Amtrak Coast Starlight – San Francisco 🇺🇸 to Los Angeles 🇺🇸 by train – the most scenic route in the US?

Across the world, the Coast Starlight will ring a bell with many and evoke scenes of travelling long distance on the rails in America. After-all, the route has existed in its current form since 1974, when it was formed from an amalgamation of two former Southern Pacific routes: the Coast Daylight and the Starlight.

The full route of the modern day Coast Starlight begins in the Pacific Northwest city of Seattle, running down the West Coast of America to Los Angeles in Southern California, making calls in the cities of Portland, Sacaramento, Emeryville and Santa Barbara. The full duration of the train trip is in excess of thirty-five hours for the impressive 1,377 mile journey.

For me, I opted to take it for the southern daytime part of the journey, only travelling from Emeryville to Los Angeles, taking in excess of twelve hours – still an all-day commitment. However, is this route and the Amtrak experience really what it lives up to be, and is it worth taking the Coast Starlight over flying? Let’s find out, as I bought a ticket for Amtrak’s cheapest accommodation option in Coach Class.

Departure from Emeryville

As there isn’t an Amtrak railway connection from San Francisco, the first part of the journey is by coach to Emeryville station, where the Coast Starlight would take us directly to the City of Angels. When booking with Amtrak it is possible to book a through journey from San Francisco to Los Angeles, which includes both the leg on the Amtrak Thruway Bus to Emeryville and the train to Los Angeles in one go.

The bus departed San Francisco promptly at an early 06:55 in the morning, arriving at Emeryville station soon after at 07:14. This arrived in plenty of time to wait for the train in Emeryville, which is scheduled to depart at 08:39.

Part of the reason for the early departure of the bus is that you can take advantage of the complimentary baggage check-in on the train. This is only possible up to forty-five minutes prior to the train’s departure time and must be done at the railway station (Emeryville in this case). It’s not the end of the world if you do miss the baggage check-in time as you can take the bag onto the train with you – as I found out on my trip on the Capitol Limited.

Facilities were limited at Emeryville station, though there was a waiting room with comfortable chairs, vending machines, an ATM, a café, which opened at 08:00, and toilet facilities.

The platform was announced shortly before departure and the train rolled in, albeit on a different platform than what was announced. This led to a mass sprawl of passengers, once the penny dropped that the train arriving was indeed the Coast Starlight. Having located the Coach Class car indicated on the side by the entrance, our car attendant appeared at the door. There was some confusion and giggling amongst passengers as the door was not on the platform, but the car attendant soon whisked out a yellow step to solve the problem.

Onboard the Coast Starlight

Coach Class Accommodation

Coach Class on the Coast Starlight entitled me to my own reserved reclining seat for the duration of the journey, in addition to access to the Sightseer Lounge and the Café Car on the train – more details of these areas below. This is more than enough to get by for the duration of the journey, especially if you’re travelling from San Francisco to Los Angeles, which is exclusively during the daytime. For those joining at the train’s origin in Seattle, this may be a different story, depending on preferences, as the train proceeds to travel through the night before its arrival into Emeryville.

Amtrak provides seat reservations on this route; however, unusually for the train provider world, you don’t find out what your specific seat is until the train has arrived into the platform. The specific seat number is scribbled down on a coloured piece of cardboard and handed to you by the car attendant. The same as my trip on the Amtrak Capitol Limited, customers are grouped together according to their destination.

By chance I was handed seat 61, which was an honour, as it would be for all of those who follow The Man in Seat 61 and his helpful DIY train travel website. I headed upstairs to locate my seat, which turned out to be a good one, of course, with a window view.

The seating in Coach Class is in a 2+2 configuration, so, if you’re a solo traveller, as I was on this trip, you’ll be seated next to another passenger going to the same destination. My seat-mate had disappeared soon after departure before we had a chance to say hello, which I tried not to take personally. As it happened, I only spent about 10% of the journey seated in Coach Class accommodation as soon after departure I decided to take a walk down the train and just like my seat-mate, we both had the same idea…

Sightseer Lounge

The Coast Starlight is one of the selected Amtrak routes to have a Sightseer Lounge – a good indication of what sights are on offer on the trip. This car is available for all customers and is the place to enjoy the scenery on offer with its panoramic windows. It’s also one of the best places to meet fellow passengers and has handy nearby access to the Café on the lower deck of the same car. The car has a variety of seating configurations, including seats facing the windows on each side as well as tables for four – perfect for admiring the views on offer on this trip.

This is where I ended up spending the remainder of the journey (90% of it) and sat on the right hand side in the direction of travel for the best scenery. This car became the hub of activity on the train; every so often new people would drop by to sit and chat, people from all walks of life, residing in all types of accommodation on the train – from a retired couple returning from a cruise in Alaska about to head to dinner to a local gentleman who seemed to know every landmark we were passing. The Sightseer Lounge is available to everyone after all and it was a great place to be.

