Winner of 2008 North American Travel Journalists' Association award


By Pam Hobbs

I know about the popularity of Japanese cars and electronics, and how sushi has become all the rage. Still, for visitors to Japan I reckon one of the best things to come out of that country is its Japan Rail Pass. Available only to people living outside that country, it enables us to criss-cross Japan on trains, buses and ferries, at a fraction of the normal cost and without the hassle of standing in line for tickets.

The Japan Railway operates 28,000 trains a day on a nationwide system covering close to 20,000 kilometres, while the famous Shinkansen (bullet trains) are among the world's fastest and most punctual. They will speed you to the popular tourist destinations in such short order, many can be toured in one-day trips from a convenient home base. What's more, if you miss a train, or it is full, another will be along in 15 or 20 minutes.

For our ten days in Japan, my daughter and I bought seven-day national passes which cost us less than a one-day return between Tokyo and Hiroshima. Regional passes are even cheaper, and there are other discounts to bring prices down further.

Travelling in August, a month when Japanese families tend to take their summer holidays, we found the standard carriages crowded. Not that we couldn't find a pair of empty seats, but our luggage proved an embarrassment. Overhead racks quickly fill up with small bags, and we had no alternative but to block the aisles with our cases. Green cars (equivalent to first class in Canada), on the other hand, had so few passengers they could spread out as much as they wished. They were further pampered with footrests, reclining seats, steaming towels and English language magazines. I know, because we ducked into a Green Car on the way back from Hiroshima, after participants in a massive peace rally on the A-bomb anniversary filled standard coaches to overflowing.

Another advantage for Green Car travellers is that seats may be reserved. This can be done for each journey prior to departure. Or, if you have your itinerary complete, you can book seats for all your trips with one visit to a JR office at any major railway station.

Japan's trains are clean, comfortable, convenient, and punctual. Long-distance trains are equipped with western as well as Japanese toilets, coffee stands and public telephones. And you will be well looked after with box lunches (containing rice, vegetables, cold meat and fish) packaged sandwiches, hot and cold drinks brought through the carriages at frequent intervals.

To locate the right train in the first place, I carried a small notebook in which I wrote our itinerary for the day. Since hotel clerks almost always speak English I would ask them to write a Japanese translation for such questions as "which platform for ---- please?" to be shown to railway personnel or other passengers at the station. The response, usually a number of fingers waved in the general direction, was always good enough. Other translations included the hotel's name and telephone number, museums, even recommended restaurants. Invariably, if anyone couldn't point the way, they enlisted the help of a passer-by.

With area maps and train times supplied by the Japan National Tourist Organization in Toronto, you can easily plot every step of your trip before leaving home. For spur-of-the- moment excursions, head for local tourist offices in Japan where English-speaking clerks will mark your route on a free map, and provide background information for your proposed destination.

To give you some idea of travel times: Tokyo to Kyoto is two and a half hours by rail, Hiroshima is one hour and forty-five minutes from Kyoto and four from Tokyo, and the mountain spas in Hakone Izu National Park a mere hour and a half from Tokyo.

While we didn't set out to see all of Japan, or to get the greatest possible use from our JR passes, the following are trips we particularly enjoyed, courtesy our rail cards. And although we sometimes stayed several days, any of these destinations can be comfortably toured in a day from Kyoto or Tokyo.

Hakone from Tokyo:

Little more than a hop and a jump from the teeming crowds of Tokyo, Fuji Hakone Izu National Park is a favorite weekend escape from that city. On a one-day trip you can have a lovely time, lunching at Yumono's historic Fujiya Hotel, exploring its hillside gardens and perhaps the impressive sculptures in Hakone Garden Museum nearby. A happy alternative is to spend several days lodged at this hotel which successfully weds old Japan to modern western comforts. With this extra time you might continue past the sculpture park by electric train, cable car and ferry to Lake Ashi on a circular tour that brings you back to the hotel. You can even take a five hour hike up the picture-perfect Mt. Fuji, as do some 200,000 people every year - mostly during July and August.

I have to say the Fujiya is my kind of spa. Nobody counted my calories, or cajoled me into exercising. There were no guilt feelings when I tucked into the excellent French cuisine. Instead, we were seduced by an outdoor pool fed by soothing mineral waters and intoxicating mountain air; tranquil gardens where I could sit alone in contemplation. Had I wanted a masseur to work on my knotted muscles in the privacy of my room, I was assured he wouldn't walk on my spine "unless madam so desires".

Our most memorable Japanese-style meal was in the Fujiya's annex where, in one of several private dining rooms overlooking the royal gardens, we were served dish after dish by a gentle kimono-clad hostess. After sitting cross-legged on a cushion for two hours, my aching bones were ready for a soothing spring-fed bath. One more glass of sake, and I'd have called for the masseur to tap-dance on my spine.

Kyoto from Tokyo:

Most tourists visit Kyoto in spring when the cherry trees are in bloom, or to witness the fiery colors of autumn. In August there were no fruit blossoms, the leaves were bright green, and it was hot and humid. Even so, I fell head-over-heels in love with Kyoto. I loved its gaudy shrines, its broad avenues originally laid out for ceremonial processions, its residential side streets with centuries' old trees hanging over tiny houses, and even smaller cafes where we were welcomed as family.

For visitors, Kyoto's prime attraction is its role as repository for some 2,000 shrines, temples and other relics of the past. That it houses 22% of the country's national treasures is no surprise, since this was the nation's capital for more than a thousand years from 794. Early on, writers, poets and artists all prospered here. Emperors lived in great splendor, and later the Shoguns built themselves villas to rival any royal palaces. Elaborate shrines and temples were established, often in fabulous gardens that have survived the centuries.

