Primer: Travelling to and Around Okayama, Japan

A rather rough overview originally compiled in advance of friends coming to Okayama for wedding. Re-purposed in slightly more general terms for logistical convenience as needed.

See also: “Primer: Travelling Japan / places to go, getting around, accomms, culture, etiquette and geography“, “Japanese Culture and Language Primer” and other resources in this archive including video guides. 

Getting to Okayama, Japan

Airport

Best to fly to Kansai (KIX) Osaka airport. This schmancy modern airport is located on a human-made island in the middle of the bay and includes 2 hotels, like 100+ restaurants, post office, an airplane viewing platform and importantly, a train station.

The hotels (the full-service Nikko Hotel & business-single-pod-style First Cabin) are super useful if you arrive exhausted from the long flight (usually about 14 hours from N.A. west coast). A short trip from the airport’s island by shuttle bus brings you to loads of other hotels. This airport village also has loads of shopping for buying treats on your way home.

Of course, the are other airports, specifically Tokyo (massive international hub Narita NRT or sometimes Haneda HND which is usually used for domestic flights) and the new Centrail/Chubu/Nagoya (NGO) airport. While you might save a few dollars on the flight, you’ll have a longer (more expensive) train journey to reach Okayama which is the destination for the shindig.

Fly direct to Okayama (OKJ) via the charmingly convenient and cute Momotaro Airport. If you fly to Haneda or Narita (Tokyo) mentioned above, you can transfer and fly right here.  Sometimes this requires an airport shuttle between Narita (mostly international) and Haneda (more domestic).  There is a bus service from Momotaro to downtown Okayama too.

Note: there is a huge service difference for the long-haul flights from North America. My personal experience is to fly an Asian-based airline, i.e.: Japan (ANA *fave, JAL), Korean (Korean or Asiana), Taiwan (EVA), HK (Cathay Pacific) or Singapore if coming from YVR, SFO, LAX, etc. If coming from other Asian destinations, well you are usually all good. I have experienced much less enjoyment from US-based airlines and China mainland airlines often have low prices but check the reviews and adjust against your comfort levels.

Consider tracking flight options/prices with Skyscanner with a price alert or same with Google Flights and try Hopper (app) to see when best time to “pull the trigger” on purchasing flight. Flying from Vancouver? Check out YVRdeals.

Customs/Immigration

Citizens of 50 different countries can receive a no-cost 90 day tourist visa upon arrival (some exceptions apply and some are only 15 days).

You need an outgoing air ticket (unless you are unusually charming) and strangely/importantly you MUST keep your passport with you are all times while in Japan. Seriously. Also you’ll need a hotel or other accommodation address when going through immigration. 

Also don’t bring fresh foods or drugs with ya (duh).

Trains

 See Also: Train Tips (videos)

Upon arriving at Kansai Airport and possibly taking a rest or enjoying food… you’ll hop aboard the famed Shinkansen (aka Bullet trains) – there are several routes and this will be a bit tricky but follow the instructions and you’ll be fine. The train station is located in the airport and easy to find. Once there, you’ll go into the ticket office (there are self-service ticket kiosks but you’ll probably find these a bit confusing). 

You’ll be issued 2 tickets and cost about Yen 9,000. You’ll go through a little automated gate and insert both tickets into the machine which will spit them out the other side. If you are confused, there is an attended booth where they will assist you. They may not be able to speak your language but they are aware that you are a foreign visitor to Japan and will do their best to move you to the right place. Hang in there!

When you buy your tickets, have them write down the time and track number.

You can purchase a regular, reserved seat or “Green Car” upgrade which gives reserved seat, a shorter line to purchase ticket and so on. After a long flight, this upgrade can be well worth it.

Either way, the Shinkansen is a fun experience, the stops are VERY short and announcements in Engrish so be prepared. Once on the train, try to watch the scenery whisking by at 300kph. Finally you’ll arrive at Okayama Station.