Business Class Accommodation

There is a second type of seated accommodation on the Coast Starlight: Business Class. I was very glad that I hadn’t chosen to upgrade my Coach Class ticket to this class since the car was identical to Coach Class, other than a rather dull brown leather upholstery on the seats. There is very little to differentiate between the two classes in terms of service offering too, with the only perk being free bottled water provided at a station in the centre of the car. The Business Class car was only about 50% occupied during the trip, unlike Coach Class, which was fully booked; so that could be a hidden benefit.

Dining Car and Café Car

A trip on the Coast Starlight is a long one, so being able to purchase food and drink throughout the journey is important. Situated downstairs in the Sightseer Lounge is the Café Car, which was open, for most of the trip, for all passengers and closed only for staff breaks and to cash up at the end of the journey. On offer were some hot selections, sandwiches, salads and snacks.

Passengers with sleeping car tickets (for Superliner Roomettes and Bedrooms) have their meals included in the cost of the ticket and provided in the Dining Car on the train. This serves Amtrak’s Traditional Dining menu. However, since I was travelling in Coach Class, I only had access to the Café Car. I hope to review the Traditional Dining menu in the future.

In the Café Car I developed a love-hate relationship with the characterful lady serving in there. My first encounter of the trip with her was when she came upstairs to the Sightseer Lounge. She yelled down the carriage instructing us to use the trash boxes for rubbish – we were being too messy and leaving rubbish lying around! She then proceeded to splash me with a half cup of coffee she was clearing away after her rant with no apology, just an “oops”.

I allowed her some time to cool down and then walked downstairs to order something to eat. She thanked me for my order, wondered where I got my crisp $10.00 notes from and said that I talk funny (yes I have a north-east England accent that many Americans struggled to understand). She wished me an enjoyable trip and jokingly told me to “don’t get too fat on American food”.

Later on, there was a casualty on the trip (not a human one thankfully) but I did manage to lose my wireless headphones case. In the hope of locating it, I went down to my friend to see if anyone had handed it in. It’s not there, so the same lady told me it’s highly unusual for anyone to steal anything, and so she happily put an announcement out to the train for me: “please, have a good look around, the young man is in tears”. I proceeded back upstairs and became the subject of the trip. People said “was it you?”, “were you really in tears?”, “did you find them?”. I didn’t, but I admired the Cafe Car Lady’s sense of humour.

Sleeping Car Accommodation

As the Coast Starlight runs overnight in the northern part of the route, there is a choice of sleeping car accommodation which is also available for the day part of the journey, these are Superliner Roomettes and Bedrooms. Photographs of the same Superliner Roomettes can be found in my Amtrak Capitol Limited post.

Scenery

Quite contrary to the expectations, for the first seven hours of the journey there is no coastline visible from the train at all. But this isn’t all bad as the views are sublime of the passing hills and countryside. Think of a crop and it’s likely to be there right next to the railway line as the train will pass fields of lettuces, grapes, avocados, onions and strawberries – to name a few. Not only that, but you’ll pass through what are the garlic and artichoke capitals of the world at Gilroy and Castroville and you can catch a whiff of garlic as you pass Gilroy.

At San Luis Obispo, the southbound Coast Starlight met its northbound counterpart and soon after the train would join the coast. The timing of the trip was perfect for seeing the sunset over the Pacific Ocean.

Arrival in Los Angeles

After twelve hours and thirty two minutes the Coast Starlight arrived into Los Angeles on time at 21:11. As we approached, there was an amusing announcement to ask “can all staff please ensure they take their items out of the fridge”. Baggage was soon available after arrival from the Baggage Reclaim section of the station.

Conclusion

I had a great time on the Amtrak Coast Starlight. The trip offered a highly memorable experience with great views throughout – and surprisingly only coastal views towards the end of the trip. There was a friendly ambiance onboard with passengers from all walks of life to pass the time with. For me, purchasing a Coach Class ticket for this trip was more than enough and I was happy that I chose not to upgrade to Business Class.

Booking and Fares

Booking the Coast Starlight isn’t a complicated affair as fares are available online at Amtrak.com.

Journey LegCoach ClassBusiness ClassSuperliner RoometteBedroom
San Francisco to Los Angeles (including Amtrak Thruway Coach)from $54.00from
$94.00
from
$257.00
from $378.00

This article was first published in January 2023.

Amtrak Capitol Limited – Washington D.C. 🇺🇸 to Chicago 🇺🇸 by sleeper train – and how I saved on the Superliner Roomette fare

Excited to explore a new continent by train I booked a ticket on the Amtrak Capitol Limited, the most direct train that connects the two major cities in the United States of America, Washington D.C. and Chicago. The journey takes seventeen hours and forty minutes and runs overnight, usually departing Washington Union Station at 16:05 and arriving in Chicago Union Station for 08:45 the following morning. The train departs every day in each direction and travels via the Alleghany Mountains.

A long distance journey on Amtrak like this really puts into perspective how vast the area of the United States is. Like many long distance train trips here, this isn’t a fast journey with an average speed of 93 miles per hour. This would be enough put most travellers off booking, however, once you’re onboard watching the world go by and making friends in the dining car, the speed becomes unimportant. You see more of where you travel and experience a feeling of relaxation to rival any other mode of transport.

