Around Mount Etna 🌋 and Vesuvius 🌋 by train 🇮🇹

Italy has twelve volcanoes. Two of them, which are some of the most active in the country, also have railways operating local passenger services around them. There is the Circumvesuviana circulating Mount Vesuvius on the Gulf of Naples and the Circumetnea around Mount Etna on Sicily. So why did Italy build them?

Both railways were built at the end of the 19th century, and their purpose is mutual – they exist to serve local villages situated around the volcanoes, connecting them to each other and to the nearby cities of Naples and Catania. These railways are a lifeline for the communities they serve, which is evident from the high numbers of locals who use these services every day.

The routes are not so much of a tourist attraction, with their fragmented timetables for completing the full circle and at least one change of train required on both routes. However, travelling around them does not just offer fantastic views, but it also constitutes a unique insight into local life. A truly unique experience.

Circumvesuviana – Naples

Route map of the Circumvesuviana
Route map of the Circumvesuviana.
Source – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Circumvesuviana_maps.png
Journey LegBest Views
Barra to Barra (clockwise)Right Hand Side – views of Mount Vesuvius
Recommendations based on a clockwise journey from Napoli Porta Nolana to Barra

Firstly, around Vesuvius. I started my journey at the terminus of the Circumvesuviana at the station of Napoli Porta Nolana, opting to travel clockwise. I recommend to start here to avoid the crowds boarding at Napoli Garibaldi, the next station. As you can see on the map (above), there are two trains required to complete the full circle, with a change at Poggiomarino and a total travelling time of two hours (excluding the connection time at Poggiomarino).

The Circumvesuviana offers two types of rolling stock – the FE220 and the newer ETR221. The latter is far more comfortable, as you can probably tell from the photos (below), while the FE220 seats gave me past vibes of the chairs in my classroom at school.

It was certainly an experience travelling on these trains – one of the drivers activated the emergency brake at least twice en-route, resulting in passengers standing performing an impromptu run backwards down the carriage. Later on in the trip, the train happened to pass one of the ETR221s involved in an accident over 10 years ago in the sidings, looking worse for wear, which certainly serves as a stark reminder of the incident. Nevertheless, do not let this put you off this highly agreeable ride.

Circumetnea – Sicily

Journey LegViews
Catania Borgo to Riposto (clockwise)Left Hand Side – views from a-height (recommended)
Right Hand Side – views of Mount Etna
Giarre Riposto to Catania (southbound, clockwise)Left Hand Side – Ionian Sea
Right Hand Side – views of Mount Etna
Recommendations based on a clockwise journey from Catania to Giarre Riposto on the Circumetnea and a mainline journey from Giarre Riposto to Catania.

Mount Etna is the highest and largest active volcano in Europe, so it will not come as a surprise that this route takes all day to travel around. The varied landscapes and great view of the volcano make the journey worthwhile.

Starting at the beautiful terracotta Catania Borgo station, there are two departures per day to enable you to travel the full circle in a clockwise direction. Early birds can take the 08:05 departure, or for those who like a leisurely morning, the later 12:20 – both departures go through to Randazzo, where you must change trains. I opted for the lunch time departure, which also has the shortest connection time at Randazzo of 47 minutes between trains compared to 2 hours and 7 minutes for the 08:05 departure.

The next train departs from Randazzo at 12:10 or 15:06 respectively to Riposto, where you must change one final time to the nearby Giarre-Riposto station onto a Trenitalia ‘Intercity’ or ‘Regionale’ train back to Catania.

Logistics out of the way, what about the experience? Similarly to the Circumvesuviana, the route serves local communities, even though the experience itself is different. Firstly, the Circumetnea climbs up the volcano unlike its counterpart, so it is best to sit on the side away from the volcano for the best views this time.

The train ascends shortly after departure from Catania through the lava rocks and then fields with Bronte pistachios growing in abundance. This journey to Randazzo serves the most populated communities on the route, and has highly loaded trains to match especially between Paterno and S. M. Licodia Centrale stations, where we were accompanied by a large group of school children onboard. The crowding was only for a couple of stops thankfully.

