Oudavanh's Japanese Rail Adventure

Staff member: Oudavanh // Trip date: Nov 2011

Exchange order for the Japan rail pass.

I was so excited to come to Japan. I couldn't wait to get there, so when our connecting flight from Sydney to Tokyo had been delayed until the following morning due to engineering problems, our trip wasn't off to the best start.
Anyway, we finally made it to Japan the following day. We arrived into Narita Airport about 7pm. After going through customs and collecting our luggage, we made our way outside of the arrival gates and went downstairs to the railways area. We went to the JR Travel Center to exchange our voucher for the rail pass. We had to fill in a form and present our passports along with the exchange orders. The consultant checked our passports, validated our exchange orders, and also asked the start date for our JR passes.
We planned to use it on the Narita Express into Tokyo today. She stamped the start date, and also the last date of validity the pass can be used for. We had a 14 day pass, so the pass was valid 14 days from the start date. Once it has been stamped, you cannot change the date, so you do need to know the date you want to start using it.
After collecting our JR passes, I asked what time the next Narita Express was leaving.
I told the consultant we were staying in Shibuya for the night, so she reserved 2 seats for us on the Narita Express leaving at 7:49pm. Children under 6 years old are free on the trains in Japan if they sit on your lap, so we didn't need a ticket for Eden.
We were issued with seat reservation tickets for the Narita Express, and made our way down the escalator to the Narita Express track (platform). It arrived right on time. This was a direct service and the journey time to Shibuya was about 1 hour.

On board the Narita Express

After putting our luggage away in the luggage area, we made our way to our seats.
The N'EX has luggage storage areas located at the end of each carriage. They have combination locks on them if you want to lock your luggage but I didn't see anyone using the locks. There are also over head racks where you can put your smaller bags.
The N'EX has reserved seating only, you can purchase reserved seat tickets or book your seats with your JR pass at any JR Ticket office (Midori-no-madoguchi), Travel Service Centers, reserved seat ticket machines and major travel agencies in Japan from one month in advance. **When booking seats back to Narita Airport on the N'EX you need to know which terminal your airline is departing from as it stops at Terminal 1 and Terminal 2. **

Once on board, a ticket inspector came around and checked our tickets. We showed him our JR pass and our N'EX reserved seat tickets.

There are monitors that tell you the route of the train, which station it is passing and stopping at. There are also announcements made in both Japanese (first) then English a few minutes before arriving at each station, to enable passengers to get themselves ready. The train stops less than a minute, so you do need to be ready and waiting by the door to exit the train.

Reserving seats on the Shinkansen with a JR pass

Seat reservations are free with a JR pass, and I would recommend booking your seats because the bullet trains do get quite full as the locals use the trains to commute to and from work between cities, and the locals also use them to.
You can book your seats a day before you plan to travel, or on the day of travel which I did for most of our trips. Once you have reserved your seats you will receive a seat reservation ticket with your date, departure time, carriage and seat number.

On board the Shinkansen

The trains have reserved and non-reserved carriages, so make sure you are standing in the right carriage number line as your ticket if you have reserved your seats.
Seats on the Shinkansen are configured with 2 seats and some with 3 seats together on some bullet trains and all are forward facing in the direction the train is traveling.
There are vending machines, toilets, luggage storage areas on the trains.
There are also attendants who go from carriage to carriage pulling a trolley selling light snacks, soft drinks, tea and coffee. They will also come back to collect the rubbish.
One thing that really stood out with these trains is that they are clean! On all the bullet trains we took, I did not see one scrap of rubbish lying around on the floor or seat and no graffiti. They are spotless. Japanese people also don't leave their rubbish lying around too, so if an attendant didn't come by to collect their rubbish, they would take their rubbish with them.

Rules for traveling on the JR train lines and Shinkansen

When traveling on the JR trains and Shinkansen, the most important thing to do is turn your mobile off or put it to silent. If you need to answer or make a phone call, you can go to the end of the carriage on the Shinkansen, but on the JR trains, you actually need to get off the train. The Japanese consider talking on mobiles on the trains very bad manners.
They also make announcements about mobile phones each time the train stops to pick up more passengers and there are also signs around the trains. They also say crossing your legs while sitting on the train is rude too!

Exiting the train stations

We had to present our JR passes each time we entered and exited the train stations to the platform areas. If you have a JR pass you will need to enter and exit through the wheelchair barriers where there is a train officer to open the gates for you. The other barriers are for people with the electronic scanned tickets only.

Kyoto

Tokyo to Kyoto was one of the first Shinkansen (bullet train) trips we were going to take on our trip. My little boy absolutely loves trains, so he was very excited about going on the super fast train.

We took the Yamanote JR line from Shibuya to Shinagawa. No seat reservations are required on the JR lines as you just hop on the train and take any available seat (if you can find one) or stand. I had booked our seats from Shinagawa to Kyoto on the Hikari Shinkansen at Shibuya station. JR passes are not valid on the Nozomi (Hope) trains, so you can only take the Hikari or Kodama Shinkansen when traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto.
All the bullet trains look basically the same, so to help passengers tell which is a Nozomi train, there are screens located outside the door of the train, displaying train name, train number and also destination. There are also screens/computerized wall boards on the platform with this information as well - in both Japanese and English.

