JAPAN – PLANNING YOUR TRIP NOW

ORIGINAL STORY PUBLISHED MARCH 2021 – UPDATED MARCH 2022

HyperDia and a JR (Japan Railways Pass) are a must!

Did you know you can check out Japanese train schedules in English on the Internet months ahead of when you might be travelling? It’s something to do if you are stuck at home in these pandemic times! Planning my next Japan trip and checking out possible rail journeys is keeping me busy. Business travellers and students are now allowed back into Japan, so hopefully by late this year tourists will be back in. It’s never too early to plan!

There’s just one word to know for your research in planning a self organised trip to Japan – HyperDia! https://www.hyperdia.com

It’s an essential website and incredibly accurate! I even have fun navigating it! A Rail Controller at last!

Travelling by train is the best option for first time visitors to Japan. Japanese trains are clean and comfortable, hey run on time, and they are interesting! Trains are part of the Japanese experience that all travellers must try! And who doesn’t want to try riding a sleek, fast Shinkensen (bullet train)! Or a cute theme train like the Hello Kitty bullet train introduced in 2018 and covered by the JR Rail Pass, available to overseas visitors to Japan!

Planning ahead makes rail travel in Japan easy. Months before your journey, you can find out what platform you’d arrive on for a particular service and what your departure platform will be. You can plan your train journeys right down to the time you need to change from one train to another to get to your destination! You can trawl through train services to see if you can access a direct route. Or work out how many train changes are required for your journey.

HyperDia is very easy to follow and use. It’s free, as well. You input your departure and arrival destinations, dates, etc and it will give you plenty of options to consider. I only use the site for trains, but you can use it for some other modes of transport.

I access HyperDia via the Internet at home during my planning process, but you can also download an app for the iPhone or iPad.

I don’t book my train journeys on hyperdia, mainly because I buy a JR (Japan Railways) pass before leaving Australia (more on the JR Pass later in this article).

If possible, I book my seat at train stations in Japan the day before my journey. But I plan my rail journeys ahead using HyperDia. For me, it’s an essential guide when I am making my booking. I double check with the booking agents at railway stations, and usually my hyperdia plan is spot on.

This woman train driver posed for me by a Shinkansen

TRAIN OPTIONS and the JR PASS

Most of my past rail travel in Japan has been with JR – a collaboration of six companies within the JR group across Japan. As well as Shinkensens, JR also covers many local trains in Japan, as well as the Yamanote loop line around central Tokyo that is much like the London circuit line. It runs for more than 34 kilometres and provides access to a lot of well known attractions and suburbs in Tokyo.

Importantly, you can buy a JR Pass BEFORE you leave home. In fact, you must because you can’t buy it once you arrive in Japan. They are readily available at various places in Australia, and are so easy to use at railway stations. Best of all, if you accidentally board the wrong train, you can get off at the next stop and return on your JR pass. No extra cost! I haven’t done this, but I saw two Japanese ladies at Tokyo Station get on board a train only to find they were on the wrong one. They hastily got off with less than a minute to go before departure!

You can buy First Class JR passes or economy. However, With Shinkensens (bullet trains) you don’t need to get a first class seat (green class) seat – economy (standard) is luxurious and roomy enough! Frankly I can’t get enough of Shinkansens. Even for a long journey of four or five hours, they are comfortable and enjoyable.

JR passes eliminate the need to find money or buy tickets. You go to a train station and book your seat, showing your JR pass as you pass through to the platform areas. Ensure that you ask for a non smoking carriage if you are a non smoker, and note the requirements for luggage. Over a certain size, luggage must be put into a luggage car. This is a recently introduced requirement. I ensure I travel with a case that comes within the limit that allows me to take it into my carriage with me. Again – check on this before your trip. A lot is changing in these Covid times.

You can take your own food and drink on board. Your seat will have a fold down tray, much like you have on planes. And usually a food/drink trolley will come by, though without knowledge of Japanese you might find difficulty with these if the attendant doesn’t speak english. I usually buy my food and drink at the train station I’m departing from. I’ve recently heard some Shinkensen food trolleys sell special ice cream. I can’t say I’ve spotted this on my trips, but I’ll definitely be on the lookout to try one next time!

