Japan Travel Tips

  Admin Note: These tips are my opinion, based on more than 30 trips back to Japan since mission days. Suggestions are always welcome using a 'Contact Us' entry.

Click links below for your item of interest or just scroll down:

General Japan Travel Tips

Travel Guides, Passport/Visa requirements

Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO)  has a great website with good ideas and information to help you plan your trip, as well as to choose places to go and things to do. Japan-Guide is another good online reference. You might also consider a good old-fashioned paperback travel guide. I recommend Lonely Planet Japan, available at Barnes and Noble stores or online at bn.com or Amazon for about $25. Lonely Planet also has e-book guides. I find that Lonely Planet is a top choice for the broadest range of travelers, from the hitchhiker staying at hostels to the more well-heeled adventurer. 

Passport/Visa requirements Unless you're staying more than 90 days and your passport is US, Canada or Australia, all you need is a passport. Your passport must be valid for the entire time you are staying in Japan. Stays longer than 90 days (workers, teachers, missionaries, etc.) need a visa obtained in advance. Note that all foreign visitors to Japan are photographed and fingerprinted upon entry (when you show your passport). 

When to Go 

Kakunodate (between Akita and Morioka) 24 Apr 2009

Japan has four distinct seasons. In my opinion, spring (March-May) and fall (September-November) are the best times to visit, but you might want to avoid one of Japan's biggest holidays, Golden Week--27 April to 6 May, when everyone has time off and travels; trains are packed. Rainy season for most of Japan generally runs from early June through mid-July, and in Tōhoku, a couple of weeks later. Natsu Matsuri (summer festival) season (late July-early August) is stiflingly hot and muggy, but the festivals might be worth it. In winter, tourist areas are less crowded but it may be too cold and snowy for some.



How to get around 

Trains are the way to travel anywhere in Japan, and are one of the few bargains for foreign travelers, but only if you use the Japan Rail Pass. Please refer to the Train Tips section where rail travel is discussed in detail. Buses can take you pretty much wherever trains can't. 

Highway Buses are also an option, and individual bus tickets purchased are generally cheaper than rail. However, since travel using JR Rail Pass makes unlimited, fast, long-distance, comfortable, daytime travel affordable, I personally have only supplemented rail travel by bus when local train service was limited. Between Koriyama and Iwaki, for example, there are only five trips daily through the mountains by JR rail (1,660 yen (or free with JR Pass); 1 hr. 38 min.), but buses (1,600 yen; 1 hr. 28 min.) run more frequently. Regional bus companies publish their schedules on the internet; if you know the bus company name (Konan in Hirosaki, for example), you can Google search schedules, probably in Japanese for Tohoku. Tickets are usually purchased on a walk-up basis. Online train schedule sites Jorudan's Japan Transit Planner and Hyperdia also include certain highway bus schedules, especially long-distance and overnight buses, and in particular to and from Tokyo.

Hitchhiking In the days before Rail Passes were available, my buddy Ken White and I hitchhiked from Hokkaidō to Kyūshū, catching a few train rides in-between.

"Tsuruoka hōmen--onegai" (going the direction of Tsuruoka-please)

Two important tips: First, you need a map/atlas that includes detailed highway on-ramp locations. In the 1970s, we bought our paperback (Japanese), 1:400,000 version, at a Japanese book store. You might try buying at Amazon or scrapping paperback altogether and use a smartphone online map app, assuming you've got data service in Japan.  Second, you need to have supplies (poster paper, fat marker) to create destination signs to hold up (preferably written in Japanese). We found it much easier to be picked up with Japanese, rather than ro-maji (roman lettered) signs, perhaps it made the driver feel at ease to think they wouldn't have to speak exclusively English to communicate. Even though we thought we could write kanji pretty well, we usually asked a nearby Nihonjin (such as at a hostel) to write out the sign for us. There are even books on this subject - currently in print is Hitching Rides with Buddha (April 2006), by Will Ferguson, available on Amazon.com for around $12. (April 2018 price).

Rental Cars are available at train stations and airports but are relatively expensive. Unless you're traveling to (rare) remote areas that aren't served by public transportation, it would be hard for me to recommend renting a car, especially with the issues of left-hand driving and navigation. If you do plan on driving, international driving permits (good for one year from issuance date) can be obtained for $20 at AAA before your departure.

 

How to Pack (Lightly!, Shoes, Luggage Tips) 

Packing lightly is key if you're planning much travel within Japan. You'll need to pack lightly enough to easily carry/roll your own stuff everywhere. You can do laundry yourself at most Hostels, business hotels and some onsen, or have it done at larger hotels fairly inexpensively. Even for a 10-day trip, I recommend considering you do what I've learned to do: pack only what will fit into a airline-legal-size carry-on with wheels (the size that will fit into an airline overhead bin), plus perhaps a backpack or smaller carry-on. Plan to wash your stuff half-way through the trip in order to halve your packed quantities.

Coin lockers at Hakodate eki

Assuming you're traveling on trains, be aware that large suitcases can't easily be accommodated. Japan Rail’s "official" rule allows two pieces of baggage on JR trains, the total of height+width+depth of which must be under 250cm per bag and the weight less than 30kg per bag. If your suitcase is airline-legal-carry-on-size, it might fit on the (not deep at all) storage rack above train seats. There is usually a space behind the last row of seats on each train car where a larger case will fit. Only a few types of trains have limited luggage storage space at the ends of the cars.

Smaller luggage will also fit more easily into coin lockers located in train stations. I've used these koin rokka many times (in recent years, many are rentable using Suica IC Cards) to temporarily store my stuff while I'm out exploring during the day. Lockers allow all-day storage from between 300-600 yen for the day, depending on the size, but most don't allow overnight storage. 

