Friday, April 06, 2012

Japan Rail Pass and getting around: Japan Trip 3/2012

I actually love traveling within Japan - unlike the United States, they have not seemingly gone out of their way to make travel the worst experience possible, and consequently people in Japan travel more than we do. I don't generally fly domestically in Japan because it usually doesn't make much sense, but taking the train is fast, convenient, comfortable and really interesting. It's just pleasant, and even fun.

If you've ever gone or planned to go to Japan, then you probably know about the Japan Rail Pass, which gets you a free ride on most JR trains throughout the country, some buses and some ferries. A lot of people recommend it to all tourists as just a matter of course, but I actually don't think it makes financial sense most of the time. It's not cheap, and unless you're planning to visit two or more cities far apart in a short period of time, you're probably not going to make up the cost.

I've been to Japan about 12 times now but this was the first time using a Japan Rail Pass. The math just never worked out before. But we were planning to do a round trip from Tokyo to Hiroshima, and that alone makes a rail pass worth it since the ticket alone costs more than a rail pass.

So we bought a couple for ourselves, and with the savings, we upgraded to a Green Car rail pass.

Here are a couple tips for the rail pass right off the bat:
  • If you get one, maximize the value - stay at a hotel on a JR line (like the Yamanote line).
  • Buying a green car pass has added benefits, like fewer sold out trains (so you can book last minute).
  • Plan your expensive rail trips so they fall within the 7 or 14 day period the pass is valid.
  • You can select the date your pass validity starts; just tell the JR people when you get it, it doesn't have to start on the same date.
  • Remember that even with a Green Car pass, you can still only take the second express tier or below of shinkansen service.
When you buy a Japan Rail Pass, you first get this:

That's an exchange order; it looks kind of like an old paper airline ticket inside. This is not a rail pass! It will get you nowhere. When you get to Japan, you need to go to a JR ticket office in a major location like Narita Airport or Tokyo Station and exchange it for this:

That's a rail pass. It's pretty snazzy; makes a good souvenir (oh, but you will mess it up through use). Has an embossed metallic look to it. Not sure if that's just for the Green Car passes or if the ordinary ones look the same. (2015 update - see the bottom of the post for an answer to this!)

With the Japan Rail Pass, you can basically just hold your pass open and sail right on through any manned gate at any station. They really just look at the date (in my case, that's the "24 3 31"). For the shinkansen, you do still need to go to a ticket office and get a reserved ticket - though it is free. Japan Rail Passes are non-refundable and again, they are expensive, so I found myself holding onto mine like grim death most of the time. I was constantly checking to make sure I knew where it was.

Here I am with my "Tokaido Shinkansen Sandwich" in one hand and my rail pass in the other. I am holding the rail pass in about 85% of the pictures my wife took of me in Japan. That's about $450 in my right hand, I didn't want to lose it!

We got 7 day passes, which was kind of an issue because we were actually in Japan for 8 days. So we decided to start it on the 2nd day, knowing we'd be taking the shinkansen back from Hiroshima on the 8th day. That meant paying for our own transportation from Narita to Tokyo. JR operates the Narita Express (N'EX), but it's expensive if you have to actually pay for it like we did. We ended up taking the Keisei Skyliner, which runs a similar express route but terminates at Ueno (marginally less convenient) and costs half the price. It's a pretty cool train!

Kind of plasticky inside, but still comfortable. Japanese trains all have ridiculous seat pitch. They're shorter than we are on average but they love legroom.

Because our hotel was situated on the Hanzomon line, most of our traveling within Tokyo itself on this trip was actually via the subway - we chose a hotel we liked rather than one that would maximize the value of our rail pass.

Some people say the Tokyo subway is confusing, with its spaghetti-like tangle of lines, some of which are owned by different companies. I'm used to the NYC subway and find Tokyo's pretty easy, though. If you really aren't sure you can figure out a major subway system like this, it pays to just get a good guide book to carry around - because you'll be using it a lot. The subway is the primary way people get around in Tokyo, although you definitely can use JR lines more often if you pick the right hotel and want to use your rail pass.

Having a Japan Rail Pass opens up a new world of about a 300 mile radius around Tokyo to explore. That's how we ended up at the SC MAGLEV and Railway Park; that was an unscheduled day trip to Nagoya via shinkansen that we wouldn't have taken if not for the rail pass. With a rail pass, your constraint is no longer money but time, and the shinkansen trains are fast enough that you can travel a long way, do something in another city, then be back in Tokyo in time for dinner. That's something we hadn't considered on previous trips - it really does give you a lot more freedom.

