Monday, August 25, 2008

Sento Imperial Palace

Sento Imperial Palace
basic information
Entrance to Omiya Palace

Sento Imperial Palace is located in Kyoto Imperial Park across from the Imperial Palace. It was built in 1630 for the occasion of Emperor Gomizuno's retirement, and became the palace for subsequent retired emperors.

The palace building burned down in 1854 and was not rebuilt; however, Omiya Palace was constructed on the Sento grounds in 1867. Omiya Palace has become the lodging place for the current prince and princess when they visit Kyoto.

Visiting Sento Imperial Palace requires booking a free tour through the Imperial Household Agency, who manages all of the Imperial properties. The tours take visitors through the Sento gardens which are comprised of the North Pond and South Pond areas. Both are beautiful examples of Japanese gardens.

Tours of Sento last about one hour and are conducted only in Japanese. It is not possible to enter any of the Sento Palace buildings along the tour route. However, some of the buildings, such as the Seikatei teahouse, are left open so that visitors can see inside and get an impression of imperial design and style.

how to get there

Sento Imperial Palace is located within the Kyoto Imperial Park. It can be reached from Kyoto Station in about 10 minutes by the Karasuma Subway Line. Get off at Marutamachi or Imadegawa Station. Both stations are about a 15 minute walk from the entrance gate of Sento Palace, however, Imadegawa Station is closer to the office of the Imperial Household Agency.

Orientation in Kyoto

hours and fees

Free tours of Sento Imperial Palace are held twice daily at 9:00 and 13:30 in Japanese only. No tours are held on Sundays and national holidays. Most Saturdays are also unavailable. Check with the agency for an up to date schedule.

To book a tour, you need to apply in advance with your passport at the Imperial Household Agency's office in Kyoto Imperial Park. Reservations are often possible on the same day as the intended visit. The agency office is open Monday to Friday from 8:45 to 12:00 and from 13:00 to 17:00.

Additionally, a small number of tour spots are available for reservation over the agency's website (see links below), however, these often get booked out. Online reservations must be completed several days before the intended visit.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Nijo Castle

Nijo Castle
basic information

Nijo Castle (Nijojo) was built by Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Edo Shogunate, as the Kyoto residence for himself and his successors.

The palace building now known as Ninomaru ("secondary castle"), was completed in 1603 and enlarged by Ieyasu's grandson Iemitsu. It survives in its original form and is famous for its Momoyama architecture, decorated sliding doors and floors that squeak like nightingales when someone walks on them (a security measure against intruders).

Iemitsu also added the Honmaru ("main castle") including a five storied castle tower to Nijo Castle. However, the original honmaru structures were destroyed by fires in the 18th century, and the present building was moved there from the Imperial Palace in 1893.


Nijo Castle is one of Kyoto's many UNESCO world heritage sites.

how to get there

Nijo Castle is most easily accessed from Nijojo-mae Station on the Tozai Subway Line. From Kyoto Station, take the Karasuma Subway Line to Karasuma Oike Station and transfer to the Tozai Line. The whole trip from Kyoto Station takes about 15-20 minutes.

Orientation in Kyoto

Admission: 600 Yen
Hours: 8:45 to 17:00 (admission until 16:00). Closed on Tuesdays (Wednesday if Tuesday falls on a national holiday) during January, July, August and December. Closed from December 26 to January 4.


basic information
Pontocho is one of Kyoto's traditional nightlife districts where you might be able to spot a geisha apprentice at night. It is a narrow street running from Shijo-dori to Sanjo-dori, one block west of the Kamo River.

In the evenings, the narrow street offers a great atmosphere and lots of restaurants and teahouses, ranging from inexpensive yakitori stores to highly exclusive establishments which require the right connections and a fat wallet.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Renting a car
basic information

Renting a car is an option worth considering if you plan to explore rural Japan, where access by public transportation can be inconvenient and infrequent. A rental car can also be an economical alternative, if traveling in groups.

Exploring Japan's big cities by car, however, is not recommended, as traffic tends to be heavy, orientation difficult, and parking fees high. Trains, subways and buses are generally a better choice in metropolitan areas.

Elsewhere on the site are pages on driving in Japan and Japanese highways.


In order to rent and drive a car in Japan, a Japanese driver's license or an international driving permit is required. In the case of French, German and Swiss nationals an official translation of your home country's driver's license is accepted.

International driving permits must be obtained in your home country, usually through the national automobile association, before you leave for Japan. Foreigners can drive in Japan with a recognized international driving permit for up to one year after entering the country.

