It was time to use the most valuable weapon in our Japanese travel arsenal – our JR Japan Rail Passes! We ordered them online in Australia (they cannot be bought in Japan), and picked them up at Shinjuku station with all the required stamps and stickers. For the next 3 weeks, we could book as many JR tickets as we wanted, or just flash the pass at any JR gate, and unlimited train travel was ours. It came in handy for some subway lines and intercity trains, but most excitingly, we had unlimited rides on the mighty high-speed shinkansen trains; Japan’s famous ‘bullet trains’. I couldn’t wait to experience the speed, comfort and style i’d heard so much about.
The train arrived right on time, a Hokuriku shinkansen, sliding into the station with its eye-catching, aerodynamic, snake-shaped nose (A few weeks later we took another type of shinkansen to Hiroshima, the Hayabusa, with a long, flattened ‘duck bill’ style). The barriers opened, we boarded, took our seats, and began to accelerate. The shinkansen picked up speed immediately out of Tokyo station, racing through the northern suburbs of the city. Towers and apartments flashed past the window for a long time, and I realised just how large a metropolitan area of almost 40 million people actually was.
Within minutes of departure, the train carriage came alive with the popping of beer cans, rustling of plastic bags and snapping of chopstick pairs, as the passengers opened their packed bento boxes (ekiben) for lunch. The ekiben are super popular and easy to find at major train stations. They can be sushi, or rice with chicken katsu, sliced beef, or any number of unidentified treats. They are hot, cold… Hello Kitty themed, you name it! Delighted to have similarly pre-planned, we unwrapped our sushi and felt part of the shinkansen club. I spoke to Cindy, keeping my voice low to adhere to the no-noise etiquette of the shinkansen. I compared the shinkansen to Europe’s high speed lines. Whilst comparable in speed, Japan’s system definitely felt more clean, efficient and futuristic.
With the city and surrounding farmland far behind us, the shinkansen swept into some long, sweeping bends as we moved into the mountains, banking like a race car to make the turns smoothly. We spotted distant mountains with patchy snow, villages of wooden houses and tall pine forests. We were passing through the Japanese Alps to reach Nagoya, our transit station on our route to the small town of Magome. Looking at the shinkansen network map, we saw tracks ribboned up and down the whole of Japan, linking cities, crossing mountains and connecting islands. What an achievement!
We bought the 21-day pass for 58,000 Yen (about AU$657), which seems very expensive, but after just two or three shinkansen rides, it more than made up for its value. Getting the JR rail pass is one of the top recommendations I would give to anyone planning on travelling around Japan!