Whirlwind Japan: a tour of Honshu by rail

Seeing the best of Japan's biggest island, Honshu, round trip from Tokyo, stopping in Kyoto, Hiroshima, Miyajima, Osaka, and Hakone, courtesy of Japan Rail and the JRPass

Whirlwind Japan
Whirlwind Japan
Ah, Japan.  If there ever was a country built for whirlwind travel, this is it, thanks to a) world-leading high speed rail system that connects virtually every worthwhile destination in the country, and b) that magical document they call the JR Pass, which effectively allows unlimited travel on JR-operated routes.  The big three destinations are Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka, of course, and to these we added Hiroshima to the far southwest of Honshu (and the neighboring island of Miyajima), and Hakone, a mountain resort town just southwest of Tokyo.  "Japan by Rail" was a valuable resource in the planning stages (see below).  

JRPass to the rescue
JRPass to the rescue!
A few notes about the JR Pass -- you buy an exchange order before you fly into Japan, then trade the exchange order for the actual pass at the airport JR office when you arrive.  There are a dozen different JR Pass retailers online; we went with JRPass.com.  You then set the activation date when you turn in the exchange order (it's good for 7-days, 14-days, etc, depending on which one you purchased).  We spent extra on Green Car passes, the equivalent of First Class.  It wasn't too much more money, and we felt that the step up in comfort was worthwhile.  When you arrive in Japan and turn in the exchange order for your pass, make your seat reservations for the first leg of your trip, and for each subsequent train trip, reserve your seats for the next leg upon arriving at the train station (you can't really do it online).  We also bought a mobile Ninja Wi-Fi device from the same website where we got the passes, which ended up being a few bucks more per day and was also totally worth it.

One final note: download the HyperDia app (for iPhone/Android) prior to arriving in Japan, which will allow you to search train routes (including filters to only display JRPass eligible routes) and figure out exactly how to get where you're going.  It made the trip infinitely easier.

We sucked it up and paid cash for this one, as our travel times/dates were fixed, and we couldn't muck around looking for mile redemptions.  We opted for Premium Economy on All Nippon Airways (NH008/Boeing 777-300ER), which entitled us to more comfortable seats, our own private cabin, and deserts from the Business Class menu.  It may not sound like much, but on a 14h flight, it makes a difference.  This also allowed us to access the British Airways lounge at JFK's Terminal 7, where we enjoyed some pre-flight champagne and ramen noodles -- breakfast of champions!

Day 1-2
The stalls and throngs at Nakamise
The stalls (and throngs) at Nakamise
Tokyo, part one.  Two nights at the Conrad, excellent digs in the southeast part of town by the Tsukiji fish market (sadly being relocated in the future).  We booked our stay with a combination of the Citi Hilton Reserve annual free night certificate, plus 95k Honors points for the 2nd night (paid rates were > $700/night).  The Conrad is a great starting point for a one day tour of the city, which could look something like: early morning at the Tsukiji market for breakfast, walk through Hamarikyu Gardens, take the ferry from the Gardens pier on the Sumidagawa River Line, disembark near the Sensoji/Asakusa temple, shop the stalls at Nakamise, explore the temple, grab conveyer belt sushi at Hinatomaru, spend the afternoon in the video-game-and-anime-saturated Akihabara district.. and from there, it's up to you.  We were going to end the night at Robot Restaurant but ended up postponing that until the last day (see below).

Transfer: Tokyo to Kyoto
We set our 7-day JR passes to activate upon leaving Tokyo for the ~1h45m trip to Kyoto, and our first taste of the Shinkansen did not disappoint.  Fast, clean, and spacious.. a smooth ride with power outlets and leather recliners.. honestly, like driving your living room 200mph through the Japanese countryside.  The train legs of this trip were truly enjoyable in their own right.

