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Why I regretted not buying the Japan Rail Pass

While researching for my Japan trip, I toyed with the idea of getting the Japan Rail Pass because I was going to be doing some intercity travelling. I was going to be there for at least 11 days, hence I would have to shell out the minimum of 46390 JPY. That’s a whopping 520 Singapore dollars. I ain’t no budget for that! But something happened during my trip that made me regretted my decision to forgo buying the pass.

The Japan Rail Pass is a cost effective train pass for long distance train travel in Japan. That’s how you get around mostly, trains. The pass can be used on almost all the extensive JR network around Japan and more importantly, your intercity shinkansen (bullet train) train rides are free.

When I first arrived in Osaka, I purchased the JR East pass which set me back 22000 JPY (that’s almost half of what the actual rail pass costs) but I used it to get around Osaka, then to Kyoto and on a day trip to Nara. It was definitely worth every yen spent. A few days after that I was to fly from Kansai International Airport to Narita International Airport, Tokyo on Jetstar Japan. I was on a rebate ticket, which means priority goes to full paying customers before staff on rebate tickets. This was to be my very first experience in the downside of staff travel.

I had quite a day planned. Upon arrival into Narita, I was to hop on a shuttle bus to the hotel I normally stay at for work and drop a huge bag off. I had a couple of days in Tokyo before going home and I was too cheap to purchase check in luggage for my full fare flight back home to Singapore. I thought I’d be able to pick the bag up when I get back to Japan for work in a week’s time. Then, I would train down to the city and check into my hostel at Asakusa, take a shower and then meet my Japanese friend Manabu, and Ummar for dinner. ’twas quite a day, but I had to go through hell before I met the pair of them.

My flight tickets from Osaka to Tokyo was cheap. I paid 13 SGD at most, but it wasn’t a confirmed ticket. I purchased the ticket 8 hours before I was due to fly and when I checked, there were still plenty of seats available. But when I hopped on the Haruka Limited Express train bound for the airport and checked the availability, to my horror I found that the numbers have dropped to ZERO. In the span of 8 hours, all the tickets for the flight had been snapped up. I had to hope for the mercy of the no-show-ers then. But it wasn’t meant to be.

Apparently there was no such things as ‘no show’ in Japan. All these Japanese are not only punctual, they actually turn up for their flights and not have their mind changed by last minute plans. Because I was on staff ticket and there were no available seats on this flight, I was kicked off but put on the next available flight… which was another 5 hour-ish wait. I hung around near the Jetstar counter, charging my phone and just waiting around with no appetite to eat. About 2.5 hours into the wait, a Jetstar ground staff approached me with an apologetic look on her face. “Sumimasen...” she began softly. The flight I was supposed to be on got cancelled, and the NEXT flight out would be at 7 the next morning. GREAT. With a cancelled flight, all the passengers from this flight would be put on the next one and it would obviously be full with no room for a staff travel ticket. I was never going to leave Osaka.

I texted Manabu-san telling him the situation and wondered if we could take a rain check because I was sure as hell not going to be able to meet them in Tokyo station tonight. But I wasn’t one to sit still. I wasn’t going to wait to be bumped off the next flight, neither I want to stay in the airport nor I wanted to spend money I didn’t have to head back to the city. I thought of getting on the night bus from Osaka to Tokyo that will cost 8000 JPY, but I was still going to reach Tokyo the next day. Taking the shinkansen was the next option, but it was 18000 JPY, I neither have that kind of money nor I wanted to spend as much. With the rail pass, that journey would cost next to nothing.

I was freaking out. So I did what I do best when I am freaking out; I went to the food court to get some comfort food. We usually were put up at the adjacent airport hotel for work, so dinners after our flights were always spent at the airport. The small food court next to the one and only Starbucks in the airport  had a variety of food offerings, and that included a ‘pick and mix’ stall similar to the economical rice/ nasi padang stalls in the hawker centres in Singapore. I love their pan fried salmon with steaming hot rice and miso soup. It was simple, familiar and comforting.. which was what I needed most then.

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Eventually, I decided to go for my very last cost-effective option. Staff travel. Again. You must think I’ve gone completely mad for revisiting the option that screwed me over in the first place, but I wasn’t going to go back to Jetstar. There were other airlines I could enjoy staff rates, this time I went straight to ANA’s check in counter to enquire the availability because the numbers on the portal didn’t look promising. After a long, frustrating conversation with a check in staff who didn’t understand what I was asking: I asked if the flight from Osaka to Tokyo was full and if I booked it on a non-confirmed staff ticket, will I get bumped off like I had with Jetstar. Okay, not really. But you get the point. I finally took a leap of faith and booked a ticket, went back to the check in counter and had my bag checked!

FINALLY. I could sink my tired ass down on the lounge chairs and count my blessings.

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The flight turned out to be half full and it was a seamless journey to Tokyo, except for one huge air pocket. We got into Haneda airport after 10-minute delay and I ran to grab my bag, praying that the shuttle bus to Asakusa was still available. NOPE, the last bus departed FIVE freaking minutes ago. I give up. I texted Manabu-san who was waiting at Tokyo station for me that I was finally coming.

They waited at the one exit I was familiar with, the Yaesu South Entrance and I couldn’t get it any more wrong than how the rest of my day had been. I spied Ummar and Manabu-san amongst the crowd after coming out of the station. I broke into a run and jumped on Ummar’s back, forgetting I had a fat bag in front of me that wasn’t exactly very soft. Probably killed his back for an hour. Ooops, sorry. But I’ve never been so damn happy to see them!

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Calculating my travel costs after the trip, I saved maybe 100 SGD from not purchasing the Japan Rail Pass. But if I wasn’t fortunate enough to utilise my staff travel benefits, I would have blown that 100 dollars and some. If you still have reservations about buying the JR Pass, plan your routes carefully. There are other lines that do not come under the JR pass coverage, but trust me.. if you’re in big cities like Tokyo and Osaka and even Fukuoka, you’ll need to get on a JR train at least twice a day. Plus, I’m not sure majority of you have the luxury of staff travel like I did. So please, please, don’t think twice. Just get it.

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