To rail pass or not to rail pass – Japan edition

As opposed to a European rail pass, it’s pretty easy to calculate whether a Japan rail pass is going to save you money:

  1. Decide whether you are more likely to spend 1, 2 or 3 weeks in Japan
  2. Plug the trips you plan to take into Hyperdia (make sure Nozomi, Private Railway and Airplane are not ticked under “Search Details”)
  3. Add up the total cost of these routes (note the total cost of each journey is made up of the fare + seat fee)
  4. Compare the grand total with the price of a rail pass for the duration of your stay

(Personally I don’t think it’s worth paying for Green (superior) class as the regular class on Japanese trains is already of a very high standard.)

If it’s a close call it’s probably still worth getting because it makes it easier to take extra day trips and some of the subway lines in major cities (e.g. the Yamanote Line in Tokyo or the Osaka Loop Line) are also covered so you’ll be able to travel on them for free.

(Note that private subway lines are not covered, but you get the bulk of your value from a JR pass by travelling on shinkansen (bullet trains) and local intercity trains.)

We bought JR passes for our recent 3 week visit to Japan and in our case it certainly saved us money:

  • Number of trips taken: 20
  • Average cost of short distance journey (e.g. day trip): ¥390
  • Average cost of long distance journey (e.g. shinkansen/intercity): ¥12,000
  • Total travel value used: ¥88,690
  • Cost of pass: ¥57,700
  • Money saved: ¥30,990 (approx AU$360 or £235)

This is a significant saving, but it’s still a pretty big outlay in the first place. If you want to travel on a tighter budget it might be worth looking into a long distance bus pass as a cheaper alternative. I’ve not travelled this way in Japan myself but we met a couple that were doing it and they said it was comfortable and convenient. They normally took night buses so by the time they woke up they were in their destination, killing the two birds of transport and accommodation with the same stone. (And I don’t know about you, but I certainly sleep more easily on a bus than I do on a plane.)

Tip 1: seat reservations

It’s free to make a seat reservation using a JR pass and you can do it up until minutes before you actually board the train. Sometimes the reserved cars are sold out but if this is the case you can more often than not get a seat in one of the the unreserved cars. However, sometimes the entire train is made up of reserved cars only. If you absolutely must take that train and all the seats are booked out you can try to book “standing only” tickets.

At the end of the day I do think it’s worth the extra effort to make a seat reservation as it just eliminates any uncertainty.

Tip 2: buying a pass while travelling

The biggest rule about a JR pass is that you cannot buy one in Japan. You have to buy a voucher for the pass before you arrive, then you exchange it for the actually pass at any major train station in Japan. This is all good and well if you’re travelling from your home country to Japan and back again, but what if you’ll be on the road for more than 3 months before you hit Japan? (After 3 months a voucher that hasn’t been converted into a pass expires.) We encountered this exact snag on our recent visit.

The good thing is, while you can’t buy a pass in Japan, you don’t have to purchase the voucher in your home country. The official website lists worldwide agencies that you can buy a voucher from, but if you’re having trouble tracking one of these down you could try what we did in South Korea. (This might be less effective for countries that are further away from Japan.)

We were able to request, purchase and collect JR pass vouchers from a desk at the Tourist Information Centre in Seoul (to the right of the main information desk). The only conditions were we had to do so on a week day during normal business hours (the rest of the centre is open longer) and it took 24 hours to turn around. (Also note that this particular desk may be on lunchbreak for an hour at any time between 12:00-14:00.) But apart from that the whole process was very easy, and those passes saw us travel all the way from Shimonoseki in the west up to Sapporo in the north.

Shinkansen

Trans-Mongolian adventure, part 3: Mongolia

The train from Irkutsk in Siberia to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, was a completely different experience to the Trans-Siberian train we rode from Moscow to Irkutsk. The first was a Russian train and the second Chinese, and it ended up being the oldest of the four long distance trains we travelled on across Russia and Mongolia.

