Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Paul's opinionated travel tips for Japan - is the JR Pass worth it?

This post is for friends who've asked me for Japan travel tips.

Disclaimer: I'm not an expert and I'm opinionated towards what works for me, so your mileage may vary! Use this blog post as a data point among many. If you want more objective advice, a tourism website or YouTube channel is probably better.

You'll use trains to go everywhere.

Trains are the dominant form of transport in Japan and have a special place in Japanese culture: if you ask a Japanese resident where they live, chances are they'll answer relative to the nearest train station. The Japanese weather channel shows nice relaxing videos of mountains, fields and bullet trains passing Mount Fuji. The Japanese are proud of their trains and rail network for good reason: they're incredible! Japanese trains are punctual, clean, comfortable, convenient and safe: this makes them different to other countries where you’re continuously weighing up whether driving/Uber is cheaper than a train/bus ride (if public transport is even available!) or whether you'll be mugged. If you want to travel to another city, forget air travel: the “Shinkansen” high-speed bullet train system is the cheapest and most convenient way of getting there.

Determine whether you want an unlimited JR (Japan Rail) pass, or whether you want to buy individual rail tickets.

As a tourist, you’re eligible to purchase the tourist-only JR Pass that allows you unlimited travel on most trains (including Shinkansen bullet trains, and the Narita Airport-Tokyo “NEX” service) on the JR rail network. There are gaps in the JR Pass coverage (notably the Nozomi and Hikaru-class Shinkansen) but these won't affect your travel as a tourist.

The alternative to the JR Pass is to purchase individual tickets which may be cheaper or more expensive depending on your itinerary. While local rail network travel is cheap (usually ¥140-160), inter-city Shinkansen travel is an order of magnitude more expensive: Tokyo to Kyoto is usually ¥ 13000. The unlimited Shinkansen travel is the real value of the JR Pass is, not the local rail travel.

Advertisement for the N700-series Shinkansen.
It's fast.

Generally speaking, if you’re visiting multiple cities, the JR Pass is cheaper. If you’re just going to stay in one city, JR Pass is not worth it. The cost benefit of the JR pass is basically the à la carte vs. buffet problem: is your travel frequent and structured enough to make it worthwhile? If you’re a first time visitor to Japan who intends to visit multiple cities, there’s peace of mind and simplicity in buying the JR Pass. If you're a cheapskate, open your pirated version of Microsoft Excel or OpenOffice Calc and do a cost benefit analysis.

Determine whether you want to pay extra for Green Class.

You don’t. The leather armrests and chairs in Green Class aren't worth the premium.

Determine duration of JR Pass, and when you want to activate it.

The JR Pass can be purchased for 7, 14 or 21 days. The pass becomes valid when you visit a JR booking office and activate your "JR Pass Exchange Order". You don’t need to activate your pass on day 1 unless you want to use the Narita Airport-Tokyo NEX train (around ¥3000). A good reason for delaying activation is if your inter-city travel starts several days after you arrive.

The typical 10-14 day tourist itinerary starts at Narita Airport, spends 7 days in Tokyo, then visits other cities. In this case, it makes sense to get a 7 day JR pass (instead of 14 day) and activate it on the day that the inter-city travel begins.

I reside in Australia: where do I buy a JR Pass?

In the past, you could only buy a JR Pass outside of Japan. I've heard that it's now possible to buy a JR Pass within Japan, but navigating a JR booking office is the last thing you want to be doing on holiday. Make your life easy: buy the pass outside of Japan.

The best Australian JR Pass sales agent in my experience has been JTB Travel (I don’t get any commission!). I’ve used them three times and they delivered consistently each time. For reference, here are the prices for JTB, H.I.S. Travel and JapanRailPass.com.au.

Price for JTB

Price for H.I.S. Travel

Price for JapanRailPass.com.au

As you can see, the prices are within $7-10 depending on duration. If you trust H.I.S. Travel or JapanRailPass.com.au, by all means book with them. Regardless of who you buy it from, they will not give you the actual JR Pass: you’ll be provided an Exchange Order which looks like a cheque book. Don’t lose this! When you want to activate your JR Pass, take the Exchange Order to the JR booking office.

Decide when you want to travel to other cities via Shinkansen.

To board a Shinkansen, you’ll need to book a ticket at your local JR booking office. There’s nearly always capacity on a Shinkansen so you don’t need to worry about booking too early. Unless you're booking around NYE or cherry blossom season, or around another regional holiday, booking the day before is fine.

Beware cherry blossom season.
Hotel availability will drop to zero! Book in advance.
The first time I travelled to Japan, I booked all my Shinkansen tickets a few hours before departure without issue.

Don't bother with buses unless you're going somewhere special.

In Tokyo, JR and Tokyo Metro will take you everywhere. Don’t bother with buses unless it’s a specialty bus to somewhere special like a theme park (Fuji-Q Highland). If you're going to Fuji-Q, take the bus from Shinjuku station.

Japanese taxis are expensive.

Taxis are expensive; ¥350 per km, 20% extra after 10 PM, and their English isn't great. On the upside, Japanese taxis are clean, safe and driven by professionals. If you're going to have a late night out, pick up a copy of your hotel's business card so you can give it to your taxi driver. I've noticed that the taxi GPS systems can covert hotel phone numbers into the address: clever!