I thought I’d do a separate write up about how I used the Japan rail pass (JRP), since planning for it ended up taking much more time and effort than I’d initially anticipated. Part of why it took me so long was that I really had no information about Japan and no sense of where I’d like to go. I spent a lot of time trying to research where the Japan Rail Pass goes (just about everywhere) and what there is to do in each place in order to determine what would appeal to me.
What is it?
First things first, the Japan Rail Pass (JRP) is a special pass allowing overseas visitors unlimited use of the JR group trains for a set duration of time. There are a few things to note:
- You must be visiting from another country in order to obtain a pass. Japanese citizens and foreigners on long term visas are not eligible.
- The JRP covers travel only on the JR network of trains. The network is extensive, but there are some private train lines that do not qualify.
- The JRP also allows you to reserve seats for free (this is typically an additional cost); however, you must do so in person at specific stations with JR ticketing offices.
- The pass must be used on consecutive days. i.e. if you purchase a 7 day pass and take your first train on Sunday at 1pm, it will expire on Saturday at midnight. You cannot choose to use it only on non-consecutive days in the hopes of extending it into multiple weeks.
The first step, as I mentioned above, was just researching where I might want to go. I knew nothing of Japan beyond a vague desire to see Tokyo, so determining what the “dream destinations” are within Japan was first on the list. What I soon figured out is that while there’s the so-called “Golden Route” (Tokyo, Hakone, Nara, Osaka and Kyoto), the rest of Japan really offers something for everyone and depends on what you ae looking for.
I wasn’t sure where you could go with the JRP, and it turns out you can reach just about everywhere with the rail pass.
Since I was based in Kyoto for the month, I decided that I could reach some of the closest locations without using my rail pass, saving it for more far-flung options. I visited Nara and Osaka earlier in the month (paying cash for those train tickets), and of course explored Kyoto while I was living there.
I ultimately decided on visiting the following cities: Tokyo, Sapporo, Kinosaki Onsen, and Hiroshima. If you take a look at a map of Japan, you’ll realize this is actually quite a grueling route. I’d be starting near the center of Japan, in Kyoto, eventually heading to the Northern-most island and later to one of the Southern-most, before heading back to Kyoto. Most of the high speed trains are covered by the JRP, but even at speeds up to 200 mph, the route from Kyoto to Tokyo is nearly 3 hours, and from Tokyo to Sapporo is another 8 hours, not including time to get to/from the bullet train stations and your accommodations.
In order to break up the long train ride to / from Sapporo, I stopped in Tokyo in both directions. I also stopped in Kinosaki Onsen on my way to Hiroshima. Here’s a high level overview of my itinerary:
Sunday – leave home at 7am in order to catch the 7:45 shinkansen train to Tokyo. ETA around 11am
Monday – leave Tokyo hotel by 11 am in order to grab lunch and catch the 1:45pm train to Sapporo. ETA 10pm
Tuesday – all day to explore Hokkaido
Wednesday – leave hotel by 9am to catch the 10:45am train to Tokyo. ETA 8pm in Shibuya.
Thursday – all day to explore Tokyo
Friday – leave hotel by 6am to catch the 8:30am train to Kinosaki Onsen. ETA 2pm.
Saturday – leave hotel by 9am to catch the 9:30am train to Hiroshima. ETA 2:30pm to Hiroshima. Catch the 6pm train back to Kyoto, ETA home by 9pm in Kyoto. JRP expires at midnight.
I think most people know about Kyoto, Tokyo, and Hiroshima, so I won’t explain my motivations for seeing those cities, but you may be surprised at my choice to visit Kinosaki Onsen and Sapporo so I’ll talk about those a bit.
Kinosaki Onsen is a small onsen town in the center of Japan, Northwest of Kyoto. One of the “must do’s” in Japan is visiting an onsen, which refers to a hot spring specifically, but extends to public bath houses as well. This experience is at the heart of Japanese culture, where the ritual of bathing is a relaxing, almost sacred ritual. There is a lot of etiquette around how to participate (you must go in naked – no swimwear allowed, no tattoos are allowed, and you must thoroughly cleanse yourself before entering the onsen), but it is a quintessential Japan experience. Associated with this is the experience of staying at a ryokan, which is a traditional Japanese inn that features tatami-matted rooms, communal baths, and other public areas where visitors may wear yukata and talk with the owner. At a ryokan, the inn is the destination. You often visit specifically for the inn, and stay on property using their private onsen, dining on exquisite meals in your room, and sleeping on futons on the floor. Kinosaki onsen is one of the most well-known onsen towns, and features the quintessential onsen and ryokan experience in the charm of a small town along the river.
Sapporo may be known to you as the city that produces Sapporo beer, but there is much more to the region than just the beer. Sapporo is in the North of Japan, and while it lies at about the same latitude as Milwaukee, Wisconsin, it can be much colder thanks to arctic streams from Russia. While Kyoto and Tokyo were quite hot and humid, Sapporo was much cooler and breezier. In fact, most places in Sapporo don’t even have AC because it rarely gets hot enough outside to need it. Sapporo is in the Hokkaido prefecture of Japan, which is well known for its famous Hokkaido milk, among other agricultural products (wheat, corn, dairy, etc). It also has a famous pond where the water is a stunning shade of blue, which recently became famous after apple featured it on their wallpapers several years ago. I went to Sapporo mostly because of a seasonal festival that happened to be going on, Autumn Fest, where you could try lots of local food, wine, and beer, but I also found a winery that had been recommended and wanted to see the blue pond. These are actually quite a ways outside of Sapporo proper, so I booked a day tour to see the blue pond, the winery, and a couple of farms. This ended up being a fantastic tour, and the farms were a real highlight of the tour because they had massive fields of beautiful, brightly colored flowers. It was a beautiful area and one of the highlights of my week using the JRP, and I’d recommend anyone who can swing it to get to Hokkaido and explore.
