Kyoto-blogging: Japan Rail Pass

Never plan in advance when last-minute panic will suffice. I hadn't really paid any attention to the Japan Rail Pass; I figured the only trains I was going to ride were from Narita airport to Tokyo station, and the Tokkaido line shinkansen to Kyoto and back. However, on Friday at about 4:30 PM it became apparent via casual last-minute browsing on Japan-Guide.com that all of these services qualified - and that the pass was actually cheaper. At about $28,000 yen for a seven-day coach-class pass, I am saving a few thousand yen over the cost of separate round-trip Nozumi and Narita Express tickets.

The only caveat is that the JRP is not valid on the Nozumi "super-express" (ie, nonstop) service - I have to take the Hikari "limited express" service instead[1]. The Hikari only stops at a few intermediate stations (whereas the Kodoma is full-service). The Hikari actually used to be the express line, and travels at a slower speed than the newer Nozumi because the latter doesn't have to slow down as often. Despite using the same train equipment (the 700 series), the Nozumi maximum speed is 270 km/h, and the Hikari is 220 km/h (average speeds are somewhat lower). Kyoto is 476 kilometers from Tokyo, and the Hikari service will take about three hours compared to two on the Nozumi.

The rail pass savings - and the extra flexibility that it will give me in exploring the surrounding Kyoto/Kansai region - are well worth the time disadvantage. I plan to visit a friend of my family (also Bohra) in nearby Kobe, about an hour away from Kyoto. I may skip part of the conference on day to try a longer-range day trip, but it really depends on the schedule (the conference takes top priority, after all). I obtained a number of maps and tourist information from the JALPAK office as well which I need to peruse, along with my copy of Lonely Planet Japan, to see what my options are.

The rail pass is not available for purchase inside Japan, you must purchase it from an authorized reseller outside the country. In Houston, that would be the JAlPAK offices, which closed at 5:30 PM. Did I mention what time my realization dawned?

So, a phone call, some faxes, and a mad rush through Houston traffic (including a truly inspired, if I say so myself, solution to the Westheimer/Galleria traffic snarl) at peak rush hour later, I paid $260 in cash for my JRP voucher (which, by the way, was a much better exchange rate than I got from my bank for cash and checks earlier). When I land in Tokyo I will exchange the voucher for my seven-day pass, which I will use immediately, and throughout the trip.

[1] Hikari means "light" and Nozumi means "hope" - which is quite poetic. Hope does indeed travel faster than light; I imagine that the Japanese word for "bad news" did not test well with focus groups.

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