Travel Guide to Japan (part 1)

Hi everyone, it has been a long time since I last blogged as I was travelling with my family in Japan for two weeks. It was the first time any of us have actually been there and did it free-and-easy, which means everything from booking of airline tickets to selecting the right AirBnb accommodation and taking of trains in Japan (people said the train system here is complicated but once you figured it out, it is actually quite simple).

Over the course of two weeks, we visited Osaka, Hiroshima, Kyoto, Tokyo, Yokohama and Hokkaido. And of course, I used a JR Pass which allows me to hop on to any JR Lines and buses for free (with some exceptions of course). The trip was actually do-able if you planned your itinerary well but we only managed to visit the must-see attractions in each region.

I am intending to visit Japan again with my friends or alone in the future so I felt that this would be better as I get to explore each region first and see which region is worth visiting most again. And after two weeks, I would say the Kansai region (Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe etc) is the best as it has a good mixture city life, nature and rural life. Tokyo is pretty meh because it really is just a mega-city. As for Hokkaido, I would definitely visit it again and explore each area in-depth probably when I am a working adult. I thought of doing a post for first-time travelers (like you!) to Japan for them to understand the country better before actually heading there.

n this post, I will share on the JR Pass (really a must-buy if you visiting more than one Prefecture), train systems in Japan (as well as in each Prefecture), Japanese culture and practices, shopping, accommodation and every little details to help you plan your next trip. I will first start with the most important part: transportation.

Before I begin, here are the main attractions I visited in Japan during my trip.

Places I visited

Osaka

  1. Osaka Castle (and the Museum inside)
  2. Dotonbori
  3. Shinsekai
  4. Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan
  5. Tempozan Ferris wheel
  6. Umeda Sky building
  7. Kuromon Ichiba Market
  8. Mame shiba cafe

Hiroshima

  1. Miyajima and Itsukuma Shrine
  2. Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park (the nearby area too)

Kyoto

  1. Fushimi-Inari Shrine
  2. Arashiyama area
  3. Nishiki Market
  4. Shinkyogoku (and nearby) shopping areas

Tokyo

  1. Shinjuku
  2. Shibuya
  3. Asakusa
  4. Akirabara
  5. Harajuku

Yokohama

  1. Chinatown
  2. Cosmo World
  3. Yokohama Red Brick Warehouse

Hokkaido

  1. Biel and Furano
  2. Hakodate
  3. Sapporo
  4. Otaru

Transportation

In Japan, public transportation like trains and subways are probably one of the symbols of the country. It is very punctual, efficient and it connects almost all parts of Japan. Unlike Singapore where we only have SBS and SMRT trains and a total of five lines, in Japan cities there are many different train operators, train lines, subway lines and more. There are also different type of trains (e.g. Local and commuter express) and henceforth, it is crucial that you understand the importance of the difference lines and know which lines to use to get to your destination in the shortest time.

Type of Trains

  1. Shinkansen (bullet trains 新幹線)

The fastest series of trains in Japan, the Shinkansen bullet trains bring you across cities and Prefectures in the country. It is only operated by JR Railway so you need a JR PASS to hop on one. For instance, the Sanyo-shinkansen connects you to Hiroshima from Osaka while the Tokaido-sanyo shinkansen is from Osaka to Tokyo.

There are mainly two type of cars: green cars and ordinary cars. The green cars are more luxurious and comfortable than ordinary ones. It is also much more expensive and frankly speaking, there really isn’t any point paying S$200++ more for green cars because the ordinary cars are very very very comfortable (much better than a SQ seat tbh).

I can’t comment much on the green cars as we opted for the ordinary ones but in ordinary cars, there are both reserved and non-reserved seats. With a JR Pass, you can reserve your seats free-of-charge at any JR stations. Irregardless, if you did not managed to get a reserved seat don’t worry as there will be around 3-4 cars on a shinkansen that has non-reserved (aka free seating, first-come-first-served) seats.

