In Japan: Riding the Rails Cuts Costs
Inveterate journey woman Pam Hobbs offers expert travel advice
and suggests itineraries that are easy to take by rail.

I must say that I have always enjoyed my Japanese car and cameras, and I understand those TV sets on wristbands I saw in Tokyo are catching on here. But for visitors to Japan, I think the best thing to come out of that country in years is the Japan Rail Pass. Available only to people living outside Japan, it provides unlimited travel on Japan Railway trains, buses and ferries, at a fraction of the normal cost and without the hassle of standing in line for tickets.

Japan Railway operates more than 20,000 trains a day on a nationwide system covering some 22,000 kilometres. Its ferries link the main island of Honshu with Shikoku and Hokkaido islands; buses travel express highways as well as country routes.

Using the rate of 74 yen to Can. $l (current at the time of writing), a standard rail pass costs approximately $382 for seven days, $609 for 14 days, $779 for 21 days. It sounds a lot I know, but with the lowest regular return fare Tokyo - Kyoto $280, and Tokyo - Hiroshima $390, it's a steal. A first-class Green Pass costs more.

Travelling with my daughter in August, a month when Japanese families take their summer vacations, I found the standard carriages crowded. Not that we couldn't find a pair of empty seats, but our luggage proved an embarrassment. Overhead racks fill up fast, and we had no alternative but to block the aisle with our cases. Green Cars on the other hand had so few passengers they could spread out as much as they wanted. They are further pampered with footrests, hot towels, English magazines and more. I know, because we ducked into one on our way back from Hiroshima, after a massive peace rally on the A-bomb anniversary. It was cool, quiet and luxuriously appointed. Even so we were happy to return to our rightful seats next day. The most noticeable difference? In the Green Car nobody so much as cracked a smile from behind their business papers and magazines, while a happy-go-lucky holiday atmosphere pervaded the standard- class coaches. Here we were bombarded with smiles. Women expressed their pleasure at seeing mother and daughter touring together. Also my blonde head in a sea of black brought English- speaking passengers to tell me of their relatives in the Western world, and to offer travel tips for our upcoming destination. The trains we experienced were clean, comfortable, frequent and punctual. When validating our pass in Tokyo we could have reserved seats for all our journeys. Instead we took our chances, rather than commit to certain times.

Long-distance trains are equipped with Western as well as Japanese toilets, dining cars and public telephones. And you will not go hungry, because box lunches containing rice, veggies, cold meat and fish, packaged sandwiches and cold drinks are brought through the carriages often. Note: Unless you are adept with chopsticks I suggest you opt for a sandwich. On one journey, I am pained to say, passengers had to step over my spilled rice as well as our luggage.

To find the right train in the first place, we carried notes written in Japanese by our hotel clerk asking "Which platform for -- please?" The response, usually a number of fingers waved in the general direction, was always good enough. At huge multi-level stations we found redcaps who would take us and our luggage to the right platform.

Many of Japan's traditional tourist sites can be seen on one-day trips by rail, especially when you ride JR's Shinkasen (bullet trains) at 275 kph. For example, Tokyo to Kyoto is three hours, Kyoto to Hiroshima 2.5 hours, Tokyo to Hiroshima about four hours.

Since I was researching stories on certain destinations we didn't set out to see all of Japan, or to get the greatest possible use from our JR passes. The following though are trips we particularly enjoyed, courtesy our fourteen-day rail cards.

We came to this popular seaside town for a peek at the dazzling world of cultured pearls. A brief walk from Toba station took us across a footbridge to Mikimoto Island where, in 1893, Kokichi Mikimoto succeeded in creating the world's first flawless cultured pearl.

These days women demonstrate the procedure, from insertion of an irritant into the oyster to grading and stringing the resultant pearls. A sales outlet tempts with the largest collection of pearl jewelry I ever expect to see. Particularly interesting is Mikimoto Memorial Hall, chronicling the many failures and ultimate success of Kokichi Mikimoto.

The nation's capital for more than 1,000 years, Kyoto is a treasure chest brimming with fascinating antiquities. Emperors once lived here in splendid palaces, and later the Shoguns in great villas. Elaborate shrines and temples are everywhere. Guidebooks have details. In this limited space I can only urge you to spend a minimum of three days in Kyoto.

From Tokyo, Japan Rail took us to Odawara for a connecting electric train to the heart of Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. It is a popular day trip from Tokyo, but we stayed here for three, enjoying one of the park's hot-springs resorts. Excellent accommodation, mountain walks, and a ferry-ride around Lake Ashi with the snow-capped Mt Fuji reflected in its still waters, had us rejuvenated body and soul.

Like most first-time visitors to Hiroshima, we headed straight for the Peace Memorial Park. On our second day we discovered the delights of Miyajima Island (25 minutes from Hiroshima by JR train, then ten minutes aboard a JR ferry) said to be the most beautiful island in the Inland Sea. Spotted deer hang around the ferry terminal looking for a soft touch. The island has an aquarium, pagodas, beaches and a tow rope to whisk you to the top of the highest peak. But for all this, Miyajima is a very sacred place. Its Itsukushima Shrine, founded in 593 AD, is dedicated to maritime guardian goddesses. Try to be here when the tide is in, and you'll capture the magical illusion of a shrine floating on a shimmering sea.

Japan National Tourist Board, 165 University Ave., Toronto, Canada M5H 3B8.
Phone: 416-366-7140.
Website: has information on rail passes, train timetables and names of designated travel agents selling Japan Rail Passes.

Toronto-based Pam Hobbs has been writing about travel for thirty years. Her work appears in major newspapers. She is travel editor of Mature Lifestyles, and author or
co-author of five travel books.




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