The Hobo Guide to Japan Rail
So like the rest of white middle-class suburbia, you’ve had the brilliant idea of recruiting some mates and jetting off to the Land of the Rising Sun. You’ve heard tales regaling the brilliance of the supersonic, space-age Shinkansen and thought that you might like to experience it for yourself. You might be thinking, “Sure, I’ve been at Richmond Station and lived the post-apocalyptic nightmare that is the combination of Friday night post-AFL traffic and Metro Trains ineptness – I’ve seen busy.”
However, the Japanese Rail system caters to a hundred times more customers per year than Metro Trains (more than 22 billion customers!). Subway stations can also feel like cities themselves, and in the case of Umeda Station – which features 1,200 stores – sometimes actually are, so things can do get a bit hectic.
Now while you might assume that typical Japanese efficiency has made it so using the railways is akin to that taking a quick trip on Howl’s Moving Castle (and in many ways it can be), unfortunately, the massive web that is the Japanese network could be a confronting task to many.
So for all you anime lovers, geishas and wannabe Harajuku-girls out there, here’s your (incredibly insufficient) guide to getting around Japan by train.
In a similar fashion to that of Eurorail/Eurail, international travellers can purchase a Japanese Rail (JR) Pass that will give them access to either certain regions of Japan or the entire country, if you choose to fork out the cash.
With a national 7-day, 14-day or 21-day pass setting you back around $310, $500 and $640 respectively, it is a costly outlay for the frugal traveller in all of us. However I would argue that the proficiency, speed and convenience of the Japan Rail network, as well as the fact it can also be used for Shinkansen travel between cities, makes the money well worth it.
For example: a 7-day national pass is cheaper than purchasing just a Shinkansen return-trip between Tokyo and Kyoto.
The Japanese rail system is divided into Japan Railways Group and a vast number of privately owned railway lines. While JR consists of the majority of lines in most cities, you may find that your destination is on a privately owned line, leaving your JR Pass invalid. If this is the case, then you’ll have to buy a cheap separate ticket for your ride. The stations will often be divided into different sections or levels for the various proprietors, and access is only granted with the appropriate ticket.
Fortunately, the numerous networks and their signs all follow a consistent colour-coded method, and all major stations present English language signs to help the Gaijin (outside person) in all of us.
Shinkansen (Bullet Trains):
The Shinkansen or bullet train network links virtually all major cities in Japan. The trains are incredibly clean, quiet and quick, making them perfect for getting all over Japan. Similar to airlines, all types of Shinkansen have a first-class area known as “Green Cars” at an extra cost. If you choose to purchase a JR Pass, you are able to access to regular Shinkansen trains like the Hikari and Kodama. However, some limitations do exist.
The Japan Rail Pass is not valid for the more expensive Nozomi and Mizuho trains on the Tokaido, Sanyo and Kyushu Shinkansen lines, so be sure when planning your trip to avoid these. The Nozomi is the fastest train that connects Tokyo to Nagoya and Osaka/Kyoto, taking about two and half hours to make full the trip. This is compared to the Kodama that stops all stations, taking about four hours, which for most of us hobos will be fine.
Although not always crucial, reserving your seats is an excellent option that is available. If you choose not to, you could be at risk of needing a booked-out train, or – god forbid – not being able to sit next to your friends, although this may be preferential for some. There are also smoking carriages for those of you who want to enjoy the finer things in life as you fly past Mount Fuji at 300km/h.
So there you have it – my guide to using the train in Japan. As this is not by any means a comprehensive guide to using the railways, I’m sure you’ll still manage to get lost, confused, yelled at, and “Gaijin Smash” your way through everything the Japanese hold culturally sacred. So traverse Japan by train – it’s freakin’ awesome! But if you haven’t taking anything from this guide, heed this one warning – just don’t talk on your fucking phone.