Travelling in Japan is rather easy compared to many other countries thanks to excellent rail network running across whole country and connecting most of the cities, including many smaller ones. If you’re planning your trip to Japan I still have a few useful tips for you:
- Get yourself JR Pass (Japan Rail Pass) – this is a special card for foreign tourists that will allow you to use vast majority of trains in Japan including super fast Shinkansen trains (apart from a few fastest connections) without additional fee. Despite the fact JR Pass isn’t cheap, as it costs around 260 USD for 7 days and 530 USD for 21 days, you will probably save hundreds of dollars if you intend to travel through Japan as single Shinkansen ticket can cost fortune, eg. single one-way ticket for Hikari Shinkansen from Tokyo to Osaka costs around 130 USD!
Please note that you cannot buy JR Pass while in Japan so make sure to get it in advance and you better not loose it. Once you buy it you will receive a voucher that needs to be replaced for your JR Pass once you arrive in Japan. You can exchange it at major airports and railway stations.
- If you don’t want or can’t get JR Pass for some reason, alternative might be to fly between major cities. A number of low cost carriers operate in Japan such as Peach or Japan Air Commuter (which is part of Japan Airlines group) and they often offer very good priced tickets (prices might be comparable or even lower than Shinkansen trains tickets).
- Reserve seats in your trains especially if you intend to travel during rush hours (usually 7 – 9 am), during holiday season or on popular routes like eg. Shinkansen between Tokyo and Osaka as many trains can be really crowded in such cases. Also note that some trains on most popular routes require reserving seats (eg. Narita Express connecting Narita International Airport with Tokyo). Also for some most popular routes you might need to make reservation a few days in advance. Usually, however, you should be able to that on the same day as your departure.
- Use Hyperdia website to find most convenient connections to your destination. This website is very accurate and most of the time it finds best connections (during 21 days there were only 2 cases when I found better ones manually). Also when reserving a seat as mentioned in previous point, you can simply show found connection to a person in ticket office and they will make reservations for you (otherwise you might have problems in reserving your seat as apart from biggest stations there aren’t many English speaking people in JR ticket offices).
- Make sure to either rent wi-fi modem or get wi-fi SIM card for your smartphone (eg. this one or this one) – it will make your life much easier, eg. if you need to look up train connection, translate a word from English to Japanese or use Google Maps.
- Use baggage forwarding services known as takkyubin – there is often limited space in trains and also carrying heavy and bulky bags is never pleasant so instead of taking your bags everywhere with you, you can forward them to your next destination. Baggage forwarding in Japan is very reliable, fast (bags are usually delivered on the next day), quite cheap and many hotels let you forward the baggage directly from them to your next hotel. Also there are a few companies that offer such services like Yamato Transport or Japan Post.
I paid about 25 dollars for 2 large backpacks we had with us and was carrying just my camera gear with me when travelling by train. When I arrived at my destination hotel, baggage was always already there 🙂 BTW it’s also a good idea to have destination address written in Japanese.
- English language is virtually useless in majority of Japan, including many hotels, restaurants and taxis even in major cities. So you should either learn some basic Japanese phrases or try to communicate with gestures and/or Google Translate (but beware – it often caused more confusion for me than it helped 🙂 ). I found it easiest to communicate in English in Osaka.
Although station names are usually written both in Japanese and Latin alphabet there are cases when only Japanese name is given (pretty rare but I came across it several times) so it might be good idea to remember Japanese name as well when travelling through less developed areas.