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Posted on 13th Mar, 2021 in Uncategorised

Last week, I was mindlessly scrolling through Twitter between watching training videos at work when a tweet from the Japan Society caught my eye. The Japan Society is a non-profit in New York City that has been promoting relations between Japan and the US since 1907. Part of "promoting relations" obviously includes promoting tourism. So when they tweeted out a flyer promoting a 70-day trip to Japan dating all the way back to 1911. I found myself intrigued and slightly obsessed.

Before I knew it, I was fantasizing about where I'd go once the COVID-19 pandemic ends. I was also fascinated by how long it must have taken to travel anywhere back in 1911. Neither commercial aviation nor the interstate highway system existed yet. But it was still the golden age for both rail and steamship travel. There's something quite romantic about traveling across the continent by rail and then across the sea by ocean liner (first-class of course).

That got me thinking. Given the advances in transportation in the 100+ years since then, would it be possible to recreate such a trip in the modern era? How much would it cost? How long would it take? Most importantly, when will COVID-19 end so that I can get out of States again? After kicking the idea around with a friend, we decided that I should do some investigating.

How much money do we need?

Well… let's start with the easiest question to answer. According to the flyers, it cost $750 (1911 US Dollars) for a 70 day trip that includes 4 weeks in Japan with stops in San Francisco, Korea, and Hawaii. All travel and accommodations are included in that price as well. After adjusting for inflation, the whole thing comes out to roughly $20,651.21 (2021 US Dollars). That's roughly an average of 3.06% inflation per year. To put it in to perspective, currently $20,000 can buy you a trip for one to Antarctica or a new Honda Civic.

Imagine having that kind of time and money to travel! It's completely out of reach for all but the uber-wealthy. However, for the sake of this exercise let's pretend we have both the time and the money.

How do we get there?

It's been over a century so a few things have changed. For the sake of this experiment I'll try and recreate the original route without the use of air travel where possible. However, I expect that some legs of this journey would be impossible without air travel.

The advertisements suggest that this 70-day trip has the following itinerary:

That is a lot to take in even before we factor in the changes in place names, national borders, and current travel restrictions. Let's break it down and see how we can make each leg of the journey work. Also we'll tally up the costs and see if it's possible to do this within our inflation-adjusted budget.

New York City to San Francisco

Canadian Pacific Railway and connecting lines (1912) Canadian Pacific Railway Company. Canadian Pacific Railway and connecting lines. Chicago: Poole Bros, 1912. Map. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/item/2006627697/.

There was only one reasonable way to get from one coast to the other at the turn of the 20th century and it was by rail! The ad suggests taking a 5-day long route from New York City to San Francisco via Montreal and Vancouver. The bulk of this route would have likely been operated by the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Unfortunately, the second half of the 20th century ushered in a rapid decline in North American passenger rail service. As a result, there's no longer a direct transcontinental route from Montreal to Vancouver. We're going to need to transfer at Toronto or drop Montreal from the itinerary. This gives us our first choice of many:

Train Travel - NYC to Toronto - Option A
Service Route Duration Estimated Cost
Amtrak New York (NYP) → Montreal (MTR) 10 hrs 00 mins 70 – 100 USD
VIA Rail Canada Montreal (MTRL) → Toronto (TRTO) 05 hrs 30 mins 49 – 121 CAD
VIA Rail Canada Toronto (TRTO) → Vancouver 4 days 1100 – 7000 CAD
- or -
Train Travel - NYC to Vancouver - Option B
Service Route Duration Estimated Cost
Amtrak New York (NYP) → Toronto (TWO) 12 hrs 30 mins 70 – 100 USD
VIA Rail Canada Toronto (TRTO) → Vancouver 4 days 1100 – 7000 CAD

You may have noticed that North American transcontinental rail travel is now somehow slower than it was in the early 1900s. Wait until you see what the next phase looks like. We still need to get from Vancouver to San Francisco and there isn't a pure rail route remaining…

