The hardest, yet most exciting part of traveling is often the planning stage and narrowing down where to go given the time you have. I visited Kyushu region in Japan by Cheaptickets.sg and Japan Tourism Board this past September. This is how I planned (and failed to follow said ambitious plan) for the trip!
How I planned for the trip
No joke, each time I plan for my trip, once a region has been narrowed down I would open up google maps and see if there are any familiar names in the vicinity. In this case, I immediately zero-ed in on the familiar names: Hiroshima, Fukuoka, Nagasaki, Kumamoto and Kagoshima.
My advice here, and a lesson I had to learn, is to account for travel fatigue. All of the above cities are great destinations I don’t want to miss – but it is very ambitious to hit up all five in 7 days. In the end I had to sacrifice Kagoshima since it isn’t as convenient to get to if I want to also include Nagasaki in the itinerary. Plans were changed and bookings amended at last minute. Not an ideal scenario and it could have been avoided had I been more realistic and listened to friends who advised me otherwise.
How I booked my accommodations
In my travels, sometimes I like to “wing it” and book accommodations last minute in the spirit of being spontaneous. I quickly learned this isn’t a very smart move when it comes to visiting Japan, as hotels get booked up really fast especially when they are a good deal.
Hotels in Japan aren’t cheap but I managed to keep my accommodation costs to be S$140 (US$100) on average per night, thanks to booking accommodations ahead of time through CheapTickets.
Full disclosure: CheapTickets sent me to Japan. This means they paid for my flight and accommodations, but I paid for my own meals and all of the activities. I also chose my own accommodations.
Using JR Pass: The FAQs
I have been to Japan three times before, but I’ve never used the JR pass since I was either not moving around much or was staying only for a few days, so it wouldn’t have been economical to get the pass. So I was pretty excited this time when I realized that getting a JR pass for this trip actually makes sense!
What is JR Pass exactly?
JR pass is a form of rail pass that gives you unlimited access to all JR trains in Japan for 7, 14 or 21 days. I bolded the JR train part for emphasis since this gets confusing for some people – in Japan, there are many train companies and Japan Rail (JR) is one of them, and this pass is only valid for JR trains.
For more information on the pass validity, I found this page to be very useful. Since I was in Kyushu for 7 days and will be moving around a lot, it made sense for me to get the 7-day ticket for 29,110 yen (US$270).
How do I find out the train schedules?
Surprisingly, the most user-friendly way is through Google Maps! Use the public transport filter (The icon that looks like a train) and play with the “Depart at” filter to see the next train available from point A to B. I find their schedule to be quite accurate.
Other than that, you can go to the station and look at the schedule there or use local websites like HyperDia.
Which Shinkansen train can I use with JR Pass?
Shinkansen is the famous Japanese bullet train. It is a much, much faster way to travel than taking regular train and thus is preferred mode of transport.
There are different types of Shinkansen trains running on the same route. Most of the time you don’t have to worry about it since they are all the same, and will get you from point A to B. However, in Kyushu, if you want to use your JR Pass you cannot take Mizuho or Nozomi trains. During my trip, I took mostly Sakura and Haruka trains.
How do you know which train is what type? You can tell the type of trains by looking at the schedule at the train station itself. If you are looking at Google Maps, it is the colored label next to the JR Logo. For example:
The screenshot above is a sample route from KIX to Osaka. In this case, this Shinkansen type is the one with JR logo next to it, which is Haruka. Since it is not Mizuho or Nozomi, you can take this train on JR Pass!
Cool, so how do you use the JR Pass?
First, a voucher for JR pass must be purchased from outside of Japan, so you have to sort this out before you go on your trip.
Once you have arrived in Japan, and on the day when you want the pass to be activated, you trade in the voucher at any major JR station for the actual pass. The pass looks like this:
Once you have received the pass, you have to keep it with you for the duration of your travel and must always bring it with you when you do a train travel. Don’t lose your pass!
Also, whenever you want to use the JR pass, you don’t go through the automated gate like everyone else. Instead you just walk up to any JR station gate and show your pass to the ticket officer, usually to the left or right of the automated ticket gates.
Tips on how to travel on unreserved seats
JR Pass allows you to reserve seats for free, but in case you ever need to take unreserved seats (which is cheaper when you aren’t on JR Pass), such as if you are traveling with a friend who do not have JR Pass, here’s what I have learned from my experience:
1. Make sure you know ahead of time which cars are designated for unreserved seating
The digital signboard at any major Shinkansen station tells you all the information you need. It flips between Japanese and English, so don’t worry if you can’t read Japanese! Just wait a few seconds until it flips to English.
Things to note here are the Non-Reserved car indicator on the far right. In the picture above, it’s Cars 1-3. Also note the train type to the left of it, usually 8 or 16 cars. In the picture above it is 8 cars. I’ll explain why later.
2. Plan to line up 15-20 minutes before the schedule
During peak travel time it is entirely possible you might not get to sit next to your travel buddies when the train is full. Or worse, you may not get a seat at all! I have seen people standing up in the space between train cars. So to avoid this, allocate some time for lining up ahead of the scheduled train arrival time.
How do you line up properly in Japan? Easy! Get to your train platform and look down on the floor to find out where you are supposed to line up – usually there would be a mark that looks like this:
3. Find out where exactly you are supposed to line up
Remember when I said to note the Non-Reserved car numbers and train type? This comes in handy for when you need to find out where the train will stop, so you know where exactly to line up. On the floor, they would normally have something a sign that looks like this:
This is when the train type matters – whether it’s 8 or 16 cars or whatever number. In this case, if your train is an 8 car then you look at the green box. If your train is 16 car, then you look at the yellow box. So just match up the car numbers to the Non-reserved cars from the signboard to make sure you are lining up at the correct spot designated for unreserved seats. When the train comes, the door will open up exactly at this spot!
That’s all! It might seem complicated, but after doing this a few times it’s pretty easy :)