Japanese railway companies offer a variety of discount passes for foreign tourists, and they can be really good deals, if you know how to use them.
To get the most out of your transport pass, you need to study its mechanics and compare other travel options against it to see if it works for you. Let’s take the most famous of all these, the JR Pass. The JR Pass is available only to non-residents of Japan, and must be bought from outside Japan. You can get it either online or through an accredited travel agent. Available in 7, 14 and 21-day options, the JR Pass allows unlimited travel on JR trains and buses throughout Japan for a fixed price.
As of October 2016, the Ordinary 7 day JR Pass costs 29,110.00 yen for adults. It allows you to ride any JR train or bus, valid for 7 days starting from when the pass is first used, excepting the Mizuho and Nozomi bullet trains. The pass is valid for the Hikari, Sakura, Kodama or Tsubame bullet trains, so you can still have that shinkansen ride. The pass is also usable on the Miyajima ferry to the famous Miyajima shrine. Sometimes you can get the JR Pass at a substantial discount, watch out for these offers.
To check if the JR Pass is a good option for your trip, check it against your total fares if you were to take the trains with ordinary tickets. You can use Google Maps’ Search feature to do this: simply enter your origin and destination for each leg of your journey and take note of the fare for applicable JR lines. Non-JR trains of course don’t count. Total the fares you would ordinarily spend and compare against the price of your JR Pass. (If you don’t have time to do this research, call us: we can help you with your Japan travel plans!)
For example, you’re entering and leaving Japan through Tokyo’s Narita Airport, but you’d like to visit Kyoto. The fare to Kyoto, via Shinkansen to Kanazawa, is JPY 18,360. The round trip is JPY 36,720 — more than the price of your 7 day JR Pass. Any more uses of your pass within the validity period is now pure gravy. On the other hand, if the farthest you’re going from Tokyo is Kamakura and Disney Sea, the total fares amount to just 2,800 JPY; you won’t use your JR Pass much within Tokyo itself, as you’ll likely use the non-JR subways more than anything else. You don’t get to maximize your JR Pass in the second case.
In short, the JR Pass is good value if you plan to do a lot of intercity travel, or travel across several regions such as from Kanto (where Tokyo is) to Kansai (where Kyoto and Osaka are). If your travel plans concentrate on a single city or region, other types of pass such as the JR Kansai Pass or Surutto Kansai, or the Kyoto City Bus Pass, will give better value than the JR Pass. Have fun in Japan, and ki o tsukete kudasai!