Train travel in Japan is a sprawling, impressive, stimulating experience all of its’ own, crossing and winding through the entire country; the Japanese train system is remarkable. Even if you’re not the slightest bit exhilarated by trains, a journey is abundant with cultural echoes and social reflections.
Running spotlessly and hyper-precisely, train-riding in Japan comes with a certain etiquette, stations greet and sing with their own particular musical flourish, and whether bullet-like or sedate, they are roundly reliable.
It can all get a little overwhelming though, especially if you find yourself ticketless in Japan, unsure of which ticket pass, for which trains, in which locality (Hokkaido, Chugoku, Kanto, Hakone, Chubu, Kyushu) at which 鉄道駅!?! And your Japanese Kanji is not so hot.
Thankfully, a trip around Japan can be made easier by pre-arranging the legendary Japan Rail Pass. A somewhat mysterious pass, a glorious docket, which can only be ordered in advance from outside of Japan. A tourist-only affair, which on arrival feels a little like a secret manuscript or Wonka’s golden ticket, delivered straight to your door wherever you live in the world. The appearance of this ‘Exchange Order’ signals the unofficial start of your trip; you’re not leaving for months of course. Still, once in your possession… it’s hard to resist the excitement of what’s to come. You stash the documents safely, maybe admiring them from time-to-time before your trip.
What if the dog eats your passes? What if the local tomcats get wind and hatch an elaborate plan to commandeer your secret passes? Or, ahem, even less likely. Could it be that your secret stash is a little too safe?
Well, yes. The latter in our case. With all the excitement, we forget to revisit our secret ticket stash. In hindsight, we probably should have put them with our passports.
Very early into our trip (while transferring through Amsterdam airport, in fact), it dawned on us. Frantically Jennifer contacted Hannah at Rickshaw, who after being sworn to secrecy, raced around to our secret drawer in the hope we could be reunited with our Shinkansen dreams. Perhaps an on-screen receipt will do? Maybe we can photocopy, scan, carrier pigeon them? Can we get replacements? Can we telekinetically transport them? Nope.
The Japan Rail Pass is a tourist-friendly, strictly out-of-country purchase that permits travel virtually anywhere in Japan over a 7, 14 or 21 day period, and vitally, it’s not available to buy once you reach Japan. It’s a marvellous, liberating deal and needless to say, amazingly useful for exploring Japan… You just need to present your documents at an ‘Exchange Office’, in their original physical form and travelling freedom is yours. Totally fair and straightforward enough, but troublesome if said documents are in a ‘safe’ drawer in Brighton, as a scanned copy, image or replacement is not a viable – at least not at time of writing.
So, we arrive at Fukuoka in the South West of Japan, faced with re-thinking our original plans to explore the 1000 km journey to Tokyo by leaping on/off/on/off the lightning fast, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, I-went-on-a-floating-magnetic-rail-rocket, Shinkansen Bullet network. Obviously, you can buy tickets as you go, but it works out a lot more expensive, and a few longer journeys can quickly exceed the entire cost of a 7-day pass.
The hero – Seishun 18
After a few hours deciphering our options, we discovered something called the Seishun 18, a seasonal, flexible, 5-day pass aimed at youthful students, but open to anyone and most importantly for us, purchasable from train stations in Japan. The Seishun 18 is only active during the summer and winter holiday periods, but as luck would have it, our trip was perfectly timed to make use of these bargain passes.
Effectively dividable as five one-day travel cards by one or more people, the pass provides five lots of unlimited 24hour travel at any time during the holiday window, when travelling via the more leisurely ‘local’ and ‘rapid’ services on JR Company train lines, which intersect the length of the country. They are also accepted on JR Bus Rapid Transit routes throughout Japan, the JR West Miyajima Ferry, monorails (cue Simpsons song) and even on steam trains that run on a handful of local lines.
The JR local network runs like veins throughout Japan.