Luggage storage is also possible at your hotel, both when you arrive early or usually even if you've checked out. Japan also has an efficient luggage forwarding/delivery system that can be used from airports, hotels and even convenience stores to your destination or between cities, with delivery time depending on distance, but usually within a day. Here's more information and pictures that illustrate luggage on trains, lockers and luggage forwarding.

Shoes. Unless you enjoy untying and lacing your shoes every few minutes, it's wise to bring shoes that slip on and off easily. Many places in Japan – including homes, ryokan (traditional inns), temples, and many izakaya and restaurants – require you to remove your shoes before entering.

Where to Stay and How to Reserve 

Reserving accomodations has become easier in recent years on the Internet. Many Japanese-owned places don't take reservations more than three or six months in advance. If you're traveling 'on the fly' and arrive in a town without having booked a place to stay, the local eki (train station) usually has a travel information office that can help. Directions, maps, bicycle rental and even phone calls checking availability are typical services provided there. If you arrive late at night, "walk-up" traffic to accommodations near an eki is always a possibility. Most all accomodations take credit cards, except hostels and some ryokan/onsen - be prepared with yen just in case. Some ideas for options on where to stay: 

Hostels If you are on a budget and are adventurous, consider Hostels. You need to become a member in your own country to stay. Visit Hosteling International USA for information-a one year adult membership is $18. Japan Youth Hostels has an English website with good explanations, maps, rules and reservation info.  Typical fees for these dormitory-type accommodations are $30/night--(~3,000yen). Evening and morning meals are also available for around $13 and $8 respectively (1,300 and 800 yen, respectively). Admin note: Japanese business hotels (discussed below) can be less than $50 in smaller cities and generally include breakfast-in my observation, they're generally closer to train stations than hostels.

Western-Style Hotels and Japanese-Style Business Hotels Check the travel guides mentioned above for specific hotels they recommend. Western-style hotels in big cities can be reserved online on chain websites and search engines such as hotels.com or booking.com - they generally have bigger rooms but are generally spendy. Hotels.com usually requires pre-payment. On the other hand, I recommend you also consider Japanese business hotels, which are sometimes available on those international hotel sites; they have smaller (some would say cramped) rooms, but are adequate and reasonably priced, even in big cities, in my opinion, and usually include or offer breakfast. I recommend three business hotel chains (sometimes they appear on hotels.com or booking.com): Route Inn (select English on their site) and Dormy Inn are two similar chains, both of which usually offer large Japanese-style o-furo bathing (daiyoku-jō, similar to onsen or sentō bathing) in addition to showerbath prefab units in each room. If onsen-type bathing isn't important to you, consider Toyoko Inn, which has relatively new, clean and less expensive (due to no onsen-type bathing and skimpier breakfasts) locations located near train stations throughout Japan.

Some Japanese reservation sites are in Japanese only, except JTB's Japanican, which is geared towards foreigners, and Rakuten Travel, which has a limited English section. Keep in mind the possibility of "walk up" traffic to hotels in smaller cities, especially in non-peak times--avoid golden week and local festivals. On some of my 'wingin' it' visits back to Japan, I've had no trouble getting rooms this way. 

Ryokan (Japanese Inns) To sample the best of Japanese accommodations, you might want to consider at least one night in a ryokanRyokan don't always welcome foreign guests (Japanese language ability is a huge plus) and are usually more expensive than hotels. They also range from elegant to shoddy--consult the travel guides and hotel websites suggested above plus Japanican or JNTO for more information. Ryokan usually include Japanese-style dinner and breakfast in the price, as well as traditional ofuro (bath). The travel information office in most every eki (train station) is also a good source for information and reservations on the fly. Here's a webpage on onsen/traditional japanese bathing etiquette.

Streamside rotenburo (open air bath) at an onsen in Tohoku

Onsen (HotSpring) Ryokan, hotels and even sometimes hostels are found in hot spring areas. True Onsen refers to a naturally-occurring hot spring/mineral spa village, and the lodging would feature traditional Japanese bathing. There are thousands of onsen in volcanic-zone laden Japan. Some onsen areas are overbuilt, concrete and garish, but many (the ones I seek out) are charming and preserve the traditions of thatched-roof buildings and rotenburo (outdoor bath), best located in a mountain setting. As you can imagine, onsen accommodations are usually at the middle to high end of the lodging price range, but are, in my opinion, the ultimate in lodging and experience in Japan. As a reference, I recommend Japan's Hidden Hot Springs (1995, by Robert Neff), if you're serious about a traditional onsen experience. It's available for Amazon.com's kindle ($10). Though it's over 20 years since this book was published in pre-Internet times, I've personally visited many of the top-rated onsen located Northern Japan in Neff's book and have not been disappointed. Some onsen now have websites or are members of Nihon Hitō wo Mamoru Kai (discussed below), but many can still only be reserved by telephone, and only in Japanese. Recently, some onsen have started to appear on JTB's Japanican website and even on hotels.com. Here's a webpage on onsen etiquette.

If you're really into onsen you can also consider Nihon Hitō wo Mamoru Kai (Japan Association of Secluded Hot Spring Inns).  Once you register online as a member (no charge), their site offers reservations to an exclusive assortment of small, traditional, sometimes rustic onsen inns, but my experience is that if you choose the English display on their website, only a very limited number of onsen locations appear (as with Rakuten Travel discussed above). If you can read Japanese and choose Japanese display, the number of available locations available for reservation will be much more numerous.  I've used the site for reservations a number of times but usually also call to confirm both the reservation and eki shuttle pickup details.

