Hi, I'm Jonas Obrist, from Switzerland and currently working as a Software Engineer at HDE. I had quite some trouble to decide the topic for this blog post, going back and forth between technical and non-technical issues, but finally I erred on the non-technical side and will talk about one of my favorite things to do: traveling. More specifically, traveling in Japan when you're no longer a tourist and therefore no longer have access to the fantastic Japan Rail Pass.
I initially wanted to write this post as an entry in my personal blog (which only has two posts so I won't even link it) two years ago, but that never happened, so I will use this opportunity to finally do it. In spring of 2014, I was studying at a Japanese Language School in Tokyo and as spring vacation was coming up, my Wanderlust kicked in. However being a student meant two things: as a student visa holder I could not get a Japan Rail Pass and I had more free time than spare money. This ruled out hopping on a Shinkansen and just dashing up and down the country as I had done in my previous travels in Japan. Luckily, one of my teachers brought the Seishun 18 ticket to my attention. Basically how it works is this: For a very reasonable price (currently 11'850 yen, or roughly the price of a one-way Shinkansen ticket from Tokyo to Nagoya) you get five one-day tickets for the whole Japan Railways network. The tickets don't have to be used on consecutive days and they don't even have to be used by the same person, however they're only available during specific time periods.
Obviously there's a catch with this ticket, namely that you can only use local trains. No Shinkansen, no Limited Express, no Express trains.
Ignoring this limitation, I set myself an ambitious goal: Kanazawa. Located about 300 kilometers west of Tokyo near the Sea of Japan, it only takes two and a half hours to reach these days thanks to the newly opened Hokuriku Shinkansen. However, back in 2014 there was no such service and due to the limitations of my ticket, I couldn't have used it anyway. So instead, I split the journey over 4 days, taking 18 trains across 12 prefectures to visit 3 cities.
While this will be a post about my travels, I am afraid there will only be a few images, as I am unfortunately notoriously bad at taking enough pictures.
This epic journey starts in Tokyo Station at noon with the goal of reaching Nagoya by night. Heading south on a local train bound for Atami I finally learned to appreciate the ridiculous scale of the Tokyo Metropolitan Area. I've of course seen its size on maps, from atop skyscrapers and airplane windows, and crossed it on board high speed trains multiple times, but it is really hard to truly grasp how big it really is. A two hour, slow train ride is a great way to both get a sense of distance and be thankful for the many engineers that make it possible to do the same thing in just over half an hour on board a Shinkansen.
I had to change trains again in Shizuoka, Hamamatsu and Toyohashi before finally reaching my goal for the day, Nagoya Station, shortly before 7pm.
Before I continue, a quick interlude about how I usually travel. I prefer to travel with as little planning as possible, setting a rough route and schedule and then play it by ear. That means that I usually do not book hotels in advance, as I might end up in a completely different city than I initially planned. This works really well, since I have few demands on a hotel beyond cleanliness and allows me to spend more time in places I like and head on if a destination ends up being less exciting than I thought or the weather is bad. The exception to this is when I travel during peak season, such as national holidays. This trip being during language school holidays, which are independent of the holidays of ordinary Japanese, I made no reservations for anything.
As it turns out my spontaneity would betray me in this instance, as I was now standing in front of Nagoya station desperately trying to find a hotel with free rooms. For reasons I never quite figured out, Nagoya was particularly popular that night. I even considered hopping on yet another train and head further south to maybe find a place to stay in another town, however the long day had tired me so I settled for a fancy and expensive (one night here cost as all the other nights on this trip combined) western style hotel near Nagoya Castle. Since I took the cheapest room they had, of course I did not get to see the castle and the nasty rain that was pouring down drowned any desire I had to head over there to have a look.
Though it really is nobodies fault but mine, this whole experience tarnished my image of Nagoya so badly that I did not return until earlier this year when I did another epic journey across Japan, that time without any of these problems and if anyone from Nagoya is reading this, don't worry, I love the place now!
Due to the less than warm welcome I felt like I got the night prior, I decided to simply venture forth on the second day instead of exploring the automotive heart of Japan.
So after a late breakfast/early lunch, I headed back to the station, this time with the goal of reaching Kanazawa. The trip was rather uneventful for the first three legs, changing trains at Ogaki, Maibara before reaching Omi-Shiotsu at the northern tip of Lake Biwa. Here, what should have been a quick change of trains turned into over an hour of waiting and wondering if or when my train would show up. There should have been a train every 30 minutes going the right direction, but for reasons unknown to me, none of the trains rushing through had pity on us standing there on the platform braving the strong winds that blew from the lake that day. Bored, I decided to have a look around, but as it turns out, the station, while lovely, really has nothing to offer in its vicinity but a vending machine. I got so bored, I even took a picture of the station:
Alas, eventually a train showed up and actually stopped, allowing us weary travelers to continue westwards to Tsuruga. Now finally on the west coast of Japan, while slowly passing the picturesque landscape, I started to worry if I can actually make it all the way to my goal of the day. Any more delays and I would need to stop early or arrive late at night. I decided to press on, and see how far I could make it.