There are also different types of shinkansen. For starters, the JR pass does not allow tourists to use the nozomi and mizuho trains (the fastest ones) but it was ok as other type of trains are pretty fast already.

2. Tokkyu (Limited Express / Commuter Express 特急)

These type of trains only stop at major train stations aka the most important lines along a train line. This system probably helps the local Japanese reach their CBD areas faster during peak hours. An express train is definitely faster and the travelling time is much shorter.

But for those of us who are used to Singapore’s MRT lines, you may be wondering what and how exactly does an express train work? For instance, on the East-West line (EW line) an express train will only stop at Jurong East, Buona Vista, Raffles Place, Bedok, Tampines and Pasir Ris.

3. Kyuko (Express 急行)

Similar to the Express train, this series of trains do not stop at all stations of a train line but it stops at slightly more stops than an express trains. Once again, imagine a train only stopping at Jurong East, Clementi, Buona Vista, Tanjong Pagar, Raffles Place, Bedok, Eunos, Tampines and Pasir Ris.

4. Kaisoku (Rapid 快速)

The trains only skip some stations and it is rather similar to a local train.

5. Futsu-densha (Local trains 普通)

The slowest series of trains, local trains stop at every stations along a train line which means that if you are worried of getting on an express or limited express trains, the local train is for you.

An express/limited express/Commuter express/rapid/local train is operated by both JR Railway and private train operators (e.g. Tokyo Metro, Osaka Metro). Therefore, depending on the train operator you can use either a JR Pass or an IC card.

NOTE: A very important thing to take caution of when travelling by trains in Japan is the fact that different train lines share the same platform. What does it mean? For example at the Hikawadai station that we lived in Tokyo, this station itself serves two lines but only two platforms. This means that a train heading towards Ikebukuro can either be a Fukutoshin or Yurakucho line which has different terminal, so be careful of the terminal station when boarding at a station with multiple lines.

Also, do note that the same type of train can “change lines” after stopping at a terminal. For example, when we were heading to Yokohama-Chinatown on our day trip we realised that we can literally stay on the same train from the train station nearest to our Airbnb to Yokohama-Chinatown. I noticed in Tokyo that many terminal stations actually serve many lines so once a train ends, it may continue on to be the first station for another line.

screenshot_20190620-001938_drive.jpg
Direct train from Hikawadai to Yokohama-Chinatown

Buses and Trams

In Kyoto and Hiroshima, I noticed that there were very few trains; most people commute by buses, trams or bicycles. For these, you can pay using cash (preferably coins and in exact amount) or an IC card.

In the ancient capital Kyoto, most buses are operated on a flat-fee of JPY 230 so it is worth it if you are travelling far on bus. While buses are the norm in Kyoto, in Hiroshima trams are a common sight as the small city has lesser train services. Likewise, you can pay using coins or an IC card.

Transportation Cards

JR Pass

A must-have for foreigners in Japan, the JR Pass gives you access to ALL trains on JR railway network including the JR Miyajima ferry and JR buses. This pass not only allows you to board the Shinkansen but also other JR-operated lines like JR Osaka Loop Line, JR Chuo Line and JR Yamanote line (equivalent of our circle line) .

You may think that it is not worth paying hundreds to get this pass, but trust me the JR lines within a city (e.g. JR Chuo line in Tokyo) can reduce travelling time from Akirabara to Shinjuku to under 20 minutes. Most cities have a JR “circle” line that connects major towns in one loop. Also, many of the JR stations are actually train interchanges with local privately-owned trains so getting a JR Pass really brings about convenience and accessibility for your trip.

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JR Pass (14 days, ordinary car)

You can purchase your JR Pass (Depending on number of days and type of cars) HERE

Osaka Amazing Pass

Available as either a one-day or two-day pass, the Osaka Amazing Pass was a great deal as it gave us unlimited travel on Osaka subways (excluding JR lines) and also free or discounted entry to many tourist attractions in Osaka. We opted for the two-days pass and had free entry to the Osaka Castle premises, Tempozan Ferris Wheel and many more places.

