Travel Guide to Japan (part 2)

It was only after I write the first post did I noticed I missed out the self-drive portion in Hokkaido LOL so I will be sharing about it today. Japan is like Singapore in many aspects. We are a fast-paced society, we have Asian cultures and we are densely populated cities. But beneath it all, Japan is also an unique country. The Japanese seem to have their own flavours of Kit-kat and Pocky sticks, they preserve their culture – intangible and tangible – so well and they are just so respectful to everyone. Even their toilets are so different. And these traits are a lil’ different from Singapore so today, I will share more about the culture, Japanese practices and many other useful information that will help you adapt better in Japan.

In case you have not read my previous post, I covered about the public transportation system in Japan and you can read it here.

Self-drive in Hokkaido

Most people would choose to rent a car and roam free-and-easy in the Northern island of Japan, Hokkaido, than to take public transportation. Reason is simple: the place is just too big! The natural attractions are spread out across this vast island, which makes commuting from one point to the other at least a 1-2 hours journey.

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JR Hokkaido Rail Pass lines Credits: japan-guide

Take a look at the map above and you would understand what I mean. Even with the JR stations, it is still inaccessible and inconvenient to head to various natural attractions as they are scattered across the area. Therefore, if you don’t know how to drive it might be better for you to join a group tour instead as travel agencies can bring you to these photogenic places conveniently.

For my family, we or more like our dad chose to drive as we didn’t liked to go on tours and stick to a rigid schedule. We planned our own self-drive itinerary, stopped wherever we want to take pictures and for meals, and leave our house as early or as late as we want and though the planning process was tedious, it did gave us more freedom and time at the tourist attractions. So if you are planning to self-drive, the process is actually very simple.

  1. Get an international driving license.

Similar to Singapore, the Japanese drive on the left and most of the cars are right-hand drive. Why do I say most? Well it’s because there are some imported cars which are left-hand drive instead. But nonetheless, vehicles are on the left-lane in Japan.

To get an international driving license that permits you to drive, simply head to Automobile Association of Singapore (AAS) and apply it there. For more information about technical stuff, please visit their website as I have zero driving experience LOL. https://www.aas.com.sg/our-services/international-driving-permit-idp.html

2. Find a car rental company

There are many car rental companies in Hokkaido, not to mention the number of car brands available for you to choose from. There are many factors you need to consider before deciding on a company and some are listed below:

  • Reliability
  • 24/7 emergency coverage
  • Price rates
  • Type of cars and availability
  • Pick-up/drop-off point
  • Safety and reputation

For my family, we decided on Times Car Rental which cost us only SGD 518 for 6D5N (which I think is quite ok). The reservation process was simple as we only had to select our tentative pick-up/drop-off timing, pick-up location and select the type of car we want. However, do note that the car you selected is not guaranteed and only subject to availability. Upon arriving at New Chitose domestic airport (we flew from Tokyo Narita Intl airport), we went to the car rental counter to do the necessary paperwork, and from there there was a shuttle service to transport us to the car park/main office to pick-up the vehicle so it was actually pretty convenient. The return process was easy as we only need to drive back to the main office and hand over the keys.

3. Get an ETC Card

Chances are that you will be travelling across regions (Hakodate, Furano, Sapporo etc) when you visit Hokkaido and for such long-distance trips, you will definitely need to drive on the highway/expressway. With an ETC card (essentially a toll card), you only need to pay an one-time fee beforehand when you collect your vehicle. This means that whenever you stop at a toll station, you can just drive past through it without having to make additional payment. It is cheaper than making multiple payments at the various toll stations but if you are planning to just visit one region, say Sapporo only then it might not be worth it to get an ETC card since you won’t really use much of it.

4. Prepare lots of spare change

Parking is a little bit different from Singapore in Sapporo city areas. It can go up to SGD 20 for just 4 hours in the CBD area! I’m not sure if the locals have a something equivalent to our NETS card for the parking but when we were there, we had to manually press those ticketing machine for a ticket before we enter. And when we are leaving, we will then pay the slot in the ticket and pay CASH.

Try to keep small change and coins with you when you drive in case some machines require exact amount.

In the countryside areas, parking is free and all you need to do is find a spot to park your car.

Shopping

To be frank, shopping for clothes is never my main highlight when I travel overseas as I feel that the items sold are 1. Can’t be worn in Singapore because it’s too hot here 2. Too expensive 3. Not my style. And yes, the clothes in Japan are not cheap but are pretty nice.

In terms of souvenirs, Japan probably had the best and most attractive ones in the world! Everything there is sold in colourful packaging and in some major touristy shops, mini plastic bags will be given when you buy many items (they probably assume that you are giving it and hence the plastic bags, how nice right?).

Tax-free shopping in Japan requires a minimum of around SGD 54 BUT there is one important thing you need to note. When your purchases are eligible for tax-free, the cashier will ask if you want the tax-free, ask for your passport and staple the receipt copy in your passport. You will, however, be asked to tear off the receipt and give it to thr customs officers when you leave the airport. Pretty standard procedures. However, what is different is the store will then pack everything into one big sealed plastic bag. Technically speaking, you are not allowed to tear the bag apart to rearrange in your luggage but we didn’t care about it and tore it anyways. Unless you are buying very expensive stuff, I don’t think this should be a concern.

That’s all I have for now and do feel free to ask any questions regarding travelling in Japan.

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.

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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
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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!