But the biggest difference was that this time we weren’t mixed in with the locals. Each carriage was segregated according to whether the occupants were Russian, Chinese, Mongolian or “tourist”. Apparently this was done in order to reduce theft (hmmm) but that wasn’t particularly successful as an iPhone was stolen from an American couple by someone that had ducked into the carriage. (Miraculously, they got it back! There isn’t really anywhere to hide on a train and the staff took the reported theft very seriously. By the time the train had reached the next station the phone had been recovered, although the thief’s fate was never very clear…) Personally I never felt unsafe on the previous train where we’d been mixed in with locals, but after all, we did have Svetlana acting as our unofficial grandmotherly protector then.

Another glimpse of the train

Either way, it ended up being a nice contrast as we met lots of lovely people (such as Carolyn, Sam, Stuart and Casey) who we could actually communicate and swap travel stories with. We only spent a total of one full day with these guys but by the end of it it felt like we’d known each other for a lot longer.

The day ended with lengthy passport and customs checks first at the Russian and then the Mongolian border. There was about one hour in between the two checkpoints and it wasn’t 100% clear from the customs forms whether we were allowed to take any alcohol or fruit across the border. We all decided it would be best to consume any potentially questionable food and drink before we got there, just to be on the safe side. In order to accomplish this, 15 of us crammed into one single compartment and held a one hour micro party: small space, short time, many drinks, lots of food.

Cabin party

The party ended abruptly when we arrived at the Mongolian checkpoint. The uniformed woman who collected our passports and forms was serious and businesslike but we thought we caught the hint of a smile on her face before she ordered us back to our assigned compartments.

We reached Ulaanbaatar at 6:30am and were able to steal a couple of extra hours sleep at a hotel we were checked into just to shower and breakfast. We met our delightful guide and enigmatic driver in the hotel lobby at 10am to begin our sightseeing in Mongolia in earnest.

Yellow and green ger doors

We had four full days in Mongolia (7-11 October). The first two, spent out in the grand and sweeping Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, were particularly magical. We spent the night in a ger (you mustn’t call a Mongolian house a yurt!) and our days meeting enormous vultures, shaggy yaks, friendly dogs and possibly a not-so-friendly wolf; hiking mountains; visiting a Buddhist meditation centre; and eating a lot of food (soups, mutton, beef stews, dumplings and endless cups of the best ceylon tea I’ve ever tasted). We also visited a nomadic family who served us salty milk tea, thick clotted cow’s cream, dried pellets of yak’s milk yoghurt, and a bowl of fermented horse’s milk (an alcoholic beverage that tastes a bit like sour beer). The weather was perfect and the landscape like nothing we’d ever seen before. Those two days really stand out as a significant highlight of all our travels.

Gorkhi-Terelj National Park

Back in Ulaanbaatar it took us a while to adjust to the insanely congested traffic. Our skilled driver successfully (and/or miraculously) negotiated the chaos without so much as a bump from any nearby vehicles, aided by a not insignificant amount of horn usage. Ulaanbaatar has experienced a population explosion in the last 10 years and the city  is expanding at a rapid rate but the infrastructure can’t quite keep up. The city is full of skyscrapers but the streets are dusty, the air polluted and the predominant colour is a browny grey: a stark contrast with the natural beauty of the relatively nearby  Gorkhi-Terelj National Park.

Sightseeing in Ulaanbaatar included visiting a Buddhist temple and school complex, the National Museum of Mongolia, the Soviet-esque Zaisan Memorial (which also offers an excellent panoramic view of the city), a wonderful performance of Mongolian song and dance, and the impressive Sükhbaatar Square. I would have loved to have visited the Natural History Museum too but unfortunately it was closed while we were there. I’ve heard Ulaanbaatar’s Modern Art Museum is also very good.

Ulaanbaatar

As with Irkutsk I felt that Real Russia’s prearranged itinerary really helped us to get the most out of our time in Mongolia. If we’d been doing things by ourselves it would have been harder to get out to the national park (I don’t think there’s any public transport outside of the city) and I think if Ulaanbaatar was your only stopover in Mongolia the experience might not be quite as enjoyable. The city on its own might become a bit tiresome and exhausting, whereas breaking it up with some time outside felt quite inspiring and invigorating. After all, the true spirit of Mongolia is all about being out in the open and close to nature. While I highly recommend Real Russia for assistance with visas, booking trains or arranging a complete tour, if you wanted to do the Russian section independently, or are perhaps only visiting Mongolia, the local company that was contracted to look after us in Mongolia was Great Genghis. Our guide and driver were both excellent: very skilled and knowledgable. And really nice people!

