A Few Days In

How to Speed Through Japan on the Bullet Train

by Elizabeth Johnson

Japan: Faster than a speeding bullet train. Photo by Simon Launay / Unsplash.

When you only have seven days, Japan's bullet train is an affordable and exhilarating way to navigate the country.

JAPAN – There's a lot you can do with $255: Buy a plane ticket, invest in a new pair of boots, or pay off the bar tab for a dozen fancy cocktails.

Or you could purchase a seven-day bullet train pass in Japan. Forget rental cars and taxis: This is the speediest and coolest way to see The Land of the Rising Sun.

The Shinkansen, as Japan's high-speed railway is called, stretches from the northern reaches of the island country to its southernmost tip and moves at speeds of up to 200 miles per hour. During a week-long trip, the JR-line zipped me from Tokyo to Kyoto, then on to Nara, Miyajima Island, Hiroshima, Hakone, and back to the airport. By the time I walked through customs at departures, my train ticket had paid for itself three times over.

Japan has the most advanced public transportation system on Earth. Buses, trains, light rails, and Shinkansens move in harmony. Nothing arrives late. Each transit loop is blanketed in signs written in English and Japanese. It is nearly impossible to get lost. But if you do, you won't waste money — the JR-pass will get you onto almost any train for free. Missed transfers are mistakes you won't have to pay for.

The passes are only available to tourists and must be bought online before landing in Japan. They are a discounted and subsidized way to travel across the country, incentivizing tourists to travel further outside Tokyo. Residents are prohibited from buying them. The police take that very seriously — each pass is printed with your passport number and name.

Consider it your VIP-ticket to one of the most stunning nations in the world. Here's how to get every dime's worth of that $257.

Robot Restaurant at Tokyo, Japan.
Robot restaurant in Tokyo. All photos by Courtney Cain.

Matcha and vanilla ice cream in Kyoto, Japan
Matcha and vanilla ice cream in Kyoto.

Day 1: Tokyo

My friend and I landed in Tokyo after a red-eye flight from Honolulu. We dragged our luggage onto the JR-line and headed into the city. The first night was a fever dream. We downed espresso shots to combat the jet lag and lined our lips with red lipstick. We went to Robot Restaurant, a multi-million-dollar presentation of robots, lights, dancers, and fire. By the show's end, our retinas burned from the smoke and the overwhelming exhaustion. We ate sushi. We napped. Less than twelve hours later, we were on our first Shinkansen.

Day 2: Kyoto

Our second stop was Kyoto. The ride took two hours. Kyoto is the city most people think of when they envision Japan. The infamous red gates of the Fushimi Inari Shrine line the hilltop, and trees shroud the banks of the Kamo River. Bamboo trees cluster in groves at Arashiyama. We had 48 hours to see it all.

After dropping off our bags at The Ritz-Carlton Kyoto (hello, luxury), we nabbed matcha and vanilla swirled soft serve cones and hopped on a bus to the Golden Pavilion. The temple is coated in gold paint and nestled among lush gardens. Tickets to see the shrines are cheap — about $3 — and worth the price. After a long day pounding the pavement, we went back to the hotel to soak in the spa and dine at Kaiseki Mizuki. So many inspired and creative dishes — and so much sushi! — propelled us into a food coma.

Day 3: Nara

We woke up and caught the Shinkansen to Nara. The former capital city has some of the oldest and best-preserved artwork in Japan. It is also home to herds of (somewhat) tame deer. They are not afraid to nip at your fingers in hot pursuit of a biscuit. We checked out Todai-ji Temple, which contains a fifteen-meter Buddha statue flanked by incense and prayer candles. On the way back to the train, we stopped again to feed the deer. (I'm lucky I still have all ten fingers.)

Golden Pavilion in Kyoto, Japan.
Golden Pavilion in Kyoto.

Deers at Nara, Japan
Feed the deer in Nara.

