Posts Tagged JR rail pass

March 25, 2006 part 1 – My parents return to Japan

Today my parents returned to Japan for their second ever visit. The first time they came was in June 2004 when I was living in Kawasaki. My sister also came that time and we spent two weeks traveling around Tokyo, Yokohama, Kyoto, and Hiroshima. They also spent a day with my then girlfriend and her family in Numazu.

This time my sister is staying at home. My parents and I have a schedule that includes Kyoto, Nara, Himeji, Tokyo, and a lot more time with my now fiancee and her family. I’m really looking forward to it!

I am now getting to be proficient at traveling to Narita airport, having done so 8 times before. I took the slowest (cheapest) trains, using the long ride to read books. Lately my train reading has been the John Rebus novels by Ian Rankin. I got hooked thanks to the free library in Hello House, and have been a big fan ever since.

I usually get to the airport just as the flight is scheduled to land, which leaves time for people to get through immigration and customs. This time I was surprised to find my parents already waiting inside the terminal because their flight had landed early. They had their suitcases and were ready to leave the airport. I was so happy to see them in person! We talk regularly, but it’s not the same as being able to give someone a hug.

The last time I had seen my parents is when I flew home suddenly last fall when my sister was sick. When you don’t see someone for 6 months, they really look different!

Learning from their last visit to Japan, we activated their JR rail passes right at the airport. When you buy the rail pass, you are given a voucher than can be exchanged in Japan for your pass. The 7 days (or 14 or 21) starts from that point. You can only exchange the voucher for tickets at major stations, and I didn’t want to have to worry about finding a place to do so in Shizuoka.

After getting the passes taken care of, we boarded the Narita Express for Tokyo, and then took the shinkansen to Mishima. We were met at the station by The Penpal and her family in both of their cars. It was the first time for them to see my parents since they were in Japan two years ago, and also the first time since The Penpal and I got engaged. We loaded up the cars and went out to Gomi Hatten for dinner.

Big Soup

Gomi Hatten (Japanese Website) is a noodle shop / Chinese restaurant with huge portion sizes. If you leave hungry you have literally done something wrong. My parents were tired from their flight and were probably not in the mood for giant steaming bowls of soup, but they were happy to be on the ground and with family.

I’m really happy that my parents are here! I missed them a lot and I’m really looking forward to a few weeks of sightseeing!

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July 2, 2004 pt1 – The long road to Hiroshima

Noborito to Hiroshima

My parents, sister, and I got up nice and early, had a quick breakfast, and then set out for what would be our longest day of travel. Our goal was to go from Kawasaki to Hiroshima to see the Peace Memorial Museum, then back to Kyoto to set up a day of sightseeing.

My dad is not a fan of crowded trains, but due to the amount of distance we needed to cover we had to get on a busy rush hour train. It was my family’s first time to see the famous train pushers in action. My family stood by in wonder as they watched the uniformed rail staff pushing all of the arms and legs into the crowded train car. We were not looking forward to getting on one of the busy trains with our suitcases.

When we got on the train, I told my dad to stand by the door and look out the window. This way he could attempt to ignore the crushing crowds of people behind him. The technique worked, but he was still happy that it wasn’t a longer train ride.

We took Odakyu line from Noborito to Machida. At Machida we switched to Yokohama line bound for Shin-Yokohama. Yokohama station serves 11 different train lines, but not the shinkansen (bullet train). For that you need to leave from Shin-Yokohama station. Fun fact: when Shin-Yokohama station was built in 1964, it was in a rural area. It is now completely surrounded by city.

The Tokaido Shinkansen offers three different trains; the Kodama, the Hikari, and the Nozomi. The Kodama stops at every station along the way. It also features the most amount of unreserved seats. The Hikari stops at fewer stations and has fewer unreserved seats available. The Nozomi only stops at the biggest stations, and has very few unreserved seats. My family was using JR rail passes, which allow for free reserved seats on everything but the Nozomi. Since I live in Japan, I am ineligible for a JR rail pass. My parents generously treated me to all of my train fare.