Japanese Friend's Residence  You may staying at the home of an acquaintence.  You probably remember the basic drill from countless visits to homes while serving on your mission, so if you are traveling with others without such experience, consider giving a little training on shoes and genkans, small cramped spaces, o-furo technique etc before you arrive.  Taking an omiyage (small gift/souvenir) is customary and would be a nice touch. I sometimes buy a Japanese omiyage at the train station of the city from which I just traveled - if I'm boarding a train in Sendai to travel to my host's city, for example, I might buy some gyuutan (beef toungue) jerky, all wrapped up and gift-size, before boarding the train.

Airbnb, VRBO  These vacation rental by owner accomodations have appeared in Japan in recent years and may be a good option for you, especially if you're staying multiple nights in the same area, since most have minimum stay requirements. You may be able to save a lot of money, but be careful about location - the website descriptions may not give you adequate address or location information as to distance from train stations. Japan recently passed a law restricting such rentals unless local municipalities allow and license them. 

Currency Exchange, ATMs, IC (Suica) Cards and Credit Cards 

Currency Exchange  Each arrival airport has Japanese bank exchange windows that I recommend for currency exchange. They are conveniently located just outside of customs inspection doors, right as you exit into the public waiting areas. There is usually more than one bank there, so there is some competition, and I've found the rates to be fair (and way better than say, the US airport non-bank rip-off exchange booths-don't use those!). The same types of bank windows are found in Japan's airport departure wings for easy conversion back to your home currency.

ATMs  If you have a US bank ATM (debit) card, you may use it at any Japan Post Office ATM to obtain yen currency. I recommend the Japan Post ATMs because they have an English display mode and since they are part of the quasi-governmental Japan Post Savings system, I believe the conversion rates to be very reasonable. Convenience Stores (7-11, for example) also have English-language mode on their ATMs, and the fees may be slightly higher, but not unreasonable.  Commercial bank ATMs in Japan, in my experience, don't always have English display choices, so I usually avoid them.

Prepaid IC Cards (Suica) Once you have yen in hand in Japan, you might want to consider obtaining a prepaid integrated circuit (IC) card. Suica is the one I have used. Suica is administered by JREast, and as such, is widely accepted in Tokyo and Tohoku. IC Cards of whatever brand (Pasmo, ICOCA, etc.) are interchangeble between systems throughout Japan. Suica is a usable with a 'tap' on an IC reader for train, subway and bus fare, as well as electronic money for purchases. It allows travelers to bypass transportation ticket vending machines and otherwise alleviates fumbling with currency and coins when making purchases, including at vending machines, convenience stores and from in-train food/beverage carts. To use at automated subway or train turnstiles, holders tap the Suica Card at entrance then tap again at exit; the automated turnstile exit will open and the proper fare is deducted from the card.

Black-colored Suica vending machines (English is available) located in JREast stations are used to obtain the card, and a 500 yen (~$5) deposit is required.  To add money/value to a Suica card (we say 'recharge' they say 'charge'), you insert yen bills or coins (no credit cards) using any green-colored Suica machine (more numerous than black) or black-colored Suica machines. You can also simply add money to the card at any convenience store that takes Suica.  I suggest buying a personal 'mySuica' card; it requires entering some personal information, such as birthdate and phone number, but allows re-issue if lost, as well as refund of the 500 yen deposit. Obtain a refund (haraimodoshi) of unused value at the end of your stay at any JREast reserve ticket window-I've used the one at JR-Narita Airport.  Here are a few webpages that explain Suica:  Wiki, JREast, YouTubeHow-to

Credit Cards are accepted in hotels, restaurants and stores in Japan. Visa is the most widely accepted, and even American Express is also fairly commonly accepted, in my estimation, about 60% of the time. Many card issuers prefer you inform them of your foreign travel plans ahead of time; most have online links where you can do so.

Using Your Smartphone in Japan, WiFi Connectivity

Your Smartphone should work in Japan if it has 3G, 4G and LTE capabilities. Older mobile phones are unlikely to work. Compatible phones may be used via international roaming (check with your mobile provider for details) or by using a SIM card from a Japanese carrier (unlocked handsets only). Many US mobile providers offer international plans or temporary service in Japan for a areasonable additional charge for data and calls-contact your carrier before you travel. Some plans include service with no changes or charges required-on my T-Mobile plan (T-Mobile ONE), for instance, unlimited data and texting are already included at no charge, but voice calls are $.20-$.25 per minute; I just have to switch on my 'Data Roaming' on my iPhone 7 while I'm in Japan. Here's a link with more phone details.

Mobile Phones on Trains.  Talking on a mobile phone while riding in the coach sections on trains is not allowed; only between/outside cars on the 'deck' area. Even if you try to play "dumb gaijin" it is considered extremely rude; even the ultra-polite Japanese will give you glaring looks-don't do it! More details here.

WiFi Connectivity is increasing in public areas in Japan. Most hotels and ryokan have WiFi, usually at no charge. You can also rent a 'pocket WiFi' device to access hotspots around Japan. Here's JNTO's page on WiFi connectivity. Side note: LDS church meetinghouses typically have WiFi, and the password is the same as it is in the states. 

Tips on Tohoku, Tokyo, Kyoto, Himeji, Hiroshima, Sapporo

Prologue: All of the tips below assume you will have the JR Rail Pass, a real no-brainer must-have for foreign travelers in my opinion. If you have suggestions for this section, Contact Us.
 
