Contrary to Initial D, you will not be drifting around the country in your GT-R or AE86, Japan is a country of trains. There are special edition trains with ball pits for kids, trains which are painted and decorated in themes and done in homage to anime characters, and super luxury trains. It is guaranteed that you will be using trains to get around during your stay in Japan.
JR Rail Pass
The most effective way to see the major scenic sites across Japan is to purchase a JR Rail Pass as it will give you unlimited travel for 1, 2, or 3 weeks around the country. JR Rail Passes are only for foreign visitors and you must buy these passes in your home country before you leave. There are also options to purchase regional only passes online if you are limiting your travels to specific areas of Japan, but most people will want to stick with the country-wide pass. Japan Rail (JR) is the regionalized national train company and JR trains will take you to 90% of the places you want to go.
If you make at least one round trip Shinkansen trip between the major cities during your trip using the JR Rail Pass, you will have used most of the purchase value of the pass already. The value of the ticket going to Sapporo (Hokkaido) or Fukuoka (Kyushu) from Tokyo will already be worth the value of your pass. If you add in all the costs for local travel, JR Rail Pass is an excellent deal.
You must purchase the JR Rail Pass in your home country, the national wide pass is not available to you once you reach Japan. Plan to set aside approximately $300-800 of your budget up front, this will take care of 99% of your in-country travel costs.
To purchase the pass in your home country, you will need to consult the JR Rail Pass website for instructions and details. A list of authorized vendors is on the website. You need to show up in person, or contact one of the authorized vendors. They will need your passport as an exchange order voucher will be issued to the exact personal information stated in your passport. You need to check that the name on exchange order is the same as on your passport as the JR office in Japan will not give you a rail pass if spelling, punctuation, or other details are different.
You may be presented with the option to buy the pass for an upgraded “green car”. Green cars are akin to business class on the super express trains. I recommend that you stick with the ordinary pass, unless you want to be all baller. You don’t get much more room, the seats aren’t much more comfy, and they’re quite a bit more expensive. Better to save the extra dollars for food and booze.
Using your JR Rail Pass
Once you have your purchased your exchange voucher and have arrived in Japan, you will need to go to the nearest major JR office. The JR offices will be clearly marked with the JR logo, and it will usually be near the entrance to the train station at the airport, or at the major stations in the main cities. You will have to fill out a form, provide the agent your passport and your exchange order voucher. They will provide you a little 3 page booklet and a laminated card as part of the booklet. Don’t remove this card from the lamination.
You will not be able to use the automated turnstiles at stations with this pass, you need to go to the turnstile with a human station attendant. Show them the pass as you walk through. Keep in mind the very first time you use it, usually when you’re leaving the airport, the attendant will need to stamp it to validate it. After that you can just show it to the attendant as you walk through the turnstile.
It is important to note that the JR Rail Pass will not let you on any private train lines, such as the Tokyo metro system, the Hanshin line, the Kintetsu line, etc. Lines such as these are not part of the JR group and are run by other private companies. You can tell if a line and a station is JR station, as you will see the JR Rail logo with a green background at the station entrance signs and the board.
IC Cash Cards
There may be instances where you may want to take a non-JR line because that train stop is closer to your destination. To do this you will need an IC card or to purchase a separate ticket. An IC card is a smart cash card which allows you to fill it with cash, and pay for any train journeys by tapping it on the reader pad at almost any train station turnstile. The amount it will cost you to travel between your entry and exit stations will be automatically deducted from the cash amount stored on the IC Card.
If you’re venturing into the countryside, there will be some train stations which may not have IC terminals, and may not the on the JR system. They will likely have human fare takers at each end. These you will need to navigate by purchasing tickets and paying in cash. To purchase a cash ticket, look at the board above the ticket machine. Note your current position and then find the station you want to go to. The cost will be listed below the station you want to go to. The longer the distance, the higher the cost. You then go to the machine and purchase a ticket for that stated cost by inserting at least the stated amount and hitting the lit up ticket price on the screen. You can ask the station attendant for assistant for help if you are confused. It is better to just get an IC Card, and this process is taken care of for you automatically.
There are many different names and branding on IC cards: ICOCOA, Suica, PASMO, etc. They are all pretty much the same and will work on almost any station with automated turnstiles, and in most regions of Japan. Multiple cards exist due to the different number of companies about 15-20 years ago which all installed their own systems and had their own branding. It wasn’t until the mid to late 2000’s when they implemented an interoperative IC system.
To purchase an IC card, locate a bank of ticket machines near the turnstile entrance to a station. Look for a special bank of machines outlined with a different colour. If there is English writing, it will usually indicate they are for new, recharging, and managing IC cards. These machines in big cities will often have an option for English interface, in one of the top (often top left) corner. You should then be able to follow the instructions to purchase and load money onto a card. Please keep in mind that these purchasing and loading cards is a cash only process. The card deposit is usually 500¥. I recommend that you keep about 2000¥ to 4000¥ on your card to cover most trips.
