One of the coolest experiences in Japan is taking the bullet train, or Shinkansen. They’re dizzyingly fast and so smooth you can eat from a bento box, even with less than adequate chopstick skills. Train technology in Japan is decades ahead of North America, so if you’re planning on visiting Japan, and traveling to several cities, consider buying a Japan Rail pass. It’s not cheap at $600 (CAD) dollars per person for two weeks, but the train in Japan is not cheap and for the convenience it’s well worth the price. The important piece of information is this: you must purchase your JR pass before traveling to Japan.
After placing an order, the company sends you physical vouchers by mail, courier, or express courier. Make sure to allow enough time for passes to arrive; not knowing, I ordered less than one week before leaving and paid extra for courier service, which delivered our passes in two days. I personally do not recommend upgrading to the “Green” car because some trains don’t have Green options and consider that this is Japan so “Economy” doesn’t mean sitting on a wooden bench beside a goat; trains in Japan are spotlessly clean, quiet, and comfortable.
Once you arrive in Japan, look for a JR office that specifically exchanges vouchers for passes: regular ticket offices do not. (Hint: the line will consist of non-Japanese). With your JR pass, proceed to a ticketing office to reserve your seat. It is also important to note that not all Shinkansen are JR eligible, while some of the smaller local train lines, such as the Dentetsu line (Nagano to Yudanaka station), are also not eligible. Once you have tickets, locate the kiosk window, show your ticket and JR pass, and you will be let through. Upon leaving any station, follow the same procedure.
The JR pass also allows access to subway lines throughout Japan. Main subway lines in Tokyo and Kyoto are JR eligible. Simply walk to the kiosk, show your pass, and they’ll wave you through. It’s brilliant and simple to get around, but like most things in Japan, there are a few rules you should follow. Here are my top ten:
- Never cut the queue
- Follow the painted lines on the platform so you know where to queue
- Keep to the appropriate side of the staircase when entering and exiting a station (signage is everywhere)
- Allow time for the crew to “groom” the cabin and flip the seats
- Enter trains in an orderly fashion allowing people to depart first. You have only about 4 minutes to board so don’t dawdle
- Once boarded, keep conversations to a minimum, especially if talking on a cell-phone. If you must talk on your phone, do it quietly and cover your mouth
- Feel free to buy snacks and drinks onboard the Shinkansen or in the station and yes, that includes beer–just don’t get drunk
- When you arrive at your desired station lower your headrest, bring your chair back upright, and take all garbage with you
- Do not text and walk in stations
- Enjoy the beautiful scenery, but stare into the distance if you’re prone to motion sickness