Koyo (fall colors) at Hirosaki Castle - Nov 2009

Tohoku

Many readers lived in Tohoku and may already have in mind what you want to see and where you want to go. Once in Tohoku, shinkansen and zairaisen (conventional rail) travel allows you to go pretty much anywhere within a few hours; using Sendai as a base makes sense. Some key tourist areas to consider visiting are: Matsushima, Yamadera, Hiraizumi, Hirosaki Castle, and Kakunodate. Natsu Matsuri (Summer Festivals-primarily Aomori, Akita, Hirosaki, Sendai, Yamagata), held in July and August, are also worth noting, but accomodations must be secured well in advance. A reminder how stinkin' hot and humid it can be in July and August. Tohoku also has some of the best onsen (hot spring inns) in all of Japan, and, also in my opinion, are quintessential Japan, but are best enjoyed in other-than-summer weather.

 

Tokyo 

To many, Tokyo is just another big city. Here are a few suggestions:

Tokyo's Shibuya crossing - Hachiko Exit of JR Shibuya station
  1. At night
    1. Shibuya Crossing – Hachiko exit of JR Shibuya eki. 
    2. Tokyo Tower or Sky Tree are two towers with observation decks 
  2. Early morning
    1. Tsukiji Fish Market (5:00 am – 9am is prime time)-
      Closed on both Sundays and Wednesdays-will relocate Oct 2018 
  3. Daytime
    1. Imperial Palace
    2. Ginza (shopping)
    3. Akihabara (electronic stores)
    4. Asakusa (shopping, omiyage (souvenirs))
    5. Tokyo LDS Temple (closed through 2020 for renovation) - Hiroo station, Hibiya subway line
    6. Kamakura - outdoor buddha, allow a day due to distance. I prefer Todaiji's buddha in Nara (see below)

Kyoto

Kyoto is the cultural and historical heart of Japan and was the Imperial Capital until 1868. It's about 2.5 hours from Tokyo by Hikari bullet train, which run at least once hourly. Due to its historic value, Kyoto’s treasured shrines, temples, numerous gardens and palaces were spared from air raids and during World War II. It is also a great base for day trips to Nara, Himeji (best castle in Japan) and Hiroshima (a must-see for historical value).

  1. Favorites: Kiyomizu-dera, Kinkakuji 
    Kyoto's Kiyomizu-dera
  2. Hotel.  Lots of hotel choices, but the closer you are to Kyoto Eki, the better, in my opinion.
  3. JTB Sunrise Tours - An easy way to get around to top venues with an English-speaking guide at a reasonable price.  Kyoto Tours and Packages - JAPANiCAN.com  - decide for yourself what makes the most sense for you.  I recommend the Kyoto Morning Tour (8:30 departure from New Miyako Hotel-behind eki) (only on weekdays, since Imperial Palace closed Sat-Sun), and I also recommend the Kyoto Afternoon Tour (13:30 departure from New Miyako Hotel)  
  1. Nara - The only ‘must see,’ in Nara, in my opinion, is “Todai-ji” where the

    Nara's Todaiji
    great Buddha is housed, but is easy to navigate on your own, vs. a tour.  It makes a nice full afternoon when the light is better, perhaps after a Kyoto Morning Tour (discussed above).  Using JR Rail Pass, you can ride a JR ‘rapid service’ commuter type train that takes only 44 minutes from JR Kyoto to JR Nara.  Todaiji is about 5 minutes by taxi; allow about two hours there.  We usually walk back to JR Nara station (vs. taxi) – it’s not too crazy and kind of charming.  After ‘Rapid Service’ train back to Kyoto, Porta Mall (underground restaurant mall) out the Kyoto eki’s Karasuma exit side, has lots of options for dinner.
Himeji
Himeji-jo - you can climb up to top on steep samurai stairs

recommend a morning at Himeji-jo (Himeji-castle). It’s the best remaining Shogun-era castle in Japan. Allow 2-3 hours to explore the grounds and the extensive castle buildings. JR Himeji is
less than one hour by Shinkansen from JR Kyoto (opposite direction from Tokyo; west past Shin-Osaka), and the castle is a comfortable walk from the Himeji JR station. Note for JR Rail Pass holders: only a handful of Hikari run west from Kyoto; you may have to ride a Haruka rapid train heading towards the Kansai airport as far as Shin-Osaka (30 min.), then switch to a Sakura, which run west from there (30 min.). There is currently an 8am Hikari that runs directly from Kyoto to Hiroshima, with a stop at Himeji at 8:56am. For train planning, consult Hyperdia as discussed in Train Tips below, and click on the checkbox for JR Pass users to exclude Nozomi trains.  

Hiroshima

From Kyoto, a good day trip is to Hiroshima, less than two hours by Shinkansen, even if a connection is required at JR Shin-Osaka.

Hiroshima genbaku do-mu; part of grounds of museum

I recommend the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, which is less than 15 minutes' taxi ride from JR Hiroshima. The historical impact of the museum can't be described in words. I've visited multiple times, and all the friends I've guided or recommended to visit agree it's a sobering must-visit. Allow at 2-3 hours minimum at the museum.

If you decide to go early and return late, you could consider also squeezing in Miyajima, the famous red torii and Itsukushima floating shrine, about 30 minutes by train from JR Hiroshima station. Allow 2-3 extra hours. It's a bit touristy, but.... famous.

Note for JR Rail Pass holders: there are only three Hikari each morning from Kyoto to Hiroshima: 7:20, 8, and 8:23. As described above, there are more options riding Sakura from Shin-Osaka. For the return trip, Sakura bullet trains run frequently to Shin-Osaka; connect there for the short trip to Kyoto.

