Traveling to Japan is wonderful. It is a beautiful, complex country.
A well planned trip is a very rewarding experience.
The Japan Rail Pass is a powerful resource, but at the same time will require a significant investment and good research.
How does the Japan Rail Pass work?
The official JR Pass website is www.japanrailpass.net. Here are a few basic guidelines:
- Only available to foreigners or Japanese living outside the country
- Must be purchased outside of Japan.
- Exchange Order must be physically delivered before your trip, not emailed.
- Once in Japan, the Exchange Order is turned in at a major JR Station to receive the Japan Rail Pass.
- The Pass is valid for travel only on JR trains and buses. Private railway companies and some subway lines in major cities are not covered.
- Travel on any Shinkansen is covered except for the fastest NOZOMI and MIZUHO trains.
- Pass must be used in 7, 14, or 21 consecutive days after activation.
- Just show the pass to an attendant as you enter or exit the station.
Is the Japan Rail Pass worth it?
Very valid question, considering the hefty price tag. Depending on the current exchange rate, pricing is about:
- $245 for 7-day Pass
- $393 for 14-day Pass
- $505 for 21-day Pass
We found the best prices at www.japan-rail-pass.com. It took us by surprise, after purchasing the Exchange Order online, to find out that the company is based out of London; however, we had absolutely no problems and FedEx delivery was very fast as promised.
In our experience, it was absolutely worth ever penny, if you…
- … have a tight timeframe
- … are willing to move quickly from one city to another
- … travel, travel, travel!
And anyway, why would you visit Japan and not ride the bullet train? Consider that a round trip on the Shinkansen from Tokyo-Osaka-Tokyo is about $248 at current exchange rates. For a little less than that, you can enjoy unlimited rides on any JR trains in Japan.
The JR Pass is not worth it if you are only traveling to one city, or only have a one-way train trip planned between two major cities. While we were in Japan we met two nice ladies who had purchased a 14-day pass because “everybody told them they should”. However, they had booked a hotel in Narita (yikes!) for their entire 2 weeks in Japan (to be close to the airport). They were only using their Pass to travel to Tokyo, which frightened them terribly. In that case, the Pass was not worth the cost. (By the way, there is nothing wrong with Narita. There is just nothing really to see and it’s very far from Tokyo.)
Where could I go with the Japan Rail Pass?
Anywhere, from Kagoshima to Hokkaido! (Shinkansen service to Hokkaido starts March 26, 2016) Here is a sample itinerary, based on our trip with a 7-day pass.
We flew into Osaka Kansai airport, making Osaka our “home base” for a few days. We spent about two and a half days exploring Osaka, and then when we were ready to travel around, we activated our Japan Rail Pass at the Shin-Osaka Station. (Shout out to Osaka Hana Hostel for their exceptional hospitality!)
Leave early on the Sakura Shinkansen from the Shin-Osaka Station for a day trip to Hiroshima. The total time spent on the train will be 87 minutes, and from there it is a 20 minute walk or 10 minute street car ride to the Atomic Bomb Dome and Peace Memorial Park.
Hiroshima immediately evokes thoughts of atomic bombs and desolation.
But what we saw, beyond the scars of history, is a beautiful, modern city that is a testament to the resilience of Japanese culture.
Kyoto is a quick 15-minute ride on the Hikari Shinkansen from the Shin-Osaka Station to Kyoto Station. From there take the JR Sagano Line to Saga Arashiyama Station to see the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove.
From Kyoto Station, take City Bus 205 to Kinkakuji-michi to visit the Kinkaku-ji Temple (Golden Pavilion). Being a huge tourist attraction, this is one of the few places where we had to pay a small entrance fee of 400 yen. It is also very crowded during the day so the best time to arrive is right after it opens.
Kyoto is simply amazing. Everywhere you turn there is beauty, whether you visit the well-known tourist sites or get lost in a local neighborhood.
With a population of over 19 million people, Osaka is one of the world’s largest mega-cities. We actually spent 2-1/2 days in Osaka before activating our JR Pass, in order to get the maximum value from the Pass. While in Osaka we navigated on the subway using the Hyperdia app. All stops are well marked in English. Google Maps works very well for walking directions. Of course, keep in mind that Google Maps and Hyperdia will only work with a wifi connection, so if you don’t have access to a Pocket WiFi, make sure you spend some time preparing your route before leaving the hotel. Also, the Osaka Subway is not part of the JR system, so even if you have activated your JR pass, you will have to pay separately to use the subway.
As in so many places in Japan, there is a sharp contrast between the bustling ultra-modern city…
… and the calm, traditional Japanese beauty.
