Like everything else, transportation system is another wonder of Japan. There are planes, busses, subways, and many lines of different trains. Commute system here in Japan is so far the best that we have ever seen.
No other country that we know of, will help tourists to commute with a discount either, but people visiting Japan may use JR pass aka Japan Rail Pass.
How and when to buy JR pass. When you read travel blogs or even jrpass.com – in the rules it is stated that pass must be purchased before you arrive to Japan. There is information posted in the blogs stating that there is no way of buying JR pass once you are inside the country and so forth. Well, they are all very wrong. Once you are inside the country you can buy JR pass, but it is a little more tricky. You have to have an existing address (hotel’s or friends address works just fine) here in Japan and be able to wait at least 4-5 days to get your JR exchange order. You can simply order JR pass online and send it to yourself. You just need your laptop and order the pass from some agent that is outside Japan. We used jrpass.com. They will ship it to you in 4-5 days via FedEx. Shipping cost was $38 to Hokkaido, but shipping varies $9-$38. Pricesfrom different agencies for JR pass itself should not differ more than couple dollars per pass because of currency exchange rate. Remember, you can use this JR pass just if you are visiting Japan as a tourist. Student, work or business visas holders are out of luck.
How to choose the JR Pass. They have two classes – Green and Ordinary. Green class is 30-50% more expensive, but you get just bigger seat and some other small perks. So we recommend Ordinary class. Then, decide how long you want to travel and how much do you want to see. 7 day JR pass will cost you close to Y28,300($283) and 14 day Y45100 ($451), you can also opt for 21 day pass. I loved using sample itineraries that are posted on japan-guide.com. If you check this link you can adjust how many days or nights you want to spend traveling with the train. This website is great once you get a hang of it. Sample itinerary will link you to other information online, there you will find more about each city or a place worth seeing. They also show you what else is there or outside the city. They provide the maps, detailed access and orientation information. Information is brief and goes directly to the point. In addition, I used WikiTravel.org for more detail. When you order your pass online, you will get the exchange order first. It comes with instructions and will tell you were you can exchange it for actual pass. Do not forget your passport when you go to exchange it. Your tourist visa is important. But remember that you have three months to activate your JR pass. In case you change your mind before you started using it, you can obtain a refund.
Once you get your actual JR pass you may make reservations for your first few trips. Each train has cars with unreserved seats and there is always some room to sit, but just to be on the more relaxed side for your first trip on the train, make a reservation and relax in your seat or enjoy a beer or a meal. Later on, once you figure out the system, no reservations are necessary, just find yourself a seat. If you want to secure the seat, book your ticket at least a night before. Many times we found all reservations were gone. But remember, you can always find a seat in the unreserved-seat car.The staff at the JR ticket office will provide you great information and will give you train schedules as well. We also liked using Hyperdia.com or Hyperdia i-phone app – wifi needed. I would look up a schedule and then take a picture of it with my phone for later use.
At the train stations you will note that everyone has a ticket that they put into the machine to enter the station. However, when you have a pass, you might not have a ticket or the one you have will not work in the machine. You must enter and exit the station where the attendant is present. They will check the date on your pass and let you go through. So always have it ready. Some train assistants will check your ticked and the Train Pass as well. So, please carry them both.
Having JR train pass you will be able to travel with the speed trains aka bullet trains aka Shinkansen trains. They are simply amazing the way they look and how fast they go. Your trip will be fast, comfortable, and smooth. Shinkansen train can travel up to 320 km/hr. If you do not buy JR pass, Shinkansen trains are very expensive. However, you can always use local trains. When we looked at the prices and schedules it looked like local train will take you twice longer, you will have to switch between the trains; however, it will cost you twice less.
When you are on the train, you can see that you are going fast, but you cannot feel it. However, when a train passes-by, it feels like our trains shifts sideways from the gust of wind. It was spectacular when standing on the platform waiting for a Shinkansen train to Tokyo, one of the trains passed by without stopping. It was beyond belief how fast it went by! First you feel the ground shaking, then the noise, and finally, the wind passes by. As soon as you look up, the train is gone.
Train stops are announced in English or just look up above each car door – it will be written in English as well. You are also notified that Conductor is in the car Number … . Usually cars 1-3 for non reserved seats.
