I mentioned before I went on holidays that I’d bought the Seishun Juuhachi ticket. This ticket gives you 5 days unlimited travel on local JR trains anywhere in Japan.
When I bought it, I was intending to do some day trips, maybe a short overnight stay. Well, I ended up getting my money’s worth. I went from Osaka to Fukuoka and back to Tokyo. That was 5 full days of travel, well maybe 4 and a half since I was lazy on the 5th day.
So based on my experience, here are some tips on local train travel around Japan.
Firstly, I think you need to consider if you are the type of person who likes quiet hobbies such as reading, drawing, doing sudoku (I didn’t think of this until I saw a guy with a sudoku book on the train yesterday and I had extreme sudoku envy) and gazing out the windows. Do you like taking your time about things? Do you like saving money? Well then travelling by local train is probably for you.
If you are the time that gets antsy sitting for longer than 10 minutes at time and don’t care how much it costs so long as you get there fast, then skip the local train and get the shinkansen.
Planning your trip
You need to consider whether you want to get all intricate and plan your trip down the last detail, with a list of all train connections and time. That way you can maximise your time and prebook hotels. You know where you need to be and get there as fast as possible (considering you are on a slow train).
Alternatively, you can travel free and easy – getting on and off the train on a whim, travelling until you get sick of it then finding a place to stay the night.
I tried both ways. The first few times I had bookings at hotels on both Hiroshima and Fukuoka so wanted to get to those cities as fast as possible. The real disadvantage is that you can be running from one train to the next with no time for a break. That can be fine but awfully hectic. The advantage is that you know where you are stopping so can research hotels or backpackers and get the cheaper deals.
On the way back to Tokyo, I had no definite stops planned. I just wanted to get back. This was pretty scary for me because I’m the type who NEVER travels without having a hotel room reserved. It worked out well though. The beauty of this kind of travel in Japan is that there are always business hotels near the train stations in all but the smallest towns. They are reasonably priced and nothing fancy – usually just a room with a unit bathroom (if you’ve never been to Japan, imagine like a Barbie bathroom but in beige not pink – all moulded plastic in one unit that they can just drop into the room) but they are clean and close to the station.
The other advantage of Japan is that, if you do find all the accommodation booked, you can always find an internet cafe or karaoke bar to sleep the night. Worst case scenario, find a bar and spend the night drinking then sleep it off on the train the next day – the trains usually start running early anyway.
It can be a bit difficult to find your way around with using a site like hyperdia to plan a basic route. Especially if you don’t know Japanese. Even if you know a bit of Japanese, the station names are all in kanji. Who knows all the kanji for every train station in Japan? Maybe a few of those creepy types that hang around Akahabara, that’s who. Most Japanese people seemed to have these thick books of train timetables but I figure if you can get a train timetable app on your phone even better.
The worrying thing is, even if you have your route planned, the plan might say go get on the train headed for town X but, when you go to change, the train is going to town Y. Since I was sticking to the main train lines (the Tokaido and the Sanyo), I figured I was pretty safe. Just keep moving in the general direction. If you were going off the beaten track though, it gets harder. A few times, I checked with station staff just to confirm I was going the right way.
Even if you are travelling on the main train lines, you can only go so far without changing trains. At most 2-3 hours. Changing trains is pretty simple though – the next train is waiting at the station when you pull in so it’s just a case of grabbing your stuff and running to catch. The first few times I’d just written down a basic timetable but it’s really helpful also to know which platform the next train leaves from.
Also, while you can go all day, moving from one train to the other, it’s not necessarily the best way to do things.
You might get 5 or 10 minutes between trains which seems like enough time but, by the time you’ve run from one platform to the other, you pretty much have to make a choice of either go to the toilet or buy a drink and some food or, if you are a smoker, to have a cigarette.
This is without considering all the old people on the train will rush to the next platform and get to the front of the line for the train in case they don’t get a seat. I’d seen a few things on the internet saying you might not get a seat on the train and have to stand for a few hours but that never happened to me, even travelling on a public holiday. You have to remember too, these are local trains so people are using them to travel locally. Even if the train is crowded to start with, people get off at the next town. I don’t think you’d ever have to stand for the whole time.
How far can you cover in a day? I did around 12 hours for two of the days I travelled. I could have done more if I had really, really pushed myself (although 12 hours on a train with less than luxury seats is a pretty big push).
Most of the time I got to the station around 8 or 9 am (I’d say it’s best to avoid rush hour when you have bags and things though) and would travel until around 5 or 6 pm. I think the latest I got off the train would have been around 8pm.
I think there are some overnight trains you can catch with this ticket but I didn’t use them. Most overnight trains are limited express trains so can be used without paying separately.
You can buy all the food you need at the kiosks on the train platforms or cheaply buy food at a convenience store in the morning to take with you. I started getting a bit worried about eating healthily because that kind of food can be a bit greasy. To be blunt, I didn’t want to end up with the runs on a train with no toilet so got a bit fussy about buying better food like nuts and things rather than curry pan.
I bought a drink bottle and started filling that up in the morning because the drinks from the vending machines are always overly sweet and even at a 100 yen a pop, soon add up. Some of the stations have drink fountains where you can fill up your water bottle but not all of them.
You can’t smoke on local trains. Between Osaka and Tokyo, I don’t think you can smoke on any of the platforms or in the station either. That means if you are smoker, you have to go through the ticket gate and outside or find a coffee shop within the station that has a smoking section.
Travelling from Osaka to Fukuoka, all the stations had a smoking area on the platform. Normally, if the train is going to be stopped a while, the driver will announce it. If you are like me, and are listening to music and not paying attention, you can ask the conductor how long you are stopped for. At one station, the train was about to leave so the conductor pushed me back on the train. It was very hot and manly.
- Don’t pack a big heap of candy to eat on the train because you will come home a big fat pudding like I did!
- Don’t wear a short, flimsy skirt on the train. If you fall asleep, your skirt will ride up and it will be very embarrassing when you wake up. This goes double if you are a guy!
- If you need to use the toilet at the train station, there will be only one Western toilet and it will be occupied by someone taking a shitload of time (literally). Either learn to have a very strong bladder or to use a Japanese squat toilet.
- It doesn’t matter if you make a detour, so long as you get there in the end.
I got to see some really beautiful areas of Japan, places I want to go back to. I got to go to town that has a hot spring outside the station where you can soak your feet. I got to see some of the most amazing scenery that you’d miss whizzing past on the shinkansen I got to see Mt Fuji up really close (and an egg vending machine). I travelled with old ladies who bow before they sit next to you.
All of this cost me just $100 – that’s $20 per day of train travel. Pretty freaken sweet if you ask me.
Would I do it again? Hells yeah.