Monday, April 28, 2014

{Japan} How To Get Around Kansai + How to Plan a Commuting Itinerary

If you're new to doing a self-guided tour, and even if you're not, the necessity to plan and book everything yourself can be overwhelming. Throughout most of the early planning stage of our Japan trip, I was under pressure to make sure that everything will all fit together. But after a while, I realized it's not really difficult if I do a thorough research about the destination and organize my data properly. You can read my post about what websites and apps I use to help me plan a self-guided tour.

After creating our Kansai Itinerary, I handed over the wheel to C, since the next step involved making our commuting itinerary. I couldn’t make heads or tails over the train routes, and all the names of the train stations made me dizzy – no joke!

C wouldn't believe me at first, and thought that I was just trying to find a way out of this tedious task. That is until I used an analogy: Maps and directions to me are what pencil skirt and A-line skirt are to him. Just in case he still didn’t believe me, I added by asking him to choose which shade of pink does he like better? Blush, coral, fuchsia, rose, salmon, champagne… He finally believed me! Hahaha! Problem solved.

Trains, Subways, Buses & Taxis
Japan’ s railway network is as efficient as it is complicated. It is the best way to get around, but it can also sometimes be difficult to find the right way to reach your destination. The railway system is characterized by its punctuality, its superb service, and the courteous and respectful crowd of people using it.
The Japanese are a very courteous people, and you can see it very evident in the way they queue for trains. No cutting lines, and no pushing in.  Personal space is respected here.  In the photo below, while we were in line waiting for the bus to take us to Kitano in Kobe, I noticed the space they give each other, walang siksikan.

On our way to Nishiki Ichiba in Kyoto, we couldn't understand why people were just all queuing in one long line (the blue boxed line), when there were a lot of spaces on the yellow boxed lane to accommodate the passengers nearby. We were puzzled...  Bakit walang pumipila dun sa yellow?

C went to take a closer look, and since Chinese characters are mostly used to write Japanese words, he ws able to read the words written on the floor.  The yellow one is for the regular train, and the blue one is for the special express train.  Anyone could've simply cut their waiting time by lining up on the other lane, and still go in the train of their choice, both train lines cost the same anyway; but their sense of discipline and public order is really something that I admire.  

When the train schedule says 7:00, we made sure we were at the train station a few minutes before 7. Trains are punctual, as you can see in the photo below.

We've never seen any Japanese talking on their mobile or eating on the train. Also, courtesy seats for the elderly, handicapped or for those with infants are not occupied, even when the train is full.

In some of the newer trains, there are toilets in selected couches

Some trains are exclusive for women only.

This is the same picture from above, notice in the blue boxed line, no one abused the line for the handicapped and elderly.  It reamined empty even if the line for the regular passengers became lengthy. 

We hardly took the bus, save for a few times which I can count with one hand. It is a nightmare to get stuck in the bus loop during rush hour in Kyoto, as my sisters have personally experienced. Most buses charge 200-300 Yen for a one-way ride. And for the 5 of us, if the distance is not too long, it came out cheaper to just take a cab instead. The cabs usually allow 4 adults maximum, but with 2 adults and 3 kids they allowed us in.

If you have time for a few laughs, this link is a humorous attempt to convey expected courteous manners when inside the train.  I found myself chuckling, and then I slowly realized, that all the Japanese observed everything that was written.  I just couldn't help but admire them for their discipline.

Unlimited + Discounted Travel Cards
There are several passes in Osaka that are offered for unlimited travel like the Osaka Unlimited Pass, Osaka One-Day Pass and Kansai Thru Pass. Some of them also provide free or discounted admission into city attractions.

C’s friend advised him that just about all day passes for traveling within Osaka don't pay off.  After doing our research, we agree that these passes can be good for tourists who plan to marathon around the attractions in one day, but we do not really like to travel like that. We don’t want to feel like we are rushing through and lose our flexibility. We love to linger and enjoy a place so it makes sense for us to simply pay the regular individual fares.

For the Osaka Unlimited Pass, you have to take a more than 4 rides on the subway to make it pay-off, which means rushing through all the attractions. The Osaka One-Day Pass and Two-Day Pass  are something that is also hard to profit from since it is impossible to go to all those places in just 1 or 2 days (the free admission facilities are listed here) so the savings are restricted by time.

