In previous posts I mentioned that Ryan and I bought JR East passes and that they allowed us to ride on the shinkansen and other JR services. Allow me to expound further on that information.

In Japan the public transportation systems, of which the train and subway I have the most experience, is one of the best in the world. The times posted are when things arrive, depart, etc. without, barring for accidents and other mishaps, being late and are dependable and overall the best way to get around, in my opinion. The rail system in Japan is mainly owned by JR ( The Japan Rail Group ) and the bigger cities and other provinces have their own systems as well, most notably the Tokyo Metro and Toei Metro systems. JR runs the shinkansen and has trains running all over Japan. 

Available to the public are discounts for riding the trains, my favorite resource for this is the Japan-guide entry for Rail Passes. It includes discounts by region and has very good descriptions for all of them. 

On our trip Ryan and I acquired JR East Passes which allowed us unlimited travel on all JR lines ( including the shinkansen ) in the Kanto, Koshinetsu and Tohoku Regions. We used it mostly for the shinkansen but it did see some use for local travel as well. If we so wished, we could have used it for any bus systems that JR runs, but we didn’t use any of the local ( or long distance for that matter ) buses. That gives a good background on the JR Pass I think, now before I get to the actual “How to use” part of this I have to preface it just a bit more.

While in Tokyo we bought something called a Tokyo Free Kippu, which actually costs 1,580 yen, which allowed for unlimited travel on all subway lines, JR Trains, streetcars, and buses in Tokyo for one day. It is extremely handy for those who want to travel to many places in one day. You purchase this by going to the station attendant, the guy who sits in the box near the turnstiles for entry to the train and say “Tokyo furii kippu o kudasai” ( there’s your Japanese phrase for the day ^^ ). After it is purchased to use the ticket you show it to the station attendant of the station that you are getting off from, he hits the buzzer and you walk on through. No additional hassle, real easy and quick. Now here’s where the confusion set in.

Initially when we were going to use the JR East Pass we thought it would operate in the same fashion; show it to the station attendant, walk through, get on shinkansen, get off at ending station, show it to that station attendant, and that would be that. This method actually worked, although it is not supposed to and we found out when we went on one of the longer rides, luckily there was not any penalty for not knowing how to use a JR Pass, however, so that you do not have to go through that embarrassment, I will share my knowledge gained from making the mistake first hand.

How to use a JR Pass to purchase a shinkansen ticket ( The Right Way )

1. Have your JR Pass with you at all times, you do not want to lose it because you will not be able to get a replacement without buying a new one. Here is what your Rail Pass will look like:
JR East Pass

2. When arriving at the station look for the area where you would normally purchase a shinkansen ticket, the JR Rail Pass allows you to obtain the shinkansen ticket without having to spend any extra money for it, in other words it serves as your method of payment for the ticket itself.

3. When reaching the attendant tell him or her where you want to go: ” <destination> mahday” 

4. The attendant will tell you the times when the trains are leaving. Because the shinkansen goes long distances there may be only one going out every hour or something like that. If you don’t know Japanese very well here’s your best strategy: look confused, they will bring out a timetable and point to the times. Point to the time you want to leave, and they will ask you if you want a reserved or non-reserved ticket. Get a reserved ticket, this means that you will have your own seat, as opposed to non-reserved where the seats are first come first serve. If you didn’t have the Rail Pass the non-reserved is cheaper, but you’re not spending money so you might as well get the better placement.

5. A ticket will be printed and then handed to you, bow slightly and thank them. Your ticket will designate the time of departure, arrival, what car you will ride on, and what seat you have. Here’s an example:
Ticket

6. Take your ticket, go to the entrance to the tracks and insert it into the gate. Proceed to the place where your car is and wait for the train to arrive. During the train ride you may need to show your ticket to one of the attendants on the train as you are going towards your destination.

7. When you arrive, insert your ticket to exit the station. You will not get it back, don’t worry that’s normal.

Congratulation you now know the right way to use your JR Pass and you should be able to get around Japan on the shinkansen without too much of a problem.

Here are some ryokans that I have stayed at and therefore recommend to you as I have had good experiences with them. Basically If I don’t list one that you know of I haven’t stayed there, not because it wasn’t good. So far, all of the ryokans that I have stayed at I have had a very good experience with.

Also of note, I will not explain how you can reserve a room at any of the below ryokans. However, I will list web pages that you can reserve a room with them through.

Tokyo

Sendai

Morioka

Hakodate (Hokkaido)

A friend of mine who has travelled to Japan (she’s Japanese) recommended two websites that she knows of that offer extremely low prices for airfare to Japan. They were so low in fact that I felt the need to post them up here so that everyone who reads my site would know about them. Seriously though you can get airfare for really low prices on these websites.

In fact I will probably be using one of those websites the next time I decide to travel to Japan. Anyway that was kind of an emergency bulletin message, later today I will resume the three part special on packing, until then!

