Before I make a start on what we actually did while we were away, I thought somebody somewhere might find this useful!…
Apart from the plane to get there and the odd taxi ride, almost every journey we took in Japan was by rail. This is a country obsessed by trains – home to some of the fastest in the world, and where almost every aspect of the network is both immaculate, and runs like clockwork! Japan also has one of the most punctual rail services there is, so there’s no need to worry about any feeble excuses for delays!
If you are considering any length of journey at all whilst you are in the country, you really should get yourself sorted with a Japan Rail Pass beforehand. It’s available only to non-residents, and covers a huge section of the network. At around £190 per adult for a seven-day pass and £95 per child – the cost is easily recovered by a couple of trips on the Bullet Train (Shinkansen) alone. Bullet train lines serve most major cities, and our trip from Tokyo to Kyoto took just under 3 hours. Not bad for a distance of 320 miles!
Once you’ve ordered your passes, you will be sent a document that must be exchanged for a validated pass. You can do this easily at most Japan Rail Offices in the major stations and airports when you arrive. Be prepared to hand your passports over to have them checked for the required visitors stamp…
The main restrictions with a JR Pass are on overnight trains, first class carriages on the Shinkansen (by the way with a pass you can reserve seats for every journey for free beforehand!), Nozomi and Mizuho trains (non stop services basically) any private line trains (around 30% of trains in Japan are owned privately, and there are some pretty “unique” ones about!) and the Metro Service in Tokyo. For this it makes sense to get yourself a Suica pass (similar to London’s Oyster Card), with each journey costing around £1. You can top up your fare as you go along at the machines in the station – just make sure you swipe the cards properly at the barrier, or you could suddenly find yourself without much fare left thanks to a penalty somewhere along the line!
- Don’t be phased by using any aspect of the train system, it’s easy to navigate and not that complicated;
- Do try to avoid the rush hours (from around 7.30 to 9.00 and then from around 5pm-8pm in the evening) unless you want to see what a “real” rush hour looks like. It’s not that pleasant to travel in, especially with backpacks and bewildered small children to keep a tight hold of;
- Sundays can also be incredibly busy, as this is a traditional day to visit family, so if you are travelling a long distance, book a seat in advance; likewise book seats for peak holiday times such as End of year/New Year, Golden Week in April/May and Obon in July/August;
- To use your JR Pass show it to the guard by the entrance gate who will let you through;
- If you have covered a section of Private Rail in your journey, pay the extra fee before you leave the station at the ticket office;
- Mobile phones must be switched to silent on most trains.
- Do stock up at the station before you start any long journey. Leave yourself plenty of time to find something suitable if you are travelling with children who might not appreciate the contents of the traditional Ekiben (travellers Bento Box!).
And that’s it. Sit back and enjoy the ride (or cling on and thank your stars you don’t have to do that journey every day!) as you whizz past Japan’s impressive city scapes or its lush green bamboo forests depending on where you are! If you have any further tips feel free to add them in the comments below!
Incidentally if you are looking for a good railway organiser for Japan, you could look at Hyperdia.com. I always find this type of website useful when planning journeys, and relied heavily on Rejseplanen when we lived in Denmark. For the rest of Europe I like Go Euro UK, a brand new multi mode search platform launched recently both in the UK and in Germany. Whether you are travelling relatively short distances, or a bit further afield, Go Euro UK* strives to bring you the easiest and cheapest options via rail, or plane. It also aims to bring you the best car rental prices in Europe… Anything that takes the stress out of journey planning and makes life easier, will always go down well with a Travel Blogger trust me!…
*Disclosure: Compensated affiliate. Go Euro UK asked me to include a link to them, and compensated me for doing so. As I think it’s a useful site, I was happy to give them a mention.