Luggage. You can definitely bring them on the train. There is a storage area at the end of each car. Also there is plenty of leg room, some people store their small or even medium size luggage in front of them as well.If you are taking just one day trip I recommend storing your luggage in a locker. Every station, even a smallest local one, has a locker where you can store your luggage. Depending on the size of your storage, expect to pay $3 to $8 per day. If you cannot find storage big enough, sometimes train stations have a private holding room that might store your luggage. In Nikko officers at ticket control counter where storing people’s luggage in their office. If you do not have enough coins, just ask at any shop inside the train station, everyone is happy to help with the change.
Another option is that you can send your luggage using 7-11 convenience store. You leave your luggage there and for a very minimal price they will send it to your next location, while you enjoy luggage free travel. This service is commonly used by smart travelers.Food availability. Depending on the type of train you are taking, there is plenty of food options for you. The train car-attendant will pass by multiple times, so feel free to decide what would you like to buy later. There is beer and bento boxes that you can purchase as well. And do not worry, if you have only few minutes before you board the train, there are plenty of food and beverage options to buy right on the platform. Prices are very reasonable as well.
We purchased this before we got on the train – coffee in the can and a pancake-type biscuit with sweet been filling. I love this trend of coffee in the can while traveling. There are many choices of hot or cold, black or flavored, with Starbucks included! You can buy them in any store, in the train station itself or a vending machine. The price for a coffee is usually up to $1.40.
Cell phone etiquette is announced as soon as you get on the train. If you like to use your mobile phone please use it in the designated areas. That means no cell phone usage inside the passenger car. Guess what, everybody does it! No ones phone is ringing nor there are alerts coming in. Can you imagine riding a train in a piece and quiet!You would think that when Japanese get a beer on the way home they would get loud and inappropriate, absolutely not! They simply enjoy a drink and relax. Even women are seen having a beer. However, even when Japanese are drinking, they continue to maintain politeness, there is no shouting or loud laughing.I was very impressed with the staff at the train stations as well. At the ticket office, they will stand up greeting you and when you are leaving they will stand up and bow for you. They will also explain in detail what your ticket means. The train assistants will enter and leave the car with a greeting and a bow facing passengers. Your first ride on a Shinkansen train will make a great impression on you. When you are taking a subway in a rush hour, there are officers near most doors helping you to board the train safely as well.
Major train stations is Japan are like a small self-sufficient cities on their own. They are modern architectural landmarks of the city. These stations are a major hub for subway, local trains and Shinkansen trains. It is also a place to commute, have a meal or a snack, do some major shopping and to party after work. Only New York Grand Central could compare a little to the stations in Japan. They are filled with restaurants and expensive shops. People go on a date or do some shopping before commuting home.
Many stations are set up in same principle where lower ground levels will hold gourmet grocery store, food court, some shops. It is also a major walk-way covering few city blocks. Japanese use these walkways during rain or snow to protect themselves from the bad weather. The top levels usually host expensive department shops and a great choice of more expensive restaurants on the top floor.
I can’t stress enough how clean, organized, and beautiful these stations are. No other country can compare, where it is often a place for homeless, overpriced junk-food, and many odors. And I have to mention lady bathrooms in the major stations, for the ladies they have many full body individual mirrors with super strong lighting to put your make up on. No wonder Japanese women look stunning all the time.
Using JR pass saves quite a bit of money, than for paying for each trip separately. When we calculated our cost we realized that we spend $452 for a pass and tickets would have cost us $1150 per person – 60% savings! Having a pass is also great convenience and flexibility to the traveler, because if trains are late or can’t not make it to the train on time, all you have to do is to go ahead and reschedule. Trains run very often and the maximum time you will ever have to wait for another train is about an hour.
Using JR pass we started at Sapporo, and made following stops at Aomore, Fukushima, Utsunomya, Nikko, Tokyo, Nagoya, Matsumoto, Kyoto, Himeji, Hiroshima, Fukuoka, and Okayama.
Tip: If you have a JR pass, make your hotel reservation outside the major cities and commute to city, this way you will have a very nice hotel at the fraction of the price.
Tip: Using JR pass, in major cities you do not even need a subway card, there is also JR line in the city going in a circle and making stops at major attractions.
Tip: Manga Cafe, if you are in a rush and need a place to rest for 6-8hr there is always Manga Cafe.
Overall, JR pass was a very positive experience and I would definitely do it again.