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Japan rail passes do's and don'ts

Lewis Carrol wrote “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there”.

Currently we are still no closer to knowing when our borders might open nor what road we can take ........ but when they do open Japan will be the first country on my travelling agenda!

When travelling in Japan the best road to travel is via the railroad! Long distance, individual train tickets are usually expensive however Japan offers a huge variety of rail passes, from local day passes to weekly rail passes. The type of pass you choose depends on whether you are a budget or a convenience kind of traveller ........... I always try to opt for both.

I love the convenience of using a rail pass but won't purchase unless it is also economical. That said, I understand that sometimes convenience takes precedence over budget especially if you are travelling with a tribe of school students! A rail pass gives you the convenience of not having to estimate the cost of each sector of travel. Plus it allows ease of travel by not having to buy multiple tickets daily, particularly when travelling with a group.

So what type of train ticket or pass will you need? Let me walk you through some of the many passes available for foreign visitors to Japan. There are so many passes available so firstly you need to look closely at your itinerary and decide on your travel requirements.

Answering a few of the following questions will help you to decide.

How long are you in Japan?

Where do you want to travel?

Do you need a rail pass for your entire trip or only part?

Are you staying and sightseeing in one city only or travelling to a number of cities?

Can you achieve your travel using a regional pass or do you need the full Japan Rail Pass?

7-Day, 14-Day or 21-Day Japan Rail Passes

Let's start with the most popular and best known rail passes. The Japan Rail Pass can be purchased with one, two or three weeks validity. These passes can be used for travel throughout Japan on the Japan Rail network. The pass is valid on almost all trains operated on the nationwide network of JR (Japan Railways), including rapid and local trains, express trains, limited express trains and most shinkansen (bullet train). It is valid for both the Hikari and Kodama shinkansen but not for travel on the Nozomi shinkansen. All three trains travel the same routes with the difference being the number of station stops and speed. The Nozomi Shinkansen stops at fewer stations compared to the other two, and is your quickest route to the Kansai region of Kyoto , Osaka , Kobe and beyond.

You can purchase a standard Ordinary Pass or the more expensive first class Green Pass.

Half price Japan Rail Passes can be purchased for children aged 6-11 years old plus up to two children or infants aged 5 or under are free as long as they do not occupy a seat.

Seats on limited express trains and shinkansen trains can be reserved at no extra cost with a Japan Rail Pass. You can also easily hop-on and hop-off these trains by lining up on the platform and taking your chance for a seat in one of the non-reserved carriages.

Passes can be purchased in Japan but are cheaper if purchased in Australia through one of the designated travel agencies registered to sell Japan Rail Passes such as Saizen Tours.

Do your research!

Do purchase a pass if you plan to travel throughout Japan.

Do reserve seats if travelling with a group or travelling at peak seasons or times.

Do check your pass for validity to use on other railway, bus and ferry lines.

Don't purchase a pass if you are staying in one city, travelling a short distance or could make better use of one of the many regional and more economical passes.

Don't 'waste' the pass by using it when not necessary. For example instead of purchasing a 14-Day JR Pass you can often purchase a 7-Day JR Pass to cover your two week itinerary using a combination of the 7-Day JR Pass, regional passes, subway or bus passes and airport transfers. We are experienced with all passes and can look at your itinerary to immediately advise the best and most economical passes for your travel plans.

Regional Japan Rail Passes

I just love having a rail pass in my pocket! It opens up the whole of Japan for discovery depending on the type of rail pass and area validity. Some of my many spur-of-the-moment daily adventures include travelling from Hiroshima to Fukuoka for dinner (285kms and just 1 hour on the shinkansen), Tokyo to Sendai for a day in the snow (370kms and 90mins on the shinkansen) and Kyoto to Kanazawa (260kms and 2 hours on the Thunderbird Express) to see Kenrokuen Garden and shop for gold! At the end of the day jump back on the train to return to your accommodation ........ ahh the luxury of relaxing on the bullet train after a hectic day sightseeing with a small bottle of wine or a can of beer and a train station boxed bento dinner (ekiben) or snack.

Do check your itinerary and consider if a regional pass will suit your requirements.

Don't simply purchase, for example, a 7-Day JR Pass when a regional pass will cover your travel itinerary and would be more economical. There are so many regional passes available and new passes are being added regularly.

Let's look at one of my previous trips using a regional pass instead of a 7-Day JR Pass.

I wanted to travel from Tokyo to Osaka and sightsee at Nagano and Kanazawa along the way. The JR Hokuriku Arch Pass allowed me to stop at these cities along the way and also enjoy a relaxing overnight onsen stay at Wakuraonsen situated north of Kanazawa. I could have used the pass from Narita International Airport but chose to spend a few nights in Tokyo prior to commencing the pass. A 7-Day JR Hokuriku Arch Pass cost ¥24,000. This is a significant savings compared to a 7-Day Japan Rail Pass at ¥29,650.

The JR Sanyo-San-in Pass is another popular pass that includes travel on the Nozomi Shinkansen between JR Shin-Osaka and JR Hakata (Fukuoka). A 7-Day pass is ¥21,000.

Aside from the many passes available for travel on Honshū there are numerous passes available for the islands of Hokkaidō, Kyūshū and Shikoku.

Local rail passes

Aside from JR passes there is a plethora of local passes available from both JR and various private lines. We have listed a number of passes for travel to or within some of the most popular tourist areas on our Saizen Tours website.

Tokyo Tokunai Pass

The Tokunai Pass is a great pass for sightseeing in Tokyo. The pass is issued by Japan Rail and is valid for travel on all JR Lines within Tokyo. It costs ¥750 for all day travel for one day.

Do check if you will get the value - you need to travel at least 5 - 6 sectors in a day for value.

Do check if an alternative subway pass, such as Tokyo Metro's Subway Ticket, will cover more areas that you may be planning to visit in Tokyo. You can purchase a 1-Day (¥800), 2-Day (¥1,200) or 3-Day (¥1,500) ticket.

Hakone Freepass

The Hakone Freepass is issued by Odakyu Railway. This is a great pass that allows for multiple travel on rail, bus and ferry in the Mt Fuji-Hakone area. The pass can be purchased with validity from Tokyo's Shinjuku Station for 2-Days (¥5,700) or 3-Days (¥6,100).

Alternatively you can travel by JR train to Odawara and commence the pass from Odawara for 2-Days (¥4,600) or 3-Days (¥5,000).

Enoshima-Kamakura Freepass

The Enoshima-Kamakura Freepass is another great Odakyu Railway pass that allows for unlimited travel by train on the Odakyu Line and Enoden tram line. 1-Day Pass is ¥1,520 from Shinjuku and ¥660 from Fujisawa.

Suica or Pasmo Area Cards

Lastly the Suica and Pasmo passes are prepaid cards. They are not money saving passes but certainly make travel simpler. There is no need to continually buy tickets from station vending machines. Just simply touch your pre-paid card at the ticket gate and your fare is automatically deducted from your card. The cards can be used for many train lines, subways and buses. They can also be used as e-money in vending machines, station kiosks and some shops. As the map above shows, the passes can be used across other smart card transportation systems. Many school groups are now purchasing these pre-paid cards for convenience and ease of use. Schools can decide the amount they want to preload on each card and we can organise delivery to your accommodation or arrival airport.

So there you have it - a few great ideas to get you thinking about Japan travel and rail passes. There are far too many different rail passes to include them all however we are ready to recommend your best travel pass and assist when travel to Japan resumes!

Written by Rondell Herriot, Co-Managing Director Saizen Tours

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