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Budget-minded travelers from overseas wanting to ride Japan’s famous but pricey bullet trains can now get a break from Tokaido Shinkansen Line operator Central Japan Railway Co. (JR Tokai) and leading travel agency JTB Corp.

In a bid to boost the number of foreign passengers on the super express, which travels at up to 270 kph, the companies are offering discount tours to such popular destinations as Kyoto, Hiroshima, Hakone and Universal Studios Japan in Osaka.

For example, a two-day package to Kyoto from Tokyo on the Hikari super express including one night’s accommodations only costs 19,000 yen. Regular round-trip tickets cost 26,440 yen.

JR Tokai and JTB, which jointly launched the shinkansen tours with the Kyoto trip in May 2003, expanded the number of tours to 34 this August, including trips from Nagoya, Kyoto and Osaka.

“We prepared tours featuring standard tourist sites in an effort to open foreigners’ eyes to the attractions of Japan,” said Shotaro Takahara of JR Tokai’s marketing division.

The shinkansen tours, to which Hiroshima was added late last year, were sold to a total of 1,151 tourists between May 2003 and last March, or 105 per month. But between April and August, the tours drew a total of 1,466 overseas visitors, or 293 per month.

“The market for inbound travelers in Japan is extremely small compared with the outbound one. But the roughly 280 percent rise per month is remarkable,” said Jiro Uchida, planning manager at JTB’s international travel division.

By country, visitors from the United States travel on the shinkansen most, followed by Britain and Canada, according to the two companies. Those from Asian countries mostly travel in groups on guided package tours or rely on travel agencies run by expatriates, Uchida said.

“We cannot expect individual travelers from mainland China because of visa restrictions, but we hope more repeat visitors from such places as Taiwan and Singapore take the shinkansen tours,” he said.

Mainly targeting foreign backpackers, JR group companies have been selling Japan Rail Passes for about 20 years. The passes, available in seven-, 14- and 21-day varieties, give holders unlimited travel on bullet train and other JR trains.

However, the pass is not valid for Nozomi services, the fastest on the Tokaido and Sanyo Shinkansen lines, nor for overnight trains.

“The seven-day pass costs 28,300 yen. I guess tourists who have particular destinations in mind prefer the shinkansen tours, which are often cheaper than the pass,” Takahara said.

The move by JR Tokai and JTB to boost services for foreign travelers is in line with the government’s Visit Japan Campaign, which was launched in April 2003 with the goal of increasing the annual number of foreign tourists to 10 million by 2010.

In 2003, the number of foreign visitors totaled 5.21 million, while Japanese overseas travelers reached 13.30 million, according to the Japan National Tourist Organization.

JR Tokai has been promoting its tour products via the Internet and at travel fairs overseas, and has also begun providing timetables in English and basic information such as how to read Japanese tickets.

“As a next step, we need explanations in Chinese and Korean to woo tourists from our Asian neighbors,” Takahara said.

The two companies said they plan to further expand the shinkansen tours, with emphasis on trips departing from Nagoya as the number of foreign visitors there is expected to increase during the 2005 World Exposition to be held from March to September.

The trips are intended for travelers from overseas, but up to two Japan residents can accompany each tour group of nonresidents. Reservations can be made at JTB outlets and about 170 hotels in Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Nagoya where tour leaflets are available.

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