One of the reasons my friends and I had chosen Japan as a destination was because of the incredibly convenient public transportation system.
The first thing my mom asked me when I told her I was going to Japan with some friends was “Did you get your Japan Railway Pass?” This thing is like the magic ticket to all of Japan. It’s only available to foreign visitors, likely a way to encourage tourism similar to the Eurail Pass. With it, you can take all the major national Japan Railway lines along with the high-speed shinkansen (bullet trains, more later), buses, and even ferries, like so:
There’s probably more options, but you get the picture. We paid about $579 for a 14-day Green Pass, which is a business class level pass. I believe the regular pass is about $200 less, but the Green Pass was totally worth it for us to be able to get business class level seats on all the bullet train Green Cars, super comfy (although Taiwan’s bullet train business class was better with free beverage and cookies), and because we were traveling in the busy New Year’s season, it was worth it to not have to waste precious time waiting for an available seat. With the amount of travel we did across the country, we easily rode our money’s worth and then some. The JR Railpass needs to be purchased before arrival in Japan, so you can get it through their website or through a travel agent.
Shinkansen 新幹線 (Bullet Train)
Thanks to the unparalleled land speed of the shinkansen (high-speed rail bullet trains), the trip from Tokyo to Kyoto is just a bit longer than the drive from Los Angeles to San Diego with traffic, 2-3 hours. By car, the trip from Tokyo to Kyoto is more like the drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco, about 6-8 hrs. Big difference. I am totally looking forward to the California high-speed rail, if that thing every gets built, so I can take day trips to Nor Cal.
I literally would completely enjoy an entire trip to Japan just flying up and down everywhere on the shinkansen and simply enjoying the scenery. That would be an amazing way to make the most of your Japan Rail Pass. The views are just gorgeous, and you’ll even catch Mt. Fuji as you fly by over land.
Also, my mom just informed me (after the trip of course) that there’s actually a shinkansen that goes under the ocean. WHAT?! Thanks for telling me too late. But hey, just another excuse to go back and practice my Japanese.
Most people will fly into the Narita Airport, and another handy thing about the JR Pass is that the Narita Express from Narita to Tokyo is included. And included with that ride is this fancy smancy toilet:
Of course, you can fly into other locations around Japan, including closer to Tokyo, but I read that Narita is quite a quaint little area with some picturesque old Japanese town streets and temples to visit. I didn’t get to enjoy it myself, but it’s good to know in the future that during an extended layover in Narita (which often was the case on my way to Taiwan with family), it would be worth it to take the local bus and enjoy a meal and some tea in the area.
Local Trains, Buses, & Private Lines
The JR Pass will take you everywhere across Japan, but not necessarily everywhere in between. For that, you will have to fork out some extra spare change for the local trains, buses, and even some private train lines. For Americans, it helps to think of the Japan Railway system as like the cross-country Amtrak, and the local train lines and buses are like the local subway systems. Generally, you can get to most major destinations on JR Pass, but for some destinations, the local system will be needed.
In Kyoto, a local Raku bus will pretty much take you to every major tourist spot you’d want to catch in this historic city. No need to sign up for a tour if you just make it to every stop on this route, and the fare isn’t too pricy at 230 yen a ride.
A good practice is to go up to the information booth and ask if there are any JR Pass rides available. In Hiroshima, they had a similar tourist bus to all the major sights in that city that we were were able to access with our JR Pass.
When all else fails, or when you have way too much luggage to lug with you, there’s always the taxi. Probably a good pre-trip travel prep is to have the addresses of your main destinations, such as hotels and what not, written down/printed out in Japanese, as giving the taxi drivers addresses in English Roman letters generally will make life hard for the driver as well as for you. Just show the driver the address, and if it makes you feel better, and you have T-Mobile’s international satellite access, you can track where you’re going on Google Maps GPS.
Being from Los Angeles and Los Angeles County, cycling is not as common of a way of travel since it’s really a city built for cars. In Japan, like in Taiwan and a number of other Asian countries, on the other hand, bicycles are a primary form of transportation for many people. I was a bit blown away by vast rows of bicycle parking spots in a local middle school, the huge bicycle parking garage in a department store high rise, and the bicycles for rent all over the place, not to mention the biking lanes clearly marked and signed on sidewalks.
Aruite あるいて (On Foot)
Finally, there’s always getting around by old fashioned walking, which I did quite a lot of. Walking was a great way to just enjoy the sights in general and take in the character of each neighborhood. In fact, I found a book called Kyoto: 29 Walks in Japan’s Ancient Capital, which I’m very much enjoying reading through right now as it’s a lot more readable than the travel guidebooks that are more encyclopedia references than reading material. Probably the best way to enjoy a city like Kyoto is on foot and/or on a bike.
Here are my feet feeling so raw I had to sit on the ground while waiting for the next train to come.
Next up, the trains in Japan are made all the more awesome by ekiben or train meals.