Amtrak offers a range of accommodation options on the Capitol Limited, three types in fact. This varies from a reclining seat to a family bedroom. Reclining seats are often very good value on Amtrak, especially on overnight trains, but for those wanting to travel in more comfort, with a private compartment and a place to lie down, Amtrak will charge you handsomely for it. For this journey I found a way to have the best of both worlds – a reasonable price and the same accommodation that would allow me to get a restful sleep, as I will explain.

Washington Union Station

My journey started at the grand Washington Union Station, built originally in 1907. Today it is a true hub station housing not just Amtrak long distance services but also connections with the metro, buses and suburban rail connections. Amtrak services from here include the Capitol Corridor served by America’s fastest train, the Acela Express, that whisks you away up to Boston in seven hours, several times a day.

It is always recommended to turn up in good time for an Amtrak train, official guidance is thirty minutes prior to departure. While you can ‘turn up and go’ for most trains in Europe, Amtrak does have a more formal boarding procedure. Your train is called on the main concourse and you are filed onto the train through a departure gate. It’s not the best passenger experience, but one of many examples where Amtrak models itself as an airline and adopts elements of it that it really doesn’t need to.

One of the better policies adopted from the airline industry is the optional baggage check-in facility, where you drop your bag off before boarding the train. The bag is stored in a dedicated baggage car on the train and then turns up at the Baggage Reclaim at your destination. It was my intention to check-in a suitcase for this trip, however, I fell foul to not checking the dedicated page on the Amtrak website. In the general guidance at the time there was only mention of turning up thirty minutes prior to departure. I soon learned that the deadline for baggage check-in was actually forty-five minutes before travel, so having missed the deadline I would need to take my case with me onto the train.

Onboard the Capitol Limited

Seated Accommodation

There is one type of seated accommodation on the Capitol Limited and that is Coach Class arranged in a 2+2 configuration on both the upper and lower decks of the car. This features a comfortable seat that reclines and one of the best seats for legroom on the rails in the world.

Amtrak doesn’t allow you to reserve a specific seat in advance in Coach Class on the Capitol Limited. On the platform there is a queue for boarding. In the queue, you are handed a coloured cardboard slip by the car attendant that contains your seat number. This is nothing fancy though – this seat number is scribbled on in marker pen and the slip has been torn from larger piece of cardboard. This specific seat becomes your base for the rest of the journey and you are expected to remain there, even if you don’t like your seat neighbour.

The attendant groups customers going to the same destination together and the staff are very clear that there may be seats free elsewhere on the train, but you must remain in your specified seat. There is method in the madness here, this is a train not a plane and there will be people, and groups of people, getting on and off the train as the train stops at stations through the night. This method at least allows them to sit together.

There are often very good value fares for travel in Coach Class, especially on these overnight trips. For many (and myself), however, sleeping in any seat would be a challenge and this one would be no exception.

Amtrak is in the process of refurbishing these coaches, so you may have a mixture of old, dark blue fabric seating, and the new, light grey leather seating for your journey.

Sleeping Car Accommodation

The cheapest of the sleeping car type accommodation is the Superliner Roomette (pictured below). The size of these are compact, but it can accommodate up to two people in each one. On arrival the room is set-up in daytime mode, which is two comfortable seats facing each other. These two seats convert to form a single bed for the night for one person and there is an upper bunk that folds down to accommodate the second person. Bedding is provided and the room set-up for sleeping by the car attendant at a time of your choosing. Shared toilets are available with one on the upper floor and more downstairs along with shared showers (including towels and soap), more roomettes and an accessible bedroom. The facilities were kept clean by the attendant throughout the journey.

The third type of accommodation on the Capitol Limited is the Family Bedroom, which are double the size of a Superliner Roomette. These rooms also have en-suite bathrooms with showers and can sleep up to four passengers – up to two people accommodated on a lower bunk and up to two on an upper bunk. I wasn’t able to get a picture of this class unfortunately but hope to review this in the future.

Reservations for any of these accommodations also come with complimentary coffee in the morning at the end of the car as well as complimentary lounge access at the departure and arrival stations.

Dining and Café Car

There is catering available to all customers onboard the train irrespective of the class you’re travelling in. The difference is which part of the Dining and Café Car you are able to sit in and whether your meals are complimentary or not. One half of the car is designated for sleeping car passengers who receive complimentary meals included with their tickets. The second half is empty tables where you queue up, order from the host and pay and take your food to your table, or your seat if you’d prefer.

Complimentary meals are available to all sleeping car passengers. Amtrak recently launched a controversial “Flexible Dining” menu on some eastern routes allowing sleeping car passengers to eat when they please. This comes with a downside, however, in that they are microwaved meals served on a plastic tray. Amtrak’s longer train routes in the western part of the country do retain the “Traditional Dining” menu which I hope to sample in the future. Pictured below is the substantial complimentary evening meal and breakfast for sleeping car passengers on the Capitol Limited. I was shocked when I asked for milk to go with my coffee that I was given a half pint.

