- Travel by the Shinkansen to Himeji and Hiroshima Station with a stopover at Okayama Station
- Visiting Himeji Castle
- Walking past the Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima
- Shopping at the Pokemon Center Hiroshima
- Eating Hiroshima’s version of okonomiyaki (which I prefer since it has soba noodles)
Getting around Japan by the Shinkansen
The Shinkansen (or bullet train when its referenced in the Western World) makes traveling around Japan’s cities easy and stress free. Almost all major cities in Japan are connected to the Shinkansen from Hakodate in the north to Kagoshima in the south. Very soon the northern end will extend further northward to the north-most major city of Sapporo. It’s an amazing expanse of rail track.
Most people traveling to Japan enter via Tokyo or Osaka. Whether you enter via Tokyo or Osaka, there should be no reason why you shouldn’t visit other cities. Each Japanese city is unique and are home to several gems that can only be properly experienced and appreciated in person, whether its the gardens in Kanazawa, the active volcano Mount Aso on the southern island of Kyushu or the one of the last remnants of old Japanese in Takayama. The beauty of each city can only be had if you venture beyond Tokyo and Osaka.
Traveling on the Shinkansen is almost seamless in that you don’t even notice the speed in which you are moving. However, if you look outside the windows, you will only see landscapes only momentarily. There are various features that make Shinkansen a pleasure to ride as well, from the bigger leg space, on-board charging outlets, an area to leave luggage and washroom facilities. Unlike normal trains, you are allowed to eat when riding the Shinkansen and there are tray tables in the seat in front of you.
The cost of riding the Shinkansen is expensive and can be as expensive as traveling by airplane. The cost of which can be offset by buying a Japan Rail Pass, which is only available to foreigners, and allows for unlimited travel on the Shinkansen, JR railway lines and JR buses. If you have a Japan Rail Pass there should be no reason for you not to take advantage of your ‘golden ticket’.
For many people who are conscious of costs, a Japan Rail Pass is a no brainer as it will pay itself off if, for example, you did a round trip from Tokyo to Osaka. However, if you only plan to use the Shinkansen once it may not be worth purchasing the Japan Rail Pass.
As a holder of a Japan Rail Pass, you can also reserve seats on the Shinkansen if you want to be certain of getting a seat. You can also try your luck and just hop onto a Shinkansen in the unreserved portion of the train. If you don’t reserve a seat, just be mindful of where should get on and don’t take a seat that is reserved for someone else. It should be clear since all the signs and carriages will be marked in both English and Japanese.
Activating the Japan Rail Pass and getting on the Shinkansen
We activated our Japan Rail Pass when we arrived at Osaka at the Kansai Airport Station. When we arrived, there was a queue (as usual) to exchange our Exchange Order with the Japan Rail Pass. I was able to converse in Japanese and explain we wanted to commence our pass, from 22 June 2019. The man at the counter prepared the Japan Rail Pass then and there.
We took out our Japan Rail Pass and placed them in our pockets, ready to pull them out whenever we reached a ticket gate. I recommend putting them in an easy to reach location otherwise it becomes an absolute pain having to take it out and put it away each time.
NOTE: Do not lose your Japan Rail Pass! You only get one and there is little to no way to get a replacement. Be careful and keep it extra safe, including from the weather. I almost lost my Japan Rail Pass to the rain, since my pants bexame soaked when we reached Kyoto. It was lucky I realised my pants were soaked, because I managed to save my Japan Rail Pass in time – the edges of my Japan Rail Pass (even though it had a plastic covering) had disintegrated on all its edges and the text had faded badly. Lucky the dates were still (sort-of) legible.
In the morning, we took the train from Osaka Station to Shin-Osaka Station. Most train lines heading north will take you to Shin-Osaka Station, which is only one station away, but it is not within walking distance. Don’t try walking to Shin-Osaka Station if you are near Osaka Station.
On arriving at Shin-Osaka Station, we were greeted to a huge terminal for which we have visited numerous times now on previous holidays. There are various restaurants that allow you to do take-out if you want to eat on your Shinkansen ride and other convenience stores, like book stores if you can read in Japanese and want to buy a book.
