There are two big reasons for making spring the time to visit Japan. The first is the much celebrated sakura (cherry blossom) season, during which virtually everyone will take time out in parks and along riverbanks to indulge in a spot of hanami (flower viewing). The second is the availability of the Seishun 18 rail ticket, which makes it cheaper for visitors to see more of the country and have a greater chance of catching the blossom in bloom.
The golden ticket
Seishun 18 is named and originally intended for young travellers, but anyone can use it. Each ticket is valid for five days unlimited travel on Japan Railways, whose lines run the length and breadth of the country. Seishun 18 costs ¥11,500 (currently around £80), which may sound a lot, but considering the possibilities and the general cost of rail travel in Japan, is an absolute bargain. It's also considerably cheaper than the Japan Rail Pass, which is the most economical way to go at other times of year.
How it works
Seishun 18 spring tickets are available from all JR stations between late February and 31st March and are valid between 1st March and 10th April. Though each ticket has space for five stamps they need not be used on consecutive days and can even be shared among a group - for example five people could share it for one day’s travel. The ticket is restricted to local trains, though this does include Kaisoku (rapid services), which don't stop at every station. The obviously faster bullet trains (Shinkansen) and express services are excluded unless you wish to pay a supplement. The slower pace of travel however, is rather relaxing and allows you to plan your sightseeing on the fly.
Making the most of it
If you had a whole month, a stack of five-or-so Seishun 18 tickets and an excellent plan, you could make a pretty good go of seeing most of Japan's four main islands. However, if you're on a shorter stay, you can still make a great trip around a lot of major sights within about a week. The Tokaido and Sanyo Line system, which runs across much of the main island of Honshu, has a very regular local/rapid service, making it easy to get between at least four major city stops with ease.
Our suggested itinerary - one of many, many possibles - covers five key destinations on Honshu: Tokyo (start point), Kyoto, Himeji, Nara and Hiroshima. You can jumble the order in which you see them according to travel times and preferences, but a bit of decent (though not too strict) forward planning is advised. If you want to catch the slightly unpredictable blossoms (and see why the nation goes mad for them), the best time to go is at the very end of March – this will offer good odds for prime viewing in at least one city.
The capital is the furthest away from any of the other destinations and is also the place with the most going on. To break things up nicely, it's best to plan different kinds of activities for before you set off and for when you return from the other destinations. If you're restricted to a couple of days, perhaps cover the classics like Imperial Palace and Sensōji temple one day, and save the shopping and modern Japan hopping around Shinjuku, Shibuya, Odaiba et al for later. Or vice versa.
Recommended for blossom viewing: Ueno Park, Shinjuku-Gyoen National Garden.
Predicted blooming period 2011: opening: 27th March, prime viewing: 2nd - 12th April
Kyoto is the next stop away from Tokyo, though it's a long way. If you have the time, set aside a day of travel and watch the country go by. If things are more pressing, the other option is to take the 'Moonlight Nagara' and travel overnight, but you'll need to purchase a seat reservation well in advance.
An enjoyable and easygoing overview of Kyoto can be had over a couple of days. There are tons of World Heritage temples and shrines, of course, but you needn't visit every one. Two of the best, Kiyomizu-dera and Ginkaku-ji (the Golden Temple), are in the Eastern section of the city, also arguably the best for blossoms, with a huge tree in Maruyama Park. Kyoto is one of the last places the sakura hits, but if you're there early, you may well catch the equally enchanting plum blossoms.
Recommended for blossom viewing: Maruyama Park (Eastern Kyoto), Arashiyama (North West).
Predicted blooming period 2011: opening: 28th March, prime viewing: 2nd - 12th April
Often overlooked in favour of Kyoto, Nara is the other great keeper of classic, ancient Japan. Luckily most of the sights, including the Daibutsu (Japan's largest Buddha statue) are centred around Nara Park. Even better, the park area is populated by over 1000 deer and has even more cherry blossom trees. Tip: Nara is nearest Kyoto (and off the Tokaido/Sanyo main route), so to save being 'templed out' over a few days, I'd save it for the way back.
Recommended for blossom viewing: Nara Park, especially around Todaiji (Great Eastern Temple).
Predicted blooming period 2011: opening: 29th March, prime viewing: 2nd - 10th April
As home to Japan's most famous and awe-inspiring castle, Himeji shouldn't be missed, but can be covered in a quick half-day stop (especially as parts of the site are undergoing renovation at present). For better blossom chances, save Himeji for your return leg; I'd recommend starting out as early as possible from Hiroshima (about 5 hours away). Grab a ¥720 combination ticket for the castle and Kōkoen Garden to catch the main sights before heading back East.
Recommended for blossom viewing: Himeji Castle grounds.
Predicted blooming period 2011: opening: 28th March, prime viewing: 2nd - 10th April
Unless you have lots of time or are supplementing your Seishun 18 journeys with bullet train rides, Hiroshima will be your most western stop and should be savoured. One day will cover the city's main draw, The Peace Memorial Park, including the Museum and A-Bomb Dome, and leave time to enjoy some Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki: Japanese savoury pancakes with added noodles.
Your second day should take you out to the island of Miyajima. Known for its iconic 'floating' torii gate and great hiking up Mt. Misen, the island also has around 1300 cherry trees. The ferry from Hiroshima (Miyajimaguchi Station)is operated by JR, so won't cost you anything extra if you have your Seishun ticket.
Recommended for blossom viewing: Hiroshima Peace Park, especially along the river. Miyajima.
Predicted blooming period 2011: opening: 24th March, prime viewing: 30th March - 7th April
Virgin Atlantic operate daily direct flights from London Heathrow to Japan.
Have you ever travelled on a Seishun 18 ticket? Got any further tips to add? Share your thoughts and recommendations with us below.
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About the author: andrewAndrew Bowman
Andrew is an occasional contributor to the Virgin Atlantic blog. He lived in the Japanese countryside for two years until he could no longer resist the pull of London's galleries, pubs and clubs. He likes to pretend he can speak Japanese and also sometimes writes about music.