To initiate or complete a train trip using your card just tap the card against the indicated pad area as you walk through the automated turnstile. A screen on the other side of the turnstile will tell you how much was deducted off your card (as you walk out), and what the remaining balance is on your card.
Navigating the System
The Japanese rail system may look complicated but is actually very simple once you understand the nuances. In major cities, each line will have a distinct name and the stops on each train will be marked, usually in English and Japanese, as well as a letter-number designation, and verbal announcements on the station platforms and trains.
Each line may have multiple types of trains, depending on how far the line goes and how many people ride it. There will usually be an electronic train board in the station and on each platform which will tell you where the train is headed, which type of train it is (local, express, super express), what time it will depart, and which platform it will be arriving at/departing from. It is good to consult these boards when you enter the station to figure out which platform you will need to head to.
All lines will have a “local” train class. Local trains stop at every station and are the slowest train as they often must stop and let faster trains pass. Local trains are a good fall-back plan if you’re unsure of if a faster train will stop at the place you want.
The next train class is a “rapid” or “express” train. These trains only stop at the major stops on each line and run less frequently than a local train. They are much quicker than a local train, especially if you need to cover a lot of distance. It is a good time-saving strategy to take a rapid train to the nearest local stop, then take a local train from that station to get to your destination. Once you’re comfortable with navigating the rail system, you can mix and match train types to get places extremely quickly.
There’s also a final class called a “limited express” or “super rapid” train. These trains will often require you to buy a reserved ticket at the station ahead of time to be able to board the train. Some trains may have unreserved seating, but not all of them. Check with your local ticket office. These trains usually only have 2-5 stops on the entire journey and are used to cover long distances very efficiently, e.g. if you want to move between prefectures or areas.
Train Schedules & Google Maps
Over the last number of years, Google Maps has incorporated the Japanese train schedule for the whole country into their Maps application. It is accurate in displaying timing and cost as you travel from one place to another. Selecting your originating and final destinations will give you exact directions, which platform to go to, and which train names and train types to depart on. It does not have an option for the limited shinkansen train class using the JR Rail Pass, so be aware that some adjustments are required.
When I first went to Japan you had to use Japanese only apps and look up train schedules individually to plan your route on your flip phone. It was a complicated process, and if you were travelling on multiple trains and lines, you could easily make a mistake. This is why I highly recommend bring a modern smart phone with data access or a WiFi unit.
For late night partiers, it is very important to note that most trains stop running at about 1 AM and don’t start up again until about 5 or 5:30 AM. If you’re out clubbing, check you times so you can make “last train”, plan to pull an all nighter with red bull and vodkas until your heart explodes, or set aside a chunk of cash to take a cab. If you do take the last train, there will be many drunk and passed out people; watch out for “platform pizzas”. On the first morning train, there will be tons of drunk people trying to get home/to work; this makes for great people watching.
Shinkansen Bullet Trains
The final special train class to discuss is the bullet train, or the Shinkansen. Different shinkansen runs almost the entire length of the country and is the main way to get around. I recommend taking the shinkansen over a plane, as there is no check in, no luggage check and pickup, it connects to other local trains easily, etc. It takes 2.5 to 3 hours to get from Tokyo to Osaka depending on the class of train. You will burn about the same time or more by flying from Haneda to Itami after you go through check-in, security, and transfers from the train station to the airport.
Just like there are different classes of normal trains, there are multiple classes of shinkansen. The JR Rail Pass limits travellers to the middle hikari class of Shinkansen. The time different of the fastest nozomi class and the hikari class between Tokyo and Osaka is only about 30 minutes, so JR Rail Pass users will not be significantly delayed by not having access to the fastest trains. Shinkansen to other regions have different names but will follow a similar class structure.
To purchase a ticket for the Shinkansen (bullet train) or for the limited express reserved seating (either as a stand-alone or using your JR rail pass) you will need to go to the ticketing offices at the station. This ticketing office will be indicated with a green sign and a picture of a person sitting in a seat. If you’re at a small station which doesn’t have one of these offices, just walk up to the normal ticket counter and they will be able to assist you.
Many of the agents, especially outside of the main cities, will have limited English skills. It is best to be direct but cordial with them, wait patiently in line, and present your JR Rail Pass and name where you are going (don’t forget to add “onegai-shi-masu” meaning “please” at the end) and they will usually assign you to the next available train and automatically pick a seat for you.
On the train ticket, you will notice that it will list what train, which platform, which train car you are sitting in, and the row and the seat number (e.g. Hikari 472, departing at 14:37, Car 6, seat 17E). Here’s some information on how to read your shinkansen ticket.
