I boarded the plane early in the morning with my mom. In some ways it was perfect. With how sleepy I was, the six-hour flight to Japan would probably pass by quickly.
Of course my stupid body decided to stay awake after a tiny amount of sleep and proceed to bore me in an in-between state of too awake to feel rested and too sleepy to entertain myself.
We reached Japan in the afternoon and breezed through immigrations. The immigration officer was nice and smiled (take that, grumpy Hong Kong asshole!). Our luggage was collected, and we went to the Japan Railways Group office for our JR Pass… and at this point things didn’t go as smoothly.
The JR Pass provides one with unlimited access to train rides belonging to the JR Group, which practically means all the shinkansen rides you want as well as the Yamanote line in Tokyo. Tokyo has many – and I mean MANY – rail lines, and the Yamanote line is the huge circular line that passes through Tokyo Station, Akihabara, Shibuya, Shinjuku, Shinagawa, Harajuku, etc. It also gives you free access to the Narita Express line that takes travelers to and from Narita Airport.
It can only be bought by foreigners at offices around the world, where you will receive a receipt to be exchanged once you actually land in Japan.
If the idea of having to exchange it instead of receiving a pass right away overseas sounds stupid to you, then good, because it is stupid.
The line in the JR office was short, but it took me almost an entire hour to get our passes. You have to fill out a form on this brochure-looking thing, which will turn out to actually be the pass you will use. Which was really annoying because it’s not clear at all what you’re supposed to do, and I didn’t know until a staff lady gave me the pass and I had my spot in line taken away when I had to fill in the form.
There will be a lot of tour guides with a stack of a dozen passports getting JR passes for their group, hence the long wait. The staff was really nice and polite though. That’s a thing I love about the Japanese – everyone, even security at rail stations, takes their job seriously and will genuinely try to help you. Unlike Thai people who excel at giving zero shits (I can totally say that because I am Thai myself). After literally fifty minutes in the line, I had reservations for the Narita Express to take us to Shinagawa before transferring to the shinkansen on to Kyoto.
Side note: This was because we decided to go to Kyoto first AFTER we already bought tickets to Tokyo, when planning your trip to Kyoto there are other closer airports.
Traveler’s Note: All seats on the Narita Express require a reservation, made at a JR ticket office or machine. About 3/4ths of the seats on a shinkansen ride require reservations, depending on the type and line. The other seats are first-come-first-served.
When I realized that the cardboard brochure thing I filled out information on was our JR Pass, I wondered several things:
Why did we have to fill it out instead of just scanning our passport and getting a ticket? They already knew who was going to get stuff since we had to buy it before entering the country.
Why the long processing time? It made no sense in the digital age and again, we had to buy it before entering the country.
Why the large not-pocket-friendly size? The JR Pass can’t be used with the normal ticket gates and had to be shown at a gate with a staff member in attendance. If you can’t make it simple and compatible with the system, at least make it smaller and pocket-friendly so we didn’t have to keep reaching into our bags.
It baffled me that Japan, the pinnacle of toilets-that-automatically-wash-your-ass engineering, had such an incompetent system. From what I heard later the JR Group isn’t particularly efficient at most things.
There are other stations in the Yamanote line that you can trade your pass for, but that means you would have to pay for your first Narita Express trip to get from Narita Airport into the city.
By the time I got our passes it was past 5pm, and the Narita Express line that took us into Tokyo left at 6 and took an hour. That meant that the 3-hour shinkansen ride from Tokyo to Kyoto left at 7pm and reached at 10pm. My first day of travel in Japan essentially ended with nothing happening.
Our room at the Nishiyama Ryokan was a nice little cozy place, and there was a Family Mart nearby to buy water and snacks. I ventured down to the public bath in the ryokan, but for legal issues and to avoid causing an international incident I had to use the men’s public bath. (Note to new readers: Hi, I’m a girl with a dick.)
It felt pretty damn humiliating to do that. Thankfully my eyesight isn’t perfect, so when I took my glasses off I was saved from having to see any elephants. No one paid any attention to me, so while a part of me was relieved another part went DAMMIT IS MY SEXY BODY NOT GOOD ENOUGH FOR YOU? The point of a public bath is soaking in the large hot pool after cleaning yourself off, and according to the signs the water was heated at 39C. That’s Celsius, you bloody Americans. The hot water was supposed to help your muscles relax and by hell I needed it. The water felt great. Like a prickling of a thousand little fairies massaging my tired legs after a long day of travel. However, if you stay too long you’ll get lightheaded. Think of it as the fairies wanting their wage and taking away your body to sell your organs as collateral.
It was a refreshing way to end the day. After years of waiting, I was finally in Japan.