While researching our trip to Japan, Mr. JJ came across the Japan Rail Pass. The Japan Railways group (JR) has an extensive network of trains that easily and efficiently move people all over the country. We had planned a trip from Tokyo to Kyoto and we wanted to try the Shinkansen, the bullet train to get there and back. After doing the math, it became apparent that buying a rail pass would be cost-effective for us.
The Japan Rail pass is a special fare ticket available only to foreigners visiting Japan solely for the purpose of sightseeing with a “temporary visitor” visa stamp. Japanese living abroad have to meet certain eligibility requirements that I am not familiar with but can be found in detail here.
The pass is available in two types, the Green and the Ordinary. The Green allows access to superior class Green cars without any extra charge. Ordinary pass holders will have to pay extra to use Green car facilities. Each type of pass is available for 7, 14 and 21 day periods. Children between the ages of 6 and 11 on the date of order are considered to be a child passholder.
The Japan Rail Pass is valid on all JR Shinkansen (bullet) trains, express and most local and rapid trains. Tokyo Monorail can be accessed through this pass as well as local lines of JR buses. The Pass is not valid on the “NOZOMI” and “MIZUHO” trains while others like the “HIKARI” and “KODAMA” are included. Reserved seating is available at no extra cost but one has to stop by the ticket office at a travel center, a JR station or a travel agency office to reserve before boarding.
The Rail Pass has to be ordered before travel to Japan from a designated sales office or agent. After studying the prices and trips we wished to take, we decided to buy a Green rail pass, with access to superior Green cars at no extra cost. Although I don’t remember the exact cost and the math, I know we came out ahead in terms of savings while enjoying extraordinary service.
Mr. JJ placed an order through an agency in Paris the week before our trip and received an “Exchange order” a few days later. Once we reached Japan, we had to take this exchange order to one of the Japan Rail pass exchange offices at a major JR station. It was the second day of our stay and we wished to travel to Kamakura. So we took a cab to the JR Tokyo station where one of these offices was located.
While there, we filled out some forms and showed our passports and visa stamps before they issued each one of us a Rail Pass. Each pass had the traveler name, passport number and nationality written on it. The dates of travel were notated as well. We then went to the ticketing area and obtained reserved seating for our trip to Kamakura. We did the same for all our trips that were longer distances, like between Tokyo to Kamakura and back, Tokyo to Kyoto and back.
A traveler has three months from the date the exchange order is issued to convert to a Rail Pass. When using a Rail Pass, travelers must pass through a staff attended gate and cannot use the automated gates.
Traveling in trains in Japan was a delight. Train service is not only highly efficient but impeccably punctual. I could set my watch by the arrival of the train every single time. Riding the Shinkansen (bullet train) between Tokyo and Kyoto and back was an awesome experience. The seats were large and comfortable with a lot of leg room. One doesn’t quite realise how fast one is traveling while inside the Shinkansen but if you focus on a spot outside the large windows, the speed is hard to miss. There was food service available and we managed to grab coffee and some snacks.
We rode the JR trains from Kyoto to Arashiyama and Nara. The local trains were clean with all kinds of colorful and interesting ads. I found it interesting that even the crowded Tokyo trains were oases of silence and peace, with most commuters bent over their phones, laptops or some such device.
There is a wealth of information on the Japan Rail Pass to be found on this website: http://www.japanrailpass.net/en/index.html
If you have upcoming travel to Japan, do consider investing in this pass. We found the logistics of buying and using this pass simple and the savings significant.