In our new series, Ask A Trip Designer, we field questions from travelers and pass them along to our trip designers for answers. This week, Journy's Japan expert (Sarah) answers the question: where do I buy a Japan Rail Pass?
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Bullet trains, or shinkansen, are by far the fastest and most convenient way to travel between major cities in Japan. Many of Japan's small towns are also reachable by bullet train or other local trains, though there are limited cases in which a JR bus might be necessary. Unless you're traveling a long distance to cities like Hokkaido or Sapporo, or far south to Okinawa, we don't recommend flying between cities.
If you're visiting multiple cities in Japan, becoming a JR Rail pass holder may be a smart choice for convenience (except for the Nozomi and Mizuho trains, you can take any train on the JR line without an advance booking, so there are no issues if you ever miss a train—you can just hop on the next one at the JR Station). You can also select reserved seats at no extra cost if you like having a specific train time scheduled for peace of mind. Note that you will need to have a seat reservation for the Narita Express and other express trains. As a general rule of thumb, if you'll be traveling round-trip between Tokyo and Kyoto or Osaka within a week period, the 7-day pass is worth it. If you are okay with the extra cost, opt for the first-class Green Pass and have an upgraded seat in the Green Car.
The JR Pass is only available to foreigners traveling in Japan. If you're a Journy LITE traveler, you can purchase the pass at jrpass.com, and if you're a Journy FULL traveler, your trip designer will take care of it for you and make sure the pass gets to you before your trip starts. You should order it at least ten days before you leave for Japan, as they ship a JR ticket voucher to your international address. While you can get one in Japan, it's harder and more expensive to do so.
You will need to activate your pass once you arrive in Japan at Tokyo Station or another exchange point such as Narita Airport, Haneda Airport, or Kansai Airport. Pay attention to which day you'd like your pass to start—for example, if you're traveling in Japan for ten days but will only be traveling by train for seven days, you'll want your pass to become active on the day of your first train trip. Once you arrive in Tokyo, you can take the famous, circular Yamanote Line that brings you to the cities of Shibuya, Shinjuku as well as other JR East stations like Sendai, Nara, and Nagano. Keep in mind that if you purchase the JR East Pass, it will not cover Hokkaido, Nagoya, Kanazawa, Takayama, Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima, and Kyushu.
If using the Japan railways doesn't make economic sense for your itinerary, you can purchase individual bullet train tickets upon arrival at the train station ticket office. Outside of significant holiday periods (Golden Week in May; Obon Week in August; New Years), there's no need to reserve these tickets in advance. JR trains run very often (several times an hour between Tokyo and Kyoto, for instance), so there's rarely a risk that you won't be able to travel on your desired day and time.
Journy's Japan Trip Designer
Sarah is a Pacific Northwest transplant on the East Coast. She honed her trip planning skills on a year-long adventure around the world that took her to 21 countries across Asia, Southern Africa, and Europe. Before that, she covered art, culture, food and festivals as a journalist in Las Vegas after graduating from college in LA. When she's not planning trips for Journy, she's probably planning her own, or reading at the coffee shop around the corner.
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