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Getting around Japan can be pricey, but visitors to this beautiful country can take advantage of the Japan Rail Pass. It’s quite a big chunk of money to hand over, so here are our top tips to make the most of it and find out if it’s worth it.

Plan, Plan, Plan!

This is the number one way to make your rail pass worth it. If you’re not moving far from Tokyo then getting a rail pass will probably not pay off – when these things cost close to, or more than £200 they’re not something to be handled lightly!

We found that Hyperdia provides excellent information on the timetables and routes for almost every train. With the advanced search feature, you can sort trains by JR lines only. This means it’s super easy to find the journeys that can be included in your pass.

There’s a wealth of great resources to help plan your trip. The JR pass calculators here and here are a great place to start. We spent several evenings in Malaysia inputting in a variety of train journeys to discover which pass would be best for us.

It’s a good idea to have an itinerary in place before you arrive in Japan. When planning, we knew that we would be landing in Osaka, and had a rough idea of the places we wanted to visit, with our end goal being Tokyo. Once the amount of time we were going to spend in each area was agreed upon, we looked at train routes and came up with combinations to plug into a JR pass calculator.

Without including some smaller trips, we found that buying a 14 day pass would break even. Including the smaller trips, it would work out cheaper for us. So, we headed over to the Isetan centre in Kuala Lumpur and laid down some cold hard cash for our passes!

Some of the Pros

It definitely felt easier having a rail pass. Once we’d activated ours, we could use the pass on almost any JR line. It took away some of the hassle of buying single tickets, although we were travelling for 21 days and only had the pass for 14 so got to experience both sides of the train system.

Travelling by Shinkansen, or bullet train, is also a huge pro! The Nozomi, the fastest bullet train, is not included in the ticket, but almost all of the others are. There’s just something exhilarating knowing you’re flying through the Japanese countryside at 200 miles per hour.

Some of the Cons

The downsides to getting the Japan Rail pass are mostly the cost. It is quite expensive, so make sure it’s going to be worth it. Our 14 day passes cost almost £300 each which is a heck of a lot of cash to stump up. If it’s cheaper to book your trains and pay for transport separately, then we recommend to do that! Another alternative could be to take the bus. The Willer Express service, for example, is much cheaper and just as convenient.

You also can’t use the pass on private railway lines, of which there are quite a few. For example, in Tokyo, many of the subway lines are owned by non JR companies. However, the Yamanote Loop line and a few others are JR and can be used. For the time that our pass was active it was easy enough to navigate Tokyo on JR lines only. If you’re off to an area where there’s going to be mostly private lines, look into some alternatives.

Alternatives to the JR Pass

There are a few alternatives to the Japan Rail Pass. We chose to purchase a country wide pass as we were covering quite a bit of Japan. As an alternative, you can buy region specific passes which come in a little cheaper, but remember that you’re only limited to that area.

PASMO and Suica cards work similarly to oyster cards and can be used across the country. As a fun side note, these cards can also be used to pay for your shopping in the local FamilyMart!

Many people say they’re very easy to use, we were fully intending to get ourselves one but found that with only a few days at the start and end of our trip without our pass, we simply didn’t get around to it.

All Aboard!

We loved being able to ride a variety of trains across Japan. It allowed us to see so much of the country and make day trips to extra places. They can be costly, but ultimately, if planned out right, very worth it. We rode the bullet train a number of times and it allowed us to have great experiences – such as eating bento on the train!

We also feel that because we had the pass, we really made the most of it to make extra little side trips. Because it felt ‘free’ it made us that much more active in getting around and being able to see more.  Equally, we did buy single tickets and use private rail lines and buses in places – it was good to have a mix of everything when getting around!

Have you travelled across Japan with a Japan Rail Pass? Let us know your thoughts over on our twitter or facebook.

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