The Kansai Thru Pass usually doesn't pay off, unless your itinerary includes going on longer day trips to places like Himeji, Koyasan, etc. For just traveling within Osaka, Kyoto and Nara, the Kansai Thru Pass will not make you save any money, and may even make you end up losing money vs just buying single tickets or the ICOCA.

I really suggest the use of Hyperdia to check your itinerary routes before you buy the pass to find out if the unlimited pass is the cheapest option for you.

What Travel Cards to Get:
But we found out that there are also travel cards that offer value and savings.  Certain packages such as the Osaka Kaiyu Ticket, the Yokoso Osaka Ticket and the Kanku Tokuwari Rapi:t Ticket were good deals.
1.  We were not really aware of the Osaka Kaiyu Ticket until Hani, our very helpful concierge, convinced us of the savings for the 5 of us, and she even gave the kids free telescopes to view the fishes better. For Y 2,400 we got an entry ticket to the aquarium as well as unlimited rides on the local trains and buses for one day. On their own such tickets would've cost Y 2,000 and then we would have to spend some more for our transportation.

*Take note, the Osaka Kaiyu Ticket is available for adult (age 16 or over) and elementary school child (age 7 to 12) only. For a junior high school student aged 13-15 years old,  they recommend paying individually for the train and entry to Kaiyukan since it is more money-saving than purchasing adult Kaiyu ticket.

2.  The Yokoso Osaka Ticket is also another one that is worth the money since it gives a one-way Nankai Limited Express Rapi:t ride + an unlimited Osaka city transport pass for the next day for only Y 1,500. The one-way Nankai Limited Express Rapi:t ride alone costs Y 1430 already, so the remaining Y 70 definitely give value for its unlimited use within Osaka the next day.  It is available for sale only to foreigners, so passports are needed upon purchase.

3.  Kanku Tokuwari Rapi:t Ticket is good for travel between KIX and Namba and the other way around.  It allowed us to purchase the Rapi:t ticket at a discounted rate of Y 1,130 instead of the regular Y 1,430. Kids aged 12 and under get 50% off.  Besides nicer reserved seats, the Rap:it also has luggage racks and toilets. The time difference is minimal, but so is the fare difference with the discount - Y 410  (Y 1330 for the Kanku Tokuwari, Y 920 for the normal fare).  It is available for sale only to foreigners, so passports are needed upon purchase.

Osaka Prepaid Subway and Train Cards
In addition to unlimited and discounted travel cards, Osaka also has a prepaid card that can be used for riding the Osaka subway and various train lines. We bought the ICOCA and the card made getting around the city more convenient by saving us time from having to buy a new ticket every time we get on a train or subway.  Children's fare applies to kids 12 years and younger, and are discounted 50%.

ICOCA cards cost 2,000 yen, which includes a refundable 500 yen deposit that is returned when you return the card. It is similar to Hong Kong’s octopus card.

The three major cities of Kansai - Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe - are connected by a multitude of train routes. When travelling between these cities, it helps to determine what method of transportation fits your travel needs, and your budget.  And for that, we turned to Hyperdia.  This part of the planning, I left it all up to C. He searched for train stations by just typing in the name of the departure and arrival train station, as well as the date and hour we planned to travel, and the website gave him different options (including times, prices, transfers, track number...).  I have already said it here, and I will say it again, for the self-guided tour, Hyperdia is a must when it comes to organizing the itinerary.

Once you get your routes, take a screenshot of your top 2 selections, and keep it handy.  You can choose to either print it out like we did, or just screenshot it using your smartphone.
Although most train stations in Japan will show signs in English as well as Japanese – some stations can be very large with several platforms, as can be extremely crowded in peak hours. You will be thankful that you have a commuting itinerary.

I've updated this post to provide a link to ALL MY JAPAN POSTS!










Helpful links:
1.  Here are some sample itineraries to help you maximize the Kansai Thru Pass.  Like I've said earlier, the Kansai Thru Pass only holds value if you take long day trips out of Osaka.  It will not save you any money if you use it to take trips to Kyoto, Nara and Kobe.
2.  How to choose discount railway ticket and pass in Kansai (Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, Nara) area
3.  List of discounted railway tickets you can purchase for use in Osaka
4.  How to get around Namba, Osaka
5.  Information about KIX + train timetable