Stefan has pointed out on his excellent japan-guide.com site that a new rail pass will be made available to foreign visitors in Japan beginning in April. The ticket, sold jointly by JR East and JR West, will be called the Osaka-Tokyo Hokuriku Arch Pass.
Before you say anything – no, McDonald’s is not sponsoring the pass because it has the word ARCH in it. Rather, the word ARCH refers to the fact that the train pass is valid on an arching… er, arcing… route between Tokyo and the Kansai region, Kyoto and Osaka included. That route is the Hokuriku region, which includes the newly-extended Hokuriku Shinkansen from Tokyo to Nagano, Toyama and Kanazawa, and then conventional JR tracks from Kanazawa to Kyoto and Osaka, on which you can use the limited-stop express train known as the Thunderbird.
Also included in the pass are:
– Travel on JR Trains in the Tokyo Metropolitan District, consisting of stations on and inside the Yamanote Line loop and a limited number of stations outside the loop
– Travel on the Narita Express from Tokyo to Narita Airport
– Travel on the Tokyo Monorail from Tokyo to Haneda Airport
– Travel on JR trains in what is known as the “Keihanshin” district, including services around Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe and Nara
– Travel on the Haruka Limited Express train from Kyoto/Osaka to Kansai Airport
– Travel on certain private railways in the Hokuriku region that connect to the shinkansen
You can use reserved seats in ordinary class on any shinkansen or limited express service in the areas covered under the pass, except for the Haruka train to/from Kansai Airport where the pass will only cover unreserved seating. Presumably, you would be responsible for additional charges if you wanted reserved seating on the Haruka, or if you wanted to upgrade to the Green Car or Granclass on any service.
The cost for this pass is 24,000 yen if purchased in advance, or 25,000 yen if purchased inside the country. Children 6-11 years of age pay half price. You must have a passport with short-term visitor status (90 days or less) in order to qualify for the pass. The pass can be used on all days, starting on April 1, 2016.
A one-way ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto via Kanazawa is around 18,000 yen. So, there will be considerable savings if you use this pass for a return trip along the entire route. The pass can even be considered for a round-trip between Tokyo and Kanazawa – the arch pass would save you around 4,000 yen compared to regular round-trip reserved tickets.
The trip from Tokyo to Kanazawa takes approximately 2 1/2 – 3 hours by bullet train, and the trip from Kanazawa to Kyoto takes around 2 – 2 1/2 hours by Thunderbird limited express.
By comparison to the 24,000 yen arch pass, a 7-day National Japan Rail Pass costs 29,110 yen and covers just about all JR trains out there, including the Hokuriku Shinkansen and Thunderbird. Using the heavily-traveled Tokaido Shinkansen, you can travel from Tokyo to Kyoto in around 3 hours. The Japan Rail Pass also comes in a Green Car version, whereas the arch pass does not. Conversely, the Japan Rail Pass does not include trips on the Tokyo Monorail or any other private rail lines.
If you want to explore the Hokuriku region, or want a slightly more economical round-trip ticket between Tokyo and Kyoto/Osaka, the Osaka-Tokyo Hokuriku Arch Pass is definitely worth consideration. Though I would prefer you use the money saved on some unique Japanese eats instead of big macs with fries.
The announcement from the JR companies can be found here.