Day 3-4
The towering bamboo forest
The towering bamboo forest
Our first night in Kyoto was in a traditional Japanese ryokan, old-world lodging that included tea service, elaborate multi-course meals, and a personal attendant that waited on us hand and foot (literally: she was often crawling around the floor of our room, making our beds, setting up tea, etc).  It was a truly memorable experience.  The next day, we hired Tetsuo Shimoyama to show us the best of what Kyoto has to offer -- the Golden Pavilion, the bamboo forest, the Iwatayama monkey park, the Fushimi-Inari Taisha shrine -- along with some off-the-beaten-path attractions.  About $450 for the day, including all transportation, and totally worth it.  For our second night, we stayed at the comparatively upscale Hyatt Regency Kyoto, and transferred 20k Chase Ultimate Rewards points to Hyatt to cover the stay (worth about 1.25 cents/point here).

Transfer: Kyoto to Hiroshima
More Shinkansen goodness.  I'll have nothing more to add regarding the train legs.

Day 5
Checked into the Chisun Hotel Hiroshima, which was free using only 8.5k Expedia points (worth 1.4 cents/point here, since this is classified as a VIP+ access hotel).  Shockingly small by US standards (most Japanese business hotels are), but clean and downtown, a short walk from the station.  We spent the morning at the somber but beautiful Peace Memorial, followed by a ride on the Hiroshima streetcar (the "Electric Railway Service") about 45 minutes to the Miyajimaguchi station and island ferry terminal.  Bonus: the ferry to Miyajima is also operated by JR, which means the ride is free with your JR pass!

The floating Itsukushima Torii gate

Miyajima was a highlight of the trip.  Tame deer lazily commingling with tourists (considered sacred, and thus, protected), waterfront food stalls and souvenir shops, and the gorgeous Itsukushima shrine with one of the most famous sites in Japan, the floating Torii gate.  It wasn't until after the fact that I realized that the floating Torii gate in Disney World at Epcot is modeled after this one.

Miyajima Deer
Hanging out with a deer friend
There are a few hotels scattered near the ferry terminal on the island for those who would prefer to stay overnight (including several interesting ryokan options), although most people seem to return to Hiroshima after a few hours.  I'm not sure I would spend a night here unless you plan on hiking and/or taking a ropeway car to the top of Mount Misen (though it looks like the views from the top are quite something).  As for us, after a few hours socializing with cervine denizens and eating various stuffs-on-a-stick, we returned to the mainland.  

Begin sad rant: I've learned after the fact that there is controversy over how the deer are treated, having essentially been domesticated for several generations before a concerted effort was undertaken to discourage tourists from feeding them, cutting off their relied-upon food supply.  It's a shame, because they are truly beautiful and peaceful creatures.  End sad rant.

We ended up grabbing dinner in downtown Hiroshima at an excellent, funky Mexican joint in the red light district, having long since eschewed the idea that we had to stick to Japanese cuisine on this trip.  My burrito was tottemo oishii desu.

Transfer: Hiroshima to Osaka

Day 6
Glico man celebrates much happy success
Glico man celebrates much happy success
Stayed at the Cross Hotel Osaka, which is right around the corner from one of the most frenetic shopping districts in Japan, Dotonbori.  We used 13k Chase UR points booked directly through the Travel Portal at 1.25 cents/point with our Chase Sapphire Preferred (if we had the Sapphire Reserve at that time, points would have been 1.5 cents each and it would have only cost 10.8k points).  We basically spent the day along the Dotonbori canal, walked past Glico Man a dozen times, and our overall experience in Osaka was purely commercial.  We were okay with that -- everything else had been very cultural up to that point.  We had dinner at Pizza Bar Full House, a corner spot that opened up to the back alleys of Osaka.  Not nearly as seedy as it sounds, and the food was great!

Transfer: Osaka to Hakone
You can't get directly to Hakone from Osaka on the Shinkansen.  Instead, you take the train from Osaka at Odawara, and transfer via the Tozan mountain railway to Gora station (or wherever your hotel is).  

Day 7  
Nobu San knows sushi
Nobu San knows sushi
Our best stay of the trip, surprisingly, was at the Hyatt Regency Hakone.  Transferred 25k Chase UR points to Hyatt, worth about 2.1 cents/point here, and we were upgraded to a great deluxe twin room with a view (despite only having Explorist status, which comes with the Chase Hyatt card).  This is a sprawling mountain resort with an onsite onsen (hot spring) and a cavernous, lodge-esque great room which hosts their evening cocktail reception (read: free booze, and lots of it).  

