It has been a long while since I got to travel for 15 days at a stretch. We decided to get a JR Rail Pass and do a DIY getaway. Our travel took us from Tokyo to Beppu in the south (Kyushu island), north to Hakodate and then back to Narita for the flight back. We had stopovers in Himeji, Hiroshima, Miyajima, Osaka, Kyoto, Kokura, Sendai, Matsushima, Aomori and Toya, some of which were just day trips from a nearby town.
It was quite an experience travelling some 4,500 km without any private transport or taxi. The trip was done entirely by trains, trams, buses, boats, occasional cycling and lots of walking with our roller luggages. We experienced both peak and off peak travels, including the famed Tokyo peak hour trains. For some cities, we bought the day passes for either trams or buses or subways, depending on our travel plans if it works out to be cheaper than the rather expensive individual rides.
When in Japan, do as the Japanese do. We often bought along our pre-packed food and start our picnic on the long Shinkansen (bullet train) rides the moment we got to our seats. The system is so efficient that we can stopover at an intermediary city just to catch a meal at a restaurant near the station that has great online reviews and then catch another train after our meal, carefully timing our stops and monitoring the schedules.
The transport system was amazingly efficient, even on networks that are decades old. We relied on the published timetables. Train were reliable to the exact minute arriving and departing at the various stations we were at. The punctuality was critical for planning especially in the more remote parts of Japan where transport services were often infrequent. We wanted to minimise waiting time and had to match the timetables of trains and bus / tram services.
My most frequently used words for the trip? “Sumimasen, xxxx wa doko desu ka?” (or “Excuse me, where is xxxx?” as we stop strangers and transport officials and ask for directions getting around to new hotels, to restaurants that were highly rated on travel sites and to the many places of attractions. Almost all whom we had asked tried their best to be helpful, giving us instructions which we often cannot quite fully comprehend due to our very limited range of Japanese vocabulary. However with sign language, we can roughly figure out and get near enough to our destination to ask another random stranger if we need to again. Some were even so helpful that they walked part of the way with us. A young lady even used her mobile app to translate her instructions into English for us!
I must say Japan is a relatively safe place as we navigated sometimes early in the morning to sometimes late at night, in both busy and quieter areas feeling completely safe all the time. Bicycles are commonly used by Japanese but not always safe as roads can be busy and there are no bicycle lanes. Bicycles often share the pedestrian walkways but I notice that cyclists are careful to coexist safely with pedestrians.
Have travel passes, will travel!