Avoiding commuters – with your Rail Pass

On the heels of my recent post on the Japan Rail Pass, I would like to share a tip with you that will make travel in major Japanese cities a little bit easier… not to mention a little more interesting.

Do you want to travel between cities but don’t feel like standing up to the crush of commuters every morning or evening? Granted, you’ll probably want to give a trip or two in a Yamanote Line sardine can, for example, a shot at some point. But what if you are carrying something with you, such as luggage? Or are you the type that prefers to be away from all of that hustle and bustle?

In certain instances, the solution is in your Japan Rail Pass. The pass permits you to use most any JR-operated train for the duration of your pass. This includes everything from commuter trains to the bullet train, as well as something that falls in between – the Limited Express, or tokkyu in Japanese. Limited Express trains generally operate over considerable distances, and operate for the most part on regular JR commuter lines.

In the case of Limited Express and Shinkansen (bullet) trains, your pass entitles you a free seat reservation in a reserved seat. But what it also entitles you to is, space permitting, a non-reserved seat. Limited Express and Shinkansen trains, with few exceptions, have a certain number of unreserved seats that can be used.

So how exactly do you use it? First you must determine what journey you will take, and if a limited express or bullet train can cover the trip. Next you must find out if the train offers non-reserved seating… train carriages will be marked “non-reserved” in english. Then, simply hop on board and let the train take you to your destination.

A good example of putting this to good use is on JR’s Kyoto to Osaka corridor. When trains seem to be at capacity and you want a good alternative, then you might want to consider taking a limited express service that operates frequently between the two cities… this includes the Thunderbird, Raicho and Haruka. Japan Railway’s english timetable pamphlets list the majority of the limited express trains in the country – Kansai included – and departure/arrival times. These limited express services generally arrive on separate platforms from the crowded commuter lines, and the chances are usually good that you will get a seat. Look up the time, go to the platform, look for the correct car, and hop on. When the conductor approaches, smile, show him your pass, and announce your intended destination.

Adding to these particular options – the bullet train between Kyoto and (Shin-)Osaka. Your rail pass allows you to take any of up to three hourly departures (2 Hikari trains and 1 Kodama), and each of these trains have unreserved seats.

It is also possible to make seat reservations in reserved cars for short journeys such as this… you can make such reservations at the “Midori-no-Madoguchi”, or Green Counter, at the major JR stations.

In Tokyo, you could utilize, for example, the Odoriko between Tokyo and Yokohama/Odawara, the Azusa/Kaiji from Shinjuku to Mitaka/Hachioji, or the bullet train between Tokyo, Ueno and Omiya. One interesting attempt was successfully completed by this writer… I was traveling from a hotel near Ueno Station all the way down to a hotel in Osaka. My train left in the morning, in the heart of the Tokyo rush hour. But in order to get to the bullet train that went to Osaka, I had to take a regular commuter train from Ueno to Tokyo… which would have been a pain with luggage PLUS all of those commuters.

Note that there are two separate bullet train lines that serve Tokyo: One goes south to Kyoto, Osaka and beyond,  while a separate system operates to the north.

So my solution? A little bit of exercise to walk down to the bullet train line serving Ueno station. I entered an unreserved car of a Tokyo-bound bullet train, and made a leisurely, low-speed journey to Tokyo station. No standing shoulder-to-shoulder with other commuters using the main lines… and upon reaching Tokyo station, it was a simple transfer through a small, dedicated gate to access the other bullet train that would bring me to Osaka.

With the Japan Rail Pass, some knowledge about the pass, and careful research and planning… new, exciting, convenient, and even unusual transit methods will open up to you.

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