Traveling on the shinkansen is one of the coolest things about Japan. The electric trains are quiet, comfortable, and blast through the countryside at over 250km/h (150mph). The seats have more than ample leg room, which is convenient if you are bringing luggage. All of the announcements are in Japanese and English, and there are vending machines, pay phones and washrooms available at the ends of the cars. Shinkansen is truly the best way to travel long distances in Japan.

On the way I showed my parents my cell phone. Phone technology in Japan is at least 6 months ahead of Canada. My mom was very impressed that she could use my phone to send an email to one of her friends.

We arrived in Hiroshima just before 1:30pm. In the five and a half hours since we left Noborito, we had traveled about 900km (560 miles). This is even more impressive when you consider our half our stop in Shin-Osaka to switch trains.

One of the best things about visiting a new place is that even the most mundane things like public transportation become an adventure. For my family and I, our train trip was the most fun we ever had traveling for 5 hours.

(2014 Update) My phone at the time was a flip phone with a camera that could take pictures 120 pixels x 120 pixels. I could send emails and browse a very limited Vodafone network. I could send texts or emails using the letters on my 0-9 keys. It was primitive by today’s standards, but better than most people’s phones in Canada at the time.

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July 1, 2004 – Hungry translator

Directory at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building

Directory at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building

Today we went to Shinjuku for sightseeing and to activate my family’s JR rail passes.

The JR Rail pass is a must purchase for visitors to Japan that will be doing a lot of traveling. Passes are available in 7, 14, and 21 day versions. They allow free transportation on all JR trains, all local JR busses, the Narita Express, and all except the fastest shinkansen. You need to purchase the pass before you travel to Japan, and then activate it when you arrive. The time period starts as soon as you activate the pass. Unfortunately the JR Rail Pass is not available for foreign residents of Japan, only visitors.

The closest place to Noborito to activate the JR rail pass was in Shinjuku. We boarded the Odakyu line and took the 20 minute ride into Shinjuku station. The plan was to quickly activate the passes, get lunch, and then explore Shinjuku for the afternoon.

It took us a while to actually find the travel office where we could activate the rail passes, and when we arrived we found a huge line of people ahead of us. By this point I was already hungry and looking forward to lunch. After waiting for about half an hour, we were at the front of the line. I asked my parents if they could take care of the passes themselves while I got something to eat. They were worried about doing something wrong or needing to speak Japanese, so I had to stay.

By the time the rail passes had been exchanged, I was ravenous. The staff at the travel office spoke English very well, which was good because I am pretty useless when hungry, and the Japanese language part of my brain had shut down. I declined their offer of help to book a hotel in Kyoto so we could leave sooner. Just before 2:00pm my family walked out of the travel office with active rail passes and one grumpy translator. Eventually we found a nearby Becker’s Burgers in the underground mall and I proceeded to stuff myself.

Now that I was fed and feeling like a human again, we left the sprawling Shinjuku station and started to explore the area. I walked my family down the main streets, near all of the restaurants, stores and pachinko parlours. I took them through the NS building and showed them the world’s largest water clock, which was the first landmark that I had seen when I arrived in Japan in September. In addition, we went to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building.

The government building, also known as Tokyo City Hall, has two large towers on each side of a central structure. Each tower has a free observation level on the 45th floor that provide breathtaking views of the Greater Tokyo Area. On a day with no clouds and minimal smog you can see Mt. Fuji. We had no such luck.

After completely overwhelming my family with tall building after tall building, we returned to Noborito to get packed for our 3 day excursion to Hiroshima, Kyoto, and Numazu. We all tried to watch a DVD in my room, but everyone was still jetlagged from the travel and we all had an early night.

(2014 Update) The JR travel offices that can be found in major train stations and airports are fantastic. They are happy to help you make your travel and hotel plans, and they can provide maps and recommendations for places to see. The best part is that they can do all of these things in English. Just make sure you get some lunch first – the lines can be long!

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