Sapporo

RMs with a couple extra days on their hands (and on their JR Rail Pass) may want to consider riding the shinkansen from Shin-Aomori through the seikan tunnel to ShinHakodate-Hokutou (1 hr.) on Hokkaido, where you can connect to a tokkyuu express conventional-line train (e.g., much slower than a shinkansen) to Sapporo (~3.5 hrs.) Site details on the LDS temple there are here.


Train Tips

Japan Rail Pass

 Eligibility Japan's rail system is one of the world's finest. "JR" refers to Japan Railways Group, the former Japan National Railways (JNR) nationwide government-owned railways--now six separate regional privatized companies. Travelers on "temporary visitor" entry status to Japan should definitely consider purchasing a Japan Rail Pass, an amazing bargain for foreign visitors. This means visitors entering Japan on visas for stays longer than 90 days (e.g., employees, missionaries, students, and English teachers) are, unfortunately, not eligible. For more details see JR Rail Pass home page. 

Japan Rail Pass Value A JR Rail Pass allows you virtually unlimited reserved seat travel on all of the JR Group rail lines, including all Shinkansen (Bullet Trains) except only "Nozomi," and "Mizuho" trains, the fastest Shinkansen running west from Tokyo to Osaka and Kyushu, respectively. JR Rail Passes are available in 7, 14, or 21 day varieties. To demonstrate the pass' value (Apr 2018 - Mar 2019 prices): 

Conventional Tickets

 

JR Rail Pass

ONE round-trip reserved seat 'Hikari' Shinkansen ticket (Tokyo to Kyoto and back) purchased individually = 27,600 yen

versus

SEVEN (consecutive) days of unlimited travel on JR Lines, including reserved seats (using the Japan Rail Pass), anywhere, including Shinkansen (except Nozomi or Mizuho= 29,110 yen

or

ONE round-trip reserved seat 'Hayabusa' Shinkansen ticket (Tokyo to Hachinohe and back) purchased individually = 32,980 yen

Regional JR Passes  If your travel will be restricted to only one region, you may want to consider buying a regional JR pass. For example, travel on JR in the Tōkyō area and northeast to Tōhoku all falls within the JR East region. JR East Passes are 5-day flexible day passes (use within 14 days after issuance), available for 20,000 yen, and unlike the all-Japan passes, don't require a pre-purchase voucher before you depart and may be purchased after arrival in Japan.  (If you do pre-purchase in your home country, the cost is only 19,000 yen). For more details see the JR East Pass webpage. It might also make sense to buy a (flexible) JR East pass for the first part of your travels (Tōkyō, Tōhoku), and an all-Japan JR Rail Pass voucher for travel elsewhere that follows (all areas except Tōkyō & Tōhoku).

What about a Green Car Pass? You should also consider choosing the "green car" (comfort class) pass over the ordinary JR Rail Pass. For a relatively small additional cost, you then can travel in the green car available on all but local trains. The 7-day JR Rail green car pass is 38,880 yen, compared to 29,110 yen for the ordinary pass described above (34% more). Green cars are generally more quiet and have wider seats. Around Tokyo, many commuter trains have green cars as well. Note: green car passes are not an option for the JR East-only regional pass.

Prices of Japan Rail Pass Exhange Orders (April 2018-March 2019) (purchased outside of Japan)

Type:

Green

Ordinary

Duration

Adult

Child

Adult

Child

7-day

38,880 YEN

19,440 YEN

29,110 YEN

14,550 YEN

14-day

62,950 YEN

31,470 YEN

46,390 YEN

23,190 YEN

21-day

81,870 YEN

40,930 YEN

59,350 YEN

29,670 YEN

Notes: these prices differ and are 9.5% to 13.4% cheaper than the temporary direct-to-consumer purchase in Japan prices (see below). Children aged 6 through 11 years as of the purchase date are eligible for child prices.

 

You Must Buy a Japan JR Rail Pass Exchange Order before entering Japan [as noted above, if your travel will be limited to Tokyo and Tōhoku, JR East Pass may be your best bet, and (only) they may be purchased after arriving in Japan; all other types of passes require a purchase-before-you-go voucher/exchange order]. Many agencies handle JR Rail Pass exchange order/vouchers, but I always use Japan Travel Bureau (JTB) to get mine. Get your exchange order (example below) online from JTB, or from any Japan Travel Bureau Office, such as San Francisco's--telephone: 415-986-4764. They'll fax or email you an application. You fax or send back the application, and they send you the Exchange Order.

Temporary Note (through March 2019): JR Rail Passes are being sold directly on a trial basis at certain locations in Japan (without the need to buy the exchange order first abroad, which has always been required - see description in paragraph above.) For this convenience you're charged from 9.5% to 13.4% more than if buying an exchange order before you go. The first trial year (ending March 2018) was apparently successful/popular enough for them to try another trial year. Here's the official pdf for the temporary trial-perhaps this will become the new norm. Direct-to-consumer pricing and computed price differences/increases appear below.

Direct-to-Consumer Japan Rail Pass Prices (temporary, through March 2019)
(9.5%-13.4% premium paid for ability to buy in Japan without Voucher) 
Type
Green
Ordinary
Duration
Adult
Child
Adult
Child
7-day
44,000 YEN (13.4% increase)
22,000 YEN (13.2% increase)
33,000 YEN (13.4% increase)
16,500 YEN (13.4% increase)
14-day 71,000 YEN (12.8% increase) 35,500 YEN (12.8% increase) 52,000 YEN (12.1% increase) 26,000 YEN (12.1% increase)
21-day
90,000 YEN
(9.9% increase)
45,000 YEN
(9.9% increase)
65,000 YEN
(9.5% increase)
32,500 YEN
(9.5% increase)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notes: these prices are 9.5% to 13.4% higher than the overseas voucher purchase prices (see above). Children aged 6 through 11 years as of the purchase date are eligible for child prices.

