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Japan on a Budget: Kumamoto

October 23rd, 2013

Kumamoto

If you're traveling around Kyushu, you're likely to pass through Kumamoto more than once. Which is fine, as it's a really pleasant city in which to while away a few hours or days.

Transport and Trains

Kumamoto is on the Kyushu Shinkansen line, roughly half-way down the island and so between Hakata in the north and Kagoshima in the south. Trains also go off east towards Aso and Beppu, and ferries arrive from Shimabara to the west – well, unless they all get cancelled due to typhoons, as I found out.

Getting around the city is, once again, easiest by tram. There's a stop right outside the main JR station, and if you're heading into the city centre you want the platform that's right in front of you, with trams heading from right to left on the A line – this runs past the castle (PDF map here). The fare's 160 yen, payable in cash when you exit.

The Castle

Kumamoto

The most famous sight in Kumamoto is pretty hard to miss: the castle, considered one of the finest in Japan, is right in the city centre. The keep (top) is reconstructed, the original having burned down during the Satsuma rebellion, but other sections are original.

Entry costs 500yen, but that allows you to stroll around the whole grounds, climb the keep and also visit the spectacularly reconstructed interior rooms (above). I visited on a weekend, so it was full of Japanese tourists, but there were also talks and performances being given inside, alongside lots of information about the castle's history and reconstruction.

Kumamon

Kumamoto

It's also worth mentioning Kumamon – the black bear mascot who seems to be ever-present in Kumamoto itself, and crops up regularly in the rest of Kyushu – I even caught him being interviewed on national TV. Apparently he was recently voted the most popular mascot character in Japan. Kumamoto does such a good line in characters, in fact, that there's another popular one: Kuro-chan the dog is used to promote the trains through to Aso, and in particular the completely crazy Aso-Boy limited express (sadly I didn't manage to catch it, but check out the pictures on Wikipedia – bottom of this page).

Staying

Kumamoto has loads of accommodation, but I arrived late after a failed attempt to get across the water from Shimabara and so checked into the JR Hotel, right by the station. It's nice, but a short tram ride to the downtown shopping and restaurant areas. The local dish is taipien – a bit like Nagasaki's Champon, but with vermicelli noodles.

From Kumamoto I moved on south towards Kagoshima and Sakurajima.

This is part of my Japan on a Budget series – a collection of random advice on how to travel Japan without spending a fortune. See the rest here.

Japan on a budget, 1: Planes, Trains and Hotels

December 12th, 2011

I've now been learning Japanese for about three years – long enough to get a decent grip on everyday verbs, adjectives and nouns, and to start wrestling with kanji (80ish, so far). But there's only so far you can get by speaking for 90 minutes per week in classes. So, I hatched a plan: to get to Japan as cheaply as possible and spend a few days practicing.

In the end, I managed to tour pretty much the entire lower half of Honshu quite inexpensively, and it was a great experience. In case it's handy to anyone planning something similar, this handful of blog posts – you can see the whole series here – will outline where I went, what I did, and how I kept the budget down.

Nara - Backstreet

Old Japan in Nara

Planes and Trains

My original idea was to fly in on the cheapest, crappest route possible, take the train to Kyoto and spend some time there. This went completely awry, but in a good way. First, air fares plummeted: I was able to get a direct flight from Heathrow to Narita for around £650, which is far less than we paid the other year, and even then the plane was half empty.

Hiroshima - Cranes

Cranes, Hiroshima

Booking on Virgin Atlantic gets you a choice between Virgin and ANA flights – in my experience Virgin's Tokyo planes are similar to others in the fleet – a bit knackered, with not enough legroom to sleep and mediocre food – while ANA's plane was immaculate, with more legroom and better (Japanese) meals. Given the choice, pick the latter – ANA were better than JAL, too.

Meiji Jingu Torii

A rainy Tokyo on the day I landed

Secondly, I found that getting a Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto costs around £200, so you might as well pay £250 or so for the 7-day Japan Rail Pass, which gets you unlimited travel on all JR lines, with a few minor restrictions.  I planned for eight days, but after my original flight was cancelled ended up with nine, during seven of which I could travel pretty much anywhere. In the end my route took me from Tokyo, through Kyoto, Fukuchiyama, Kinosaki, Hiroshima, Nara and Yokohama, then back  to Tokyo for one day before leaving.

