Flight tickets? Check. Hotel accommodations or Airbnb bookings? Check. Visa and daily itinerary? Double check! Now that you’ve covered most of the major to-do’s and items to be prepared before heading to Japan, it’s time to think of how you are going from point A to B once you’re in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Trains – whether local, rapid, express, limited express, or the bullet trains (shinkansen; 新幹線) – cover most of Japan and its major cities like Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto. However, buying single journey tickets is not the most economical way of maximizing your pocket money. Thank goodness for train passes like the JAPAN RAIL (JR) PASS that allows unlimited rides on most JR Group Railways and JR Bus Lines.
Still deciding if you really need a JR Pass (remember, you can only order and buy it outside of Japan) or just want to know more about this “magical” train ticket? Here are ten useful points to keep in mind!
Foreigner visitors with a “Temporary Visitor” status visiting for less than 90 days for tourism purposes are eligible.
If you plan on hopping from one major city to another (i.e. Hiroshima to Osaka, Osaka to Tokyo), then yes. A single journey ticket from Hiroshima Station (広島駅) to Shin-Osaka (新大阪) costs 10,440 yen while riding the shinkansen from Shin-Osaka to Tokyo costs 14,450 yen; the ordinary 7-day JR Pass for adults costs 29,110 yen. So, based on the combined prices of the single journey tickets alone, the JR Pass is already worth its weight in gold.
There are several types of JR Passes depending on the length of your visit. As mentioned above, there is the 7-day variety as well as the 14-day (46,390 yen) and 21-day (59,350 yen) options. Green car (equivalent to an airplane’s first class) passes obviously cost more than the ordinary pass but are also available in 7, 14, and 21-day options.
Say you want your 7-day trip to focus on the Kansai (関西) region (Osaka, Kyoto, and Nara [奈良]) or Tokyo and its surrounding cities (Yokohama [横浜], Narita [成田]), instead of purchasing the nationwide JR Pass, buy the regional passes instead. The JR Kansai WIDE Area Pass costs 8,500 yen for 5 days, while the JR TOKYO Wide Pass costs 10,000 yen for 3 days. Not only are they cheaper, but they can also be bought when you are already in Japan.
There are two options for purchasing the JR Pass vouchers: order it (1) online, or (2) through accredited travel agencies in your country. Prices vary from one website or agency to another but most give additional travel guidebooks and train schedule listings.
Once you land in Japan, clear immigration, and get your baggage, head to the designated ticket office in the airport you’re at (as indicated on your voucher) and have your voucher exchanged for the actual JR Pass. You can actually choose the start date of the validity of your pass; not necessarily on the date of your flight arrival.
The usage of the JR Passes (valid only on Japan Railway trains and non-Nozomi and Mizuho bullet trains) is different from using single journey tickets or IC cards as you have to pass through the leftmost or rightmost turnstiles/gates of the JR stations. This way, the station personnel can verify if your pass is valid and let you enter or exit accordingly.
Also, the train personnel, regardless of where you first use your pass, will stamp the date of first use on the left-bottom corner of it.
Aside from speed, cost, and distance, having reserved (shitei-seki) and non-reserved (jiyuseki) cars differentiate bullet trains and limited express trains from rapid and local trains. JR Pass holders can actually reserve their seats at no extra cost, with the added benefit of not having to scramble and “fight” for seats in non-reserved cars.
Look for JR Ticket Offices at train stations, or the Midori no Madoguchi (みどりの窓口), for complimentary seat reservations.
Aside from the benefits mentioned above, the JR Pass allows the added convenience of not having to queue at ticket machines every time you need to ride a JR train. Your margin of error (missed train, got off the wrong station, etc.) is also bigger as the JR Pass acts as a safety net; allowing not much financial penalty for trial and errors.
The main disadvantage of the JR Pass is that it is limited to JR trains and cannot be used on the subways in Tokyo (Tokyo Metro) or Osaka (Osaka Municipal Subway). The high cost of the JR Pass also means that you have to be careful not to lose it, lest spending more for your transportation needs.
Bang for the buck, the nationwide JAPAN RAIL PASS is one great tool for you to go around Japan without breaking the bank or going over your budget. From Kagoshima, Kyushu in the southwest part of Japan to Hokkaido in the north, you can visit almost every part of the country with proper planning and, of course, the nationwide JR Pass.