Scenery

The Capitol Limited route does have some very scenic moments as the route travels via the Allegheny Mountains. A particular highlight was going through Harper’s Ferry in the evening as the sun was setting. In the morning, the city can be seen in the distance with its tall buildings and riding alongside Lake Michigan is a treat.

What was my experience and how did I save $100 on the sleeping car fare?

Originally I was all set to travel in Coach Class for the trip on the Capitol Limited – the price for the full journey was a bargain $84.00. At the time of booking, 11 months in advance, the Superliner Roomette fare was $450.00 – a huge differential between the two classes.

Amtrak does have a “Bid-Up” programme where you can bid for an upgrade from your booked accommodation. I went for a fair bid of $250, however, I learned the night before travel that I was unsuccessful and presumably ‘out-bid’ by another traveller.

Following this news and me not being too keen on the reclining seat for the night time part of the journey, I decided to take another look at the Amtrak app to see what fares were being offered. The same fare was available for the full journey for the Superliner Roomette. I did some more searching and much to my delight I found the same accommodation covering the night part of the journey from Cumberland to Chicago for only $266.00.

My plan was to spend the first three hours of the trip in the Coach Class accommodation and then at 19:24, when the train would arrive at Cumberland station, I would move through to the Superliner Roomette. This would still allow me to benefit from the complimentary meal in the Dining Car available to all sleeping car passengers, would give me a bed for the night, breakfast in the morning and lounge access at Chicago Union Station – not a bad deal.

I sent a message to Amtrak on Twitter to confirm that my plan would work out ok before booking. As I wasn’t able to check-in my bag with my original ticket from Washington D.C. to Chicago, I decided to ask my roomette attendant before boarding if I could leave my suitcase in the sleeping car so I wouldn’t need to walk through the train with my suitcase before arriving at Cumberland. This was no problem at all.

I checked-in to the Coach Class accommodation with my original ticket. As the train reached Cumberland I moved through to the Dining Car where I chatted to the host and showed him my Superliner Roomette reservation from Cumberland and he was happy to serve me just before my station. My Superliner Roomette attendant came through to the Dining Car and asked what time I’d like my bed to be made up (any time before 22:00) so I opted for 21:30.

So all-in-all booking Coach Class for the day part of the journey and the Superliner Roomette for the evening part of the journey worked a treat for me on the Capitol Limited. I could’ve saved an extra $30 if I’d booked only Coach Class from Washington D.C. to Cumberland instead of Chicago. Naturally all prices are demand managed on Amtrak and it won’t always be cheaper to split accommodation mid-way through the journey, even on the Capitol Limited. But it’s always worth checking and I was very glad to have the roomette for the night.

Chicago Union Station & Metropolitan Lounge

The arrival into Chicago Union Station isn’t the most welcoming the same as the platform area at Washington Union Station on departure the day before. The platforms are underground and are poorly lit. This could be so as you spend as little time down there, but it does feel like an area you shouldn’t be in.

Once you’re on the concourse of the station, the environment is much nicer with a grand entrance hall. Chicago Union Station is the main hub of Amtrak and it’s certainly exciting seeing some of the great long distance trains being listed on the departure boards here including the California Zephyr, Empire Builder and South West Chief.

Conclusion

I thoroughly enjoyed my trip on the Amtrak Capitol Limited, it is certainly a competitive way to travel between Washington D.C. and Chicago being time effective travelling through the night and a journey experience in its own right – you don’t get views like that on an aeroplane that’s for sure. The Coach Class seat was surprisingly comfortable and the privacy and comfort of the Superliner Roomette bed was very welcome when it came to going to sleep. The food onboard wasn’t much to write home about in terms of presentation, but I did find it tasty.

Fares

Journey LegCoach ClassSuperliner Roomette
Washington D.C. to Chicagofrom $84.00from $450.00
Washington D.C. to Cumberlandfrom $54.00
Cumberland to Chicagofrom $265.00

This article was first published in January 2023.

Japan 🇯🇵: an introduction by rail 🚆 – Kyoto, Hiroshima, Miyajima, Niigata, Tokyo

This was my first time visiting Japan. A beautiful country with a welcoming culture and an inspiring transport network! The one thing I couldn’t wait to try was the Shinkansen, or bullet train, that Japan is so highly renowned for. Rest assured, there would be plenty of train trips planned in this jam-packed week-long visit.