Arriving at the medieval village of Randazzo, you have to alight and wait for the next train arriving on the same platform later. Two trains then arrived at the depot, one going back to Catania and the other onto Riposto. There did not seem to be an indication of which train was going where, so I checked with the staff, but the busiest one by far was the one going back to Catania. Surprisingly I was the only passenger for Riposto – the northern part of the route has the most picturesque scenery.

Fares

Circumvesuviana

Ticketing is priced according to scheduled journey duration. If you wish to travel the full circumference in one go, you can use a €4,90 ticket valid for 180 minutes, the journey time being 51 minutes from Napoli PN to Poggiomarino on the red-coloured route, and 59 minutes from Poggiomarino to Napoli PN on the green-coloured route. If you decide to break your journey to visit Pompeii or Herculaneum (both are highly recommended), you need to purchase additional tickets at stations en route; there is no ‘day’ or ‘network’ ticket (perhaps a missed opportunity!).

Journey LegFull Public Cost
Napoli Porta Nolana to Napoli Porta Nolanafrom €4,90 on the day (according to journey duration)
Cost based on a clockwise journey from Napoli Porta Nolana

Circumetnea

Pricing is by distance for the Circumetnea and tickets available on the day of travel. If you wish to travel the full circumference you can use a ticket covering 70km+. Another ticket is required for the Trenitalia leg that can also be purchased on the day.

Journey LegFull Public Cost
Catania Borgo to Riposto (Circumetnea)€6,80 on the day
Giarre Riposto to Catania (Trenitalia)€3,40 (Regionale) on the day
€8,50 (Intercity) on the day
Cost based on a clockwise journey from Catania Borgo to Catania via Randazzo and Riposto

This article was first published in July 2022 based on journeys in Autumn 2020.

Zürich🇨🇭 to Lucerne🇨🇭 by train 🚆- the fast or the slow option?

Lucerne and Zurich are two unique Swiss-German speaking cities that are highly likely to be on your itinerary as a visiting tourist to Switzerland. To travel between the two there is a fast, comfortable, direct train that serves the two cities operated by SBB in as little as 41 minutes.

Those who know this part of the world could well be asking “which slow option?”. Well this is very much an off-the-beaten-track route and one I’ve very much devised on my own, taking three trains instead. Why not just take the fast train you ask? I’ll show you why I think the slow option made for a more memorable experience and in my opinion is not worth missing if you can spare the time. But first, what’s the fast route like?

Fast Option – Direct

Journey LegDurationTrain TypeOperator
Zürich <> Lucerne41 minutes*InterRegio [IR]SBB
*based on a journey taken departing Zürich at 11:10 on 29th August 2021. Journey durations may vary slightly on different departure dates / times of day

The direct route from Zürich to Lucerne is well served with two trains per hour using comfortable, modern double-deck SBB InterRegio trains. The route travels via the aptly named town of Zug, though the name doesn’t refer to its railway heritage but its fishing past.

The route takes as little as 41 minutes on the fastest trains and up to 50 minutes on the slightly slower trains. The Swiss offer fantastic dining cars on many routes, but not this one – the journey is too short to offer such a luxury. Simply grab your morning coffee at the station beforehand.

If you’re looking for views then this route will most likely disappoint, especially if you’re used to Swiss standards. There is some token scenery in the form of two lakes en route to take in however.

Slow Option via Interlaken

Journey LegDurationTrain TypeOperator
Lucerne <> Interlaken Ost1 hour, 49 minutes*InterRegio [IR]Zentralbahn
Interlaken Ost <> Bern52 minutes*InterCity [IC]SBB
Bern <> Zürich HB56 minutes*InterCity [IC]SBB
*based on journey taken departing Lucern at 15:06 on 29th August 2021. Journey durations may vary slightly on different departure dates / times of day

Now for the scenic route I’ve devised from Lucerne to Zurich which goes via Interlaken – perfect if you’ve got some extra time and want to enjoy some spectacular Swiss scenery.