Shinkensens are all run by Japan Railways, so are covered by your JR Pass with the exception of the Nozomi and Mizuho, along with the Sanyo and Kyushu Shinkansen Lines. The Pass also doesn’t cover JR trains using railway tracks operated by other companies. A check that your pass covers the whole journey can be made when you are booking your seat. I’ve only ever run into this problem once – part of the journey was covered by my pass, part wasn’t. But this was an occasion when I hadn’t booked a seat, so I hadn’t received advice. I was running late for the train and went into an unreserved car. It caused a few complications, resolved with the help of other passengers who assisted me. I’ve always ensured I book a seat beforehand since!

Another mistake I’ve made was failing to book my forward journey, thinking I could ring from my mountain hotel when I was moving on. It could not be done as I needed to show my JR pass to a railway official to make the booking. So it was back down the mountain to a railway station to secure a booking! I wasted half a day! Probably I could have got a seat on the day I was going to travel as trains go very regularly in many areas. But better safe than sorry as my forward journey on that particular occasion was going to connect up with my flight home! Have not made that mistake again! You live and learn.

For a first time visitor, you’ll probably be touring tourist areas served by JR. A pass also covers JR buses and discounts at JR run hotels. So I suggest for a first visit, keep it simple and travel with a JR Pass. Prices for a JR Pass in Australia vary. I’ve checked out the various places that sell JR Passes online at the time of my trips, but have always ended up with Sachitours, based in Sydney. They’ve offered the best prices when I’ve been looking, and have been efficient with delivery to Western Australia.

https://www.nta-sachitours.com.au/jr-japan-rail-pass

I won’t go into prices here. No doubt they will change by the time Japan opens its borders to tourists. So best check them out yourself, and also consider how much rail travel you intend to do to ensure a pass is worthwhile for you.

Other train and bus operators in Japan

I’m getting more off the beaten track in my travels to Japan these days, so I also now look to options with other companies where JR doesn’t provide services. This applies to some areas of Tokyo and other cities and towns that you might want to access. For instance, the Tokyo metro isn’t covered by a JR Pass. But good deals on passes are available at stations including timed ones for 24 hours, 48 hours, and 72 hours. They are not expensive.

Many of these passes are available at ticket machines at railway stations. If you can’t figure it out, just ask an railway attendant. The passes can be very worthwhile. There also is plenty of information on the Internet as most Japanese railway and bus companies have good websites in English.

Many of the popular theme, tourist or luxury trains in Japan are run by other companies. There are some amazing ones! Again, they have good english websites and many offer short term special passes available at rail stations in Japan.

Eating on board a Shinkansen

Snacking in a standard (economy) seat aboard a Shinkansen. Yes, it is allowed – though frowned on in city suburban trains. Airline style fold down tables are provided in Shinkansens – excellent seats and legroom, even in economy class.

Currently (updating this story in March 2022), JR passes were available for one week, 14 days or 21 days. Prices do vary depending on who you buy the passes from, so definitely look around! It would be great if they could offer month long passes! JR passes eliminate the need to find money or buy tickets. You go to a train station and book your seat,

HOW TO VALIDATE YOUR JR PASS ON ARRIVAL IN JAPAN

When you buy your pass in your home country, you will be sent a voucher. It is important that you do NOT buy your pass too early before your trip. You have a certain time allowed to validate it. So no use getting it six months in advance. When you arrive in Japan, you take your voucher to a JR rail office (at airports or rail stations) and have it validated. You will then be given a proper pass and that is active from the time of validation (not from the time you originally bought it in Australia). Don’t lose it!

If you arrive at Narita airport, you can use the pass immediately on validation at the JR booking office to access the NARITA EXPRESS to take you to central Tokyo, about an hour’s rail journey away. The Narita Express departs fairly regularly, and there are good signposts at the airport to direct you to the railway station downstairs from the Arrivals hall. If you come into HANEDA Airport, much closer to central Tokyo, you can use your pass on the Tokyo monorail to go into the city. Ensure you make a seat booking on these services at the airport JR rail office where you validate your pass. I’ve always been able to get onto the next service, and haven’t had to wait any more than about 20 minutes.

