Travelling Japan by Rail

Japan is a hugely popular destination right now. The Rugby World Cup in 2019 and the Olympics in 2020 have the country firmly in the spotlight and loads of us are desperate to go and check it out. Japan is an easy country to travel around – the transport network is second to none, and one of the very best and most convenient ways to get around is by train.

With so many of our travellers interested in Japan, and interested in building train travel into their tailormade itineraries, Asia Inspirations had a chat with Anna Udagawa. One of the authors of Trailblazer’s Japan by Rail guide, now in its fourth edition, she gave us her top tips on travelling around Japan by train – here is what she had to say:

Tip 1: If you’re planning to use the shinkansen for at least two long distance journeys, get a Japan Rail pass. But if you’re only travelling within a limited area, try a regional Japan Rail pass.

The fabled Japan Rail Pass gives the holder almost unlimited use of Japan Rail trains with a few exceptions – they offer great value for money and are very convenient. However, this is only true if you want to do long distance journeys. The Shinkansen (the high-speed trains that travel up to 320 kilometres an hour) network, operated by Japan Railways, connects Tokyo to the major cities of Japan’s three mains islands – Honshu, Kynshu and Hokkaido, so a Japan Rail Pass is perfect if you want to do, say, Tokyo to Kanazawa and Tokyo to Kyoto and Osaka. And the more journeys you do the better value!

If you only want to explore a specific area by train, then a regional Japan Rail pass is the one for you. This allows you unlimited trains in your chosen region for 1, 2, 3 or 4 days. There are seven regional passes to choose from – one of the most popular is the Kansai Pass. This pass means you can train between some of Japan’s most iconic cities – Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, Kobe, Kansai and Himeji!

Tip 2: Seat reservations are free if you have a Japan Rail Pass; make use of this.

Why not? It will mean guaranteed comfort and seats together for your journey! If you don’t reserve your seats though, most shinkansen services also have unreserved seating – carriages with it are well marked in English. Handily, all seats on the shinkansen can be turned to face the direction of travel, or if you are in a group you can turn the seats so they each other. If you decide that you want to travel in the ‘Green Car’ class which has larger seats and more space, a step up from ‘Ordinary’ class, seats must be reserved in advance.

Tip 3: Whether you have a reservation or not, look for the locator signs on the platform which will tell you where to wait for a particular carriage number – the train always stops in the right place!

If you have made use of the free reservation service, then your ticket will tell you which carriage you are in – just queue up in the handy marked area. If you don’t have a reservation then join a queue for cars that have unreserved seats, which will be clearly displayed. Oh and don’t worry, in Japan a queue means the kind of queue that us Brits know and love!

Tip 4: To see Mt Fuji, book a window seat on the right-hand side of trains going from Tokyo to Kyoto, and on the left hand side from Kyoto to Tokyo.

If you are not planning to go to Hakone or Fuji itself, that sneaky peek of this sacred volcano as you soar past on the train could be your one and only glimpse of Japan’s most iconic and beloved sight. Having said that, on an exceptionally clear day, Fuji is also spottable from the top of the Tokyo Skytree. The views from up here are immense anyway and it’s a short walk from Asakusa (where you’ll find Senso-ji, Tokyo’s most famous temple) so it’s definitely a worthy addition to your Tokyo itinerary.

Tip 5: Avoid travelling on trains in peak hours in Tokyo or other major cities.

Tokyo Metropolis has a population of 13.6 million people, and the Greater Tokyo Area is one of the most populous areas in the world – you can imagine that the rush hour trains are pretty packed on a week day! Avoid city trains before 9am and just after 5pm unless you want to travel in a stranger’s armpit.

Tip 6: Buy a Suica/Pasmo or another smart card: then you don’t need to worry about the correct fare for a subway or bus journey.

A very similar concept to London’s Oyster cards, the Suica and Pasmo cards are rechargeable, contactless smart cards that can be used on public transport – metro, local trains, local buses and monorail, in Japan. The Suica card is particularly good as it can be used across all networks (the Pasmo network etc) and can be used for small purchases in vending machines, convenience stores and restaurants. Get one card per person and top up as necessary!

Tip 7: If you do have a Japan Rail Pass, instead of changing hotels every night, you can use it to take day trips out from a central location.

Living out of a bag can be annoying and inconvenient, even if it is only for a couple of weeks. So instead, base yourself in Tokyo, Kyoto, Okayama, Kumamoto or Sapporo and use your pass to take day trips to the surrounding area. Staying in Kyoto, for example, you can easily get to Nara, Himeji, Osaka, Kobe, Hiroshima in 2 or 3 hours…much better than staying a night in each!

Thank you Anna for these inside tips – they show just how easy using the train to explore Japan really is!

Getting a Japan Rail Pass is just as easy – book through Asia Inspirations and we’ll send you a voucher for your pass with your final documentation. All you have to do is pop to a Japan Rail Pass Exchange Office, you’ll find one in numerous stations in Tokyo, both Tokyo airports, Kyoto, Osaka and so on and so on. For even more information on exploring Japan by train, get yourself a copy of Japan by Rail by Ramsey Zarifeh and Anna Udagawa, available from www.trailblazer-guides.com, Amazon and all good bookshops, and give Asia Inspirations a call!

If you would like to travel to Japan, by rail or otherwise, give the Asia Inspirations team a call now and start discussing your dream trip.

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