We read from nearly every source we checked that purchasing a Japan Rail Pass is the way to travel through Japan. This advice turned out to be some of the best we received. The savings were considerable compared to the cost for individual train tickets and it was a relief knowing that even if we screwed up and took the wrong train or missed a connection we would not be charged extra. Japan guide.com and JR pass.com provide great information about nearly every question you could have. These are our experiences with the pass.
Purchasing the Pass
JR passes must be purchased in advance from your country of origin. They are valid for seven, 14 or 21 consecutive days and are delivered to the US in about 24 to 48 hours by FedEx. It is wise to check different sites is there can be a small difference in price. We found the process of ordering them quite simple. We chose the 14 day pass and opted to activate it 4 days into our trip. That meant that we bought separate tickets to travel from Narita airport to Tokyo. We bought a PASMO card from a vending machine in Tokyo and used it for Subway and bus trips in Tokyo and Kyoto. When we were ready to leave for Kyoto we allowed a little bit of extra time to activate our JR rail passes at the information office. This enabled us to get 14 full days of travel during our 18 day vacation from our pass
We found the best way to plan our routes and time our journeys was to use the HyperDia app. Although, we could have Google searched one destination to the next and be provided with a variety of travel options, the app allowed us to separate which routes are covered by the JR pass. For example, you cannot use the Nozomi Shinkansen with the Japan rail pass. On every leg of our journey we found multiple options to get from point A to point B. Some used small local trains and others included the Shinkansen. It was helpful to spend some time playing with the app to work out the best possible route. Some trains left earlier but arrived later due to multiple stops along the way. The app was a huge help in deciphering the best choice.
Whenever possible we opted to take the Shinkansen or bullet train. These high-speed trains travel up to 320 kilometers an hour and connect the country’s major cities. They run on their own separate, really smooth tracks with very comfortable forward facing seats They are timed literally to the second so don’t be late! All of the cars on the Shinkansen are comfortable, but we opted for a first class JR pass to enjoy the Japanese rail experience to the fullest. Whenever possible, we chose to reserve seats before heading to the platform. This proved to be wise because we were always able to sit together and some of the non-reserve cars filled up quickly even though we weren’t traveling during special holidays. Reservations are easy to make at the ticket office and are free. There was only one occasion when we could not take the train we had planned. We needed to wait an extra hour for the next one which didn’t prove to be too much of a hardship. Unlike our experience with Eurail, we discovered that the Japanese stations were totally easy to navigate. There were English instructions everywhere and the system for finding and boarding a train was consistent throughout Japan. Carriages are clearly marked on your ticket, boarding locations are clearly marked on the platform and the boards provide information regularly in English.
Pack a Snack
We had heard that food was served on the train, so we didn’t pack a lunch or grab any snacks on our first Shinkansen ride. We learned that yes, food is served on the train, but it is pretty meager. By the time the little cart reached us the only lunch choices were beef tongue bento box and only my daughter was willing to give it a try. My son and I opted for crispy chips and a water bottle. We were pretty envious when the other passengers around us pulled out delicious looking hand packed picnics. We learned our lesson and on the next leg of the trip we packed our own tasty treats.
Cocktails and Manners
Enjoying a cocktail on the train is not only acceptable but welcomed by most Japanese travelers. No one thought twice about cracking open a beer or enjoying a gin and tonic in a soda can. We learned to savor a cocktail. Like nearly every part of Japanese life, manners and etiquette prevail. While you could enjoy cocktails on the train any rowdy behavior is frowned on. Occasionally we stifled are urged to laugh or call to each other from seat to seat. Quiet indoor voices and decorum are the order of the day.
Throughout our trip we boarded everything from local commuter trains to the Shinkansen and were always happy with the experience. Japan has rail travel down!