Enough plugs. Our Real Russia tour would end with our final train leg: Ulaanbaatar to Beijing. From our arrival in Beijing (12 October) we were back on our own as independent travellers. But more about that and our time in China another time!

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Trans-Mongolian adventure, part 2: the train & Siberia

On the evening of our last day in Moscow (29 Sep) our guide Alexey accompanied us to Yaroslavsky Station (Яросла́вский вокза́л) where we stocked up on supplies to last us for our imminent 80 hour train ride. We were the first to arrive in our couchette but by the time we’d packed our bags away and gotten settled our room-mate for the next three and a bit days had also arrived.

Her name was Svetlana. She didn’t speak a word of English but it’s amazing how much you can communicate without a common language. It certainly increased our very limited Russian vocabulary! She described herself as a babushka and later revealed she was 71 years old, although we insisted she was surely twenty years younger. She told us about her three children and seven grandchildren and insisted we have five children of our own. She became increasingly more motherly as the days wore on, insisting we wear warmer clothing and feeding us food from her supplies, including homemade cheese. We never quite worked out exactly where she was going – not quite as far as Vladivostok but further than us (Irkutsk). I wish I could watch a replay of the night we first met with English subtitles: I’m pretty sure what she said when she established we didn’t speak Russian was something along the lines of, “Just what am I going to do stuck on a train for days on end with you two who don’t speak a word of Russian!”

на здоровье (cheers)!

We visited the restaurant car on our first night. There weren’t many people there and when the staff saw us they almost seemed amused to have new customers. The food was alright (I had a hearty stew covered in melted cheese, Alex had borscht) but we got more into the Trans-Siberian spirit of things for the following two nights. The train makes a number of often quite lengthy (up to half an hour) stops along the way, where you can hop off and either buy cup noodles, snacks and drinks from little booths on the platform, or fish, piroshki and dumplings from local women offering them. They’re not pushy, the food is cheap, and they’re honest about giving you the right change (when you get confused and can’t comprehend how cheap it really is).

Pitstop at Omsk

One morning an elderly but spritely man poked his head into our compartment and said something in Russian. I gave my standard apologetic smile and when he realised I spoke English his face lit up and he said, “Ah!” He paused to corral the words he wanted to use next then proudly declared, “We will have a good English lesson today, yes!” When we laughed and smiled he repeated it again before disappearing down the corridor. A couple of hours later he came back for his English lesson, which was really just a request for coaching on the pronunciation of “pen” versus “pan”. He said the “pa” in pan is difficult because there’s no equivalent sound in Russian.

Finally we arrived at Irkutsk, deep in the heart of Siberia. It was early in the morning and we hugged Svetlana before saying “до свидания!” (goodbye). One of our guides for the area, Katya, collected us from the station and drove us to our accommodation where we gratefully showered for the first time in 4 days before being served a welcome hot breakfast.

Lake Baikal

During our stay in and around Irkutsk (3-5 Oct) we visited Lake Baikal (the largest fresh water lake in the world – roughly the size of Belgium), an open air museum of wooden architecture (buildings salvaged from the building of a Soviet dam), a баня (Russian sauna), a Buryat (native Siberian) settlement where we met a local shaman, as well as sights around Irkutsk itself (churches, statues and monuments). The itinerary was organised by Real Russia as part of their Classic Trans-Mongolian tour and I think it helped us to get a lot more out of the area than we probably would have done if we’d been doing things by ourselves. Both our guides, Katya and Ivan, were young, friendly and incredibly knowledgeable.

Siberia wasn’t anything like I’d expected. Irkutsk is quite large and has a youthful vibe thanks to being a university town. Lake Baikal is beautiful with crystal clear water and clean fresh air. It wasn’t barren, desolate or freezing – in fact it was actually quite sunny and warm while we were there. Of course, everything we saw was within an hour’s drive of a main train station: given how large Siberia is I’m sure there are many stretches of land that fit the image I had in my head, but there probably isn’t much point in visiting them for that exact reason.

Buryat shaman

Up next: the third and final instalment (of the Trans-Mongolian portion of our 5 month journey at least): Mongolia.

