I might have found my favourite Japan city!
If you have been following me on Instagram, you'd probably know that I was recently in Japan with JR East!
This time round, I managed to explore the Gunma, Saitama, and Niigata prefectures by train on the Northward Golden Route via the JR EAST-NAGANO NIIGATA PASS and it's by far one of the most eye-opening and rewarding travels OF MY LIFE. We explored places I never thought could exist and I totally fell in love over and over again with the sights, the people and of course, the foooddddd... I'm already planning to return in April with the fams to relive everything!
Arriving at Haneda airport and off we went to the JR EAST Travel Service Center at the airport itself to get our passes sorted!
The JR EAST-NAGANO NIIGATA PASS allows passengers to travel on the JR East lines between Tokyo and the cities of Nagano and Niigata during 5 flexible days over a period of 14 days. It also allows travellers to take the train between Haneda or Narita airport and Tokyo.
It costs JPY18,000 if you purchase it in Japan and a discounted JPY17,000 if you purchase it before you arrive in Japan! If you've been to Japan, you'd know that it is best to travel around the country by train and this 5-day pass is actually quite a steal because it gives you access to unlimited travel on local, limited express and express trains including Shinkansen trains - you can see the different train routes here.
After a short train ride, we arrived at Omiya in Saitama which is currently my favourite Japanese city. Just 25 minutes from Tokyo station, it has all the vibes of bustling Tokyo (I spotted a huge Takashimaya and an Ikinari Steak outlet just minutes away from our swanky Palace Hotel Omiya) yet it also has this certain quaint charm that I can't quite put my finger to.
We then went for lunch at the 140-year-old Usho Yamaya!
If you're a fan of unagi, you'll love this place. Each dish is cooked fresh to order, the fish is grilled till it's tender and fatty with the skin served delightfully crisp with just the right amount of char.
The restaurant also has other non-eel-based Japanese dishes on the menu and I particularly enjoyed my sweet slices of scallop sashimi and lightly battered tempura.
Usho Yamaya // 1-24 Daimoncho Pmiya-ku, Saitama 333-0846 // Tel: +81 48-641-0158
Strolling around the streets of Omiya...
To Omiya station where we took the Saitama New Urban Transit New Shuttle to...
Tetsudō-Hakubutsukan station. Which translates to The Railway Museum station.
Departure timings of a particular shinkansen in a particular year
The Railway Museum can be found directly at the station (it amazes me how accessible everything is in Japan) and I never thought I would say this, I highly recommend a visit here!
To be honest, when I first saw the itinerary, I was a bit apprehensive about spending an afternoon at a museum understanding the JR train systems as I expected it to be well, museum-y and boring but as it turns out, this is one of the greatest highlights of my trip!
We got to drive a real (albeit miniature) version of the Narita Express (it's on my IG stories highlight!), had fun with the train simulator of a steam locomotive and enjoyed a fascinating diorama show. I think this is a great place for both children (I want to bring the nephews here in November!) and adults... even the "history bit" of checking out the different locomotives amazed me.
I'm no train buff but there's something pretty magical about standing amongst trains and carriages that have been there since the 1800s! Not kidding when I say you can almost feel the Japanese's infatuation and pride towards their railway system and world-famous Shinkansen... I really, really, REALLY hope that the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High Speed Rail will be built by them!
The different train bento sets!
Railway Museum // 3-47 Onaricho, Omiya-ku, Saitama 330-0852, Saitama Prefecture // Website
Our final stop for the day was at the very interesting Ofuro Cafe Utatane which is a cafe, spa and hotel all rolled together in one. An 8-minute walk from Tetsudo-Hakubutsukan station, the establishment is linked to the largest hot spring facility in the Omiya area and it's where you can spend an entire day reading, onsen-ing, have a coffee or two, lounge around then onsen again.
And eventually get down to dinner at 8pm (I recommend the beef!) before you end the night with one final onsen soak.
Entry is ¥1260 which is inclusive of a comfy set of lounge wear, face and bath towels, toiletries and access to all the baths. You can stay for the entire day and if you decide to stay overnight, there are hotel rooms available from ¥4,500 per person.
Ofuro Cafe Utatane // 4 Chome-179-3 Onaricho, Kita, Saitama, Saitama Prefecture 331-0815// Website
We eventually retired for the night at Palace Hotel Omiya and I must say that the rooms are huggeeeeee by Japan standards. The hotel is just a convenient 3-minute walk from Omiya station and there's a ton of shopping (and FamilyMart! Onigiri is life!) around it. In fact, I plan to stay here for my upcoming family trip because of the location and luxury and the amazing breakfast spread - the grilled sanma fish I had is probably the BEST ever!
And that's it for Day 1... Day 2 will involve me taking on Japan in a kimono so check back soon!
Palace Hotel Omiya // 1 Chome-7-5 Sakuragicho, Omiya Ward, Saitama, Saitama Prefecture 330-0854 // Website
About the Northward Golden Route
The Northward Golden Route is a new train route that connects three areas of Saitama, Gunma, and Niigata Prefectures along with the outskirts of Tokyo. Through the route, you can enjoy experiences that you can't usually get in Tokyo such as unique cuisines, magnificent nature sites, onsen hot springs and SNOW!
You can explore the Northward Golden Route with the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) and you can purchase it for ¥17,000 at the East Japan Rail website or the Japan Rail Cafe in Singapore. If you prefer to get it when you land in Japan, you can purchase it at Narita or Haneda Airport, as well as Tokyo, Shinagawa, Shinjuku, Nagano, Niigata and many other JR East stations for ¥18,000.
The JR EAST PASS is a flexible pass that is valid for up to 14 days as long as you take the trains only on any 5 days during the period (so you can take your time to explore these areas) and allows unlimited train rides including Shinkansen (bullet trains) between Tokyo and Joetsu and Shinetsu area. Specifically, the pass covers unlimited rides using reserved seats (you can reserve up to 3 days in advance at the JR East ticket reservation page) on the ordinary cars of the limited express trains (including shinkansen), express trains and local trains on JR EAST train lines, all the Izu Kyuko lines, al the Tokyo Monorail lines, all the Hokuetsu Express lines and the Echigo TOKImeki Railway line (between Naoetsu and Arai) within the “Unlimited-ride area”. In addition, the pass also allows unlimited rides using reserved seats on the ordinary cars of the limited express trains such as the Tobu Direct Limited Express “Nikko”, “Kinugawa”, and “SPACIA Kinugawa” trains.
More details at: http://www.jp-rail-sg.com/northward-golden-route/