I was nervous about how the Japan Rail (JR) Pass would work. There are lots of rules. You have to be a non-Japanese citizen and you have to purchase your voucher outside of Japan. You then have to exchange the voucher within 90 days of purchase for the Pass. While the JR web site is loaded with information ( https://www.japan-rail-pass.com/common-questions/japan-rail-pass-activation) I was still nervous, but it turns out to have been as easy as anyone would want.
Since we planned to use our Passes starting May 3rd, we needed to purchase our vouchers while we were in Sydney. Judi and I walked to an authorized JR office in Sydney, since we didn’t have time or faith in ordering and having them mailed anywhere. It took about fifteen minutes and $1840 (3 adult 21 day Passes and 1 child 21 day Pass). We left with vouchers that are then exchanged for the official Passes once in Japan.
Fast forward to April 30th. I had read that there is are Japan Rail offices in the airports where we can validate our Passes (exchange voucher paperwork for Pass), giving us the start date (any time within 30 days of validation). The hand written sign outside of the airport office line, which was about 20 people deep, said that this office is one of the busiest in the country and if all you want to do is validate your JR Passes it is best to go elsewhere. So I left.
Of course waiting in line might have actually been a net time savings compared to taking time later to walk from our hostel (in Tokyo – Asakusa district), buy a ticket on the Metro Ginsa line, go four stopes to the Ueno station (which is a Metro stop and also a huge train station), and finally go through the validation process. But it did allow Judi and the kids to find a restaurant where they could find sushi served from a conveyor belt while I juggled the Passes. The process was probably 2 hours in total, including my hour of transit time.
As I said, the validation (exchanging voucher for Pass) has to happen at a JR office which are in the major train stations or at the airport. If you take the Metro to a train station you have to leave the Metro and find the JR information booth (not the ticket office). The information offices are easy to find. Make sure you bring everyone’s passports. It took just five minutes to process all four vouchers into Passes. I filled out our contact information on the tri-fold Pass and then the nice ladies at the office laminate the Pass together. Easy.
Now with Passes in hand I could go to the ticket office. At Ueno Station in the afternoon there were six people in front of me but five clerks working service windows, all of which appeared to be serving English speakers perfectly well. I was quickly up to my window, and was able to make seat reservations for the trains that I knew we would be taking. We happen to be here during Golden Week (a time of many consolidated holidays where lots of people are traveling) so we knew we would need reservations. Sure enough, the first available train to Kanazawa on May 3 was at 5:30pm. But the Shinkansen (bullet train – you can ride all but the two fastest services with the JR Pass) got us there in under 3 hours.
The first time you use your Passes you must stop at the information office briefly for one more stamp and then we all carried our assorted bags through the office. This is standard procedure since with the Pass, you do not have a ticket to run through the turn stiles (just like any Metro system we have seen in the world). I confirmed we were on platform 19 way down below the main station tracks. The train name, number, final destination (Kanazawa thankfully for this first trip), the time and any notes are constantly listed on several boards.
The reservation for seats has a car number on it. When you get to the platform (number 19 for this trip) there are indicators for where each car will line up (car 5 for us) and then painted lines on the ground running diagonal to the platform showing you where to cue up for each car. It was all amazingly smooth. At our anticipated departure time we were in our seats, big bags above us and hand bags at our feet. The seats are so comfortable and the leg room so incredible I can’t imagine flying within country. It was like being in an airline’s 1st class seating (I am just guessing since I have yet to fly 1st class but it looks similarly spacious, heck, for all I know Japanese trains might even be better). The ladies next to us opened pretty boxes of food, the business man a row up opened a beer, the lady next to me read her novel as the sunset and Tokyo accelerated away. I love train travel in Japan.
Asakusa was a wonderful way to dip our respective toes into Tokyo. We accidentally got on the local commuter KK train line from the airport but eventually we got to our hostel, the Khaosan Tokyo Kabuki ($150 a night for four bed private room with our own bathroom), which we booked through Hostelworld. Our place was wonderful and we loved our first experience with Japanese toilets that are heated and clean you lots of ways at the touch of a button. And it was nice, after two months of developing countries with developing sewage and waste systems, to be able to flush toilet paper rather than put it in the waste paper bin in the toilet room. Yes, I know, ick… but you strangely get use to it.
We loved exploring our little neighborhood – the famous Gate and Senso-ji Buddhist Temple, shops and the infamous Don Quixote (sort of a Japanese Fred Meyer – I overheard two women (Americans) in the store debating whether it was more like a Wal-Mart of more like a Target – I’m sticking with Fred Meyer’s if you can imagine it with aisles about half the normal width). The area is wonderfully quaint and we highly recommend both the hostel and the neighborhood (oh, and the Don Quixote too).
Our first morning, Judi and I went to the famous Omicho Market and watched people ordering raw fish and sea urchin from the stalls just like everywhere but here, they stand at the stall and pop the snacks right into their mouths. It was crazy expensive and made for great people watching. We found Kanazawa Coffee at one end of the Market stalls and enjoyed some very good coffee. We also watched people order soft-serve ice cream with gold flake on it. Gold flake is an ancient art here and they put gold onto all sorts of things, but ice cream appears to be a favorite. We saw soft serve ice cream cones entirely wrapped in an impossibly thin sheet of gold foil (then heated quickly to mold to the cone). I imagine the Bond villain Goldfinger would have loved this place. We meant to get one but forgot.
We explored the Castle Park and found ourselves there during a festival day so it was full of families and activities. The Castle’s restored areas are worth the $12 we spent to understand the space, historic construction methods and views from what were watch towers. The Kenrokuen Gardens next door to the Castle Park are famous and peaceful, even with masses of people. Judi and I went back for a special free night time opening of the Gardens while they are lit up. We also managed to find some great beers and a late lunch.
The kids have done fantastic exploring and walking everywhere. Without a grocery store nearby we have shopped a couple of nights in a row at the local 7-11 and have found it wonderful for just about everything you might want. We have noticed that Thailand had a 7-11 on every corner but in Vietnam it was a Circle K on every corner. In Japan we are back to 7-11 and the occasional Family Mart. Here the 7-11 has fresh salad and meals, a great supply of dairy products, excellent whiskey selection, a whole row of breads and other actual food (not that Slurpees, Big Gulps and sausage dogs aren’t food but….)
Our last full day in Kanazawa, May 5th, we explored the free half of the 21st Century Art Museum, with it being the Children’s Day holiday (and my mother always told me “every day is children’s day”) had a bunch of kid events happening. After that, we decided we had to hunt down the only Mexican restaurant in Kanazawa. I know that seems wrong, but it was May 5th after all. We got there at 4pm; it doesn’t open until 6pm. We spent two hours patiently (sort of) at Starbucks until Margarita’s opened. The food was excellent. Interestingly the chips and salsa are a mandatory and come with a cover charge of $3 per person and you get, yes… three tortilla chips with the salsa. But it was excellent. I enjoyed a Day of the Dead IPA and Judi had a Mango Margarita. $76 later, we said ‘adios’ to our staff (who were as confused by my Spanish farewell as my English ordering) and the two other people in the restaurant.
Kanazawa is certainly a town worth exploring and I think we nailed the time with three days and nights here. On to the mountain town of Takayama.