An all in one solution for traveling around Japan?02 October, 2011 by Chad
One of the most frequently asked questions on the travel forums I frequent is whether to purchase a Japan Rail Pass (or JR Pass for short). This special pass covers all transport owned by the JR company throughout the country, including unlimited free rides on the usually pricey bullet trains.
Purchasing the JR Pass
The catch is that the Japan Rail Pass can only be purchased by foreigners who are arriving as a temporary visitor (holiday visa) and only from outside of Japan. You will need to apply for a Rail Pass Exchange Voucher ahead of time from your home country through a travel agent.
If you’re from Singapore you can get it conveniently online from the Nippon Travel Agency website and they will deliver it to you free the next day.
When you’ve reached Japan the Rail Pass Exchange Voucher can then be traded at JR Train Stations for your actual Rail Pass. You will be required to present your foreign passport and also fill up an exchange form. If you’re in a hurry, you can print out this online copy of the exchange form to fill out ahead of time.
Saving with the Rail Pass
On a day by day basis, the JR Pass works out to be quite hefty amount to pay for transport. Zipping around on a bullet train, it is often easy to forget how big a country Japan is and that these are distances normally covered by planes.
Still it always works out as savings if you’re going to be taking the shinkansen even for just one of the days covered by the pass. For reference, a one way trip on a shinkansen would cost you anywhere between 10,000 for nearby places to 20,000 yen or more when traveling further.
The price/day ratio gets more economical when purchasing the JR Pass for duration longer than 7-days. You have to ask yourself if you’d really be using the pass enough to make it worth your while. But it ought to be beneficial as long as you’re taking a two-way trip every 7 days.
Anything more than that results in large savings with the added benefit that pass can be used to cover local transport in places where JR has a foothold (which turns out to be most major cities).
JR Pass Types
The JR Pass is available in 7, 14 and 21 day varieties. Each gives the wielder unlimited rides on all JR Company related transport for the respective number of days. There are also two versions, the Ordinary JR Pass as well as a pricier Green version. The Green JR Pass allows for seats on the VIP sections of shinkansen (which usually includes some refreshments) but as you see below, costs a lot more. I wouldn’t recommend it.
7-Day Ordinary: 28,300 yen
14-Day Ordinary: 45,100 yen
21-Day Ordinary: 57,700 yen
7-Day Green: 37,800 yen (+9,500 yen)
14-Day Green: 61,200 yen (+16,100 yen)
21-Day Green: 79,600 yen (21,900 yen)
Regular seats in bullet trains aren’t that bad. They are already a visible upgrade from what you’d get on an economy class flight. If you find yourself spending most of your day on bullet trains or enough times to make Green seats worth it, then you’re clearly doing something wrong. The only time you’d want to get Green tickets is if you happen to bouncing around Japan on business and your company is footing the bill.
You can save yourself quite a bit and enjoy yourself much more by bringing your own food onboard (such as the wide variety of packed lunches available at train stations) on days that you actually use the JR Pass.
Note that for shinkansen, this is limited to the normal Hikari, Sakura, Kodama or Tsubame trains only. As with purchasing regular shinkansen tickets, it will cost extra to upgrade to the (slightly faster) Nozomi, Mizuho and Hayabusa trains but there is usually no good reason to as they cover identical routes.
Most tracks alternate between Nozomi and Hikari trains so be sure not to miss your train or you’d have to wait an hour for the next. Hyperdia is the best place to check travel routes and timings.
Normally, it would cost more to reserve a seat on a shinkansen when using regular tickets. But what many people fail to realize is that you can get reserved seats on bullet trains for free even with the ordinary JR Pass. Just head to the ticketing counter (they are split up by destination) ahead of the train timing to book your seat.
Placing your reservations early will ensure that you get the best seats. Like on a plane, always choose to get the front most seats in a cabin if you can. There are also different types of cabins that you can request for. You can ask for non-smoking cabins, as well as special “quiet cabins” on very early or late trains that will shut off the lights to let you sleep.
More information about the JR Pass at the Japan Rail Pass official website.