antiques, beautiful painted screens and old, wooden buildings.

We especially love the hot spring baths and the delicious seasonal meals, which are served privately in your guest room by kimono-clad attendants.

Ryokan Kurashiki, Kurashiki (Deluxe)

Breakfast at the Ryokan Kurashiki

Breakfast at the Ryokan Kurashiki

In our opinion, the Ryokan Kurashiki is one of the very best accommodations in Japan. Pay a visit here and you really are in for a treat! Nakamura-san, the ryokan’s proprietress, is the most elegant and lovely of hosts (and speaks impeccable English to boot); the ryokan itself is full of character, with each maisonette filled with beautiful antiques; and there is a private indoor hot spring bath that can be booked for private use. In the spring and autumn, there’s nothing better than sitting at dinner with the restaurant’s sliding doors thrown open, looking out over the ryokan’s tastefully lit, beautifully landscaped garden.

What’s more, the ryokan is located right in the centre of Kurashiki’s lovely Bikan canal district; one of my personal favourite places in Japan. We particularly recommend this ryokan to those who prefer not to sleep on the floor, as each maisonette contains comfortable Western-style double beds instead of futon bedding.

Yoshimizu Ryokan, Kyoto (Budget)

A tatami room at the Yoshimizu Ryokan

A tatami room at the Yoshimizu Ryokan

This ryokan is an oasis in the heart of the city of Kyoto, and the perfect place for any traveller on a restricted budget who would like a taste of authentic Japanese accommodation. Located in Maruyama Park, surrounded by maple trees and bamboo groves, it’s just a short walk from this idyllic little inn to the hustle and bustle of the city – making it the perfect combination of peace, quiet and convenience. To keep costs down, dinner is not served at this ryokan – but you will enjoy a delicious, home-cooked breakfast with real handmade bread (a rarity in Japan!) prepared by the establishment’s incredibly lovely proprietor.

Gora Kadan, Hakone (Deluxe)

Covered corridor overlooked by mountains at the Gora Kadan

Covered corridor overlooked by mountains at the Gora Kadan

The third of our three Hakone ryokan favourites, the Gora Kadan is one of the finest deluxe ryokan in Japan – and perhaps one of the most exclusive accommodations in the world. The main building was once the summer residence of the Kaninnomiya Imperial Family (which says it all, really), while the newer wing boasts beautiful tatami rooms with cypress baths, a heated indoor swimming pool, a luxury spa, a Jacuzzi and a restaurant serving food prepared by one of Japan’s top chefs.

No mere words can do it justice really – you just have to go there and experience it for yourself!

Minshuku Daikichi, Tsumago (Moderate)

Minshuku Daikichi

Minshuku Daikichi

A minshuku is a small, family-run, traditional-style bed and breakfast – and they don’t come much better than the Daikichi. Located in the small, former post town of Tsumago in the Kiso Valley – where the streets are packed with preserved wooden buildings and there’s not a concrete slab or electricity pylon in sight – here you can be sure of a warm welcome, a comfortable room and a delicious meal of local cuisine. Keep an eye out for the friend grasshoppers!

Hanafubuki, Izu Peninsula (Superior)

Ornate hot spring baths at the Hanafubuki

Ornate hot spring baths at the Hanafubuki

Set among the trees of a woodland grove on the Izu Peninsula, the Hanafubuki is a luxurious ryokan that is especially noted for its impressive selection of seven different hot spring baths (of varying shapes and sizes) and its lovely location in the Japanese countryside. Here you’ll feel light years away from the manic buzz of Tokyo, even though it’s really just a short journey away! Dinner is served in your choice of three different dining rooms, each beautifully decorated and looking out over the lantern-lit trees and pathways surrounding the ryokan. We highly recommend joining the ryokan manager in the morning for a complimentary guided walk along the lovely nearby coastal path!

Lamp no Yado, Noto Peninsula (Superior)

A hot spring bath overlooking the ocean at Lamp no Yado

A hot spring bath overlooking the ocean at Lamp no Yado

Lamp no Yado is a very special, luxury ryokan located on the isolated Noto Peninsula, about 150km by car from the city of Kanazawa. The ryokan is located right on the coast, with an amazing infinity pool looking out across the ocean and private open-air onsen baths attached to each luxurious guest room. As you’d expect, you’ll also find delicious kaiseki cuisine, polished-wood hallways and lovely tatami rooms – with friendly, helpful service. This is the perfect place to relax and get away from it all in a beautiful, traditional setting.

