Riding the Shinkansen in Japan

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My sister is not the best seat buddie on the Shinkansen. Last year we travelled together in Japan and rode the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto. I envisioned a quiet, reflective time; I would read Murakami while catching glimpses of Mt Fuji from the window. I was able to do this when I returned alone a few months later, but with my sister I could hardly concentrate. Every five seconds I felt another nudge on my spine. She would not sit still, another picture had to be taken, another video had to be shot. I think she spent the majority of the three hour ride looking through her phone camera.

I have used both the 7 day and 28 day pass, and if you’re traveling a lot, you absolutely must buy one. It is quite a bit of money up front (purchased at a travel agency in cash) and you can only trade it in and book train seats once you arrive in Japan. This caused me a lot of stress on my second trip as I arrived in Tokyo at 9 am and needed to be in Hiroshima by nightfall. However, thankfully it is not at all hard to get a seat reservation, and even if you don’t, you can simply hop on the unreserved cars (often cars 1-3). The attendants at the ticket booth in the Narita JR office were extremely helpful and efficient. They don’t allow luggage into the office however. When I was traveling alone I left my luggage (my whole life as I was moving countries) outside the office and prayed it would still be there after the transaction. Because I was in Japan nothing was stolen (don’t try that elsewhere!).

The pass also works in JR trains within Tokyo! It is great if you need more flexibility because you can hop on any shinkansen or JR Tokyo train. When all my travel plans fell through the third day on my solo trip, I lost no money on transportation. If I had booked specific trains, I would have been out at least $600. Instead, with my pass, if I woke up and felt like going to Osaka, I went to Osaka and paid nothing. I looked up exact times on hyperdia under wifi, screen shot them, then followed the signs to the appropriate train and unreserved car carriages. The announcements were in English and Japanese with lettering above the door in case I didn’t catch them. There was also a luggage lock area between the cars.

Not always, but most of the time the expensive fare of the train pass will work in your favor. Even the trip to and from Kyoto in one week with my sister was worth it. Of course if you want other options, there are cheaper (and longer) ways to travel within Japan. But honestly you can’t beat that view or the experience… even if you have your sister badgering you the whole way.

Illustration by my sister, Lauren Monaco.

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