The 7 day JRP cost me $282 by purchasing it through the company I am traveling with, Remote Year. They placed a group order for us, which saved me at least $30 in shipping fees had I tried to buy it on my own. There are also options to purchase a JRP for 14 days or 21 days, as well as options to purchase “first class” seats (aka Green cars).
As of September 2019, the base JRP costs are as follows:
- 7 day: 29,110 yen ($269 USD) or 38,880 yen ($359 USD) for green cars
- 14 day: 46,390 yen ($429 USD) or 62,950 yen ($582 USD) for green cars
- 21 day: 59,350 yen ($549 USD) or 81,870 yen ($757 USD) for green cars
- Kyoto – Tokyo: 14,170 yen
- Tokyo – Sapporo: 27,760 yen
- Sapporo – Tokyo: 27,760 yen
- Tokyo – Kinosaki Onsen: 16,960 yen
- Kinosaki Onsen – Hiroshima: 14,740 yen
- Hiroshima – Kyoto: 11,620 yen
TOTAL: 113,010 yen = $1041 USD (at the time of publication)
*this does not include all of the local subway and bus rides that were included with the railpass during this time.
Was it worth it?
The JRP is fairly pricy, and depending on where you’re visiting, it may or may not be worth purchasing for your trip. One round trip ticket between Kyoto and Tokyo will very nearly cover the one week JRP cost, so if you plan to do that plus visit another location in the same week then it’ll likely be worth it to you.
For any future Remotes (Remote Year participants) reading this, I should point out that the value proposition is a bit different for you. Being in Japan for 4-5 weeks means that the purchase of a JRP loses some flexibility for you. Several members of our group ended up regretting their JRP purchase, because it tied them down to traveling only one week of the month, and all at once. They really wanted the ability to go to Tokyo one weekend, Hiroshima the next, and maybe Osaka a third weekend, and they would have been happy to pay extra for that flexibility. If you’re living in Kyoto and all you really want to do is go to Tokyo for a weekend and have some Kobe beef in Kobe, you’re probably better off not purchasing it. Tickets to Kobe or Osaka are pretty cheap, so you can easily do that without using the JRP and by not purchasing the JRP you’ll have the flexibility to do one at the beginning of the month and the other at the end of the month if you so desire.
For me, YES, the rail pass was absolutely worth it. I paid $282 USD and got over $1000 of value from it. A big reason I got so much value from it was that I went to both ends of Japan and rode one of the most expensive trains / routes (the Shinkansen to Sapporo).
Having the JRP also gave me the freedom to consider my travel destinations based on where I wanted to go without considering the cost. Since it was effectively “free” for me to go anywhere in the country, I had no concerns about high train costs to Sapporo, for example. Thus, I got to see places that I certainly wouldn’t have otherwise seen. It’s about 54,000 yen ($500 USD) round trip from Tokyo to Sapporo, plus the additional 28,000 yen ($260 USD) roundtrip from Kyoto to Tokyo if you’re based there. It would have cost me $750 to visit just Tokyo and Sapporo, and I would never have prioritized Sapporo at that cost.
A few final tips for using the trains:
I used to live in NYC so I’m familiar with public transportation, but I still found this trip challenging at times. Although most major signs are in both Japanese and English, many are not. Announcements certainly are not in English, and many locals do not speak English so asking for help can be a challenge.
Searching for routes – this was the hardest part for me. It isn’t clear which routes are for sure covered by the JRP, and whether there would be additional costs. This was an extremely helpful guide to navigating the Hyperdia website, which is the best way I found to search for routes.
!Caution! One trip up I had was trying to find routing to Sapporo. As that guide mentions, there are a couple of trains that are actually eligible with JRP but get de-selected when you search as described on Hyperdia. You’ll have to research one-off if google is showing a faster routing than Hyperdia is – it’s likely one of the trains de-selected in the Hyperdia filters. Most of the time it will not be covered by the JRP, but you may get lucky as I did.
Reserved seats – any routes offering reserved seats in ordinary cars should be available for you to reserve for free if you have a JRP. I highly recommend doing this, as it’ll make your journey much less stressful and ensure you don’t have to stand on a 4 hour train ride.
As for finding where to line up for your reserved car, that isn’t always straightforward. They typically have markings on the ground to look for, but when multiple train types use that platform, it can be hard to discern which number references your train. Additionally, some trains do away with numbers altogether, and instead transform the assigned car number to a letter, with no apparent logic. The last leg of my route from Tokyo to Sapporo did this and I had to ask about 5 people before I found someone who spoke enough English to show me where I could find the decryptor to determine where to line up.
Changing trains – I highly recommend minimizing your transfers as much as possible. Many of these high speed trains go through some of the largest and busiest stations in the world, and changing between lines isn’t the simple process you may expect it to be. I got hopelessly lost in Shinjuku (Tokyo) trying to transfer from the bus I’d taken from my hotel, to the local rail that would take me to the Shinkansen station. It’s the busiest station in the world, google maps isn’t terribly accurate in Japan, and the signs were not clear (or only appeared once you got near the tracks). Allow for WAY MORE time than you need if you need to be somewhere by a specific time.
Local trains – are, as a rule of thumb, mostly not covered by the JRP. This means that you need to plan for how to get to/from the shinkansen stations. You’ll need exact change, cash only, for most public transportation options so be sure you have cash in small denominations with you.