The wife and I just came back from a trip to Japan. I can hear you all saying, “AGAIN?”
I don’t blame you. Last year alone, I think I was there almost every other month. I enjoy visiting Japan too much and never tire of returning.
This time, it was a special trip because we have not traveled together since 2012. And the wife has not been to Japan since 2010. Most of our trips together have been with the family and I thought it was time for some We Time. Also, it is to celebrate twenty years of marriage.
There is a contest at the end of this post where you can win a free trip to Japan! Link: Japan Dreaming Contest
I took charge of the trip and planned it all myself. I normally travel solo, but including the wife this time was not very different. I just had to make sure the itinerary did not include too long a train journey. When I travel solo, I tend to take these long and ridiculous train and ship journeys which I enjoy. But for the wife, I thought I would slow the pace down a little. But my itineary applies to solo travelers too. In fact, if I did the journey myself, this would probably be my path.
I bought us a JR East Tohoku Area Pass, which only costs ¥19,000 (about SGD240) if you buy it in Singapore or ¥20,000 if you buy it in Japan itself. The pass allows you to have unlimited travel on JR Shinkansen and limited express trains, within the Kanto and Tohoku regions, for any five days of your choice within a 14-day period.
Here is what that means. You can use the JR East Tohoku Area Pass for unlimited JR train travel within the region specified for five full days, but the days don’t have to be consecutive. This is unlike a 7-Day JR Pass, where you have seven consecutive days of unlimited travel but throughout Japan.
This means we could use one day to travel long distances, then stay in one city or town for two to three days, then use it again to travel to the next place, up to five times in total within the 14-day period.
It is very good for solo travel or couple travel, especially if you plan your destinations in advance.
Where did we go in our 9 days there? We started by heading straight to Karuizawa when we landed in Tokyo. That is one day of the JR East Tohoku Area Pass used. We spent two nights in Karuizawa, skiing and shopping at the outlet mall, and visiting the sights like Kumoba-ike or Swan Lake Pond.
Then we departed Karuizawa and headed for Nikko. The second day of five-day pass used. We stayed two nights in Nikko too, choosing to visit Chuzenji Lake and Kegon Falls by bus, and then the UNESCO shrines and temples. We tried to go to the Akechidaira Ropeway too, but it was closed due to high winds. Ah well, it was still a nice little visit there and the view from the ropeway station was also lovely.
People tend to make Nikko a day trip from Tokyo but I find it a bit rushed. Spending two to three days just exploring the area is way more pleasant.
Nikko, we used Day 3 of our five-day pass to head to Yamagata Station. Instead of checking into our hotel near Yamagata Station, we went all the way to Oishida Station. It is about four stops from Yamagata Station. Since this is part of our day of unlimited travel, we wanted to maximise our passes. We went to Oishida Station because I wanted to show the wife Ginzan Onsen. It is a lovely little onsen town where the tv drama Oshin was shot. The town used to be a silver mine area, but it is now a very pretty hot spring town in the mountains of Yamagata. In winter, the snow-covered old buildings make you feel like you have gone back in time.
We caught the bus from Ginzan Onsen back to Oishida Station and then back to Yamagata Station by evening. This was one of the longest journeys of our trip: Nikko to Oishida, then Ginzan Onsen by bus, then back from Ginzan Onsen by bus, then Oishida to Yamagata. All in one day. We really made the pass worthwhile.
While in Yamagata, we also spent a full day in Mount Zao, the famous ski and onsen mountain resort. We bought a special pass that covered the bus ride to Mount Zao from Yamagata Station, and the return journey on the ropeway. If the weather is not too snowy, you can see the famous “Snow Monsters” on the slopes. And if you like, you can also ski there. We just enjoyed the scenery this time, since we already skied in Karuizawa.
We did not use the JR East Tohoku Area Pass for our day at Mount Zao. There was no need to.
We departed Yamagata for Sendai with the fourth day of our five-day pass. Again, we did not check into our Sendai hotel first but used our pass to head for Geibikei in Iwate. About a kilometre from Geibikei Station is Geibi Gorge, where you can take a 90-minute boat ride on the waters. The boatman (or boat-woman) even sings folk songs, and you can order a meal to dine onboard during certain seasons.
The Gorge is beautiful in autumn, with the red and orange foliage. But I am also very partial to the winter season, when the trees and ground are covered in snow.
After Geibikei, we only had two days left of our trip. I was saving the last day of our five-day pass to return to Tokyo on the last day from Sendai. So we spend the second-last day of our trip visiting Shiogama Seafood Wholesale Market. We just took a short train ride (using the SUICA, their stored-value card like our ez-link or FlashPay card) to Higashi Shiogama Station from Sendai, and walked about 15 minutes. In the winter, there are way less people visiting, so we thought the market was closed. But it was humming with customers.
You can shop for fresh fish and seafood to cook back home or, in our case, just buy all the sashimi we like from the fishmongers, then go to the dining corner to order a ¥300 set of rice and miso soup. DIY Sashimi Donburi! A meal like that would cost you way more in Tokyo, so I think it is totally worth visiting port where they have one of the largest fresh tuna catches in Japan.
After a hearty meal at Shiogama Seafood Wholesale Market, we took another short train ride to spend the rest of our day at Matsushima Bay. We took a cruise around the bay and also walked to Fukuura Island, which is connected to the mainland by a 252-metre-long bridge.
Our last day in Japan came too soon. We set off from Sendai early so that we could do some shopping in Akihabara, mostly for our kids. And my wife got addicted to gachapon, the machines where you put coins into, and turn the knob for some cute little collectible. The wife wanted to collect the cup-clinging office lady figurine called Koppu no Fuchiko. I ended up changing my notes for many many ¥100 coins to fuel the wife’s gachapon needs.
Our JR East Tohoku Area Pass covered our final day journey from Sendai to Tokyo, and also from Tokyo to Narita airport. So you see, with a little planning, you can really see Japan for quite a reasonable sum of money. And enjoy seeing the views from the Shinkansen and regular trains as they travel through the snow-covered countryside.
Whether you try my itinerary as a solo traveler or as a couple, I think you will enjoy it as much as we did. If you are interested, I have created a simple itinerary at the JAPAN by Japan site.
There is a Japan Dreaming contest going on at JAPAN by Japan, a site where Japanese locals share their favourite attractions. To win a pair of return tickets and three Canon cameras. Simply sign up and create a travel wish list, also known as a Wanderlist, Add five attractions to your Wanderlist and share it on your Facebook for a chance to win.
Quickly go and submit your entries to win! Gambatte!
Contest details are here: https://japanbyjapan.com/contest?cid=soc_blog_japan-dreaming_14022017_mr-brown
It is very simple:
1, Go to contest page and click on 'Create button'
2. Sign up as a member (free) if not already one.
3. Create wanderlist by clicking on 'Create' button on contest page.
4. Add 5 attractions to Wanderlist.
5. Submit and share.
May you win the contest and visit one of my favorite countries in the world!