Friday, July 28, 2017

Love The Shinkansen

It is rare that I devote an entire post on this blog to practical travel advice. In fact I think I've only done it once before when I returned from my 2014 trip to England. But in researching and then actually traveling around Japan, we found something that saved us a ton of money. So here's a post dedicated to the Japan Rail Pass. If you are headed to Japan, I'd look into this. It could save you a ton of cash.

Now, I've looked into these sorts of things before, specifically in continental Europe. The various train systems in western Europe participate in what's called a Eurail Pass, a multi-day pass that allows you hop from train to train around Germany, France, Italy and the like all for a single lump sum which varies depending on the duration of the pass you elect to buy. The pass is only available to non-European residents and you have to purchase it before you get there. I've checked this deal out more than once and each time have come to the conclusion that you pretty much have to be traveling long distances on trains every day to make it work out. I've always passed.

The Japan Rail Pass works similarly to the Eurail Pass. You pay a flat fee for either a 7 day, 14 day or 21 day pass and then are able to ride almost any train in the Japan Rail system as much as you want during the period the pass is active. The pass is not available to residents of Japan (just like the Eurail Pass) and you have traditionally been required to purchase the pass before arriving in Japan (although for a limited time you are permitted to purchase the pass in country, albeit at a higher fee). The Japan Rail Pass is similar to the Eurail Pass in most every respect except one: it's a better value.

Japan's iconic skinkansen, or bullet train.
Let's look at the economics using my recent trip as a guide. A 7 day Japan Rail pass retails for 29,110 Yen as of May 2017. That's a little more than $250 as of the summer of 2017. That appears to be a lot, but not if you run the numbers. We knew we were spending time in Tokyo before heading over to Kyoto for a few days then onto Miyajima via Hiroshima before returning to Tokyo. We also knew we wanted to take a day trip to Nara from Kyoto. Japan Rail covers all of these cities. That's a lot of train travel; we figured we'd be spending a lot on rail travel anyway.

A train ticket on the bullet train, or shinkansen, from Tokyo to Kyoto is 13,600 Yen each way. Yes, the Japan Rail Pass works on the shinkansen and that's a round trip cost of 27,200 Yen, which is almost the same as a 7 day Japan Rail Pass. Add in a round trip from Kyoto to Hiroshima at 11,090 Yen each way and we covered the cost of a 7 day pass easily with a savings of 20,270 Yen.

Pile on a round trip to Nara at 710 Yen each way; a round trip from Hiroshima to the mainland Miyajima ferry terminal at 410 Yen each way; and a round trip on the JR Ferry to Miyajima at 360 Yen round trip and my savings were up to 22,870 Yen which is about $200. You can also use the Japan Rail Pass on the JR trains around Tokyo and Kyoto and on the tourist bus that hits the high points in Hiroshima. We used all three and saved a bunch more Yen on I don't know how many train and bus rides. The savings just keep piling up.

One of the Japan Rail lines which you can use to get just about anywhere in Tokyo.
So I know what you are thinking. There's some fine print, right? Well, yes. Or no. Not really fine print. But there are what I'll call some stickier points you need to be aware of.

The first is the "buy ahead" rule that I've mostly discussed already. When you make the decision that the Japan Rail Pass is for you, you need to find someone who sells them because Japan Rail (which is a national company subdivided into six separate geographies) doesn't. Fortunately, there is a list of agents available through a link on their website. For those in North America, you can get to the list of your local agents by using the clickable link in the prior sentence.

What you will purchase through the agent isn't the actual Japan Rail Pass. You need to swap the coupon that you purchase at a designated exchange office. Fortunately, the Japan Rail Pass site also has a link to a list of locations when you can get the actual document. Allow some time for this and make sure your passport has a visitor's visa stamp or sticker. Without it, you cannot exchange the coupon you bought for the actual pass.

Finally, I mentioned earlier that you can take the shinkansen using your Japan Rail Pass and that's true. However, you can't take all the shinkansens using your Pass. There are a number of different types of shinkansen in Japan. The fastest are the Nozomi and Mizuho shinkansen. These you cannot take using the Japan Rail Pass. You'll most likely have to settle for a Hikari shinkansen, meaning instead of traveling at 170 miles per hour, you'll have to make do at a speed 30 miles per hour slower. I think you might be able to handle that if it means saving a couple of hundred dollars, right?

Waiting for the JR Ferry to Miyajima Island, which is included as part of the Japan Rail Pass.
A few final thoughts on this deal.

Google Maps is an incredibly useful app to get from point A to point B, even overseas. I use it a lot here at home to drive places I've never been before. You can also use it to figure out train and bus schedules. Only, it doesn't work that well for trains in Japan because it only shows you the fastest way to get to your destination. For a shinkansen ride, that means it shows you only route and time information for the Nozomi, which you can't use using your Japan Rail Pass. Seek alternate ways of figuring out how long rail journeys will take.

There is a train from Tokyo's Narita Airport to downtown Tokyo called the Narita Express. It costs 4,560 Yen for a roundtrip ticket. The Japan Rail Pass will get you on this train. If your 7 day or 14 day window includes your arrival day or departure day, use the Japan Rail Pass to get to or from the airport. There is a coupon exchange location in the airport. Remember to redeem the coupon for a Pass once you clear customs and immigration.

Finally, this pass offered us a ton of flexibility. If you want to reserve a seat on a train, you can; just take the pass to a ticket desk and get a seat. You can also just walk onto a non-reserved car if you can figure out the schedule on your own. On our return trip from Hiroshima to Tokyo, we knew there was a transfer required somewhere but didn't know where exactly so we made sure to check with the ticket desk and get some seats. 

We ended up with our first train being 62 minutes later but I figured trains probably ran every hour and if we hustled we could make the one two minutes from the time we were handed our ticket. I was right and we really hustled. The Japan Rail Pass allowed us to sit down in an unreserved car and shed an hour off our trip back to Tokyo. Couldn't have made that on the spot decision without the Pass.

If you are moving around in Japan and planning to take trains to do so, I'd look into a Japan Rail Pass. It may be the best $250 or so you'll spend.

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