Last time we traveled in Japan, we went flying. Well, we have traveled quite a bit in Tokyo and the surroundings since, and we went to Sweden. But our last domestic trip was when we flew to Okinawa.
We were flying with an LCC, which is the Asian abbreviation for low-cost carriers. A few years ago, the Japanese government deregulated the airline market. The intent was to open up for new companies and pressure the incumbent companies to lower prices themselves. It actually happened, and they did it without decreasing service all that much. I suspect it is the long-distance travelers who pay the bill, because when we booked a long-distance flight the price with the Japanese flag carriers for the same route was more than twice what we paid for a Chinese airline to take us to the same place. Almost as expensive as flying via Dubai or Abu Dhabi.
It is true that if you book early, you can get almost the same price with a regular airline for domestic tickets as you get with a low-cost carrier. But while the LCC basically have two prices, the regular airlines have an infinite variation. And while the LCC publish their prices on the website months in advance, you never quite know what price the regular airlines are going to charge.
This time we took Vanilla Air, one of the airlines that sprung out of the liberalization of the low-cost carriers. They are owned by the ANA group, one of the two flag carriers, who also owns Peach.
Far Away Terminals
When we got to Naha, we ended up in the new LCC terminal. This is one of the disadvantages of flying low-cost carriers in Asia. In Europe, there are enough discarded airfields (both in the old East and Western Europe) that the low-cost carriers could start flying from different airports than the ”normal” airports. Stockholm-Skavsta and Frankfurt-Hahn are just two examples of airports which have almost exclusively LCC traffic, but are so far from the ”main” airports with which they share part of the name that they might as well be in a different country.
Or, in the case of the LCC terminal in Naha, a different airport. The LCC terminal in Naha is located in an old freight terminal, basically the shell of a building which has been fitted with baggage handling and security check equipment. But to get to the terminal for other airlines you had to take a bus for almost 20 minutes - traveling almost halfway around the airport.
The Ends Of The Big L
The Okinawa LCC terminal really felt like something knocked up to handle the LCC traffic boom. Okinawa is the only destination which is far enough away for flying to make sense anymore. The rest of Japan is now easy to reach with the Shinkansen. Of course, if you live in Hokkaido and want to go to Kyushu or the other way around, taking the train is a waste of time. Especially considering the geography of Japan, which looks like a big L, with Kyushu at one end and Hokkaido at the other, and Tokyo at the knee in the middle. But the market is not big enough, and even though there are international flights to Hokkaido as well as Kyushu, most of the people in Japan actually live in the stretch between Kobe and Tokyo.
Smaller Than California, Longer Than The Coast
Japan is a little smaller than California, but it is as long as the US West Coast - but the climate zones it covers are the same as the US east coast. Hokkaido has much the same climate as Maine, and Okinawa is as warm and sunny as Florida. If there were more people in Hokkaido, they might become snowbirds, but the island is as sparely populated as it is huge.
Most people who fly the LCC in Japan fly to Okinawa, or one of the islands surrounding the main Okinawan islands. The climate is the same as in Hawaii, since Okinawa and Hawaii are on the same latitude. Okinawa has typhoons which does make the climate a bit more severe than that of Hawaii. Or they fly to Hokkaido, which is not quite as far from the major population centers but still far enough that it is economical to fly, time-wise. If you are going to Okinawa you have no choice (well, there are ferries). But the Hokkaido shinkansen is one of the fastest trains in the world, and the convenience of boarding a train and not having to check luggage or go through security and passport control makes it competitive to flying. Kyushu is just on the borderline. With a flying time just over two hours, taking a bullet train for 5 hours is actually faster than flying - if you consider that the fastest train to Narita airport takes a little less than an hour, and include the time you have to spend in the airport.
More Expensive With The Train
But a one-way flight costs 7500 yen at low season, and the train ticket is almost 25000 yen for grownups. Having children quickly changes the equation though, as they travel free on trains until they are six, but you have to buy them tickets on the plane. And if you get a Japan Rail Pass, you have effectively paid for all trips you are going to make before you leave home. At just under 30000 yen for the ordinary ticket it pays for itself on the way back.
Another advantage is that there are several trains in a day. If you are going from Tokyo to Osaka or Kyoto there is basically one train every ten minutes.
No Station Breakfast
We got up really early and took the train to the airport. We had counted on getting breakfast in the train, since the foodcourt at the airport did not look too appealing (exotic though a foodcourt full of Japanese brands might be). There are convenience stores open almost round the clock in the stations, but in the concourse of Nippori station (where you take the express train to Narita Airport) there are both a bakery and a shop selling Japanese onigiri, the traditional riceballs which are a perfect meal for a three-year-old. And the quality and taste are so much better in the speciality stores than the convenience stores, even though they certainly are not bad either. And the bread in the bakery is freshly baked.
But they only open at 7 AM, and we got there at 0645. We had counted on the kids wanting to go to the toilet (which they did - but only after we had bought breakfast).
And we only had reservations on the 0745 train so we actually had breakfast in the waiting room in the station.
Last Grownup Seats
We got the last seats on the train, and only for the grownups. I know from before that the seats on that particular airport train are pretty big, and our kids had no problem sitting on our laps for the trip. Actually, they appreciate it a bit too much. We have been telling them that they are big now and no longer should sleep in mommys and daddys bed. Although we often wake up by someone trying to push us out of bed.
