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Asia travel

Six great places to visit on a Japan Rail pass this autumn or any time

There’s a lot you can see in two weeks from the comfort of a train seat – and what’s more it’s an efficient, easy, and affordable way to see the country’s four main islands

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 September, 2015, 11:15am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 September, 2015, 11:33am

Hokkaido and the north

In the not so distant past, Japan was crossed by sleeper trains with private compartments, classically appointed observation cars, and opulent dining cars. Those days, sadly, came to an end in September with the end of sleeper services between Tokyo and Sapporo on Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido.

Hokkaido is a different world from the Japan of the south: more sparsely populated and with a more laid-back, frontier sensibility. Known for its breweries, its seafood, dairy, and indigenous Ainu culture, Hokkaido is also the birthplace of ramen – the whole island is a food lover’s dream.

In Hokkaido, Sapporo is a perfect hub with excellent day trips to the historic canal city of Otaru, and depending on the season the ski resort at Niseko or the world-famous lavender fields of Furano.

While you’re there:

Ramen Alley (the birthplace of Hokkaido-style ramen)

3 Chome-8 Minami 5 Jonishi, Chuo Ward, Sapporo, ganso-yokocho.com

Sapporo Beer Hokkaido Brewery – tours start on the hour between 10am and 4pm

542-1 Toiso Eniwa-shi, Hokkaido, sapporoholdings.jp

Kyushu and the far south

The trip south from Hokkaido is the perfect opportunity to take in the beautiful east coast of Honshu – Japan’s main central island. Grab a train to the central eastern city of Kanazawa and enjoy the stunning scenery from your train seat.

Kanazawa is the ideal stop-off on the trip south to Kyushu, Japan’s southernmost island, and well worth a visit in its own right. With its historical samurai districts, world-famous castle, and charming neighbourhoods, Kanazawa is like a manageable small-town version of Kyoto to the west.

From Kanazawa head to Nagasaki, Japan’s most southern major city. Most famous as a target of an American nuclear bomb during the second world war – both the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum and Peace Park are must visits – Nagasaki is also home to a vibrant nightlife and historic districts where Japan’s first foreign merchant communities settled.

While you’re there:

Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum

7-8 Hiranomachi, Nagasaki, Nagasaki, tel: +81 95-844-1231, nagasakipeace.jp

Kenrokuen Garden, Kanazawa 

Tel: +81 76-234-3800, www.pref.ishikawa.jp

Shikoku

Shikoku, the smaller island in Japan’s south west is lesser known than the other islands but is still worth a visit. The capital city of Shikoku and the island’s transport hub is Takamatsu. Takamatsu is a perfectly lovely medium-sized city but has never been a popular tourist destination. It’s best to use it as a base from which to visit nearby attractions such as the castle at Marugame, the modern art island of Naoshima or the famous shrines at Kotohira. Japanese food lovers will also know Shikoku as the birthplace of udon noodles and the island still boasts some of the best udon in the world.

While you’re there:

Benesse Art Site Naoshima

benesse-artsite.jp

Udon Bakaichidai

1-6-7 Tagacho, Takamatsu, tel: +81 87-862-4705

Back to Honshu: Osaka, Kyoto, and Japan’s historical heart

In the spirit of saving the best for last head finally to Osaka, the modern-day commercial capital of the Kansai region. Osaka is one of Japan’s most enjoyable cities with a well-earned reputation for over-indulgence. Osaka gave birth to the concept of kuidaore – literally eating yourself to ruin and people travel from all over Japan to cut loose on Osaka’s world-class bars and restaurants. For the more historically minded, it’s also home to one of Japan’s most impressive castles.

If Osaka is the Kansai’s modern commercial capital, then Kyoto or the “City of Ten Thousand Shrines” is its historic and spiritual heart. Though coming at the end of a long and exhaustive tour by rail most visitors to the Kansai region wish they had weeks to spend exploring Kyoto’s temples, shrines, castles, and historic geisha neighbourhoods. Plan your trip with enough time to take in all of the sites at what is traditionally a much slower pace than Tokyo, just a few hours away by rail.

While you’re there:

Matsuzakagyu Yakiniku M serves some of the best beef on earth

1-1-19 Namba, Chuo-ku, Osaka, tel: +81 6-6211-2917, matsusaka-projects.com

*Ask for Kuniyoshi Okamoto

Kinkaku-ji or The Temple of the Golden Pavilion

1 Kinkakujicho, Kita Ward, Kyoto, tel: +81 75-461-0013, shokoku-ji.jp

Before You Go

First things first. It is best to arrange your Japan Rail Pass,  or JR Pass before arriving in Japan. This pass is like getting a golden set of keys to a whole country. Flash it at any Japanese rail station and gates will automatically swing open for you. Nearly every train from the Japan Rail corporation – most every train in Japan – is yours for the riding for up to three weeks for about HK$4,000. The pass also comes with a very charming and extremely helpful Japan rail guide, which will become your most trusted companion on your journey. In Japan, all roads lead to Tokyo and the international travel hub is the best place to begin your odyssey by rail.

Get your pass and guide at japan-rail-pass.com

Riding Japan’s railways: the basics/good to know

• In terms of ease of use, Japan’s train system is unsurpassed. Just go to any station’s tourist information desk – where English is inevitably spoken – and tell the attendant where you want to go, flash your JR Pass and they will print out a full itinerary for you complete with all of the tickets you need.

• Connections on Japan’s rail system are routinely less than a minute apart but because trains are always on time and distances between tracks are carefully considered you will always make your train, sometimes with only a few seconds to spare.

• The best food you eat on your whole trip may be from a cardboard lunch box you buy in the train station. Welcome to the world of ekiben, bento boxes prepared especially for travellers. Each train station boasts an ekiben store where the region’s culinary specialties are served up in charmingly assembled and easy to carry lunchboxes. The Japan Rail Guide has a helpful list of Japan’s best ekiben, but to be honest, it’s hard to go wrong. After three weeks riding the railways we didn’t have a single lunch box that disappointed.