1. Japan Rail Pass: This is a huge cost savings if you’re planning on traveling by train which, in the land of the Shinkansen, I hope you are! You have to obtain your voucher outside of the country and then exchange it for the pass at any JR customer service counter. A lot of people will do it at the airport and ride the Narita Express into the city. I exchanged mine in Yokohama since I activated mine later in the trip. But really, you could activate it for any date at the airport by specifying a specific future start date at the time of exchange.
2. You may have read #1 and went, “Pffpt, print out a voucher” in a high-pitched, making-fun-of-me tone of voice. You’re going to JAPAN! Why would you have to do something as low-tech as print out a voucher? Can’t you just show your smartphone? Well, no. Or at least, that’s not what the instructions for the pass direct you to do and really, it’s best to follow the rules when you’re in Japan. Sometimes, things are done in a low-tech way that you may not expect in the land of Akihabra. Having a printout is much preferred and honestly, I’d recommend printing out any confirmation emails/passes you may have. It definitely helped me a few times when checking into hotels.
3. How do you use the JR pass? At every station, there will be multiple turnstiles/gates with green arrows/red Xs to indicate whether it’s an entrance or exit gate. On one side, there will be a booth where the station worker is located. There is a wider gate there used for strollers, wheelchairs, and…tourists! Just hold up your JR pass and you will be waved through. They could ask to check the pass, but that is pretty unusual.
4. Make seat reservations at the ticket counters outside the turnstile entrances. This may sounds nerve-wracking if you don’t speak Japanese but pretty much every ticket counter staffer speaks what I call “train English” meaning the basics of a trip such as train number, origin/destination city, window/aisle, smoking/non-smoking can be covered in English. It helps if you know which train you want which leads me to…
5. Hyperdia. Download this app. It will give you the best route by train/subway for wherever you want to go. For the shinkansen, you can obtain your train type and number which helps you book your ticket. What do I mean by train type? There are three classes of Shinkansen: Express (Nozomi & Mizuho), Limited Express (Hikari & Sakura), and Local (Kodama). The JR Pass does not cover Express trains. I strongly recommend the Limited Express since there are a surprising amount of stops on the Kodama local train which makes those Shinkansen very slow moving “bullets.” So, if you know you want the Hikari 515 from Tokyo to Kyoto leaving at 13:33, you can write down or point to that train when making a seat reservation which makes things a lot clearer.
6. If you don’t make seat reservations (why!?), the unreserved seats are usually in cars 1-3 at the front of the train. The overhead signs on the platform will indicate which cars are unreserved. They will also indicate which cars are the Green cars (first class). I have always bought regular (second-class) Shinkansen tickets and been very comfortable.
7. Other train tips: Buy a bento and a drink before boarding. Some of the larger stations have incredible basement food halls in the adjacent large stores that are amazing. The bento shops within the station are also tasty but the food hall quality is sublime! When traveling South from Tokyo, try to get a seat on the right side of the train for view of Fuji on clear-skied days. These tickets are usually the first to be booked.
8. So, I mentioned the Hyperdia app. Other great apps include Google Translate, Japan Official Tourism App, and the Louis Vuitton City App for Tokyo (this is not as high-end as it sounds). But how should you access these? I’ve always used my own cellphone without a SIM card switch. I have Sprint, which has great rates for overseas travel. I usually pay $25/week for the high-speed data, but I could use the slower rate for free. Text messages are also free. The only high rate is for voice calls so if you are calling back home, use FaceTime or a similar app over a WiFi connection. WhatsApp is also great if you have contacts that use it. This tip isn’t meant to be an #ad for Sprint (although it’s great), but check out your carrier’s overseas plans before automatically assuming you need to purchase a Japan specific SIM card.
9. Within cities, buses are pretty great. There may be a slight learning curve but the 5 minutes saves many minutes of walking. Don’t get me wrong, I walk a LOT and love it but sometimes, you want to go a little faster. The Kyoto bus system in particular is great since the subway is limited there. But, if you have 3+ people in your group, taxis may be more economical and faster.
10. Tokyo subway. There are a few different lines. The JR pass works for the JR subway/local trains, the most famous being the circular Yamanote line. There are a few other Tokyo lines that will not work with the JR pass. Most will have the Blue M in their signs. For these, you can either pay cash fares (which Hyperdia will tell you!) or if you are spending a few days in Tokyo, it may be worth buying a rechargeable Passmo or Suica card to just throw a few thousand yen on so you can just tap the card at the gate and keep moving.