Is the JR PAss worth it?
The first thing to consider is what kind of trip you want to take and how many days you want to spend on the road vs. staying at the places that you want to explore. The most common thing for people to do on their first trip to Japan is see Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and possibly Hiroshima or a trip to the countryside towns of Kanazawa, Hakone or Takayama. If planning this kind of trip you would definitely want the pass. A trip seeing Tokyo-Hiroshima-Kyoto-Osaka-Takayama-Tokyo would be around 55,000 yen. Even a round trip ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto is 28,000 and the seven day pass at 29,110 is not much more than that giving you 5 more days of travel for free. The site www.hyperdia.com is a great resource for getting train fares and times.
One major consideration for me, is that the JR pass, especially the 7-day pass, might mean that you rush to see the places you visit and don’t give enough time to see each place. Not to mention the draw of high speed travel means you might end up staying on the fairly well worn tourist trail. If you prefer to go to places off the beaten path you still can with the JR pass, but to go to some of the islands or as high north as Hokkaido you would be better off taking an airplane and possibly even renting a car when you get there.
Benefits of getting the JR pass
Another thing is that even with the pass, you still need to queue up and get your physical tickets when riding the bullet train and you are restricted to the HIKARI or KODOMA train meaning you can’t get the NOZOMI train. All three are high speed bullet trains, but the NOZOMI does shorten the journey between Kyoto and Tokyo by about 20mins by making less stops and doesn’t travel as frequently (every 30 minutes vs. every 10 minutes) which I think is not enough of a difference to pass on the pass but something to consider.
Alternatives to the JR Pass
Recently there are a lot of low cost carriers operating flights within Japan too. My personal favourite is Peach Airlines but there are a few others around too. Last time I went to Tokyo by train, I came back to Kyoto via Okinawa and Osaka. A couple days on the beach and the cost was about the same as my train ticket. Just be sure to factor in the costs (in money and time) of the travel to and from airports. Train stations tend to be smack dab in the centre of town but airports not so especially Narita which is not even technically in Tokyo and a near 2hr journey to the city centre.
For those who want to see further flung parts of Japan, taking to the skies is definitely a good option. JAL and ANA both have special deals for travellers on one way flights throughout their network starting from 5,400 yen. That said, jumping on a train without any luggage weighing, check in, security screening or anything is a lot more convenient and time efficient.
I decided to get the pass.
Which JR pass should I get?
7-day pass 29,110 (about 4,100 a day)
14-day pass 46,390 (about 3,300 a day)
21-day pass 59,350 (about 2,800 a day)
The trick with the one week pass is when to activate it. Although it’s tempting to get your pass stamped right when you arrive, the airport train is about 3,000 yen and the trains in the city centre are usually just 150-200 yen a pop. So better to save your days for the road. For a bit more flexibility the two week pass at 46,390 would be best especially for someone who wants to see a fair bit of the country without having to skip from place to place too quickly. The 21-day pass is a great deal too, but again even if you are three weeks in Japan, you don’t necessarily need the pass while you are staying in the one place like Kyoto or Tokyo unless you are riding the local trains on day trips everyday. In this guide I quoted the prices for the ordinary seats and not the "green car" since I think it's really not worth the extra money for seats that are a few inches wider. But if that is important to you, feel free to go ahead and get that pass too. Just realise that the "economy" seats on the shinkansen are super spacious too.
Now that you have decided on the pass for you, it's time to get your exchange voucher which you can purchase either online or at the local travel agent who is authorised to do so in your hometown. Once you receive the voucher, you can exchange that for a pass at either the airport station or one of several major stations around Japan. Click here for the official site for the JR Pass to learn more.
So, will you be getting the pass? Or do you have any tips yourself? Write them in the comments below and happy travels!