My Japan premiere (and therefore this blog post) features:

  • Flying with LOT Airways London City Airport to/from Tokyo Narita Airport via Warsaw Chopin Airport
  • Tokyo Narita Airport to Central Tokyo onboard the Narita Express
  • Tokyo to Kyoto by Shinkansen Hikari
  • Exploring Kyoto including Hozu-gawa river boat ride
  • Kyoto to Hiroshima by Shinkansen Hikari and Shinkansen Sakura
  • Exploring Hiroshima and Miyajima
  • Hiroshima to Izumoshi by Shinkansen Kodama and Limited Express Yakumo
  • Izumoshi to Tokyo by Sunrise Izumo sleeper train
  • Tokyo to Niigata by Shinkansen Max Toki

London City (LCY) to Tokyo Narita (NRT) via Warsaw (WAW) with LOT Polish Airlines

Staying over at London City airport, we kicked things off early for our Premium Economy experience through to Tokyo with LOT Polish Airlines.

Our first leg departed London City at 8am sharp, taking two and half hours to Warsaw Chopin airport onboard an Embraer-190 plane. This had the same type of seats and legroom for all classes, which was a little cramped, however we were treated to our own private cabin with Business Class customers separated from the Economy cabin by a curtain drawn shortly after departure.

Peculiarly, myself and my friend Ed, sat in row five, were the only customers travelling in Premium Economy. In the front row, a gentleman was travelling Business Class to Israel.

Upon departure, our dedicated Cabin Crew member delivered us a welcome orange juice and much to our surprise, a cooked breakfast. This was the second breakfast of the day, having also ate at the airport, but naturally we were on holiday so felt zero guilt for eating this too. We expected only a snack for this leg.

We arrived into Warsaw airport with three hours to kill before our next flight direct to Tokyo. The airport wasn’t the most comfortable with the waiting areas being small and cramped. Premium Economy doesn’t come with business lounge access, but we were able to pay a 120 PLN (c.£23.16) supplement per person. We were able to relax in there enjoying even more food, wine, beer and soft drinks. It was a busy lounge, but it was well worth paying the supplement for the duration we were in Warsaw.

We then departed Warsaw at 14:40 on our 787-Dreamliner, travelling overnight and arriving at 09:20 Japan time. The total journey time of this leg was ten hours and 40 minutes.

The service with LOT on both flights was second-to-none with meals on the Dreamliner fusing European cuisine with Japanese, making for some interesting dishes. Also on the Dreamliner, there was a basket of goodies that was always available. Drinks were plentiful with a glass of bubbly being offered upon boarding, another drink offered shortly after (I had a G&T), then the first meal being served with wine then tea or coffee afterwards.

Tokyo Narita Airport to Tokyo by Narita Express train

We wasted no time before travelling on our first train. We travelled on the Narita Express straight into the heart of Tokyo. The train is non-stop and takes approximately 54 minutes. We visited the JR booking office where we exchanged our JR Pass Exchange Order for the real deal – the dated JR Pass. We opted for an Ordinary Class pass over the Green Car (Japan’s First Class equivalent), the difference in the service being the seat and 3+2 seating vs 2+2 seating. The pass gave us total freedom to go anywhere we wanted to in Japan! A great feeling.

We also obtained free seat reservations for the day including the compulsory reservation for the Narita Express.

Immediately while arriving at the train station, the efficiency of the Japan Railway became apparent. We found our platform and the inbound service from Tokyo arrived and we were asked not to board. A staff ‘squad’ boarded the train at different carriages and pulled a belt across the door behind them, why? Their mission was to go through the train as quickly as they could, wiping down tables, the floor and turn around every seat with a lever so it would face the direction of travel. It was a fine art and fascinating to watch.

We boarded the train and by the entrance doors were luggage racks. Not only was there plenty of room for cases of all sizes, there were wires to wrap around the suitcase handle where you self-set a number lock to ensure your case wouldn’t be stolen. I couldn’t imagine a theft for one minute in Japan, but it’s best to be safe and we were going to the capital city afterall. If you forgot your number there was a process – travel to the final station and speak to staff who will release it. They thought of everything.

Within the passenger saloon with its spacious, reclining seats there were screens detailing information about the train’s journey featuring pages about the various weather disruption incidents across the JR East network. Line closures due to typhoons and earthquakes popped up!

Tokyo to Kyoto by Shinkansen

This would be our first ride on the Shinkansen, travelling to Kyoto on a Shinkansen Hikari service in two hours, 40 minutes. We asked the Booking Office Clerk at the airport to make us a reservation on the side of Mount Fuji. She did so and thanked us for showing interest in the beauty of her country. Throughout the week, this culture of gratitude kept popping up.

Onboard the Shinkansen, just like the Narita Express, all the seats were facing the direction of travel. Ten minutes into the journey, a trolley manned by a very polite lady came through the carriage. She turned and bowed to customers in the carriage as she walked in and out of each carriage – that’s a lot of bowing she must do in a day’s shift! We purchased lunch from her selection of Ekiben (train bento boxes) which were shown to us on a menu complete with pictures. A delightful meal which was beautifully presented, and part of the fun is there’s always something which you’re not quite sure what it actually is!

We passed Mount Fuji in the distance, capped with snow, and took a snap.

We arrived on time into Kyoto station. The station boats an impressive array of shops – perfect for bagging that souvenir of your visit. Also don’t miss the very long ride up the escalators to the top floor of the station, where the Cube food court is. I enjoyed pork cutlet.