Train Travel - Vancouver to San Francisco
Service Route Duration Estimated Cost
Amtrak Thruway Connecting Bus Vancouver (VAC) → Seattle (SEA) 03 hrs 45 mins N/A
Amtrak Seattle (SEA) → Emeryville, CA (EMY) 22 hrs 25 mins 91 – 500 USD
Amtrak Thruway Connecting Bus Emeryville, CA (EMY) → San Francisco (SFC) 01 hrs 00 mins N/A

Well that was quite an ordeal… The last stretch would leave me feeling like a piece of luggage but the journey's only just begun. What was once a 5 day long leg is now 5.5 days if you bypass Montreal or 5.75 days with it. Mind you this doesn't include layover time while waiting for a connecting train or bus. Also, it doesn't give us any time to see Montreal. Since we're already over the budgeted travel time, we might as well take a day or two in Montreal to relax and explore. We can make up for it in the next segment of the journey.

San Francisco to Japan

Okay… let's address the elephant in the room. The age of ocean liners has been over for like 75 years now. That means there are no passenger ships from San Francisco to Japan, not even cruises. So let's call it even and take a plane. Yokohama doesn't have its own airport but it's close enough to Tokyo that it should work out.

A flight from San Francisco International Airport (SFO) to Tokyo, takes approximately 11 hours. It can cost anywhere between 500 – 2100 USD, making for a significant part of the budget. On the bright side at least we'll save 15.5 days in transit! We can put that time to good use by exploring San Francisco before heading to the airport. I've never been to the West Coast so I'd at least take the opportunity to see Alcatraz, the Golden Gate, and Chinatown. While I'm nearby I might as well also visit Yosemite National Park to see some giant sequoia trees & waterfalls.

I digress, let's take a look are our options for getting to Tokyo:

Air Travel Options
Departure From Arrival At Duration
San Francisco (SFO) Haneda Airport (HND) 11 hrs 20 mins
San Francisco (SFO) Narita International Airport (NRT) 11 hrs 20 mins

Four Weeks in Japan

28 days is a long time as far as vacations in the modern era go. Most people in this country don't even have 3 weeks a year for vacation time so I won't prescribe an exact itinerary for spending this much time in Japan. However, I will make some recommendations based on my experiences.

Spend your first week in Tokyo. This recommendation serves 2 purposes. Firstly, Tokyo is a bustling mega-city and the capital of Japan. Even if you don't sleep for the entire week, you can't see and experience all of it. Secondly, Japan has numerous interesting sights and destinations beyond Tokyo. With their robust rail network, you'll want to take advantage of the JR Pass, an unlimited rail pass that's only available to foreign tourists who purchase it overseas. However, the pass has a time limit and the maximum duration you can purchase lasts for 3 weeks. So if you spend your first week in Tokyo you can travel throughout the country without worrying about the cost for the next 3 weeks.

My only other recommendation is that you work your way westward once you leave Tokyo. The next leg of this journey will take you by sea to Korea and then China. So you will probably want to end your time in Japan in the western city of Fukuoka. Not only does this give you the chance to visit the cities of Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto at your leisure but takes you further west than most tourists typically go. It also provides the options of visiting the Shikoku and Hiroshima which are both absolutely gorgeous.

Korea and Port Arthur

Once you've finshed enjoying Fukuoka, you can catch a boat to Busan in South Korea from the Hakata Ferry Terminal. This service is operated by Camellia Line and sets sail daily. The entire trip is about 5 hours and 30 mins. Depending on how much you want to spend, a ticket can run you between 90 and 200 USD.

I honestly don't know very much about South Korea but I'd spend no less than a full day in each of the following cities: Busan, Seoul, and Incheon. Then from Incheon you can catch a ferry to Dalian in China. This service by DainFerry operates every other day and will run you 112 – 207 USD.

Once in Dalian you can head over to the Lvshunkou District if you want to see what was once Port Arthur.

Sea Travel
Departure From Arrival At Duration Estimated Cost
Fukuoka, Japan Busan, South Korea 05 hrs 30 mins 9000 – 20000 JPY
Incheon, South Korea Dalian, China 16 hrs 11 mins 127,300 – 235,300 KRW

Beijing, Tianjin & the Great Wall

Long time readers of my blog I have a history with both Dalian and Beijing. In fact, it's probably for the best that I never set foot in Beijing again considering everything that happened last time I was there. For the sake of our imaginations though, let's pretend I would have no issues returning to China. I would then spend my 1 week with a day at the Great Wall and 3 days in Tianjin and Beijing each.

