Traveling in style with Willer Express

I wrote this post on the ride home from Nagoya, on September 24th-25th. Somehow I forgot to publish it!

Before I write this post, let me assure you that its not sponsored in any way. I wish it was. These are just my thoughts on long distance travel.

I've now taken two trips across Japan for sightseeing, and both times I've used Willer Express.

I came across their English website thanks to the fine folks at It's pretty easy to navigate to see where I can get to from a particular city and what times and prices are available. It's about as easy as it gets when it comes to making reservations.

I can pay at my local convenience store (Lawson or Family Mart only, I think). Since I don't have a Japanese credit card and I don't want to use a US card, that's a good thing. Willer is a budget bus line, though they aren't the cheapest. They do come close, and the ease of booking in English makes it worth the extra couple bucks. Fares tend to be around 1/3 of the bullet train price, though it takes about three times as long. A 1-1/2 to 2 hour train ride from Tokyo to Nagoya takes around six hours by bus. But when money is tight on a trip it certainly helps. Plus, the longer trips are done at night, which has its own benefits and problems.

For the Nagoya-Tokyo route, I ended up in what they call "Relax" seats which recline, have leg rests, and come with a canopy to block out light and a bit of noise. It came in handy for my morning trip to Nagoya, as I was able to sleep despite the sun shining brightly outside. The return trip included tv monitors with a built-in game console, but the real benefit for me was the included outlet that is charging my phone as I type. I doubt I'd be able to write this post with the little amount of battery I had left wore boarding!

The real long haul was from Tokyo to Hiroshima (there are even-longer buses all the way to Hakata in Fukuoka, Kyushu - 14 hours each way). The trip takes about 10 hours. For that I used regular seating. Both Relax and regular seating is 4-across, a little cramped for a bigger guy like me but not really a problem. There are three-wide premium seating options as well. The ultimate choice is almost like your own little room! It isn't cheap, though.

Most highway buses stop every couple hours so riders can stretch their legs and use the bathroom. Discount operators don't usually have bathrooms on board (one bus style I've seen on their website advertises a powder room). The stops are done at highway rest stops, which usually have a convenience store for snacks and drinks.

You won't have a problem using highway buses (discount ones in particular) if you can handle the long ride. If you're traveling at night (the only way for real long-distance rides) you have to be able to sleep on a bus or handle a day without much sleep. For some people, this can save money on lodging (no arriving in the afternoon or even at night with a wasted vacation day).

The picture below is of the relax seats, unreclined. You should be able to see the (retracted) hood at the top, and the little tv monitors and game controller to the right. The seats are pink - Willer's color scheme. The white spot on the armrest is one of the power outlets.

I think I'll be using Willer to get around a lot more next year, as I hope to take some weekend trips to somewhat distant cities.

Apple Maps. You've already heard, haven't you?


Absolutely worthless.

I don't care about how wonderful it is to have turn-by-turn voice navigation for your car. I don't drive in Japan.

I don't care right now that I can go offline and still zoom in and out. I have unlimited data everywhere in Japan.

What I do care about is the complete lack of anything this map app can do for me.

If you live in Japan, you use transit. Does Apple Maps have transit directions? Certainly not.

If you live in Japan and speak English, you probably use Romanji characters (the English alphabet). Can Apple Maps handle Romanji mapping in Japan. Of course not!

If by some grace of God you can get the kanji/katakana (Japanese character) address, does Apple Maps give you the exact address? Why would it? Instead, here are five markers (hopefully) on the same block. Don't worry, you can just hunt for the correct building when you get there.

If you somehow end up figuring out which is the right location, can you then use Apple Maps to get you there via Tokyo's number one mode of transportation? Nope. You have to download some kind of transit app.

Here's a mind-boggling example. I bring the map up to my current location, a couple blocks from the local train station. I can tap on the train station logo and see the name in English. It says "Kita-Koshigaya Station." If I type Kita-Koshigaya Station into the search menu, it tells me "No results found." How could you possibly not find a place that's right in front you, typed in exactly the same manner that it is shown on the screen?!

Can I go back to iOS 5.1? I'm sorry, but you're screwed, says Apple.

Thankfully, I can use the (decidedly less-functional) web version of Google Maps. But that's a fucking pain.

Like most iPhone (and other smartphone) users, the mapping apps are a crucial part of my phone's features. Living in a country where I need the mapping software Google Maps provided, I feel like I'm now carrying around a brick. I don't know how I will be able to get addresses entered properly into Apple Maps to just give me an idea where to look, because the most important feature for me in Google Maps came when I was walking the streets from station to destination.