This route travels via Interlaken with hourly departures. It’s worth noting that there are three trains to catch instead of one on this route but you won’t find yourself waiting around in stations as the connections are short. If missed connections are a concern, we experienced first-hand a delay to our first train and much to our delight the second train waited for our arrival. Should the train not wait, there are certainly worse places to spend an hour in both Interlaken and Bern before continuing your journey on the next train.

It’s worth noting that the journey time for this route is considerably longer, taking 3 hours, 52 minutes in total however if you’re like me and love gazing out the window and dining on the move time will fly-by – all three of these trains had excellent Swiss dining cars. There’s no need to reserve these in advance – just show up whenever you feel like it. Here is a summary of each leg of the slow option. This journey can also be taken in the reverse direction with a similar journey time.

Leg 1: Lucerne <> Interlaken Ost

First up, from Lucerne to Interlaken via the jaw-dropping scenery of the Luzern-Interlaken Express by Die Zentralbahn. This route is full of character from start to finish with steep ascents, the magical Brünig mountain pass and no fewer than five lakes – all to enjoy at your seat through the window. Sitting on the right hand side departing Lucerne is recommended for the best scenery and staying on that side when the train reverses at Meiringen.

This is a regional train but with a bistro! Our train was formed of two trains coupled together, one without a bistro – so if you would like to take advantage of a cuppa on the move make sure you sit in the train set that has one.

Our train managed to rack-up a small delay of five minutes – which would have been enough to miss the connection at Interlaken Ost should the onward train have departed on time. Much to our surprise there were many customers switching trains and our next train was held back for our arrival despite being different operators – impressive work from the Swiss railway companies!

Leg 2: Interlaken Ost <> Bern

Next up, after the (rather unnecessary) drama of rushing to catch this InterCity train we were hungry. It was time to eat at the dining car for our 52 minute journey to Bern. The SBB InterCity trains on this route have a whole dedicated dining carriage with a mix of table sizes from sitting two people up to five with one host looking after what turned out to be a full carriage. He impressed us with his speed and managed to serve us a delicious warming Thai Green Curry and chilled wine within minutes of departure. They arrived just as we were passing the glorious Lake Thun on our right. Bliss. There’s something truly special about dining on the move.

Leg 3: Bern <> Zürich HB

We arrived into Bern a few minutes behind following our late start from Interlaken. No time to waste we headed straight over to catch our next SBB InterCity train to Zürich, this time a more modern double-decker variant for our final leg of the journey to Zürich.

We had room left for dessert so headed again straight to the dining car which is on the upper level. The train was busy, however we were able to share a table with a friendly Swiss couple playing a board game. Enjoying some more wine and a tasty Schweizer Apfelküchlein, the conductor checked our tickets. It was our last date of travel on our train passes and she commented sympathetically “last one” – our two weeks travelling on Swiss trains was drawing to a close and what a way to spend our last day in this beautiful country with our three-train adventure. We enjoyed every minute.

Tickets

There are whole host of ticketing options for train travel in Switzerland including point-to-point tickets for a one-off journey (more expensive per journey), to cheaper travel if you’re planning more journeys for example using the half-fare travelcard or InterRail tickets if you live in another European country. Reservations are not required to travel on non-tourist trains in Switzerland such as these journeys featured in this blog post.

As you can see in the table below if you’re planning the direct train from Zürich to Lucerne and not making any other journeys in Switzerland a point-to-point ticket might be cheaper for you. If you’re planning the trip via Interlaken, then a day pass might be cheaper for you (SBB Saver Day Pass or InterRail) or purchasing a half-fare railcard for point-to-point tickets from SBB. It all depends what else you have planned.

