Sunday, January 29, 2017

Chubu Nagano & Niigata 中部 長野、新潟 - Super Hotel Matsumoto Ekimae スーパーホテル松本駅前

Stayed 18.10.2016 (Tue)
Booked thru'
- Single Room = 6,080 yen
- Super Room = 8,700 yen

When it comes to searching for accommodation in a city area, my first choice normally goes out to Toyoko Inn because of its affordable rates and decent service. However, the branch in Matsumoto is located slightly further away from the train station; approximately 6 minutes walk required. Landed on Super Hotel eventually as it is comparatively nearer (maybe 1 minute closer) and prices are pretty competitive despite its strategic location. Having stayed in Super Hotel twice (first time was in Izumo), I have to concur that Super Hotel is better than Toyoko Inn, in terms of facilities and service. Based on my experience so far, I find that Super Hotel pays a lot of attention to ensure guests get the most rest and rejuvenation during their stay here.

Rejuvenation. Take the lift to the lobby located on the second floor. Check in procedure was a breeze and we were handed over a slip of paper indicating the room number and the passcode to input into the device attached to the doors to unlock the room - just like a safe box. Conventional key system does not exist here in Super Hotel. Female guests are also entitled to additional perks; upon checking in, the staff will lead them to a drawer filled with face masks, bath powder and other toiletries and they can choose up to five items! There is a coffee machine available for guests to bring complimentary coffee back into their rooms to enjoy. For those who are extremely particular about their pillow, you will be excited to see a shelf neatly arranged with various kinds of pillows catering to the needs of different people, all for the same objective to grab a good night sleep.

Sumptuous breakfast. No different from other business hotel chains, the rooms in Super Hotel are equipped with basic amenities. Both single and super room are 12 m2 in floor area, a size which is typical for many budget business hotels. The super room has a 140 cm wide bed and an upper deck single bed to hold up to three people. Complimentary breakfast was buffet style served in a spacious area, on the same level as the lobby, and a good variety of Japanese and western food options were available. Super Hotel even has its own line up of salad dressing, emphasizes on exclusion of chemical preservatives and ingredients which can create common food allergies. All ingredients you need to create a healthy and balanced breakfast are provided here - organic greens, grilled fish, stewed meat and root vegetables, local specialties, bread, cereals, fruit juices etc, were served on the following morning. All in all, very impressed and satisfied by the quality service extended by Super Hotel!

Left: Corner with brochures and reference materials to attractions nearby; Right: Ladies' corner where beauty items can be picked up.

What's nearby?

(1) Matsumoto Ekimae Post Office 松本駅前郵便局, located on the other side of the road junction, diagonal to the hotel.
Operating hours: 0900 - 1700 hrs on weekdays

Postcard collection. I am always on the lookout for post offices whenever I am in Japan, and especially when I visit a new prefecture on the map. After I discovered the existence of the regional exclusive postcards introduced by Posta Collect a couple of years ago, I have been an avid collector since then! What I like most about these postcards is their accurate representation of what each region is unique for - something that I can fondly remember the place for. For Nagano's version, prominent landmarks such as Zenkoji (善光寺) and Matsumoto Castle (松本城), natural landscape such as Kamikochi (上高地) and food such as Oyagi and apples were featured on these postcards on different years. It has gotten a bit additive for me to the point that I plan visits/detours to post offices, which are usually only open during weekdays, into my itinerary as well!
Tip: In fact, the true collectible items are the mini versions of these postcards which are not for sale. On rare occasions, the staff will give me a few to choose from, which I guess is subjected to availability as well. Glad to receive the mini versions of Matsumoto Castle and Zenkoji from this visit!
Nagano Prefecture's Posta Collect postcards:

Matsumoto Castle was featured in 2010's series.

Super Hotel Matsumoto Ekimae スーパーホテル松本駅前

How to get there?
Approx 5 minutes walk from Matsumoto JR Station East Exit.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Chubu Nagano & Niigata 中部 長野、新潟 - Nagano JR Station 長野駅, Nagaden Nagano Station 長電長野駅

Railway lines serving Nagano JR Station include:
(1) Hokuriku Shinkansen line (北陸新幹線) between Tokyo and Kanazawa, via Karuizawa, Nagano and Joetsu Myoko.
(2) Iiyama line (飯山線), from Nagano to Echigo Kawaguchi (越後川口) in Niigata Prefecture, via Iiyama (飯山) and Tokamachi (十日町).
(3) Shinano line (しなの線) which connects Karuizawa to Nagano, and Kitashinano line (北しなの線) which connects Nagano to Myoko Kogen (妙高高原); both lines are operated by Shinano Railway.

