A fast-track travel plan

The Japan Rail Pass is one of the world's greatest sightseeing bargains, says Simon Calder

Stress is one form of excess baggage that you can well do without while on holiday, which helps explain why I enjoy journeys in Japan. It is surely the world's least stressful nation in which to travel. Everywhere in this diverse and beautiful country the traveller encounters polite, helpful people who are ready to go out of their way to smooth your progress. So why, close to midnight in central Honshu (Japan's main island), was I feeling so stressed?

Because I was heading towards Mount Fuji with two people who were literally going out of their way to smooth my progress around Japan. Half-an-hour earlier they had had no intention of driving up the long and very winding road towards Japan's most sacred mountain. The helpful couple, who spoke good English, would presumably rather be elsewhere than aiming for Fuji Fifth Station, where the road ends and the climb begins. But, I fretted from the back seat as the driver negotiated yet another hairpin bend, they were much too polite to say so.

The couple had been persuaded to change their plans and take off up a lengthy cul-de-sac not from any subterfuge on my part, but because of my quaint Western habit of hitch-hiking. An hour earlier, late in the evening, I had arrived in the town of Fuji-Yoshida. The last bus to the base station had long since gone. The only alternative I could see to the 12-mile trudge to Mount Fuji's base camp was to thumb a ride part of the way. But this being Japan, the gracious couple who were driving home through town when they saw me felt obliged to take me miles out of their way to the end of the road. And I felt anxious at taking advantage of their good nature - but not so much that I was willing to say "oh, just drop me off here".

Nocturnal travel fits snugly into any budget journey around Japan. I was cramming as much of the nation as I could into a week of high-intensity experiences. Seven days is the duration of one of the world's great travel bargains, the Japan Rail Pass, and I was determined to make the most of my pounds 150 investment.

The easy part was Tokyo, before my wanderings began. The capital has a reputation for high energy and high expense. Energy, most certainly: at Tsukiji Fish Market (see page 8) I got so caught up in the frenzy of 20th-century commerce that I nearly bought a whole tuna (now that's what I call excess baggage), and later I was treated to a glimpse of the 22nd century at the Sony Building. But I quickly learnt that you need no platinum credit card to survive in 21st-century Tokyo. Low-cost accommodation is easy: if you prefer not to turn Japanese in your capsule hotel, you can check into a cut-price hostel. The next essential, eating, is easily negotiated thanks to the ubiquitous bowls of ramen noodles. And the pleasures of city life are either free (such as the jaw-dropping view of the city from the top of Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building) or cheap (immersion in an onsen, communal bath, at the end of the day).

Sooner or later, though, you yearn to break away from the megalopolis that is greater Tokyo city. Six hundred kilometres should do it: that is the rail distance from Tokyo to Hakodate on the island of Hokkaido, a serene, historic port city that you can barely believe is in the same country as Tokyo. Perhaps that's because the journey involves a trip through the world's longest tunnel on land, between Iwate and Inchinohe, and the longest underwater tunnel - a burrow linking the islands of Honshu and Hokkaido, which is even longer than the Channel Tunnel. The trip involves a relay of trains, which seem cleverly designed to connect with just enough time to buy another bowl of ramen at the station.

You could easily while away a week on Hokkaido: taking the plunge at the hot springs resort of Noboribetsu, then taking the free tour of the Sapporo brewery in the island's capital.

Away from the big cities, accommodation at minshuku (small, family-run B&Bs) and ryokan (traditional inns) is reasonably affordable. Only the ever-practical Japanese, though, would come up with the concept of goronto seat. This translates as "reserved carpet space" on overnight trains, which means rail pass holders can legitimately kip on the floor all the way from Sapporo to Tokyo for nothing. And, being Japan, you can be assured that the carpet is freshly vacuumed and wildlife-free.

Goodness: Amsterdam already? The Japanese unashamedly copied PJH Cuypers' masterpiece from the Dutch capital, the Northern Renaissance-style Centraal Station, and it is well worth admiring while you change trains in the capital. So, too, is the way that the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) is despatched: in a little bit of ballet, the driver ceremoniously points at the clock and then the signal before he guides his train away at the appointed second. (Women train drivers remain an exceedingly rare species in Japan.)

The Bullet Train was an icon of the Sixties: the first ran on the Tokyo- Osaka line on 1 October 1964, and this stretch of track remains the spine of the network. The fastest trains cover the 553km in two-and-a-half hours; these are 300kph Nozomi "super expresses". But even the ordinary Bullet Train services travel at speeds of which British train drivers can only dream. As you glide along through the cityscape and countryside, the nation is revealed in fast-forward.

Part of the art of seeing Japan is knowing when to slow down, which is why, at Otsuki, I had transferred to the local train to Fuji-Yoshida. The unadvertised connecting lift took me halfway up the mountain to Fuji Fifth Station. Here, close to midnight, the meticulously benevolent couple observed that I was not properly prepared for an ascent of the holiest peak - and donated a baseball cap.

By 4am, when I was still shuffling up the volcanic shale, I was glad of the headwear. I was also grateful for the convenient way in which catering outlets appear in the strangest places: every hour or so on the six-hour hike, a mountain hut appears from out of the gloom, dispensing warmth, coffee and, inevitably, noodles to the weary hikers.

The traditional reward for scrambling to 3,776 metres - equivalent to a good-sized Alp - is the awesome view from the summit rim at sunrise. All that happened when I was there at dawn was that the fog changed from dark grey and impenetrable to light grey and impenetrable. "A wise man climbs Fuji once," goes the local saying. "A fool climbs it twice."

But there was no time to loiter in the hope of fine weather: after retracing my furrow down the mountain, I still had to reach Kobe, a harbour city as magnificently located as Sydney and miraculously resurrected after the Great Hanshin Earthquake of a decade ago. Then it was back to the bewitching Imperial city of Kyoto, to savour every moment among the temples and parks and palaces. The crafty traveller times the Japan Rail Pass to expire just after the journey to the airport. Would you believe it: the train from Kyoto to the artificial island bearing Kansai airport was late. Only five minutes, mind - not enough to cause any stress.

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Life and Style
Apple showed no sign of losing its talent for product launches with the new, slightly larger iPhone 6 making headlines
techSecurity breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
peopleDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
tvReview: Top Gear team flee Patagonia as Christmas special reaches its climax in the style of Butch and Sundance
News
people
Sport
Ashley Barnes of Burnley scores their second goal
footballMan City vs Burnley match report
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca alongside Harrison Ford's Han Solo in 'Star Wars'
film
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Man of action: Christian Bale stars in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
News
Ernesto Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, right, met at Havana Golf Club in 1962 to mock the game
newsFidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
News
Hackers revealed Oscar-winning actress Lawrence was paid less than her male co-stars in American Hustle
people
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Sport
Robin van Persie is blocked by Hugo Lloris
footballTottenham vs Manchester United match report
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Business Manager

    £32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Manager is required ...

    Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

    £45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

    £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

    Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

    £25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

    Day In a Page

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?