The normal Shinkansen travels up to 300km per hour, where as the Nozomi travels even faster. It took us just under 3 hours from Tokyo to Kyoto. The train traveled so fast, it was a bit hard to take good scenic photos with a compact camera.

Kyoto JR train station

Kyoto JR train station is huge. It has an up market department store called Isetan, small boutiques, restaurants, cafes, a tourist information centre, and also a 5 star hotel. It is a pretty impressive building and is located right in front of Kyoto Tower. You can pretty much spend all day at this train station, but even then I don't think one day will be enough if you want to see all the shops they have here.

Sights and places we visited while in Kyoto.

Nijo Castle

We took a bus to Nijo Castle. JR passes are not valid on the city buses in Kyoto, so we had to buy a 1 day city bus pass which cost us ¥500 per adult. You can buy the bus pass at the bus terminal located outside the front Kyoto JR train station, or from the Tourist Information Desk at the train station.
The bus number to get to Nijo Castle is bus number 9, 50 or 101 from Kyoto train station.
The bus trip took about 15 minutes and stops right outside the castle. Entry fee to the castle was ¥600 per adult.
Nijo Castle is listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site and dates back to the 16th century. The castle covers approximately 8000sq meters and has two fortifications, one is known as the inner walls and the outer is the outer walls. The inner wall's is where Honmaru Palace is situated and on the outer walls, is where Ninomaru Palace and guard house is.
We went into Ninomaru Palace as Honmaru Palace was not open for visitors. Before entering the palace, we had to remove our shoes and no photography is allowed inside the palace.
This palace was huge, with several reception rooms where guests were entertained back in the day and also several living quarters for the shoguns used to live. The floors of this palace called nightingale floors squeak as you walk on them. They were purposely made to squeak as a security measure against intruders.
Once we walked through the palace corridors, we got our shoes and walked to see the beautiful Ninomaru garden. I love Japanese gardens, as they always look so serene and peaceful. You can't walk on the garden as there are small barriers protecting the landscape.

Gion

Later in the evening we went to Gion which is where the novel 'Memoirs of a Geisha' is based from.
I was told the best time to visit Gion was early evening if you wanted to see real Geisha walking to work. We took the city bus from Kyoto station to Gion (bus number 100 or 206). It took about 20 minutes to get there. After walking down the street for about 15 minutes, we actually saw a real life geisha. I read somewhere that it was rare to see real geisha these days (and not fake ones where people can dress up as one) so when we did see one, not only I was excited but also local Japanese people and tourists too.
She was waiting to cross the street and was dressed in the full traditional Geisha kimono and dramatic make-up. She looked quite beautiful and definitely stood out from the crowd. She also wore wooden platform thongs and I have no idea how anyone could walk gracefully in them without tripping over, but the geisha made it look so effortlessly and graceful.
After that excitement, we continued our way down the streets. It pretty much looks the same as Kyoto with small boutiques and department stores, but if you wander into one of the small alleyways, you will feel like you are transported back in time. In the small alleys is where you can find elegant teahouses (where geisha entertain) and first class Japanese restaurants.
I really enjoyed coming to Gion, it is a really charming place and I definitely would recommend coming here.

Hiroshima

We left Kyoto the next day to travel to Hiroshima. I reserved our seats at the JR ticket office. We had to change trains in Shin-Osaka. Only the Nozomi trains are direct which I later found out.

Hiroshima JR train station.
This train station is not quite as grand or big as Kyoto train station, but it was still pretty big. There are restaurants, cafes, shops and also a tourist information centre.
We exited the train station and made our way to our hotel which was right in front of the train station.
** A handy tip- make sure you do your research on which exit to use at the train station to go to your hotel as the train stations in Japan are huge and have east, west, south, south etc exits. **

Sights and places we visited in Hiroshima

Atomic Bomb Dome and Peace Memorial Park

After settling into our hotel room, we made our way back to the train station to find out how to get to the A-bomb dome and Peace Park. To get to the A-Bomb dome and park, we had to catch the street car outside the front of the train station. A one way trip on the street car cost us ¥150 per adult. We caught the street car to the Peace Memorial Park, and walked to the A-Bomb dome. The sight itself was very confronting given the history behind it and why the building is now known the A-bomb dome. Before the atomic bomb hit Hiroshima, the building where the bomb hit was known as Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall.
We wandered around the site, and then left to walk around the Peace Memorial Park. There are monuments and around the park dedicated to the children and people who died because of the bomb.
Across the road we went to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum which was ¥50 per adult. The museum was quite interesting, and holds exhibits with artifacts destroyed by the bomb and they even have a replica of the atomic bomb on display.

