Last year (2011) I was in the land of the rising sun for 10 days in february. Fortunately I missed the earthquake for a week and I am quite happy for not having to experience such calamity.
I have a friend going to Japan next week and during lunch we were discussing train tickets and how to travel around in the country. When I went to Japan, I visited Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima and some other smaller cities like Miyojima, Nara and Kamakura.
Trains in Japan are amazing. The bullet trains are known as Shikansen and can reach speeds of 280 km/h. Among the amazing statistics are the incredible punctuality – for the year of 2003 the average delay was 6 seconds from the planned time – and the outstanding security record of over 7 billion passengers carried and not a single fatality due to accidents. This is a very cool picture from the wikipedia article of the different Shikansen trains:
The thing I love the most, THE MOST, is that when a train reaches their end destinations an army of cleaners will enter the wagons. They will not only make sure everything is perfectly clean but also turn ALL the chairs to face the direction in which the train is heading, meaning that no one will travel looking backwards in Japan. In some trains this is automatic! On the older local trains you can most of the times invert yourself the seats. I hate to travel looking backwards, so it was heaven for me.
Here is a video by mjaap that shows the seat being turned:
During the trip on a Japanese train you will not hear anyone talking as most people will be minding their own business, working and many sleeping. I am always admired by the capacity of Japanese people of sleeping on trains and metros – they will just switch off and switch back on at a certain moment. I read somewhere that a lot of people will sleep in trains because of the extended working hours and long commuting, so the only time to take a nap is during the trip.
It is quite common to buy a Bento Box before entering the train, principally if the journey takes place during the hours of lunch or dinner. If you don´t have the time to buy food, at least on long hauls like Tokyo – Kyoto, there will always be a women selling food and drinks. These girls are a true display of Japanese service and the respect they have towards the customer. Whenever they are going to exit the wagon, every single time, they are going to turn and bow to the passengers.
You can see at around 1:50 in this video by baxtalorom
It is also worth to mention that on a clear day you can see Mt Fuji-San on the right side of the train from Tokyo to Kyoto and on the left side of the train from Kyoto to Tokyo. When I did my trips, on both cases, it was very cloudy but I was lucky enough to be able to see the top of the mountain. I will add a picture at night.
Now some boring stuff…
When I went to Japan, I did a lot of research and there was a general consensus that the best solution for my travelling needs would be to buy a Japan Rail Pass. This pass is sold only to tourists and must be bought outside Japan. More information can be found on http://www.japanrailpass.net/eng/en001.html
In most forums you will read that the 7 day Japan Rail Pass will pay itself by a return trip between Tokyo and Kyoto. So I did some research:
The price of the 7 day Japan Rail Ticket is 28.300 yen
The return ticket between Tokyo and Kyoto is 26.440 yen
You should also consider that the Japan Rail Pass is valid for the train between Narita Airport and Tokyo.
So, it makes sense to buy a Japan Rail Pass. In fact you don´t buy the pass, but a receipt. Once you get to Japan you change the piece of paper against the pass in the main stations. It is important to pay attention to the exceptions and where this ticket can and can not be used (it is quite confusing), so always double-check at the station before boarding the train.