The first ticket will take you to Shin-Osaka on the Haruka Limited Express (50 mins, 1 stop) where you’ll have an Amazing Race challenge to change trains to from Shin-Osaka to Okayama on either the Shinkansen Nozumi (NOT INCLUDED WITH JR PASS), Kodama or Hikari service (there is also the special Hello Kitty Train – yup, of course) – generally, the trains leave every :20 mins and the 157km journey takes only 45 mins with 1 stop (Shin-Kobe). Whoa fast eh. 

Shin-Osaka station can be a little intense – especially when combined with jet lag and general dis-orientation. Grab a bevvie from the endless variety of vending machines or at a konbini stores or an eki-ben (station lunch box set) and chill – watch people, breathe and know you are almost there. Ask someone and they will probably answer in too many words but also point you in the right direction. Signage is almost always written in ABCs along with Japanese.

Bonus: Preview videos of this train journey

Coming from Haneda, Narita or Centrail/Nagoya/Chubu? Well, more of less the same, just slightly different Shinkansen (and or course more expensive but so it goes). Need help? See below for all sorts of train resources. 

Stations, a note

Every Japanese city revolves around its stations and most services/adventures and jumping off points start at the “eki” (“eki wa doko desuka” – “where is the station” is one of the handiest phrases to know – see below for more).

Destination > Okayama

Okayama (translates moreorless to Hills and Mountains) is the capital city of Okayama “ken” (prefecture, of Japan has 47 total jurisdictions) and is a medium-sized city which is “just right” in that it’s big enough to have all the modern shopping and conveniences but also manageable to get around, and a quick train ride to find lovely countryside.

Importantly, there are loads of great museums in the city (marked on map), a castle, a huge park/garden and the nearby historical town of Kurashiki which features Ryokan hotels, olden canals and the remarkable Ohara museum of post/impressionist art in an intimate surrounding plus several other museums for folk art, pottery etc.

There are also the craziest electronic stores you’ve likely ever seen, absurd pachinko parlours, fancy malls and department stores if that’s your thing. 

Note: in spring time, along various walkways and gardens, you can enjoy cherry blossom season with magnificent pink blooms of several varieties to gaze upon. The tradition is to stake out a spot for a drunken picnic… this does get rather competitive to score the best spots.

Local transport

Okayama city has adorable vintage-y electric streetcars (each with different paint design!) which get ya around downtown for 100yen a ride in downtown area. There are busses too but often signage is in Japanese only  – either mode, remember to board at the rear, take a ticket, and pay on way off (via front).

Hotels

Japan has many types of hotels from capsule/pod hotels/hostels to tatami-mat Ryokans, to discrete (and outlandish) “love hotels”, and “regular/business” hotels, some of which offer choice of tatami mat/futon rooms or “western-style” beds. (More about accommodations below). Also Airbnb is regulated and available to well… licensed providers so worth checking out – keep in mind, Japanese homes can be a little confusing at first, just simple things like turning on machines, operating toilets and setting up futons.

A few hotels which are handy location to the station + areas of interest, and reasonable prices (relatively speaking) are:

  • Okayama View hotel: choice of western or Japanese futon rooms – within 1km of station, castle, park, museums – $60-150 CAD/night
  • Okayama Koraku: a bit fancier but not as close to museums, close to station (where Dave and Ryoko will stay) – $90-200 CAD/night
  • Kamp Backpacker’s Inn and Lounge – a quirky hostel-type place with bar/cafe downstairs and close to all sorts of fun nightspots (hmmm apparently already sold out)
  • Booking-com has all sorts of options including more “airbnb-style” apartments. Just remember, being close to station makes life a lot easier. Note: the goat farm/HQ is located a few stations by local train for downtown at “Joto aka Zyoto” station. 