Exploring Kyoto

Kyoto is a very walkable city. Everywhere you walk you can see Shinkansen trains gliding past. In fact one 16-car N700 Shinkansen series train alone weighs 715 tonnes – it was unreal to think that was flying above your head!

It is worth spending time visiting at least one Buddist temple or Shinto shrine – there are many around the city. We went to one of the oldest – the Tō-ji temple, built in the year 796.

While wandering around admiring the architecture, statues, plants, ponds and art work a lady invited us into her temple for a morning prayer and blessing. We took our shoes off upon entering, took part in the ceremony listening to her instructions throughout. It was a very relaxing experience and made me slightly envious that her morning routine started this way every day.

We visited the wonderful Kyoto railway museum in Shimogyō-ku spending three hours wandering around the exhibits. It had everything from the first Shinkansen to a mock control centre and a museum shop.

Hozu-gawa river cruise

The following day we started with a ride onboard a JR Ltd Express train from Kyoto to Kameoka, the starting point for the must-do river boat ride along the Hozu-gawa river.

Kyoto to Kameoka by Ltd. Express Hashidate train

At Kameoka, the river boat terminal is a five minute walk from the station. The Tourist Information Office is within the station and they provided invaluable help with directions to reach the terminal. You purchase your ticket there and then wait for your number to be called out in order of purchase. We had roughly a 20 minute wait and there was a very enthusiastic man holding the board with the ticket numbers calling them – no chance of missing your number!

The ride was exciting, dealing with varied water currents. There were three men rowing the boat however only Japanese was spoken, but the scenery alone was enough to enjoy the trip. There were many bridges where you could observe trains passing and a boat arrived towards the end selling soup and drinks.

The boat journey finished in Arashiyama some ten kilometres from central Kyoto. It was delightful to walk around this area with temples, looking out for Geisha, see the manned level crossing in action and stroll in the Bamboo forest. Then we took a regional train to travel back to central Kyoto.

Our few days in Kyoto concluded and we then headed to Hiroshima.

Kyoto to Hiroshima by Shinkansen

There are direct trains from Kyoto to Hiroshima however these are Shinkansen Nozomi services which are marketed as the premium bullet train services. These services cannot be used with the JR Pass. Therefore we would have to complete the journey with an easy change of train at Shin-Kobe station on the same platform and board the next train.

The change of train is a good chance to stretch the legs, if anything, and gives the opportunity to purchase an Ekiben bento box from the station kiosk. The trains used on the majority of Shinkansen Hikari and Shinkansen Sakura services are actually formed of the same N700 series Shinkansen as the Nozomi services, so comfort levels are exactly the same. The journey time is also the same but with some extra minutes for the change of train.

Our first leg for this journey was on a Shinkansen Hikari service taking 28 minutes. Then, with an eight minute change at Shin-Koke, we boarded the Shinkansen Sakura to travel a further 73 minutes direct to Hiroshima.

After arriving into Hirsohima we headed straight to the left luggage lockers to store our baggage – these lockers proved invaluable on our trip to Japan, being available at all major stations costing from 200 yen/day to 600 yen/day depending on luggage size.

Day trip to Miyajima (Itsukushima)

Trains depart Hiroshima every 15 minutes for Miyajimaguchi which is on the JR Sanyo line. Then it’s an easy five minute walk to the JR Ferry terminal for the 10 minute boat ride to Miyajima. Both trips are included with the JR Pass.

Miyajima is the perfect place to bag your souvenir with lots of shops selling Japanese gifts. The island is famous for its Momiji manjū cakes which are made of buckwheat and rice powder, they are shaped like maple leaves and contain a red bean paste. Look out for these and for the thousands of friendly Skia deer wandering the streets.

Once you have finished at the shops, it is well worth a trip on the Miyajima Ropeway to see the view from the top of Mount Misen. The cable car is a 15 minute walk away from the centre of Miyajima and is a mean feet of engineering taking the strain off climbing 350 metres of the mountain’s 535 metres.

At the top of the mountain the views of Hiroshima Bay are fantastic with green islands dotted around the water and the city of Hiroshima visible in the distance. Absolutely delightful on a clear day. There is also a café at the top which we enjoyed.

Exploring Hiroshima

Hiroshima is a city which resonates with most people worldwide because of a devastating event that took place in 1945. On 6th August an atomic bomb made of uranium was dropped on the city by American forces during World War II, ultimately killing a total of 140,000 people. Another atomic bomb was dropped days later in Japan but on the city of Nagasaki this time.

I wanted to learn more about what happened so spent a day visiting the extensive Peace Memorial Museum and Park situated alongside each other. I recommend spending the full day visiting both, the Atomic Bomb Dome alone really hits home.

The museum actively supports the movement against nuclear weapons asking visitors to sign up to International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear weapons (ICAN).

Hiroshima has one of the most impressive shrines in Japan, also a World Heritage Site. The Itsukushima Shrine is significant because its torii-gate and shrine are in the middle of the sea! No photos however as we ran out of time.