So let's start by getting from point A to point B. China's developed over 15,000 miles of high speed rail in the last couple of decades so we can just take the train. From Dalian we'll catch a train to Tianjin where we can take in the numerous landmarks, historical sites, and fine-dining experiences of China's financial center. Then we'll head to Beijing which will serve as our launching point to check out the Great Wall before heading back stateside.

Train Travel
Service Route Duration Estimated Cost
China Railway Dalian North (大连北) → Tianjin West (天津西) 04 hrs 30 mins 350 – 1100 CNY
China Railway Dalian (大连) → Beijing (北京南) 00 hrs 40 mins 54 – 190 CNY

Across the Yellow Sea and through Inland Sea

Surprise! There is no way by sea back to Yokohama from China. So we'll cut out the middle man and head to Honolulu directly. This will shave 4 days off our transit time.

Yokohama to Honolulu

Just like there were no seafaring passenger routes from Beijing or Yokohama, there are none from Yokohama to Honolulu. So we'll just book a flight directly from Beijing to Honolulu. Despite there being no direct flights between the two cities, this still should save us an additional 9.5 days of travel time for a grand total of 13.5 days in transit. Personally speaking, I would dedicate quite a few if not all of those days to enjoying Hawaii. You could go so far as to call it a vacation from your vacation.

Air Travel Options
Departure From Layover In Arrival At Duration
Beijing (PEK) Tokyo (HND) Honolulu, HI (HNL) 10 hrs 15 mins
Beijing (PEK) Nagoya (NGO) Honolulu, HI (HNL) 10 hrs 50 mins
Beijing (PEK) Sapporo (CTS) Honolulu, HI (HNL) 10 hrs 55 mins
Beijing (PEK) Seoul (ICN) Honolulu, HI (HNL) 11 hrs 05 mins

Return to San Francisco

It's finally time to head back to the continental United States… but once again I must remind you that there are no routes via ship available. However, this time it's not because the age of the steamship has ended. Instead the problem lies in protectionist laws that raise the barrier to entry for passenger ship operators. I'm talking about the Passenger Vessel Services Act of 1886 (46 USC §55103). The PVSA is a U.S. law that prevents any ship from transporting passengers between 2 U.S. ports if that ship isn't owned and operated by U.S. "persons". In short, with some exceptions, there are no cruises or ferries between Hawaii and San Francisco because cruise operators don't want to incur the expense of having U.S. flagged ships in their fleets (since U.S labor laws and wages would apply to the ship's crew).

Putting my disdain for the treatment of cruise ship employees aside… we'll have to fly back to the mainland. A flight from Daniel K. Inouye International Airport (HNL) to San Francisco (SFO) takes about 05 hrs and 15 mins and costs between 180 – 220 USD. However, as you'll see in the next leg of this trip… we really need to go to Los Angeles.

Return to New York (via the Grand Canyon)

The return trip to New York City is an adventure all on its own. First we begin by rai— ah right, there's no Amtrak rail service in San Francisco. I guess we're taking a bus further inland before heading back across the continent by rail. No matter where you're going, if you traveling from one coast to the other you're going to have to transfer either in Chicago or New Orleans. The itinerary says we will be traveling via the Grand Canyon so we'll have to make a stop in Arizona along the way. This complicates matters slightly

First we need to get from San Francisco to Los Angeles. There are 3 ways to do this:

Train Travel - San Francisco to L.A. - Option A
Service Route Duration Estimated Cost
Amtrak Thruway Connecting Bus San Francisco, CA (SFC) → Santa Barbara, CA (SBA) 01 hrs 00 mins N/A
Amtrak Santa Barbara, CA (SBA) → Los Angeles, CA (LAX) 02 hrs 46 mins N/A
- or -
Train Travel - San Francisco to L.A. - Option B
Service Route Duration Estimated Cost
Amtrak Thruway Connecting Bus San Francisco, CA (SFC) → Emeryville, CA (EMY) 01 hrs 00 mins N/A
Amtrak Emeryville, CA (EMY) → Los Angeles, CA (LAX) 12 hrs 45 mins N/A
- or -
Train Travel - San Francisco to L.A. - Option C
Service Route Duration Estimated Cost
Amtrak Thruway Connecting Bus San Francisco, CA (SFC) → Emeryville, CA (EMY) 01 hrs 00 mins N/A
Amtrak Emeryville, CA (EMY) → Bakersfield, CA (BFD) 06 hrs 10 mins N/A
Amtrak Thruway Connecting Bus Bakersfield, CA (BFD) → Los Angeles, CA (LAX) N/A N/A