In the mid 1400s internal wars began, and a century later Kyoto was in ruins. Some of the architectural jewels you'll see now were built by the military leader, Hideyoshim, who unified the country in the late 1500s. Others are l9th and 20th century replicas.

However brief your visit, do make sure that Sanjusangendo Hall is near the top of your 'must see' list. Close to the railway station, this remarkable museum is in a 13th century building which is itself a National Treasure. I have to admit that hairs on the back of my neck stood to attention as I walked into the 120 metre hall, and came upon a three- metre high seated figure of Kannon (a God supposed to have a thousand arms he used to help mankind) with eleven faces and numerous arms. A thousand life-size statues of Kannon surround him, and in the corridor behind are 28 Faithful Followers - each one individualized with human and animal features. The overall scene is unforgettable.

Second on your list should be the fairy-tale Kinkakau-ji, probably Kyoto's most photographed shrine. A replica of the retirement villa built in 1390 for the third Ashikaga Shogun, Yoshimitsu, (the original was torched by a disturbed monk in l950 and its restoration completed five years later) it is also known as the Golden Pavillion for its glittering gold leaf exterior. On a clear day, to see it reflected in the surrounding pond is magical.

Guide books and JNTO's website will direct you to more traditional temples and shrines, and explain how to book your Imperial Palace Tour. Instead, in this limited space, I want to tell you about the lesser known Kyoto Studio Park, a 30,000 square metres open movie set where most of the well-loved Samurai movies are filmed. Reminiscent of Dodge City, Japanese style, a recreated townsite of the 1600s delighted these foreign eyes. It was as if I had stepped back in time to an era of lawlessness and intrigue, as costumed actors played out their roles in dark old taverns and tea shops, temples and the inevitable fortune teller's shop.

Toba from Kyoto:

Toba is a popular seaside town with family attractions, boat excursions and restaurants to suit every taste. But that's not what brought us here. We came to explore the dazzling world of cultured pearls, a brief walk from Toba station, across a footbridge to Mikimoto Island. This is where, in l905, a man called Kokichi Mikimoto succeeded in creating the world's first flawless cultured pearls.

Knowing that an irritant in an oyster becomes wrapped in an iridescent nacre, (mother-of-pearl) Mikimoto experimented for five years with the insertion of foreign objects into various types of shells. His resultant pearls were grossly mishapen, until he realized that the irritant must roll freely in the shell to form a perfect ball. From there he went on to breed his own oysters, into which he injected a nacreous core.

In Memorial Hall you can learn all about Mikimoto, and admire exquisite jewelery he made from his pearls. Several of the exhibits were created for world expositions. A magnificent Pearl Pagoda for one, contains close to 13,000 Mikimoto pearls and was shown at the Philadelphia World Exhibition. Another is a replica of the Liberty Bell, with 12,250 pearls and 366 diamonds (its famous crack is marked with blue pearls) crafted for New York's l939 World Fair. In the adjoining Pearl Museum you'll find answers to everything you ever wanted to know about pearls, from the initial seeding operation to piercing and threading ready for sale.

You aren't likely to see any of the couragous Ama san who used to dive to great depths to retrieve oysters around Ago Bay, but given a second day in Toba you can have an interesting time exploring the bay where cultured pearl rafts crowd the sea. Meantime, on Mikimoto Island, women divers demonstrate their skills for tourists, by retrieving oysters placed on the ocean floor.

Hiroshima and Miyajima from Kyoto

We came to Hiroshima on August 6, the anniversary of that fateful day when, in 1945, the city lost close to half its 350,000 population to the fury of an Atomic Bomb. On this day each year, memorial services in Peace Memorial Park are conducted by Buddhist, Shinto and Christian representatives. School children hang thousands of white paper cranes on the trees; the great peace bell is rammed to reverberate around the park and white doves are released into the grey sky.

With heavy hearts we walked from one memorial to another: the Statue of the A-Bomb Children dedicated to those most innocent of victims, an Atomic Bomb Memorial Mount containing the ashes of 70,000 unidentified souls, The Cenotaph, and beyond it the A-Bomb Dome encasing skeletal remains of a former exhibition hall. The Peace Flame, destined to burn until such time as all atomic weapons are destroyed....

In the Peace Memorial Museum we learned about radiation's horrendous effects - saw the scorched earth, the seared flesh, the charred bodies. Photographs are no less shocking because we have seen them before in magazines and on cinema newsreels - adults with limbs burned away - little children, naked and on fire, running screaming down the streets. The Peace Memorial Park is a terribly emotional but necessary experience for visitors to this city..

On our second day in Hiroshima we left the horror that ended World War ll behind, to discover the delights of Miyajima Island, often claimed as the most beautiful island in the Inland Sea. Spotted deer hang around the ferry terminal looking for a soft touch. The shopping area caters solely to tourists with souvenirs from $2 fans to costly paintings. Restaurants and snack bars display plates of plastic food, so you just have to point to a facsimile to order the real thing.

But for all of its commercialism, Miyajima is a very sacred island. Founded in 593 AD, its Itsukushima Shrine dedicated to the Maritime Guardian Goddesses became a World Heritage Site in l996. It is only appropriate then that when the tide is in, this entire complex - including a great torii gate - appears to be floating.


Rail Passes:

At today's rate of approximately ll0 yen to the Canadian dollar, a 7 day Japan Rail Pass costs approximately $257, 14 days $410 and 21 days $524. Similar passes for Green Car travel cost $344, $556 and $724. Unlike the Japan Rail Pass, regional passes may be purchased in Canada, and also in Japan at major railway stations.

More Information:

Your local travel agent knows where you can purchase your rail passes, or you may contact Japan National Tourist Organization E-mail: Website: