Semantic Tangles over a JR Rail Pass

Shinkansen (Bullet Train and JR Rail Pass. Photo Credit: website

Shinkansen (Bullet Train) and JR Rail Pass. Photo Credit: website

At midnight my three-week JR Rail Pass will expire. This pass can only be obtained outside Japan by non-Japanese and allows visitors almost unlimited riding on the JR Train system as well as some ferries and buses. One caveat. The JR Rail Pass does not apply to the super express Nozomi or Mizuho; however, the Hikari, the next fastest class of Shinkansen is included and doesn’t take that much longer.

As explained to me by the agent in Vancouver, the fare for one return trip between Tokyo to Kyoto is the equivalent of the price of a one week pass. Since I would be travelling beyond Kyoto to Hiroshima and planned to visit various points in between and around Tokyo, obtaining a pass made great economic sense. The more distance I travel, the greater the advantage gained.

Not only that, reserved seats on the Shinkansen are part of the deal. When moving between cities I could choose the last window seat in the car and tuck my single carry-on suitcase into the space behind it for easy boarding and disembarkation. On a rainy day or if I got tired or bored, I could comfortably ride a train to anywhere and back simply enjoying the view at no additional cost—perhaps a better option than trudging through the rain or looking for indoor alternatives. Win-win.

To take me through the final week of my journey I have a second one-week pass which I need to validate before leaving tomorrow. Since I must stop to get my reservation ticket for the trip to Nagoya, I’ll verify that this Hiroshima office is the correct place at which to validate the new pass.

First I secure a window-seat reservation. (This time I’ll control the shade and the view!) Then I ask about the new pass. I show the smartly-uniformed clerk my present pass and point to the date. At midnight this JR Rail Pass expires. Is this the office where I should get my new pass stamped?

Not buy pass in Japan. You only buy outside country.

I speak slowly, enunciate clearly and modulate my voice with care so as not to sound condescending. Yes, I understand. I travel in Japan four weeks. In Canada I buy one three-week pass and another one-week pass. Tonight the three-week pass is finished. Tomorrow morning, do I get the stamp for my one-week pass at this office?

 No. Not buy pass in Japan. You only buy outside country.

We circle this conversation-loop several times with the ticket agent insisting that I can’t get a new pass inside the country, only from outside the country.

I insist that I have another one-week pass. I only need the stamp. And I point to the stamp on my present pass.

Show me pass.

 Gomen. My pass is in my hotel.

It would take 20 minutes to walk there, get the pass and come back but I’ve walked all day. I don’t want to. Surely the question should be simple enough. The second JR pass can be validated here or not. If not, then where? That’s all I need to know.

How difficult can it be? Very. Has he never validated a pass before? I’m not going to initiate more complicated questions. I go back to the beginning one more time.

This time I draw pictures of buying two passes in Canada, flying to Japan, getting my first pass stamped and validated at Narita. Now, with one week of travel left, before departure tomorrow I need to get the stamp on the one-week pass in Hiroshima. Is this the correct office?

You not buy second pass inside Japan. You need voucher from outside country to get pass.

Voucher! Of course. Voucher! After 20 minutes of our circular conversation I finally understand his problem. And mine. He is absolutely correct. I do not have a second pass. Nor can I buy a pass from inside the country. I have a pass about to expire and a voucher for a second pass. Oy vey! I have confused him by calling a voucher a pass.

Top: The voucher. Below: The 21 and 7-day passes.

Top: The voucher. Below: The 21 and 7-day JR Rail Passes.

I could hug him in relief and smack him in exasperation at the same time. I know enough to bow and apologize. It’s the only way forward. Gomenasai. I am so sorry. Gomenasai. It is my mistake. I should have said voucher. In my hotel I have a voucher for a one-week pass.

He uses no articles or tenses. Who knew that he knew the word voucher? When was the last time I used the word voucher? (In this post I may have used it more times than I have my entire life.)

Does this office take my voucher and give me the new pass?


Halleluiah! This exhausting dance is over. That’s all I needed to know. Domo arigato gosaimasu. I bow, then smile broadly at him and think how welcome happy hour’s relief will be tonight. Thank you so very much. Thank you. I will be back tomorrow.

Do itashimashite. (It was nothing–the Japanese equivalent of you’re welcome.) He nods but does not return the smile. Hai. Please come back tomorrow.

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