Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Travelling around Japan with Japan Rail

Buy your Japan Rail Pass in your home country. This is crucial. Decide on 7, 14 or 21 days. One 7 day pass is about the cost of return Tokyo - Kyoto, so it's great value. Green Car is First Class (a LOT more) and not worth the money. Shinkansen ('bullet trains') are very comfortable, lots of leg room, reclining seats, pull down tray tables. Don't travel in busy periods like Summer/Festival times and you won't need reserved seats. Most of the carriages have unreserved seating. Ample luggage storage in carriages. Because it is Japan, everyone is beautifully mannered. The ticket inspectors and attendants bow to the whole carriage before exiting.  Some carriages even have "quiet cars" no cell phones. Yay!

If you land in Osaka (Kanzai Airport), you can use your Japan Rail Pass as soon as you have activated it (Japan Rail Office in the terminal). We had a night at the airport hotel (an easy walk across the walkway). Train Stations are under the terminal. Be sure use JR lines and stations not Private owned lines. High speed trains are ALWAYS on time. They leave on time, TO THE SECOND.

If you land in Tokyo (Narita Airport) you can use your JR Pass to board the fast Narita Express to Tokyo. The JR pass lets you use some subway lines (the huge JR circle lines which surround both Tokyo and Osaka metropolises get you anywhere) and even some ferries on the Inland Sea. 
Download Hyperdia. Indispensable journey planner and timetable. Put in the time you want to depart and the method of transportation and it shows you times, platform numbers, length of journey. Print out for the days ahead or save offline pages.
Buy delicious, freshly made Obento (segmented boxes of Japanese goodies) in the vast underground shopping arcades under major train stations, or buy boxes (still made fresh) on the platform in kiosks or food and drink (including reasonable priced beer) is sold on board by efficient roaming trolley dollies (I'm sure there is a more polite Japanese term). 

Using a base city/cities
Tokyo is an excellent base to explore Nikko, Kamakura, Hakone, Fuji area.
Kyoto or Nagoya are excellent base cities for day trips. Osaka great for day trips to Nara, Kobe, Kyoto.
Stay in ryokan (traditional inns) in smaller towns (Takamatsu has some excellent one).
Booking is through Japan Tourist Bureau website or many have own websites.
Because of the high speed trains you can travel hundreds of kilometres easily in a day. Average speeds of 300  km/hr. Every town on the main line between Hiroshima and Shin Osaka seems to have its own stunning castle, Himeji (featured in 007's You Only Live Twice) and Okayama are notable.
We travelled from Nagoya and Nagasaki, over 900 km and arrived fresh and ready to explore a new city.
We took a day trip from Osaka to Miyajima Island, all trains, ferries covered on your JR Pass. The red tori gate is even better than in the photo.
Kyoto needs at least 4 days to explore, without leaving the city. If basing yourself in Osaka, Nara is the   must-do day trip. Osaka itself is a very cool city, smaller than Tokyo but with a definite personality. Osaka Castle was a big surprise.
Nagasaki is worth the visit, despite the distance. The most European of all Japanese cities. Japan is a great destination. Bone up on a bit of history before you go. It will enhance the experience.
This was our fourth trip and we are raring to go again.
Golden Pavilion, Kyoto

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