We were on the platform of the busy railway station in Kyoto, waiting for the bullet train to Tokyo. Standing nearby, a Western couple, obviously tourists like ourselves, were sweating in the unseasonable heat and wore harried looks on their faces. They were surrounded by their luggage: two huge, hard-sided suitcases, one duffel bag, two overstuffed carry-ons and a camera bag.
Like this couple, we were waiting to board Car No. 10, which wasn't due for another 25 minutes. But unlike them, we were sitting comfortably on a bench, reading our guidebooks and sipping cool drinks from the vending machine. Next to us were our camera bags, one carry-on and a plastic bag with our bento (picnic) lunches.
We knew why our unfortunate compatriots looked so anxious. They had to be first in line in order to be first on the train in hopes of grabbing the little space behind the last seat to stash their largest suitcases. They also needed the time to hoist the rest of their luggage onto the small overhead racks or cram it between their legs at their seats. All of this had to be done in a flash before the bullet train sped off.
We were torn between feeling sorry for them and feeling smug. Every guidebook about Japan warns visitors to travel light. Japanese transportation is not geared to heavy bags, porters are rare and luggage racks are small or nonexistent. And most Japanese subway and train stations have multiple flights of stairs, a modest number of escalators, few elevators and no people-movers to cover long distances.
But when you are traveling in Japan for several weeks, or during a change of seasons, you don't want your comfort limited to one bag you can carry, and you don't want your travel limited (as many guidebooks suggest) to settling in one city and using day trips for your sightseeing in the surrounding areas.
In preparing for our trip to Japan, we stumbled upon a wonderful solution to this dilemma. Tucked away in a general discussion of how to travel light, one guidebook tossed off the suggestion that you might be able to make arrangements with the hotel concierge to have your luggage forwarded to your next stop.
Hoping the idea would work, we took off with one large hard suitcase each, two over-the-shoulder bags and camera equipment. As insurance, we did carry a lightweight folding cart.
Our first stop was Tokyo, and our first order of business the next day was to talk with the bell captain. At the ANA Hotel in Tokyo, as with all our other destinations, we found the response to be extremely helpful, even if they appeared surprised at such a rare request from a Westerner. Of great help was the fact that we had written out our itinerary with care, showing all departure dates and destinations, along with the address and phone number of our next hotel. Written English is often more easily understood, and information can be quickly confirmed for accuracy.
After some initial confusion and a few phone calls in rapid Japanese, the bell captain said that he could indeed arrange to have our luggage forwarded to our next hotel. It would be picked up the night before we left, and it would arrive the next day. Forms were filled out in Japanese as I hesitantly asked what this service would cost.
The price turned out to be determined by weight, with the heaviest bag costing about $12 and lighter ones as little as $8. We each sent our heaviest bag, which allowed us to avoid the cost of a taxi to the station, porters at each end (if they could be found) and a taxi to our next hotel.
Our bags were picked up as promised in the evening, and the next morning we left Tokyo wondering if we had done the right thing. What if the bags didn't arrive? What if the bell captain had misunderstood? A few hours later we arrived at the Fujiya Hotel in the little town of Miyanoshita tucked high up in the mountains of Hakone near Mt. Fuji. As we checked in, we inquired about the delivery of our bags. "Oh," said the clerk, "they are already in your room!"
We never discovered how the magic was performed (were our bags shipped ahead by train? By truck?), but this lovely scenario was repeated four more times throughout our three-week stay in Japan. All the transactions were accomplished with the utmost courtesy and without any request for tips. We shipped not only our suitcases, but, eventually, bags filled with shopping items we couldn't resist. In every case our luggage arrived before we did, sometimes waiting in a locked luggage area, sometimes in our room.
On our final day in Japan, it was shipped from Kyoto all the way to Narita Airport, where we stayed to avoid any last-minute hitches in getting to the airport in time. The ANA Hotel will even check your baggage directly to the ANA terminal for departure, avoiding the need to haul it into the airport bus or through the huge airport.
Often a small detail of travel can make the difference between pleasure or hardship. Without the discovery of the ease of shipping luggage, we would have either done without clothing or camera equipment, faced each change of hotel with dread or limited our itinerary to a much less flexible plan. Instead we enjoyed a benefit of group travel (where the tour operator handles the luggage) while traveling independently.
We may never know how this small miracle was accomplished, but we will always remember our trip through Japan as one of the most comfortable journeys we have made.