Okay this is a lot of hassle for no good reason. Let's just change things up so that instead of landing in San Francisco after returning from Beijing, we land at Los Angeles (LAX). This shouldn't affect the overall trip much since we already took the liberty of enjoying San Francisco on our way out of the country. This will benefit us by saving up to a full day in hectic shuffling between buses and trains.

Air Travel
Departure From Arrival At Duration
Honolulu, HI (HNL) Los Angeles, CA (LAX) 05 hrs 30 mins

Alright now we can get down to business. There's only one path from Los Angeles to the Grand Canyon:

Train Travel - L.A. to Grand Canyon
Service Route Duration Estimated Cost
Amtrak Los Angeles, CA (LAX) → Flagstaff, AZ (FLG) 12 hrs 20 mins 61 – 284 USD
Connecting Van Flagstaff, AZ (FLG) → Williams, AZ (WMH) 00 hrs 50 mins N/A
Walking Williams, AZ - Holiday Inn Express (WMH) → Williams, AZ - Grand Canyon Railway Depot (WMA) 00 hrs 13 mins N/A
Grand Canyon Railway Williams, AZ (WMA) → Grand Canyon Village, AZ (GCN) 02 hrs 15 mins 67 – 226 USD Roundtrip

After all the trouble it took to get here, we should spend a few days at the Grand Canyon National Park. The way back form the west coast, has been budgeted to take a week. It took us about 15.75 hours to get to the Grand Canyon and it will take another 55.6 hours to get to New York. That leaves us up to 4 days to enjoy the natural beauty of the Grand Canyon.

Train Travel - Grand Canyon to NYC
Service Route Duration Estimated Cost
Grand Canyon Railway Grand Canyon Village, AZ (GCN) → Williams, AZ (WMA) 02 hrs 15 mins 67 – 226 USD Roundtrip
Walking Williams, AZ - Grand Canyon Railway Depot (WMA) → Williams, AZ - Holiday Inn Express (WMH) 00 hrs 13 mins N/A
Connecting Van Flagstaff, AZ (FLG) → Williams, AZ (WMH) 00 hrs 50 mins N/A
Amtrak Flagstaff, AZ (FLG) → Chicago, IL (CHI) 32 hrs 25 mins 67 – 709 USD
Amtrak Chicago, IL (CHI) → Flagstaff, AZ (NYP) 19 hrs 53 mins 90 – 394 USD

How much does this all cost?

Now that we know that it's possible to make a good approximation of the 70-day journey based on modern travel routes, the prickly question of cost remains. While i'd like to say this is doable on a $20,600 budget, I can't know for certain. Due to the pandemic, airfare prices are currently unpredictable. Some economists believe this is the end of cheap air travel while others think prices will go back to their pre-pandmic norms eventually. On top of that pandemic-related restrictions have mean changes in rail service in both the United States and Canada. Some routes are currently not operating and for the routes that are in service, pricing is different from the norm. Finally, when you consider that this trip takes place over 2 months and across 5 countries on 2 continents, you need to take currency risk in to account. There is almost no way to get an exact estimate of what this kind of vacation would cost by the time you're reading this post.

All that being said, we can at least estimate how much it would cost in transport. On the very low end, we can get around for $3,815.92. That leaves over $16,000 for lodging and attactions. Coming in at $13,528.19. The worst case scenario is less hopeful. That only leaves about $7000 to cover where we'll stay. I suspect that the true figure lies somewhere between these two extremes though. That means it is certainly possible to recreate this trip on a similar timeframe and budget with a lot of planning. Now, if you'll excuse me, I might need to look up some places to stay.

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