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Riding the Bullet - Shinkansen to Tokyo
Japan has one of the most extensive and advanced rail systems in the world with numerous private and municipal companies providing service local and long distance, usually at reasonable prices compared to other forms of transportation. One of the most outstanding examples of Japan's trains is the Shinkansen, which literally means "new trunk line." This train can travel at speeds of up to 200 miles per hour, and extends from the south of Kyushu to the north of Honshu, with an extension under construction to connect Hokkaido to the far north. The first Shinkansen route, the Tokaido Line, was constructed between Tokyo and Osaka in 1964, and the system has since expanded to almost 1,500 miles of track.
The Shinkansen is expensive and the tickets are somewhat complex. Tickets are comparable to airline rates, about 12,000 Yen each way between Yokohama and Kyoto, for a two-hour journey. You might be able to save using a Japan Rail Pass, but be aware that you cannot use a rail pass on the fastest Nozomi Trains. Some Shinkansen trains require two tickets for a single journey (like our Shin-Yokohama to Shin-Osaka trip), but other only need one ticket (Kyoto to Shin-Yokohama), with the first ticket used for the Shinkansen itself and the second for the regular connecting trains if applicable.
The Shinkansen is great for its frequency, timeliness, and convenience. Trains on the busiest routes run every 10-15 minutes, and they are almost always on time. Unlike air travel, ticket prices don't change every day, and there is minimal security or other hassles. You can walk up to the Shinkansen station 5-10 minutes before the next train departs, and you can usually get a non-reserved seat without problems, and be on board in no time. Nothing is easier!
In Tokyo, Shinkansen trains start and finish at Tokyo Station in the center of the city. This is the busiest station in Japan with some 3,000 trains per day passing through. Here you can easily transfer to any of about 14 JR lines or Tokyo Metro lines.
Riding the trains & metro in Tokyo
The Tokyo train and metro system is massive. There are three metro systems that together have 282 stations and 14 lines and carry some 9 million passengers a day. This sounds huge, but the metro carries only a fraction of the city's rail traffic. The trains, with about 600 stations on 121 different lines, carry 3.5 times as many passengers totaling 31 million riders a day. Shinjuku station in downtown Tokyo is the epicenter of this public transportation web, with over 3.5 million passengers passing through the station each day. In comparison, the entire Washington DC metro, which is very popular for commuters in America's capital, only has ridership of just under 1 million passengers a day.
Despite this sprawling transit system that looks like a bowl of spaghetti ... or ramen... on the map, Tokyo's rail system is easy to learn, with just a bit of research and practice. The are numerous signs and announcements in English and Japanese to guide travelers to their destinations. Ticketing is easy if you purchase a Suica card. And the trains are clean and safe.
First the tickets. You can purchase individual tickets, but that can be complex because the fares vary station by station. To make things easier, purchase a Suica card, which costs 2000 Yen (500 Yen for the card and 1500 Yen in value for fares). This card can be loaded with money and swiped over the turnstiles when entering and leaving the train. Even better, it can be used on metros, buses, and even at many stores. Just look for the Suica logo, which says Suica in English, on the green machines where you buy tickets. Most machines have a button in the upper right for English. Even those that don't have the English button, still say Suica and the cost in Yen, so you should be able to figure it out.
Your second challenge is the signage. Luckily everything important is in English. At the station, signs will point you to the correct platform and once at the platform, signs will provide updates as to which train is next, when it arrives, and where it is going. The trains themselves also have sings in English on the outside to ensure you get on the right route. Inside the train is even better: there are two TVs over each door that flip through a number of screens that show where on the route the train is, what stations are approaching, how long until arrival, and where the transfers are. When the train pulls into a station, it even shows what car you are in and which direction you will need to walk to get to the exit.
Most important, though, is how do you know what train to take, at what time, and what transfers to make? In a transportation system this size it can be complex, unless you have a computer. There are a number of websites, like Hyperdia (http://www.hyperdia.com/), which allow you to enter your starting station, you destination and the date and time. Push enter, and you will be rewarded with a wealth of information including the name of the line, the platform the train will arrive at, transfers, the departure platform, the fare, and the amount of time for the total trip and each leg. Makes traveling a breeze if you do your research.
JR Kanto Pass
There are a number of rail passes available and the JR Kanto pass just may be the ticket for people who want to do a few daytrips out of Tokyo to places like Nikko, Karuizawa and so on.
