Plying Japan’s Waterways

Plying Japan's WaterwaysAlthough Japan is noted for its high speed, on-time bullet trains and its extensive network of railroads, Japan also offers various sea routes. Few tourists know about these routes however, as they are not very well publicized in English. Japan, made up of four main islands, has a 200-mile long inland sea as well as a chain of small islands that stretch from Kyushu all the way down to Okinawa, offering several options for the intrepid, budget-minded traveler.

Ferries are available from Hokkaido to Okinawa. If that’s not far enough for you, you can continue on to Taiwan. Ferries are definitely the long way to get anywhere but they are often cheaper than flying or using the bullet train. For example, the Seikan Ferry from Aomori City (top of Honshu) to Hakodate (bottom of Hokkaido) takes 3 hrs. and costs just 1,850 yen per person. Taking the express train from Aomori to Hakodate (which goes under the sea) costs almost twice as much. Miyazaki (Kyushu) to Naha, Okinawa takes 14 hours and less than 10,000 yen per person. If you can catch an overnight ferry, you can save on accommodations as well. For example, from Honshu you can take the ferry leaving Sendai at 8pm and arrive at Tomakomai in Hokkaido the next morning at 10:45.

Overnight accommodation is usually Japanese style, which means a large open floor space inside where everyone sits together (see photo). Just grab a corner of floor and set up camp. Some ferries, such as the one from Tomonokai to Tokyo have rooms, but they are not so private as they are large and meant for groups of people. Expect to share your room with others.

While some ferries are mainly passenger ferries, others (ex: Aomori to Hakodate) carry mainly vehicles: cars and commercial trucks delivering goods between regions.

Some other suggested routes:

Osaka to the hot springs of Beppu in Kyushu (13 hrs. 8,500 yen), then train it down to Kagoshima and take the ferry to Yakushima Island (4 hrs. 5,000 yen).

Explore Japan’s beautiful Inland Sea by taking a ferry from Osaka to any point on Kyushu. You’ll cruise among 250 islands!

If you’re traveling throughout Asia, you can pick up ferries/hydrofoils to Korea, Taiwan and Shanghai.

For domestic long distance ferry routes throughout Japan with schedules, prices and routes, see

Amy Chavez is author of Guidebook to Japan: What the other guidebooks won’t tell you” She is a columnist for The Japan Times, co-hosts the Planet Japan podcast. Visit her website at

Night Views of Fall Foliage

Night Views of Fall FoliageIt’s autumn in Japan and Japanese are crazy about “kouyou,” the changing of the leaves. Most Japanese will make a special trip to view fall foliage and Kyoto is the most famous kouyou destination. Surrounded by mountains with Japanese maple trees that turn bright red, amidst a backdrop of temples and shrines, Kyoto makes for a truly memorable experience. Kyoto also offers a unique take on fall foliage night viewing.

When to go

The leaves can turn anytime starting in November, depending on the weather, and they last about two weeks. This year’s leaves are turning a little late due to the warm autumn, so aim for mid-November for Kyoto.

 Where to go

“The leaves are so famous at Tofukuji that there are more people than leaves,” says John Dougill, long time Kyoto resident and author of “Kyoto: A cultural history.” He recommends staying away from Kodaiji and other more popular temples and instead heading to Takao in the north-west, which is spacious and further from the city center, or to Enko-ji which is also lit up at night. For those who don’t want to walk a lot, Dougill recommends the train ride on the Eiden line from Demachiyanagi to Kurama as the trees on either side of the line are lit up. For those who are fearless and don’t mind jumping into the kouyou mosh pit, try any of Kyoto’s World Heritage sites such as Kinkakuji, Kozanji, or Kiyomizu-dera.

Paul Satoh offers an English speaking fall foliage excursion every year. Paul is Japanese with excellent English skills who has been giving tours to foreigners in the Kansai area for 8 years. This year on Nov. 12 he will take people to Arashiyama (also home of the Iwatayama Monkey Park), during the annual boat festival. Along with kouyou viewing, you can watch festival boats carrying traditional dancers and musicians down the Oi River. There is a nominal charge of 1,800 yen for the tour which includes bus fare and lunch. Meet at the Kyoto City Tourist Information Office on the second floor of Kyoto Station at 9:30am on the day.



“Amy Chavez is author of Guidebook to Japan: What the other guidebooks won’t tell you” She is a columnist for The Japan Times, co-hosts the Planet Japan podcast and teaches Japanese online. Visit her website at

Early Morning, Tokyo Time

Early Morning, Tokyo TimeYou will say, as you read this, that you’re not really a fish market kind of person. It’s not that you have anything against fish, but, well, you don’t need to be that close to your food. It’s enough that fresh fish is delivered to your restaurant of choice and prepared according to your needs. Then, around 4 or 5 a.m. on your first morning in Tokyo, you will rethink this stance. Suddenly, oddly, nothing seems like more fun than heading to the Tsukiji Fish Market.

Things that seem nonsensical while you’re reading tour books become quite viable when you’re wide awake in a sleeping city. We didn’t read enough Japanese to do much good, our spoken language skills were laughable, and we had some yen, but really no concept of its worth — so naturally it made sense for us to strike out from our hotel (stopping only to marvel at our first glimpse of a Japanese vending machine — beer, in this case; later, we would see all manner of soda and batteries and scotch) toward the train station. Somehow, we acquired train passes. The details remain foggy.

We don’t know how — neither of us is good with mornings to begin with — but we found the right train and ended up at the right stop. And then we found the fish market. In retrospect, there’s no way we could have missed it, but at the time, we were the walking definition of disoriented. It was an awesome accomplishment.

