If you intend to do a lot of traveling around Japan, then the Japan Rail Pass could very well be your best friend. A variety of Rail Passes are available, covering the entire country or just a few specific areas.
If you are going to restrict your travels to Tokyo and the surrounding area, then it probably won’t be worth it to purchase a rail pass of any sort; you’ll probably resort to regular tickets, day passes, etc. On the other hand, if you intend to travel out to several cities around Japan, then purchasing the national Japan Rail Pass may help you.
The national Japan Rail Pass is available in 7-day consecutive, 14-day and 21-day versions, and there are passes for ordinary class and green class (the equivalent to coach and first class respectively). If you are just planning to confine a bulk of your travels, however, to just a specific area, for example north of Tokyo to the Tohoku region, then you might want to consider something more specific – and likely cheaper – in this case, something like the JR East Rail Pass.
There’s one real litmus test to determine whether or not a national rail pass is right for you: Do you intend to travel a lot on the bullet train? If you intend to travel, for example, from Tokyo to Kyoto, the regular ticket price is 26,440 yen round trip on the bullet train service known as the Hikari. The 7-day Japan Rail Pass is 28,300 yen… so if you consider the round trip between Tokyo and Kyoto, local trips around Tokyo and the Kansai region by JR, and a round-trip on a JR train service to and from the airport (Tokyo to Narita Airport on the Narita Express, or if you are in Kyoto or Osaka, a round-trip to Kansai Airport on the Haruka train) then the cost of travel will exceed the cost of the pass, making it a good value.
Of course, the more you travel in a specific period, the more you can likely save. One good way to figure out the cost savings is to do some research… Go to a site like Hyperdia which allows you to find out the cost of train travel between two major cities (and train times, which helps too). Add those numbers up at the end to see what you get.
I highly recommend, only if your budget allows, the Green Car rail pass. First class cars, especially on the bullet trains, are particularly nice… you get wider, more comfortable seats, more recline, a reading light, hot towel service at your seat, and if you have headphones you can plug in and listen to six channels of music. (Granted that everything will be in Japanese, but hey, it’s at least something that will help pass the time as you whiz by the countryside)
One drawback about the rail pass is that you cannot use the Nozomi, the premium bullet train service that’s in operation. Nozomi operates on the Tokaido and San’yo Shinkansen; so if you use any of these you’ll be forced to use a Hikari or Kodama train. Out of these, Hikari is the fastest; Kodama on the other hand stops at every single station along the way. For a trip between Tokyo and Osaka for example, Kodama trains will add one hour to your travel time (a 4 hour trip instead of 3 hours on the Hikari).
You must purchase a travel voucher within your country for a national Japan Rail Pass, and then exchange the voucher for a rail pass upon arrival in Japan. Rail Pass counters in Japan can be found at Narita and Kansai Airports; you are also able to obtain your rail pass at JR’s major train stations. If you intend to use a JR train to travel into the city, you may want to do the exchange at the airport. If you are in Tokyo and you don’t get your rail pass at Narita Airport, an excellent location to obtain your pass is at Tokyo Station. Tokyo Station – large as it may be – has a dedicated Rail Pass exchange counter. The english-speaking staff is friendly and is willing to help you out. This counter is located towards the Yaesu side – the east side – of Tokyo Station.
If you live in the US, Kintetsu International allows you to purchase your Rail Pass voucher online; it will be delivered to you by regular mail.
Hopefully in my next post I will offer a little secret that will allow you, with your national Rail Pass, to use some trains to your advantage – while allowing you to skip rush hour crowds.