3 day pass is 8000 yen, which makes for very good value given that you can use it on the Shinkansen as well as the trains to and from Narita and Haneda airports.
Unlike some of the other JR passes, foreign residents of Japan can also take advantage of this pass. Now that I know about it, I will definitely be doing so.
A great deal is available if you take the NEX from Narita airport into Tokyo. You get a Suica card preloaded with Y1500 (almost free) when you buy your NEX ticket at the JR office in the airport station.
*Suica is a prepaid card that you scan at the turnstile, no need to buy individual tickets. Easily reloaded at the ticket machines.
- Budget Travel
From Kyoto I came to Tokyo by train.
I took the popular Shinkansen which takes 2 hours and 20 minuts to reach the capital from Kyoto.
The ticket was about 120 euros one way and it's impressive the quantity of bullet trains that run betwen the two cities, one every 10 minuts.
You can reserve the seat payng about 5 euros more or simply take the ticket and get the first useful train minding to go in the not reserved seats wagons, usually they are the first 3, anyway they are well advised in the stations.
How to Ride A Tokyo Train
since most trains are owned by the Japan Railways, it is very easy to ride a train in tokyo than a subway. remember that the base fare is always 130 yen and from there it would go up depending on the distance you will travel regardless of the color of the train you are riding (remember that trains are color coded and in the platforms, there are also color markings for each trains for example, the JR Yamanote line is colored dark green and the JR Keio line is colored dark red). always look for an english symbol for the train loops and the distances and fares for each station and when you make a mistake, you can always use a fare addition machine before exiting a station since it does not charge extra if you have the exact payment for your travel distance and it is free to use it.
always remember the color codings of the train you will be riding so as not to get lost and if you are still confused, then just use the JR Yamanote Line which is Dark Green since it has a main circle loop around tokyo.
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Shinkansen (Bullet Train)
the original High speed train that was copied by the TGV of France, Mag Lev of Shanghai and others. The Shinkansen network boasts not only high speed -up to 300 kilometers per hour-, but also high frequency. For example, at least six trains per hour (not per day!) operate between Tokyo and Shin-Osaka Stations during daytime hours. Although the phrase 'bullet train' is popular overseas, in Japan you will only see Shinkansen on English signs. But no matter what you call it, the Shinkansen network will be your key to comfortable and speedy travel throughout Japan. they have 3 classifications namely : Nozomi trains stop only at the most important stations, and reach Osaka from Tokyo in about two and a half hours. The nozomi is one of the very few trains on the JR network that cannot be used with the Japan Rail Pass. Hikari trains stop a little bit more frequently than nozomi trains, and need roughly three hours to reach Osaka from Tokyo. On the Sanyo Shinkansen, the Hikari trains are known as "Hikari Railstar". The slowest category. Kodama trains stop at all stations and is the cheapest!. the price of a bullet train ticket is as expensive as an airline ticket!
an example of a shinkansen price is:
Tokyo / Shinagawa Sta. to Kyoto Sta.: Shinkansen charge (one way):
- - Without reservation: 4,730 per adult
- - With reservation for HIKARI / KODAMA: 5,040 to 5,440 yen per adult
- - With reservation for NOZOMI: 5,340 to 5,740 yen per adult
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JR Keiyo Line to Maihama and Tokyo Disney
the JR Keiyo line is the main japanese railway that take you to tokyo disney and other parts of Chiba Prefecture (there are other rails that go to tokyo disney, but this is the main line) and the line starts at the huge tokyo station but a word of caution: the keiyo line is about an 800 meter walk from the JR Yamanote tokyo station line through various underground passageways and escalators. Again, it is the main rail access to the Tokyo Disney Resort and the Makuhari Messe exhibition center. The terminus at Tokyo Station is located underground, some distance to the south of the main station complex about half way to Yûrakuchô Station. This means transfer between other lines at Tokyo Station can take between 15 and 20 minutes of walking hehehe. Tokyo disney is 15 kilometers east of tokyo station and is a 10 minute ride via the Keiyo line, the price one way from tokyo station is about 260 yen. Tokyo disney is another 15 minute walk from the maihama station of the JR Keiyo line!
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Some Warmth in Winter
Some trains in Tokyo has heating for the seats.
After sitting down, you would feel a little warm between your legs. The seats are heating up! But in Tokyo where the weather isn't really that cold, is it necessary and so since it is not available in all trains.
