In April I went to Japan armed with only an ambitious itinerary and a 3 week unlimited rail card. It was a supreme joy. So many countries have let their railways decay and slide into mediocrity. My homeland, Britain, is a fantastic case study which amply demonstrates this truth. Japan may not be investing as much as the once did but they sure are reaping the rewards of that investment and foresight. Well, tourists like us are anyway!
The pass cost me about £470 for 21 days of unlimited rail travel, from International Rail but that has now gone up to £514 so I urge you all to get over to Japan as soon as possible! If you don’t have a full itinerary planned before you go then I would say that price is well worth it because you can use almost every type and route of Shinkansen bullet train and almost all of Japan Rail’s local services – that includes some urban lines in places like Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo too. Simply check the booklet you get with your pass to determine the validity but if in doubt just ask a JR worker and they will indicate whether it’s valid or not.
If you do have a carefully crafted itinerary laid out and set in stone then I would instead advise that you looks at Hyperdia to determine the costs of all your major journeys beforehand. I’m pretty sure we got our moneys-worth but it must have been borderline. As you have to buy the pass before you enter Japan this gives you time to have a think about it.
The best thing about the pass is the ease of travel. You walk up to one of the manned ticket gates, flash it at the attendant and stroll through. Usually there’s no need to buy any ticket so you just head into the station, to the barriers, then direct to your train.
If you use an Android phone then you MUST download the Japan Rail app before you get to Japan because it not only gives you timetables and prices but it also tells you platform numbers for arrival and departure, the length of time it will take you to transfer to another train, and whether there are lockers in the station. Which is very handy if you do like we did and, for example, travel from Kyoto to Kanazawa via Hikone for a couple of hours, depositing luggage in lockers in the meantime.
So, the pass is great. The trains are also superb, with signage on board and in stations in Roman characters as well as Japanese. The Shinkansen trains vary in decor and quality but all are fast and comfortable. There are often individual plug sockets available in front of the seat too. The local trains vary from rickety old things with wedged-open doors – like the slow train from Kyoto to Nara, or they can be as comfortable as Shinkansen but with massive windows to allow a wonderful view of the Japanese alps – like the Limited Express from Takayama to Nagoya. The staff are friendly and courteous, even bowing to each carriage as they finish performing their duties there!
Everything seems to run on time, everybody is friendly, everything is clean and tidy. You’ll also see some pretty stunning station architecture like Kanazawa or Kyoto stations. In short Japan is the easiest country I have ever travelled in.