After we finished at the Hiroshima Peace Museum we explored the city a bit more while Moti and Francis finished their visit. The next step our trip was Kyoto, but during research during brief down periods, I’d discovered that our initial scenic plan along the Sea of Japan just wasn’t going to work. While the Japanese rail system is amazing and extensive, it sensibly isn’t high all speed rail, particularly when crossing from one coast of the country to the other. As a result, there were a few different points along the trip where our desire to check out interesting routes was foiled as we realized that the train trip alone would take an all day commitment.
Thankfully, there is HyperDia.com which, while not primarily a mapping tool, is far and away the best route planner I’ve had the pleasure of using. For example here’s the search we used to get to our next destination, a stopover in Okayama on the way to Kyoto.
The output format is fairly straightforward and familiar. The strength is really found in the speed and stability combined with a wisely designed interface. It isn’t without flaws - use of the back button rather than scrolling down to the bottom will result in you having to regularly re-input parameters - but I found it a stalwart companion throughout the trip and only once did it not cover all the modes of interest.
There are a few different aspects that makes the interface so convenient:
- The English interface is top notch and in no way feels like a neglected variant of the main Japanese page.
- The destination completion works well. Try it out and just type in a few Japanese cities you know and you’ll quickly see a range of options.
- The option to set up to three pass through cities makes it easy to try out scenic trips and experiment with brief stopovers. The only flaw there for tourists is that it doesn’t do loop trips; you can’t have the same destination twice on the list.
- The check boxes make it easy to customize your choices. For the average JR Pass rider, you’ll probably want to click off the Nozomi and other top-tier Shinkansen, as they aren’t covered. More fine tuning is also allowable, but in most cases for inter-city travel, the first few options will just be JR anyways so you don’t need to worry about it.
This doesn’t mean that you don’t want a companion book or the like; we certainly recommend Japan by Rail although most any reliable guide should mention station names. Hyperdia isn’t meant to be the Amtrak Interactive Rail Atlas or the like; you’ll still have to figure out where you want to go and what you want to see on your own. But once you have a couple possibilities worked out, it’s easy enough to experiment with a range of ways of running your trip. To be fair to the American sites, Hyperdia is such an amazing tool because it works with such an fantastic infrastructure backbone. The trains stick to their timetables and three-minute transfers are both achievable and not catastrophic in the event of a failure. The sprawling stations do have consistent numbering systems that are reported through the trip planner. Best of all, most anywhere you want to go, you can get there by train, possibly with a bit of help from a bus for intra-city travel or when going off the beaten path.