If you think you want to go to Japan, but aren’t sure of you can move about the country without being able to read or speak Japanese, don’t worry. The Japanese mass transit system – arguably the finest in the world – has English as a second language. The network of ticket agents, trains and stations makes it easy for the car-less visitor to move around the country.
In Japan, most cities are connected to one another via JR (Japan Rail) lines. You can buy tickets as you go or use the JR Pass, which allows for unlimited travel for 7, 14 or 21 days. It does not take much moving around to make buying the pass the better financial decision. A roundtrip bullet train ride from Tokyo to Kyoto costs about the same as the pass, so if you are doing at least that, the pass makes sense. There are private rail lines not covered by the JR pass, but they mostly serve as commuter lines and function like above ground subways.
Before you leave, purchase the pass online. There are two types: first class (green car) and ordinary passes. Japan’s ordinary cars are wonderfully clean and comfortable, so save your money. After you place your order, they will personally email you to confirm, and about a week later you will receive an Exchange Order. This is not your pass; it is a voucher that is exchanged at a JR ticket office for the actual pass. Bring the Exchange Order with you, and when you get Japan go to one of these JR ticket offices with your passport. Fill out the simple form, tell the agent the start date and voila, you have a JR rail pass. If you fly into Tokyo’s Narita airport, just get your pass at the JR station here and then you don’t have to think about it later.
With pass in hand, you are ready to travel the country. So just how do you use it? If you are not going far, instead of going through the ticketed turnstiles at the station, go to the lane nearest the office. Just flash your pass to the agent and you are in. This works great for local trains where most seats are unreserved. Find your platform and get on the next train. If a conductor comes by, just show your pass.
If you are going a bit further, make a seat reservation. This sounds harder than it actually is, and having the reservation actually makes train travel easier. Each JR station has a ticket office that is staffed with wonderful people who speak English and are eager to help you. Hand over your pass and tell the agent where and when you want to travel. He or she will give you an itinerary with times, platforms, seat assignments and any applicable transfers and then hand you tickets with this same information printed on them in English. It is that is easy. You can make your reservation right before you travel, and is a good way to make sure you get on the correct train.
Remember, this pass must be purchased from outside of Japan.
The pass is kind of expensive, but it is a steal if you plan to do even a little traveling in Japan. It is easy to obtain, validate and use.