If you are arriving at another airport, you’ll need to check yourself if there is a JR service available from the airport. Most probably there is. You show your pass whenever booking a JR rail seat, and simply show your pass to railway officials to access rail stations/platforms. No messing around with ticket machines!

INSIDE TRAIN STATIONS

Yes, you’ve all seen those photos of super crowded train stations in Japan. How will you manage! Easily, with planning and a calm approach.

If you can, visit the Station the day before to map out your journey to your departure platform. With your JR pass, you can access these areas without extra payment. I’d only do that at very busy stations such as Tokyo Station – there is great signage and help available there.

Try NOT TO TRAVEL IN PEAK TIMES. If you do, stay calm and remain methodical in finding your platform, carriage and seat. And get there early to allow yourself plenty of time.

Beautiful Tokyo Station

Observe signs. There are lots of signage in English and other languages to help you in main towns and cities.
And when in doubt don’t be afraid to ask a rail official. There are plenty of those at main stations too. If they don’t speak English or your language, just point to your ticket. They’ll understand what you need – directions to your platform! I’ve had friends who managed to get lost in Tokyo Station after going for a meal at its many restaurants there. They couldn’t find their Station exit! But they never approached any of the many railway officials to seek help. They tried to find their own way. Always ask for help when you need it.

I’ve found that Japanese people are much more willing in recent years to step forward to assist me if they think I need help. In the past, they have tended to be hesitant – not because they don’t want to help, but they don’t want to intrude on your space or offer assistance if it wasn’t actually needed. It was all about respect. But these days, I’ve found they do reach out, even if they can’t understand english very well. The increase in tourism in Japan, and a better understanding of visitors has assisted in that. Plus many more Japanese are learning English or other languages, and are well travelled themselves. And English is taught to all Japanese school children. Hopefully, they are better than my school girl attempts at French and Latin!

On my first visit 20 years ago, I was having some difficulty about my rail ticket, and decided to stand up and ask loudly in my rail carriage (to my two sons horror) – “does anyone speak English?” “Oh, I do,” said the man sitting next to me. He had heard me discussing my problem with my son, but didn’t want to intrude. Once he realised I wanted help, he willingly assisted. His English was excellent.

On another rail journey on that first trip, I said ‘excuse me’ in Japanese as I sat down next to a Japanese lady. We spent the next hour in silence, until she looked across the aisle to where my son was writing a post card to his Japanese teacher in Australia. “Oh, he’s writing in Japanese,” she blurted out in surprise. “And you speak English,” I answered, also in surprise. Turned out she spoke excellent English, having lived in New York for some time. But because of ‘excuse me’ that I had uttered in Japanese, she thought I was fluent in the language but didn’t want to converse. So she respected that.

We had a good laugh when I told her I only knew about 20 words of Japanese! We spent the remaining hour of the journey having a great chat – in English!

GETTING ON YOUR TRAIN

When you book your seat at a railway station, you get a carriage number and a platform number/letter. There are even feet often drawn on the ground where you queue up for your carriage. You will also get a seat number. Trains leave on schedule – so make sure you are there in plenty of time.

Suburban trains and long distance trains usually make announcements in English, including directions about which side of the train to disembark. Announcements are also often made visually on screens in various languages. The overseas tourist is well catered for. Don’t be afraid!

Station signs are in English on Shinkansens

Japanese trains are very clean. It’s one of the wonders of Japan to see a Shinkansen arrive at a Station, with a crew of cleaners ready to access and clean it as soon as passengers disembark. They are super quick and efficient. A 44 person crew can clean and inspect a 16 car Shinkansen in 10 minutes! And new cleaning devices now being introduced may have that time reduced further by the time tourists are back after the pandemic!

Sometimes, staff awaits at the train doors to collect your rubbish as you leave. If they are not there, please respect Japanese trains and take your rubbish with you.

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