 

 


Exchange Order for Pass after arriving in Japan  


Maps showing voucher exchange locations are found in the brochure that comes with your exchange order. Here's a list of locations. The most convenient locations are at rail stations located within airports, such as the Travel Service Center in the B1 level (basement) of Tokyo's Narita or Haneda airport--then you can ride JR trains into Tokyo for "free." If you want your 7, 14, or 21 day Rail Pass to become effective sometime later during your trip, you may still exchange it upon your arrival and specify a later starting date--or, wait to exchange it in another city.

To exchange at the Travel Service Center, you fill out a simple form available there with name, passport number, etc., and present it, your passport, and your exchange order voucher (that you obtained overseas before you came). The JR personnel usually take about ten minutes or so to prepare your Pass. At the same office, you can (and should) obtain the reserved seat tickets for the JR airport to city train (for Narita to Tokyo, the Narita Express) and any other reserved seats you know you'll need. This is usually a different "window" or "counter" than the pass exchange, but sometimes, depending on the number of people working and waiting, the same clerk may help you. At least one clerk in that office will understand English well enough to help. 


Boarding Trains with JR Pass It's all you need--Just Flash It! 

Once you've exchanged the voucher you receive the actual pass (example shown at right-actual size is about 4 x 6 inches). 

With pass in hand, you simply show the pass to the JR personnel at the kaisatsuguchi (turnstile or ticket gate), both on entering and exiting the track areas. The JR personnel usually wave you through, recognizing you're a foreigner, and only rarely, if ever, look close enough to verify pass validity dates.

 

 

 

 

Shinkansen and conventional line turnstiles are mostly automatic, using magnetically coded tickets. Pass users must therefore proceed to the manually staffed ticket gate, usually at the far left or far right end of the row of turnstiles. 

 

 


Obtaining Shitei Ken (Reserved Seat Tickets)
Most trains (other than local, commuter-type trains) have both reserved and non-reserved seats. Your Japan Rail Pass entitles you to reserved seats, so why not get them? Reserved seat tickets may be obtained by requesting for them in conjunction with showing your Pass at any JR station Travel Service Center or reserved seat ticket window, called "Midori-no-madoguchi," or at a travel agency in Japan. The green sign at left (with figure in reclining seat) designates a reserved ticket office. 

Seat reservations can be made up to one month in advance--best is probably at least two or three days in advance--and may be difficult to obtain for travel during traditionally heavy travel periods. (29 December - 5 January, 29 April - 5 May, 13-15 August). Most Japanese and many Pass users wait to obtain reserved seats until they arrive at the station, since the frequency of trains in Japan is relatively high.

If you have an extensive itinerary that is pretty well set, you should (1) Review train schedules (see below) and decide which trains you want to ride, (2) Write the relevant information on paper as depicted below, and (3) submit the request sheet with your Pass at the reserved ticket office/window, preferably days in advance. The format shown below is similar to the Japanese request sheet and should help facilitate your requests and minimize language barriers.

Mo

Day

Train Name

Dep City

Dep Time

Arr city

Arr Time

Green

10

31

Narita Express 40

Narita Airport

17:16

Tokyo

18.18

 

10

31

Hayabusa 103

Tokyo

18.56

Sendai

20.28

 

11

01

Hayabusa 13

Sendai

11:54

Shin-Aomori

13:29

 

11

01

Tsugaru 6

Shin-Aomori

13:43

Hirosaki

14:10

 

Using Reserved Seat Tickets (Shitei ken)
An example shitei ken (reserved seat ticket) appears below. (Actual size is a little less than 3 inches by 2 inches).  Key ticket information is translated/notated in red. These are largely unchanged in size and purpose over the past 40 years.

Depending on the personnel behind the counter or perhaps the model of computer terminal they're using, some of the information may appear in ro-maji or in English, but don't count on it, so learning the Kanji for names of cities you'll be traveling to becomes helpful. Use the reserved seat ticket to determine your car and seat number, including where to stand on the train platform. You don't need the reserved seat ticket to get through the gate (just your Pass), but once the train is moving, have your reserved seat ticket handy in case a conductor comes around asking to inspect everyone's ticket. You usually only need to show the conductor the reserved seat ticket and not the Pass. (He can tell by price of '***' that you're a pass holder.)  Note:  In nearly all of JR East's territory, train conductors rarely check for tickets unless their handheld electronic device shows them a seat is occupied for which a reserved ticket has not been purchased.  Other JR companies do not seem to be as sophisticated.


Airport-JR Train Navigation
There are two major international airports in Japan: Tokyo (Narita) and Osaka (Kansai). In 2011, Tokyo's domestic airport, Haneda, began serving a limited number of international flights for foreign airlines-Delta, for example, has only two slots per day; Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways have more numerous landing slots. Haneda is just a 15-20 minute monorail or cab ride to downtown Tokyo, so the discussion below focuses on the other international airports that are located somewhat distant from the cities they serve. Haneda's monorail, the 15-minute route from Haneda Airport to JR Hamamatsu-cho station, honors JR Rail Passes.    

Narita Airport (NRT) to Tokyo Station (and beyond)
There are two train lines (JR and Keisei) that go from Narita airport (basement stations) to the Tokyo area, which is 40+ miles distant. Of course, there are also limo and bus services available from Narita to Tokyo hotels and also long-distance bus routes, but this discussion assumes you are using JR trains to take advantage of the JR Rail Pass. JR prices without the pass are about 3,000 yen one way. (Keisei's Skyliner costs about 2,500 yen one way, and is faster (45 minutes vs. 60 minutes), but takes you to Keisei Ueno station, about five minutes walk from JR Ueno station.)