Tokyo to Kyoto

Shinkansen – the best train service in the world

I really cannot recommend the Rail Pass enough. I must have used well over £1,000 worth of train travel, all for one fixed price, and on many trains you don't even need to pick up any other ticket. For those that do, you can use it to make reservations on Limited Express and Shinkansen services – the fastest Nozomi ones are exempt, but that doesn't matter much as you can use the almost-as-fast Hikari and Sakura services. The Rail Pass must be purchased before you travel to Japan – it is not sold there at all – and must be started within three months of purchase. In London, visit the Japan Travel shop under Mitsukoshi Department Store (which also sells tickets to the Ghibli Museum, if you haven't been!).

Ginza

New Japan in Ginza, Tokyo

Armed with a pass I spent 15 minutes in the JR Kyoto Eki ticket office booking ten or so journeys, which got me a guaranteed seat on even busy trains – reassuring when you're lugging a large rucksack. And the trains, of course, are fantastic. Even the oldest, crappiest (not very crappy) local ones run on time, while the Shinkansen are more comfortable than most aeroplanes I've been on (especially the reserved seating on Sakura services). It's a great way to travel.

Yosh!

The local train from Kyoto to Inari

Hotels and Hiking

With travel sorted, I aimed to travel not on the cheap, but relatively cheaply – no more than £120 a day, including accommodation. This is, fortunately, pretty easy – most cities have cheapish business hotels that have many single rooms that run from £50 (out in Kansai) to £90ish (Shinjuku, Tokyo). The Sunroute chain, in particular, is handy: you can reserve rooms online in advance with no deposit, and they're all good, no-frills places (think Travelodge, but often a bit nicer). Outside Tokyo and Kyoto I also found some cheap ryokan accommodation, which makes a nice change.

Add on one cheap restaurant meal a day, breakfast in a coffee shop and some onigiri for lunch, and you don't have to spend a fortune, even with the horrendously high Yen – but bear in mind that sightseeing and transport can be expensive. A day visiting temples in Kyoto, for example, must have set me back £50 at least just on entrance fees. Similarly, non-JR travel (Tokyo's subway lines, for example), quickly become costly if you're moving around a lot.

Hiroshima - Okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki in Hiroshima – cheap and delicious

To cover my route you'll need luggage you can carry (a decent rucksack) and to be happy to walk 5km or so at a time carrying it. My route also required a couple of eyeball-hurtingly-early starts, and judicious use of train station lockers to hold  baggage when passing through towns. All big stations have these, although they fill up in the mornings, and they can be hard to find – ask 'すみません、コインロッカーはどこですか' (sumimasen, coin-ro-kah wa doko des ka?). Backpack sized ones normally cost 600Y for storage until 1am the next day.

Oh, and one other recommendation: just before leaving I grabbed a copy of the new Lonely Planet guide to Japan, as I've had good experiences finding cheap places to stay using their guides in the past. Although it has a few odd omissions, and a few sections were already out of date (just goes to show how long editing, proofing and printing can take, I guess), it proved really handy and I'd recommend it.

So, that's that. I flew in and out of Tokyo – more on that city here.

Japan on a budget, 3: Kyoto

December 12th, 2011

(This is part of a guide to travelling Honshu on a moderate budget and in limited time. Click here for the whole series).

I arrived in Kyoto on my second day, via Shinkansen from Tokyo. You arrive at the huge JR Kyoto station, from which you can link to the local JR lines, the private railway (pass not valid) and the subway (ditto). Coming in at around 1pm I dropped my backpack in a coin locker (there are several sets – try the side of the station if the main area is full) and headed out on the local train to Inari. It's a few stops, and trust me, you want to travel light for this one.

Fushimi Inari-taisha

The Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine complex is directly opposite the JR Inari station – look for the red Torii gate. Then look for another, up the hill. Then look for a couple of thousand of them lining the mountain path. It's stunning.