So I realize that I haven’t posted for a while, I want to apologize. I’m not going to make excuses just going to post and hope that it is informative to you. Just a notice for those who have been reading, there isn’t really too much more that I can think of that you will need to take care of before you leave for Japan. So just to warn you all, because I don’t want to clog this site with nonsense and frivolous posts, I will only post when I see necessary, until I arrive in Japan when I will be switching to a regular posting schedule. So without any further meta stuff, here goes.

What I’m going to cover today is one of the most important pre-japan issues that you have to deal with: finding your flight. In dealing with this the first thing you have to consider is how much you want to pay for the plane ticket. For me it is worth it to have a cheap (well… relatively) flight so it requires a little work to get the best rate, but I will reveal my ways of finding the best price so it will be easier for you. For departure and return dates, look at the calendar/timeline that should be provided when you have been accepted (for example, I have to arrive in Osaka Japan on Aug. 27th at the latest and depart late Dec. at the earliest for my one semester).

First, a bit of a disclaimer: I know I have some readers who are not from the United States, this post covers how to find the best flight from the US to Japan because that is what I am most familiar with. But! The method for finding the best flight is universal, the steps are the same just input your region specific airlines and websites instead of the US ones. Hope that helps a little. And with that out of the way, on with the post .^_^

Now before I get to the less expensive route, I’ll touch on the “if you have money” option because it will be quick and painless. So if you have the money and don’t mind spending a couple thousand on your flight to Japan (because even some economy seats are over $1900 for a round trip flight) this is easy. Choose whichever flight company you favor (Continental, Northwest Airlines, American Airlines, United, Japan Air, etc.) and select your departure date and return date as well as what class of seat you wish to ride in (Economy, Business, First). Just to warn you, it will be Extremely expensive if you choose anything besides economy, and even choosing economy it will most likely be over $1000. One point of advice that I can offer is to choose an airline that you already have a bunch of “flight miles”, or whatever kind of incentive that the airline uses, built up on so that you can have that much more.

Alright so finding the cheap flight… this can be quite a long topic but I’m going to try to make this quick and to the point and give a couple of tips that I have used in the past and used to get my flight this fall. The best way to get the cheapest ticket is Check your options!! And check them again!! I’m going to assume that if you are going to be doing Study Abroad, so you are a student of some kind. I suggest your first stop be to http://www.studentuniverse.com they offer reduced airfare for students, don’t let this be your only stop though. Make a note of the price, what cities it stops at, and any other information you feel is important. When I travelled to Tokyo, Japan in Spring of 2005 I purchased my flight through http://www.jtbusa.com for $700, which is the cheapest I have found anywhere (too bad I can’t get a ticket for that cheap now T_T). The Japanese Travel Bureau is probably your best resource they are the nicest people, I highly recommend that you call one of their centers, in fact I suggest you call them to get a quote (because their website doesn’t really work to get a ticket). Just a note I scheduled my flight through JTB for this fall because I couldn’t find a cheaper ticket anywhere ($1100 for round trip). After those first two stops I found this extremely good travel website for your next visit: http://www.bt-store.com. They have really good prices on flights and you might find that after all your research is done this is where you will end up purchasing your flight. Same deal on this one take your notes and go onward.

After you’ve visited the above three websites and gotten your quotes for your flight, visit the airlines websites and see what they offer. Search the dates you want to depart and return and get their lowest prices, this will be essential if you find your cheapest flights through any of the other websites, except JTB because they don’t publish their prices online for the airlines to verify them. The reason for going to the airlines websites and finding their lowest prices is because all the major ones that I know of have some kind of “Lowest Price Guarantee” on their flights, where if you find a flight for cheaper (usually $50 to $100) than their cheapest flight on their own website you get free stuff, which is always good. Read through these policies so that if you do find a cheaper price, you can take advantage of this offer. Take your notes and travel on, my friends.

Your final stops should be all the cheap flights websites that you see advertised everywhere. I’ll make a quick list of all that I know of so you can have a one stop to get them: http://www.orbitz.com , http://www.cheaptickets.com , http://www.kayak.com , http://www.cheapair.com , http://www.bookingbuddy.com , http://www.travelocity.com , http://www.priceline.com , http://www.expedia.com . Take the same notes that you did on the above searching for each site that you visit. That should be enough for you to find whichever is cheapest. Like I said, it takes a little time and effort but it will pay off in the end.

After you have all of your notes in front of you, the next step is to decide which one you will take as your flight plan. After all your searching you should have found one that is around $1000 (and hopefully below). If you have more than one, look at when they depart and return (both dates and times) and choose whichever is most convenient for you. If you choose any of the mass-market travel agents, because they have the cheapest fare, book the exact same flight with the airline company on their website and follow the rules for getting their “lowest fare guarantee” that I had you take note of above. I cannot stress this enough, follow their policy to the letter or you will not get the free stuff and will be stuck with a more expensive ticket if you aren’t able to get out of it.

After you have booked your flight, relax, take a couple of days, the hard part is over and you don’t have to worry about anything too much until you get what you need to get your visa. Speaking of which, next time I will talk about some other things to do before it is time to obtain your visa, until then!