Shinkansen and limited express trains serving Nagano JR Station include:
(1) Kagayaki, is the fastest service on Hokuriku Shinkansen line as it makes the least number of stops during its journey between Tokyo and Kanazawa. From Tokyo, it only stops at major train stations such as Ueno, Omiya, Nagano, Toyama and Kanazawa.
(2) Hakutaka, commutes between Tokyo and Kanazawa on Hokuriku Shinkansen line.
(3) Asama, commutes between Tokyo and Nagano on Hokuriku Shinkansen line.
(4) Ltd Express Shinano, commutes between Nagoya and Nagano, via Matsumoto.

What's nearby?

Right: Nagano Station; Top left: local train; Bottom left: Snow Monkey Express Train.
(1) Nagaden Nagano Station 長電長野駅
Operated by Nagaden, trains commute on Nagano line between Nagano and Yudanaka (湯田中), via Obuse (小布施). This is an underground train station accessible via the basement of Midori, a shopping mall connected seamlessly to Nagano JR Station. Nagano line is the gateway to several attractions located on the outskirts of Nagano city. For my trip, I embarked on a day trip to visit two places served by Nagano line:
- Yudanaka (湯田中): From the terminus station, take a bus to Kanbayashi Onsen and walk to Snow Monkey Park (Jigokudani Yaen Koen 地獄谷野猿公園), whose photos have been famously circulated online. Here, visitors get to observe Japanese Macaques carrying out their daily routines - bathing/soaking comfortably in the hot spring, especially during the cold winter months.
- Obuse (小布施): A quaint town which is well known for its chestnuts and an art museum which exhibits original paintings left behind by a renowned ukiyo-e artist, Katsushika Hokusai (葛飾 北斎) during the Edo period.

Nagaden Free Pass (長電フリー乗車券)
Purchased a 1-day pass at the ticket counter of Nagaden Nagano Station for my day trip to visit Snow Monkey Park and Obuse. The pass, which is also available in 2-day version, only covers unlimited rides on normal/local trains and a top up fee of 100 yen is required for every rapid/express train service utilised. The additional rapid/express train service fee can be paid through the ticket machines in the train station (you will receive a ticket stub after the transaction is made).
- 1-day pass: 1,860 yen
- 2-day pass: 2,320 yen

My itinerary: 
Nagano > Yudanaka ---- 1,160 yen
Yudanaka > Obuse ---- 590 yen
Obuse > Nagano ---- 670 yen
Total = 2,420 yen
1 day pass = 1,860 yen
Savings = 560 yen (23%)

My original plan was to make use Snow Monkey Pass (スノーモンキーパス) offered by Nagaden to cover all transportation costs (both local and express trains, and bus) and admission fee to Snow Monkey Park. Upon checking with the staff at the tourist information center, I found out that the pass is only available during specific periods (Dec to Mar).
Snow Monkey Pass = 3,200 yen

Bus stop #1 for buses to Zenkoji.
(2) Bus stops, located outside Zenkoji Exit.
Bus stop #1: Hop onto any buses here if you are heading down to Zenkoji Temple (善光寺). [Fee = 150 yen]

(3) Tourist information center, a stone throw away from the ticket gates.

Spotted Arukuma, the mascot of Nagano in Midori! Wearing an apple hat because Nagano has bountiful apple orchards.
(4) Midori, a shopping mall part of the bigger train station building. Here, you can find familiar brands such as MUJI and Tokyu Hands, eateries and shops selling local specialties and souvenirs.


