ORIGINAL STORY PUBLISHED MARCH 2021 – UPDATED SEPTEMBER 2022
NO SOONER HAD I REPOSTED THIS, CAME THE BIG NEWS – FROM OCTOBER 14, free wheeling travellers (those who plan and book their own trips) are allowed back into Japan visa free from many countries, including OZ! Almost back to pre covid conditions, with a few exceptions to check before you leave. Check at the time you go!
I optimistically published my initial blog story on planning a trip to Japan last March. International travel was on the move, and I thought that by May, I’d be back for my fourth visit to JAPAN. So I began working on an itinerary, and posted up on my blog my travel hints for other visitors to Japan. The trip didn’t happen. Japan is one of the last major countries to welcome back independent travellers. Its border remains tightly controlled because of the pandemic, with a raft of restrictions to keep foreigners out – reminiscent of the isolationist policy of the Tokugawa Shogunate which protected Japan from most of the world for 265 years.
Initially, I was in tune with this. Western Australia also snapped its borders shut to protect its community, not only from the world, but from the rest of Australia. Apart from a few short lockdowns, we remained blissfully free of community covid problems for a long time. But finally we opened up fully again. Japan did not. Lifting Japan’s tight pandemic border controls has been frustratingly slow, a door creaking with the weight of tough restrictions that has not gone down well with international travellers or the Japanese travel industry.
The door swung ajar slightly for tourists in June, but not for independent travellers. More like ‘welcome, as long as you’re happy to travel in a strait jacket and be under surveillance’. People were calling them ‘North Korea tours’.
Initially, only the highly controlled organised tours were allowed. Your guide had to be with you 24/7. If you are one of my regular readers, you’ll know that was not for me. The rest of the world didn’t seem to go for it much either. And nor, it seemed, did Japanese tour agents because of a mountain of paper work required.
The door to Japan widened ever so slightly with tours that didn’t require a guide – but they had to be planned and booked with a Japanese agent, including flights. That seemed to be fraught with difficulties, and probably a lot more expensive than my own painstakingly researched, budget focused independent travel adventures.
This latest plan provided a little more freedom, but doesn’t seem to have been enticing enough for most travellers. Tourism in Japan resumed, but at a trickle. The restrictions to date still seem overwhelming. The need to connect up with a Japanese agent, visas, endless covid tests, quarantine periods and a host of other requirements including special tracing apps to be loaded onto a smart phone. Who wants to start their holiday with a headache? People intending to travel in Japan turned to other countries such as Korea. I also began to contemplate an holiday elsewhere.
The Washington Post weighed in with “Investors, academics and international students have diverted their plans elsewhere. Even after Japan began accepting group tours recently, the intense monitoring and bureaucratic hurdles have largely kept tourists’ interest at bay.“
Then, suddenly in the last few weeks, Japanese media have reported the Government will open the border finally to independent travellers next month, with a substantial easing of border controls including short term visa free stays for visitors from many countries. I hope my Journalist compatriots in Japan have it right.
NOTE; Sept 23. They did have it right. From October 14, most border restrictions and visa requirements will be gone.
After my false start early this year, is it now time finally to plan my next trip to Japan? Yes it is, and I have already earnestly begun my research and updating my travel knowledge about Japan. I’m looking not only at accommodation, destinations and activities, but ways to limit my Covid risk, along with identifying the measures in place in JAPAN to help protect travellers from the virus.
Since my planned 2020 trip was cancelled because of Covid, a lot has changed, and there is much to consider because of the Covid risks. Japan is continuing to struggle with the pandemic, though more vaccinations in the next few months hopefully will turn that around.
So – here we go – my update on Planning Your Japan trip now, utilising the benefits of my past experiences, my current 2022 research and new tips.
Rail is my principal way to get around Japan. Well thought out rail travel in Japan is a worry free and enjoyable way of transport in Japan, especially for first time visitors. Japanese trains are clean and comfortable, they run on time, and 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)! Some of the lovely little regional trains. Or a cute theme train like the Hello Kitty bullet train introduced in 2018! OK, I am not a fan of cats, but I threw that one in for the cat lovers. There’s an interesting range of theme trains to choose from, and for the well heeled, some amazing luxury train experiences. Most of those aren’t covered by the JR pass, but with a few you can pay the difference of a standard cost and the luxury cost.