Unlike an IC card, it does not have any stored value. I think the card will be invalid 24/48 hours (depending on the pass you choose) from the first time you use the card. It is not activated from when you collected it so plan your itinerary well so that the attractions covered under the Pass can be done in one/two days.

You can purchase it HERE

IC Card

An IC card is equivalent to our Singapore’s EZ-link card. It has stored value inside and can be used on (almost?) ALL private-operated trains, buses and trams. The IC card is used within any region but not across regions. This means that you cannot use an ICOCA card to move from Osaka to Tokyo. But with both a JR pass and IC card you can literally travel across Japan with ease.

There are also many different types of IC card from various regions across Japan but they function the same (aka not much difference at all) . In the Kansai region the ICOCA card is preferred while in Tokyo, they use the Suica or Pasmo card. For me, I arrived in Osaka and left from Hokkaido so I pre-purchased an ICOCA card from Changi Recommends online as the ICOCA card is used here. There were no problems at all even when I used it in Tokyo, Hiroshima, Yokohama and Kyoto.

You can purchase your ICOCA card HERE

FAQs (transportation)

Q. How do I use a JR pass for shinkansen?

When at a JR station with shinkansen lines, simply follow the signages that read “shinkansen lines”. You really won’t get lost in a station because the signages are very big and clear. For those who know Chinese, it is better because the signs are sometimes written in Kanji (have Chinese characters) and Chinese too. Once you reach the JR lines gates, simply head to the lane where there are officers and show them your JR pass. They will then let you in without asking anything.

Q. Can I eat and drink on the shinkansen? Are there toilets?

The answer is yes. You may purchase a bento set or other food and beverages in the train stations or on-board the Shinkansen. There are toilets in some cars of the train and don’t worry, they are very clean, comfortable and spacious to use.

Q. Where do I put my luggages on a shinkansen?

In every car, there will be an area where you can place your baggages in. I wouldn’t say it’s very spacious but it can definitely fit a 24″-28″ luggage well. Do note that you have to inform train staff when storing your luggages as they might discard of it for security reasons. Otherwise, you can place it in front of you at your seat (the leg room is very very big) or at the overhead cabins above your seat.

We placed our 3 luggages and 3 duffel bags at the overhead cabins and it fit well.

Q. How do I exchange between JR lines and private lines?

Simply tapping in and out of the station! Unlike Singapore where we can just exchange lines without tapping except Newton (and some other stations), in Japan when you change lines you have to tap out first. Therefore, if you change from JR Osaka Loop Line to e.g. Midosuji line in Osaka you have to get out of the JR line, find the route to Midosuji line and tap in again.

Q. How do I know which platform and train is mine?

In Japan, almost everything is written in English or Kanji and Chinese. That being said, in every JR stations there will be those huge LED signboards that indicate the arrival time, type of shinkansen (nozomi, hikari, sakura etc), platform number and number of cars. Normally when I make a reserved seat, I will ask the counter staff for the platform number and track number in advance. For non-reserved seats, I will just look for the destination, type of train (nozomi or not), time and platform number.

Shinkansen platform
20190610_093957.jpg
Signboard displaying JR shinkansen timings

Q. How do I differentiate between a local train and other type of trains?

As mentioned above, a local train stops at every stations along a line. But if you are rushing for time, you might want to choose a non-local trains instead. So at every train stations, there will be such signboards (see below)that indicate the arrival time of a train, type of train, platform number, number of cars, and terminal station. From these, it’s rather simple to tell which train should you hop on and which to avoid.

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Signboard displaying the ETAs for different type of trains
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View from outside a local train

That is all for transportation in Japan and I will continue updating on this travel guide in my future posts. Do comment below if you have any queries about Japan’s transportation system and I will reply you as soon as I can!

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