The rail system in Japan is huge and complex but it’s also kind of simple once you get used to it.
Once you understand that the Yamanote line circles Tokyo, and that each station on it has multiple connecting train lines, it becomes very easy to get around.
Some stations (such as Shinagawa) have so many different lines going into them it’s mind-boggling!
Purchasing train tickets
It’s easy to buy train tickets as the automatic vendors can be used in English. However tickets aren’t listed as station = price but instead from a minimum to maximum price. We didn’t know what we were doing so we just took pot-shot guesses at our ticket prices and it usually worked out.
But, after reading a fabulous post over at Troo Adventure, I now know a better way! What you should do is buy the cheapest ticket to board the train and then visit the fare adjustment machine once you have arrived at your destination. This ensures that you’ll always pay the right amount.
If you’ve bought a Japan Rail Pass (you should) you won’t have to worry about buying train tickets for a while. Once you’ve exchanged your Japan Rail Pass (JRP) for an actual ticket, it will allow you travel on any JR rail line (including Shinkansen and the Yamanote circle line) for the amount of days your pass is valid for. Just show your pass to the guard at the side of the entrance gates and you’re good to go!
Exchanging the JRP for a ticket
You gave me entirely the wrong information! Who would’ve thought that the internet would be full of out-dated forum threads and half-truths? ;D
The internet lead me to believe that JR passes can be exchanged at any Midori-no madoguchi for a ticket.
This is not true!
For starters these centres are not for exchanging JRPs they are for reserving seats on the Shinkansen.
Secondly, there are only certain places that will exchange the JRP for international travellers. I didn’t have time to find out where they all were but there is definitely one at Shibuya Train Station.
Finally, the place to exchange your Rail Pass (at least at Shibuya) is at the Information Centre just around the corner from the Midori-no madoguchi.
The information centre is a very small, round booth that is in the centre of the walkway near the West Exit. Everything is clearly labelled in English so just follow the signs. If you can’t see ‘West Exit’ when you first leave your train, go in the direction of the South Exit to find it.
Booking Shinkansen Seats
Once you’ve exchanged your pass for a ticket (make sure you have your passport!) you can take the ticket to the Midori-no madoguchi and reserve your seat.
Tell your server your destination and preferred departure time. The attendants use computers that give them English translations, so if they need to tell you something they can write it down. This is how we ended up on the Hikari Shinkansen rather than the Kodama.
Your server will tell you which station you need to depart from (most likely Shinagawa). It’s a quick and easy process – make your way to your departure station and off you go!
The Shinkansen is a very large train so make sure to take note of your carriage number and seat number. There will be signs at the edge of the platform that tell you where to stand to board specific carriages.
Economy seats are very roomy and comfortable so there’s no need to cough up for the green seats. You can buy food (noodles, sandwiches etc.) from the attendants and there are vending machines for drinks.
If you are on the Hikari keep an eye out to your right as you will most likely see Fuji-san and it will be a wonderful moment (our cabin attendant actually brought it to our attention).
Arrival in Kyoto
Before you arrive (as in, well before you arrive) in Kyoto, I recommend finding out which exit to take to reach your hotel. There are north, west, east, south and central exits! We didn’t think to find this information beforehand and had to get a taxi instead. But it was ok because, unlike Tokyo, taxis in Kyoto are quite cheap.
I also highly recommend writing down locations and addresses, printing out maps and bus/train schedules and translating your addresses into Japanese on GoogleTranslate before you even leave for your holiday. We experienced very limited access to wifi and any/all of this would have helped immensely. We still got there in the end but we did have to miss an outing or two as well.
As it turned out, it was a good thing we took a taxi because we had exited on the wrong side of the train station!
Proptip: if a taxi is sat with its back door open, it’s available for use.
Again, we were early for our check-in, so we left our bags at the hotel and immediately set off to find the Miyako Odori, glad that our first experience with the Japanese rail system was surprisingly smooth.
Next post: the mind-bogglingly enchanting Miyako Odori.
Until next time,
Kally & Mon.
[Feature Image Credit: Japan Guide]
[Image Credit (1): Peas on Toast]
[Image Credit (2): Japan Visitor]
[Image Credit (3): Japan Rail]
[Image Credit (4): Meme Generator]
[Image Credit (5): Monique Nielsen]
Where did you exchange your JPR? Are there any other convenient locations to do this? Leave a comment and let us know 🙂