There are a few things that you will need to take care of before you leave for your Study abroad trip. You will have to organize what will happen when you are abroad with your home campus. The first step you should take is to discuss your decision with your adviser, that person you should be seeing every semester or so to make sure you are taking the correct courses to advance your major. When you go to talk with him/her you should bring a couple of things with you.

  • Information about the study abroad program (if your home campus is the one offering the study abroad that makes things a little easier)
  • The course listing for the semester you are studying abroad of your home campus, if available.
  • The course listing for the semester you are studying abroad of the study abroad university, if available.

Some advisers require you to make an appointment while others don’t mind walk-ins. When you do go to discuss your plans with your advisor, with the above things in hand, here’s what you should discuss (this is just a basic outline, so feel free to add or subtract topics as you see fit):

  • What courses are left that you need to take to complete your major
  • What forms you will have to fill out to get credit for courses taken while you are studying abroad

After talking with your adviser your next stop will probably the registrars office, or the study abroad office of your university to talk about how your courses will be handled for the semester(s) that you are in Japan. You will need to register for courses for the first semester you will be in Japan with the home campus so that you are still an active student and can continue to receive any scholarships and financial aid that you have had in previous semesters. That leads you to your next stop, the financial aid office of your college.

While at the financial aid office, make sure you discuss how to continue receiving the financial aid that you currently have. Also see if there are any other financial aid programs that you are eligible for because you are studying abroad, you may be pleasently surprised. The financial aid office should be your last stop, although they may tell you that you need to see another office, just follow their directions and you should be fine.

Your finances and your enrollment are the most important things that you will have to deal with at your home campus so that is a good weight to get off your back as soon as possible. Next time I’ll be discussing some things you should do before you receive your Certificate of Eligibility from your study abroad campus, which then allows you to get your visa, so until then!

A few months before you leave, consequently starting your study abroad experience, the campus you are doing the study abroad program through will hold an orientation giving general information, and possibly having some people that have done the program in past semesters and academic years. Although it is probably not mandatory I recommend going to this orientation, at the very least to meet some of the other students that will be joining you on your trip to Japan.

The first part will most likely be a general orientation, some kind of presentation with all of the study abroad students going to all of the countries offered by that university (the general orientation I attended at SUNY at Albany was held in a big auditorium/lecture hall with students going to Spain, Germany, the UK, Japan, and many other countries). This presentation will contain the most generalized information regarding things such as financial planning, organizing your time, dealing with culture shock and jet lag, and reverse culture shock to name a few topics. Because it is such general, broad sweeping information a lot of it will be generic and common sense, however you should pay attention because a couple of gems of information may be given. Also, because it is held before a large group you probably won’t be able to ask questions, so write down or keep in mind questions that you want to ask. They should also give you a packet of information, read it over at the very least, taking notes probably isn’t necessary but if that’s how you remember things better feel free to do so.

After the general orientation, they should separate you into smaller groups by regional program. Depending on how big the university’s study abroad program they may put you into a group of study abroad students going to Japan or, if they have a smaller amount of students, all the students going to Eastern Asian countries (the former was true with my experience, rather than the latter). Regardless you will be grouped with students going to the same general area as yourself, as well as the adviser or program coordinator for your area of travel. My recommendation is to not be shy, don’t be afraid to talk to the other people in the room. Be sure to ask questions that you have, the adviser will know the answer, or if he/she doesn’t they will find out the information for you. A lot of the information provided to you will be different from university to university. For me, there was a student that had gone to Kansai Gaidai the ’06-’07 academic year, so I asked all of my questions directly to her, the answers to which I will be providing in subsequent posts to this blog in due course.

So that should take you through to your orientation, next time I will go through what you should discuss and organize with your home campus (in my case I don’t go to SUNY at Albany so I will describe what needs to go on if you go to a college that isn’t directly providing the study abroad program to you, but it should be very similar for any campus, although significantly easier if you go to a university that provides that program directly), so until then!

Probably the most important thing that you will have to get before you leave for Japan is your passport. It takes a little while to get, but it lasts you 10 years (at least mine does). The process is pretty strait forward and I’ll go over the basics on this post.

Your first step is to go to the Passport Homepage. This page will give you pretty much all the information you will need. It’s not that user friendly though, so here is what I would recommend you do; first, find a place where you can apply for your passport (usually a post office) by looking it up on this page, all you have to do is enter your zip code and it will show you the nearest facility where you can apply for your passport. When you find where you will apply for your passport it’s just a matter of filling out the application, getting your picture taken and then waiting for several weeks for your passport to come in the mail. You will have to call the location to make an appointment, so make sure that you do this before hand.

Your passport is your key to other countries, it’s what lets you traverse the world (legally). It will take usually six weeks for you to receive it in the mail, which is why I strongly advise you to get this done as quickly as possible, unless you pay an extra fee to get it sent to you quicker. If you are going to Japan to study for the Summer or Winter this may be all you have to do depending on how long you are staying over there. The maximum time you can stay in Japan without having to get a visa is 90 days. Obtaining your student visa will be covered a little bit later.

Next time I will go over orientation, and getting your things in order with your college, until then!