We visited the ticket office for the Shinkansen, which is clearly signposted and marked. The queues for the ticket office was long, but we weren’t in any hurry, so we patiently waited in line for 10 mins. We noticed that many of the Japanese businessman were in a rush and seemed quite frustrated. Although we could go with an unreserved seat, we preferred the comfort of knowing that we had seats reserved.
It is very easy to order your reserved seat ticket. You just hand them your Japan Rail Pass and simply say how many people and where you are doing. For us, for example, it was simply ‘I want to go to Hiroshima Station’, which is 広島駅に行きたい or Hiroshima-eki ni ikatai. Rather, we were going to Himeji Station first, but you get what I mean. On telling the ticket man, he asked us which train we wanted by pointing at his screen. There were several options to choose from. We just selected the next one. You can add formalities and words of gratitude if you are able to manage in Japanese.
We had some time to spare before our next train so we decided to grab some food. We visited the 551 Horai at the train station and picked up some pork dumplings and gyoza. It came with some sweet soy sauce and mustard, which we ate on the Shinkansen. The pork dumplings were delicious.
We went to the station platform and waited at our designated car zone (this was on our ticket). When the train arrived, we boarded through the designated entrance and found our seats easy. This would happen to be the only day we didn’t need to lug around big suitcases onto the train.
Just be mindful not to get on the wrong train. Do not under any circumstances get on a Nozomi train, which will be labeled のぞみ or in English. A Japan Rail Pass does not cover Nozomi trains. You will need to pay extra to travel on a Nozomi train.
The Shinkansen is a very pleasant form of transport. You know you are travelling really fast, but you don’t really feel it unless you look outside the window. It’s so surprising how quiet it is and how elegant this mode of transport is. It’s much less stress than travelling by airplane, where there are safety instructions and red tape.
Himeji and Himeji Castle
As soon as we exited the train station we could already see Himeji Castle in front of us. All we needed to do was walk along the main road towards it for 15 mins. Along the street were many people preparing street stalls for the Summer Festival held at night when people come out in yukata, which is traditional Japanese comfort clothing. There were some really tasty looking items like the deep fried cheesy dog.
Himeji Castle is surrounded by a moat. Hence to enter the castle grounds, you need to cross a bridge, which faces the train station, that then takes you into the inner walls. We went straight to the ticket counter to purchase a ticket and bought a ticket that gave us access to the castle and a nearby garden park called Koko-en. Throughout the day, there was a constant stream of people entering the castle.
Past the entrance gate, you walk through the labyrinth as you head towards higher ground to the actual castle. Many of the walkways and trappings were designed encase the castle was ever under siege by an enemy. Interestingly you could picture how a fight would ensue in the old days, the defenders would defend the outer perimeter and then move behind the next line of defense if the one before is breached. I almost felt like walking through a sort of Helm’s Deep (from Lord of the Rings).
If you have a camera handy, I recommend capturing each side of the castle. You may notice some intricate details you hadn’t noticed earlier. I think its worth visiting the castle in different seasons as each season will give life to different colors.
Before walking into the castle, which is several stories high, there is a vast green open landscape for which people gather and you can see the rest of the city. You can even use the telescopes placed around the edges by placing coins in the slots. This was also a great place to take a photo of the castle close up.
We then walked into the castle. As we ventured higher and higher, the space within the castle became smaller and smaller and the gaps between each stair step became bigger and bigger. This meant that you needed to stretch your leg to step on each step. Not only that, you needed to watch your head, because the hole leading to the next floor was very tight.
I recommend climbing all the up the castle to the top. There are around 8 floors. From the top floor, you can take part in ceremony or get a view of the city from the windows.
You could see that the castle was well preserved. As part of this climb, we needed to take off our shoes and place them in plastic bags.
You can catch a glimpse of some of the animal ornaments around the top of the castle. These ornaments will super clean and majestic looking. I couldn’t get a good photo, rather all my photos of them were blurry.