Hiroshima to Izumoshi by Shinkansen and Ltd. Exp Yakumo

Izumoshi, also known as Izumo, is probably a place you’ve never heard of, we hadn’t neither. Izumo is a small city on the northern coast of Japan. We went to visit not only to get a taste of a non-tourist region of Japan, but also a chance to use our JR Pass for another day and to pick up the Sunrise Izumo sleeper train which starts its journey here.

Our fastest option, and what we perceived to be the most scenic option, to go from Hiroshima to Izumoshi was to travel on a Shinkansen service to Okayama and change onto a Yakumo train direct to Izumoshi there. The day before, booking seats for the fast Shinkansen Sakura trains proved to be a challenge with trains fully reserved and we were advised in the booking office to queue very early for the unreserved cars if we wanted to travel on this.

Instead, we found the option to travel on a slower Shinkansen to Okayama. This Kodama service had plenty of seats available but a longer journey time of 86 minutes instead of 46 minutes. This was operated by the nice retro, swift looking 500 series Shinkansen, which I have to say was my favourite! Just look at that nose! It was nice to see this train, which features in the Railway Museum in Kyoto, on a passenger service.

There is no green car on the Kodama service, however just by reserving a seat you can get a reservation in a car which used to be the Green car! The 500 series Shinkansen was degraded from the fast Nozomi services in 2010 to these stopping Shinkansen Kodoma services, because of their age, but I do feel it was well worth the extra 40 minutes of travel at least for the space we had onboard.

After the break in Okayama we boarded the Ltd. Exp Yakumo train bound for Izumoshi. This journey leg took three hours, seven minutes and is a beautiful ride through mountains as the train heads north then, as the train reaches the coast it heads west past rivers and lakes of Nakaumi and Lake Shinji. Before boarding we bought lunch to enjoy with the views – another Ekiben bento box of course!

Izumoshi to Tokyo by Sunrise Izumo sleeper train

One of the last remaining sleeper trains in Japan is the Sunrise Izumo. The train actually joins to the one other sleeper train in Japan en route, the Sunrise Seto. The eastbound trains couple together at Okayama and complete the rest of the journey to Tokyo as one train. The westbound trains split at Okayama and follow their respective routes to Izumoshi and Takamatsu.

We joined the Sunrise Izumo in Izumoshi at the start of its journey, departing at 18:51, taking 12 hours and 17 minutes in total and arriving into Tokyo at 07:08.

A variety of accommodation is available priced according to comfort. The most basic option, which is actually free to use with the JR Pass (reservation required), is the Nobinobi sleeping area. This is described by the Japan Railways as a “seat”. This is in fact an open-plan carriage with carpeted areas on two floors for lying down and a section per person. Each “seat” has a window and limited privacy dividers to cover your face.

We had enquired about travelling in the Nobinobi area, but all spaces were sold out (reserving 6 nights before, travelling on Thursday night). We decided to treat ourselves to the other option, a twin sleeping berth, at a total cost of ¥22,000 / £164.30. Just like European sleeper trains – though with a shared WC at the end of the corridor.

We did have a problem with fitting our suitcases in the cabin but once we had been creative with our space challenge we managed fine.

The train had showers and a small seating area with a vending machine selling soft drinks. In order to use the shower there was a dedicated vending machine where you pay ¥320 / £2.39 for a shower card. Then you insert this into the shower and your timer starts for six minutes. This doesn’t sound long, but actually it was plenty of time for a refreshing hot shower.

Life suddenly got busier when stepping off the train into Tokyo. Advertised everywhere was the upcoming 2020 Olympics with a countdown clock outside the station.

Tokyo is a bustling metropolis that boasts an impressive 160,000 eateries. Its attractions include the Tokyo Skytree and Tokyo Tower, which both have observation decks, shrines and temples.

The weather in Tokyo didn’t live up to much, so for our last full day in Japan we dropped sightseeing and searched the country for sunnier climes. We also wanted one final trip on a Shinkansen train. Niigata on the northwest coast seemed a good candidate so we boarded a Max Toki Shinkansen service.

Tokyo to Niigata by Shinkansen

We boarded a Shinkansen Max Toki service direct to the port city of Niigata via the Jōetsu Shinkansen, taking two hours and nine minutes. These double-decker E4 series trains were quite retro (for Japan anyway) dating back to 1997. Each one has a pay-phone located onboard, unmissable due to its luminous green colour!

Shinkansen Toki services operated by single-decker E2 series and newer E7 series trains also operate on the route. We travelled back on an E7 series.

The journey in itself is a delight taking in mountainous scenery cruising past Mount Tanigawa, Mount Naeba and Mount Aizu-Komagatake – be ready with your camera.

Although there’s things to see, Niigata city itself isn’t so much a tourist destination, but for a taste of typical Japanese city (with a small town feel) with a river walk, we had an enjoyable stroll in the sunshine for a few hours.

