Friday, 25 July 2014

Japan Journals: The Bullet Train & The Japan Rail Pass

Good Day Everyone,

If you are ever planning on travelling around Japan then I would definitely recommend getting the Japan Rail Pass. The only time I wouldn’t recommend the JRP is if you are staying in just one city, as it may not be the best value for money. For us, the JRP was definitely worth it as we had planned to visit Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe.

The JRP is a train pass that you can buy prior to visiting the country. You cannot buy the JRP once in Japan and it is only available for tourists. The JRP is valid on all bullet trains (shinkansen) except for the Nozomi train and the Mizuho train which are bullet trains that tend to stop at fewer stations, thus getting you from A to B more quickly. Whenever we travelled on the bullet train it was the one called Hikari. You can make seat reservations for free either at the train stations or online. The pass is also valid on some JR train lines and even some JR buses. In addition, it is also valid on the NEX (Narita Express) which is the train that takes you from Narita airport to central Tokyo. 

When you purchase the JRP you are given an exchange voucher. Once you arrive in Japan you then swap the exchange voucher for the actual JRP at designated outlets. You can order the JRP online (website here) and you will be sent the exchange voucher in the post. In Singapore, the JRP is available from various authorised sales agents on this website.

The JRP is valid for 7, 14 or 21 days and there are two types available for purchase; green which is like business class and ordinary which gives you access to standard train seats only. We opted for ordinary as the standard seats are very comfortable and spacious. An ordinary adult 7 day pass costs ¥28,300 (approx. $350SGD / £165 / $275USD) and a 14 day pass costs ¥45,100 (approx. $550SGD / £260 / $440USD). Traveling by bullet train isn’t cheap. Just to give you a rough idea, a one way ordinary ticket on the Hikari bullet train from Tokyo to Osaka costs around ¥14,200. So a return journey from Tokyo to Osaka would cover the cost of a 7 day JRP.

Initially we were thinking of buying the 14 day JRP as we were going to be in Japan for 11 days. We’d planned to start our trip in Tokyo where we would spend four nights, followed by four nights in Osaka with day trips to Kobe, and end with two nights in Kyoto. The 14 day JRP would cover all of our bullet train journeys from Tokyo to Osaka to Kobe to Kyoto and back to Tokyo as well as the return journey from Narita airport to Tokyo. 

However, after some research I came to the conclusion that this was not the best value for money. The four nights that we would be in Tokyo, we would not be able to use the JRP as Tokyo has a subway system and not many JR train lines. The JRP is not valid on the subways. Also, as we are only going to be in Japan for 11 days we are automatically losing three days of the 14 day pass. Consequently, I rejigged our itinerary so that we did most of our travel from city to city within the first 7 days and made Tokyo our final city as it is the closest to Narita airport. This way, we got away with buying a 7 day JRP and then just paid for a one way trip from Tokyo to Narita airport. 

Our revised itinerary consisted of 4 nights in Osaka, followed by two nights in Kyoto and ended with the last 4 nights in Tokyo. When we left Tokyo we got a coach shuttle service from our hotel to Narita airport which cost ¥3,100 per person. Re-organising our itinerary meant that we only spent ¥31,400 on our bullet train and NEX travel, rather ¥45,100 if we had bought the 14 day JRP, thus saving money for shopping :o).

Once we landed at Narita airport we made our way to the basement where we swapped our exchange order for the actual JRP and used this to travel on the NEX from the airport to Tokyo station. The journey took about an hour. The NEX train is very comfortable and spacious with reclining seats, ample leg space and little pull down tray tables in the back of the seat in front. There are luggage racks at either end of the carriages where you can store your suitcases. The luggage racks have numerical padlocks so that you can actually lock your suitcases onto the rack and have peace of mind that no one is going to walk off with your suitcase by mistake.
NEX train seats
NEX train luggage racks with locks

From Tokyo station we got the Hikari bullet train to Osaka which took around 3 hours. The bullet trains were absolutely amazing to look at. We travelled on the Tokaido line which runs from Tokyo to Osaka and on that line the bullet trains reach an operating speed of 270km/h! There’s something very magical about these long, sleek, sophisticated pieces of engineering. My hubby would get very excited every time a bullet train would pull in/out of a train station, but you don’t have to be an engineering geek to admire their beauty. Even I couldn’t suppress my inner geek from rising to the surface and staring in awe. I don’t know whether it’s their sleek, long rounded noses or them being one of the most iconic symbols of Japanese engineering, but there was something very moving and inspiring about these modern wonders. If you pop over to my Instagram account, which is GlisteningSheen, there is a short video clip of the bullet trains :o)

However, as much as they are captivating on the outside, the bullet trains are incredibly functional on the inside. Given their grandeur the inside might be a little disappointing to some but it serves its purpose. Unlike trains in England, the bullet train seats all face the same way. This means that there are no seats with tables but you do have the little pull out tray tables and the seats recline. The bullet trains do not have as much leg room as the NEX train. Also, there are no luggage racks at the end of the carriages and so the only space to store your suitcases is on the racks above your head or by your knees.  

The bullet trains and indeed all of the trains were incredibly clean and tidy. Whenever we travelled by bullet train, it was very common to see Japanese passengers having their lunch (or breakfast or supper) on the train. Most people bought their food with them, although there is a refreshment trolley that does the rounds. Whenever the staff member would leave or enter a train carriage with the refreshment trolley he/she would bow to greet the passengers and I absolutely love that about the Japanese culture… it is very respectful and courteous. Whilst it is very common for passengers to have their meal on the bullet train, every single passenger disposes of their own rubbish and we never once saw anyone leave their rubbish behind. Passengers also return their seats to the upward position when leaving the train. In fact, when we were getting of our first bullet train journey at Osaka, a Japanese gentleman moved my seat from the reclined position to upright. As this was my first time on the bullet train I hadn’t realised that this was the done thing and when I looked around everyone was ensuring that their reclined seat was in the upright position. I thanked the gentleman and apologised explaining that this was my first time in Japan and he was very understanding. Needless to say after that, I always made sure I left my seat in the upright position. 

When you get the JRP it states that you should always carry your passport along with the pass itself, just in case a ticket inspector asks to see it, but we were never once asked to show our passports. We did however have to show our JRP to the ticket inspector at the ticket counter at the start and end of every journey, as well as on the bullet trains themselves.

On a clear day, when you travel from Tokyo to Kyoto you can actually see a snow capped Mount Fuji in the distance. We missed it the first time round but managed to see it when we were travelling from Kyoto back to Tokyo. 
A snow capped Mount Fuji in the distance
Traveling by bullet train was something that my hubby had always wanted to do and whilst it was never on my wish list, I am incredibly happy to have had the experience and it’s definitely something I would recommend.  From our experience, we would recommend making seat reservations as this way you are more likely to get a window seat which is a great way to see more of this wonderful country. 

Have you travelled by bullet train? What was your experience? If you are planning a trip to Japan then I would recommend the following websites that were most useful to me when I was preparing for our trip;

Love Sheen xxx

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