International travel for the uninitiated can be a bit scary at the best of times. Throw in a couple of connecting flights, some trains and a bus, and it is enough to send even the most seasoned traveler catatonic!
However, fear not: travel in Japan is easy. Signposts are in English, the Japanese staff are helpful and with just a little bit of research, getting from A to B is pretty easy, even for beginners. Here’s everything you needed to know about getting from Tokyo to Nagano and Iiyama.
First things first: getting to Tokyo
Tokyo has two international airports: Narita and Haneada, both located on the outskirts of Tokyo. Narita International, located 65 km east of Tokyo in the Cheba Prefecture, is the main hub for international arrivals and departures, and services most international airlines including Jetstar, Cathay Pacific, Singapore and Malaysia airlines. Haneada airport, located 14 km south of Tokyo is mainly set up for domestic travel, however, Terminal 3 now services international flights mainly for ANA and Japan Airlines.
Getting from the airport to Tokyo Central
Narita airport is approximately 50 mins from Tokyo Central via connecting train. While it is possible to catch a bus or taxi from Narita to Tokyo, the most efficient and cost-effective way is to catch a train called the Narita Express (or N’Ex) (3,000 yen one-way per adult, 1,500 yen per child). The N’Ex runs from the lower floor of the airport at regular intervals (about 3 times per hour). The trains are clean, modern and offer free wifi for passengers. Check out this great YouTube video for a really detailed overview. We used this in the lead up to our first trip to Tokyo, and it was spot on.
The best way to get to Tokyo from Haneada is via the monorail, which runs along the popular JR Yamanote line from the airport to Hamamatsucho station. The journey tales about 15 min and does not allow for seat reservations, so get in early or be prepared to stand. From Hamamatsucho station take the local JR Keikyu line to Shinagawa station, where you can transfer to either the Yamanote or subway lines to Tokyo Central. Relative to the N’Ex out of Narita, the monorail and local trains are a steal at just under JPY 600 in total. The whole journey should take you less than 30 mins. Here’s another great video with all of the details.
Irrespective of where you land, we recommend you purchase the JR East Nagano Niigata Area Pass. The JR East pass represents outstanding value for money, particularly for those travelling from Narita. For example, if purchasing tickets separately a return Tokyo-Nagano ticket will set you back ~JPY 16,000 and the N’Ex, JPY 6,000, for a total of JPY 22,000. The JR East pass also covers local trains in Tokyo, which depending on how many you catch, could amount to 1,000s of yen. If travelling from Haneda the advantages are less obvious, but purchasing a JR East pass still wont leave you out of pocket (pretty much the same as buying individual tickets).
The JR East Pass is valid on any 5 days over a 14 day period, and covers the Narita Express, the Haneda mono-rail, local-trains and the Hokuriku Shinkansen. This means you can jump back on the Shinkansen any time during a 14 day stay if for example you want to dash back to Tokyo (to meet friends), or transit between Iiyama and Nagano (which may be handy for those travelling between Nozawa/Madarao and Shiga Kogen/Hakuba).
JR East passes can be purchased on line for JPY 17,310 for adults and JPY 8,650 for children. Kids aged 5 and under travel free. Prices have increased slightly since last year. You can purchase your JR East pass by clicking on the image below.
What happens next?
After you purchase your JR East pass, you will be sent a confirmation email and receipt. Note this is not your physical pass. Passes must be picked up at the Shinkansen ticket office at either Narita or Haneda airports, or Tokyo central, by showing your receipt. The passes come in a clear sleeve with a lanyard. They are really easy to use. Just be sure to flash your pass at the ‘manned’ gates, not the automatic ticketed gates, and you’ll have no problems.
While at the ticket office, it is a good idea to also reserve your seats. If travelling to Nagano or Iiyama, you need to book the Hokuriku Shinkansen. The Hokuriku Shinkansen is quite unique in appearance. Unlike the N700 series which are white with a blue stripe, the Hokuriku Shinkansen is of the E7 series and is cream in appearance with blue and gold trim. We are told the E7 are built for the steep sections of track around the mountainous Nagano region.
The staff at the counter typically speak good English. Tell them which station you are travelling to (Nagano or Iiyama) and they’ll organise your seats and print your tickets. For safe keeping, we recommend inserting the tickets into the same plastic sleeve containing your JR rail pass. The tickets will show the time your train is leaving, the platform number and your allocated seat.
Catching the Shinkansen
The Hokuriku leaves Tokyo Central from tracks 20-23 . Finding them is easy. Just follow the bilingual signs (see image below). Timetables vary, but services are quite regular, beginning at about 6 am and finishing around 7 pm (out of Tokyo). Scheduling also varies depending on the destination. For example, while most trains stop at Naganao station, fewer stop at Iiyama. Be sure to catch the right train. Timetables can be found here.
Queuing for the Shinkansen is very orderly with separate queues for individual carriages. The doors opened a few minutes before departure, leaving about 2 mins to find your seat and stow your luggage. There is room in the overhead lockers for two large suitcases and even ski bags if you can find a long enough section. We later learnt that some of the carriages have luggage compartments or like other skiers and snowboarders, you can just leave your ski/snowboard bags in the compartments between carriages (not sure it’s kosher, but no one seemed too bothered).
The trip itself
The ride on the Shinkansen is surprisingly smooth. The only sense you are traveling at over 250 km/h is when you pass through a tunnel or a station. The trains are well appointed with toilets and plenty of space to move about. A variety of snacks including noodles and wide array of Japanese sweets are available from the trolleys that regularly pass through the carriages. The journey takes you through the outskirts of Tokyo and then onto the breath-taking rural areas of central Japan, before arriving in the alpine region of Nagano some 80-90 min later. Iiyama is literally the next stop just 20 or so minutes further along the line (just on the other side of the tunnel). Passengers are warned of approaching stations by the playing of distinctly Japanese electronic music. Be warned: the shinkansen do not dilly-dally and only remain stationary for a minute of two, so make sure you’re ready at the door with your luggage when the train stops. The Japanese are extremely punctual and have little sympathy for stragglers 🙂
Transferring to your resort
The popular Japanese resorts of Hakuba, Shiga Kogen, Nozawa Onsen and Madarao are all accessible from either Nagano or Iiyama. For Hakuba and Shiga Kogen, we recommend you get off at Nagano, and for the others, get off at Iiyama. It is then possible to transfer to your resort by taxi or bus. Buses are definitely the cheapest option.
For Hakuba, take the bus from bus stop No. 26. The bus takes you to the Happo One bus terminal where you can arrange a pick up, or take the shuttle to your accommodation. For Shiga Kogen you can catch the local Nagaden buses, which depart regularly from the east (Higashi) exit bus stops at Nagano train station.
Getting from Iiyama Station to Nozawa by bus is quite straightforward. Upon arrival at Iiyama take the escalator downstairs to the concourse and look for the Nozawa Onsen Liner bus. Check the Nozawa Liner schedules here. The journey takes about 20 minutes. If you arrive late call the local Nozawa Onsen taxi service or pre-arrange a pick up with your hotel. For Madarao travel by taxi or take the local bus. The local bus to Madarao leaves from bus stop No. 1 and takes just 30 mins to reach the resort. The cost of the bus to Madarao is just 5,000 yen per person and half that for kids.