 Jiji no Ie, Boso Peninsula (Superior)

A beautiful sunlit room at Jiji no Ie

A beautiful sunlit room at Jiji no Ie

Jiji no Ie is a very unusual ryokan. Run by the well-known essayist and macrobiotic cooking teacher Deco Nakajima and her husband, writer and photographer Everett Kennedy Brown (with whom InsideJapan has the pleasure of working on specialist photography tours); Jiji no Ie gives both domestic and international guests the chance to unplug, slow down and reconnect with the simple life.

Along with a team of craftsmen, architects and gardeners, Deco and Everett built this ryokan from scratch using local timber, earth, bamboo and straw, with a beautiful onsen bath made from Aomori hiba wood and a garden designed by award-winning classical gardener Yosuke Yamaguchi. Breakfast and dinner are also a real treat, featuring Deco’s fantastic macrobiotic cooking – using only seasonal ingredients and local seafood.

We recommend staying at Jiji no Ie as an alternative to Tokyo at the beginning or the end of your trip, as a beautiful and peaceful introduction (or farewell) to Japan.

Nishimuraya Ryokan, Kinosaki Onsen (Deluxe)

Traditional room at the Nishimuraya Ryokan

Traditional room at the Nishimuraya Ryokan

This stunning, deluxe ryokan located at the heart of the Kinosaki Onsen hot spring area first opened its doors to visitors more than 100 years ago and is guaranteed to be a real treat. The wooden buildings here were partially designed by the famous architect Masaya Hirata, each room with its own personal flourish, set in the middle of a beautiful landscape garden. There are (of course) a range of wonderful onsen hot spring baths in which to relax and enjoy your peaceful surroundings, and a delicious kaiseki meal promises to provide the piece de resistance to a wonderful experience.

Kifu no Sato, Yunogo Onsen (Superior)

Ikebana flower arrangement at the Kifu no Sato

Ikebana flower arrangement at the Kifu no Sato

Located in a modern building in the small town of Yunogo in rural Okayama Prefecture, Kifu no Sato is a lovely Japanese-style ryokan, boasting a wonderful landscaped garden at its centre and tatami matting throughout. Kifu no Sato is particularly noted for its ikebana flower arrangements (of which there are a staggering 65 throughout the hotel) and its onsen baths, which are truly superb and comprise several different types of bath (including some private rotenburo outdoor baths) and a “hot stone” sauna. The ryokan also has an exceptional commitment to reinvigorating the local environment and businesses, to which end almost all its furniture and decorative displays represent the work of local craftspeople. Finally, to complete this list of accomplishments, the elaborate seasonal kaiseki menus served in the restaurants are nothing short of outstanding – as I can personally attest!

Jinpyokaku, Yudanaka Onsen (Superior)

Guest suite at the Jinpyokaku

Guest suite at the Jinpyokaku

The final ryokan on our list is the wonderful Jinpyokaku, located in the small hot spring town of Yudanaka in Nagano Prefecture (best-known for its simian residents, the onsen-bathing snow monkeys). With luxurious, spacious rooms; heated kotatsu tables to keep your feet warm as you sip your green tea; and (very unusually) a large open-air hot spring bath that is not segregated by sex (don’t worry, there are separate baths for men and women for those who want them!) – this ryokan is so nice that you’ll never want to leave.

This is merely a selection of our favourite traditional ryokan covering various grades. The one thing that links these ryokan together is great food and wonderful service. If you are thinking of heading to Japan, we would certainly recommend staying at any of the above to experience a slice of Japanese culture and hospitality at its best….and if there isn’t any room for you at the inn, we know many other fantastic places (better than Trip Advisor!).

Why you haven’t been to Japan until you’ve stayed in a ryokan

Traditional Japan

You only need to spend a few minutes reading through our website or talking to one of our staff members before you’ll begin to hear the word ryokan being bandied about. But what does it mean?

Essentially, a ryokan is a traditional-style Japanese inn – and you haven’t been to Japan until you’ve stayed in one. Trust us.

Ryokan gardens

What should you expect?

Ryokan come in many different shapes and sizes, from the very low-budget to the super-exclusive, but they all share a set of similar features. Guest rooms are always be carpeted with tatami: a traditional Japanese flooring made with rice straw and woven soft rush straw, and will usually also have sliding shoji screens made from translucent rice paper and a lattice of wood or bamboo. During the day there may be a low table and some floor cushions laid out with tea-making equipment, until the evening when (usually while you are at dinner) an attendant will come to lay out your futon bedding on the mats.

ryokan room

A feature of ryokan that visitors are sometimes surprised – and even disappointed -about is the spareness of the rooms, even in very high-end establishments. Decoration very often consists of little more than an ikebana flower arrangement or one or two judiciously chosen ornaments, and there will be precious little furniture besides a table and perhaps a couple of floor cushions. Though this may seem bare to Western tastes, this style reflects the traditional Japanese aesthetic principles of subtlety and simplicity – and a lack of opulence should certainly not be taken as a sign that the ryokan you are staying in is somehow sub-par.

