* Prices may differ from that shown
When I was planning for my holiday to Japan, transport was one of my biggest concerns in terms of cost. Japan has one of the most extensive and efficient train networks in the world, but it is also one of the most expensive. Fortunately, several travellers and guides both on the internet and on the paper recommended that people purchase a Japan Rail (JR) Pass as a way of saving you money for your trip.
==---What is a JR Pass---==
This is a railway pass offered to foreign tourists travelling into Japan. The JR pass can only be bought outside the country via an authorised trading office or website, and then you receive an exchange order in the post. When you arrive in Japan, you can visit certain JR rail offices and, upon showing your passport and filling in a form, exchange this order for the real JR pass, which can just be shown at manned ticket barriers at train stations to pass through.
JR passes can be ordered to cover 7, 14 or 21 days of consecutive travel. The prices as of 2013 in yen for "ordinary car" (standard class) seats are as follows:
7 days: ¥28,300 for adults, ¥14,150 for children
14 days: ¥45,100 for adults, ¥22,550 for children
21 days: ¥57,100 for adults, ¥28,850 for children
Obviously due to fluctuating exchange rates the price in pounds sterling will vary, but as an example, expect to pay around £185 for a 7 day adult pass.
For a higher price, you can also buy a JR pass for "green car" (first class) seats, which might be good if you're travelling during peak hours/periods whilst in Japan. However, as someone who travelled during the summer over a fairly long distance I found the ordinary cars on trains satisfactory in terms of comfort.
==---It sounds expensive! What are the benefits? ---==
Indeed it does, quite the hefty price for something to pay prior to departing for Japan, but it is worth it in the long run! Japan Rail trains cover the majority of the country. They can be used on most bullet trains (shinkansen), city buses and even ferries under the JR name. If you use the pass to cover long distances over Japan then you will definitely save money. Furthermore, with the JR pass you can book seat reservations (usually on either the faster, normal trains or the bullet trains) for free, as normally reservations are an extra cost on top of the train fare. This is especially invaluable during peak travel seasons, when trains are more crowded and therefore seat reservations are essential, and once again saves you quite a bit an extra costs.
For example, my cousin and I bought a 7-day pass to cover transportation throughout the second week of our trip to Japan, which was mostly spent in Kyoto and side trips in the Kansai region. We activated our pass on the 14th, and on that same day we took a bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto. This alone would've cost us ¥13,420 (that includes both train fare and a seat reservation) - about £87 for a 2 ½ hour trip! Therefore, by making a round trip between Tokyo and Kyoto we have already almost made up how much the JR pass cost in the first place. Add in our side trips to Nara, Kobe etc. and we have saved a lot of money and time in buying separate tickets for these destinations!
Since JR is Japan's national rail network, the JR pass is not valid for use on private train networks (e.g. Keisei, Keihan etc.), of which there are quite a few in the country. The JR stations and gates are clearly marked at most of the stations we visited, and in some cases they are separate stations from the privately owned ones (e.g JR Nara is not the same station as Kinetsu Nara), so you cannot wonder onto a private train by accident. Likewise they cannot be used on the subway lines or highway buses (between cities).
JR passes are also invalid on the Nozomi and Mizuho bullet trains. This may be of some concern to some, as these are the fastest bullet trains in the country, but the Hikari, Kodama etc. types are still available to use. The only problem here is that your cross-country journeys will be slower.
Yes...but the JR pass is not for everyone. It depends on how long you stay in the country and where you are going.
I suggest thoroughly planning on ways of getting around so that you see which places are covered by JR trains and whether other available transport might be cheaper (hyperdia.com is a great website to start your research). If you're only in Japan for a couple of days and/or would be mainly staying in Tokyo or a smaller city then you would be losing money since the JR pass does not work on subways. However, even having the JR pass for a 7 day stay in Tokyo or Osaka (where the JR trains connect most of the city efficiently) with the occasional daytrip to somewhere nearby makes it fairly worthwhile. It is best used for travelling long distances to get the most value, i.e. between Tokyo and Kyoto.
Personally, I found my 7-day JR pass to be excellent value and invaluable during the crowded season on the trains. The JR trains are clean and comfortable, particularly on the bullet trains. Even with a hefty suitcase in front of my feet I still had a decent amount of legroom. With that in mind, anybody intending to spend a week or more in Japan should definitely consider the JR pass and save money on an essential but expensive experience of the country.
We took a trip around Japan in March 2010 and our chosen mode of transport was on Japan rail.
To get the Japan rail (JR) pass you have to buy an exchange order in a country that isn't Japan, they are valid for 3 months, you then need to present this and your passport (not Japanese) to a rail office and they will exchange it for your pass. Exchange orders can't be bought inside Japan or with a Japanese passport.
We paid about £350 (45,000Y) for a 14 day pass in standard class, but other cost are below (1,000Y is about £7)
7-day 37,800 YEN (First Class) 28,300 YEN (Ordinary)
14-day 61,200 YEN (First Class) 45,100 YEN (Ordinary)
21-day 79,600 YEN (First Class) 57,700YEN (Ordinary)
Our pass covered the whole country, JR express to and from the airport and some ferries (the JR ones). Most cities have lots of different rail companies operating inside them so we generally bought a day pass for the city we were in to travel around freely and easily but with a bit of planning all your travel could be covered by JR. If you were staying in one small area you can get local rail passes for less money. The pass isn't valid on the super fast trains but on services that do more local stops.
To be on the safe side we reserved seats (free) at the train station a couple of days before we were due to travel, they do have some unreserved seating but it was very crowded. This was really easy to do and the trains were all very frequent. Finding seats and platforms for train was really easy since most things are announced in English as well as Japanese, and all the staff were so polite and helpful finding where we were meant to be was no problem.
The trains were clean, on time, had loads of leg-room (I could nearly touch the seat in front with my legs out-stretched) and were a joy to travel on!