Luckily, after another change of trains in Fukui, no more terrible things happened, and while I got increasingly hungry and tired as we were creeping north at what felt like a snails pace, I finally did reach the actual destination of this whole trip: Kanazawa. Being as far off the beaten track as it could be back then, unlike the previous night, I had no trouble finding an affordable Japanese hotel (with an Onsen!) and the weather was much nicer. Overall a very nice first impression and a welcome calm after the long and troublesome day. Two days into my vacation, I was finally feeling like I'm actually on vacation, especially after dinner at a small restaurant, soaking in the hotels onsen and drinking a cold beer.
While Kanazawa is known as the Seattle of Japan, referring to the high number of rainy days, I woke up to a beautiful blue sky. After a quick bite near Omicho Market, I headed to the famous Nagamachi Samurai District, a small area smack in the center of Kanazawa with small streets lined by old houses, which make you feel like you stepped out of a time machine so long as you can ignore all the other tourists with their smartphones and cameras.
Next on the list was Kenroku-en, one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan. Located next to the ruins of Kanazawa Castle, the garden more than lived up to its hype, and my pictures do not do it justice.
Having spent all day walking around town, as day turned to dusk, I felt like I deserved a cold beer and headed towards what the internet told me was the nightlife area of Kanazawa to find a bar. To my disappointment, the "Scramble" in Katamachi had an endless choice of Hostess Bars and similar establishments, reminding me of Tokyo's Kabukicho, but a sever lack of watering holes for the thirsty traveller. I eventually did find a lovely place, though a bit on the posh side for my preferences, and I couldn't have picked a better spot, as I sat down at the counter next to an elderly man who for the rest of the night made it his mission to show me an incredible night. First treating me to some Yakitori for dinner, he continued to show me around, refusing to end the whirlwind tour of late-night Kanazawa until late into the night.
Kanazawa being a fairly small town, I decided that one day is enough so in the late afternoon I continued onwards via Naoetsu to Nagano. The by far easiest trip on this journey, with only one connecting train, was nicely complemented by the fantastic views in this part of Japan. The rural coast of the Sea of Japan followed by the slow climb up towards the host city of the '98 winter olympics almost made me wish that the train would run even slower.
The day having been so relaxing and calm, I put off sightseeing until the next day and simply wandered around Nagano until I got too tired.
The day starts off with light rain, making me worried I'd have another Nagoya style disappointment. Luckily the weather the weather eventually sided with Nagano and spared me another let down. On my way to Zenko-ji, built in the 7th century and the reason the city of Nagano exists at all, two Australians seemed to confuse me for a local, asking me for directions to their hotel. To my surprise, I actually knew the directions, as I had passed that hotel the afternoon no the day prior during my aimless stroll around town. Invigorated by my good deed I continued towards the temple along the lovely little boulevard that leads to it. If you didn't have a chance to visit Nagano yet, I do recommend you do, even if it's for Zenko-ji only, as the temple is beautiful and very impressive, with its massive main hall and imposing gate. My picture, as usual, does not do it justice.
Keeping up the fast pace, after just one day in Nagano, I once again headed to the train station to push on. The first section of the day towards Matsumoto turned out to be even better than the trip from Kanazawa up to Nagano. I go to Ueda twice a year for a weekend retreat with some other members of the Python community, but since we obviously take the Shinkansen each time, I always bypassed this beautiful part of Japan, once again showing that sticking to the bullet trains makes you miss out.
While famous for it's Basashi, I couldn't find a good restaurant to try this local delicacy for lunch and had to settle for the equally famed Soba. I will make sure to not miss out next time.
Heading further south after lunch, Japans most famous landmark started appearing in the distance giving me the (wrong) impression of getting close to Tokyo.
Arriving at Kofu at around 4pm, I foolishly believed home to be but a short trip away, so I abandoned the idea to take a rest here and instead decided to finish the trip. Reaching Takao two hours later I started to regret that decision and was once again reminded of the sheer size of Tokyo. But so close to my goal, now was not the time to give up and I endured the two more hours it took to finally make it back to my home station, with a whole extra day on my Seishun 18 ticket left to be used for a day trip in the future.
The Seishun 18 ticket is an excellent option to travel Japan, provided you don't mind the long travel times, slow trains, numerous changes and most importantly, are flexible. I don't think it is for everyone and definitely if you're a tourist, you should get the Japan Rail Pass, which still allows you to take these scenic routes, but allow you to do so on trains ranging from slightly faster to a lot faster. If you aren't and have enough time though, give it a try! You can of course make a more reasonable schedule and go more manageable distances.