One of the most amazing things about travelling in Japan is their railway system. The trains were clean, a joy to ride in and were never late. And when I say they’re never late, I mean you could really set your clock by their arrivals and departures. None of Connex’s definition of punctuality, which is within five minutes of the appointed time. Feh, talk about stretching the truth on that one. But I digress.
I’ve done some research prior to Japan and found out that Japan Rail offers tourists the opportunity to buy JR Passes that could be used to travel across Japan using trains and fast trains (called shinkansens). The only exception is that JR pass travellers could not use the super fast Nozomi trains but it’s not such a big deal anyway. You could still take the other trains in the route and there’s only a few minutes difference between using a Nozomi and the slightly slower Hikari train.
You’d have to buy the JR Rail pass outside of Japan and it’s available at most travel agencies. We got ours from H.I.S. travel. There are two categories for the pass: ordinary or green (luxurious first class). Each pass is available in 7,14 and 21 days of validity in increasing price increments. The price of the pass is fixed in yen but the exchange rate used by travel agencies tend to change so it’s good to shop around. Also, quote the prices on an agency’s website when you’ve decided on a place to buy your pass. We made the mistake of not remembering the exact amount listed for the pass in the agency’s website and only later realised that we paid a slightly higher amount than what was quoted on their site.
Bring a copy of your passport when making the purchase as the name on your passport would be used in issuing you with the travel voucher (shown on the left side of the photo) with a booklet with the terms and conditions of using the pass and a rail map. Once you arrive in Japan, you would have to go to a JR exchange office to get the actual ticket (shown on the right side of the photo).
The pass is just a cardboard booklet with your name, passport number, country of origin and the expiration date stamped on it. Because it does not have a magnetic strip on it, you would have to go through the turnstiles with a wheelchair access. These turnstiles are usually manned by JR personnel and you would have to show them your pass with the expiry date showing after which they’d press a button to let you through the turnstile. Unlike a local, you cannot just zip through any turnstile while hovering your wallet over a magnetic reader (which would have been cool, faster and easier but I guess the discounted price more than justifies this small inconvenience). You are advised to bring your passport with you every time you have to use your pass but we were never asked to produce it while we were there.
Another great thing is that you could use JR’s online travel planner facility to find out the exact time and route you’d have to take to get to from one place to another. As an example, type in Narita as a start point and Tokyo as a destination then click Search. The screen would refresh and show you several options for date, start point and destination, route limitations and type of fare. Click on Start when you’re satisfied with all your trip parameters and choose the best route combination for your trip. The pass does not include the subway network (which we used to get to Asakusa and Tsukishima) but the costs for these trips ought to be minimal anyway. However, take note that the online travel planner would sometimes suggest routes using the subway so factor this additional cost in your budget.
This facility is specially useful for long trips across the country using the shinkansen. I used this tool in planning our trips from and to Narita, Tokyo, Kyoto and Himeji, copying the date and time for each journey and using this information in reserving our seats for each trip on the shinkansen. There is no reservation fees for users of the JR pass so it’s best to reserve your seats for long trips. You could reserve several days in advance and I recommend that you make all your reservations in one go. I also recommend you do it in the JR office at Narita airport because you might have difficulty in locating the reservation office elsewhere and the staff in other offices might only have limited English-speaking ability. You would be given several tickets for each reserved trip, make sure not to lose it as it has your car/seat information and a conductor might ask you for the ticket during the trip.
Once on a shinkansen, a lady with a food cart would be selling all sort of goodies and drinks. We’ve found out later that these food carts usually feature great food from the towns on the train route. We didn’t have the courage to chat up the lady and ask about the goodies in her cart so we didn’t purchase anything from these snack carts. Definitely something for us to do if ever we find ourselves in Japan again.
The Japanese are well known for their politieness and practice phone etiquette on the train. They would go to the back of the train and speak in a hushed tone if they ever do get a call on their mobiles, only returning to their seats after the call is finished. Most passengers on the train sleep, eat, read or play portable game consoles with head phones during the trip, which makes for a very quiet time during the trip. No complaints from us as we also caught up with some quality sleeping time during our long train trips.
The trains were also very clean despite people bringing in food or buying snacks from carts because most of them bring their rubbish with them. Also look out for ladies dressed in pink uniforms waiting beside each door after a shinkansen arrives at a major station. Seen mostly in Tokyo station, these ladies wait for all passengers to disembark then hurriedly board the train, clean up, turn the seats around to have it facing the right way and replaces the headrest paper on each seat. They do this in a span of a few minutes and it’s such a wonder to see them work, it’s almost like they zip through all the seats and leave everything spotless.
A trip on the shinkansen is an experience by itself and the pass pays for itself pretty quickly. To illustrate, we bought an ordinary 7-day pass for $318.00 each. A return trip from Narita Airport to Tokyo and a return trip from Tokyo to Kyoto paid for the cost of the JR pass. Add to that the fact that we also used the pass to get to Himeji, Kamakura and took several trips within Tokyo and you’d see that using the pass is a great idea if you want to save on transport costs.