Commemorative stamps:

Nagano JR Station

Nagaden Nagano Station

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Chubu Nagano & Niigata 中部 長野、新潟 - JR EAST Pass (Nagano, Niigata area)

Top: Hakutaka on Hokuriku Shinkansen line; Bottom: Toki on Joetsu Shinkansen line.
More value for money! In 2015, the original JR EAST Pass was split into two passes to make train travel in the eastern region of Japan more affordable (for foreign visitors). Same rule applies to both passes - pass holders get to enjoy unlimited rides on any 5 days out of 14 days period starting from the pass issue date. The starting date can be decided when you exchange your voucher for the pass at JR ticket counters upon arriving in Japan.
As compared to its previous version which cost 22,000 yen, the new passes are cheaper and its value can be better maximised since it is more area focused.
- Tohoku area; 19,000 yen (purchased outside Japan); + 1,000 yen if purchased in Japan. Pass covers train usage in all six prefectures of Tohoku region (Aomori, Akita, Yamagata, Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima).
- Nagano, Niigata area: 17,000 yen (purchased outside Japan); + 1,000 yen if purchased in Japan
In fact, the introduction of the subdivided rail passes was the catalyst for me to explore Nagano and Niigata on my next trip to Japan. 
Side note: If only the subdivided rail passes were introduced earlier, I would be able to enjoy an additional 3,000 yen saving during my trip to Tohoku in Oct 2015. 


JR EAST Pass (Nagano, Niigata area)

Pass coverage/features
(1) Unlimited rides using reserved seats on Shinkansen, limited express, express and local trains on JR EAST train lines in Nagano, Niigata, Gunma, Tokyo, Saitama, Yamanashi, Kanagawa, Tochigi and Shizuoka (on Izu Peninsula) such as
- Joetsu Shinkansen (上越新幹線) from Tokyo to Niigata, via Echigo Yuzawa.
- Hokuriku Shinkansen (北陸新幹線) from Tokyo to Joetsu Myoko, via Karuizawa and Nagano.
- Tokyo Monorail between Haneda Airport and Hamamatsucho.
- Narita Express between Narita Airport to Tokyo.
- Seats onboard seasonal sightseeing trains, such as Koshino Shu*Kura (越乃 Shu*Kura) and Genbi Shinkansen (現美新幹線), can be reserved without any additional charges.

(2) Hokuhoku line ほくほく線 (operated by Hokuetsu Express) between Echigo Yuzawa and Naoetsu, via Tokamachi.

(3) Echigo Tokimeki Railway line えちごトキめき鉄道 between Naoetsu and Arai.

(4) Izu Kyuko line 伊豆急行 in Shizuoka Prefecture between Ito and Izukyu Shimoda.

(5) Tobu Direct Limited Express "Nikko", "Kinugawa" and "SPACIA Kinugawa" trains.

Note 1: Nagaden 長野電鉄 (runs between Nagano and Yudanaka, via Obuse) is not covered. Nagaden offers other rail and bus passes such as 1-Day Snow Monkey Pass (スノーモンキーパス) and 1 or 2-Day Free Pass (長電フリー乗車券). I utilised the 1-Day Free Pass (1,860 yen) to cover a day trip to Snow Monkey Park and Obuse.
Note 2: Kamikochi line between Matsumoto and Shin Shimashima (新島々駅) operated by Matsumoto Dentetsu 松本電鉄 is not covered. I utilised Kamikochi/Norikura 2 Days Free Pass (6,000 yen) which covers buses in Matsumoto city, buses from Shin Shimashima to Kamikochi, Norikura and Shirahone Onsen and rail service on Kamikochi line.

Exclusive Shinkansen badges collected from Nagano and Niigata JR Stations.
Seasonal perks! Apart from discounted train fares, pass holders are entitled to other incentives too. Till 31 Mar 2017, you can redeem JR EAST Shinkansen badges exclusive to the region you are visiting, when you flash your pass at designated tourist information centres/counters located at/adjacent to major train stations! For example, E6 Akita Shinkansen badge can only be redeemed from Kakunodate and Akita, which are train stations found along Akita Shinkansen line. There are a total of five badges, E7 Hokuriku, E4 Joetsu, E3 Yamagata, E6 Akita and E5 Tohoku Shinkansen, to collect from. Collected two badges - Hokuriku and Joetsu Shinkansen from this trip and would love to collect the complete set.
Shinkansen badge campaign (till 31 Mar 2017):


My itinerary
Did my homework to plan out the transportation routes undertaken over 9 days, search online for the fares for all the routes, tweak the itinerary to maximise railway usage on certain days and eventually derive a strategy to maximise the usage of JR EAST Pass. I have to admit that this entire churn of work is a tedious process but trust me, the outcome can be quite fulfilling especially when the amount of savings derived is extremely significant!

JR EAST Pass (Nagano, Niigata area) = 17,000 yen
Total train fare = 36,750 yen
Savings = 19,750 yen (54% discount)