We had planned to do the Hakone loop (officially, the "Hakone Round Course"), which consists of: Hakone Tozan railway Hakone Tozan cable car  Hakone ropeway (with famed Mt. Fuji views, when the weather cooperates) Hakone "pirate ship" across lake Ashi short hike to Moto-Hakone Hakone Tozan bus back to where you started.  It's all covered with the Hakone Free Pass, which you should buy at Odawara station when you arrive in the area.  However, something that bears noting is that the ropeway frequently closes due to rain, fog, or the occasional venting of volcanic gasses (seriously!).  We knew this going in, and knew that it was supposed to rain our entire day in Hakone, so we weren't surprised when the ropeway portion was closed and we had to hole up at the Hyatt for the day.  And still, we didn't complain -- that's how good our stay was.  For dinner, it was a short walk down mountain streets to Itoh by Nobu for a surprisingly intimate (and incredible) dinner.

Transfer: Hakone (to Odawara) to Tokyo

Day 8
Domo arigato you crazy robotos
Domo arigato you crazy robotos
One last hurrah in Tokyo, at the Park Hyatt (after watching Lost in Translation the night before to get in the mood).  The stay was gratis using one of the two free night certificates from the Chase Hyatt signup bonus, with paid rates around $650.  Once we got settled in, we did a little more shopping, saw the intersection outside Shibuya station (busiest in the world, supposedly!), finally got around to the late show at Robot Restaurant (a little touristy and over-hyped, but still worth it), and capped off the night with dinner and drinks at the famed New York Bar on the upper floor of the Park Hyatt.

The ANA lounge was worth the price of admission, so to speak, as we spent our last few hours in Japan.  I took advantage of the shower facilities (which were spa-like!) and the made-to-order noodle and sushi bars while we were there, in addition to a neat sake tasting station.  Then we changed our yen back to USD, grabbed some last minute souvenirs, boarded the plane, and said sayonara!

Penguin or duck: you decide
Penguin or duck: you decide
Here's are 10 things that US-based travelers might find surprising about Japan:
1. 7-11, and convenience stores in general (or konbini), are evvvvvvvvrywhere
2. Coffee and tea vending machines are evvvvvvvvrywhere
3. Whisky is, in many ways, bigger than sake ("For relaxing times.. make it Suntory time")
4. Kit Kat bars come in all sorts of esoteric flavors like sake or fermented soy bean (better than it sounds!), supposedly popular because "Kit Kat" sounds a lot like the phrase kitto katsu ("surely you will succeed")  
5. Conveyer belt sushi
6. Don Quijote, a.k.a. the Tokyo Target ("Don don don, don don da-don.. Don-ki, ho-tay!")
7. The taxis all have automatic doors
8. It's rude to talk on the phone or blow your nose in public 
9. Every toilet seat is heated
10. You could spend an entire week there without seeing a public trash can.  Slight hyperbole (but only slight).  

Bring back booze!
Nikka Whisky from the BarrelAs always, it should be something you can't find stateside.  After some deliberation, I opted for whisky over sake -- in this case, Nikka from the Barrel, a quirky blended whisky that took home honors in both the 2007 and 2010 World Whisky Awards (I write that as if I've ever heard of the World Whisky Awards before).  It wasn't easy to come by, and I found it by chance at a hole-in-the-wall liquor store in the Shinjuku district in Tokyo on my fourth or fifth attempt (I believe it was this one).  Of course, when I found it, I bought everything they had in stock. 

Points redemptions:
95k Hilton Honors points @ 0.73 cents/point +
1 Hilton free night certificate @ $700 +
20k Chase UR points to Hyatt @ 1.25 cents/point) +
25k Chase UR points to Hyatt @ 2.1 cents/point) +
13k Chase UR points booked direct @ 1.25 cents/point +
1 Hyatt free night certificate @ $650 +
8.5k Expedia points @ 1.4 cents/point =
~$3100 in free travel!

Guide used:
Japan By Rail
Japan By Rail

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