Ron Perrier, a retired Canadian physician, spent a month this year travelling by train in Japan.
Another country, my twelfth this winter. Another currency (worth about 100 yen to the $US), driving on the left, and another language that I don’t know a word of, with a people who speak virtually no English. A culture radically different from what we know in North America. If you put us in the middle, India would be on one end and Japan on the other. A script that is indecipherable and little is written in English unlike every other country visited this winter.
I have a 21-day Japan Rail (JR) Pass, one of the best travel deals on the planet. Available only to foreigners, it can also only be purchased outside the country. After exchange and a 4% credit card charge, it cost $631 Canadian. It can be used on all trains (and some JR ferries and buses) except for the super express Nozomi service (these only stop at major stations). The normal Shinkansen (bullet) trains are very fast but will stop at most stations. Just flash the pass as you go through the gate and ask for the track for your destination.
You can buy the pass for a fixed period of 7, 14 or 21 days. Whereas a single round trip from Tokyo to Osaka costs almost ¥29,000, the 7-day Rail Pass in Ordinary (Standard) Class is ¥28,300. The 14-day and 21-day ordinary pass is ¥45,100 and ¥57,700, respectively. Green Car Rail Passes cost ¥37,800, ¥61,200 and ¥79,600 for 7, 14 and 21 days, respectively, and include unlimited travel in first class Green Car seating.
The pass can only be purchased outside of Japan from specific vendors. Upon purchase, you are given an Exchange Order, which can be exchanged at most larger JR stations in Japan, including all of the stations nearest to airports, for the Rail Pass itself. At the time of exchange, you will need to have your passport with you, and know the date upon which you will want the Rail Pass to start. Dedicated counters specifically for Rail Pass exchanges are available at Tokyo and Nagoya stations; wait times are little and as soon as you receive the pass you can start making free seat reservations immediately at the counter (recommended if you’re travelling on less-popular routes that might fill up, or if you are travelling with a large group).
Regional JR companies also sell their own passes that cover only parts of the country. They are generally poorer value and you’ll have to plan pretty carefully to make them pay off: in particular, none are valid for travel between Tokyo and Kyoto/Osaka. Unlike the main Rail Pass, these can only be purchased in the country (at any major JR station), but they’re still for most part limited to visitors.
This is going to be the most intensive travel I have ever done as I hope to see all of Japan and maximize my pass. Simplified English train schedules aren’t available. But the internet site http://www.hyperdia.com is very good. Put in your stations and departure time and you get complete lists of the routes available, times, costs and transfers.
You rarely need to wait more than 30 minutes even for the super express trains. Activate your JR Pass after visiting a place that you may be staying at for a few days like Kyoto, Tokyo or Kagoshima (where a trip to Yakushima on the north of Okinawa will consume 3 days or so with the two ferry rides and at least one day of hiking). Save one of these places also for your last day of travel for the same reasons.
Most of the time it is not necessary to reserve a seat as there are so many trains but on weekends and holidays, a reservation would be a good idea. Over time, I did find it easier to make reservations – you have a guaranteed seat, and you know when your train arrives. With local trains, it is more often necessary to get a ticket with a reserved seat. You cannot rely on locals to answer any questions but writing down your problem may result in an answer.
The first and most confusing aspect of Japan’s railway system (especially within large cities like Tokyo) that you will encounter is the overlap of several private railway networks with the JR network. Tokyo also has two separate metro systems to add to the confusion. Being aware of this one fact will substantially reduce the confusion you experience trying to understand railway maps and find your way around.
The non-Shinkansen trains allow a much more intimate look at the surrounding countryside. Stops are very brief so if you get off to have a quick smoke, don’t wander far from the door. A bell usually sounds just before the door is to close. More than once, I was caught in the door and got in just in time.
Always try to get accommodation near the main JR station in each city. You will be travelling through there all the time and most transportation to the tourist sites is easy to access from them.
Departing Tokyo you can reach Osaka in 3 hours, Fukuoka in 6 hours, Kumamoto in 7 hours and Kagoshima in 8 hours. From Osaka you can get to Fukuoka in less than 3 hours, Kumamoto in 3 hours 30 minutes and Kagoshima in 4 hours 15 minutes.
North Americans are usually astounded to find that Japanese trains, like other forms of mass transit, nearly always leave and arrive promptly on time, following the published schedule to the minute. If you are late, you will miss the train!
Ron Perrier writes a blog about his travels at http://www.ronperrier.net. This excerpt has been extracted and edited with his permission.
Photo credits Wikimedia Commons