Tokyo Narita (NRT) to London City (LCY) via Warsaw (WAW) with LOT Polish Airlines

The end of the trip was in sight, and the time had come to reflect on the incredible week that we enjoyed in Japan.

The journey back was similar to the way there. We started at Tokyo’s Narita Airport in the morning for a LOT flight departure at 11am bound for Warsaw Chopin Airport taking 11 hours, 25 minutes. Then we had a two hour layover before our connecting flight to London City Airport taking two hours, 40 minutes.

In true Japanese style, this airport was very zen. It was quiet (for an airport) and less hustle and bustle than most airports. There weren’t just seats available for all passengers, but loungers available too – a great way to relax before your flight!

Food wise we had three delicious meals just like we enjoyed on the way there, again incorporating a mix of European and Japanese cuisine. We made use of the attentive service in Premium Economy and in total enjoyed 10 drinks including wine, gin and tonics and Irish Cream on the two flights!

Train Tickets

If you’re planning to travel for a week or more, then without a doubt the Japan Rail Pass is what you need. This is only available for tourists residing outside of Japan. Passes are available for 7 days, 14 days and 21 days continuous travel and the prices can be found in the table below. You are required to purchase the Japan Rail Pass via a travel agent in advance of travel who will send you an exchange order. Then, when you arrive in Japan, you are required to visit one of the ticket offices to swap it for your train pass. We purchased ours via International Rail, a reputable travel agent in the UK.

Japan Rail Pass2nd Class1st Class (Green Car)
7 Days Continuous£217£289
14 Days Continuous£345£468
21 Days Continuous£441£608
Prices correct at 30th March 2020
TrainSupplement with JR PassFull Price without JR Pass
Tokyo Narita Airport to Tokyo by Narita Express (NEX)Free – including compulsory seat reservationsTicket Price
+¥1,340 / +£10.07

—————————-
Compulsory Reservation
+¥1,930 / +£14.50

Green Car
+¥3,300 / +£24.80
Tokyo to Kyoto by ShinkansenFree – including optional seat reservationTicket Price
¥8,360 / £62.82

—————————-
No reservation
+¥4,960 / +£37.27

Reservation
+¥5,690 / +£47.25

Green Car
+¥10,360 / +£77.84
Kyoto to Kameoka by Ltd. Exp Hashidate trainFree – including optional seat reservationTicket Price
¥420 / £3.16

—————————-
No reservation
+¥660 / +£4.96

Reservation
+¥1,390 / +£10.44

Green Car
+¥1,960 / +£14.73
Kyoto to Hiroshima by Shinkansen (change at Shin-Kobe)Free – including optional seat reservationTicket Price ¥6,600 / £49.59
—————————-
No reservation
+¥4,170 / +£31.33

Reservation
+¥4,900 / +£36.82

Green Car
+¥8,360 / +£62.82
Hiroshima to MiyajimaguchiFree – reservations not possibleTicket Price ¥420 / £3.11
Miyajimaguchi to Miyajima ferryFree – reservations not possibleTicket Price ¥180 / £1.33
Hiroshima to Okayama by Shinkansen (Kodama or Sakura)Free – including optional seat reservationTicket Price ¥3,080 / £23.14
—————————-
No reservation
+¥2,530 / +£19.01

Reservation
+¥3,260 / +£24.50

Green Car
+¥5,330 / +£40.05
Okayama to Izumoshi by Ltd. Exp YakumoFree – including optional seat reservationTicket Price ¥4,070 / £30.58
—————————-
No reservation
+¥2,420 / +£18.18

Reservation
+¥3,150 / +£23.67

Green Car
+¥6,610 / +£49.67
Izumoshi to Tokyo by Sunrise Izumo sleeper train*Nobinobi “Seat” (carpeted bed): Free, but reservation required.
Twin Room: total ¥22,000 / £164.30
Single Deluxe Room: ¥17,280 / £129.05
Ticket Price ¥12,200 +
Seat (carpeted bed): ¥4,030 / £30.10 for reservation.
Twin Room: total ¥22,000 / £164.30
Single Deluxe Room: ¥17,280 / £129.05

Tokyo to Niigata by ShinkansenFree – including optional seat reservationTicket Price ¥5,720 / £42.98
—————————-
No reservation
+¥4,510 / +£33.89

Reservation
+¥5,240 / +£39.37

Green Car
+¥8,700 / +£65.37
Niigata to Tokyo by ShinkansenFree – including optional seat reservationTicket Price ¥5,720 / £42.98
—————————-
No reservation
+¥4,510 / +£33.89

Reservation
+¥5,240 / +£39.37

Green Car
+¥8,700 / +£65.37
Tokyo to Tokyo Narita Airport by Narita Express (NEX)Free – including compulsory seat reservationsTicket Price
+¥1,340 / +£10.07

—————————-
Compulsory Reservation
+¥1,930 / +£14.50

Green Car
+¥3,300 / +£24.80
*Sleeper seats were fully reserved 1 week in advance in our experience. Fares and exchange rates from ¥ to £ correct April 2020

This article was first published in May 2020.