JR's Narita Express (N'Ex) takes about one hour from Narita Airport to Tokyo station. Most N'Ex trains are nonstop, and all seats are reserved. During peak times, trains leave every 30 minutes, and hourly otherwise. After stopping at Tokyo station, a portion of the cars on the N'Ex train continue on to other Tokyo metropolitan area stops such as Shinjuku & Ikebukuro or Yokohama & Ofuna.  

If your plans are to change trains at Tokyo station for points beyond, I highly recommend you plan ahead and obtain reserved seat tickets for the next leg(s) of your trip while you are still at the travel service center at the airport. Pay attention to the transfer time allowed between trains in Tokyo. Natives could negotiate a transfer in less than ten minutes, but you should allow at least 20 minutes the first time--the Tokyo station is huge, crowded and one can easily become turned around--ok, lost, there.  Since the Tokyo station is so huge, if you're going south towards Kyoto on a Hikari bullet train after traveling from Narita on JR's Narita Express, I usually recommend riding N'Ex to Shinagawa, where changing to the Shinkansen is much easier and straightforward.

From the Tokyo station you can board a JR train to take you virtually anywhere in the country. Tokyo station expanded over the years by adding tracks tunneled underneath the original station and on elevated platforms above the original station. Narita Express arrives in 2B basement of Tokyo station, and the Shinkansen departs clear on the opposite side of the eki from elevated tracks, so you're riding a few escalators and walking through a maze of people, past all the local train lines. It's a bustling place. Navigation is easy, though, if you just look for overhead signs that are color coded. Bullet trains going north and east (JR East - Touhoku, Jouetsu, Hokuriku and Nagano Shinkansen) are designated with a FOREST GREEN color, whereas the bullet trains going south, towards Osaka/Kyoto( JR-Tokai - Tokaikdo/Sanyo Shinkansen) are ROYAL BLUE. 

Example of overhead navigation signs you'll see in the 2B basement level of Tokyo station upon arrival via the Narita Express. This sign is directing you upstairs to (from left to right) Tokyo area local lines, Shinkansen lines and subway lines (circles at far right)

 

Once you've navigated upstairs passed through the separate Shinkansen turnstile, consult the overhead displays and information signs as explained on the previous page to determine your track number and where on the platform you should stand. Train name, car number, etc. are printed on your reserved seat ticket to assist you. If you do become lost, you can always ask for assistance by showing someone your reserved seat ticket-Japanese people are usually very willing to assist helpless foreigners. 

Kansai Airport (KIX)
There are also two train lines that serve the Osaka area's Kansai Airport, JR and Nankai. JR's express train between Kansai Airport and JR Shin-Osaka station is called Haruka, which departs every 30 minutes. All seats are reserved. The cost is about 2,500 yen each way--free, of course, if you've exchanged your JR Rail Pass voucher. The average travel time is about 50 minutes. Haruka continues on past Shin-Osaka to Kyoto, 25 minutes travel time, for an additional 1,000 yen. (Total ticket price of about 3,500 yen if you didn't exchange your Pass). The private (non-JR) Nankai line is more suited to locals in my opinion.

The Kansai airport train station is about a six minute walk from airport terminal's third floor level. There you'll find a travel service center located adjacent to the turnstile area where you can exchange your JR Rail Pass voucher and/or obtain reserved seat tickets.


Train Schedules, Online Schedules, and Smartphone Apps


Online timetables give you options for planning your travels in advance. Once you arrive in Japan, an (old-fashioned) jikokuhyou, or a Smartphone App, discussed below, makes sense.

Online Schedules. For pre-trip planning purposes, I highly recommend Hyper-Dia's English timetable or as a second choice, Jourdan Train Route Finder (click on the word "English" if the Japanese language page appears). These online services search specific dates and times, and then display multiple suggested choices. Hyperdia allows narrowed search parameters at the bottom of each result page, such as limiting results to only JR trains or excluding Nozomi/Mizuho-class trains (both helpful if you'll be using a JR Pass). (If traveling on the Tokaido (Tokyo-Osaka) or San'yo (Osaka-Hakata) Shinkansen using a Rail Pass, you'll need to click this timetable link to see only Hikari trains, since only the fastest Nozomi trains will appear as suggested "courses." The JR Rail Pass is not valid on Nozomi or Mizuho (Kyushu) trains, but is valid on the Hayabusa trains in Touhoku. These search engines are far more user-friendly than even JR's Japanese-language Cyberstation discussed below. If you can read Japanese, the Japanese language pages for both of these sites provide more options for searching, and Jourdan's Japanese page allows keying-in ro-maji that results in Kanji choices.

If you're familiar train/route names in Touhoku, JR-East has an English Timetable section on their website.  Rather than city-to-city route search capabilities. these timetables look a lot like the printed jikokuhyou described below, but are limited to Shinkansen and Limited Express routes; no local trains are displayed.

Train Schedule Apps for Smartphones.  Hyperdia has an iPhone App that is free to use for 30 days. It also has an Android App (but I've not used it, since I have an iPhone.)  While in Japan, you would need to have arranged international data service to use this app for your smartphone.


Telephone Assistance English-language assistance and travel information is available during working hours on the Japan Travel Phone, toll-free outside of Tokyo and Kyoto 0088-22-4800. Local call in Tokyo 03-3201-3331 or Kyoto 075-371-5649. JR has an English-language hotline in Tokyo at 03-3423-0111, open weekdays 10 AM to 6 PM.



