First time I … travelled around Japan with a JR Pass. 

When I bought my flight tickets for a week-long solo travel trip to Hokkaido in Japan, it was a decision I had made impulsively. I had received the AirAsia travel deal e-mail at midnight and just thought … “why not?”.

But after I paid for the ticket and started to read up on the many ways to get around Hokkaido during its summer season, I realised that I may have made a costly decision.

For example, to take a four-hour train ride to Hakodate, a city in Hokkaido famous for its high-quality seafood and seaside view, a one-way Japan Railway (JR) pass would cost 9,350 yen (RM345) or more.

To get to the beautiful lavender fields in Furano, meanwhile, one would have to pay more than RM150 one way. Of course, I could walk all the way there and save tons of money but it would take 23 hours from Sapporo city, where I had planned to stay. I think that by the time I actually arrived in Furano on foot, lavender season would have already ended!

As I was stressing out over the cost of travel, a friend recommended that I buy a JR Pass. She said to think of it as a multiple-journey train pass that you buy in advance to avoid the hassle of buying single-trip train tickets when in Japan. I liked the idea of not having to line up at the ticket machine as I know it would take me forever to understand how to use the machine, annoying the people standing behind me.

When travelling in Japan, essentials include a JR Pass and perhaps, a pair of wireless headphones. —

However, before getting a JR Pass, I had to ask myself: Do I really need one? It wasn’t exactly that cheap and since it would be my first time using such a pass, I wanted to make sure I got things right.

The price for a three-day JR Pass for selected areas range between RM196 and more than RM1,600. The pass is valid for use for 14 days, though (you can use it on alternate dates).

You can also get a seven-day JR Hokkaido Pass for RM887 on travel apps like Klook. This pass is different from the normal JR Passes, so read the terms and conditions properly before buying it.

I wanted to know whether I could really save money travelling within Japan via the railway system and using a JR Pass. I searched for “Japan Rail Pass calculator” online. I keyed in all the places that I wanted to go in Hokkaido and discovered that a JR Pass really was worth buying as travelling on separate or single tickets would cost a whole lot more. After buying the JR Pass online, I got an exchange order form via mail; I had to use that form to get the actual JR Pass at a designated JR office in Hokkaido later.

When I finally got to Hokkaido, using the JR Pass was easy – I just had to make sure that I had it with me at all times. Before going to my platform at any train station, I needed to show a staff member my pass at the entrance counter first.

There is a ticket holder on JR trains so that you never lose sight of your travel document.

Of course, there were times when I got a little confused.

On my first train trip bound for Hakodate, for example, a conductor had asked to see my seat ticket. You see, a JR Pass may get you on the train but it doesn’t guarantee you a seat on the reserved seating area. You would need to print a separate seat ticket at the JR Office prior to boarding.

Luckily, I actually had a ticket for the reserved seating area. But the conductor looked a bit puzzled upon seeing my ticket. My life flashed before my eyes, thinking, “Is he going to throw me out of this train? Should I start making that 23-hour walk?”.

It turns out that I had read my seat ticket wrongly and was not sitting in the right place. He said I just needed to move … five rows behind.