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Booking Japanese train tickets from outside Japan

Hokutosei

I’ll say this upfront – if you’re visiting Japan as a tourist, probably using a Japan Rail Pass, there’s really no need to book tickets before you go. I’ve hauled myself around most of Honshu, Kyushu and Hokkaido on dozens of trains, usually booking a day or two, at most, before traveling.

But then, sometimes you do. This year, through a feat of spectacular idiocy, I managed to arrive in Hakodate just as the main Golden Week holidays started. The train network, even with extra services added, was predicted to become overcrowded, and I could see all the services I needed to head towards Sapporo filling up weeks in advance*. Time to book.

If you need to travel in the JR East area, and will have a rail pass, it’s relatively simple –  click here.

If your reservation is for another area, it is now possible to book tickets from outside Japan, subject to a few caveats:

  • Tickets are only released a few months in advance
  • You can’t buy them using a Rail Pass – you’ll have to pay full fare
  • You need to pick them up at a JR East ticket office (but see below)
  • You’ll need a Japanese name, phone number and address (but see below)
  • The whole service is in Japanese
  • As per usual, you can only reserve seats on trains with reserved cars (not local futsuu services etc). You could probably buy a ticket for a local train, but there’s no point.

The booking service is called Eki-Net, and is online here. The ticket reservation page is here. It’s a two stage process: first register – you’ll get a username and password, and confirmation emails – then book tickets.

It’s a lengthy process, and will vary depending on the type of your booking, but here are some tips:

1) Names in roman characters (like mine) aren’t accepted. But you can katakana-ize your name (I’m ロヤルトム) and it accepts that without complaint. You can stick the katakana version in both the “Name” and “Name as spoken” boxes.

2) Non-Japan phone numbers won’t work. But you can get a Japanese phone number on your iOS device for a few dollars using the Hushed app. There’s no phone call or SMS verification.

3) For an address, I just gave the address of a hotel I’d booked for the night of my arrival in Japan. It accepted that.

Armed with those three bits of info, and my UK-registered Amex card, I was able to register for an account. Once logged in, you can get to the top booking screen:

Screen Shot 2014-05-25 at 20.09.26

The left hand options are for new reservations, and the yellow one on the right is to check / change / cancel. If you come across a kanji button that you can’t read, try right-clicking and choosing “Inspect Element” in Chrome – the button name often explains its function in English.

If you can get this far, the rest of the process isn’t too bad: enter your start and end points (simpler if you know the kanji), choose dates and a train. At the end of the process, you’ll see a confirmation screen:

Screen Shot 2014-05-25 at 20.08.00

This reservation is not, strangely, emailed to you – so screengrab or save it. I printed the whole page to a PDF, and took a printout of that with me.

This is not a ticket, and you need to exchange it at a JR East ticket office – not JR Kyushu, Hokkaido, or anywhere else. But if you’re coming in via Tokyo, there’s a JR East office in Haneda (in the international terminal – head for the Tokyo Monorail gate, it’s on the right), and another at Narita (maps here). The office in Narita tends to be very busy, so expect to queue; the one in Haneda was, in my experience, less so.

This is part of my Japan on a Budget series – find lots more info on trains, car rental, domestic flights etc here.

* By the way – if you want to check a train’s status, and if reservations are likely to be possible, use the JR Cyber Station website. It runs Japanese business hours only.

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