Day 4: Miyajima Island

It turns out the JR-pass also includes ferries. (Thank goodness for WiFi on the fly.) We took another train south, hopping off at Miyajimaguchi station and climbing onto a boat that crosses a short stretch of sea every 30 minutes. Unfortunately, we didn't realize that most of the workers on the island live on the mainland and leave on that same ferry. Businesses close at 6 p.m. and don't open until 9 a.m. the next morning. We had arrived late, which made for one very hungry night.

But if you could feast on beauty, this island delivered. It is famous for the Itsukushima shrine, which appears to float in the water at high tide, Mt. Misen rising from behind. We clamored up its slope just before sunrise — barely avoiding a poisonous viper snake — to see the shrine from above.

Day 5: Hiroshima

Another day, another Shinkansen (are you sensing a theme?) to get to Hiroshima, our favorite destination. The city is known for the atomic blast that nearly decimated it after World War II. It is a paradox of industry and grief — a sense of routine interrupted by the memory of civilian lives lost. But its rebirth has also brought tranquility. Bike lanes parallel the streets. Lush gardens fill the valley. The rebuilt Hiroshima Castle shows the city's history. Most importantly, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and A-Bomb Dome stand as symbols of the resiliency of the Japanese people.

"It doesn't matter if you support America's decision or not," one Japanese man told us as we walked near the river. "You should come here. Everyone should come here." So we did, bearing witness to the city's wreckage, and bearing witness to its rise from the ashes.

Day 6: Hakone

A five-hour Shinkansen ride unexpectedly turned into 10 hours on the trip from Hiroshima to Hakone. Pro tip: Make sure you know which train you need on Google Maps before leaving WiFi in the morning. By some miracle, we made it to the Hakone Ropeway just before it closed at 5 p.m. and rode it up to Lake Ashi for an evening hike along the bike path to the Hakone Shrine. (Yes, there is a shrine for every city.)

Before sunset, we caught a glimpse of Mt. Fuji shrouded in clouds on the horizon. While beautiful, Hakone is the kind of place one settles into. Bring hiking gear and book an authentic spa experience. Don't try to do it all in 24 hours.

Day 7: Tokyo

This was our last ride of the week. We arrived back in the capital city and brunched at Bills, a famous Harajuku breakfast spot. Despite the line, it was the best brunch of our lives: peach bellinis, banana pancakes, and salmon salad. Train pass in hand for one last time, we hopped on the Shinkansen and headed back to the airport.

One week in Japan practically moving faster than a speeding bullet. What a thrill.

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park
Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park.
Kimono experience at Ritz-Carlton Kyoto.
Kimono experience at Ritz-Carlton Kyoto.

Where To Stay

Ritz Carlton Kyoto
This is the place to splurge. Located in the heart of Kyoto, the plush hotel combines Western amenities with Japanese culture. The pool is the perfect place to unwind after a long day of walking. Be sure to dine at the hotel's house restaurant, Mizuki. The head chef originally wanted to be a fashion designer, and that instinct shines through in his curated monthly menu. Our favorite dish of the eight courses was a nigari plate presented on an ice block intended to look like a shrine. We also loved the kimono experience ($58). After picking our favorite colors and patterns, we wore the kimonos out to a hole-in-the-wall ramen shop. Let's just say the cooks definitely looked twice.

Hostel Kaniwa
The modern hostel in Nara is one of the most affordable places to stay in Japan — and the most beautiful. The mid-century modern furniture is sleek and simplistic, like something out of a Nordic furniture catalogue. Each room comes with four bunk beds, but during off-season you'll likely have the space to yourself. The guest rooms include air conditioning and free WiFi — it's the little things at this no-frills hostel. The best part: It is a two-minute walk from the ferry terminal. Bring snacks or dine early. The restaurants close early on Miyajima Island.

Affordable, tidy, lovely Airbnbs are also available around the country. We used that option in Tokyo and Hiroshima.

Plan Your Trip

The week-long, $255 passes can be bought on the JR-line website. The classes offered are "ordinary" (economy) and "green" (first class). Give yourself at least a week for the passes to arrive. The company promises to ship the train tickets within a day of ordering them, but they arrive by courier and require signature confirmation. If you're at work or away from home, it will take more time to track them down. Upon arriving in Japan, head to the ticket office in any train station to activate the pass.

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