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Friends and fjords in Norway

From Copenhagen we caught an overnight ferry to Oslo where our friends Mae and Tulpesh met us at the port. Together we drove up to the mountains around Sjusjøen for a weekend at Mae’s parents’ traditional Norwegian cabin. This trip was a long time in planning: we first talked about doing it at least three years ago and it’s so great that we were finally able to do it! It was a short but very enjoyable weekend filled with catching up, eating Smash and tacos, eating lots of other food in general, enough Icelandic schnapps to give the three of us that drank it crazy dreams, hiking, picking wild blueberries and playing Uno.

The cabin!

At the end of the weekend we drove back down south, stopping for some delicious boller on the way. We spent the rest of the week (26 Aug – 1 Sep) staying at Mae and Tulpesh’s lovely apartment just outside of Oslo, although we did take one night out to do a slightly mad “day” trip to Bergen.

Oslo

We were so fortunate to be able to stay with Mae and Tulpesh. Not only because they’re lovely and it meant we got to spend lots of time with them (and their cats!) but it also saved us an awful lot of money. There’s no way around it: Norway is expensive. Accommodation, food and drink cost at least twice as much as they do in London. Deli de Luca became our standard go-to for reasonable lunches and as for dinner, we were spoiled by Tulpesh’s excellent cooking almost every night. (Interestingly though, intercity rail travel is significantly cheaper in Norway than the UK, so it’s not all bad.) We look forward to returning the favour when they eventually visit us in Melbourne! :)

Four things you can do for free in Oslo which are particularly great on a clear sunny day:

  1. Climb all over the Opera House – make sure you go inside too.
  2. Explore Frogner Park and see the uniquely human sculptures by Gustav Vigeland.
  3. Go for a stroll down Aker Brygge.
  4. Wander around the Akershus Fortress complex, which also gives you a great view of the harbour.

There are some excellent museums in Oslo, especially on the Bygdøy peninsula. Our favourites were:

  • Viking Ship Museum, Bygdøy. It features the two best-preserved Viking ships in the world and lots of other artefacts.
  • Norsk Folk Museum, Bygdøy. There are two parts: a particularly brilliant open air collection of buildings from different periods and locations, and indoor exhibitions about Norwegian costume, hunting and crafts.
  • Holmenkollbakken ski jump and museum. The top of the jump offers a fanastic view of the Oslo fjord.

If we’d had time we would have also visited the Kon-Tiki and FRAM museums on Bygdøy. If you plan on visiting several museums it would be well worth taking advantage of a 24, 48 or 72 hour Oslo Pass.

Oslo Opera House

Bergen

Bergen is a short flight or a 7 hour train journey from Oslo. We squeezed in a very brief visit by taking a morning train there; spending the afternoon, evening and following morning in Bergen; then taking a late afternoon train back to Oslo. It was a little exhausting but worth it for the train ride alone – which, personally, I think was even better than Bergen itself.

The ride is justifiably considered one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world. It’s also the highest altitude rail line in Europe and the train passes by every manner of scenery along the way: farmland, isolated cabins, small villages, green fields, tree-covered mountains, rocky mountains, small rivers, waterfalls, lakes of different colours, ice, snow and even a glacier. Book online in advance and it will only cost a fraction more than the Heathrow Express. (You use your booking number to collect the tickets from a machine at Oslo station, you don’t need to print anything.)

In Bergen itself we:

  • Browsed the Fish Market (touristy but worth a look).
  • Explored the shops and alleyways of Bryggen.
  • Rode the Fløibanen funicular up to the top of Fløyen mountain for a great view. If you have time there are several hiking trails up there too.
  • Visited Old Bergen. This is nice, particularly if the weather is good, but not essential (especially if you’ve already been to the Norsk Folk Museum in Oslo).

The Leprosy Museum and Bergen Aquarium are supposed to be quite good too and we were interested in the Bryggens Museum but didn’t have enough time. Of course, if you have more time (and money) you can also take one or multiple boat trips out to the nearby fjords.

Bryggen, Bergen

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Bavaria, Bremen, books and beer

We visited Berlin, Bremen and Hamburg on our 2010 tour of Europe but always meant to come back to Germany to see some of the south. On this visit (10-18 Aug 2012) we picked Munich (to tick the Bavaria box), Mainz (because we work in graphic design and print and wanted to see the birthplace of the printing press) and made time to see Bremen again (as we have a friend there).