Japanese room, Kifu no Sato

There’s nothing in my room?! What on earth am I paying for?

For Japanese visitors, the quality of a ryokan is not judged by what can be packed into the guest rooms, but by the quality of the included meals; the communal onsen baths; and the hospitality of their hosts.

Meals

For most Westerners, the idea of “included meals” conjures toe-curling images of all-inclusive, Butlins-style buffet dinners and forcing down oxtail soup while the woman next to you stuffs bread rolls into her handbag (or maybe that’s just me). But in Japan this couldn’t be further from the case.

Dinner at a Japanese ryokan is a real treat, and if you’re anything like me you may find that they’ll be one of the highlights of your holiday. Meals are typically served in kaiseki style, which means lots of courses consisting of lots of small dishes, each beautifully presented and carefully prepared using local, seasonal produce. Even a year after my family’s holiday to Japan last February, my parents’ eyes still glaze over slightly when they think about the delicious oysters we were served at the Yamaichi ryokan in Miyajima!

Ryokan feast

Baths

Communal bathing is another phrase that tends to send unpleasant shudders down the spine of most Western travellers. Naked? With strangers? No thank you very much.

Kinosaki Onsen baths

Everyone at InsideJapan felt the same way the first time we tried an onsen (a communal bath supplied by natural hot spring water), but there isn’t a single one among us who wouldn’t strongly advise you to take the plunge! Onsen-bathing is an integral part of Japanese culture, and there is even a term for the bond of friendship formed in an onsen: hadaka no tsukiai, or “naked communion”. You will undoubtedly feel awkward at first, but it’s such an ordinary part of life in Japan that you’ll find that you soon relax.

Suite Leopard Lily, Kifu no Sato

Every ryokan will have communal baths (one for men and one for women – mixed bathing is rare), and there will usually be both indoor and outdoor (rotenburo) baths. The better the ryokan, the larger and more lovely the baths – and you may even find that there are a variety of different styles of bath, as well as saunas, sand baths and even spa treatments in the very high-grade ryokans.

And if you can’t pluck up the courage to bare all in an onsen, you don’t have to miss out! Many ryokan guest rooms boast private onsen baths, or have a public bath that may be booked for private use.

Hot spring baths

Your hosts

The final (and perhaps most important) arbiters of ryokan quality are your hosts. Nobody takes hospitality and good service (called omotenashi) as seriously as the Japanese. At a good ryokan you will be received in flawless courtesy and be treated like royalty for the duration of your stay, as your hosts pull out all the stops to ensure that your needs are met.

And that’s why you haven’t been to Japan until you’ve stayed at a ryokan!

Ryokan staff

Here’s TwoToTokyo and their MTV Cribs style, introduction to a ryokan stay when they stayed at the Tanabe in Takayama.

 

 

Some tips to remember during your ryokan stay:

– Always remove footwear of any kind before walking on tatami – on pain of death. (not really, but your hosts will not be pleased if you forget this one!).

– You will notice that there is usually a raised floor in the ‘genkan’ entrance to a ryokan. You should slip out of your shoes and straight onto the raised floor. Leave your shoes neatly side-by-side and step into some slippers to walk through the ryokan.

– Japanese breakfast food is often what might be thought of as “dinner food” in the West, so if the idea of being served fish and rice in the morning isn’t your cup of tea – don’t forget to ask for the Western-style optionif they have one or they might be able to do something for you if you tell them in advance. It is polite to at least turn up for your breakfast.

– You may also hear the word minshuku in reference to traditional Japanese accommodation. A minshuku is similar to a ryokan in that the rooms will be traditional in style, but it will generally be smaller and simpler than a ryokan, probably family-run, with just a handful of rooms. In other words, it could be called a sort of Japanese-style B&B.

– There are lots of rules to remember when using an onsen, but the most important is that you are expected to wash yourself thoroughly before bathing, to keep the water clean. For this purpose there are shower heads positioned next to the baths, with a stool to sit on while you wash. Be sure to get rid of all the soap before you get in!

