The first time we went to Japan we only visited Tokyo, which was more than enough to keep us busy as it’s a gigantic and spread city – it puts London to shame – and even though you can walk in between some places, you will need to travel by train/bus/bike at some point. We didn’t try the latter as we thought it best for everybody’s safety. The idea of travelling on a big underground service in a country where you probably don’t speak or read the language and where, let’s face it, most people don’t speak English can feel scary but don’t worry! The travelling network in Japan is organised, punctual and surprisingly easy to use. And clean.So when on a whim we booked plane tickets to go back, we thought it would be good to see more of Japan than just Tokyo. Well, I thought I needed to go play with some foxes to be more accurate. And this is where our research started and we quickly realised it wasn’t easy to gather information from one place. So here I am, hoping I can help out.
We quickly discovered the JR Pass, which is a national rail card for tourists valid for either a week or two. It’s not a cheap card so the question is: is it worth it? Well, it all depends. If you are planning on travelling around Japan and a bus ride is not an option or an appealing one – I am too old for this – then yes it is worth it. Train tickets are fairly expensive and if you are planning to make two train journeys (there and back for example) the pass will break even. It works on the Narita Express if you land in Tokyo and also on some major Tokyo train lines and then it’s most definitely worth it.
Now to be eligible you need to have a foreign passport, Japanese people can’t purchase it, and to be residing abroad. Basically if you’re a tourist, you’re good to go. The very important thing to know is that you need to get it in advance and that you cannot buy it in Japan. So plan ahead to make sure it can be posted to your house in time. If you’re like us and leave it to about five days before your trip with a weekend in the middle, you can get it in an agency and pick it up on the same day. We used Top Tour Europe, and while there are probably other places offering the same service, I can recommend them as they didn’t charge us any extra fees and the service was great. Once you land in Japan, you will need to activate your pass at the JR counter at the airport, you’ll fill in a bit of paperwork, they’ll stamp it all and off you go on your adventures.
So where exactly can you use the JR Pass? It is valid on the Shinkansen (bullet train) Hikari, Sakura, Kodama and Tsubame. You can’t use the pass on the Nozomi and Mizuho trains. So be careful when you are planning a journey. But also don’t worry, it is always clearly stated which train it is. I planned all our journey with Hyperdia, it gives you the specific station to leave from, the time, the platform and the name of the train. And in case of doubt, when you get to your platform, the name of your train will be up on the board. Coming from France and having been living in London for years, I cannot emphasise enough how incredibly organised this all is! Signage is very clear and there’s a lot of it – in English. If you want to really keep it simple, just turn up and sit wherever you want on an unreserved carriage. Some journeys are busier than others and if you’re going to another major city during rush hour I would definitely recommend reserving a seat at a JR counter.
One thing about the Shinkansen – or several – it’s modern, comfortable, extremely clean, fast… but most of all punctual. If it is scheduled at 9:51am it will be gone at 9:51:01am. We may or may not have had to run through a crowded Tokyo station.
In Tokyo you can use your JR Pass for unlimited travel on the Yamanote, Chou, Keihin-Tohoku, Sobu and Saikyo lines. Those lines cover major stations, we stayed in Shibuya which I highly recommend, and you can get around quite well with those alone. If you need to exit at a station which is not on any of those lines, you’ll just need to purchase a top up fare from the last JR serviced station to your final destination. It is easy to do and fairly cheap. More on that to come.
So, is it worth it? Yes.