I’m relieved to see railway companies in Japan have in place a wide range of Covid measures including a ready availability of hand sanitisers at major stations, masks worn by station employees, thorough disinfectant cleaning, good ventilation replacing air constantly within trains – some every six to eight minutes. Efforts are made to distance passengers from each other, and masks are required on board. I’m ok with that. I’ve always found them to be immaculate anyway, but good to know extra measures are in place.
Don’t be put off by those reports of crowded train stations and trains in Japan. Ensure your day’s travel is outside of peak hours – anytime outside of 7am to 9am and between 5 pm to 7pm- especially important in these Covid times – and book your seat ahead of your journey. If it’s a major station, you’ll find there is usually a Station website with a good map. Very handy. Get to know beforehand the stations you’ll access so that you can move through quickly.
I’ve always found signage in English at railway stations is plentiful, and I’ve always been able to find an official on hand who speaks English. At major stations there is usually a tourist office. You will be surprised at just how easy rail travel is in JAPAN.
TRAIN OPTIONS and the JR PASS
I travel with the Japan Railways (JR) pass, offered by a collaboration of six companies within the JR group across the whole of Japan at a reasonable cost. There are also regional passes available if you are only visiting a particular part of Japan.
You need to buy your pass in your home country before your trip – but not too much before. The passes are only valid for three months from purchase. They become active once you validate them in Japan at a railway station.
In Australia, they are currently selling slightly below the cost they were back in 2020 for one week, two week and three week periods.
The passes are readily available at various agencies in Australia, and are easy to use at railway stations in Japan. 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 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! I can’t get enough of Shinkansens. Even for a long journey of four or five hours, they are comfortable and enjoyable.
As well as Shinkensens, the JR pass covers many local trains throughout Japan, including the Yamanote loop line around central Tokyo that is much like the London circuit line. The Yamanote line runs for more than 34 kilometres and provides access to a lot of well known attractions and suburbs in Tokyo.
JR passes eliminate the need to find money or buy tickets. For a long distance train, 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 Shinkansen. 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 (bullet trains) 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 doesn’t generally 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! Lesson learnt.
Another mistake I’ve made was failing to book my forward journey, thinking I could ring from my mountain located hotel in Hakone when I was moving on back to Tokyo. It could not be done as I needed to show my JR pass in person to a railway official to make the booking. So it was back down the mountain for an unscheduled visit 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! Another lesson learnt.
For a first time visitor, you’ll probably be touring popular tourist areas served by JR. A pass also covers JR buses and discounts at JR run hotels. 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.
Sadly, the pandemic has seen the demise of a service offered by the Internet’s hyperDia site – my bible in the past for checking out detailed Japanese train schedules, routes, travel and connection times as part of my trip planning. Supposedly, you can still look up routes, fares and travel times. But the site this month has not been active. So worth watching out for hyperDia to resume, but I’m not counting on it.
An alternative is Jorudan, which comes with free search functions and some paid functions. They have an app, which apparently offers more than their Internet site, including a Japan rail pass option that allows results to be limited to services covered by the JR Pass. I haven’t tried this yet, but will be exploring it.
Another one is Navitime, which also has a JR pass option.
These types of services are simply an aid when planning a Japan trip involving rail travel. I always make my bookings directly with JR offices in railway stations. They have english speaking assistants and have always been extremely helpful.
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. But frankly, they are pretty easy to work out with english options. 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.
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. In Covid times, I’ll be circumspect about eating on a train if other passengers are close by, as it means removing my mask.
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. Useless getting it six months in advance. They are only valid three months ahead of use. 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! I’ll repeat that: Buy no more than three months ahead of your trip, and validate it on arrive at a railway station in Japan. Yes, you can take the very next train once it is validated, providing there are seats. So if you validate your pass at the JR office at Narita Airport, also book your Narita Express seat at the same time to take you to central Tokyo, an hour’s 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 validate your pass there and use it on the Tokyo monorail for a short trip 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!