Ticket Type – Available to the PublicFull Price one wayPrice (half-fare travelcard) one wayReservation Fees
Zürich to Lucerne Point-to-Point (2nd Class)
– valid for one journey, bought in advance
from CHF 13.80from CHF 7.60Not Required
Zürich to Lucerne Point-to-Point via Interlaken (2nd Class)
– valid for one journey, bought in advance
from CHF 92.00from CHF 46.00Not Required
SBB Saver Day Pass
– valid throughout Switzerland, bought in advance
from CHF 52.00from CHF 29.00Not Required
Swiss InterRail Pass (e.g. 5 days in 1 month, 1 Adult)
– valid throughout Switzerland
€56,50 per dayN/ANot Required
Fares correct as of 30th October 2021

If you work for the rail industry in a European country, as I do, you can take advantage of FIP free and discounted travel across Europe – again no reservation fees for these journeys.

TrainJourney LegFIP Facilities UsedFIP Facilities Reservation Fees
InterRegio (SBB)Zürich HB to LucerneFIP Free Coupons (SBB)Not Required
InterRegio (Zentralbahn)Lucerne to Interlaken OstFIP Free Coupons (SP)Not Required
InterCity or EuroCity (SBB)Interlaken Ost to BernFIP Free Coupons (SBB)Not Required
InterCity (SBB)Bern to Zürich HBFIP Free Coupons (SBB)Not Required
Details correct as of 30th October 2021

This article was first published in October 2021

Europe’s Only Train-on-a-Ferry route – Mainland Italy 🇮🇹 to Sicily 🇮🇹 direct

Italy is well known for its expansive railway network, but one intercity route stands out as being particularly unique. There are trains that start in the major cities of Milan and Rome and travel for up to 20 hours direct to stations in Sicily – terminating in Siracusa on the south coast and Palermo in the north. Trains on these routes board a ferry as part of the trip and are the only passenger trains in Europe to board a ferry as part of the journey. A truly unique travelling experience.

I opted for the InterCity Notte, or night, from Milano Centrale to Siracusa, mainly for the opportunity to witness the ferry crossing during sociable hours and to take advantage of a longer journey duration and distance that is rarity for European sleeper trains. This train offers sleeping cars and couchette cars where I opted for the former.

I made a video of the journey that includes the process of the train boarding and leaving the ferry crossing the Messina Strait, the excellent coastal views you can expect as well as the accommodation and service onboard.

The trip took place during the COVID-19 pandemic when travel was permitted from the UK to Italy.

This article was first published in December 2020.

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.

All aboard one of the final Hamburg 🇩🇪 to Copenhagen 🇩🇰 train-ferry 🚆🛳 services and the Schwebebahn 🚟 in Wuppertal 🇩🇪

One weekend in Germany and a lot to fit in! To add to the schedule, we had planned to take the slower, more interesting and relaxed route from the UK to Germany and Denmark exclusively by train. This is all perfectly do-able in a long weekend taking Friday off work and two full days on Saturday and Sunday. Our plan was to kick things off with the direct Eurostar service from London to Amsterdam…

London to Amsterdam by Eurostar

But luck wasn’t on our side… We had booked several weeks in advance on one of the three direct train options from London St Pancras to Amsterdam Centraal stations with operator Eurostar. I wanted a repeat of this smooth journey I had completed in April 2018 where the train passes through four countries seamlessly. Also I wanted to spend the time in Standard Premier class where you can enjoy a couple of small bottles of wine and a light meal and snack… bliss. On this train you don’t even notice the border crossings thanks to pre-travel check-in in London and with France, Belgium and the Netherlands being in Schengen Area. See my earlier blog post from 2018 here.

Unfortunately, one week prior to departure, Eurostar informed us that our train was cancelled due to a French General Strike affecting flights as well as the railway. It was just part and parcel of travel and the sometimes unexpected fun of having to think on your feet.

Naturally, in order to continue with the rest of the trip myself and my friends Mike and Ed had to find an alternative way to travel from the UK to Amsterdam. So I obtained a Eurostar refund and booked a flight with easyJet from Edinburgh to Amsterdam for £29 – not bad for one week before the time I wanted to travel. The flight served its purpose but was quite boring, there’s something truly special about travelling by train instead of flying as well as the environmental benefits.

