By Patricia Belyea
I have been to Japan over a dozen times but never traveled with a Japan Railways (JR) Rail Pass. For this past trip, Victoria and I had two-week JR Rail Passes that we activated once we arrived at Narita Airport near Tokyo.
We made full use of our Rail Passes. In Tokyo, we travelled in from Narita Airport and around town on the local lines.
We were on and off of the famous Shinkansen (known as the Bullet Train) many times—on our way to Nagoya, Kyoto and Osaka. Our rail passes took us to Chiba, to visit Quilt Party; Kamakura, to see the Big Buddha; Arimatsu, to walk around the the shibori-dyeing district; Arashiyama to sight-see for the day: and Miyazu to view the Bridge to Heaven. On Day 14 of our trip, we used our Rail Passes to transport us to our departure airport in Kansai, near Osaka.
What did I think? It was easy-easy-easy to use. When we were tootling around on local trains, we showed our passes to the attendants at the ticket gates and just walked through. When we traveled on trains that required reservations, we went to the JR ticket office and got our tickets for free.
There are two types of JR Rail Passes—Ordinary and Green. Victoria and I had JR Rail Green Passes, the equivalent of First-Class. Green Pass holders can travel in the Green cars on the reserved trains with bigger, cushier seats that recline 40°, more leg room, and a foot rest. Also, during the busy season, there is more chance of getting on the train you want as the Green cars are less busy due to a slightly higher cost.
HOW TO GET A RAIL PASS
A JR Rail Pass gives you all-you-can-ride, discounted travel around the country. You can get a 7-, 14-, or 21-day Rail Pass if you are a temporary visitor to Japan. You buy the JR Rail Pass before you arrive and are sent an Exchange Order to activate your Rail Pass at a ticket office in Japan.
+click for info for a Green Rail Pass
+click for info for an Ordinary Rail Pass
ACTIVATING YOUR RAIL PASS
If you are like me, you will want to activate your Rail Pass as soon as you arrive. With our freshly stamped passports and Exchange Orders in hand, we found the JR Ticket Office in the airport. It's guaranteed to be busy but know that the long line moves quickly. The friendly staff at the counter spoke English and directed us to the N’EXT train to Tokyo.
FINDING YOUR TRAIN
Head to the track indicated by the JR attendant. There will be an overhead electronic sign that lists the next trains. When your train is the top one listed, that is the train to board.
Your ticket with show a car number and seat number. When you get to the train platform, line up at the painted number on the floor that corresponds to your car number. Once the train is cleaned, you can hop on with your luggage. If you have a Green Pass, your car will have a green clover painted on the side.
Some cars have a special storage compartment at the end with cable locks for securing your luggage. Those locks are for nervous tourists. Forget the locks and feel confident leaving your big piece of luggage there. Know that the stops are fast on the train. You do not want to be fiddling with a little lock while the train goes in and out of your station!
A FEW POINTERS
If lost, a Rail Pass can not be replaced. So keep your Rail Pass safe but also keep it handy as you will be pulling your Rail Pass out to get on and off trains.
Travel with your passport. Although no attendant requested to see my passport to prove I owned my Rail Pass, it is a requirement.
Give yourself time to find the ticket office at the big train stations and to stand in line to get a reserved seat on the Shinkansen. Although everyone is moving quickly, know that you are in a new place and that it will take a little time to find your way.
When you do receive a paper ticket, keep it. You will need both the ticket and Rail Pass to exit the train.
Sometimes you have to pay for part of a trip, when the JR train travels over the rail tracks of other companies. When Victoria and I travelled to Miyazu, on the outskirts of Kyoto Prefecture, halfway through the ride we paid the conductor an additional fee. The staff at the ticket counters will explain everything.
Travel with a pocket wifi. This small device delivers wifi service throughout Japan. Keep it in your purse so you and your companions can use your smart phones as you travel—navigating with Google Maps and RomeToRio apps. You can also get on the internet to check the location and hours of the places you want to visit. +click here to learn about renting a pocket wifi for your trip
The JR Rail Passes used on this trip were provided to Okan Arts by Japan Rail Pass S.L. Now that we have experienced the JR Rail Green Pass, we can unconditionally recommend it as a smart, convenient and pleasant way to travel around Japan.