Tuesday, March 20, 2018

10 Tips for Planning Central Japan Trip with Children - Nagoya, Kanazawa, Shirakawa-go, Takayama, Toyama, Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route

Many Singaporeans like to travel to Japan, and it seems that the more popular areas among Singaporeans are Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Hokkaido. In contrary, we chose to visit parts of Japan that are not as popular in the past 2 years - Okinawa and Kyushu. And now we are planning for another trip to another not so popular place in June 2018 - Central Japan

So where is Central Japan? This region is located in between Tokyo and Osaka.

base map: Google Maps

We will be visiting Nagoya 名古屋Kanazawa 金沢, Shirakawa-go 白川郷, Takayama 高山, Toyama 富山 and Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route 立山黒部アルペンルート.

base map: Google Maps

Why are we bringing our children to Central Japan? Here are our 3 reasons:

Reason #1: Enjoy playing with snow in summer
In Japan, there is a famous scenic route called Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route, where a snow wall is open to public between April and June every year. In June, the temperature is about 7 to 14 degrees Celsius, so we can enjoy playing with snow without having to withstand super low temperature!

source: Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route official website

Reason #2: Discover Japanese tradition and culture
If you have been reading our travelogues, you would know that the focus of our family overseas trips is experiential learning. Our itinerary includes activities that allow us to get to know more about the country that we visit.

We will be visiting Shirakawa-go, a UNESCO World Heritage site, to learn more about the old tradition of the Japanese through observing the architecture of Gassho-style houses.

Other than Shirakawa-go, we will also be visiting the old streets in Takayama and Kanazawa to experience the nostalgic Japan.

To learn more about Japanese culture, we will be joining local class to learn how to make food replicas. Yes, food replicas, the display that you see outside Japanese restaurants.

Reason #3: Enjoy the abundance from Sea of Japan
Seafood lovers, Hokuriku region (北陸) in the northwestern part of Honshu along the Sea of Japan is the place that you must visit! I am drooling just by looking at the photos of the seafood don!

Here are our tips for planning a trip in Central Japan using public transportation. Some of these tips are also applicable when you visit other parts of Japan!

Tips #1: Booking air tickets to Central Japan
From Singapore, you can take direct flight to Nagoya Chubu Centrair International Airport by Singapore Airlines. The only drawback is that there is only one flight every day, and the departing time from Singapore is 1.20 a.m. We took a red-eye flight for our Kyushu trip in 2017, we managed to survive!

In February 2018, we booked our air tickets for 2 adults and 2 children at around SGD2700 during a promotion.

Tips #2: Booking accommodation in Central Japan
As I mentioned in my post on "10 Tips for Planning Okinawa (Japan) Self-drive Trip with Children", many hotels and ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) charge per head, including children. Looking for an accommodation for a family of 4 or even bigger can be quite challenging.

If you can read Japanese, I would recommend you use a Japanese booking platform called jalan.net. One thing that I like about this platform is, there is no need to input credit card number, unless you are getting offers that require online payment. We can pay at the accommodation when we check-in. But of course, if you have to cancel the booking, it is a basic courtesy to cancel the booking in advance. We used jalan.net to book a hot spring hotel in Beppu, Kyushu

For this upcoming trip to Central Japan, we have booked Toyoko Inn, which is a chain of business and budget hotel. It is one of the few hotels that allow two children below 12 years old to sleep-share with two adults in a twin room without extra charge. What's more, there is simple buffet breakfast that is free! We will be staying at Toyoko Inn in Nagoya, Toyama and Kanazawa.

We have stayed in Toyoko Inn in Okinawa and Kyushu in the past, and generally we have nice experience with this hotel chain, you can read our review of Toyoko Inn Okinawa Naha Shintoshin Omoromachi.

Tips #3: Savings on transportation 
Transportation in Japan is quite expensive. I am glad that there are transportation passes available for tourists to help us save some money.

There are different transportation passes for travelling in Central Japan. So depending on the places that you are visiting, you can choose the suitable pass for your trip.

Let me share with you some passes and discount tickets that I did my homework on.

Japan Rail (JR) Tourist Pass
Two JR regional passes that I have considered are Takayama-Hokuriku Area Tourist Pass and Alpine-Takayama-Matsumoto Area Tourist Pass.

source: Tourist Pass
source: Tourist Pass

Based on my planned itinerary which includes Kanazawa, Shirakawa-to, Takayama, Toyama and Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route, I decided that we should get Takayama-Hokuriku Area Tourist Pass, and purchase tickets to Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route separately. Do note that some buses between Kanazawa, Shirakawa-go and Takayama require reservation, which I will explain in Tips #4.

Website: http://touristpass.jp/en/

Shoryudo Bus Pass
You may consider getting this bus pass if you prefer taking bus. Do note that some buses require reservation, which I will explain in Tips #4.

source: Meitetsu

After some consideration, I decided that this bus pass is not suitable for my family, because this pass does not have child fee, meaning that it is 13000 yen per person, which would be more expensive than getting JR pass for my family of 2 adults and 2 children.

Website: http://www.meitetsu.co.jp/eng/ticket-info/shoryudo4.html

Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route Ticket

I found out about this JR Central discount ticket from some Taiwanese travel blogs. There is no English information about this offer even on the official website of JR Central! Fortunately, with my half-past-six command of Japanese, I can roughly understand what this discount ticket is about.

There are two courses available:
Hida Course is a loop that covers Nagoya (or Shizuoka / Hamamatsu / Gifu), Takayama Main Line, Toyama, Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route and Matsumoto areas.

source: JR Central

Shirasagi Course is a loop that covers Nagoya (or Kyoto / Osaka / Kobe / Himeiji) , Kanazawa, Toyama, Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route and Matsumoto areas.

source: JR Central

The price ranges from 18610 yen per adult depending on the type of course, and the starting place. You can choose to travel in clockwise or anti-clockwise direction. However, there are some limitations. Firstly, you can only travel in a single direction to complete the loop. Second, you cannot board or alight along the dotted routes. Third, additional fee is required for reserved seat.

