We arrived in Japan by ferry from Busan in South Korea and disembarked in the city of Fukuoka on the island of Kyushu. Knowing most of our travel in Japan would be by train, rail passes had already been purchased in South Korea as they can’t be bought in Japan itself. Our second workaway of the trip didn’t start for another 26 days and the maximum pass lasts for 21 days, this meant we had five days to get around and express buses are a cheap way to do so. Well, the cheapest way would be to hitchhike but having planned this trip around in advance, we had not yet heard and experienced how easy it was in Japan. If we return, hitchhiking more would be one of our first thoughts.
Bus / バス / basu
In the end we took four express buses, from Fukuoka to Nagasaki and back, Fukuoka to Hiroshima, and on leaving our workaway close to Matsuyama we travelled the length of Shikoku island to Osaka, not being sure we’d make it all the way by hitchhiking. (We were wrong – fellow workawayers got one lift from Toon to Osaka, 370km!)
We were very fortunate again with helpful friends, one of my Chinese friends put us in touch with someone who had lived in Japan previously. She told us how difficult booking buses can be without speaking much of the language and how some sell out quickly. She kindly offered to dust off her Japanese and called to reserve our tickets. This meant all we had to do was find the ticket office to collect and pay, very helpful! It cost us around £30 each per trip.
It was a different company for each route, but all were comfortable and easy to find. The bus stations were simple to understand, and in the cases where we couldn’t work out which gate ours left from, there was always someone helpful to ask. One important thing to note is you must keep your ticket for the whole journey after showing it to board. The driver always collected them as we got off the bus.
Train / 電車 / densha and bullet train / 新幹線 / shinkansen
Trains are expensive in Japan, with shockingly high prices as in the UK. The cheapest deal for foreigners is the JR (Japan Rail) Pass. The 21 day pass cost us about £400 each and considering it was a similar price to go to Hokkaido and back, it was a great deal for us. It’s such a good deal that the Japanese themselves aren’t allowed to buy it. There are some regional passes for a set number of days travel (some of which locals can use) but the main pass covers the whole of the four islands, barring a few private lines. This means shinkansen is covered, including the hayabusa from Tokyo to the bottom of Hokkaido. There are two exclusions to this, the commuter trains named nozomi and hikari, but this didn’t cause much of a problem, just an extra change in Shin-Osaka Station on one day.
Our second guide book for the trip that we carried all the way from home was Japan By Rail, the first being Trans-Siberian Handbook. I had spotted a version of it in Oxfam in Sheffield and gifted it to Mischa for Christmas, and then realised I’d found the first version from 2002. Fortunately my secret santa had a similar idea and gave me the latest version, a great book full of all the information we needed plus great pictures and maps to inspire us when deciding our route through the four islands.
There are two ways to ride a train, reserving a ticket for free or jumping into an unreserved carriage. We mostly reserved our tickets as we went along, to guarantee a seat, but when we didn’t we always managed to sit somewhere, if not together. Making a reservation means finding the JR ticket office, almost always queuing for some time, and saying, or showing, which train you want to catch. The app Japan Trains was very helpful in searching routes to show to the staff as they didn’t always speak English of course. In Kyoto Station we did spot a specifically international queue with English speaking staff, among other languages.
With or without a reservation ticket, to get through the barriers onto the platforms it was as easy as waving your JR pass in front of a manned booth. Very rarely would they take the pass and look in detail, mostly staff would glance for the start and expiring date, and sometimes even just smile at you and wave you along. Sometimes we made the mistake of going through the wrong barriers, in several stations the shinkansen trains leave from a separate area from the local platforms.
One time I managed to bin my upcoming reservation ticket and keep the previous one instead of vice versa. No problem, out of the many, many journeys we took, our tickets were only checked twice. Typically, like the South Korean trains, the conductors walk down the carriage and only question those sitting in reserved seats that should be empty for that stretch.
Another bonus to having the JR pass was that most of the big cities had local lines going through which we could use the pass on. This meant we only took the metro, bus or streetcar to get somewhere a local line didn’t go. Tokyo was the best for this, although super busy if you went too early in the morning of course. Apparently some JR buses work with the pass too but we never found one that we needed to take. Oh, and we only had one late train and that was one in Tokyo!
The whole process is very easy and I really looked forward to the train journeys we took, the ‘train days’. We rode on too many trains to do a detailed overview like in the previous Russian and Chinese train posts, so here’s a few photos from the journeys. One of my favourite things about Japan was how the trains weaved themselves through the buildings in cities and towns.