To build an epic vacation around train rides?
And to have your whole family in tow?
Me, my husband and our two kids, aged 14 and 8, were going to crisscross Japan via a series of train rides, to take advantage of one of the most advanced and efficient railway systems in the whole world.
From Tokyo we would go southward on an epic trip that would culminate in Kochi, one of the most remote places in the Land of the Rising Sun.
The trip would coincide with the blooming of the sakura or cherry blossoms in the springtime, so that we could experience this uniquely Japanese event country-wide.
Upon the recommendation of my friend Mika (our host in Kochi), we decided to purchase the so-called JR pass, a ride-all-you-can ticket from Japan Railways available only to foreign tourists to Japan. The only requirement prior to purchase was our passports stamped with the Japanese visa. It’s the cheapest way to travel, because a bullet train ride typically costs around 4000 to 8000 yen, one way (that’s between 2000 to 4000 pesos already).
A seven-day JR pass costs 29,000++ yen, and you can ride out to ANYWHERE in Japan within that period. Anywhere with a JR train station, that is. But no need to worry – the JR company operates all over Japan!
We arrived at Narita Airport on March 30, 2016 at around 8.30 in the evening.
Our first airbnb host who lived in Edogawa told us to take the Keisei train to her place. Keisei is one of several train companies in Japan. So we took the first train that we saw. We didn’t realize that there were two kinds of trains in Japan: the local and the express. Express meant fast; Local meant…well, slower than Express.
What should have taken about an hour of travel took us almost two hours.
But Ei Kimura proved to be an exceptionally patient host. Her place was awesome. It was ultra modern, complete with the ultra high-tech toilet (which even played a recording of whooshing water at the press of a button, ostensibly to help you relieve yourself). Since Ei knew I had kids, she even had kiddie slippers and toys ready. There were snacks on the tabletop, and beer in the fridge. There were even sailor-moon type uniforms, yucatas and kimonos in the closet, and towels in the bathroom. I didn’t have to take out any clothes from my bag. We were staying for only two nights. We wished we were staying for a couple more.
After spending the first night in Edogawa, we set out early morning for the JR ticket office in Shinjuku to have our JR Pass vouchers exchanged for actual train tickets. Not all JR ticket offices offer this service, so do some research beforehand.
Also: keep your phones loaded with a data plan or a pocket wifi connection so that you can go online anytime to check the train timetables and which stations you need to be in to catch a particular train (unless you can afford lots of time to get lost -we certainly couldn’t!)
Aside from the JR trains, there is also the Tokyo Metro, an independent subway line. Much of Roppongi, for instance, is serviced by the Metro. Knowing little facts like this can go a long way in saving you precious time and money on your trip!
This site contains a comprehensive timetable of trains operating in all of Japan at any given time.
We were blown away by the Shinagawa station, a major transportation hub. It was huge and imposing. There was a special section for the bullet trains (called “shinkansen” in Japanese). The human traffic and the Japanese walking briskly left a solid impression on us. My kids learned how to walk fast too, and to always move to the right side of the escalator so that the Japanese could run or brisk-walk over to the left side. They were quickly learning great traveler etiquette all around.
An important note about the shinkansen: they are not available at all the JR stations. They have a very particular route. For instance, the one we took had stops at Shin-Osaka, Osaka, Nagoya, Kyoto…and terminated in Okayama.
The weather seemed fine early in the day – but as we moved from Tokyo towards Kyoto, the weather started to turn. By the time we reached Kyoto Station (after around three hours’ travel), the whole world, including the Japanese, was drained of color, dressed in nothing but shades of black and white. Jackets, umbrellas, boots. It was so cold and so gloomy…
Next time, Kyoto. Next time!