Osaka is also well-known for its delicious food. Takoyaki is a “must-taste”, and it was quite palatable even though we are not big fans of octopus!
The adventure continued as we ordered dinner from a vending machine with no English menu! The food and service did not disappoint, however. Even with the language barrier, the food was delicious and the service was spectacular.
Tokyo… the world’s largest city… Japan’s fascinating capital… There would never be enough time to see everything this amazing, ultra-modern, mega-city has to offer.
Take the Hikari Shinkansen from Shin-Osaka Station to Toyko Station. This trip will take almost 3 hours. Airbnb was the best choice for us in Tokyo as hotels and hostels can be quite expensive. It was great to have a small apartment to ourselves, including a full kitchen, washing machine, etc. Many Airbnb hosts and also many hostels in Tokyo offer a Pocket WiFi for your use during your stay. This is highly recommended! Tokyo is a large and confusing city, although it is probably the safest city you will ever visit.
Most places you will want to see in Tokyo are accessible from the JR Yamanote line, but if you need to use the subway, it is not included in the JR Pass and will incur an additional cost. Download a pdf of the Tokyo Subway to your tablet or phone, so you can find your way around in case you are without wifi. This is a good map from the Tokyo Metro.
We started out by taking in the view from the free observation deck of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building.
… from the formality of the financial district, to the anime and manga of Akhibara.
Travel Tip: The Tokyo Stock Exchange is free to tour, and quite interesting. (Free earthquake was also included when we visited!)
We arrived in Matsumoto by throwing darts at a map. Well, not literally. But when we were able to extend our stay in Japan by changing our award flight on American Airlines, we needed to find a place with affordable last-minute lodging, and we found that in Matsumoto. It was, of course, a beautiful city, a welcome change from the hustle and bustle of Osaka and Tokyo! (Matsumoto Backpackers is a great place to stay!)
To get to Matsumoto, leave from Shinjuku Station in Tokyo on the JR Chuo Line Limited Express Super Asuza. It is a 2 hour and 40 minute trip on an express train, not Shinkansen. Once in Matsumoto, most attractions will be within walking distance, as it is not a huge city.
There is a small entrance fee of 610 yen to see inside Matsumoto Castle. The gardens are free, but the inside is amazing, and it is one of the few castles in Japan that is authentic on the inside as well as the outside. We would highly recommend going in! You will take your shoes off at the door and carry them with you.
Travel Tip: The wooden steps and ladders inside the castle are extremely steep and narrow, so try to carry as little as possible, only your camera and shoes if you can!
6. Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route
The JR Pass will bring you as far as the town of Shinano Omachi on the JR Oito Line from Matsumoto Station. Leave very early in the morning as this is not a fast train and it will take a little over 1 hour to arrive.
Transportation on the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route is completely separate from the JR Pass, and although it may seem somewhat expensive, it was completely worth every yen! In Shinano Omachi you will buy a bus ticket to Ogizawa Station, and from there you can purchase a complete or partial ticket for the Alpine Route.
The Japanese Alps were one of our best experiences in Japan. Our trip there was last-minute and completely unplanned, and to our surprise we ended up in one of the most beautiful places we have ever seen. Also surprising was the complete absence of Western tourists (except for us, of course!)
Travel Tip: Bundle up! It’s quite cold on the Alpine Route. That should be obvious, but the weather was warm in Matsumoto, and, yes, we learned the hard way that sweatshirts in the gift shop are ridiculously overpriced!
From Matsumoto, we returned to Tokyo for our flight home.
Travel Tip: Don’t miss the last train to Tokyo! (We almost did! The last train from Matsumoto to Tokyo leaves fairly early, around 5pm or 6pm, so make sure you check the schedule.)
Bonus Tip: We cannot emphasize enough that the Hyperdia app is a lifesaver in traveling around Japan, and especially Osaka and Tokyo! Download it ahead of time and get familiar with it before your trip if possible. Also, if you can find a hotel, hostel, or Airbnb that includes a Pocket WiFi, it will be of tremendous help.
Atlanta-Seoul on American Airlines
- Atlanta-Dallas-Seoul on American Airlines
- Spent 50,000 Alaska MileagePlan miles to fly Business Class on American Airlines
- Paid about $200 in taxes & Business Class upgrade
Seoul-Osaka on Japan Airlines
- Spent 10,000 American AAdvantage miles to fly Economy on Japan Airlines
- Paid about $15 in taxes
Tokyo-Atlanta on Japan Airlines & American Airlines
- Tokyo-San Diego on Japan Airlines
- San Diego-Charlotte-Atlanta on American Airlines
- Spent 50,000 American AAdvantage miles to fly Business Class
- Paid about $45 in taxes