Procuring Japan Rail Passes to follow the cherry blossoms

By Jane B. Holt
This item appears on page 16 of the February 2015 issue.

After visiting Japan 10 times, my husband, Clyde, and I gave up our annual trips in 2009 due to the continuing unfavorable rate of exchange. However, after the dollar gained in value against the yen, for six weeks in March and April of 2014 we visited the Kansai region of Honshu, the island of Miyajima and the less-frequented provinces of Shikoku and Kyushu (including Beppu) to view sakura, or cherry blossoms. 

We followed what is called the cherry blossom front (visit and, which is a cultural thing in Japan. Since the trees usually bloom first in the warmer areas, we began in Kyushu, the most southwesterly of Japan’s major islands. Our final sakura visit was to Matsu­moto after we returned to Tokyo and found that the blossoms there had played out, as expected.

We reserved our hotels online using, two Japanese hotel booking sites and three hotel-specific websites. If we could have read Japanese, we would have been able to get even better deals on the Japanese sites, but Google Translate can’t always be trusted with the fine print.

To cover all of our train travel, we each purchased two Japan Rail (JR) vouchers/exchange orders (one for a 21-day pass and one for a 7-day) at (For anyone unfamiliar with the rail pass system, information can be found at In fact, we find that and offer a wealth of information about all things Japan.)

The convenience of Japan Rail Passes is well described in an article by Miyako Storch (Oct. ’14, pg. 34). She neglected to mention, however, that you must purchase the JR Pass voucher before you leave the US. Further information on JR Passes can be found at, the Japan Rail Pass website.

We buy the “Ordinary” pass (rather than the “Green” pass described by Ms. Storch) and have found the Ordinary (standard) cars to be just fine for us. Vouchers can be purchased at several online sites.

Check the prices, which depend on the rate of exchange, and check the location of the agency, in case you need to request a refund for the voucher (less a 10% restocking fee). Only some of the companies are in the US, and these should be easier to work with for a refund.

Only those visitors not living in Japan and arriving with “temporary visitor” status entry stamps in their passports are eligible for most of the passes. In addition to the nationwide pass, there are regional passes for varying lengths of time, which may prove more cost-effective depending on one’s route.

Some regional passes can be purchased from within Japan. Visit

As Ms. Storch described doing, your voucher/exchange order must be turned in at a rail pass office at any Japan Rail station to obtain the actual rail pass. Then, whenever you are getting a ticket, you present the rail pass to the ticket agent to request your ticket and reserved seat. For local lines, which do not offer reserved seats, you simply show your pass to the agent at the gate to gain entry to the platforms.

For searching train routes, we use HyperDia ( In fact, we recommend beginning here to check ticket prices for your intended train travel. You may find it is more economical to have a regional pass or no pass at all.

Using HyperDia, we were able to plan our train travel and print out our preferred schedules and routes, which we showed to the ticket agent in order to get reserved seats on our chosen routes. We never had language difficulties with ticket agents, as they always spoke English, but we did find that having our routes preselected cut down the discussion time at the reservation counter.

We always obtained our tickets just a number of days in advance of each route. Theoretically, we could get all of our tickets when we first get our rail passes, since we have a very clear idea of our itinerary. We don’t do that, though, in order to allow for changes in plans based on weather.

One of the advantages of having a rail pass is that you are not paying for the individual tickets, so you can change your plans, canceling the unwanted tickets and making new reservations. 

Some routes are very popular and some trains run on limited schedules. For those, you need to get tickets as soon as possible. Trains on some special routes fill up immediately when they become available, and if you are not in the country at that time, you cannot make reservations for them at all.

Only very infrequently have we had to settle for our second-choice route, however.

Unlike the Storches, in 2008 we rented a car for a day because we could find no local transport to an out-of-the way site. Most often, though, if we can’t get somewhere by train, we find a local bus. 

We have never run into any major difficulties with language, even in the remotest parts of the country, in spite of the fact that our Japanese is primarily a vocabulary of words about food.

Frequently, it seems as if there is no one around who speaks English, but that has never been a real setback. Smiling a lot, waving your hands, pointing at maps: all these tricks for asking for help work just fine. Many Japanese know a little English but are reluctant to use it and are often more comfortable with the written word. Bottom line — I wouldn’t rule out making plans to go to more rural areas due to language worries. 

For example, Clyde and I were looking for the pagoda in the small town of Usuki, Kyushu, and our maps just weren’t helping. A man on the street came over to offer assistance, though he spoke a minimum of English. We pointed to a picture of the pagoda on the map given us by the tourist information center at the JR station, and he pointed in the direction he thought was correct.

We marched off that way, but we had our doubts. Five minutes later he came running up the hill after us to tell us he was wrong and to walk with us partway in the correct direction down the hill to the pagoda.  The kindness of strangers!

The Storches visited Amanohashidate, north of Kyoto. We visited it many years ago, renting bicycles and pedaling to the foot of the hill, then taking the chair lift to the top to view the land bridge, one of Japan’s “three most scenic views.”

What you’re supposed to do there is turn your back on the view, bend over and look through your legs. That way, you see the bridge floating between Heaven and Earth and you get good luck… or so they say.

At Kawaguchi-ko (Kawaguchi Lake), the Storches were lucky to see Mount Fuji. We, too, stayed at Hotel New Century (180-1 Asakawa, Fujikawaguchiko-machi;, perhaps even in the same lovely, tatami-floor room with a perfect view of Fuji-san. 

But, for us, the mountain was enveloped with clouds and gloom and fog. It rained during our entire 3-day stay just a month before the Storches’ May 2014 visit. “Fuji-san is a lady and that lady is shy,” said the manager when we checked out.

On our next visit to Japan, if the weather is clear, we’ll just take a day trip to Kawaguchi-ko, and we will treasure all the more those perfect views of Fuji that we frequently get while riding the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto. 


Hinesburg, VT