Unlimited Travel on JR Railways
“Don’t leave home without one”
If there is one thing I would highly recommend for your travels around Japan, it’s the Japan Rail Pass. While the initial cost may seem high, you will more than save big dollars if your Japan plan is to have a good look around the place.
If you intend to travel more than 5-6 hours on a Shinkansen bullet train it will cost you more (probably a lot more!) without a Japan Rail Pass.
Let me start with a few facts about the pass then I will get into the practical benefits.
Firstly, you have to buy an exchange order for the Rail Pass before you enter Japan. Don’t think you will be able to pick one up if you need it after you get there, it’s too late! You purchase the Japan Rail Pass exchange order in your home country and then after arriving in Japan you present the exchange order and your passport (stamped with a 90 day ‘Temporary Visitor’) to a Japan Rail Pass office, which are situated in a number of main train stations over Japan. (Note the original exchange order must be exchanged for the JR Rail Pass within three months of the date of issue)
The passes come in 7, 14, 21 day periods, so depending on how long your Japan trip is for and when you intend to travel, be sure to only activate your Japan Rail Pass just before needed or it may expire too early for your later travel. I generally need to use mine early on so I pick up the actual Rail Pass when I first arrive in Tokyo Airport (Narita). I can then use the pass immediately and get a ‘free’ ride on the very modern and fast Narita Express into Tokyo city.
Above is a chart of the different prices and time periods. If you are like me and just want to travel from A to B in comfort then I would only buy an ‘Ordinary’ Pass, and that will give you everything you need for your train travel. The ‘Ordinary’ Pass will still let you travel on most of the Shinkansen trains (bullet trains). The Green type Rail Pass is a first class ticket and also lets you travel on the faster Nozomi and Mizuho Shinkansen, but I have never found it a disadvantage not being able to travel on these first class trains.
This map will give you an idea of the benefit of the Japan Rail Pass and how far the Shinkansen and local train lines reach across Japan, also there are many more local JR lines not shown on this map that the Japan Rail Pass is valid for.
Looking at the map above, a common journey for travelers is from Tokyo to the must see destination of Kyoto. This one way trip to Kyoto on the Shinkansen bullet train takes 3 hours and costs around 13,000yen ($130USD). So you can see that only a return journey to Kyoto from Tokyo will nearly cost the same as a 7 day pass Japan Rail Pass. From the map you can see this is but a small section of the JR rail network.
You can catch the bus from Tokyo to Kyoto and it will be considerably cheaper but the cost will be in time. The bus will take you around 7-8 hours of travel one way, so you are looking at a 2 day return journey loss in traveling time.
Starting from around 6am there is a Shinkansen Hikari train leaving Tokyo South about every 30 minutes, so if you were to hop on that 6am train you would be in Kyoto by 9am. Spend the day sightseeing in Kyoto, later have dinner and then catch an evening Shinkansen back to Tokyo, it can all be done in one day if that’s what you wanted, but Kyoto needs more than one day to even begin to see its many attractions. If you did the bus trip you would have 2 wasted days of traveling, if you are in Japan for a month it probably doesn’t matter but most tourists/travelers are only in Japan for a week or two, so the time cost for buses also needs to be taken into account.
There is no baggage car on the Shinkansen, you take your bags with you and either store them above your seat in the luggage rack, on the floor beside you, or the seats at the end of the carriage have extra space for bags etc.
Here are a few benefits why you should buy the Japan Rail Pass:
- You can travel free on JR trains, buses, and ferries plus get discount with some hotels
- The Japan Rail Pass is just that, a pass, you just show the pass to the gate guards and walk on through, no queues, no working out how to buy tickets. Often the guards will not check the validity date of the pass, they will see you are a foreigner and just wave you through.
- The pass is also very useful in and around Tokyo for riding on local JR trains, you will find you use the central circular JR Yamanote train line numerous times in a day checking out the city centres.
- The comfort and speed of the Shinkansen bullet trains can take you over most of Japan in less than a day and it’s just so easy to hop on and off at any station that takes your fancy along the way, go for a coffee or lunch, then jump right back on the next bullet train that comes along.
- If you have Japanese friends in Japan, they will be so jealous of your Japan Rail Pass, because they cannot buy one. Japanese citizens are not eligible for the pass, as only foreign nationals can buy the Japan Rail Pass outside of Japan. Don’t forget to leave it sticking out of your pocket, just to remind them you have one 😉
- If you were to make Kyoto your base for a few days or more, with the Japan Rail Pass you have a number of well known attractions within a 30 minute to 3 hour Shinkansen ride away and at no extra cost to you. Nagoya, Kobe City, Himeji Castle, Okayama Korakuen Gardens, Hiroshima Peace Park, Miyajima Islands (use your Japan Rail Pass for free on the JR Ferry), Kintai kyo Bridge and much more.
As I said at the start of this post in my sub heading, “Don’t leave home without one!”