Sunday, August 06, 2006

The World is Your Oyster... Well, the Country Anyway

It is incredibly easy to take day or weekend trips to almost anywhere in Japan, a fact I'm slowly discovering myself. If you are an eikaiwa teacher and aren't traveling in your free time, you're giving up a huge part of the Japanese culture every minute.

But what is the best way to travel in Japan?

Not exactly an option if you're with an eikaiwa - because I know you can't afford a car over here. Renting might be viable option for some vacations, but even then, you'd need an International Driver's License or a Japanese Driver's License: both are huge, bureaucratic obstacles in Japan, the big kahuna of all bureaucracies, and they cost money to begin with. I don't recommend it, but if you're desperate enough... check it out.

Quite possibly the cheapest way to go long distances. Now, I'm sure you've heard stories about how the bus system isn't exactly foreigner-friendly. That's quite true, but they aren't turning you away because you're a foreigner; just be sure to know the proper Japanese beforehand, apologize profusely for the inconvenience, and you're well on your way to getting a ticket to Tokyo or Fukuoka. There is no English in the JR Bus system, but there are numbers, which when you think about it, are far more important in getting a ticket - Japan could have chosen to keep Kanji numbers for bus numbers, departure times, fares, but they didn't, so you've got some headway. Here's some useful Japanese:

Watashi wa (Hakata) ni ikitai des
I want to go to (Hakata).

Itsu? Oofuku?
When? Round-trip ticket?

Hachigatsu tooka. Watashi wa hachigatsu juuyokka ni modoritai des
August 10th. I want to return on August 14th.

Then they'll show you possible departure times for both buses, have you choose, and pay the fare. Simple. I had no problem buying a ticket at Hiroshima Station - it may be a different story in smaller towns, but I didn't use any English. Numbers help. The JR Chugoku Bus ticket office is on the Shinkansen side near the Granvia Hotel:

But the departure point is in the main bus terminal downtown.

Depends on the distance, but usually this is the most expensive way to travel within Japan. Depending on the airport you use, you can't expect to get by without a little Japanese. Also, unlike the Shinkansen, things happen with departure times - what if you're delayed or cancelled? How will you know? And how do you get a refund? Still, if you're fluent in Japanese and you're concerned with time, planes can be faster than the Shinkansen for certain places in Japan - I'd only suggest it if you're traveling from maybe Kyushu (western-most island) to Hokkaido (northern-most island); and of course you'd need to fly to Okinawa.

Local Train
Cheap, easy, accessible. Local trains also have expresses like the Shinkansen. With the exception of Tokyo and a few places in Kyushu, all lines are operated by Japan Railways. Simple vending machine transactions to get tickets, and all locations are written in both Kanji and English. If you want to travel long distances using the local line instead of the Shinkansen, that's fine, but expect it to take like eight times as long - I'd be willing to bet the Shinkansen from Hiroshima to Fukuoka would take about one hour, but if you ride the local all the way there, with all those stops, expect eight hours. Not worth the trouble, but it is cheaper.

The bullet train. The fastest and easiest way to get around. You can get anywhere in the country within twelve hours. You should use the local for day-to-day travel, but the Shinkansen is incredibly convenient and somewhat cheap for long distances. If you're visiting Japan for just a week or so, you qualify for the coveted JR Rail Pass - a fixed price (about ¥30,000), that allows you to use all rails, local and Shinkansen, all the time within a seven day period.

Just imagine... you get off work Saturday night and sleep hard. The next day, you're sick of spending so much time in your tiny apartment, and you just want to get out, to live, to love Japan. So you take the local to Hiroshima for ¥570:

But that doesn't feel like enough, so on a whim, you pay ¥11,000 and set out for Kyoto. Two measly hours and you're in the most traditional part of Japan, living it up.

It's not even noon yet. Get off the internet, stop drinking that Coke, and just run, far, far away. Ja mata.

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