How to travel through Japan in a cost-effective and highly efficient way

Hurrying past the ticket gate with our bulky backpacks and waving our JR passes to the Japan Railway staff, we enter the platform at the futuristic Kyoto station to catch our first train of the seven we need to ride today! We are on a mission: starting from Kyoto, we will visit the Toyota factory in Toyota city at 11 sharp to then continue to the port of the Alps, Takayama.

“I really don’t know how they do that”, Claire says, referring to the non-sweaty and good-smelling Japanese men in their black pants and white shirts boarding the Shinkansen to Nagano with us while the evidence of our overheated bodies stains our T-shirts. It is not even 7a.m. yet and we have already been running as our schedule is really tight and missing one train would mess up our entire day. In one case, we merely have four minutes to buy a ticket and catch the next train.
Our slight fear of having a hard time finding the right platforms on time appears to be useless. The Japanese train system is watertight, reliable and highly efficient with trains running exactly according to schedule, all destinations and platforms written in Latin alphabet, and announcements made both in Japanese and English.

While preparing our six-week journey through the four main islands of Japan, we decided that the combination between rental cars and a 14-day JR pass would be the best option. Using the very useful hyperdia website providing destinations, departure and arrival times, trains and track numbers, we were able to come up with a list of all the trains we needed to take in these two weeks, even the few non-JR ones for which we would need to buy extra tickets.

After a very quick cost estimate, the many advantages of the JR pass were obvious:

  • no queuing for tickets (we were handed all the tickets we needed for these 14 days when we exchanged our passes at the first station)
  • saving quite a bit of money as the same trip without the 340€-14-JR pass (¥46,390) would have costed us 550€ (¥72,240) each, covering more than 3000km by train from Kyushu to Hokkaido,
  • having the nice surprise of enjoying free transport around in Tokyo on the JR Yamanote and Chuo – Sobu lines,
  • no queuing getting out of the station, just flashing the pass.

“Hotto kohi?” The soft voice of the young female train attendant pushing a fully loaded trolley with drinks and sweets briefly interrupts us. After indeed ordering a hot coffee, comfortably seated in the air-conditioned bullet train riding at 300km/h towards the Alps, having only one more connection to make, we reflect back on our crazy train day.

After spending six weeks in Japan, traveling both by car and train we can state that taking the train in Japan is an experience you don’t want to miss. Indeed, being used to the European train companies where a train on time and a helpful and kind staff feel like rarities, it is fantastic to witness such an efficient and punctual system, especially in a county where earthquakes happen everyday. Moreover it is an interesting way to discover how Japanese people behave in trains, avoiding to disturb others and queuing with the greatest discipline ever seen. We hope we did not disturb them too much with our sweat stained T-shirts!

Marcella

Travel tips:

The Japan Railway pass (JR pass) is only available for non-Japanese residents and can only be bought outside Japan. Do consider it if traveling through Japan as it is a huge money saver.

  1. Outside of Japan, we bought an exchange voucher for the JR pass in a travel agency.
  2. When preparing your trip, be careful, as there are two Shinkansen trains that cannot be ridden with the JR pass: the Mizuho and Nozomi trains. The hyperdia website offers the option to search for trains, excluding these.
  3. Once in Japan, we exchanged the voucher for the actual JR pass, stating the first day we would ride the train. Traveling in the summer including the very busy Obon weekend, it was a lot more relaxing for us to secure all train rides and book our seats in advance: we filled out a form in the JR office of Fukuoka with dates, times, train numbers, departure and arrival cities, and left with our train tickets and seat numbers. Still, prior to traveling, it is possible to change tickets at any JR office, free of charge.
  4. On the first traveling day, the JR pass has to be activated: we just showed it to JR personal in our first station, in Fukuoka.
  5. When entering or leaving the platform area, we would flash our tickets and JR passes to the JR personal, and hop on the train.
  6. Hyperdia comes as a free-for-30-days application for smartphone: use the website to plan your trip, and download the application just prior to traveling to Japan!
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10 thoughts on “How to travel through Japan in a cost-effective and highly efficient way

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