Suddenly we realised that if we picked up a few of these passes, pleasingly priced with students in mind, we could travel the local lines and solve our puzzle. Slotting together a series of more memorable DIY rail journeys and building an intriguing, personalised and meaningful dot-to-dot adventure; in fact, much like a Rickshaw trip!
What looked to be a disastrous beginning to our Japanese holiday, quickly developed into a challenge to be embraced, bringing a more intimate, higher resolution experience which would in many respects. It also provided a more authentic and detailed glimpse into day-to-day life around rural Japan.
Up until this point, we hadn’t really considered the possibility that there might be a slow-motion, stop-more alternative over such distances, and as it happens the Japan Rail Pass would provide the best of both worlds for the I-didn’t-forget-my-documents traveller. A happy medium between the Shinkansen and the extensive local JR railway network encompassing the precincts.
As they say over at JR East:
“Buy a bento lunch box, jump aboard and enjoy Japan. A side of Japan you’ll never get with the faster trains.”
East Japan Railway Company
So, delighted (and relieved) with our new found solution, we set about planning an intimate route across the network from our Fukuoka starting point… Our path unravelled something like this:
Rather than taking our original rapid route direct from Fukuoka to Hiroshima, we opted for a more leisurely detour towards the lesser traversed Shikoku Island, tucked to the east of Beppu, a quite-literal hotspot. Beppu’s renowned across Japan for its hot water springs or Onsen, decorative manhole plates hold down the steaming geothermal undercurrent along the streets as we arrived to take a dip. Travelling into the geo-heated hills, we arrived at one bath just as they were closing and thought our luck had evaporated, but upon hearing how far we’d travelled, they kindly waved us through to the respective male/female divided stillness of the empty Onsen, surrounded by cherry blossom.
Once again we were amazed to discover our timing was gloriously serendipitous, excited by rumours of the annual burning of Ogiyama mountain, in celebration of the 100th hot spring festival no less!
Needless to say, we hung around for a couple more days. As exciting as it was, everyone was out to witness the pyromania, and even though by all accounts previous years had blazed a more impressive spectacle, it’s still the only mountain fire ritual we’ve seen, and Beppu remains burnt in memory.
Glowing from the natural heat of Beppu, we continued onward and having already set our hearts on visiting the deer-haven of Miyajima Island even before we arrived in Japan. Our shifting travel plans meant we approached from below and up to Hiroshima rather than the reverse instead heading further down the coast to the port of Usuki which harbours a ferry service to Yawatahama on Shikoku Island. With some friendly assistance at the information office, we managed to purchase tickets for the ferry which runs regularly, and after a sedate few hour sail, we continued on the local JR lines. Gently crossing the island with just a handful of fellow passengers toward Matsuyama and ferrying again to meet the doe-eyed inhabitants of Miyajima Island via a stop in Hiroshima.
Famed for the tameness of its deer, Miyajima maintained the relative calm of our journey, a few more visitors and tourists joined us, the cherry blossom was out, and the inquisitive population were welcoming.
With limited travel time a factor, we opted to jump on the Bullet after a few days in Hiroshima and fast-tracked our way to Osaka. The aptly named Bullets are eye-poppingly fast, but it’s all over in a blurring whizz, leaving only imagination to fill the travelling gaps. So after a pretty rapid break, we were happy to reacquaint ourselves with the local rails to visit Inuyama’s annual extravaganza, the castle town festival which rumbles and rolls with towering, heavy-weight floats through narrow streets, tightly packed with admiring spectators and brimming with a vibrant sense of community.
The local festival at Inuyama was so representative of our entire journey; unique, intimate and engaging. We felt similarly privileged to feel so engaged with events, locations and districts in such a personal and revealing way. Taking the local JR lines, passing through Hakone and alongside Mount Fuji, glancing the added drama of a slower panorama, the iconic mountain looming over the passing towns and realising that for some, this was their daily commute! I’m not sure we would have grasped just how valuable an experience it could be, or taken such an extensive and convoluted route, had we actually remembered our rail passes. Though next time we will.