I’m by no means an expert, but these tips may come in handy if you intend to travel to Japan.
1. Japan Rail Pass
Get it. We pondered over whether this was worth it and were trying to calculate how much each of our trips would cost individually, but the rail pass is invaluable. The sheer convenience of not having to worry about buying tickets every single time you are travelling somewhere is priceless.
JR offers passes for 7, 14 and 21 days, with prices starting from £153 ($233 or €211). Roughly speaking if you have planned at least one return journey between two major cities, the pass will be worth in terms of cost. Practically anyone is eligible for the JR Pass – providing you are a temporary visitor and not entering Japan with a Japanese passport.
Good to know:
- You need to order your Rail Pass voucher before leaving your country, as they are not sold in Japan. JR states that the standard delivery rate for the UK is 3 days (this may vary for other countries), and our pass vouchers actually arrived within 2 days (one of which was a Sunday!). However I’d order at least 2 weeks before going to be sure. Don’t play it too safe though as there is such a thing of ordering too early – the voucher only remains valid for exchange for 3 months from ordering.
- You will need to redeem your voucher for the actual Rail Pass once you get to Japan. This can only be done at major train stations (for instance in Tokyo this would be the Tokyo or Ueno railway station). There are special offices for redeeming your JR pass, so don’t waste time queuing at a regular train ticket office. You will need your passport to redeem this. You do not need to start the rail pass from the day you redeem your voucher, they will ask you for the exact dates that you want your pass to be valid for.
- JR passes are valid for all JR means of transport (trains, buses, and even ferries). This even applies to the Shinkansen, AKA the bullet train, with the exception of NOZOMI and MIZUHO bullet trains.
- Speaking of bullet trains, it’s definitely worth taking one at least once. The legroom on bullet trains is extremely generous (we were able to fit a full sized piece of luggage in front of us and still have room for our legs) and the speed is incredible – you can get from Tokyo to Kyoto (over 500 km) in about 2 and a half hours. Granted you may feel a bit dizzy if you look out of the window for too long, but it’s all part of the experience.
- If you are travelling on a bullet train, it is worth stopping by the ticket office before your journey to reserve seats, as there are only 2 to 3 carriages without reserved seating on each bullet train. You will not need to (and cannot) reserve seats on the regular Rapid or Local trains.
You can get your Japan Rail Pass here: http://www.jrpass.com/
Pasmo, Suica and Icoca are IC cards used for travel on local transport, such as buses and the underground. If you are flying to Tokyo, chances are that you will start off with Pasmo, the IC card for Tokyo area, but the great news is that all of these cards are interchangeable, meaning that you can still continue using your Pasmo in Japan’s major cities.
You can buy and top up your Pasmo/Suica card at vending machines at any underground station (and conveniently also at the Haneda and Narita airports).
Good to know:
- Interestingly, you pay for bus journeys at the end of the trip, i.e. when getting of the bus. This is when you swipe your Pasmo, or pay in cash. Exact change is required, so check the front of the bus where the price per journey is listed.
Learn more about Pasmo here: http://www.pasmo.co.jp/en/
3. Domestic Flights
Thanks to the rapidity of the bullet trains, there is not much of a reason to take domestic flights in majority of the cases. However, this may come in handy when you’re travelling to more remote islands such as Okinawa, or you may end up having multiple connecting flights on your way to Japan like we did.
Good to know:
- This may be common sense, but domestic airports open later than international ones (For example the Tokyo Haneda terminal opens no earlier than 5 am. I’ve learned the hard way).
- There are typically different sections of the terminal depending on which island you are flying to, so sharpen up your geography to save time.
Unlike most of my experience with check in luggage, your bags are actually checked before you check them in, similarly to how your carry on would normally be scanned. Once this is done the airport staff seals your luggage, so don’t count on being able to rearrange your bags if your luggage ends up being too heavy. Also, batteries are not allowed in your check in bag, you must keep them in your carry on.