Traveling to Southern Japan
Well, I was originally going to write about this trip as one post, but after hitting 2000 words on this one and only being about 5 days into the trip I figured it would be better to split everything along a few posts instead. This will cover our time from Kagoshima up to Himeji. At the end of this (and each of the additional) post I will give some general tips for making the best of a trip over there.
Welcome to Japan
Our trip to Japan started out in Tokyo for one night before we flew to Kagoshima. There are two main airports to fly into if you travel to Tokyo: Narita and Haneda. Narita is the most common destination (and where we landed), but is about 50 miles to the east of Tokyo. If you have the choice between the two I would definitely recommend flying into Haneda; it’s much less congested and is MUCH easier to get into Tokyo.
The Narita airport offers two trains that take you into Tokyo: the Narita Express and the Keisei Skyliner. Most people take the Narita Express (which is what we took) because the Japanese rail pass covers the train ticket (if you end up getting a rail pass that is - I’ll talk more about the pass and these tickets at the end of this post). The Narita airport during high tourism season is rough – the lines to get your tickets for the train (which everyone has to get on since you are 40-50 minutes from Tokyo) were very long. It took about two hours to go through the Japan Rail pass redemption line and finally get on the Narita Express.
After a few train station transfers (and us getting lost and rained on) we got to our hotel, which was a 5 minute shuttle ride from the Tokyo Haneda airport. Due to a mix of lack of sleep, our first day there, and being surprised at how cold it was I managed to miss that we hopped on an express train, which took us WAY past the station we were supposed to get off for our hotel. Once we finally got to the train station for our hotel it started POURING – luckily it wasn’t too far of a walk.
We dropped our things off inside, dried off, and ate at a little diner next door. The hotel (and really all the hotels in Japan we stayed at) was really nice, but the rooms were very small. It’s easy to forget how much space there is in the US until you travel to almost any other country. We consider it so normal to have giant houses, lawns, large hotel rooms. Bigger seems to always be better over here, but after staying in places that were much smaller I kind of loved it… It does gets cramped if you end up having a large group of people traveling together though.
Kagoshima is a city at the southern-most tip of Kyushu (the southern-most island of the 4 main islands that make up Japan). Here’s a handy picture for reference:
To put everything into a little better perspective for anyone that hasn’t be over there here is a neat map someone online put together of Japan compared to the east coast
The flight from Tokyo to Kagoshima was about 2 hours versus an express bullet train (shinkansen) which takes about 8 hours. We didn’t want to waste half of a day taking a train all the way down there, especially since we were taking the shinkansen all the way back up to Tokyo during the next week and a half.
Getting in to Kagoshima
The Kagoshima airport was a 40 minute bus ride to the city train station. From the train station we were able to take a local tram to our hotel. The city is very mountainous and therefore doesn’t have many trains running through it – on top of this the bus system isn’t as great as Kyoto, so getting around requires a little more walking. If you travel to Japan be prepared to walk a lot in general; I don’t think we had a day on the trip where we walked fewer than 10 miles.
My favorite part of Kagoshima was how quaint it was compared to the rest of the cities we visited. We were some of the only tourists down there; it’s not really known as a hot spot for seeing the cherry blossoms, so not many people want to make the flight/train ride down there. The whole day was very slow paced, which was nice after being on a flight for 12 hours.
Kagoshima has an active volcano in the bay right next to the city that you can take a bus up to the base of. The bus stops at a few other fairly uneventful points along the way (like a children’s dinosaur play park), but ends up at this lookout point:
Being the frugal person I am, I didn’t want to take a taxi from the ferry spot (where we saw the volcano) to the park that overlooked the city. Unfortunately (mainly for Haley because she already gets cold easily) it was very windy that evening. That along with it already being colder than we anticipated made for a slightly miserable hike up to the lookout point. We were blown away by the view though – definitely worth hike.