Miyajima Island

The next day we went to Miyajima Island. To get here, we caught the JR Sanyo Line from Hiroshima station to Miyajima-guchi station using our JR pass. The train trip took about 30 minutes. No seat reservations are required on the JR train lines.
We arrived at Miyajima-guchi train station and walked to the ferry port to catch the ferry to Miyajima. The ferry to this island is free for JR pass holders. The ferry took about 10 minutes to get to the island.
The island is one of the top 3 most scenic places in Japan to visit and I can see why.
The island is famous for the Itsuushima Shrine and the O-Torii Gate. The O-Torri gate sits in the water and during high tide, it looks like as if the gates are floating peacefully in the water.
The island is full of wild deer, who wander freely around the island. As soon as we left the ferry building, there were deer everywhere! They were sleeping under trees, baking in the sun and just wandering around. They don't bite or attack as long you don't provoke them, but they aren't shy either. They come up to you and sniff you, which freaked me out a bit but then after a while you just get used to it because there are so many.
The island has many souvenir shops, restaurants and hiking trails you can take around the island.
This is definitely a place to visit if you come to Hiroshima.

Tokyo

The next day we traveled back to Tokyo on the Shinkansen. The train journey took about 5 hours with a change of trains in Shin-Osaka and Tokyo on the Shinkansen. We then had to catch the JR Chuo line to Shinjuku which was where we were staying. We had reserved seating to Shin-Osaka and Tokyo.
Shinjuku JR train station is again, big. We left from the south exit to get to our hotel.
It had just started to rain so carrying Eden who had fallen asleep and also my hand luggage was no easy feat.

The next few days we spent traveling on the trains around Tokyo.

Ginza district:

If you love to shop especially for exclusive designer bags, clothing and accessories, then you will LOVE Ginza. I certainly did. While there are many designer stores located at the up market department stores around Tokyo, Ginza has the actual stand alone boutiques, such Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Dior, Cartier, just to name a few. In my first 10 minutes walking around Ginza, I saw at least 10 LV bags, 5 Gucci bags, 1 Hermes bag on ladies shoulders. I definitely had walked into handbag designer heaven,
On weekends, they close off the main roads in Ginza to cars, so people can walk freely. This was place was packed full of people, either window shopping or shopping for their next Chanel 2.55 bag.

Akihabara:

This is known electric town. All the shops in this area sell all kinds of electronic stuff. From the latest cameras, to mobile phones you will find absolutely everything here.

Shibuya:

Another exciting area we visited. This place is where the younger crowd will hang out. It was very crowded and I thought there was some kind of event happening, but apparently this is how it is normally in Shibuya.

Tokyo central:

Tokyo Imperial palace: a 10 minute walk from Tokyo JR train station. The palace itself is closed off to the public, but you can still visit the palace grounds outside the palace.

World Trade Center Observatory:

Entry fee is ¥620 per adult, and you get to travel up to the 40th floor. Here you have panoramic views of Tokyo. You can also see Mt Fuji from here too.

Tokyo Disneyland and Disney Sea

As a birthday treat for Eden, we took him to Disneyland and Disney Sea on the last 2 days of our trip.
To get to the Disney resort, we caught the Chuo line from Shinjuku to Tokyo, then the Keiyo Line from Tokyo to Maihama which is the stop for the Disney resort.

The journey took about 30 minutes. A thing to be aware of, when arriving at Tokyo station, you will need to walk a good 10 minutes if you're a fast walker and maybe 15-20 minutes if you are slow walker to the platform where the Keiyo line departs and arrives from. There are plenty of signs at Tokyo station to guide to the Keiyo line platform.

Last day in Tokyo

It was our last day of our whirlwind trip. We decided to spend the day shopping around Shinjuku. Before leaving on our shopping spree, I went to change our N'EX seat reservations to a later train at Shinjuku station. We had booked them the day before, but as our flight wasn't until later that evening we decided to take a later train. You can change your reservations free of charge.
After sorting that out, we met up with my husband's cousin who has lived in Japan for nearly 10 years. He showed us around Shinjuku to all the good places to eat and shop.
Shinjuku is mainly full of skyscrapers (well all of Tokyo practically is anyway). If you travel outside to the west and east side of Shinjuku station, this is where you will find most of the entertainment areas and shops.

Summary of trip

I absolutely loved traveling around Japan by train. Before coming over, I was a bit worried with the language barrier and I had forgotten most of my Japanese which I had studied in high school. But the people in Japan are so friendly and extremely helpful especially in Kyoto and Hiroshima. Even if they couldn't speak much English they will still try and help you with directions.
Also being a major tourist destination, there are plenty of signs in English at the train stations, and on the trains too.
I would 100% recommend in buying the Japan Rail pass as train travel is the main mode of transport to get around Japan. Remember to buy the JR pass before you leave Australia and visiting Japan as a tourist only. You can't use a JR pass if you coming to Japan for work purposes and you can't buy the JR pass in Japan. And if you think the point to point fares will be cheaper, forget it! I asked what a one way fare would be from Tokyo to Kyoto, and it was approximately AUD200 per person one way.
The Japan rail pass is definitely value for money

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