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Travelling outside Tokyo for day-trips
We had purchased the JR Pass, so it was a breeze to travel in/out of Tokyo. We took the Shinkansen to visit places like Hakone, Kamakura and Kyoto.
To visit Hakone, we also purchased the Odakyu Free Pass, which allows us unlimited travel on the local transport system.
Here's hubby waiting at the station at Tonosawa for the local train which would take us to Owakudani.
The Shinkansen's.... what a train! Japan is full of train lines going around the country. There's a lot of local trains too but the special ones are the bullet trains. You need a special pass (Japan Railways Pass) to use some of the bullet trains (the Nozomi are forbidden for this kind of passes... you can pay for a ticket but is very expensive...).
There's special cars: first class (they call this class Green class) , tourist class, smoker or non smoker cars, reserved-non reserved seats cars...The thing is: if you don't reserve any seat, you can go to non-reserved cars but it depends on the time, might be full of people...
On the platform there's an indication at the floor of the diposal of the cars and you can wait the train in the correct order. The Shinkansen are very punctual so don't be late!
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From Takayama to Tokyo
Must book tickets in advance as this is a long journey and very popular on weekends. From Takayama, take Shinkansen to Nagoya (2.5 hours) and there is a short stopover. Change train to Tokyo and journey is 1.5 hours.
We needed dinner and didn't have time for a proper sit down version. Bought packed dinner box to eat on train. Bad mistake! It was terribly expensive, food is cold and not appetising at all.
This was the worst meal we had in Japan. Will never endure a ready packed meal again!
General tips on taking a train
There's this website that they show you the real live data of JR trains and other trains in English. you just type your destination and you will know the cost, time it takes to travel and the trains to take, right down to the train number and platform, and the exact timetable schedule of the train. Go to http://grace.hyperdia.com/cgi-english/hyperd01.cgi
If you can read Chinese characters, it's no problem for you to get around. Each train shows the kanji characters of their destination. Romanji is also shown at times, but not as frequently. Something very important: you MUST remember the end destination of the train. (So you don't get onto the wrong train) For eg. if you're going to Omiya from Hoshakuji like I do, you must know that the end destination is Ueno, because all the trains will only reflect this and there's no train map in most of the trains. But the good thing is, they will annouce each stop when they get to it, so you can look out for that.
As long as the train carriage you're in doesn't have two levels or double decked (you'll know what i mean when you see it), it's unreserved, which means you can sit anywhere, even if they have seat numbers on it. Seating arrangements are different in each train, so don't be surprised if you see some trains with seats lining the sides and facing each other or those which face forward/backward.
Finding the right money
As a non-Japanese educated foreigner it is very daunting being confronted by the complexity of the Rail system around Tokyo area. You have enough trouble finding which line takes to there, but at least you dont have to worry about how much to pay with this tip. Buy a ticket at the machine just paying the minimum fare. When you arrive at destination (or when you have to change lines such as between JR line and local subway), before going though the turn-styles, there is a fare-adjustment machine to one side - look for it. Insert your ticket and it will tell you the extra you have to pay to exit the line at this point.
Also - most JR line ticket machines can accept many coins at once, so instead of slowly fumbling though unfamiliar lose change in your wallet - you can push in a hand-full of 'schrapnel' (loose change), the machine will count it and return back to you the excess!
Trains trains trains
From Narita Airport, I would recommend that you take the Airport Limousine, which runs to major areas within Tokyo. Upon exiting Customs, the Airport Limousine counter should be within sight. You only need to tell them which hotel you're staying at, and the staff will inform you when the next bus is leaving. The routes usually run around a specific area (e.g. Shinjuku) and they will stop at the hotels in that area, so you just need to hop off at your desired stop.
Fares are 3000 yen (USD 30) one-way. You can book the Airport Limousine to go to Narita from your hotel as well.
To travel between the Airport and Tokyo itself, you can also take the train, which stops at Tokyo station. From there, you can connect to the JR to your hotel.
I would not recommend that you take the taxi for airport transfers, as it can easily run up to 24000 yen (USD 240) for this 1.5 hour journey.
If you're travelling within the main areas in Tokyo, I recommend you make use of the pervasive train lines, which should run to almost any place that a tourist is likely to go.
You can also connect to other cities outside Tokyo by the Shinkansen (bullet train), but tickets should be pre-booked, as the trains come with assigned seats. The trains are not cheap (esp the Shinkansen), so If you're intending to travel around JP by train, you can purchase a rail pass in your home country, which makes it cheaper.
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