How to max out a Japan Rail Pass

At some stage of one’s Japanese journey, one is likely to want to travel by train.  This presents the foreign traveller with two choices: to buy individual tickets on a “pay as you go” basis, or to buy a Japan Rail Pass before entering the country.

The Japan Rail Pass is available only to foreign tourists.  There are two types: “ordinary” (base level) and “green car” (superior class).  They can be purchased for one, two or three weeks and offer unlimited travel on most Japan Rail services for the chosen period.

A key benefit of the Pass is the ability to pre-book seats at no extra cost.  While train seats can be pre-booked without a Pass, they incur a fee which, on the shinkansen (bullet) trains, can be almost as high as the fare itself.  And no trip to Japan would be complete without at least one leg on a bullet train.

Opinion on the topic of the Japan Rail Pass was divided.  Some friends swore by it, while others felt that they had lost nothing by having gone without.  We were still deliberating when our travel agent advised us that part of our stay would overlap with Golden Week, a peak travel period. When he said that people were known to stand in trains during Golden Week, that clinched the deal for us.

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We bought a Japan Rail Pass for three weeks at a cost of 57,700 yen each.  By the end of three weeks, we had made seven shinkansen rides, 17 ordinary train rides, two ferry trips and a couple of bus rides in Hiroshima.

With the help of the excellent hyperdia.com website, I have calculated what it would have cost us if we’d not had a Japan Rail Pass, with and without the booking fee.

If we’d opted for unreserved seats on all legs, the cost would have been 50,690 yen.  Pre-booking seats added another 32,100 yen, making a total outlay of 82,790 yen.  The Pass certainly works for you if you want the certainty of being able to sit down.

I acknowledge that if we’d travelled in low season, we may have gotten away with buying each fare and still managing to sit down on all train legs.  However, we may have been a bit more circumspect – perhaps a bit less adventurous – about the number of trips we would have made.  The almost unlimited credit of the Pass certainly encourages you to travel more often which, in turn, means that you will see more.  In our case, we explored several lesser known destinations along the way, where we may otherwise not have ventured.

So was it worth it?  Well, apart from the joys of train travel in Japan, which will be the subject of another post, the answer is a qualified “yes”.  Much depends on how long you spend in a particular place, whether it is serviced by shinkansen – the most expensive of Japanese trains – and whether it offers opportunities for day trips.  If those three criteria line up, then the Pass will deliver benefits both to your hip pocket as well as your experience of Japan.

And there is nothing quite like sitting down as you watch the scenery pass by.

 

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A reason for going

My husband (M) and I had always wanted to travel to Japan.

In June 2012, Jetstar offered 60% discounts on a range of fares from Australia, including to Japan.  We had 72 hours to make a commitment and knew not to dither.

We arrived in Japan in April 2013 with hotel bookings in place, a three-week Japan Rail pass, Lonely Planet and Eye Witness guides, notes of discussions we’d had with friends and family who had previously travelled to the country, and enough Yen (we hoped) to last the trip.

Between us we had fewer than 10 words of Japanese, most of which resided with me.  The only word which M could consistently recall was “beer”, which took periodic care of our thirst.  I quickly memorised “arigato” (thank you), which was always gratefully received even if my pronunciation was often way off.

Our respective parents had travelled to Japan in the 1970’s on organised tours.  While there was much temptation to go down this path, we wanted to shape our own voyage of discovery in our own time.  We knew that this would make extra work for us, and it did.  But once mastered, each challenge brought with it its own particular rewards and much satisfaction that we’d figured things out for ourselves.

While we consider ourselves well-travelled, Japan is like no other place on earth that we’ve visited.  It is at once both familiar and yet unfamiliar.  I tell friends and family that it is like travelling overseas for the first time.  There are so many revelations.  At times, they can take your breath away.

Although I kept a travel diary, this blog does not set out to chronicle our daily movements.  Rather, it is about the things that impressed us, some of which you may not necessarily find in travel guides.

By contrast, I do not deliberately set out to exclude some of the many things for which Japan is famous.  If it’s not represented in this blog, that is because we didn’t have time to see it, or taste it (I’m too scared to try fugu) or weren’t travelling in the right season to experience  it.

I hope our enthusiasm for Japan will infuse this blog and that you will enjoy reading it as much as we enjoyed being there.