Getting around Japan is relatively easy for a visitor. In our case, we planned to go outside of Tokyo and spend a few days in Hakone (Mt. Fuji area) and in Kyoto. We purchased a Japan Rail Pass, which allowed us direct access to these towns.
A Japan Rail Pass seems a little complicated at first glance, so I will try and simplify the information to give you a basic idea of how to obtain and use it.
These rail passes, operated by JR Group Railways, allow you to travel throughout Japan on Shinkansen Bullet Trains. The passes are only available to foreign visitors and Japanese nationals that live outside of Japan. Your passport must have you listed as a “Temporary Visitor”. We didn’t need to do anything special in order to get this stamp, you just have to be visiting for less than 90 days. I stressed about this part beforehand, but trust me, it will be stamped in your passport!
The tricky thing about the Japan Rail Pass is that it needs to be purchased *BEFORE* you arrive to Japan. You must buy an exchange order, which can be done through a travel agent. If you go to the JR Group’s website, they have a list of where you can buy exchange orders in your country. For us, we just picked it up at a local travel agency, and paid for it up front. You then take the exchange order to a train station in Japan, where you pick up the actual pass. Shinjuku was the closest station that gives out passes, so we found the JR kiosk and picked up our passes after giving them our exchange order.
While you’re there, you have the option to book your train trips, and can usually reserve seats. They have a giant book with the train schedule, and you just tell them where you need to go, and they will print out your train tickets. Do not worry about reservations, they will not fill up! No one else can book in advance either, so don’t worry about it. Our personal experience was that the trains were not very full anyway, with the exception of the ones headed into Tokyo. Even then, we had no problems with booking and finding seats together.
Our first bullet train was the Romancecar from Tokyo to Hakone. We had lunch on the train, as they offer a small selection of foods.
I’m sure you’re wondering about luggage space. There are spaces in each car that specifically make room for luggage. It’s a pretty decent space, and will fit two large pieces of luggage (or so I estimated). Additionally, there are spaces above the seats to store carry-on items, similar to what you have in an airplane. We brought an overnight bag, and sent our luggage through the Takkyubin service. This is a service that runs throughout the country and delivers your bags to your next destination. It makes it easier for you to travel without lugging around a big bag, and you can arrive with your bags delivered to your next hotel. I am obsessed with this service, and don’t know why more countries haven’t thought of this! It’s incredibly efficient, and pretty affordable. If I remember correctly, it was around $20 to send our luggage to Kyoto, and were able to arrange it through our hotel in Tokyo. I know a lot of people have trust issues overseas, but don’t worry, your bags will arrive safely! Our bag was even wrapped up to prevent damage!
JR Pass is only available in 7 day, 14 day, or 21 day passes. This means that you can travel as many times as you wish on the JR system throughout the duration of your ticket. The ticket is activated on the date you choose, so all you need to do is tell the people at the kiosk what days you want your pass for.
Because the JR pass offers unlimited travel, it can be VERY expensive. We bought the 7 day pass, which was around $400/ per person. That’s a lot of money to spend, but if you use it wisely, it can be so worth it and you can get around the country very quickly and efficiently. I obviously would NOT recommend this pass if you are only going to be in and around Tokyo for the extent of your trip.
The last piece of advice I can give about the JR Pass is to arrive early! The trains are very punctual, and they WILL leave when they are scheduled to leave!
I hope I covered all of the basics! This is a great pass for exploring Japan.