Washing area

Enjoy the ambience of your traditional ryokan. This is a truly Japanese experience that you will not be able to have anywhere else in the world and why we recommend staying in a ryokan for at least one night on your Japanese adventure.

Our top 10 tips for travel in Japan

Between them, our staff have well over a century’s experience living and working in Japan, and have travelled every inch of this wonderful country – from the snowswept plains of northern Hokkaido to remote Yonaguni Island in the far southwest.

As you might expect, our band of intrepid explorers have picked up all kinds of invaluable hints, tips and advice along the way. From getting hopelessly lost in the backstreets of Tokyo to making all kinds of cultural faux pas – we’ve made all the mistakes there are to make in Japan and lived to tell the tale. It’d be a shame not to pass on our insider knowledge so that you don’t have to do the same!

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After surveying all 64 current members of the InsideJapan staff and plumbing the depths of their Japan knowledge, I came up with this list of top tips and recommendations to help you get the most out of your Japan holiday:

  1. Keep an open mind and an open schedule

When speaking to the InsideJapan team, this piece of advice came up more than any other tip.

Whilst it’s definitely useful to do your research and have an itinerary planned before you travel (see point eight), don’t get so caught up in your plans that you don’t have a chance to enjoy the unexpected things that make travelling in Japan so exciting. Japan is a country where even the most mundane tasks (going to the loo, getting a drink from a vending machine) can be exciting to the uninitiated – and everyone on our team will agree that the most fascinating and memorable moments from their time in Japan could never have been planned.

With this in mind, don’t be afraid of having ‘gaps’ or ‘empty spaces’ in your holiday plans. Take it slowly and throw yourself into every new situation and you’ll find that this is when you have the chance encounters and experiences that you’ll always remember.

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  1. Forget about the ‘language barrier’ 

Learn a few words in Japanese. Now, we’re not suggesting that you become an expert in the language – in fact, you don’t even need to learn a complete sentence. Simply learning the words for ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’ and ‘thank you’ will really go a long way. The Japanese are generally so impressed and pleased that you have made any effort at all to master their language that you don’t need any more!

On a similar note, don’t be put off travelling to Japan because of the perceived ‘language barrier’. Though you may well find that not that many Japanese people can speak English – that doesn’t mean that people won’t go a thousand miles out of their way to help you, even if it is through gestures and pointing.

Good advice when trying to communicate with someone who doesn’t speak much English is to speak in short sentences (or even one-word sentences). “Ginza”, for example, is much more likely to get you to where you want to be than “excuse me kind sir, but could I trouble you to direct me to Ginza subway station, if you’d be so very kind?” – not that you’d say that, but you know what I mean.

Oh – and talk to people, even if they don’t speak good English. Don’t be shy. Anyone on the InsideJapan team will tell you that you don’t need a common language to make a friend!

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  1. Don’t worry about ‘doing the wrong thing’

Japan has become famous as a place of obscure cultural rules and impenetrable social codes – so much so that some travellers are put off visiting for fear that they will accidentally make a boob of themselves by trampling insensitively over the cherished customs of their hosts.

It’s true that Japan’s etiquette can be somewhat confusing – and you are almost inevitably going to ‘do the wrong thing’ at some point – but the key thing to remember is this: no-one cares. Nobody is going to be offended if you forget to take off your shoes in the right place, or if you’re not aware of the intricacies of chopstick etiquette. As a foreigner, you’re not expected to know everything (and actually, some Japanese people will be surprised that you know anything). As long as you’re not being deliberately culturally insensitive, you’ll be fine.

As a rule, the Japanese take great pleasure in teaching others about their culture, so in making a faux pas you could even be making a new friend.

 

  1. Have an onsen experience 

We asked all our staff what they loved most about living in Japan, and we got some interesting answers. Possibly the most popular response (after the delicious cuisine, which took the top spot without a fight) was onsen culture.

Onsen are Japanese hot spring baths, and thanks to the high level of volcanic activity in Japan they can be found up and down the country. From steamy baths in the snow in Hokkaido and the Japanese Alps to rustic onsen villages deep in the forest; from onsen on the beach to time-honoured bathhouses like Matsuyama’s Dogo Onsen – hot spring bathing is an integral (and extremely enjoyable) aspect of Japanese culture that should not be missed.

What’s not to love about a hot bath? Well, there is one catch: you have to do it in your birthday suit. In front of complete strangers. This is the part that puts most people off – and quite understandably. But if there’s anything InsideJapan staff could say to prospective onsen-goers it’s this: just do it! It’s only strange to start with – before long you’ll have forgotten your reservations and will wonder why you ever hesitated.