Japanese Language Printed Schedules. If you can read Japanese, paperback jikokuhyou (timetables) are still published monthly in Japan and sold just about wherever newspapers are sold, and range in price from about 400 yen for a small print version to about 1,000 yen for the deluxe full-sized version. I've purchased them at a kiosk located adjacent to the JR East Travel Service Center at Narita airport. I've also seen them for sale in Japanese bookstores in the U.S. The jikokuhyou are only in Japanese, but with a little practice, relatively easy to use if you know the kanji for main cities. The full size version, which all train station ticket offices keep on hand, also lists cities in hiragana. Hints for reading jikokuhyou are discussed below. Another interesting thing about jikokuhyou is that virtually all public transportation, including buses and domestic air routes are listed in them. JR Train schedules usually remain unchanged for one year, from April 1 to March 31 of the following year (this interesting fiscal year is almost always followed by companies and schools in Japan.) Usually the only exception is seasonal tourist trains that are added to the base schedules.

JR Group's web site, called Cyberstation (Japanese only) includes seat availability inquiry (limited to one month in advance), real time schedule inquiry (similar to US Airline arrival information) and fare information. You really need to know the train route names (Touhoku Shinkansen, for example) and kanji to effectively use this site, however. Seat availability is generally only a worry during peak holiday periods, such as: Golden Week, 29 April to 6 May, Obon (11-20 August), and New Years (28 December to 6 January).

Reserve versus 'On The Fly' If you're a real adventurer, have flexible timing, and especially if you're not traveling during a peak travel period, with JR Rail Pass in hand, you can freely board any JR train (except Nozomi & Mizuho - JR Rail Pass holders must ride Hikari or Sakura, respectively) and sit even in an empty reserved seat. If a conductor comes around, just show him your Pass. He may move you to a reserved seat that he knows will not be filled on a subsequent stop. If you have destinations in mind, you can obtain reserved seats and assistance in advance at the green midori no mado-guchi (reserved ticket windows) located in each JR station as discussed above.

Japanese Timetables--How to Read.
Below is a page from the large deluxe jikokuhyou (timetable) mentioned above. These paperback books are largely unchanged pre-Internet days. The jikokuhyou is divided into sections of train routes, such as the Touhoku Shinkansen shown below. Maps of Japan rail lines with page references are found at the front of the jikokuhyou. You should note that the large deluxe version (about 1,000 yen) is the only jikokuhyou that lists city names on the first page of each section in hiragana (as shown below); all smaller versions list them in kanji only. These full-size jikokuhyou are the kind that are found in each eki (train station) on the desks near the midori-no-madoguchi (green window/reserved ticket) counters to assist riders in choosing which train to reserve. They are also sold at eki kiosks. See also Obtaining Reserved Seat Tickets.

Train names are at the top of each column. Hayate 90 is the one we'll look at. It is the third column over from the right-hand margin. Military time is used in Japan.

Hayate 90 departs Hachinohe at 9:19 AM and arrives in Tokyo at 12:44 PM.

During a 5-minute stop in Morioka, the Akita Shinkansen Komachi 90 links up with Hayate 90 and the combined train continues to Tokyo.

The name of each station is displayed in Kanji down the margin. (Hiragana, shown on the right-hand margin here, is only shown in the largest size version of jikokuhyou)

 

Miscellaneous Train Tips


Station Names All rail and subway stations display station names in both Japanese and Roman letters on their platforms. A station's name is in the center of the signboard, in large letters; the names of the previous station and the next station are at the bottom of the signboard, in smaller letters.

Station Displays Most stations have electronic displays for each track that show departure times and train names. Shinkansen and large city station displays alternate between English and Japanese, as shown in the shot at right that announces the next three departures on Tokyo Station's track 22.

 

 


Where to Stand on Train Platform On each train platform (noriba or ho-mu), there are small signs that designate where specific car numbers stop on the platform. These signs are usually at eye level or are painted right onto the platform at "shoe level." You need to know the name and number of the train you intend to ride; for example, "Max Yamabiko 35," as well as your car number. This information appears on your reserved seat ticket.  These signs are now electronic in all but the smallest stations.
 

 

For Shinkansen, it is also helpful to know the total number of cars on the train, for example, a 16 car train, which information can usually be found on electronic overhead displays in the stations near the escalators up to the Shinkansen track level (refer to the picture above, which is a non-electronic example from a smaller station).
The platform car number designation signs will either list specific train names (Yamabiko 35,47,49), or total cars (8 ryou, 16 ryou), then the car number for that "standing" spot. Train cars are consecutively numbered, so you can make your way up or down the platform until you find the place to wait for the car number listed on your reserved seat ticket. Also remember that anyone will help if you ask.


Onboard Announcements Announcements on all Shinkansen and most tokkyuu (limited express trains) are pre-recorded in both Japanese and English. Announcements generally give information about amenities and stops. You can also find electronic sign boards in most green cars (first class) that give news, weather, and stop information in both languages.  About three minutes before a train stops, music plays and the stop and exit side (right or left) are announced. Most English language pre-recorded announcements use a British-born voice actress, and are easy to understand. If the conductor makes supplemental announcements, he or she rarely tries English.
 



Onboard Telephones and Cell Phone Use Shinkansen and some tokkyuu (limited express trains) are equipped with public phones for domestic use, which require use of a "telephone card" (magnetic prepaid card). Telephone cards are usable instead of coins on virtually all Japanese public phones, and can usually be purchased aboard trains. Be advised that these phones do not always work perfectly, especially in tunnels (similar to poor cellular connections). Cell phone (keitai) use is allowed on trains in Japan, but never inside a car in the seating area - only in the 'deck,' the space between cars. Many of the numerous railway tunnels throughout Japan are equipped with cell phone signals, but in my experience, not all. 


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