The Japan Rail Pass enables you to travel across Japan on a comparably inexpensive flatrate and save a lot of money.
With this Rail Pass, most Shinkansen (Japanese high speed trains) are “free,” same to JR trains (e.g. in Tokyo the JR Yamanote metro line), the Narita Express and JR ferries. You will be able to take it as many times as you like/can.
Only tourists (status: “temporary visitor”) can apply for a Rail Pass before their trip to Japan. You´ll have to purchase a voucher at one of the licensed retailers (see links below) before setting off to Japan, receive it by mail and exchange that voucher for the rail pass at any time after your arrival. You can specify a validity range, e.g. getting your pass on Monday for it to be valid from Wednesday on. It´s no problem at all, the staff will ask you when you want to start using it before issuing the JRP.
The exchange is very easy and quick. You just hand your voucher to the staff at the exchange booth (available in the airports, e.g. Narita Airport Terminal 1 + 2, Kyoto Station, Kansai airport, Tokyo Station, Ikebukuro Station, Ueno Station, Nagoya Station, Kyoto Station, Osaka Station, Hakata Station, New-Chitose Airport Station) together with your passport, and within a couple of minutes you will be handed your own personalized Rail Pass.
The Japan Rail Pass is available from 1 to 4 weeks.
1 week JRP = 29110 Yen
2 weeks JRP = 46390 Yen
3 weeks JRP = 59350 Yen
That´s for the 2nd class, there is also a Rail Pass for the 1st class available (so-called “Green Cars”). Children (6-11 years) will be able to get a discounted Rail Pass, up to 6 years if they don´t need their own seat, will be for free.
It also includes seat reservations, for which you´ll have to queue at the respective Shinkansen ticket counter…but honestly I never did that as every Shinkansen has several compartments ( usually 1-3 or 1-5) for non-reserved seats. So far, I always got a seat in there.
Being an owner of a Rail Pass includes some sort of a VIP status feeling. You won´t have to use the automated gates at the station but can just pass the booth by holding up your Rail Pass and showing it to the staff.
Depending on where you order your voucher, it will look like one of these:
The actual Rail Pass will look like these:
The design changes from time to time, it´s much bigger than a credit card and will most likely not fit into your wallet or purse. So please take care not to lose it, as it won´t be replaced or re-issued in such a case.
With your Japan Rail Pass, you can take Shinkansen for “free.” The fastest ones -> Nozomi/Mizuho/Hayabusa Shinkansen are excluded, you cannot use it with this pass.
However, Hikari Shinkansen for example still very fast.
Whilst the Nozomi Shinkansen needs 153 minutes to Osaka, the Hikari Shinkansen needs 173 minutes, only 20 minutes of time difference for a distance of 552km / 343 miles. Not too bad in any case.
Of course paying several hundreds of dollars for such a pass is quite a lot. But actually, it really is a bargain. I once had the 3 weeks Rail Pass, and took notes of how many times I used which Shinkansen and also the metro…turned out I saved around 2500$ in total! It depends on how many times you want to travel to which city, but a return ticket Tokyo-Osaka is already around 28000 Yen, so your pass will pay off quickly.
As a bonus, you will also be able to use the ferry to Itsukushima with the JRP as well as the JR lines in the cities (Tokyo, Osaka and so on), plus the Narita Express for free during the validity of the pass.
How to order the Japan Rail Pass:
As the Rail Pass is being issued in Japanese Yen, its price in your home currency depends on the actual currency exchange rate. You can also check several vendors, the price and shipping charges may vary a little bit. Below are three internet sites from which I personally ordered the Rail Pass before, there were never any problems.
(And no, I don´t get comission or referral money or anything like that, it´s just my personal and honest recommendation). The vouchers are valid for 3 months from the date of issue, some vendors may take it back for some fee in case you are unable to use it or to travel to Japan.