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  1. Stay at a ryokan inn

Like bathing in an onsen, staying at a traditional ryokan inn is one of those intrinsically Japanese experiences that no visitor to the country should miss out on. Japan is famous for its hospitality, and at a ryokan you really experience this at its best.

Sleep on comfortable futon laid out by a kimono-wearing attendant on a tatami mat floor, look out over exquisite Japanese gardens, tiptoe through shoji sliding paper doors on geta sandals, wrap yourself in a traditional yukata bathrobe to visit the in-house onsen baths, and sample delicious regional food at breakfast and dinner.

You simply haven’t been to Japan until you’ve stayed at a ryokan – trust us. You won’t regret it.

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  1. Get off the beaten track

It’s one of those hackneyed travel phrases that you’ll find lurking in every Lonely Planet guide and travel blog, used to describe every broken-down shack and one-horse town across the globe. And yet – loath as we are to peddle clichés – it is only by ‘getting off the beaten track’ that you can really get a rounded impression of Japan.

The big cities and famous sights are ‘on the beaten track’ for a reason. They’re the iconic views, the celebrated historical monuments and the locations that you’ve always dreamed of visiting. But it is by heading away from these destinations – into the countryside, the mountains, and the remote islands – that you’ll discover a side of Japan you never expected.

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Here’s a nice little video from one of our customers who spent a couple of weeks in Japan seeing some incredible places and meeting wonderful people in some of the more famous places and the lesser known places….a good taste of Japan.

  1. Visit an izakaya

One of the pieces of advice that cropped up time and time again in conversation with the InsideJapan team was to visit an izakaya. It’s hard to explain just what an izakaya is if you’ve never been to one, but they are most often described as the Japanese version of a British pub – a description that doesn’t quite do them justice.

Izakaya are where the Japanese go to eat, drink and be merry. They range from the cheap and cheerful (every dish 240 yen/£1.30) to the super-duper top-end cuisine, but what they all have in common is that they serve a wide range of small, tapas-style dishes to be shared amongst your group, and plenty of beer and sake.

It can be daunting to walk into an izakaya straight off the street – especially if it’s a tiny local establishment with no English menu or English-speaking staff – but if you’re brave enough, this is the best way to get chatting to the locals and try some delicious regional foods.

But don’t worry – if you’re too chicken to go it alone, InsideJapan can arrange an izakaya experience where one of our tour leaders can show you the ropes.

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  1. Do your research 

In our experience, the more you know about Japan the more it will intrigue you. Before you travel, have a look into the history of the areas you’re planning to visit and find out a bit about the culture – both contemporary and traditional. Doing things like watching a sumo match, meeting a geisha, visiting a Zen temple or exploring a shogun’s mausoleum will be that much more fascinating if you know a little about the background.

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  1. Hire a bike. Or a car. Or a motorbike.

We have nothing but excellent things to say about the clean, efficient, convenient and downright wonderful public transport system in Japan. There’s nothing quite like taking a ride on the bullet train, or navigating by the Tokyo subway.

But if you want to see a bit more and really get out of the main tourist traps, sometimes it’s best to go under your own steam. Hiring a bicycle will really allow you to explore bits of Japanese cities and countryside that you’d never have discovered otherwise, whilst renting a car or a motorbike will allow you to be even more adventurous and really get out into the unknown.

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10.  Bring plenty of cash (but not because Japan is expensive!)

Surprising as it may seem for a country that is world-famous for being technologically advanced, Japan is still very much a cash-based society and many places will still not accept plastic. It can even be difficult to withdraw cash from an ATM at the weekend or after 5pm – so instead of wasting time exchanging travellers’ cheques or hunting for a cash machine that accepts foreign cards, be sure to bring plenty of yen! Japan has one of the lowest crime rates in the world, so there’s no need to fret about having pockets bulging with cash either.

And while we’re on the subject of money, don’t be put off visiting Japan because of its reputation for being expensive. It’s not the cheapest country in the world, but Japan is certainly not as a dear as most people think. Food, for example, is very cheap and extremely good quality – you can easily have an excellent meal for no more than 1,000 yen (about £5.50). Subway travel is also reasonable (the most you’ll pay for any journey on the Tokyo underground is a couple of quid), and capsule hotels offer a night’s sleep for less than 4,000 yen (about £20). Whatever anyone else tells you, it is possible to do Japan on a shoestring.

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These are only our top ten tips – between them the InsideJapan staff came up with many more – enough to flesh out a follow-up post, in fact! Watch this space…

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