If you’re planning to move between cities in Japan you’re best off purchasing a Japan Rail Pass, or JR Pass, it will save you a huge amount of money. It also includes some local travel in the cities which will also save you some money. Working out the rail system in Japan will take a little while but once you get the hang of it it’s fairly easy to navigate. Well lets say you will navigate it with minimal hiccups!! (Yes I’m giggling right now!).
The Japan Rail Pass basically allows you travel on the Shinkansen, aka the bullet train. These trains are the most efficient way to get around and there are a number of packages that will suit every itinerary. You will need to carefully plan your travel to get the best out of your pass. You need to identify which date you want to activate the pass and it will then be valid for the designated timeframe that you have purchased.
You have to purchase the pass before you arrive in Japan, it is only available to people visiting on a tourist visa. Once you have worked out your itinerary go to the website in your country, in Australia it’s JTB Travel, if you’re not in Australia Google Japan Rail Pass and you should find a similar site to book it online.
Vouchers to claim your JR Pass when you arrive are sent via registered mail, the process once you arrive is explained below. You must take these vouchers with you as there is no other way for you to prove that you have paid for them and you can’t purchase replacements on arrival so I can not stress enough, don’t forget the vouchers!!
If you are only planning minimal travel on the Shinkansen and are not sure whether it is worth purchasing the JR Pass, HyperDia is a great website for working out individual pricing for trips on the Shinkansen. This will then establish whether you are better off purchasing individual trips or purchasing the JR Pass for the specified timeframe required.
Once you arrive in Japan you will see signs that direct you to the JR claims office. We flew into Osaka and found the JR Office over in the train terminal across from the airport. I assume that the set up would be similar in Tokyo. I listed had all the dates and times that we would be travelling before we arrived but we were only required to provide the start and finish dates of the overall pass.
You will need to be organised when you are there, I found the lady serving me didn’t speak great english and they fire questions at you pretty quickly, they were also pretty busy with a line out the door. Write your dates down and be clear on them when you’re asked. The train from the Airport to Osaka is not a JR train so you will have to go outside and purchase another ticket from the ticket machine. I found this rather confusing and it took me a while to work that out.
I have since discovered that the JR Pass entitles you to a local SIM card which enables you to access WIFI in most parts of Japan. I wasn’t told about that and found that there was very little free WIFI in Japan which was a bit annoying. I was only able to upload photos to Instagram in the morning and evening from the hotels. I remember seeing a SIM card stand in the JR office but wasn’t aware I was entitled to one and no one directed me to it after picking up my pass. I suggest you approach the stand with your Pass and see what you’re entitled to, it would have been great to have access to more WIFI particular on the long bullet train trips between cities.
I can’t stress enough to be organised with this. I often left things until the day which was not ideal. I suggest you book a few days prior to your trip and this will ensure you get a decent seat. Having said that if you don’t care where you sit you can arrive and jump on the next train. Trains are very frequent between the big cities, about every 30mins between Osaka and Tokyo. This train also stops at Kyoto which is 30mins on the shinkansen from Osaka. We also went from Osaka to Hiroshima on the shinkansen and we were able to book those seats on the day, they were also running every 30mins.
For our return trip from Tokyo to Osaka we booked the night before as we had to leave about 8.30am, the train before us was fully booked as was the one after us. We were able to secure seats but we weren’t able to sit together and we were all sitting in middle seats. I think this may have been because it was peak hour, had we been leaving later we would have been fine. We were flying out from Osaka so we had a pretty tight schedule that day.
A tip for beginners, the Japanese sit in the seat allocated to them regardless. They didn’t really appreciate us silly Aussies chair hopping between spots when the seats become vacant near each other! We got a couple of strange looks and very confused looks when local people boarded and we were sitting in their seats. It wasn’t a problem for us, we just jumped up out of their way but they seem to like process so don’t bend the rules too much on them!! After the second time I just went back to may allocated seat for the rest of the trip.
Another thing to keep in mind, trains leave on time no matter what. I mean NO MATTER WHAT. We learnt the hard way when we were travelling from Osaka to Kyoto. We were racing for the train and we walked up to the platform, my sister jumped on the train and I put my arm out to stop Alannah and my mum just so I could read the sign and confirm we were on the right train. With that the door shut with my sister on the inside and us on the outside! I started banging on the door, maybe a little too aggressively due to my overwhelming surprise!! The conductor looked out his door at the back of the train and shook his head and off the train went….! My sister standing on the train waving at us!!
We did provide the whole platform with entertainment but it all worked out ok though, the guys behind me assured me the next train would be going to the same place which we jumped on 5 mins later. The conductor on my sister’s train told her to get off at the next stop and we would be along on the next train. Luckily a nice man translated for her and she knew what to do. Once we were reunited we laughed for another 30mins about what had happened. I will never forget my poor sister’s face as that train pulled away. Funny thing was, she thought she was ok as she had the rail passes, she might not have been so calm if she realised that I had them!!!
Moral of the story, all on or all off!
The price of a JR Pass varies and really depends on how much moving around you will be doing. You can purchase 7, 14 or 21 day passes, there are also ordinary and green passes which I assume are regular and first class. We had ordinary and were really happy with that, it was very comfortable and I couldn’t justify the price difference when ordinary was excellent by Australian standards. I have provided the prices for you below:
As you can see from the prices above the rail passes are pretty expensive particularly if you are travelling with a family of 5. You would have to sit down and work out if this is cost effective for your particular itinerary. We used our pass 5 times over the 7 day period and found it to be good value, this incorporated travel to Hiroshima, Kyoto, Tokyo and Osaka. You can also use the JR Passes for travel on the Yamanote circle line in Tokyo. Our hotel was on the Yamanote line so this was an added bonus for us. I have included maps below, they may freak you out but trust me once you are there and amongst it, it actually makes sense and works well:
We were only in Tokyo for 3 days and I feel I could confidently navigate most of this system now so don’t fret it’s easier than it looks.
Depending on what you’re doing, the JR Pass is an excellent option. I advise that you do your homework and compare your costs. We were in Japan for 10 days, we purchased the 7 day pass and stayed in Osaka for the first 3 days and then our pass started and we started moving from there and ensured that out last day finished on the day that we left. It was perfect for us as we were covering quite a bit of the country in a small amount of time so it was excellent value.
On the other hand if we were staying for 21 days it would not be an economical option for a family of 5 and we would have to consider other options or less moving between places. I’m already turning my thoughts to our next trip there as there was so much I didn’t get to see. I’m considering 2 more visits, Kyoto, Osaka and Hiroshima in one trip then Tokyo and maybe some other places further north that I haven’t been to yet. We did a lot in a small amount of time and I don’t think I would recommend a quick trip like ours. On the other hand though I am happy that I have seen a little bit of everything so you would have to weigh up your style of travel.
Every time we come home I promise myself that on our next trip we are going to slow down, I never do. I just can’t be somewhere and miss things if I possibly can. I want to slow down but I’m always thinking in the back of my head, what if I never make it back here…..? Maybe that’s another blog post somewhere along the line. Have you travelled to Japan and used the rail system? What did you think? I would love to hear your comments below and even your opinion on travel style.
Sal & Co!
For further information regarding transportation in Japan:
Here’s why you should get a Suica Card in Japan – Jusz Travel