After Europe, Japan is probably the place you’re most likely to find a railpass useful. The rail service is excellent, and railpasses are generally a good deal.
Japan’s national rail system, Japan Rail or JR, is actually composed of six separate regional operating companies, and the JR system actually offers a handful of railpasses. However, travelers from the U.S. are likely to focus on three of them.
Japan Rail Pass is the most comprehensive. It includes travel on all six operating companies blanketing the country. The pass is valid on all but the two fastest bullet train categories as well as the more extensive narrow-gage system that can get you almost anywhere in Japan. Even though the pass does not cover the minimum-stop Nozomi and Mizuho Shinkansens on two trunk routes, it does include the almost-as-fast Hikari and Sakura high-speed trains, and the few minutes of time difference isn’t worth any worry.
Japan Rail Pass prices, in “Ordinary” class at current exchange rates, are $236 for seven days, $377 for 14 days, and $483 for 21 days; children 6-11 pay half; no senior discount. Passes are consecutive, meaning you get unlimited travel on any day within the validity period.
Unfortunately, unlike Europe, the Japan Rail Pass is not offered based on a set number of travel days during a longer validity period. Ordinary class is generally adequate for visitors, although at five-across, 2-3, it can be a bit tight. Green Car, or first class, prices are $316, $512, and $666, respectively. Green Car gets you roomier seats, four-across 2-2, along with five extra inches of legroom.
Japan Rail Pass is the only national pass that covers the typical visitor’s most likely rail trips: Tokyo to some combination of Osaka, Kyoto and Hiroshima. It also covers the JR trip to/from Narita. However, you should beware of “wasting” a day of pass travel for that short trip. Even if you don’t use it for any other trips, however, the seven-day pass costs less than a simple round-trip Tokyo-Osaka.
If you are confining your visit to the areas north of Tokyo, the JR East Pass covers travel to all of Honshu (the main island) north of Tokyo as far as Aomori on the northern tip and Niigata on the Sea of Japan. The pass is available only in ordinary class; it’s valid for travel on five days during a 14-day period, and it costs $184.
In addition, a handful of more limited regional and tourist passes provide travel in smaller areas at lower cost. Check out all the options online. Some are quite cheap. The JR Kansai pass, covering Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe and Nara, starts at just $19 for one day. Buy Japan Rail Pass from japan-rail-pass.com, jrpass.com, or jrailpass.com.
Japan Rail Passes include no-charge advance seat reservations, which are probably a good idea. Most trains, however, carry several no-reservation cars.
No JR system pass covers travel on Japan’s private railways, including the popular day excursion to Nikko and Lake Chuzenji on Tobu Railway’s Kegon limited express. However, pass holders can reach Nikko on a joint twice-daily JR-Tobu train by paying an extra $15 for the portion of the trip using Tobu rails.
— Ed Perkins, editor