The next morning we took an early shinkansen up towards Hiroshima. It’s crazy how fast and smooth the bullet trains are. For a point of reference, the Amtrak train from Charlotte to New Orleans takes about 17 1⁄2 hours. This is about the same distance as Tokyo to Kagoshima (which is 8 hours). Riding on the bullet trains is one of my favorite parts of traveling to Japan. You get to see such beautiful scenery, and I like that you get a better understanding of what the Japan countryside really looks like:
Since we got an early start we decided to stop in the city of Kitakyushu to see Kokura Castle:
This was the first time we saw a lot of cherry blossoms in bloom up close; we saw a few on the train, but they were only white specs on the forest-covered mountains. The cherry blossoms are even more stunning in person than they are in pictures. It almost looks as if it has snowed all over the country – it is incredibly peaceful and calming to be around them.
Kokura castle was small compared to some of the other castles we saw on the trip, but it was definitely worth seeing. It was also nice because it wasn’t very crowded. Most tourists stick to Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, and Hiroshima, so any stops outside of there will be a completely different experience. The castle staff/receptionists were very nice and I had a fun time joking with them in Japanese. It’s so rewarding being able to (or attempt to, at least) speak to someone in their language; I feel like it builds much more connection than expecting someone to know English.
Later that afternoon we got to Hiroshima. We ended up staying at a hotel right on the water that overlooked Hiroshima bay; it was this stunning new place that had the most incredible atrium area. Unfortunately, it was a 45 minute bus/train ride from the city center (close to the world peace memorial and museum). I booked that hotel because it was close to the water/because we wanted to go to Miyajima (an island across the bay) right when we checked into the hotel.
Travel tip – Hiroshima has a loop of buses that go to most of the destinations you would want to see in the city. The JR pass covers this loop for free, otherwise tickets are between two and five dollars for a ride.
Turns out the boat schedule for the private boat ride (the only option offered from the hotel we stayed at – also about $20 a person) was slightly misleading online, and the last ride of the day was about an hour before we checked in, so we ended up just going the next morning.
My recommendation for Hiroshima would be to stay at a place close to the Shinkansen station. You can still take a train to another spot right next to Miyajima and take a ferry across (which is covered by the JR pass) that runs almost all day/night.
After dropping our stuff off we went to see Hiroshima castle. It was a perfect day to see it!
Here is another shot I took while we were at the castle. Nearly every river in Japan is lined with cherry blossoms on both sides – leading to some seriously incredible photos.
Since we had a night to burn we ended up grabbing food with someone I met online from a travel forum – she was this awesome grad student from Quebec, Canada. We used the Japan Travel subreddit; it’s a great way to meet others while you are abroad.
We decided to get okonomiyaki – a Japanese pancake type of food that usually has fried cabbage with egg and sometimes meat in it. Hiroshima has a special type of okonomiyaki that contains a special barbeque sauce. It was great!
That night we went to Hiroshima Castle, which had a really cool outdoor art exhibit put on by an organization called “Teamlab”. We ended up going to their exhibit in Tokyo later on our trip too – they were both very worth the ticket price/waits to get in. Tickets were about eight dollars for the castle night art exhibit.
Miyajima is a hidden gem. Maybe not THAT hidden, but I feel like it’s definitely not as recommended as many other areas in Japan. We took a private ferry over to the island in the morning (took about 20 minutes) and hung out on the island for the day. The island is mainly know for the giant tori (Japanese style gate) that is in the water in front of the ocean:
There were quite a few tourists around the shine/tori gate on the island, so we decided to explore deeper into the island for a little bit. We hiked up to another shine that was much less crowded and that had an incredible view of the bay.
After, we found this incredible grove of cherry blossom trees that we hung out under for a while. We ended up sitting under the trees for a few hours just enjoying the beautiful day.
Cherry blossom viewing – or “hanami” (literally translates to flower viewing) usually consists of sitting under a cherry blossom tree and experiencing the flowers with your loved ones. It’s a really incredible time to see people appreciating the present moment, and I think it is something we can work on more here in the US.
Hiroshima Peace Memorial
The main reason tourists come to Hiroshima is to see the world peace memorial and museum. The grounds for both of these are right in the middle of the city and are beautiful. The A-bomb dome was the building closest to the center of where the atomic bomb detonated. It has been maintained and is in the same condition as the day the bomb was dropped.
The peace memorial museum is about a block from the dome, and contains lots of history about the bombing of Hiroshima. Going through the museum is quite a heavy experience; there are very graphic artifacts and renditions of victims the day of the bombing. It only costs a few dollars to go in; it is a must see if you are in Hiroshima.