The Tsukiji Fish Market is huge. It services the Tokyo market, so just the little bit of fish we saw was a mere fraction of what passed through the the doors that day. We had no intention of purchasing fish, so we wandered the stalls and alleys that line the market. Breakfast became a priority, and while sushi and other local specialties rule, we were drawn to a small coffee shop — our Japanese being sufficient to read the word. We were greeted with Western-style forks and strong coffee. The forks because it was clear we were babes in the chopstick woods. Conversation was stilted, though we did manage to convey that Los Angeles is somewhere near Portland, Oregon. It’s a big planet, space is relative.

Once caffeinated, we were ready to tackle Tokyo in all its glory. Our guidebooks pointed us to a nearby park. From there, we wandered for hours. And hours. At four a.m., one does not always consider the importance of comfortable shoes. Consider this helpful advice. The best way to learn a city, even a city like Tokyo, is on foot.

The market is wide-open for tourists, though modern life has interrupted the traditional flow of trading. In what has to be one of the stranger recent developments, the Japan Guide notes:

A visit is most recommended in the early and busy morning hours before 9am. Note however, that the spectacular tuna auctions, held around 5am, have been closed to tourists as of May 2005 due to the interference caused by the sheer number of spectators and cases of misbehaving tourists (visitors touching tuna, obstructing people at work and causing distraction by flash photography). 

If you find yourself suddenly craving the fish market experience, finding the sprawling facility is easy. Access the market from Tsukijishijo Station on the Subway Oedo Line or Tsukiji Station on the subway Hibiya Line (which was our approach).

Remembering The Trip, One Rubber Stamp At A Time

Remembering The Trip, One Rubber Stamp At A TimeSomewhere in the Planet Tokyo archives is the evidence: I once underwent a week-long rubber stamp obsession. I think my first stamp came from the Tokyo Stock Exchange — memories become hazy after time — and continued, at least, through ten museums and various parks. The goal was simple: visit the venue and prove by placing a rubber stamp in my journal.

I don’t recall where I learned about the rubber stamp tour, but it soon became easy to spot the stamp station. As dotpattern notes:

If you like rubber stamps, take a trip to Japan, where nearly every historical monument has been thoughtfully furnished with a rubber stamp station. Look for a simple card table with stamp pads at train stations, temples and shrines. 

Rubber stamp rallies, where stamp collectors visit a series of connected sites. Rallies can lead you through a series of historical sites, train stations, even cool stores. Think scavenger hunt with colored ink. In Tokyo, you can purchase a Grutt Pass — a multi-museum admission ticket for forty-six facilities including museums, art museums, zoos, and aquariums. The Pass is good for two months from purchase. You can build up your stamp collection as you tour the city. The 2005 Pass (final expiration date for passes purchased is March 31, 2006) includes a Stamp Rally. Rally participants who collect 20 or more stamps are eligible for a drawing that includes museum prizes.

Rubber stamps can serve as a unique guide to what you’ve done and where you’ve been in Tokyo. For journal keepers, they add a romantic, unique touch to notes and impressions of the city. If you’re looking for your own rubber stamp, check out the Metropolis’s stationery store recommendations.

See Japan On $0 a Day

We frequently hear from readers who are put off by Tokyo’s status as the world’s most expensive city. Because of the extreme cost involved many people fear that visiting Japan is one of those life goals that will never actually be achieved. Now, thanks to Google you can see Japan (all of it) for free.

Google’s recently expanded map service now includes satellite photo of the entire country of Japan and high resolution aerial photos of the metropolitan Tokyo area.

After spending way too many hours roaming the Japanese country side via Google we’ve finally managed to piece together Planet Tokyo’s first online tour of Japan:

Tsukiji Fish Market

Attending the Tsukiji fish market is traditionally recommended to be the first thing you should do on your first morning in Japan (well, after showering and brushing your teeth). So we’ll start our virtual tour by visiting the fish market. Unfortunately you can’t actually see any fish from this angle.


Ryogoku is known as Sumo Town. The large structure is Kokugikan, Japan’s largest sumo stadium. The park to the north is a particularly nice place to stop and eat your bento before attending as Sumo match.

Tokyo Tower

At 333 meters Tokyo Tower is the world’s tallest self-supporting iron tower. It’s a full 13 meters taller than the eiffel tower.

Ueno Park

You can’t quite make out the polar bears doing back strokes at the Ueno Park Zoo (they’re there, trust us), but if you look closely you can see the Tokyo National Museum.

Tokyo Dome

The Tokyo Dome is home to the Yomiuri Giants and the Nippon Ham Fighters baseball teams. The unique dome is actually an air supported membrane. The surrounding Tokyo Dome City includes a variety of amusements and attractions.

Seibu Dome

Not to be outdone by the Tokyo Dome, the high-tech looking Seibu Dome sits on the outskirts of Tokyo and is home to the Seibu Lions baseball team. This unique dome structure has no walls.

Tokyo Disneyland

Tokyo Disneyland technically isn’t the happiest place on earth, but it might be the happiest place in Japan – or maybe just the most expensive.

Mt. Fuji

Mt. Fuji is Japan’s highest mountain and an inspiration to countless Japanese artists. As a result, Fuji’s profile is instantly recognizable. Google’s satellite imagery provides a unique perspective on Mt. Fuji that few people have seen previously.

Volcano Island

Fuji isn’t the only volcano in Japan. While much smaller than Fuji this volcano island off of the coast of Japan is quite impressive.

Keyhole Mounds

Kofuns are ancient Japanese burial sites that were created between the 3rd and 7th century. These keyhole shaped mounds are quite large and easily viewable from satellite photos.

Needless to say, there is quite a bit more to see, but these should be enough to get you started on your $0 a day tour of Japan. If you happen to find any interesting sights while wondering around Japan via Google let us know – send us the URL and we may include your submission in a future post.