We visited the adjoining garden within the inner walls. Here you can catch a glimpse of what it would have been like for the samurai lord walking peacefully in his own garden. From here, you could visit the inner walls where the sentry would have hung out. The inner wall has many contraptions, like holes for the sentry to stab a spear through and blinds that archers could use to surprise the enemy. When then ventured outside to another nearby garden.
We realized that getting to Koko-en would require us to walk outside the castle walls for 5 mins to the entrance to Koko-en. Koko-en was a beautiful place. I thought it was one of the better gardens we visited. The lakes around the gardens were dazzling and the greenery was a beautiful green.
Walking through here was very serene and peaceful. While many of the photos show just the greenery, there were actually many different sections to this garden like a flower section and a bamboo forest.
Heading to Hiroshima
We thought we would grab some lunch before hopping back on the Shinkansen towards Hiroshima. It would take another 1 hour to get to the Hiroshima and a pit stop at Okayama to change train.
At Himeji Station, we ended up getting a snack at KFC. We ordered a meal with their standard chicken burger, piece of chicken, chips, corn pie and Melon soda. It was nice combination, but wasn’t something to write home about.
The ride to Hiroshima was pleasant. We had a chance to see Okayama before taking another train to Hiroshima. Okayama seemed like a nice place and everything seemed centralized around the station.
When we arrived at Hiroshima Station, we took the bus towards the Peace Park. The bus ride was a good way to get directly from the station to the park. It was only a 15 minute journey.
Before we reached the park, we decided to walk the rest of the way to capture some of the sights. We managed to walk through a busy commercial area with plenty of restaurants and stores. We crossed the major bridge and saw the Atomic Bomb Dome from the distance. It was a very popular tourist icon as many people were taking photos from the other side of the river.
The Peace Park is big. There were many memorials and reminders of what transpired in 1945. It was surreal to be standing in the location of what was probably the worst place to be at that moment in time.
The Peace Park definitely draws a crowd. We spotted many groups taking group photos and many tour guides leading groups and groups of people to the various points of interest.
Nearby were plenty of stores and within walking distance is the Pokemon Center.
Pokemon Center Hiroshima
We visited the Pokemon Center Hiroshima in the SOGO Hiroshima Store. The cool thing about the store is that it pays homage to the Hiroshima Carps, their local baseball team. Hence, there were lots of unique merchandise to celebrate the Carps via Magikarp or Gyarados.
We arrived at the Pokemon Center in time to take part in a Pokemon Go raid against Kyogre. There was a screen showing the countdown towards the hatching of the Pokemon. After beating and capturing the Legendary Pokemon, we showed the attendant and they gave us a Kyogre sticker as prove of us capturing it in the store.
I recommend buying some of the unique merchandise at this store, there are shirts, tickets and towels.
Having Hiroshima Okonomiyaki for dinner
Since the restaurant was so close to the Peace Park, we saw the constant queues for the Nagataya restaurant and knew it was a place worth visiting. So we kept our eye on it throughout the time. When we got hungry, we jumped into the queue and read some great reviews for their Okonomiyaki on TripAdvisor.
Eventually when it came time for us to be seated, we were fortunate to be seated in the prime seats in front of the hot plates. It was fantastic, because we could see all the action up close. I took a video of them making the okonomiyaki.
We had to try an okonomiyaki with soba noodles in it. So we ordered three different okonomiyaki to try. They all seemed pretty similar, so there probably isn’t any point sharing specifics.
We thought the okonomiyaki at this store was much more delicious than the one in Osaka. It was so good! The soba, pancake, spring onion, it had a soft yet crunchy texture with juicy meat. Just simply, yum!
We had to head back since got worried we would miss the last train to Osaka. Osaka was able 2 hours away and we knew if we missed the last train, we wouldn’t be able to go back until tomorrow. Luckily there were plenty of trains. We got back to Osaka past midnight.
If you are keen, there are plenty of stores selling Carp merchandise around Hiroshima Station.
Stay tuned for Day 5 – Osaka to Mount Koya: the wondrous trip into the mountains and wandering the Okunoin Cemetery – 23 June 2019.