If I was Apple I'd complete an update that allowed users to revert back to Google Maps. I don't need fancy 3D or turn-by-turn maps when I can't even get to the train station 2 blocks away.

For the love of God, Apple. Make the right decision. Give me back my Google Maps.

At least Google announced it'll release its own standalone map by the end of the year.

(PS I'm cross-posting this on both of my blogs tonight.)

Nagoya Own Way, Part Two

Today (well, yesterday, since this post won't go live until the day after I write it) was spent in Inuyama, an old castle town about 40 minutes north of Nagoya.

I had breakfast at Lotteria in Inuyama Station (good fast food, though the portions are small for the price) before venturing out into the light rain that would plague my entire morning. Inuyama Castle is about a fifteen minute walk from the station, and since my shoes are about ready to fall apart, my socks were wet by the time I reached the surrounding shrines. Like Nagoya Castle, this one has several flights of stairs to the top observatory level. The stairs here are super-steep though, and since this is a less-popular castle the exhibits are a little more sparse and less-thrilling. This castle is a national treasure that was built in the 1500s. It's one of the few original wooden castle structures left after all the progress and wars Japan has seen. It has a nice view of the river too!

After taking in the castle and its two shrines, I squished back to the station just in time to catch the bus out to Meiji Mura, which is a very large outdoor museum with a collection of over 60 historical buildings. Most of them are from all over Japan, but a few are from elsewhere in the world (Hawaii and Brazil for example). Nearly every building is open for viewing and they all have period furniture or exhibits inside. There is a good English explanation about each building on a signboard at the entrance, though there is nearly no English on the exhibits. I spent the whole afternoon there - about four hours of walking up and down stairs, up and down hills, and dealing with sporadic rain. Eventually the sun came out for good, and I started drying out. (I didn't take many pictures with my iPhone here for some reason. So all you get is a little train station and a stained glass window.)

I was exhausted from all the walking but despite the slowly falling sun, my day was not over. I made it back to Nagoya and hunted out two baseball card stores near the station. I took some notes and made a couple minor purchases before grabbing dinner at CoCoICHI, my favorite curry place.

And finally, I hopped on a train back to Kanayama, to spend tonight at the same capsule hotel. Too bad I got on a train going the wrong direction and my 3-minute trip took almost an hour. Did you know that trains leave some tracks in Nagoya Station once every two minutes, for different routes?

Anyway, I'm writing this after taking a nice hot shower and spending several minutes soaking in the jacuzzi. They gave me the same capsule I had last night (WTF?) and it's nearly 11pm. I need to get to bed because I'm going to a theme park tomorrow!

Until then...

Nagoya Own Way

If I could link to videos in the iPhone blogger app, you'd see a link here to "Go Your Own Way" by Fleetwood Mac. But I can't.

Saturday was a national holiday here in Japan, part of Silver Week, where two holidays fall in the same calendar week. It's nowhere near as celebrated or known as Golden Week (early May) or Obon (August). In fact, many Japanese don't even call it Silver Week, and some don't celebrate the holidays at all. I, however, took advantage of a three-day weekend and hopped a discount bus to Nagoya for a little sightseeing.

Despite being in Japan for almost 9 months now, I haven't traveled much around the country. I spent my Golden Week vacation in Hiroshima and Kyushu, I took a day trip to Nasu Highland, and of course my Obon Taiwan trip. I've seen almost everything I've wanted to see in Tokyo so its high time I started taking trips outside the area. Easier said than done, of course, because travel for residents isn't exactly cheap. But Willer Express is a great way to get around if you don't mind sitting on a bus for hours. And I don't mind.

Someday I'll get into the full details of each destination on this trip. While I haven't exactly taken it easy, I've done far fewer destinations than usual.

I arrived Saturday afternoon, and after shooting a couple pictures of the JR Central Towers I headed off to Nagoya Castle. There is restoration (rebuilding, actually) at the site and it's actually better, because visitors can see the rebuilding work fairly up-close. The buildings are near but not obstructing the existing castle structure so I still got some nice pictures. It's a long way to the top observation floor via the stairs!

From there I hopped a bus to the Tokugawa Art Museum, which features a very nice collection of historical and artistic artifacts. I say historical because several items are functional - for example beautiful carved furniture, sword pieces, and painted screens.

It was now getting to be evening (the castle took a long time!) so I headed over to Osu, where Osu Kannon (temple) and a large shopping district are located. I didn't buy anything, but it was fun wandering around.

