(a short explanation)
On our Japan In 9 Days trip we booked a 7-day Green (first class) rail pass for 2. It may seem a bit daunting to find out if you should buy one or not, and there are plenty of advice on YouTube and online, explaining pros and cons. In short and in our experience, if you’re planning on doing one longer rail journey, let’s say Tokyo to Kyoto, and maybe one shorter one (could be the airport express train, it works there as well) you should buy a pass. We were super happy with our decision, the shinkansen trains are super comfortable, they run all the time, and they are always on time by the second. Not to mention their speed, it beats flights hands down. It`s also a great way to see some of the countryside and experience a bit of what it is to be a citizen of Japan. We were impressed when the train attendants bowed deep every time they came through our carriage, and before they exited the door, they bowed like they meant it. Like they always do. The ease of travelling with the bullet trains is just fantastic.
The Japan Rail Pass comes in 2 varieties, the Green first-class pass, and the Ordinary second-class pass. Only difference is that you HAVE to make a seat reservation on Green pass on the trains you are planning to take. Can be done same day, but a reservation you must make. Green also have more legroom, wider seats, it’s like sitting in business class on a plane basically.
The passes are 7,14 or 21 days. Children from 6-11 get half price, under 6 is free, but no reserved seat. We did a 7 day pass, it suited us good, and if you plan well ahead, and have limited time, a 7 day pass is perfect.
You need to check your eligibility for the pass, we can only speak as Norwegians, but if you have a temporary visitor visa, e.g. not being Japanese, it`s ok, even though there are now exceptions there as well for Japanese citizens abroad. Also remember that these passes should be ordered before you leave your home country, that’s the cheapest way. They can be bought in Japan, but then more expensive. When you get to Japan, you exchange your rail pass for a ticket/pass. You also then choose start date. We did the exchange at Narita airport, there is a JR Office there (there will be a line, look for “Midori no Madoguchi”) and decided to start our pass some days later, so that we could also use it for the return to the airport with the Narita Express. We also did some reservations on trains, since we knew where and when we were going. You cannot make seat reservations online or before you come to Japan. It`s also good to note that the rail pass works on some ferries, like the one from Miyajimaguchi to Miyajima Island. There are some services you cannot use like the Shinkansen Nozomi, Shinkansen Mizuho and all night trains.
And please do not be nervous about finding the right trains, the right platforms and fear missing a train. All train stations in Japan are well signed, it`s normally no problem finding your way around. We only had one time where we got a bit lost in Tokyo station, but we found our train in the end. Just make sure you have ok time when navigating the big stations in Tokyo especially.
Plan your travels in advance, also you can see prices, and if a rail pass would be the best option for you at Hyperdia.
Please read up on rail pass here.
Also check out this JR Railpass page regarding train stations.
We purchased our passes in Norway before departure at Japanspesialisten.