For me it was over an 18 hour journey from Toronto and by the time I got through immigration, picked up my JR Rail Pass and got to the Shinkasen in Tokyo and was on my way to Osaka I was jet lagged and cultured shocked. It was my first time in Asia and although not scary – I did feel like I was on a different planet.
I opted to use my JR Rail Pass to the max and activate it on my first day in Japan. You can activate it whenever you like – you just need to let the JR Rail Office Attendant know at Narita Airport who will stamp your JR Rail Pass book accordingly.
Don’t be afraid to use public transit and the Shinkansen in Japan. Not only is it easy to use but it is safe, labelled with English signage and there are Train Station Gate Attendants who may speak limited English but are happy to help if you point out your destination on a map.
I would recommend to start off in Osaka. Use Osaka as your home base for hotel accommodation and then take day trips to Kyoto, Hiroshima, Inari, Nara etc.. After 7 days in the south I made my way back up to Tokyo and spent my remaining 7 days in the city whilst using local subways to get around. I rarely used the bus lines as the subways were faster. Be aware you will be walking miles underground to catch subway connections. Wear comfy shoes in transit!
Narita Express and the Shinkansen
The first stop for me was to take the Narita Express to Tokyo and transfer to the Shinkansen to Osaka.
When you arrive at Narita Airport and activate your JR Rail Pass at the JR Rail Office the Office Attendant will reserve you a ticket on the Narita Express into Tokyo. The Narita Express is covered with your JR Rail Pass into Tokyo. The journey takes little over an hour. Once you get into the city, grab the Shinkansen to Osaka which is around a three hour journey. The JR Rail Office Attendant also reserved me a ticket on the Shinkansen to Osaka.
The Narita Express also stops at certain stations in the city during high traffic times – look at the schedule online and keep that mind when booking your plane ticket. You don’t want to pay too much cash for transit into the city if you can help it. http://www.jreast.co.jp/e/nex/
Keep you tickets safe as they will indicate your seat number and train cab number. They may also be checked by a Train Station Attendant inside the train. The platforms are labelled with the cab numbers so find your spot before the Shinksansen enters the station. The Shinkansen arrives on time and leaves on time. It waits for no one. J
If you are going to be strategic with your JR Rail Pass and when you choose to activate it – grab another option into the city. Timing your JR Rail Pass use is important. My JR Rail Pass was used to give me a round trip journey between Osaka and Tokyo. That was a huge savings for me. The Narita Express just happened to fit into my first leg of my journey so I took advantage of that. The JR Rail pass can get you onto sightseeing buses and ferries for free so it is worth the investment. Keep it on you at all times once it is activated along with your id.
For local train travels (Ltd. Express, Super express etc.) using the local trains between Osaka and Kyoto, Nara, Inari etc. – you do not need to reserve a seat. Just show your JR Rail Pass to the Train Station Gate Attendant and they will wave you through. If you are going to Hiroshima on a day trip from Osaka and then back to Tokyo within your JR Rail pass activated timeline, get a Shinkansen ticket and reserve a seat ahead of time at the Midori-no-madoguchi office at a local JR Rail Station for both trips.
Note: The local city Osaka and Kyoto subway and bus lines are not covered with your JR Rail I rarely used them when I was in those cities. In Kyoto, I bought a 500 yen day pass for after my walking tour to get over to the Golden Temple and back. This was worth the investment as each journey would be 250 yen which is very affordable and cheaper than a taxi stuck in traffic.
On my way home between Tokyo and Narita Airport, I paid $30 CAD to grab the Narita Express. I could have used the Skyliner or the Friendly Airport Limousine (bus) as they were cheaper, but I had a long journey home back to Toronto and wanted to save my energy and splurge on the comfy Narita Express again. It was a good choice!
I purchased a Tokyo Subway 72 hour Adult Pass (1500 yen) x 2 for my last week in Tokyo. This was far more cost effective than buying a $500 CAD JR Pass for the two weeks I was in Japan.
I passed on the Suica Pass. I’m glad I did – it would have been a waste. Being a foreigner take advantage of the travel deals. But again it really depends on your needs – map out your journey ahead of time for your Tokyo travel. If a JR Rail pass, Suica, ICOCA, bus pass etc. are more to your liking – do what fits your needs.
Trains are super to easy navigate in Japan. Ask a Train Station Gate Attendant if you have questions – they may speak limited English but if you are polite and say “Hello” in Japanese and then ask for “Osaka” for example? They will point you to the platform to grab the train to Osaka. You shouldn’t have any issues – check the digital train platform boards and grab the train that applies to you.
I hit up Information Centres in a local mall or shopping centre when I arrived in the cities that I visited to pick up maps, ask for directions and just get acclimatized. I encourage you to do the same. I liked the Seibu Tourist Information Centre Ikebukuro when I was in Tokyo. They were very helpful and kind. In Osaka and Kyoto you can find Information Centres in the local train stations. Check their hours of service before you leave the hotel for the day.