The sun set soon after visiting the temple, but I had one more sightseeing spot to visit. Sakae is one of the trendy shopping districts in Nagoya, and a fairly simple shopping arcade contains a very nice rooftop garden and even higher is a second rooftop reflecting pool. It is a great place to take pictures of the TV tower, which looks like the Eiffel Tower and has an observatory of its own. And it's older than the Tokyo Tower. Too bad there isn't much to look at from the tower itself!

I worked up quite an appetite, and the one thing on my mind was misokatsu, which is fried pork with a thick soy sauce on top. It's good, make no mistake. I had mine at Kanayama Station, in a little coffee shop called Cafe de Metro that serves a couple food items too. For ¥680 I had a good full meal with three pieces of pork, some shredded cabbage, rice, and a small side salad.

I spent last night in my first capsule hotel, a very inexpensive stay (¥2490 with coupon) that also included the sauna downstairs. Someone across the way went on a snorefest around 3 am which was poorly timed since that's about the time I woke up needing to use the bathroom. Other than that I slept pretty well, and it wasn't cramped at all. I think it's actually a little wider than my current futon.

I'll tell you about today tomorrow, because this post is getting really log! Until then...

Destination: Nasu Highland Amusement Park

It's freezing cold. One day ago, it snowed. What do you do? If you're me, you head to Nasu Highland!
 Yes, there might be a frostbite-inducing wind ripping through the air, and there could be a small blanket of snow on the ground, but if the sun is out and the park is open, I'm going coastering!
 Nasu Highland is located in the Nasu area, near the tall Nasu mountain peaks. It's a couple hours outside of Tokyo by train, plus about a one-hour bus ride from the station to the park gates. But it's worth the trip.
 The park is beautiful, with nice theming and gorgeous scenery throughout. Each area has a different theme.
 Of course, every Japanese theme park has to have a Ferris Wheel. I think it's a law.
 Near the Ferris Wheel is the space/futuristic 1950s theme. Welcome to the Food Station. They sell ice cream. There were snow flurries in the morning.
 Just down the hill from the 1950s futuristic themed area is the 1950s retro themed area. Here is where you will find all the main coasters for the park.
 There's a red one, a green one, a yellow one, and a blue one. And they all intertwine together. The red one is behind me, by the way, in this photo.
 From the Ferris Wheel, you can see the blue-heavy futuristic area, with the 1950s USA themed roller coaster world behind it.
 I was really looking forward to trying this ride out. You sit in a seat which can swing freely from side to side most of the time, but occasionally the seats will lock and you end up upside down. Well, it wasn't perfect and while it was fun I was a bit disappointed. I think this would have been cooler with flying-style cars instead of seats.
 The park has several dark rides, including two themed to fairy tales. Here's a Pinocchio display.
 There was also a toy museum. This was a lot of fun to look at and they had some cool retro toys as well as a bunch of more-recent properties.
 The really cold temperatures and (more importantly) high winds kept the coasters closed for most of the morning, but eventually they opened up. There goes the blue one!
 And there goes the yellow one! I had no favorite at this park. All the coasters are fun, but nothing really stands out. The park needs a signature ride. I wish I had a reason to visit again.
 But instead, let's go back to the fairy tale ride. Seven dwarfs and... where's Snow White?
 Hey, Wizard of Oz!
 Eh? This was on a safari shooting ride, in the loading station. If this was in the US people would pitch a fit, but here in Japan it's okay to be a little racist.
 Too bad it was so cold. It would have been fun to sit in the car and eat lunch while watching coasters go by.
 And maybe do some dancing?
 Instead, I ate in the indoor food court. I had the curry, but the Itarian Courner intrigues me.
 How about the mountain? There it is, off in the distance! Once the clouds surrounding the mountain burned off (or blew away) in the afternoon, it was a beautiful sight.
So here's another Ferris Wheel shot of the coaster plaza area to finish us off.

I had a decent time at Nasu Highland, but it is a long, relatively expensive day trip. Between admission and transportation, it cost about a 10,000-yen bill. However, visiting on a cold weekday, I had the park mostly to myself most of the time, and with something like seven or eight coasters it was worth the trip. I do wish the park had something really unique - a nice new coaster that isn't seen elsewhere in Japan, for example, or some thrilling flat rides. But overall it's a fun visit and kids will enjoy the theming and rides too. The park's website is in Japanese only.

