Japan's iconic bullet train lives up to its reputation. Fast, clean and always on time, the bullet train (Shinkansen) travels up and down Japan's main rail network, transporting you from hub cities like Tokyo and Kyoto in a matter of hours. Trains travel at speeds up to 300 kph and are a great travel experience. The city to city centre network means that they can be time saving as well, much quicker than travelling via Japan's notoriously remote airports.
The downside is that train travel can be very expensive, particularly at today's exchange rates. A single ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto starts from GBP100! However, there is a solution... if you are a visitor to Japan then before you travel you should get yourself a Japan Rail Pass. Available in 7, 14 and 21 day flavours, you can save a huge amount of money if you plan to travel more than a couple of times on Japan's rail network. A 7 day Japan Rail Pass costs around GBP235 at current exchange rates - just slightly more than the price of a return journey.
More details can be found at www.japanrail.com/JR_shinkansen.html
Your local travel agent or www.japantravel.co.uk can sell you a Japan Rail Pass
Remember, you have to get a Japan Rail Pass before you leave for Japan and it must be validated once you arrive in Japan. My recommendation is that get yourself a reserved ticket whenever you travel, as services can get quite busy at times. You can get reservations just 30 mins prior to travel. When you get to the Shinkansen station, go to the ticket office and ask for a reserved seat or go to the English speaking Tourist Information centre in the main stations for further help.
One additional tip, if travelling with a group of friends, also note that the seats also spin around so that you can sit face to face. Just place your foot on the lever under the seat and spin (thanks to a local passenger for showing my friends and I this!)
If you fly into Narita, go to the JR ticket office (on the lowest floor where the trains leave from) and there they have a combo offer allowing you to buy a Narita Express ticket (the train to get you into Tokyo) and get a Suica card (the Japanese Oyster card equivalent) at the same time. The best bit is that the combined cost is little more than the cost of the Narita Express ticket on its own and the Suica card comes with 1500yen preloaded on it and you don't have to pay the usual 500yen deposit. You need your passport to be able to take up the offer..
Unusually – only London and New York share the virtue – Japan’s capital has two major airports – Narita and Haneda. It is almost certain, if you’re flying from the US or Europe, that you’ll arrive at the former but remember to check your ticket especially when you’re leaving the city. They are very (very, very) far from one another so, arrive at the wrong one, and you’ll be in trouble.
Narita may be accessible but Tokyo’s city centre is anything but from Narita. A little known gem of trivia is that the two are almost 2 hours apart (!); and a taxi (of any kind) is ruinously expensive (over £200). Important tip then: if you’re not a CEO, take the train. It’s quicker, infinitely cheaper and unsusceptible to the horrors of Tokyo traffic.
Take the remarkable bullet train to Kyoto and sample the wonders of ancient Japan. Kyoto’s city centre may not seem like much, but you’ll be charmed by the extraordinarily preserved Buddhist temples and the warm, simple hospitality of the traditional ryokan (an old-school Japanese inn).
Depending on where you are staying, it may actually take you longer to take the 'airport express' train than the coach. The coach takes from 70-90 minutes but saves you travelling to the train station (particularly during rush hour) and can often pick you up from the hotel.
Ask at your hotel
Faced with the prospect of navigating a domestic train system in a foreign language could be a daunting task. However, taking the bullet train (shinkensen) is no where near as scary as it may first appear. Go to the tourist information centre in the main stations and you will be given a step by step process and timetable. Get yourself a seat reservation and buy your ticket at the machine or at the desk. Much quicker taking the train over distances up to several hours than trekking all the way to the airport.
If you've got yourself some spare time whilst in Tokyo, why not escape to some Yokohama. Here you could visit the iconic Rainbow wheel, a huge shopping mall and a waterfront park. 'Escaping' from Tokyo, you will be delighted by the (marginal) increase in space and sense of openness as a breeze blows over the water. Get a train from numerous stations across Tokyo, including key stations such as Shinjuku.
This has to be the best and cheapest way to travel around Japan, providing you go everywhere. It has to be purchased outside of Japan and then the invoice is exchanged for a pass at one of the stations (maybe the airport I can't quite remember). You cannot buy it within Japan as it is only for tourists.
The pass works on all national and local trains using the JR lines.
Don't forget to flash the pass as you walk pass the station guards.
I recommend you download the timetables too.
This is a comprehensive guide to taking the subway in Tokyo and provides links to an English map and an online planning tool. It's very useful whether you live in Tokyo or are just planning a visit. The site also offers travel tips and reviews.
Use the Yamanote Japan Railway line to move around the city. Trains run every 3 minutes and are always on time. Announcements on the trains are in Japanese and English. Digital displays show you where you are, how far in minutes to next station,any delays, which side of the carriage to leave from and what the weather is like! Maximum price we paid was 190yen (80p) for a 25 min. ride. No litter and no graffiti.
Look bewildered and hold a map and the locals will be queuing up to help you and to practise their English. We found they were delighted to speak to 'native English speakers' with authentic English accents.
And the booking office is busy, go directly to a ticket machine and buy any cheap ticket (150 yen), this will get you in the station, then board the train. (In Japan it is quite acceptable to buy a ticket on the bullet train).
If you are visiting more of Japan then grab a Japan Rail Pass. This can be used on JR lines in Tokyo such as the Yamanote loop line. When I went I used it all the time to get around the city, which saved significantly on travel. It is only worth getting though if you are going to be travelling beyond the city, otherwise it's rather pricey.
Available in Japan at major railway stations for various time periods (eg 7 days, or a month).
Tokyo is famous for the cattle-truck like conditions on its commuter trains during the morning rush hour. You might even have heard the stories of white-gloved platform attendants pushing passengers in so the doors can close. It really has to be seen to be believed. Taking a rush-hour train is certainly not pleasant, but I recommend it because it's a memorable, intense experience. It's something that you can tell your friends about and something that will stay with you forever. It's also a genuine experience of modern Japan, giving you a window into thel lives of the millions of Japanese who commute to work by train every morning in Tokyo, and other major cities. If you suffer from claustrophobia or lose your temper easily, you might want to think twice about trying this, though.
My advice would be to take no prisoners and try to manoeuvre yourself into a positon in front of the seats where the crush is not quite so intense, then take in the sheer lunacy of it all (meanwhile sparing a thought for those people who do this every day of their working lives). Discretely take a few photos so you can convey the experience to your friends. If you don't fancy getting up close and personal with dozens of "salarymen" inside the train, then you can always just observe from the platform.
One tip I have is to avoid travelling with bulky luggage during the rush-hour periods, especially the morning, for obvious reasons.
The Yamanote line, which circles central Tokyo, or any of the lines which bring commuters into central Tokyo from the outlying suburbs and beyond.
Each of the two terminals at Narita Airport is served by a separate railway station, but both offer cheap, regular and direct services to the centre of Tokyo. Alternatively, shuttle buses are available to major hotels, Tokyo station and Shinjuku station as well as other nearby towns and cities.
Send your feedback or queries to firstname.lastname@example.org