I arrived in Amsterdam to meet my friend Mike who had flown to Amsterdam from a different airport and Ed was joining us later in Hamburg. We headed for the cosy Cafe Pollux for a few beers and then next door to our hotel, the Hotel Mansion, which was very comfortable.

Amsterdam to Düsseldorf by NS/DB ICE train

The following morning we set off early to catch the 08:08 InterCity Express (ICE) train from Amsterdam Centraal bound straight to Germany, operated jointly by state operators Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS) and Deutsche Bahn (DB). The train was booked to be two trains coupled together for its journey to Basel in Switzerland, however our bad luck continued as due to a train fault one of the trains wasn’t there and that included our reserved coach.

Not to worry, we found some staff for advice on the platform and were advised to find any unreserved seats. Much to our delight we found several unreserved in the panorama coach… yes on the DB ICE 3 trains you can sit behind the driver and the cab with a glass screen between!

We arrived in Düsseldorf Hauptbahnhof (Main Station) in good time and as we weren’t meeting Ed until the evening in Hamburg, we were able to take full advantage of our flexible pass to travel virtually anywhere in Germany (European rail staff FIP free coupon, but similar to flexibility of publicly available InterRail passes), being able to be spontaneous.

We opted first for a trip to Wuppertal to ride the recently re-opened Schwebebahn, only 20 minutes from Düsseldorf Hbf by DB operated Regional-Express (RE) train.

Riding the Schwebebahn 🚟

Built as a means to get city dwellers from one part of Wuppertal to the other is the Schwebebahn – the world’s oldest electric elevated railway with hanging cars. It was closed for eight months due to an accident in November 2018.

The Schwebebahn is fast and efficient and during our visit it was very well utilised by the locals with our carriage soon filling to capacity. We joined at its southwestern start in Oberbarmen and travelled the full length to Vohwinkel Schwebebahn in the northeast. The full journey time is 25 mins with the train covering 13.3km with 21 stops in total. It weaves its way through city streets then the river Wupper up to Wuppertal Hauptbahnhof.

Next up we boarded an ICE headed for Cologne. We went to the Bordrestaurant for a drink and shared a table with a gentleman travelling to work. We asked for recommendations of where to go and he recommended Bonn so we headed there changing at Cologne for a regional train to Bonn Hauptbahnhof. We spent a few hours here before ultimately heading to Hamburg.

Bonn, one of Germany’s oldest cities, did not disappoint. We enjoyed a walk around the old town, perusing the Christmas markets, supped some beer at the Brauhaus Boennsch, with its famous non-symmetrical curved glasses, and grabbed some pastries for the road from a local bakery before continuing our journey north.

We headed from Bonn to Cologne on a National Express regional train and then changed onto our ICE up north. There was a direct InterCity train from Bonn but we wanted to ride in the more comfortable ICE.

Koeln Hbf to Hamburg Hbf via DB ICE trains

In order to travel by ICE trains we would have to change trains in Hannover.

Our next leg was from Cologne to Hannover was on a DB ICE 2 train, taking 2 hours and 40 minutes.

We were hungry so instead of finding an unreserved seat we headed straight to the Bordrestaurant, the DB dining car. We started with some beers, Erdinger wheat beer was a very tasty choice. We then tucked into the German speciality currywurst followed by a rice pudding with the choice of cinnamon or sugar as a topping. Absolutely delicious and reasonably priced!

Then an easy 8 minute change at Hannover and we continued our journey on a brand new ICE 4 to Hamburg Hauptbahnhof… in the bar of course.

Hamburg to Copenhagen via train-ferry 🚆🛳

Until December 2019 there were three departures each day each way connecting Hamburg Hauptbahnhof and Copenhagen Central Station with a direct EuroCity train operated jointly by DB and Danske Statsbaner (DSB). What was very special about this international rail route is that the train boards a commercial Scandlines ferry as part of the schedule for its journey from Puttgarden to Roedby! This was one of three routes in Europe that has such an operation of a train going onto a ferry.