Fushimi Inari Taisha

The first torii

The path leads on and on, past dozens of shrines and some scenic views. It's steep in places, and not something to undertake with luggage or nearing dusk. The route is signed, badly, and even with maps everywhere it can be a little baffling, but nonetheless I managed a scenic circuit taking in the very top in about two hours.

Fushimi Inari Taisha

Somewhere inside the complex

Kinkaku-Ji, Sanjyu-San and  Kyomizu-dera

Back in Kyoto, you can't walk a few blocks without hitting a gorgeous-looking temple. Probably the best known, though, is the golden pavilion, Kinkaku-Ji. It's a bus ride from Kyoto JR, or a nice walk from the nearby Kitaoji subway stop, passing a huge complex of Buddhist temples en-route. I arrived early, just after 9am, and it was already packed – walking down the approach all I could hear were cries of 'suggeeeeeeiii!' (roughly, 'wow') from schoolkids rounding the corner ahead. And it is, indeed, one hell of a view.

Kyoto - Kinkaku-Ji

The Kinkaku-Ji. Just stunning.

Most of the other temples lie over the other side of town to the East, and you could easily spend a week checking them all out. With a day and a half in Kyoto, I had to hike about quite a bit. After stopping mid-way at the International Manga Museum (below) I hauled across to the Sanjyu-San – a huge, ancient, Buddhist complex containing a frankly unfeasible number of many-armed statues, plus a Buddah in the middle. No photos are allowed, but to be honest you couldn't capture it anyhow – it's remarkable.

Kyoto - Kyomizu-dera

The Kyomizu-dera

The Kyoto National Museum is just across the way from there, but is currently in renovation and was closed as I passed. Instead, I walked to the unfeasibly beautiful Kyomizu-dera temple up on the hill to the East. It's possible to approach via two souvenir-shop-packed streets, but check a map for the path up through the huge cemetery below – it's a climb, but the views are amazing. As was seeing the sun set behind the pagoda from the top of the temple.

Kyoto - Sunset

Sunset over Kyoto. Such a beautiful place.

International Manga Museum and Nijō Jō

As well as all the temples, it's worth checking out the famous Nijō Jō castle. It's impressive from the outside, with elaborately carved gates, but take the tour to see the inner quarters and walk on the squeaking nightingale-floors. Also, don't miss the inner room decorations: these are housed in a separate museum inside the castle walls (look for the modern building). Photos are forbidden inside.

Kyoto - Nijo-Jo

Carvings on the Nijō Jō

Not far from the castle is the International Manga Museum. This is really more library than museum, but it's a chance to grab, sit down with and read just about any manga you've ever heard of, and then a couple of thousand more, going back decades. Entry (800Y) is good for the day. There are a few shelves of English translations, and English signage in the exhibits, but to be honest you'll need to a bit of Japanese (not much – lots of Manga are furiganated) to get the most from this.

Kyoto - International Manga Museum

Inside the International Manga Museum

The museum is housed in an old school, and a few rooms are devoted to the history of the building – these are well worth checking out.

Food, Hotels and Travel

From JR Kyoto the subway line runs directly north, then another crosses it at Karasuma-Oike station, running East-West. The rest of the city is served by buses. Both cost <200Y for most trips, but Suica or Pasmo cards won't work (there is a local IC card). As it's on a grid layout, walking is easy, and there are a couple of large covered shopping arcades should you need coffee, a pharmacy etc.

I stayed in the Hearton Hotel Kyoto, which is tucked away about a block from Karasuma-Oike – it's on the sidestreet behind the big sporting goods shop. It's a little worn (well, actually pretty knackered in places), but good value for the £55 or so it costs per night, and the location's good for the subway. I'd recommend it.

For cheap eats there are the usual combini and fast food outlets, plus department store basement food halls on the main Shijo-Dori parade running East-West (check out the posh coffee shop that turns into a cheap curry counter by night!) and some decent ramen places for 15Y or so.

I loved Kyoto, and could have easily stayed longer – but with a public holiday on Monday, all the hotels were full, so I bailed out of town towards Northern Kansai and the onsen of Kinosaki.

Compare and Contrast

January 10th, 2008

January 2007:

Raffles Plaza Hotel

January 2008:

Hotel glamour

Hopefully there isn't a trend here.