Keeping The Kids Walking
When we travel a little distance, more than 20 minutes usually, it is very hard to keep your kids awake in the morning and late afternoon. They are still sleepy and the rocking and rhythmic sound of the train will put them to sleep, although it does not compare to a car. Of course they fell asleep standing up, which meant they were extremely grumpy waking up, crying and screaming and kicking. It is at times like that you wish you had kept the stroller. Even my wife can not carry them any more, and then we have to get our carry-ons off. Even if we have sent the luggage ahead in advance, this takes time. And the train only stops a limited time at Narita terminal 2 station, where you have to get off if you want to go to terminal 3, either walking or taking the bus. So the kids have to walk off the train by themselves.
And Continuing To Walk
And continue to walk, because terminal 3 at Narita airport is not that close to the train station. You have to get up to street level and get to the bus stop to be able to catch the bus to the terminal. Which means you have to get your suitcases on the bus because there is no courier service counter in terminal 3. So dragging heavy suitcases and sleepy children two floors and then onto a bus, and after that riding the bus for almost 15 minutes, then dragging them off again and pulling them with one hand as you pull the suitcase with the other. Lucky we only had two suitcases and brought grandma.
No Water Inside
The shops and restaurants in the LCC terminal at Narita are all outside security. If you travel international I think you have better luck, but the domestic section only has one severely overpriced snack shop. Buy everything except water outside.
Speaking of water, the toilets are one floor up from the domestic departure hall. You had better make sure everyone gets a chance to go before you board the plane, because you may get stuck in the takeoff queue if you are leaving at a popular time. We did not expect to be sitting on the tarmac for 45 minutes. That, and the slow bus from the Okinawa LCC terminal to the airport proper, almost made us miss our flight.
If there only had been a Shinkansen to the Okinawan beaches. Tokyo Station is surprisingly small for the amount of traffic that passes through it every day. Obviously the land is more expensive in the center of Tokyo than it is in the Narita area. And the Haneda airport is built on an artificial island, so if they need more land they can extend the island.
Of course, Tokyo station does make more creative use of the land it is on than an airport. Or rather, the land under and above it, because the station has five levels of trains running through. There is only one level of Shinkansen trains though, although there is more than one entrance to get onto the Shinkansen platforms.
Only Shinkansen Stations
Since the Shinkansen trains run on separate tracks, you can not enter the Shinkansen platforms from the platforms servicing the regular tracks. And of course, the pricing is different, too. You need the special Shinkansen ticket, even if you do not necessarily need a reserved seat. If you want to take the fastest trains, you need special tickets and reserved seats. But if you are happy about arriving 30 minutes later, you can take a little slower train that stops at more stations where there are cars with unreserved seats in front of the train. They stop at more stations, but this is still the Shinkansen so the stations they stop at are far fewer than the stations a regular train would be stopping at, if there were regular trains traveling the same route.
The No-Change Convenience
If you are traveling from anywhere inside Tokyo with children, you will appreciate the convenience of not having to change trains. More than once, anyway. You may have some work to do if you are coming in on one of the lines which have their platforms the farthest from the Shinkansen entrance, but after having carried my deeply sleeping daughter from the Keio line platform to the Chuo line platform, which really is from one end of the station to the other, I do not think it will be too hard to get to the Shinkansen from anywhere.
No Luggage Carts
There are no luggage carts in Tokyo train station, something you will probably miss from the airport, but that is most likely the only thing you will miss. The food stalls on the Shinkansen platforms are much better than the restaurants in the LCC terminal foodcourt. Even if you are supposed to eat on the train. But you do not have to think about buying new water bottles after the security check. Bring any drinks you like, as much as you like.
Of course, there are no flight attendants on the train. Hardly any train attendants any more. There is a drinks cart and there are young ladies (I have not yet seen anyone old or man) going through the train selling bento, the pre-packed Japanese lunch boxes. But if you will need hot water to make formula, you are better off bringing a thermos.
No Space For Luggage
There is also very limited space for luggage. Of course, you can not send everything in advance if you travel with babies. You need diapers, formula, water, a couple of changes for yourself and the baby, and some snacks if the kids are eating solid food. And the stroller. But you do not need the big suitcase with the raincoats and rubber boots. You can send that ahead the day before, like the Japanese do. The only storage space for your luggage in the Shinkansen trains is the space behind the seat at the end of the trains, and the overhead shelf. And everyone in the train car has to share it. You might find yourself wishing for a luggage checkin, until you realize how convenient it was that the luggage was already in your room when you got there.
Shinkansen Is Better
On the whole, the Shinkansen offers an unbeatable value for families, especially if you have a Japan Rail Pass. Even if you do not, since it is so much more convenient than flying. You only have to plan ahead. But not more than when you take a flight.
This post is one in my ongoing series on how to navigate Japan for travelers with children. I have written before about the Japanese travel year and the Japanese travel day (for most people heavily centered around taking the train). I have a couple of articles on buying diapers in Japan and buying baby goods in Japan. I have written about how to figure out where to stay in Tokyo and how much you should budget for your trip to Japan. And I have written about whether you will be safe in Japan. And of course, since I have three kids, I have written a lot about Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo Disney Sea. And lots more.
I am Wisterian Watertree, recently moved from Bangkok to Tokyo, with a brief visit to Honolulu on the way. I write about travel, especially with our three beautiful kids (two girls and one boy, soon turning four and a half - yes. they are triplets). Travel is education and fun rolled into one, and if you are like me, that is something you want to give to your kids. If you want more tips and want to find out when I will publish something, get it from my email list. If you want to be personal, drop me a note on firstname.lastname@example.org, or if you want general tips, follow me on Twitter @wisterianw.