Note: there is also another railway company operating from Narita Airport. The Keisha Naritaline is not covered by the JR pass. The Keisei group also has a range of passes and money saving tickets. But I haven’t used them, so that one is up to you to check out.
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.
Remember to consult those station maps I mentioned earlier, and if you can, visit the Station the day before to book your seat and 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.
Again: avoid travelling in peak times. Take a leisurely breakfast before starting your travel day. If you do have to tackle peak times, stay calm and remain methodical in finding your platform, carriage and seat. And get there early to allow yourself plenty of time.
Observe signs. There are plenty of signage in English and other languages to help you in main towns, cities and popular tourist towns. And when in doubt don’t be afraid to ask a rail official. 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. Twenty years ago on my first trip, they tended to be hesitant – not because they didn’t want to help, but Japanese people are careful not to intrude on your space or offer assistance if it isn’t actually needed. It is all about customary respect. In my more recent trips, I’ve found Japanese people reach out, even if they can’t understand english very well. I’ve had occasions when Japanese around me have sought out someone with english to help me.
The increase in tourism in Japan in the last decade, 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. English is also much more widely taught now 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 that I 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! And she kindly check read my son’s Japanese on the post card for mistakes. His Sensei in Australia must have been very impressed with his effort!
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!
Japanese trains are immaculately clean. And with Covid precautions, even cleaner now! 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. In 2020, a 44 person crew could clean and inspect a 16 car Shinkansen in 10 minutes!
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. That applies anywhere in Japan. Take your rubbish with you until you can find a bin! That may not be an easy task, because there’s not an abundance of bins in Japan, and many are attractively disguised.
Pre trip, I access an abundance of travel brochures and guides from the Japan National Organisation JNTO in Sydney. Check out their site for downloading many of these.
They also will readily answer email queries, and will send free brochures and booklets from Japan’s various prefectures to you by snail mail. They have a lot more than you’ll find at your usual travel agency.
Unfortunately, most have not been updated during the pandemic, but new ones are now beginning to arrive such as the latest Tokyo Guide that I was sent last week.
It’s very worthwhile checking out their website and accessing the brochures/booklets when planning your JAPAN trip. The site has loads of information on destinations, planning your trip and up to date news from Japan
Another tip is to download the Japanese government’s english NHK TV channel app and watch its many and varied programmes. I have learnt so much about Japan through viewing NHK TV, and some of the places I’ve visited have landed on my itineraries after seeing them on NHK. Their international news service also happens to be first rate. I have NHK TV on my iPad and also chrome it to our main television. I’m a very regular viewer. My main problem with watching NHK throughout the past few pandemic years is that it has showcased so many places to see in Japan, and it’s going to be challenging choosing where to go next!
WHERE TO GO
It is up to you and what interests you. But for a first time traveller to Japan, I would recommend an extended times in Tokyo and Kyoto – there’s so much to see and do. And you can use both these places as bases for wonderful day trips away from the city. In these pandemic times, I feel it’s best to book longer stays in the one accommodation rather than changing every few days.
The ancient capital of Nara is a good day trip from Kyoto. You can also do a long day trip from Kyoto to Hiroshima using your JR Pass if you are time poor. And definitely head off to the mountains for a long stay in Takayama in Gifu prefecture – a great base for exploring in the region including the wonderful Mount Norikua, the Hida folk village, an amazing mountain ropeway, the neighbouring quaint town of Furukawa and the historical thatched houses of Shirakawago. And then there’s .. well .. so MUCH to see. That’s why I’m heading back for the fourth time.
Finally – please take the trouble to learn a few essential words in Japanese such as ‘thank you’. It will be appreciated. And if you are toting a camera, learn the words for ‘May I’ – to use when you’d like to take a photo of someone. Again, it will be appreciated and you’ll achieve some wonderful snaps – ī desu ka?
Find more detailed reviews of some of the places I’ve been to on my trips to Japan on this travel blog. There are 16 stories on Japan to read. Enjoy!