Munich

We stayed in another Airbnb property in Munich, a lovely self contained studio apartment hosted by a well-travelled and kind photographer called Jörg. We didn’t do an awful lot of sightseeing as, perhaps unsurprisingly, we spent most of our time drinking and eating. However, it felt like the things we did do gave us a nice overview:

  • One of Lenny’s Bike Tours is a great introduction to the history and sights of Munich, with a healthy beer garden break for lunch in the middle.
  • Any cycling tour will take you through the English Garden, a verdant, sprawling park, but it’s lovely to linger in and worth revisiting for more cycling, strolling or some sunbathing (even nude in one particular section). You can swim in the river Isar which passes through the park but it’s icy cold with a very strong current.
  • Climbing St Peter’s Church tower rewards you with a great view of Munich’s famous central square, Marienplatz.
  • Friends highly recommended the Deutsches Museum, the world’s largest museum of technology and science but I’m afraid we just didn’t get around to it… perhaps because we were too busy exploring beer halls!

Overlooking Marienplatz

Speaking of beer halls:

  • Augustiner: our favourite brauhaus for well-priced, hearty Bavarian food and a festive but cosy atmosphere.
  • Weisses: good food and an excellent range of wheat beers, which I’m normally not too keen on but rather enjoyed in Munich.
  • Hofbräuhaus: a little more expensive with a significant drop in food quality. It’s arguably still worth visiting for a drink though, or at least a wander through its seemingly endless rooms. Note that a litre of beer is served by default – you have to specifically request it if you’d “only” like a pint. ;)
  • Chinese Tower beer garden: located inside the English Garden this is the second largest beer garden in Munich. We found the meals a little pricey for lunch: I’d recommend just grabbing one of the delicious giant pretzels with some butter to accompany your beer. (Or you can even bring your own food.)
  • Finding a table in a Bavarian beer hall: you’ll most likely have to share so as soon as you spot some empty seats ask the others at the table if it’s okay to sit there.
  • If you need a break from rowdy beer halls Goldmarie serves very nice food and it’s not too expensive but you may need to book.

Beer, beer, beer

Mainz

The highlight of Mainz for us was visiting the Gutenberg Museum. Not only is it home to three Gutenberg Bibles and a working reconstruction of Gutenberg’s press but it’s filled with oodles of old and beautiful books, other printing presses and exhibitions on printing in Asia (which actually developed much earlier than it did in Europe), paper making, book binding, the media, teeny tiny books and even things that were made to look like books but are actually something else. Not everything is in English but I believe they offer guided tours in English and audio guides are also available. It’s probably not for everyone but we really enjoyed it and ended up spending a whole day there. (We were able to leave for lunch and return on the same ticket which was very convenient.)

Apart from that Mainz is quite nice to wander, particularly the altstadt (old town), but 2 nights was plenty of time for us to feel like we’d seen everything.

Gutenberg, Mainz

Bremen

An unplanned bonus of travelling from Mainz to Bremen was that the train ride happened to follow quite a long section of the Rhine which rewarded us with some incredibly picturesque views of traditional little German towns and even some castles dotted all the way along the river.

Alex’s friend from uni, Nick, was our host and tour guide again on this our second visit to his hometown. Things to do in Bremen:

  • Admire the main city square and wander the cobbled backstreets of the altstadt (old town).
  • Go on a tour of the Becks Brewery – a working brewery and a much better experience than Heineken. Make sure you try Haake-Beck and Haake-Beck Kräusen while you’re there, unique beers only available in the Bremen area!
  • Enjoy a beer along Schlachte Embankment, lined with beer gardens and “the” place to be seen in Bremen.

Alex and Nick in Bremen

A note on German train travel

You can save a significant amount of money booking German train tickets in advance online. You can choose to receive a PDF ticket to print which can be handy if you’re on the road and don’t have a fixed address for receiving mailed tickets (although it can sometimes be tricky to get access to a printer). I recommend paying the €4 extra for a seat reservation as every German train I’ve ever been on has been almost if not completely full (but maybe that’s just my luck).

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