Location: Mitsubishi Minato-Mirai Industrial Museum, Yokohama

Do you have children that like science and technology? Are you in Yokohama? I have just the place for you!
 The Mitsubishi Minato-Mirai Industrial Museum (wow, what a mouthful) is located right next to the Minato Mirai shopping complex, Cosmoworld, and provides a fun (if simple) look at the industrial technology behind the future.
 It's full of interactive exhibits and fun big stuff to look at and climb on. You can look at this giant rocket, for example.
 You can see a lot of transportation exhibits - LRVs, trucking, traffic flow.
 Watch an entire model city at work! Does this remind anyone of a simplistic reintepretation of Walt Disney's planned communities?
 There are a lot of aerospace exhibits, too. Look inside a ship.
 Look at big rocket boosters.
 Climb inside a space suit (sort-of) for photos.
 There are exhibits on the ocean, environment and energy, daily life, emerging technology, and daily life. There are also several applied physics exhibits like you see here. This one shows you how a forklift works.
And here you can operate a crane.

There isn't much actual science explained, but this museum is a great way for kids to interact with scientific principles, especially in industrial situations. Most of the visitors seem to be younger children, though the adults there were having fun too. It's a nice diversion from Cosmoworld and the mall nearby, and with young elementary students, families could probably spend a few hours here.

The museum is located right next to the Minato-Mirai station and mall, across the bridge from Cosmoworld. It's open 10-5 Tuesday through Sunday, though there are three weeks (including New Years) where the museum closes entirely, plus a few other days here and there. It's important to check the calendar on their website for details. Admission is 300 yen for adults (less for children and seniors, of course).

Location: Yokohama Archives of History

I love history. I don't know why. I'm all about retro and historical and the stories about people and places  from times gone by. It's somewhat strange, perhaps, because I am, at heart, a science teacher. Part of the allure is probably the "different world" aspect of history. I like the thought of living in a place with a different way of doing things (maybe that's why I wanted to come to Japan so much?) with different clothes and style and technology. I like futuristic stuff too, but most of that is just holographic screens and flying cars with silver jumpsuits for clothes.

In most of my recent travels (around America, Japan, and Taiwan), I've managed to locate and visit at least a few history museums. These are great places for a look at local culture and local history. They're usually very inexpensive and while they don't always give an authentic feel to being back in a particular period of time, they provide a quick lesson in how an area developed.
 The Yokohama Archives of History (English website) gives just a small look at Yokohama's history, focusing on Edo to Taisho-Showa eras. The highlight of the Archives is this building, the former Old British Consulate General.
 You can go inside and see a few memorials and explore a little bit of the building. The Consulate faces the exhibition building, with two permanent exhibition rooms and a special exhibition room. The permanent rooms look at Yokohama around 1865 through the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, and the modernization of Yokohama. For only 200 yen, it's a nice quick primer on the important modern developments in Yokohama. There is a larger Yokohama History Museum somewhere in town that I have yet to visit.
 There are a few historic buildings left in the area, including this church.
 It's nestled between a plaza at the Archives and a large modern building.
 Just down the main street, sitting prominently on the corner, this old brick structure looks beautiful. It is undergoing a little maintenance, as you can see.
It, too, is surrounded by modern buildings. There aren't many historical structures left in Japan, as most of them have been wiped out by progress, earthquakes, fire, and war.

The Archives complex is about two minutes from Nihon-odori Station on the Minato-Mirai line. Or, do as I did and walk from Chinatown (5-10 minutes). Yokohama Stadium (5 minutes) and Cosmoworld/Minato-Mirai (15-20 minutes) are all in the area as well, making most of Yokohama's attractions accessible on foot. It's open 9:30-5:00 every day except Monday (and around New Year's), and depending on your level of interest will take 30 minutes to an hour to explore. Some of the signage is in Japanese only but there's enough English provided to make the exhibits worthwhile.

An update

This has been a strange bunch of weeks since returning from Taiwan. I don't know if it's post-vacation depression (getting back to the doldrums of daily life) , some work-related stress, or bad sleeping habits (probably all three) but I haven't been in the writing mood. I've also been working on a couple projects at home that have been taking a lot of time.

I have a three-day weekend towards the end of the month and I am taking a quick trip to Nagoya. I'm really looking forward to it, and it took some careful planning to make the trip fit my very limited budget.

There's plenty more to come, as I'm still four months behind on my full trip reports. I just need to get into a regular writing rhythm (tough to do when your sleep schedule is off). Until then, here's a picture from my first purikura ever, with a few of my friends...