Money

Japan can be a bit expensive but you can smooth off the rough edges with some craftiness… f course, your expenses will depend on your tastes and interests. Regardless, Japan functions mostly in cash rather than cards (though these can be used at hotels). Rather than changing money at “home” before leaving, better to pull cash out of ATM in Japan (at airport). Importantly not all ATMs will work BUT the ubiquitous 7-11s always have foreign friendly ATMs and most Post Offices (which are plentiful and marked by T symbol) almost always are foreign card friendly.

As always when travelling, bring 2 (or more cards) and usually you don’t have to tell you bank you are travelling to Japan but might wanna check/tell to prevent mishaps.  

Bonus: Worth noting that 7-11s also feature clean, free restrooms (without the glare from the counter), machines for purchasing tickets of all kinds, and an assortment of goods from rice balls (onigiri) to a fresh shirt, socks and tie.

Food

The Okayama area is noted for great agriculture and “foodie/bevvie” culture so you will eat great with loads of with adorable great little restaurants of all kinds (note: see more food notes / tips below), craft ale bars, coffee cafes – including a covered arcade street filled with “hole in the walls” for endless sampling and exploring. 

Our faves include: Bancho Bunko, a tiny okonomiyaki restaurant which fits about 8 people, Gouchon ramen, hitting up a a formal Kaiseki (many tiny fancy plates) lunch and local ale and saké.

Packing 

While this is “travel 101”, packing light is especially important in Japan where you will be riding busy trains, walking through crowded stations, over pedestrian bridges and well… everything is a little “smaller” than what you are likely accustomed too.

Most Japanese people ship their luggage ahead by the efficient takyubin / courier services so they can ride unencumbered but that’s maybe a hassle for you so just pack light without a buncha bags.

Japan is shopping heaven so if you pack light you can load up on clothes (depending on size) and other treats (note to self: add bits about 100 yen stores, Uniglo, Muji, Tokyu Hands, endless art supplies and stationery… and the like).

Best to pack layers and multi-purpose outfits. Spring time is coolish and drizzly but lovely in Japan so great for light jacket/sweater – umbrellas are usually everywhere and handy. 

Just about the most important thing to bring are shoes which are comfy and easy on / off. You will be taking on / off shoes all the dang time (and speaking from experience, un/tie-ing shoes is a complete drag and holds up the flow… and you’ll be walking a lot. Not sandals though. Note: there is a whole essay to write about house slippers here. 

Gifting

Pro tip is to bring a stash of neat treats from your home to give as gifts for the people who help you out and host you. Doesn’t have to be a big deal and should be “light enough to travel” and ideally representative of your home area. 

Ideas include: 

    • Art postcards
    • Interesting keychains or fridge magnets
    • Buttons/pens
    • Scarves
    • Vacuum packed smoked salmon in cedar box
    • Mini totem poles or cable cars or whatever is in your area
    • Maple candies
    • Interesting tea
    • Hockey or baseball cards

If you bring a dozen or so little things, for the best friend you’ll make, it’s well appreciated and will very likely be reciprocated in a much more magnificent way.

Also, bring in business/friendship card is super handy. Japanese love business cards and having a “personal” card with your email/social network stuff will help you stay in touch. By the way, you present business cards to hand it with a slight bow and when you receive a business card receive with both hands and look at it as though it is a holy and to l if you bring a dozen or so little things, for the best friend you’ll make, it’s well appreciated and will very likely be reciprocated in a much more magnificent way.

Also, business/friendship cards are super handy. Japanese love business cards and having a “personal“ card with your email/social network staff will help you stay in touch. 

By the way, you present business cards two handed with a slight bow, and when you receive a business card, receive with both hands and look at it as though it is a holy antalect.

Tip: I love moo.com cards (both their “mini cards” as well as regular business card sized) especially because you can create with different photos on everyone for extra fun. I even have a promo code that will give you free shipping and a discount… I should go look for that… here it is: https://refer.moo.com/s/gravellybeach – Gets your 25% off your first order #hint

Remember: loads more resources around this archive. Keep exploring and hit me up with questions. 

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