Ok, it may sound rather complicated to use this discount ticket. Anyway, we decided to give this a miss as we plan to visit both Takayama and Kanazawa, and the two courses do not cover both areas.

Website: http://railway.jr-central.co.jp/tickets/otoku_tateyamakurobe/

Tips #4: Booking transportation tickets in advance

Booking of Bus

There is no train to Shirakawa-go, so we have to take bus from either Kanazawa or Takayama. Some of these buses require reservation.

For online reservation, there are two platforms for booking, one is in English or Chinese (Japan Bus Online), and the other one is in Japanese (https://secure.j-bus.co.jp/hon).

If you are using JR Takayama-Hokuriku Area Tourist Pass which covers the bus route between Kanazawa, Shirakawa-go and Takayama, please DO NOT book your bus via the English or Chinese platform (Japan Bus Online), because you have to make online payment for the bus! So if you can read Japanese, you should reserve the bus via the Japanese platform as it does not require online payment. Just a few clicks and I made my bus reservation. Don't worry if you do not understand Japanese, you can call the Nohi Bus Reservation Center (Takayama)  +81 577-32-1688 or Hokutetsu Bus Ticket Office (Kanazawa) +81 76-234-0123 between 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., the staff can speak simple English. Do take note that a reservation number will be provided when you make reservation online or by phone, you have to exchange for the bus ticket at the bus terminal with this reservation number.

Booking of Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route Ticket

As I mentioned in Tips #3, JR Takayama-Hokuriku Area Tourist Pass does not cover Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route, so we have to purchase the tickets separately. You can choose to purchase the tickets on the spot during non-peak season (June), or you can reserve online via Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route official website. The reason for making reservation in advance is that there may be congestion when taking Tateyama Cable Car up the mountain due to limited seats. However, the drawback is that you have to make online payment, and then hopefully the weather on the day that you are visiting will be fine!

Tips #5: Planning the itinerary with the train or bus schedule in mind 
The frequency of buses and trains travelling in Central Japan region is low, so you will have to wait for 1 to 2 hours if you miss a bus or train! Homework has to be done beforehand by checking the bus and train schedule. I use the timetable on Tourist Pass website as a guide, and double confirm with Yahoo Transit.

Tips #6: Get the prepaid SIM card / Wifi router
We used Wifi router from the car rental company during our Okinawa trip. While the Wifi router allows a few devices to be connected and it is cheaper than SIM cards, it is not very convenient when we are separated. We will be getting Yokoso SIM card from an online seller. But of course, whether to use prepaid SIM card or Wifi router would depend on your preference.

Tips #7: Tax-free shopping
Currently, the consumption tax in Japan is 8%, and the tax-free purchase amount at the same store in a single day is more than 5000 yen. Check Japan Tax-free Shop for the details of tax-free shopping! If possible, consolidate your purchases from a particular store to enjoy the savings.

Take note that in order to enjoy tax-free for purchases that include consumable items, you cannot consume them before you leave Japan. The purchased items are packed in a transparent sealed bag like this:

Tips #8: Using the coin lockers at train stations
For travelling via public transport, having a big luggage in tow can be very troublesome. Fear not, there are coin lockers at train stations to deposit your luggage. The fee ranges from 300 yen to 600 yen depending on size.

This website is very useful to locate the coin lockers:

Tips #9: Useful websites on Central Japan
Here are some informative websites on Central Japan.

If you can read Chinese, these books (I borrowed from library) are also very informative.

In addition, I find these websites useful for travelling in Japan:

Tips #10: Useful smartphone applications for Japan travel 
Here are some smartphone applications that I find useful for travelling in Japan, and they are free!

Google Translate (iOS / Android)
You can snap a photo or speak, and the app will translate for you!

Japan Connected-free Wi-Fi (iOS / Android)
Sign up an account or log in on the day before you travel to Japan, then you can connect to free Wi-Fi in Japan for the next 90 days.

Travel Japan Wi-Fi (iOS / Android)
Another free Wi-Fi connection app in Japan. Check out the places to get the premium code in order to enjoy more free Wi-Fi spots!

Gurunavi (iOS / Android)
Search for good food when you are planning your trip, or when you want to locate nearby eateries when you are in Japan.

Tenki.jp (iOS / Android)
This weather forecast app is in Japanese. You can set the areas that you are visiting, and check the weather on the go!

Google Map (iOS / Android)
Build your Google Map before your trip, so that you can use your customised map to locate the places that you want to visit.

Jorudan (iOS / Android)
Transit planner which searches for the route, fare and schedule of trains and airplanes in Japan.

ロケスマ (iOS / Android)
This app is in Japanese. It can locate eateries, shops (e.g. convenient stores, supermarkets and 100 yen shops) and service facilities (e.g. petrol stations).

Our Central Japan Travelogue June 2018

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  1. Dear Pei Pei,

    I am so happy when i read your web as the places you will be visiting is exactly the same as mine. Tentatively, I plan to visit Japan in early or mid November after my daughter's exam. Currently I am thinking of arrival in Nagoya and departing from Kyoto. Like you, I would also like to cover the Alphine-Route together with Kanazawa, Takayama and Shirakawa-go. The Takayama-Hokuriku Area Tourist Pass seems the best option for me now but then how do i get to Alphine-Route? Could you please advise me?

    Thank you,

    1. Hi June, we took JR from Nagoya to Toyama, you may read the details on our blog post:


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