Visiting Japan is one of the easiest things to do. Either you want to visit a single city or travel around the Country, you have a countless number of transportation options that sometimes could seem even embarrassing.
The railway network is impressive. Compared to the old one I have back home, a single line railway from Ventimiglia to Genova built around the end of the 19th Century, it seemed to me to have landed on an alien planet. Tokyo is probably the most densely populated city in the world and it would have been a collective suicide to force 30 million people to use their cars and motorbikes to commute every day.
For this reason, Tokyo has a capillary public transportation that easily connects each and every part of the city. There are several levels and options available for citizens and visitors: subway lines, railways, boats trips, monorails and more. The main railway that you are going to use during your stay in Tokyo is the JR Yamamote Line. It is a loop line that connect Tokyo Station with many tourist places and network nodes such as, but not limited to, Akihabara, Shinjuku, Hamamatsucho (the connection with the airport monorail), Shibuya and more as shown in the below photo.
The capillary JR network in Tokyo. In green at the centre, the Yamamote Line. In red the Haneda Airport monorail.
If you would like to explorer Japan further, maybe adding Kyoto, Hiroshima or other cities to your itinerary, you do not have to worry. Japan is famous for the JR Shinkansen lines, particular railways where special trains (known as bullet trains) can travel at almost 300 km/h, rendering a trip Tokyo/Kyoto of almost 470 km a pleasant journey of less than 2 hours. It connects all Japan in a efficient and comfortable way, making your exploring the whole Country really easy.
The JR group is the biggest in the Country and serves all the major cities.
The next question is: How much does the public transportation cost in Japan?
In all the stations you will find signboards with the fare to pay, if you do not have a JR pass.
The answer is very simple:a lot since they are very expensive, especially the Shinkansen rides. In the train stations you will find sign boards with the fare to pay for a single ride from the current station (in this case Tokyo Station) to your destination. As shown in the photo, a one-way ride to the next station, costs in average some 130 Yen (more than 1 USD at today’s rate). There are daily passes available for the JR lines only (the Tokunai Pass – 700 Yen) or for all the lines (the Tokyo Free Kippu – 1,590 YEN). We took an average of 6 rides per day in Tokyo, in order to visit different districts in one day and without the JR Pass, getting the daily pass would have been a wise idea.
The Shinkanses is quite expensive, with a ride from Tokyo to Kyoto at around 14,000 Yen (almost 120 USD) and a train trip from Nagoya to Takayama is almost 6,000 Yen (around 50 USD) just to mention two popular destinations that we have visited. Just to have an idea, during our stay we visited Tokyo (4 days), Nagoya (2 days), Kyoto (2 days), Nara (1 day) and Katayama (2 days) inclusive of all the Shinkansen connections we had to take. We estimated a total transportation cost of more than 65,000 Yen (around 540 USD) in order to visit the mentioned cities.
Luckily enough, the Japanese government gives to foreign visitors the possibility to get a JR PASS valid on all the JR lines at the cost of 29,110 YEN (242 USD) for 7 days and 46,390 YEN (386 USD) for 14 days (regular class, seat not reserved). It is not valid outside the JR circuit that, however, is enough to allow you to visit Tokyo and Japan without trouble, limiting at few times the need to use a subway or a different way of transportation.
With the JR PASS we saved some money (around 160 USD each) and a lot of time. In fact, the pass holders are just requested to show it at the gates, without the need to continuously go to the tickets office and buy a ticket.
Note: The JR PASS shall be bought before going to Japan because it can be purchased only outside the Country by foreigners that will be enjoying a temporary Visit/Tourist Visa only.
The JR Exchange Order shall be bought outside Japan and converted with the Pass at a JR point.
The process is very simple. You shall buy a JR Exchange Order (see photo) either online or from an authorized travel agent. There are many website offering this option, the most complete of which is definitely www.japanrailpass.net/en/ where all the possible information you might require are available. Once you receive the JR Exchange Order, you shall exchange it with the actual Pass that can be obtained in the Airports and in the major Train stations. Just note that the appointed JR offices close at 18.30, hence you might be prevented to get your pass if you land after this time.
The JR Pass you can get once in Japan. It will allow you to use unlimited JR trains inclusive of the Shinkansen.
We landed at 23.35 at Tokyo Haneda Airport and had to buy a monorail ticket to reach Hamamatsucho Station (the first stop and also where we booked our hotel Bayside Hotel Azur Takeshiba). We were then forced to go to Tokyo Station the day after (paying again the ticket) and finally get the JR Pass issued.