Sometimes, getting from Point A to Point B can be a traveler’s greatest challenge. On a recent trip, I found that visiting Japan by train is one of the easiest and most efficient ways to travel through the country.
My tour of Japan by train began in Tokyo, where enormous train stations, like Shinjuku and Shinagawa, stretch through city blocks, offering fantastic shopping options, casual dining, coffee houses, and sweet treats. Everyone uses public transportation, and companies like my hosts, the Odakyu and Keihan railways, offer enough options to get passengers wherever they need to go.
Editors’ note: Although the COVID-19 pandemic has suddenly changed the face of travel, we hope our stories stoke your memories of past trips and kindle ideas for future adventures.
Most of Japan is always tidy, and the streets and sidewalks are pristine, just as you would expect. Everyone has a purpose and is usually in a hurry. The country can impress you with its big city life and urban design, and yet just outside of Tokyo, personal activity slows down and visitors are able to appreciate the country’s local charms and natural landscapes.
Traveling to Hakone
After checking in at the Odakyu Sightseeing Service Center, a helpful, language-friendly kiosk, we departed Shinjuku Station on the “Romancecar.” The name of the railway comes from the fact that passengers sit two by two, so you can sit next to your sweetheart. All seats on this clean and beautiful electric train are reserved, with large windows offering changing views on the 80-minute trip to Hakone.
Hakone is a popular weekend destination where travelers from Tokyo can take a quick trip to enjoy the countryside with its vast verdant forests, views of Mt Fuji, and popular onsen or hot springs. Of course, other visitors from around the world come to experience this relaxing and revitalizing magical destination as well.
Easy travel through Japan by train
For our trip to Hakone, we used the Hakone Free Pass, a discount excursion ticket that allows travelers to use eight different transportation systems in the Hakone area, available as either a two or three-day option. Additionally, the pass includes a round-trip from Tokyo as well. Hopping on and off by swiping this pass was easy and convenient.
Parts of our journey entailed other forms of transport. The array of clean, brightly-painted cars we rode on made us feel, at times, like we were at an amusement park. On our way to Lake Ashi, we took the Hakone Cable Car up to the top and then switched over to the Hakone Ropeway, with a surprise sighting of Mt Fuji herself. Our guide had traveled there many, many times, and told us that she had never seen the iconic volcano so clearly. A once in a lifetime experience!
Does sailing on a pirate ship sound like the perfect adventure? An authentic-looking vessel takes guests on a delightful trip with gorgeous water and peaceful shore views around Lake Ashi.
All the travel options between Tokyo and Kyoto—buses, trains, ships, cable cars and ropeway—each has its own personality but all are easy to maneuver.
While touring the area, we stopped at the Hakone Open Air Museum, a glorious sculpture garden located directly on the mountain top with unusual sculptures integrated into the mountain landscape.
Imagine walking across the longest suspension bridge in Japan. How about one with a view of Mt Fuji, zip-lining, a dog run, and Sky Garden? Although slightly acrophobic, I walked across this bridge like a champ and was blown away by the view. This extraordinary attraction is a must-see experience.
Kyoto Resort Area
Our trip continued to the Hieizan and Biwako resort area just outside of Kyoto. We felt like kids again as we traveled up to Mt Hiei on the Sakamoto Cable Railway, which opened in 1927, and is the longest cable car route in Japan. The views from Mt Hiei—part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site and also the birthplace of Japanese Buddhism—are astounding.
As guests of Keihan electric railway, we were able to conveniently get wherever we wanted to go. We strolled over to the train station that took us to the cable car and straight to the peak offering views of Lake Biwa, the largest freshwater lake in Japan. On the mountain, visitors can catch a scheduled bus between temples so it’s best to time your visit around the next arriving bus.
Our stay at Biwako Hotel at the destination resort of Lake Biwa was a treat: The rooms were impeccably clean and well-furnished, and the views of the eight upscale restaurants were swoon-worthy. Lake Biwa is extremely popular in summer, but we enjoyed our visit in November as well.
If luxury is at the top of your vacation requirements, a stay at the newly opened The Thousand Hotel will be appealing. The property offers extraordinary architectural design with a sleek urban aesthetic coupled with innovative techy room accessories. It was such an epic experience that I was sorry only to stay one night.
Final thoughts on Japan by train
Finding a way to make a trip easier and run a little smoother is always a plus, isn’t it?
Traveling by train and other public transportation throughout Japan seems to me to be the very best way to go. The trains are immaculate, quiet, prompt, and abundant. If you miss the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Tokyo, there is usually one more right behind it no more than ten minutes later.
No needless worries! The railway brochures list everything you need to know and navigating the many offered options was efficient and stress-free.
Don’t be intimidated by rail travel in Japan. After hearing about all these effortless transportation options, my friends and family have added Japan to the top of their adventure list.
What’s appealing to the over-50 traveler?
- Japan is culturally fascinating, extremely clean, and will dazzle even the most seasoned traveler. The country offers endless beauty and some of the best food anywhere in the world.
- Travel by rail is efficient, and the Hakone Free Pass offers a choice of eight convenient transportation systems in the area.
- This was my second trip to Japan and although I traveled to virtually all the same cities, I was able to experience different activities and adventures.
IF YOU GO
Photo credits: All photos by Suzanne Stavert, unless otherwise noted.
The author was a guest of Keihan and Odakyu, two transportation and travel companies, but her thoughts and enthusiasm are genuine.
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