Traveling by shinkansen in Japan is almost always a great experience. Every major city has a huge centrally located train station, often within walking distance of major hotel clusters. If you choose your hotel right, you can be in your room at 9AM and be on your shinkansen train for a day trip at 9:10. If you're hungry, you can buy a bento box like this directly on the platform:

They come in different types - you can even get sushi! These are made fresh every day, so you don't need to worry.

If you don't buy something at the station, there are car attendants that come through with food carts during the trip. They come through a little more often in the green cars.

There is no security to deal with, and the trains themselves run on time to the second (except when there's bad weather). Most of the time, the train is very quiet - especially if you get a green car. Ordinary cars come sometimes be a little raucus if there's alcohol around (and there often is), but usually the Japanese adhere to the societal norm that all train cars are considered "quiet cars". That means no cell phones, no music playing, no loud conversations.

A little story. On one of our legs this time, there was a group of four people a couple rows in front of us, all businessmen apparently working on the same project. Two were German and two were Japanese. The German guys were carrying on as if they were outside; I felt like I was part of their conversation, they were so loud. At one point, they stood up to talk over the backs of the seats to the Japanese people in their party, who were sitting in front of them. One of the Japanese guys actually ended up telling the Germans to basically sit down and shut up. (A little more politely than that, but that was definitely the gist.)  So, if you're planning a trip, just be aware that this is the custom in Japan. Traveling by train is a shared experience and you are not supposed to impose yourself onto others in the train. You will even hear announcements to that effect in English on most trains.

The seats on the shinkansen trains are extremely comfortable (a little moreso in the green cars), and as a 6'4" guy, I have no problem at all - there is plenty of room even to cross my legs. Like American trains (actually even moreso), the seats are actually much bigger than on airplanes so if you're used to seeing airplane seats, it's hard to get a sense of scale from the photo above - there is a lot of legroom. Trains are also designed so the windows exactly line up with the seats, so even though the newer trains have smaller windows, you're still not lacking for a view.

My big pet peeve with the green cars in some of the newer trains is the footrest, which you can't move out of the way and which takes up a lot of floor space. I think the whole idea of "footrests" is stupid - there is already a perfectly good footrest, it's called the floor. I don't see the point in raising my foot 6 inches higher. All the footrest ends up doing is making it so I can't fit my feet under the seat in front of me and really stretch my legs.

I didn't take pictures of it, but the new N700 trains all have power ports at every seat in the green cars, so you can plug in a laptop or charge your cell phone. The slightly older 700 series trains don't have this, but their footrests are slightly smaller so at least there's that. For you trainspotters out there, the Tokaido line is now pretty much entirely 700 and N700 trains, which is kind of boring, but if you go past Osaka, you'll still see the occasional 500 series or even earlier. On the Tokaido line, the N700 trains are mostly used on Nozomi services, so be prepared to deal without seat power if you're riding with a rail pass.

Yes, you do get some spectacular views from the train.

I'll close with just a little bit more about weather. Japanese trains have a deserved reputation for punctuality, but just beware that they do not run equally well rain or shine. In fact, three times now in my twelve or so trips to Japan, we've had major disruptions to our travel plans due to weather. At the end of our trip this time, a freak storm basically knocked out a bunch of lines around Tokyo, including the Joban Line we were trying to take to Sanuki station about 60 miles north. Shinkansen service was also delayed. My wife said it was her worst train experience ever in Japan; we were literally sitting motionless on a train that never left the station for an hour. We then switched to another train that was announced as leaving next, but didn't. We switched to a third and finally got as far as Toride before the train terminated. We had to drive the rest of the way.

If you by chance read my "soundtrack to Japan" post, the pics I took of the AKB48 omiyage box at the end of that post were just me killing time sitting on a stuck Joban Line train. It does happen, even in Japan.

2015 UPDATE: Here's an "ordinary" car rail pass:

No embossing, no metallic paint. Just plain matte paper. Not nearly as cool! My wife thinks they just changed all the passes, and I concede it's been a few years since the rest of this post. But I think there probably is a difference between the green and ordinary passes.

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About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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