The Japan Rail Pass - an explanation of the easiest way to explore Japan
If you are visiting Japan as a tourist, then a Japan Rail Pass is almost definitely worth buying. An ordinary class pass costs 28,300 yen for one week, 45,100 yen for two weeks and 57,700 for 21 days. For comparison, just one round trip from Tokyo to Kyoto by bullet train will cost 25,420 yen unreserved. A round trip from Tokyo to Hiroshima would be 37,100 yen without a reservation. Obviously a keen traveller can ensure the pass pays for itself many times over. Remember also that if you’ll be here for a couple of weeks or more, you do not need to purchase a pass for the full duration of your stay. You can squeeze all your cross-country trips into a single week, and spend the rest of the time in whatever region you’ll be based. If you choose this option, you can still make use of your rail pass on local Japan Rail (JR) trains.
The only exception that is likely to effect you is that you CANNOT use the pass on Nozomi shinkansen, which are the fastest, most regular trains. However, don’t let this disturb you too much. The next quickest shinkansen will still make Osaka to Tokyo (that’s 556 kilometers / 345 miles!) in under three hours.
If, for one reason or another, you are planning to use only local transport then it probably isn’t worth investing in a pass. There are cheaper regional alternatives like the Kansai Thru Pass in most areas, of which you’ll be able to take advantage for a much lower price. This includes the Narita Express which takes you from Tokyo Narita airport to JR Tokyo station and would normally cost 2,940 yen. A few other examples of local train fares are Nara to Kyoto (1380 yen, 76 minutes) or Tokyo to Yokahama (900 yen, 27 minutes). However, it does seem to be a crime to miss out on either Tokyo or Kyoto. As you’ve already seen, the cost of this journey between these cities already almost equals the price of the one week pass.
Unfortunately, if you are coming here to visit relatives or friends who live here, you won’t be able to make use of the pass together. It’s only available to people to people visiting on tourist visas and – importantly – can’t be purchased inside Japan. You need to buy Japan Rail Pass exchange order in your home country (use Google to find dealers where you live). The bigger JR railway stations all have exchange offices, and JR will provide you with a list when you receive your paperwork. You’ll need to show your passport when you exchange your pass and technically every time you use it – although I’ve never seen a ticket guard ask to see one.
In addition to the ordinary option you can buy a Green (first class) pass. They are considerably more expensive. A one week pass is 37,800 yen; two weeks is 61,200 and 21 days costs 79,600. For kids, tickets for ordinary and green passes are about half the adult price. Unless you are going to be on the train practically all the time, then this does seem to me to be a waste of money. Economy class on a shinkansen is nicer than first class on most other trains in the world. All bullet trains have comfy seats and adequate legroom, even for gangly foreigners like myself.
So this is a brief rundown on the Japan Rail Pass. They are excellent value but strangely underused, perhaps because many people coming here to visit their expatriate family members are nervous about exploring the country independently. However, rest assured that train staff are invariably friendly and eager to help. Most attendants will try to speak English if it is required, and most Japanese people can understand much more than they can say. There is really no reason not to explore!