Japan by Train – The Railpass in 2 weeks

The train system in Japan embodied everything I felt about the country: efficiency, respectful staff members, punctuality and cutting edge technology made to impress. Set against the Pacific Ring of Fire, the Japanese rail service is among the best in the world and a wonderful way to travel up and down the country.

We had two weeks in Japan and we covered over 1,500km in this time. Below are my top tips on how best to use your JP rail pass.

Before

  • There are several websites where you can buy the Japan Railpass. You can purchase the rail-pass for 7, 14 and 21 days. After browsing over 10 websites, the cheapest I that I found was £295 (14 days) on JRPASSONLINE.
  • The Exchange Order arrives within 1 to 3 working days. The document looks like the photo below. After getting what I thought looked like a cheap leaflet in the post, my initial thought was that I spent £600 on a fake piece of paper (oops, first impressions don’t count!). The Exchange Order was all we needed to obtain the rail pass in country. The website will normally state if they are an official agent for the JP Pass.

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  • I love the freedom of backpacking, however Japan is a destination that warrants booking your accommodation in advance of travel (both to guarantee availability and on the consensus that you don’t really ‘rock up’ in Japan). I spent £200 per week in Japan on accommodation. We stayed in a mixture of hotels, ryokans, air bnbs and hostels with private rooms. The list of places we stayed at (I can recommend all of them) is available here.

During

  • We landed at Narita Airport and we swapped our Exchange Orders at the airport. You can choose when to activate the JP Pass. With 14 days, we activated ours the same day we arrived to save on the train fare from the airport to Tokyo. It’s a direct train service into the city and it takes approximately 1hr.
  • highly recommend downloading an App called ‘Japan Official Travel App’. We stumbled across the App by chance after seeing a leaflet. We ended up using the App everyday to plan which trains to take.

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  • This is the rail pass that you’ll receive in country. To access the train platforms, there is normally a separate lane. You can flash your rail pass to the guard and they’ll wave you through.

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  • You can book your trains a day or two in advance (or even on the same day of travel!). You’ll receive a small green reservation slip with your seat number and carriage. This can help for long journeys, as there are more carriages for reserved seating then unreserved. Reservations are not compulsory except on the Airport Express trains.

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    Our train reservation slips

  • There are some private trains lines that are not included in the JR Rail Pass. The App we downloaded really helped with this, it marked where we had to pay for additional journeys. For my 2 week trip, there were only two instances where we had to pay an additional fare for private railways. This was from Nagano to Yudanaka (the snow monkeys) and Mitaka to Lake Kuwaraguchi. Both of the additional fares were between £7 to £10 to pay so it didn’t break the bank.
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The ‘toy train’ to Lake Kuwaraguchi

  • On the topic of exclusions, there are two types of bullet trains that are excluded from the JP Pass, the Nozomi and Mizuho service. Both of the train journeys are easy to avoid as there are other shinkansen (bullet train) services available.
  • I read somewhere before my trip that it was rude to eat in public spaces in Japan (namely walking and eating!). The etiquette for this is fine for trains, we saw lots of locals tucking into beautifully presented bento boxes, soft sandwiches and even corn-dogs.
  • The Tokyo Metro is not included on the JR Pass, however you can purchase a day tube ticket for as little as Y400 (approximately £3.50). A PASMO card can be purchased for underground travel (you can use this card to buy food too). We didn’t see the need to buy one as we were in Tokyo for just 2 days. A PASMO card is a useful addition for any traveller spending more time in Tokyo.
  • There are two travel classes on Japanese trains, standard and green. The green class is ‘First Class’ however the disadvantage of Green Class is that you have to reserve all trains in advance of travel. The advantage of green class is quieter carriages, larger seats and some instances of free Wi-Fi.
  • Is it worth it? On a long train journey from Kyoto back to Tokyo, I totted up the cost of our JR Pass vs the cost of singular tickets for 2 weeks. We made a saving of £110 per person across over 20 train journeys we took. The JR Pass saves a lot of time as we did not need to purchase tickets each time we arrived at a station.
  • For our bags, we both travelled with 60 litre rucksacks (weighing about 8kg to 10kg each). Luggage storage is plentiful on trains in Japan with great overhead racks as well.
  • Top tip: the JR rail pass is accepted on the JR Mirajima Ferry service. The JR pass also covers the sightseeing tour bus in Hiroshima (we found out by accident by picking up a leaflet). The link is here 
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The ‘wide view’ Hida train from Takayama towards Kyoto

After 

  • The sheer scale of Japan blows you away! The country is made up of 6,852 islands and we spent most of our time on Honshu (the main land) only. With two weeks in Japan, I would recommend Tokyo, Kyoto, Takayama, Yudanaka, Mirajima Island, Nara and Matsumoto as unmissable locations.
  • Japan isn’t expensive, this is a misconception. We were able to find dinner places for as little as £3. Our accommodation averaged out at £25 per person, per night and a pint of beer is Y500 (about £3.50).
  • It was a case of reverse culture shock coming back to the U.K!  The buses in Heathrow seemed to go round in circuits before arriving at the train station. Upon arriving at Feltham, the trains were cancelled. Where a train leaves 25 seconds early in Japan, it becomes world news (BBC)
  • I can’t wait to return to Japan again one day! I didn’t know what to expect before my trip. The contrast of old and new is awe-inspiring, the food: delicious (we didn’t have a bad meal there) and the population: respectful, wonderful, cutting edge and creative.
  • If you have any questions, feel free to comment here or email me, I’ll be happy to help!

 

 

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