Himeji is a city in between Hiroshima and Osaka. It is know for Himeji Castle, one of the oldest castles that is still standing in Japan.
The castle is only a 10 minute walk from the Shinkansen station, and is well worth the stop in Himeji. We decided to get there very early in the morning because we had been warned the amount of tourists that went there made seeing the castle unbearable otherwise.
We ended up being some of the only people at the castle - it was incredible especially with the blooming flowers. Our friend from Canada did it the day before and said she waited for hours to get in and that the crowd made the experience pretty awful. I would recommend that for most of the attractions in Japan (if you are there during tourist season at least). The sun rises in between 4:45 and 5:15 during summer, so between 6 and 10 you can miss most of the crowds and really enjoy the places you go see.
At the end of the tour of the castle we got to these beautiful gardens:
And finally we ended up at this lookout point!
Fun fact - it’s actually the spot as this picture, which was from the last time I was in Japan in 2017! (Shout out to Keri, Scott, Nick, and Ammon for convincing me to go with them last minute!)
The end of part 1…
Well, I think this is a fairly good break before I start on the next leg of my trip. Stay tuned for my next post, which will probably cover Osaka, Kyoto, and Nara.
Japan Rail Pass
Most people have heard of the Japan Rail Pass, but if you haven’t it’s fairly straightforward.
Foreigners can purchase a voucher for the JR Pass BEFORE (you CANNOT purchase this once you are inside Japan) you visit the country, and then can redeem the voucher at any JR office. You can either get a rail pass for one, two, or three weeks. Prices are listed here.
A few things to make sure you know:
- The JR Pass gives you unlimited train rides for ONLY JR lines - there are other private train companies and this pass does NOT cover those train rides
- You are not allowed to ride on two super express shinkansen lines with the JR pass (Nozomi and Mizuho), so make sure you double check the line name before you get on a train.
- There isn’t one specific company you have to buy the JR voucher from; you buy it from a travel agency that is authorized to sell them like JTB or JRPass
- It takes a few days for the voucher to be sent (unless you pay more to expedite it), so make sure you order it early
- Some trains require a seat reservation (like the Narita Express) - you can make a reservation at any JR Office (no extra cost)
- If you are going during tourist season it really helps to have a seat reservation - they can get really packed
- A week-long JR pass costs ~$260. This may seem like a lot of money, but if you take the Narita express to/from Tokyo and the shinkansen to/from Kyoto you will have already gotten the value of the pass back in free trains.
Train life 101
- Google maps is very accurate/reliable for planning out your trips
- Hyperdia is another great app that allows you to look up the fastest route from one station to another, but you have to know your origin and destination station name, so without much knowledge of the country it can be difficult
- People generally do no talk on local trains (non-shinkansen) unless it is related to navigation - if you need to talk try to keep your voice to a whisper
- You should refrain from eating or drinking anything other than water on a train (unless it’s a shinkansen, then you are welcome to eat and drink - they even have vending machines and an attendant that comes around selling snacks)
- If you miss a train there will probably be another train within a few minutes, so don’t worry about it too much
- Trains stop running a little after midnight until ~5:00. If you are out past then you either need to take a cab or find a karaoke bar that is open. (This isn’t hard in most cities; karaoke bars offer 12:00 to 4:00 AM special rates for this specific purpose)
- Similar to the JR Rail pass, tourists in Japan can purchase discount tickets to anywhere within the country from both Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways). These tickets are at maximum 10,800 yen, so it can save you quite a bit of money if you are flying to a far away island. Read more about the flights here. We used Japan Airlines - it was a very simple process.
- Haneda airport is much more accessible than Narita. If you fly into Narita and you take the train (the Narita Express) you must have a reserved seat. Tickets can be purchased at the airport, and if you have a JR pass you can use that you ride the train for free.
- If you are planning on seeing more of the country than just Tokyo consider flying into Osaka!
Trash and manners
- Japan is incredibly clean but there are not many trash cans… in fact, they’re very hard to find. So - hold on to that trash or put it in a bag until you find a trash can
- It’s rude to stand/walk while eating, so you’ll need to find somewhere to sit and eat if you get something to snack on