Riding the JR

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JR is Japan Rail, a group of companies providing intercity rail access in Japan, runs fantastically fast and on-schedule trains. We bought ourselves a JR pass for the entire island in one of the main stations in Tokyo. Was it worth it? The way we did it, yes it was. We rode up and down and all around the island, and looking back, we saved a few hundred dollars. The benefit of the pass was flexibility and unlimited rides during the pass period – we could jump on any train at any time in the unreserved section or, after a quick visit to the JR office in any station, we had reserved tickets for our whole journey for that day or the next. These passes can be bought at any of the larger JR offices and an ‘Exchange Order’ can be purchased abroad, which can be traded in for a pass.

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The coolest thing though, is the trains. I’m not a train fanatic, but I like me some public transit. JR’s lines are fast, clean, stop on the correct spot to a t, and arrive – barring some actual incident – to the second as promised. We hear legends of JR issuing apologies for mere seconds delay, and indeed they do. This went viral just recently : JR sincerely apologized for being 20 seconds early out the gate.
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We were waiting for our train at an outer station when the announcer came on to tell us a train was passing through and to be careful to move behind the line. I never stray past that line anyway, but I remember sort of smiling at the announcement, waiting for this train to .. and then with a tremendous wind and a whooshing noise, the train was gone. They are blink of an eye fast.

So how fast does their 300 km/h speed feel? Here’s a video I took from the window of one of our trains.

Like many other things in Japan, the trains have an associated collection – pins! Luckily there were only five – one for each color line on the main island. We ran around like mad the last few days of the pass, seeing random towns along the way and collecting the whole set of pins. Sightseeing incentive, effective!

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Getting train tickets in Indonesia

Today’s goal was to buy train tickets on to Yogyakarta, a city in southern Java known for its temples (Borobudur and Prambanan), arts, and culture. Buying train tickets here in Indonesia is usually just a short click away at Tiket.com, where you can browse and book bus/plane/train tickets. It’s so good that both locals and visitors use it, with a small hitch for us visitors: it randomly rejects foreign credit cards.

We were the (un)lucky winners of this lottery when the website refused our Chase card, so our only other options were to 1) have the hostel buy them and pay them back or 2) go down to the train station and buy tickets in person. In the spirit of adventure, learning, and later sharing with all of you, we of course opted for option #2. So, it’s off to Jakartakota to buy tickets!

Step 1: Know the train(s) you want

Tiket.com comes in handy even if you can’t/don’t want to buy online because it has a schedule for all the trains. For reasons that’ll become clear in a couple of steps, write down or print out the details of 2-3 trains you’d be willing to catch from the website; write more if it looks like there are few seats left on the train you want. Likewise, note the price. When you head off to the station, make sure you have both your travel identification (for us foreigners, usually the passport) and enough to pay for the ticket in cash.

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Tiket.com website results for a Jakarta->Yogyakarta train search. The departure day, time, train name/number, and price are all useful to know even if you can’t purchase online.

Step 2: Be prepared to navigate a busy station (and ask for help)

Tiket.com may be convenient, but not everyone in Indonesia has the means to pay online so expect a wait to buy tickets. The length varies by time and station, of course, but when we arrived Jakarta’s main station (Gambir) looked like this:

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The kiosks, windows, timetables, lines for machines of unknown function, and rows of people sitting and milling around at the station can be pretty overwhelming. It’s totally cool to ask for help from either the employees or the security guards (the guy in the white hat).

Though Indonesia has a lot of bilingual Bahasa/English information, not everything has been translated and the train station can feel overwhelming. But a lot of people here speak a bit of English and “tiket” is the Bahasa word for “ticket”, which is super helpful. We found that asking for “tiket Yogyakarta” got us pointed to the right set of windows. From there, a family helped us get a number (like those you get in waiting rooms or at the deli counter) and a ticket form. Speaking of…

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The machine that gives you a number for waiting in line. You want the green button that says “pemesanan tiket/ticket reservation” next to it.

Step 3: Fill out your form!

This is how everyone in Indonesia bought tickets before the Internet age and how you’re gonna buy tickets now: get a form, fill it out with the train you want, and hand it over to the teller when your number is called. This is where the train information you got in Step 1 from Tiket.com comes in handy; after filling out the personal information, write in the date/time of your #1 train choice. Now it’s time to wait for your number, which should appear on a screen above the ticket windows.

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The handy example of a completed ticket form at the Jakarta Gambir Station. Note that the form is bilingual Bahasa/English, which makes filling it out easier.

Step 4: Exchange your form and cash for a ticket

Once your number is called, gather your travel document and completed form and head to the designated window number. Hand the form over, and the ticket teller will let you know if there are still any seats on the train you wanted. The teller we encountered here spoke English (although not all do, so memorize those numbers in Bahasa or write them down) and told us that our first train choice was sold out. This is the situation where your list of second/third choice trains comes in handy. Don’t worry about filling out another form, just ask about the availability of other trains or show them your list. Thankfully we had a second train choice and finished the ticket purchase in a couple of minutes.

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The windows and waiting area for ticket purchase

Step 5: Get your actual ticket!

“What?!” you exclaim, “Didn’t I just get my ticket?” Nope. Java’s train system runs like an airline, meaning the voucher you get isn’t your actual ticket. You should arrive at the station 30-40 minutes early and exchange the ticket you got for a boarding pass ticket, usually at kiosks or computers just before the security check. The security check guys know what’s up (they’ve helped a lot of people do this), so they’ll show you where to scan the document or do it for you.

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And with tickets in hand, you can celebrate with some fresh bubblegum-flavored bubble tea at the end!