In going from Honolulu to Tokyo, one of my bigger travel worries, other than the language barrier, was the transit barrier. Regarding mass transit, I spent a number of years both living and commuting to San Francisco on weekdays. It's definitely a learned skill and one that most people in Hawaii are unfamiliar with. Top that off with the fact that San Francisco transit pales in comparison to Tokyo transit, which is immediately daunting in its scope and area.
It took several friends to break it down for me. Ultimately, there were just a few components I needed to know, and the rest was learning by doing.
Japan Rail Pass - Is it worth it?
You'll hear everyone rave about the most well-known one, the one that can take you from one end of Japan to the other. It is an incredible value -- IF you plan on going long distances. The seven-day pass costs ¥29110, or in current exchange terms, about $290. On average, that's about $41 a day. There are a lot of advantages to this rail pass, including the fact that if you can reserve seats ahead of time, and it's good on nearly all JR lines including the expensive Shinkansen (bullet train). For those not familiar with going long distances on mass transit, fares are calculated by distance. The further you go, the more the ticket costs. A one-way ticket reserved from Shibuya Station in Tokyo to Nagano Station is ¥7100. Double that for the round trip, and you can quickly see how a rail pass is quite useful.
IF you are going long distances on a regular basis, the touted rail pass is worth it. Otherwise, you can probably skip it. After doing some quick math, our travel party settled on a happy medium. We ended up getting a JR East Rail pass for the Niigata and Nagano areas. This allowed us to travel inside of Tokyo using the pass, as well as taking trips outside of the city. The Niigata/Nagano pass was also good for Shinkansen reserved seating to selected areas in the travel zone. The price of this pass was ¥18000 and was good for five days within a 14-day period. The days did not have to be consecutive. Seeing as how our trip was one week long, this worked out perfectly. On the few days we stayed in the Tokyo area, we didn't use the pass, opting instead to pay approximately $6 for local round-trip transit. On the days we took longer sightseeing trips, we used the pass. We also saved the pass for ths first and last day so we could use it for the Narita Express airport train.
|Japan Rail Pass: visitor options for Tokyo|
|Adult Price||# of Days||Notes|
|Japan Rail Pass - Nationwide||¥29110||7||Must be purchased ahead of time outside of Japan and used on consecutive days. U.S. price may vary depending on vendor and exchange rate.|
|JR East Rail Pass - Niigata/Nagano||¥18000||5||Use valid for any five days during the 14-day period starting on the date of issuance. May be purchased in Japan.|
|JR East Rail Pass - Tohoku (Sendai) Area||¥20000||5||Use valid for any five days during the 14-day period starting on the date of issuance. May be purchased in Japan.|
|JR Tokyo-wide||¥10000||3||For use on consecutive days. May be purchased in Japan.|
The link at the top of this table will take you to the Japan Rail website so you can view your options. Each of the passes has different benefits as well as different restrictions. The child (6-11 years) price is half ot the adult price, and all of these passes require a passport and foreign permanent address. You should also note that some passes have reciprocal arrangements with other companies and may also be used on their train lines. Check the detail on the webpage. Otherwise, the pass is good on JR train lines only and excludes buses.
Think BIG, then think even bigger
It is important to note that Tokyo train stations house many different transit companies, not unlike how airports have many airlines. It's a concept hard to grasp coming from Hawaii where we don't have that massive scale. A wise piece of advice I received was to be sure to add enough time to get to the platform. As an example, 2.7 million people pass through Ikebukuro Station daily. That's the equivalent of every person in Hawaii going through the station twice. AND, that's not even Tokyo's busiest station. Shinjuku Station is the busiest station in Tokyo, and for that matter, the world.
You'll find everything at the train station. At the Ikebukuro Station, smack dab in the center of it is an 11-story department store with two more basement levels to boot.
As a traveler, Japan Rail (JR) trains go nearly everywhere, although you may end up transfering to another company for short distances. You can pay for fares, JR or other, using a prepaid-transit card like [Suica] or [Pasmo]. In the Tokyo area, there is virtually no difference between the two cards other than that are managed by different companies. Not only are these prepaid cards interchangable among transit companies, you can also use them on vending machines and at many convenience stores and restaurants. You buy them at train station kiosks and they can be recharged if necessary. For more information, visit the respective cards' website.
A Transit Map that Looks Like Spaghetti
I had a lot of help figuring out our Japan trip. When my friend took out her Tokyo area transit map, I was floored. It looked something like this:
Fortunately, two pieces of important advice completely simplified the transit process for me.
2. Yamanote Line
Put out by Hitachi Systems, this website and the site's corresponding Android and iOS apps are easy to use and intuitive. Simply plug in the departure location and the destination, and it will map your route. You can also modify the search results for just certain lines or by the number of transfers (e.g. least).
On the advice of my seasoned Tokyo friend, I mapped out the routes ahead of time while I was still in Hawaii and had access to a printer.
While in Japan, I also used the Android app and found it was just as easy as it was from a laptop.
If you remember just one line, remember the Yamanote line. It's a circular route that runs both clockwise and counterclockwise, with trains in both directions arriving at approximately 5 minute intervals. At the Ikebukuro Station, there are two rail lines on each platform running in the same direction. In other words, there are four sets of railtracks dedicated to the Yamanote line alone.
Trains which run clockwise are known as sotomawari (外回り?, "outer circle") and those counter-clockwise as uchi-mawari (内回り?, "inner circle") Check to see which direction will get you to your destination the fastest. On the whole, most of tourist Tokyo is accessible by Yamanote line. The hghlighted stations are larger transit hubs.
Every person who has experienced Japan transit will say the same thing: All trains run timely and frequently. It's almost amusing for Americans to see notifications when train lines are on those rare occasions, running late. Sometimes the notification is for just a few minutes delay. Just recently, CNN highlighted a story where a snake was found aboard a Japanese bullet train. Prominently noted, even after a few minutes delay to remove the snake, the train still arrived on schedule.