While Japan is not the largest country in the world, it’s still a long island, and getting from one end to the other takes some time. Fortunately, there’s an easy way to travel around Japan. And that’s the Bullet Train!
When I was in Japan during the summer of 2010, I had the chance to travel a lot on the Shinkansen, also called Bullet Train. It made our lives so much easier while travelling around Japan, and I wanted to share a few things with you.
The Shinkansen is a high-speed rail network that covers over 2,600 km or 1,600 miles. The maximum operating speed of the trains is 340 km/h, or 200 mph.
One of the things that make the Shinkansen particular, apart from its obvious speed, is the fact that the trains use dedicated railway tracks. By having their own rails, that were needed instead of traditional tracks for technical reasons, such as enabling high-speed, they avoid delays caused for example by slower freight trains. This is one of the reasons why the Shinkansen is so punctual.
The other thing that makes the Shinkansen particular is… Its shape! (That’s my opinion here!) It really looks like a bullet, hence why they call it “Bullet Train”. While there are a few different types of trains, I often saw the following one.
Here are some of the other shapes and types of trains:
Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass)
While in Japan, you will probably want to visit a few cities. Flying can be an option, but I honestly think that you are better off planning your itinerary something like north to south, or south to north, and travelling by train.
In our case, we arrived in Tokyo, then went to Nagano, and after that made our way down by train from Nagano to Nagoya, Osaka, Hiroshima, back to Osaka where we used the city as a hub to visit Nara and Kyoto, and back to Tokyo.
All this train travel planned sounds expensive, right?
Well, it could be. If purchased segment by segment. But fortunately, Japan Rail offers foreigners the opportunity to buy a pass that is good for a set amount of time. In our case, we bought a pass good for two weeks. We activated it once in Japan, and enjoyed the benefits for two weeks from that point.
I should point out that the pass can’t be purchased inside Japan. You need to plan ahead and purchase the pass before entering Japan. But believe me. It’s worth it.
(Prices are in USD)
- 7 days: 239 $
- 14 days: 379 $
- 21 days: 487 $
- 7 days first class: 319 $
- 14 days first class: 516 $
- 21 days first class: 671 $
What does the pass give you?
Essentially, you get unlimited travel on most trains and buses operated by one of the JR Company. You are also entitled to the Miyajima ferry operated by JR-West.
There are some exceptions however.
For example, you can take all the bullet trains, except the Nozomi and the Mizuho train (they are the express trains). Don’t worry, the other trains that you are entitled to with the pass make just a few more stops and are really fast too.
If you want to take an overnight train, you will have to pay an extra fee if you want a sleeper car.
If the JR train that you want to use travels on a non-JR line, you might have to pay an extra fee. Some JR trains travel on non-JR lines to allow for more direct service.
So keep in mind that there are some exceptions, but overall, you will surely come out ahead by using the pass rather than buying every ticket on the spot. I found that the pass allowed us to get pretty much everywhere we wanted most of the time without having to pay extra.
Is it worth to take first class over regular class?
I didn’t take the first class pass. Essentially, the first class pass entitles you to the green car on the trains, which have bigger seats. Do you need bigger seats? I don’t think so. Seating in those trains are much more comfortable than the economy class seats on airplanes, so I personally think that the regular seats are just fine.
If you can afford the first class pass though, it’s not a huge difference, then I would suggest that you consider it. It will entitle you to a bigger seat and less crowded cars.
How long before your trip should you order the pass?
Since it’s not electronic, you have to physically receive your pass in the mail before you get to Japan. Plan ahead and make sure you allow enough time to receive the pass! Don’t make the mistake of ordering too late and not having the pass with you when you leave home!
What do you do once you get to Japan?
To activate the pass, you just have to get to an exchange office in any major JR station. Hand out your Exchange Order received by mail along with your passport, and they will issue your JR Pass in no time.
Once you have your pass, you’re free to go! When taking a train, a bus or a ferry, you just have to show up to the manned gate and show your pass. Be sure you have your passport in case they ask for it.
Useful tip: Make seat reservations. Try to plan ahead and get to a JR counter the day before or a few hours before to reserve seats on the trains you want to take. You can make seat reservations at no additional costs.
If you don’t make a reservation though, there are usually non-reserved seats available.
The JR Pass is probably the best thing I can recommend to travel in Japan. It is so useful and saves you the hassle of buying tickets every time you want to take the public transit. It is also much cheaper than buying everything on the spot.
If you’re planning to travel around Japan, I highly recommend the JR Pass!
Have you used the pass? How was your experience? Share your best tips in the comments below!