This route has now been changed so the train-ferry no longer runs and the train from Hamburg to Copenhagen goes on an overland route to the west which is longer in distance but is a similar journey time to what the ferry option was. In the coming years a tunnel will be built between Puttgarden and Roedby calling an end to the future of the train-ferry service.

Luckily, we managed to fit in the penultimate weekend of operation of the train-ferry in December 2019…

We set off on train ‘EuroCity’ 33 from its origin Hamburg Hauptbahnhof and were travelling to its terminus of Copenhagen (Kobenhavn) Central Station. The train was an DSB owned IC3 variety. There were two of these trains coupled together to make a 6-car train and even then every seat was taken, but this could’ve had something to do with the penultimate weekend of operation. The train didn’t have a dining car, but did have a vending machine selling some expensive Coca Cola which didn’t tempt me unsurprisingly.

I don’t know whether the ferry related quotes on the wall will survive once the route has changed!

The scenery wasn’t much to write home about and there wasn’t much life along the route – though there was plenty of sea on the approach to Puttgarden. At one point the train was surrounded with views of the sea from both sides.

As the train went onto the ferry, there was a thorough announcement by the conductor in three languages, Danish 🇩🇰, German 🇩🇪 and English 🇬🇧, asking customers not to remain on the train once it boards the ferry – the train would be locked shut.

See below the video of the train boarding the ferry complete with the announcement!

Train EC33 boarding the ferry en route from Hamburg to Copenhagen for one of the final times

Once we had boarded the ferry the capacity issues had become apparent – the train was practically touching both ends of the ferry – some impressive train driving going on there!

The ferry was large and had a number of amenities from a restaurant to a supermarket. You could tell it was a Scandinavian ferry by the eye-watering prices onboard, however the deck space was free for some fresh Baltic sea air.

The train arrived into Copenhagen and what a beautiful historical station it was with red and black checkered tiles and a very grand wooden roof.

Copenhagen city itself was a great place to finish the trip with some beautiful historical buildings and churches. The Christmas market was on and who knew the Danes were as crazy about Christmas as we Brits are? There were many places to buy ‘gloegg’ (mulled wine) at the market, and we were able to try ‘snaps’, a local floral-flavoured spirit traditionally served with a meal.

Tickets

TrainFIP Rail Staff Travel FacilitiesPublic Fares
(purchase online at DB Bahn)
London to Amsterdam (Eurostar)£44.50 in Standard / £62.00 in Standard PremierFrom £35.00 in Standard / From £79.00 in Standard Premier
Amsterdam to Duesseldorf(NS/DB ICE)NS/DB Free Coupons + 4,50 EUR Optional ReservationFrom 18,90 EUR bought in advance in 2nd Class + 4,00 EUR optional seat reservation

From 29,90 EUR bought in advance in 1st Class (inc. seat reservation)
Duesseldorf to Wuppertal (DB RE)DB Free Coupon
Wuppertal to Cologne (DB ICE)DB Free Coupon + 4,50 EUR Optional ReservationFrom 13,90 EUR in 2nd Class + 4,00 EUR optional seat reservation

Cheaper RE trains also available.
Cologne to Bonn (DB RE)DB Free Coupon
Bonn to Cologne (DB RE)DB Free Coupon
Cologne to Hannover (DB ICE)DB Free Coupon + 4,50 EUR Optional Reservation23,90 EUR in 2nd Class + 4,00 EUR optional seat reservation

Cheaper IC trains also available.
Hannover to Hamburg (DB ICE)DB Free Coupon + 4,50 EUR Optional Reservation From 12,90 EUR in 2nd Class + 4,00 EUR optional seat reservation

(through tickets from Cologne to Hamburg from 27,90 EUR in 2nd Class + 4,00 EUR optional seat reservation)
Hamburg to CopenhagenDB/DSB Free Coupons + 4,50 EUR (on train-ferry)From 28,90 EUR in 2nd Class + 4,00 EUR optional seat reservation on current IC train route (non-ferry).

From 54,90 EUR in 1st Class including seat reservation

This article was first published in January 2020.