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Going travelling around Japan? But no one really speaks English and the trains are really expensive and apparently car hire is even more expensive because of the tolls and I can’t even figure out how to book anything online and WOW I’M OVERWHELMED. Yep, that was me when planning my first trip around Japan. I needed a guide to tell me how to travel around Japan, and how to use a Japan Rail Pass. I’ve now succeeded in spending the most incredible three weeks exploring this beautiful country – check out my blog post here all about where thebest places to visit in Japan are, otherwise, read on to find out all the tricks for how to use a Japan Rail Pass.
Trains really are the best way to travel around Japan
First things first, if you’re planning on travelling any sort of distances around Japan, you need to accept that trains really are the only option – and they’re a fantastic option at that. The train services in Japan are some of the best in the world, with the infamous bullet train reaching speeds of 200mph, paired with ridiculously prompt services. They’re very comfortable, and surprisingly easier to navigate than I expected.
Lots of peoples’ go to option would be car hire when exploring around a country, but I really wouldn’t recommend this as the best way to travel around Japan. Most of Japan’s highways have tolls, and the fares are incredibly expensive. Even though the trains aren’t cheap either, it would definitely work out more economical than all the tolls.
What is the Japan Rail Pass?
Japan Rail Pass allows you unlimited travel on all JR services nationwide for a specified period of time – 7 days, 14 days, 21 days. This includes the vast majority of train services, some buses and some ferries.
Do I need a Japan Rail Pass?
It totally depends on when you’re going. If you’re just staying in the Tokyo-Kyoto area, it’s probably cheaper to buy each ticket separately. But if you’re heading down to Hiroshima, it’s definitely more economical to buy a pass. Having a pass also makes life so much more convenient, as you don’t need to book individual trains – you just hop on!
NOTE: JR services are pretty much everywhere in Japan, but not ALL trains are JR. The main exclusions are: Nozomi and Mizuho (the two fastest bullet trains that run from Tokyo to Hiroshima), some subway lines in the big cities, and all local buses. We found we were pretty much always able to use our passes to get to our desired destination, but sometimes this involved a slightly longer route (maybe 15 minutes longer maximum per journey). You can also use the pass on some ferries as well if you’re heading out to Naoshima. Read more about the top places to visit here.
How do I get a Japan Rail Pass?
Japan Rail Passes must be bought in your home country, within three months of your intended start date of your rail pass in Japan. Technically, you buy a voucher for the pass through a travel agent in your home country (we bought ours through STA Travel), and then you exchange this for your actual rail pass when you arrive in Japan.
How do I obtain my rail pass once I arrive in Japan?
You must bring your voucher letter from home with you. This must be printed off. Take this to one of the main stations in your arrival city (usually Tokyo, or Osaka). Here, there will be a Japan Rail Pass Counter, where a little English is spoken and someone very friendly will help you to exchange the pass.
Note: The pass is just a watermarked laminated piece of paper that has been stamped and signed. They are so easy to lose or damage. I even accidentally through mine away at one point (but thank goodness realised and searched through the bin to get it back!) If you lose or damage it, you cannot get a new one.
How to use the Japan Rail Pass
So you’ve got your pass and you’ve decided where you want to go. But how do you actually use the pass? The key is PLAN AHEAD. And don’t rely on Google Maps. Although Google Maps is usually my go-to life saver for travelling, it’s not your friend in Japan. It will always show you the fastest route available, which won’t necessarily be on a JR line. Therefore it’s really important that you download the JR line route map to your phone before you set off each day, as you need to do some old school line planning with a map.
- JR line Subways: For JR line Subway travel, just get to the station and show your pass at one of the manned ticket gates.
- Shinkansen (bullet trains): Remember, you can’t use the Nozomi or Mizuho trains. Check the timetable in advance for your desired journey. Arrive at the station around 30-45 minutes before your intended train, and go to the Shinkansen reservation counter. Ask to reserve a seat on the train you want, and they’ll give you a little paper ticket. This isn’t essential, as there are non-reserved carriages on every train but these tend to be incredibly busy and a seat isn’t guaranteed.
- Ferries: No need to reserve seats in advance, just show up with your pass and you’re good to go!
Now go and have the best time! Give yourself time, it might seem confusing at first but you’ll get the hang of it!