Shinkansen at a Station – You can travel Japan with a Japan Rail Pass in one of these
Japan is probably one of the safest places to travel in the world. Add to that its gorgeous landscapes, centuries of rich culture and tasty food and it quickly becomes the ideal travel destination. The only question is, how do you get around once you get there? Trains. The answer is trains. Yes travel Japan with a Japan Rail Pass. It should be noted you need to purchase the pass outside of Japan. So if you are in Japan Teaching English or on a Japan working holiday visa buy it before you arrive so you can take advantage of it as you travel and work abroad in Japan.
Sure, there are a lot of different options available to travel in and around Japan. From buses to car rentals to taxis, but unless you have a decent grasp of the Japanese language, most of those options will give you a rough time. Airplanes are also an option, but they’re hugely expensive, and going through security takes ages. Fortunately, Japan has some of the most efficient public transportation in the world. While you might encounter some difficulty with language on buses, train stations are more standardized and easier to navigate. That is if you do your research ahead of time. Lucky for you, I have done the research on taking the train in Japan using the Japan Rail Pass.
Long Ways Away? Take the Bullet Train (Shinkansen)
The bullet train, called shinkansen in Japan, can run up to 200 miles per hour. They’ve been in operation for almost sixty years and are still far and away the best way to travel long distances in Japan. For instance, the distance from Tokyo to Osaka is around 500km. By car or bus it can take anywhere from 6-8 hours. On a Shinkansen it will take 2.5-3 hours. But this will depend on the model of Shinkansen. The new models, such as Nozomi, will take less time.
Aside from not having to endure the harassment and drudgery of security, you also don’t have to fuss too much about the weight of your luggage. You’ll still want to make sure it isn’t too unwieldy, since you’ll be the one keeping track of it. But this is made a little easier by open compartments at the end of each train car where you can stow your luggage for the duration of the ride.
Japan Rail (JR) Trains Can Take You Anywhere
The Japan Rail Train (JR Train) system is ubiquitous throughout most of Japan. You can use them to get pretty much anywhere. Whether you need a long ride between two places or short rides within a big city. On top of that, taking the trains in Japan are extremely reliable, often arriving and departing exactly when they’re scheduled to.
JR is also the train company that owns and operates the aforementioned bullet trains. This is important to note because JR is also the company that sponsors the Japan Rail Pass. What is that, you ask?
What is the Japan Rail Pass?
The Japan Rail Pass allows a traveler to ride any JR train, regular or bullet, as well as JR buses. Passes are available without any limit, for a 7-, 14-, or 21-day period.
The Japan Rail Pass is specifically intended for tourists and is a lifesaver. It allows you to get through the Japanese train system without having to worry about buying individual tickets and can end up saving you a lot of money. If you plan it right, it has the potential to cover all your travel expenses in Japan.
You can buy the Japan Rail Pass online or at a ticket seller in your country up to 90 days before landing in Japan. You will initially receive an exchange voucher, which you can then trade in for the actual pass once you land in Japan. Just head over to a JR Exchange Office, located in most airports and major train stations.
With the pass, the only thing you have to worry about travel-wise is making a seat reservation before boarding a bullet train. This is free and can be done at the station ahead of time. Note that if you wait until the last minute and the train is busy, you might not get an ideal seat.
Japan Rail Ticket Offices and Automatic Ticket Vendors
Another way to pay your way is through ticket offices and automatic ticket vendors. The main issue here is if you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s easy to get confused. At a ticket office, there is usually at least one agent who speaks some English and can help you decide which tickets you’ll need. For the ticket machines, you may need to spend some time beforehand studying train route maps so that you’ll be able to figure out what ticket you’ll need. You’ll also need to be sure to have enough Yen on hand as these machines only accept cash.
There are some other methods of payment, like IC cards. These are geared more towards commuters and won’t be of much use to someone visiting for only a week or two or four. However, if you are coming to Japan on a working holiday you will want to investigate IC cards further.
Use Hyperdia to Plan Out Your Route
The main downside to using trains in Japan is that the lack of English can be a bit intimidating at first. However, with a bit of proper preparation, you’ll be able to get through and enjoy the ride like a pro.
The first step is to decide on your route. For this, one of the most useful tools you can have at your disposal is Hyperdia. This is a website that can give you routes and timetables for any train in the JR system. All you need to do is enter in the date, the station you want to depart from, and where you want to go. Make a note not only of the times and train names but the “arrival track,” as this will be crucial in helping you find which platform you need to go to at the train station. I have put together a 1 Month Japan Itinerary you can follow. It will help you work out how to get to the best places to see while in Japan.
If you’re not sure which exact station you need, Google Maps can offer some help. It has all the JR stations (along with the station names) named. If you’re not sure of the exact date you’ll need to take that train, no worries, the train schedules are fairly regular. All you really need to make a note of is the time of day and whether you’ll need that particular train on a weekday or a weekend/holiday. The Japan Rail website has some useful train station maps you can download and use. Check them out when you are getting pricing and purchasing your Japan Rail Pass.
Follow the Signs and Ask for Help if You Get Lost
Once you’ve figured out your basic route, the next step is to familiarise yourself a bit with the train station layout. Every Japanese train station is different, but the basics are the same. Smaller stations are pretty straightforward. You go into the station and keep walking until you come to the ticket gate. For bigger stations, you’ll usually enter a mall-like area first and will have to look for signs that point to the actual ticket gates. Fortunately, such areas typically have maps as well where the station should be marked.
If you have the Japan Rail Pass, you just need to show your pass to the agent standing by and he’ll wave you through. If you have a ticket, feed it into the ticket gate, walk through, and grab the ticket again on your way out. From there, keep walking forward until you get to the train station platform or “track.” Most stations, even smaller ones, have multiple tracks. If you use Hyperdia to find your route, it will have provided you with the track number you’ll need to go to in order to board your train.
Final words Taking the Train in Japan Using the Japan Rail (JR) Pass
Finally, if you feel lost, don’t feel bad! Staff and train station agents are there specifically to help people find where they need to go. I’d recommend learning at least a little bit of basic Japanese. Even something like “Densha wa doko?” for a very, very simple question on where the train is.. However, even if you can’t speak any Japanese, gesturing and pointing to a map of where you want to go works wonders.
As you can see, there are a few different ways to navigate the train system in Japan. Japan is a well-traveled country and the train system is very efficient. There are plenty of online resources out there that can help you find exactly what you need to get where you want to go. Enjoy your travels in Japan with a Japan Rail Pass. If you have already travelled on a Japan Rail Pass or are planning to and have questions, I’d love to hear from you in the following comment section.