JR Pass in a Nutshell. Part 2: After Arriving

I’ve arrived in Japan – what next? How to use the JR Pass.

If you’ve landed in Japan and still don’t know, when to activate your JR Pass, you’ll have all the time you need to consider that in the line to customs (it took us about an hour to get to the customs gates). If you don’t know what dates to set for your pass, refer to our previous post about buying the JR Pass.

Once you decide on “when”, you’ll probably want to know “where”. You can do that not only at the airport, but also in several other places, a list of which you’ll find here: https://www.jrailpass.com/files/exchange_office.pdf. And you can find a map of the most popular places here: http://www.japanrailpass.net/img/purchase/file/exchange_station.pdf

Since we wanted to start using it straight away, we activated it on the same day we arrived. We took our place in line, and while we were waiting, a woman came up to us with some forms to fill out (personal details, when we want to activate our JR Pass, and a signature). In order to make the process as fast as possible, once you get to the counter, have your passports and exchange orders ready, as well as the filled out form.

The procedure itself was very quick, and while you’re there you can make seat reservations for your nearest trip (in our case it was the N’Ex and shinkansen), so that you can board your train without having to stand in another line to the ticket counter. If you didn’t activate your JR Pass for the same day, after the activation you can go straight to the ticket counters for the JR line, Keisei line, or the bus. Options galore 😉

It’s worth noticing that the date of activation doesn’t necessarily equal the date of effect. You can activate the pass right after you arrive, but provide a different activation date, which will let you spare the trip to an exchange office later on.

Finding routes

It’s worth planning out your first trip before you arrive in Japan. The best website to do that is www.hyperdia.com. Let’s go through the process together 😉 Upon entering the website, you’ll see a search panel on the left-hand side.

Fill out the short search form with details of your starting and destination locations, the date, hour, and type – whether arrival or departure. And here’s the important part: you have to click the “More options” in the lower right-hand corner, which will reveal something like so:

If you want to use only the JR Pass, you have to uncheck the following options:

  • Airplane,
  • NOZOMI / MIZUHO / HAYABUSA (SHINKANSEN),
  • Private Railway.

You can also uncheck other options, but if you travel during the day and want to find something quick, that’ll suffice. After you selecting the required options, click on “Search” and after a short wait, you’ll be shown the search results, which consist of several route options labeled “Route”, with consecutive numbers. Which one you choose depends on your personal preferences. We mainly used routes with the least amount of transfers (which makes life a bit easier if you travel with large luggage), but also ones with fairly short travel times. On the bottom of the page you’ll see the search parameters, which you can modify.

Booking seats

Hyperdia is just a search engine and doesn’t provide booking services. Instead, you can book a seat ahead of time at the station. In case you do want to book a seat, it’s worth writing down the departure times, trains and transfers that you want to use. This will really speed up the booking process.

If you don’t feel like taking notes and carrying dead trees, there’s a very nice smartphone app for that. Although there is a mobile version of Hyperdia, I strongly advise against it – I’m positive that I’ve gained a few new grey hairs because of it, before I found a much better app called JapanTravel. It really just works, and one of its pros is that it shows which platforms the trains leave from, which really comes in handy when you have to quickly find your way around the station and don’t have time to check the departure tables (although it’s always worth taking a glance, just to make sure). Here are some screenshots from the app:

Another nice little feature is the ability to swipe left and right between routes, or choose a route using the numbers displayed on top of the screen.

How to get around

So you’ve chosen your travel route, have your JR Pass tucked in your passport (for convenience) – what next? You have to options, depending on the train. Some lines require reservations (e.g. the N’Ex), others don’t. If you don’t want to book a seat, you go straight to the platform. If you do want to book a seat, you go to the ticket office, show your JR Pass and passport, and ask for a reservation. Usually we just showed the route we chose in TravelJapan to prevent any miscommunication. They’ll give you your free seat reservation tickets and will – almost always and with great details – go over the booking details with you. Sometimes they even print out a slip with your entire itinerary.

The arrival and departure times are displayed in two languages – Japanese and English. If you currently see the Japanese version, just wait for a moment and it will soon switch to the English version.

Normally, when you want to get to the platform with a ticket, you have to go through gates similar to the ones at a subway. JR Pass holder, on the other hand, have to go to the conductor’s window and show them your pass and passport. Sometimes they check both, sometimes they just wave their hand for you to go through when they see your inseparable set in hand, and sometimes (although rarely) they might even be to preoccupied with something else and just outright ignore you. However, if you have only your JR Pass in hand, there’s a big chance you’ll have to stop and take out your passport, too (we had a situation like that once, when our passports were tucked in a different place than the passes and I was too lazy to take them out beforehand.)

Once you get through the gates, just follow the signs.

As for the train car locations, they’re accurately mapped out on the platform and sometimes on additional panels. If you don’t have a seat reservation, it’s a good idea to line up at the correct entrance queue – they’re clearly visible thanks to the colorful markings on the ground. The information panels sometimes display circles and triangles – those correspond to their relative lines on the platform (some trains line up differently with the platform, so this helps you choose the correct spot.) Everything’s going to be fine as long as you check the display panels. Oh, and please remember to be well-mannered – no pushing or cutting in lines, and no hurrying others in front of us. When the train arrives, the people getting out have preference.

Lastly, if you know you won’t make it, don’t count on the train being late or that it’ll wait those couple of seconds for you – it won’t. We’ve only experienced one case where the train arrived 4 minutes late, which already warranted a public apology by the conductor himself. Be on the platform ahead of time so that you can find the right spot for your car entrance (the shinkansen trains are somewhat long and sometimes it’s quite a walk before you get to your car).

We hope you found this useful. If you have any questions or comments, please write in the comment section below 🙂

Till next time!

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