Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Rail travel in Japan

Japan has one of the most efficient railway systems in the world is you look at it in terms of passenger experience. Though I dare say if you looked at the system from the point of view of a banker, it might not look so great. Who cares! We are there for the experience. And Japan provides a range of experiences. I have covered about 70% of the country as a tourist. I have been on shinkansens, rapid, express, semi-express and local trains in all provinces, except those in Hokkaido and the far north east corner of Honshu, and the small network on the island of Shikoku.

Why go to Japan?

For westerners, Japan is a 'must see' travel destination because people's perceptions of the country are often severely misguided. The fact that its culture and people are so different is perhaps the most compelling reason for going.

Why travel around Japan by rail?

Japan is a high cost destination for foreigners. For this reason the Japanese government and Japan Rail have developed the Japan Rail Pass as an incentive for foreigners on tourist visas to travel around for a pre-set period for a subsidised cost. Of course the pass only makes sense if you use it. There is also a JR Pass available for Japan East which can be used for any 5 days in the month, in which case you active the 'day' on your first trip.

The pass overcomes some of the cost obstacles of travelling to Japan. But dont assume that Japan is expensive. You can actually travel cheaply in Japan if you plan well. See my tips on my travel blog at http://the-rail-way.blogspot.com. It can be surprisingly cheap.

Ticket types & prices

You can get passes for 7, 14, 21 consecutive days, with the longer periods being cheaper. The prices of the passes are
www.japanrailpass.net/eng/en003.html. There are alot of conditions, none particularly onerous.

www.jreast.co.jp/e/eastpass/index.html for a better description of the tickets in each region.

Ticket Conditions

You need to buy the ticket outside of Japan, and you need to be a non-resident. If you are coming for Japan for work, you will not be able to use it without invalidating your visa upon exit from the country. Japanese people can also acquire the special ticket if they are a spouse of a foreigner and a long term foreign resident. For answers to all your questions about the pass - see

How to use the JR Pass

If you want to get maximum value from the pass I suggest using it every day for as long as possible. Leave at 6:30AM in the morning and find 'camp' at 9PM at night. The speed of the skinkansens means that you get quickly get to anywhere on the trunk line within 2-3 hours, but that is little help if you are stuck in the mountains. Train services in some remote mountain areas sometimes are as infrequent as 3 trains a day, and that might not even help if you have bad connections. There is a very good English-based timetable for planning your trip. See
http://www.hyperdia.com/. You can live by this train schedule, as Japanese trains are late for only one reason - suicides, and delays tend to only occur in the cities.

If you travel with a computer, you can buy pre-paid PCMCIA data cards at places like Bic Camera in Tokyo (Ikebukuro, Akihabara). I think the best way to travel is to use the very fast skinkansens for long distance or place jumping, and the slower local trains to see the scenic parts of Japan. There are some very nice valleys to explore using Japan Rail. If you are a single guy, try staying in the capsule hotels in the major cities like Tokyo (Shinjuku, Shibuya), Hiroshima, Nagoya and Fukuoka. In the small country towns there are guest houses that are getting cheaper, as well as traditional ryokans. If you are staying more than a month in a major city, search for a 'gaijin house' online. eg. Sakura House. These places dont require bonds, and you can leave with a week notice.

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