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Riding the Rails in Japan

Kurobe Gorge Railway by Hiroyuki Mori from Nishinomiya, Japan via Wikimedia Commons Kurobe Gorge Railway by Hiroyuki Mori from Nishinomiya, Japan via Wikimedia Commons

Most visitors traveling around Japan plan on using the country’s extensive railway system. Japan built the world’s first dedicated high-speed rail line, between Tokyo and Osaka, and the system now extends to most major cities. High-speed “Shinkansen” trains on the busiest Tokyo-Osaka route run every 10-20 minutes, and service on other routes is fast and frequent. But traveling on the Shinkansen means you’ll spend a lot of time in tunnels; if you really want to see the scenery, try some of the conventional trains along a coastline or through the mountains. Also, you can more easily reach a few key visitor centers, notably Mt. Fuji and Nikko, on private railways rather than on the national JR system.

If you’re planning to cover the primary Tokyo-Kyoto-Osaka-Hiroshima visitor axis, a Japan Rail Pass is probably your best bet. Individual Shinkansen tickets linking those points would cost almost $300 more than the seven-day pass, currently $252 in ordinary class, $340 in “Green Car” first class; half price for children 6-11. Passes are also available for 14 and 21 days. Japan Rail Pass covers JR system travel plus travel on a few private lines, but you have to pay separately for most private lines. Japan Rail Pass is available only for consecutive travel days; it does not offer a “flexi” version that so many European passes do. The Japan Rail Pass does not include travel on the fastest limited-stop “Nozomi” trains between Tokyo and Hakata or “Mizuho” trains between Osaka and Kagoshima, but it does cover the many other high-speed trains that stop just a few more times.

The national JR system comprises six quasi-independent regional operations. If you want to confine your travels to a smaller part of Japan, five of those regional systems offer their own passes, and if you’re mainly sticking around one of the big cities, local passes are available. Check U.S.-based Japan Rail Travel Network or one of the several foreign-based Japan Rail specialists for details.

Ordinary class is acceptable for just about anybody. Seating on Shinkansen is mostly 2-3 but with reasonable legroom; Green Car seating is 2-2. Everybody recommends advance seat reservations for all Shinkansen trips, and reservations are mandatory for all Green Car trips, even on non-Shinkansen trains. But most Shinkansen trains include two or three ordinary class cars left open for travelers without reservations. On every train I took, seats were rotated so that almost all face forward in the direction of travel.

Researching timetables and fares is easy, due primarily to the outstanding search website, Hyperdia. Its system is a whiz for setting up and pricing itineraries, even incorporating the most user-friendly stations for connections.

Several online agencies specialize in selling Japan Rail Pass, including Japan Rail Pass, Japan Rail Travel Network, Japan Rail Pass, and JRPass. They take payments by the usual plastic, but they don’t send you an actual pass. Instead, they send you a paper coupon which you exchange for the actual pass after you arrive. As far as I can tell, the only way these agencies can operate is to send you that coupon, physically; you can’t download a form from the agency’s website and print it, so allow enough time. Strange.

A good time to exchange the coupon for an actual pass is on arrival at Narita, where JR maintains ticket offices in both terminals. If you have an itinerary laid out, you can also arrange seat reservations at the same time. You can use a day of your pass validity to take the JR express train from Narita to central Tokyo, but if you plan on staying in Tokyo for a day or two upon arrival, wasting a full day or more of pass travel for that short trip does not make sense. If you don’t feel like doing anything but going to bed when you arrive, buy a separate ticket to town and take care of issuing the pass later at a downtown station.

In my trips to Japan, I’ve generally splurged for a Green Car pass. When I spend many hours on a train, I appreciate the extra roominess. But if you’re on a budget, standard class is perfectly fine.

Scenic train suggestions:

Shinkansens are not particularly good for sightseeing — too many tunnels. The top option is the main route between Tokyo and Kyoto, where you can get good views of Fuji when the weather permits.

But most train riders emphasize that the older non-Shinkansen lines offer the best sightseeing:

  • Just about everybody includes the Gono Line, in northern Honshu, among the nation’s top sightseeing trips. It features great coastal scenery. Japan Rail Pass is valid.
  • For mountain scenery, try the Kurobe Gorge Railway, also in northern Honshu. Japan Rail Pass not valid. Or try another private line, the Hakone Tozan Railway, in the Fuji area.
  • For a longer trip, the old Tokaido Line between Tokyo and Kyoto, offers a wide range of sightseeing. Another longer trip is the cross-island Train Hida Train linking Nagoya, Takayama and Takaoka. Japan Rail Pass is valid.
  • Both JR and private lines offer a handful of “themed” trains that focus on sightseeing. Japan Rail Pass lists a few, but you can track down quite a few more.
  • The Japan Rail Pass folks list the top 10 sightseeing choices
  • Japan-Guide has its own list

Ed Perkins, editor

For more travel tips from Ed Perkins, see our companion site Ed on Travel

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