Japan recognizes only international driving permits which are based on the Geneva Convention of 1949. A few countries, including Belgium, France, Germany and Switzerland, however, issue international driving permits which are based on different conventions. Those permits are not valid in Japan.

Instead, holders of a French, German or Swiss driver's license can drive in Japan, for up to one year, with an official Japanese translation of their driver's license from their respective country's embassy or consulate in Japan. People from other countries whose international driving permits are not recognized by Japan must obtain a Japanese driver's license in order to drive in Japan.

The minimum age for driving in Japan is 18 years.

Rental Companies

Among Japan's leading car rental companies are Toyota Rentacar, Mazda Rentacar, Nissan Rentacar, Nippon Rentacar and Orix Rentacar. They operate hundreds of outlets across Japan, offering cars in all sizes and, in some cases, large vans, buses and RVs.

Most Japanese car rental companies do not provide English websites, and service in English is not usually available.

International car rental companies such as Budget, Avis and Hertz also offer car rental in Japan, typically in cooperation with one of the leading Japanese car rental companies. However, their rates are usually not very competitive.

Japanese rental companies usually charge around 6000 yen for the smallest car category, around 10,000 yen for mid sized cars, and around 15,000 yen for full sized cars. Those prices include a mandatory insurance fee of around 1000 Yen per day. Rates are usually higher during peak seasons, especially in Hokkaido.

A recommended service for car rental in Japan is ToCoo. The discount travel service does not only offer lower rates on car rental, but also provides an English website and support in English

Highway Buses

Highway Buses
basic information

Highway buses (kosoku bus) can be an attractive alternative to trains for long and medium distance travel in Japan. While highway buses tend to be slower than express trains, they are typically between 20 and 50 percent cheaper. Furthermore, by taking an overnight bus, one can save on accommodation.

Highway bus routes

Japan is covered by a dense highway bus network. Every prefecture and larger city is served by at least one bus company, operating lines into other parts of the country. On major routes, such as the Tokyo - Nagoya - Kyoto - Osaka route, fierce competition has resulted in very low fares. On most other routes, the bus companies are often cooperating rather than competing with each other.

Major highway bus routes:

How to use highway buses

Seat reservations are necessary on most long distance buses. Reservations can be made at major bus terminals, through travel agents, by phone (usually in Japanese only, phone numbers are published on the bus companies' websites) or online (in Japanese only, see links below). Reservations for JR highway buses can also be made at ticket counters of JR railway stations.

Making a reservation one or more days in advance is recommended especially on popular routes and during busy travel seasons. However, if there is space left, it is also possible to get a seat reservation just prior to departure at the bus terminal.

Ticket types

On most routes, three types of tickets are available: one way tickets, round trip tickets and booklets of multiple tickets (kaisuken):

Round trip tickets are typically around 10 percent cheaper than two one way tickets. However, the return trip has to be made within a certain time frame, typically within six to ten days following the outward journey.

Booklets of multiple tickets usually include four or five tickets and are discounted by about 10 percent compared to single tickets. The tickets need to be used within a certain time frame, which is typically three months following the purchase.

Furthermore, there are usually discounts for children (aged 6-12), students and groups.

Note that the Japan Rail Pass is not valid on most highway buses, even on highway buses operated by JR bus companies. Among the few exceptions are the JR buses between Morioka and Hirosaki/Aomori, Tokyo and Nagoya/Kyoto/Osaka/Tsukuba, and Nagoya and Kyoto/Osaka.

Types of buses

Many overnight buses are equipped with comfortable, reclining seats, which are arranged in rows of three seats and two aisles. On cheap overnight buses and most daytime buses, standard buses with four seats per row are commonly used.

Most buses come with a toilet and phone on board, and make regular toilet stops along the way. Smoking is not permitted on most highway buses nowadays.

Double decker buses are used on selected routes.

Sado Island

Sado Island
basic information

Sado Island lies just off the coast of Niigata Prefecture, and is one of Japan's largest islands. This remote place has long been a destination for political exiles, many of whom ended up working in Sado's prosperous gold mine.

The three most prominent figures sent into exile to Sado were the former Emperor Juntoku, the Buddhist monk Nichiren and the founder of Noh, Zeami Motokiyo. While the island is no longer a place of exile, traces of the culture and religion that these figures brought with them remain today.

Sado's biggest attraction is the Earth Celebration, an annual international music festival hosted by Sado's own, world renowned Kodo taiko group. The island is also home to the endangered Toki or Japanese Ibis, extinct in the wild but planned to be reintroduced thanks to a successful breeding program.