Travel Agent's Asia editor, Mark Rogers, is traveling through Japan this week. In this dispatch he reveals the how-to on traveling the country via high-speed rail.
By no means am I an expert on traveling through Japan by high speed rail. But since I've now done the Tokyo/Kyoto route twice, there are a few tips I can share with novices. It's simpler than you think, even in a station as expansive and potentially confusing as Tokyo Station.
First you'll have to buy your Japan Rail Pass. There are two types of passes: Green for superior-class Green Cars and Ordinary for coach class. Each of these types can be purchased in a 7-day, 14-dfay or 21-day pass. The rail pass has to be purchased before arriving in Japan. There are six agencies in the U.S. selling the exchange order for a pass; you can go to www.japanrailpass.net for more information.
Once you're in Japan, you have to then turn in the exchange order to receive the actual pass. I got this out of the way quickly by using the Japan Rail Pass office in Tokyo's Narita Airport on arrival. Also, your pass doesn't have to be activated on the day of your arrival. You can begin the activation on the date you're actually going to ride the rails.
Tip - if you're planning to catch a train from Tokyo Station ask your taxi driver to leave you at the most convenient entrance for the JR office. This will save you time wandering down endless corridors.
Purchasing a rail pass makes you eligible to reserve seats on certain classes of trains, according to the pass you have. Definitely do this. It will save you a lot of stress when it comes time to board. Reserved seats also cost a bit more, so the cars I traveled on were less crowded.
On your ticket, you'll find your seat number and your car number - but not the track number. Make sure you ask the ticket clerk which track you'll be leaving from. As far as luggage goes, I had room for a small suitcase (the size of a flight carry-on bag) in the rack above my seat. If you're hauling a lot of luggage I imagine it could be a real hassle. If you're going to be returning through Tokyo, consider asking your Tokyo hotel to store some of your bags until you return. Train stations also have coin-operated coin lockers for those wishing to travel light.
Once you're on the train, you can sit back and relax. There's plenty of leg room, although the width of the seats is narrow. There's a pull-down tray similar to those on a flight. A nice touch is the hook next to the window where you can hang a jacket. There's no meal service to speak off (at least on the coach class train I traveled). An attendant regularly comes down the aisle pushing a cart with beverages and snacks. On the Tokyo/Kyoto route the waiting areas on the tracks had small convenience stores selling bento box meals and other items, so it's possible to put together a decent meal for the journey.
Once we got underway, I was looking forward to watching the scenery zip past - unfortunately it zipped by so fast it was disorienting. At their fastest, these trains move at 186.4 mph. As soon as my eyes focused on an object it had moved out of my vision. (Maybe there's a trick to getting past this, if so email me at [email protected].)
On my second trip by high-speed rail, I knew what to expect. The whole process from getting out of my cab at the Kyoto station, finding the JR Office, reserving my seat and finding my track took about three minutes. It was a sunny and crisp morning on the open-air track.
Before my train arrived, I had plenty of time to people watch, make a few notes and enjoy a can of hot green tea from a vending machine. More tomorrow.