Regarding taking your luggage on the trains with you; except for the trains which take you to and from the airports, your luggage will go on the overhead shelves above your head. These shelves are rarely wider than the width of a 20” roller bag. Many foreigners have a bad habit of trying to bring very large bags onto trains and then having nowhere to put them. This is another reason to pack light and keep your luggage footprint as small as possible.
It is frowned upon to make voice calls using your mobile phone while on the train. It is considered rude, as the train is generally considered a quiet zone. Texting, messaging, and surfing is just fine.
If you look on the ground at the platform, you will notice that there are pained arrows and yellow lines on the ground. These are the queues for boarding the train. Please stand in the marked queues and wait for the train to pull up. At this point, people may move to the sides of the doors. Keep clear of the area directly in front of the doors as you will need to let people off the train before you board. Once you’re in, head to the middle of the cars if there are a lot of people behind you to make sure there’s room.
If you’re in a packed train and are near the doors, step out onto the platform to let people off and then re-board the train. People will let you back on without fuss.
Train stations are a great place to get rid of any accumulated garbage as there are lots of garbage and recycling bins. Sort your trash as indicated, into burnable garbage, non-burnable garbage, PET (plastic) bottles, cans, and paper.
If you’re on a train with reserved seating, a conductor may walk through the car multiple times during that journey. If you’re in a properly reserved seat, they usually don’t bother you as they see your booking in the mobile terminal they carry, but if they do talk to you they will more than likely want to check your ticket. Give them the ticket for the reserve car and your rail pass, and he will update the system and will probably leave you alone for the rest of the journey.
On some longer reserved trains, there may be snack carts and vending machines/cafes. Vending machines and cafes will be indicated on the train layout map, all you have to do is head over there and purchase what you need. Other trains will have someone pushing around a cart with snacks and alcohol. You can purchase what you need from them using cash. The really fancy trains may have food stalls in a specific car. You can walk up to these stalls and order what you want from the menu.
It is perfectly fine to drink alcohol on the train (and in public) as long as you’re not being an obnoxious ass. I highly recommend that if you are on a long train journey that you stop off at a convenience store and get a few beers or chuhai and some snacks, or even a full bento before setting off on a long train journey.
Most places in Japan are accessible via a train and a moderate walk, but there may be certain places where taking a bus may make more sense. Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto is the most notable example, as there are no train stations near it at all.
You will need an IC card to access and pay for your bus rides. It is important to note that you will want to board the bus from the middle entrance, and exit at the front entrance near the driver. Japanese buses are the only ones I’ve run into which use this type of system, and this will often catch a lot of tourists off guard.
There will be a IC card scanner when you enter the bus, it’ll be a tissue box sized device mounted onto a pole. Tap your IC card against it to scan in and start your trip. When you reach the stop you want, there will be another box near the driver, tap your IC card on that box to sign out of the system and have your fare deducted from your IC card.
Cabs are your last resort if it’s raining heavily, if you’re out in the countryside, if you’re tired, or if you’ve missed last train. They can be flagged down and are also available at cab stands on main streets. Most cabs are expensive and predominantly cash only so make sure you have enough cash to cover the charge.
Cab drivers may not speak very good English, so it is best to bring a copy of the address (in Japanese) and show it to your cab driver. Your hotel concierge will be able to help with writing down the address of the hotel, or you can bring up your reservation info on your phone.
Safety while getting around Japan isn’t a concern for foreign travellers, or for solo female travellers. Japan is one of the safest countries in the world, and petty crime is even limited. The only harassment female travellers will have to fend off is by aggressive foreigners in the club districts. Most Japanese will be generally curious and helpful if you look lost or bewildered. If you try to communicate, even with limited Japanese, most of the population will be happy help you.
Don’t worry about running into Yakuza. You will eventually see some but they will leave you alone for the most part. In the last 15 years I’ve crossed paths 4-5 with the yakuza. The Yakuza leave you alone if you leave them alone. Don’t try to take a selfie with them and don’t ask to see their pinky fingers.
I haven’t attempted to rent a car in Japan, although I have heard of some people going on togue driving tours while renting out the Initial D replica cars. Mario Karting around Tokyo and Osaka has also been popular amongst tourists in the last number of years.
If you want to drive in Japan (even just to go Mario Karting), you will need an international driver’s license. Go to your nearest AMA/CAA, or DMV to inquire about getting an international driver’s license. Carry it with your native driver’s license and present both to the office if you’re stopped.
It takes most foreigners a few days, a few missed stops, and the occasional wrong train before they are fully used to the Japanese train system. Get are accustomed to checking the boards and consulting Google Maps, and you will fly through the station and navigate anywhere you want to go in the country.
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