How good a deal is Japan Rail Pass?
March 3, 2011 2:16 PM   Subscribe

Are there any cheaper alternatives to the Japan Rail Pass? For two adults traveling mainly around Tokyo, as well as a few days in Osaka and one day trip to Nara, for a total of 10 days. *Bonus question - what are the best places in these cities to see contemporary Japanese art?
posted by kickingtheground to Travel & Transportation around Japan (20 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know how you are planning your itinerary, but it's definitely worth it to get a 7-day Rail Pass. It costs 28,500 per person. If you consider that it's about 13,000 traveling one-way from Tokyo to Osaka, and then you have to take intercity (JR) lines once in the Osaka region to get to Nara and Kyoto, it's a total no-brainer.

The only cheaper alternative I can think of is taking the night bus from Tokyo to Osaka, which cost about 9,000 yen one-way. But you're still stuck with rail transport in the Kansai region.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:40 PM on March 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

My wife and I went with a JR pass for a week long trip and it was the smartest thing we could have done. Once you figure out the Yamanote line (which is pretty straightforward), the whole city is your oyster. Add in the fact that you can jump on a Shinkansen at the drop of a hat, and the pass definitely pays for itself.

As far as seeing contemporary art, I recommend the Mori Art Museum.
posted by Uncle Ira at 2:44 PM on March 3, 2011

The Shinkansen is a wonderful way to travel and I highly recommend the getting the JR pass. Like Kokuru says, you can save a few dollars travelling via bus instead, but at a significant time cost. It's an excellent deal and we decided to maximize the value by also going to Hiroshima and Nagoya as well as the cities you mention.
posted by ajackson at 2:46 PM on March 3, 2011

When my friend went to Japan, he got his JR pass from a local travel agency that specialized in trips to Japan and it was way cheaper than the advertised price. So maybe try that?
posted by grapesaresour at 3:02 PM on March 3, 2011

The only thing about JR in Osaka and Nara is that it is not very convenient for getting to the places you will actually want to visit. The private rail lines go to a lot more places than JR in Kansai. You can't avoid taking the private rail lines or walking pretty long distances that might not be that interesting given your objectives and time frame.

It might be worth your while to take the night bus to Osaka. I always enjoyed taking the night bus. It's very nice.
posted by vincele at 3:29 PM on March 3, 2011

As KokuRyu has pointed out, even if you use the cheaper alternatives for travel between Tokyo and Osaka/Nara, you will very rapidly come up towards the price of the JR pass anyway. If you are going to buy one, whatever you do, try to get a bit more value out of the thing other than Tokyo/Nara/Osaka. Yes, you can use the Shinkansen and limited express services to get to places quickly. But if you are really serious about getting more value out of the pass, go ride the sleeper trains. Seriously. The JR pass lets you ride some of these for no extra charge. This lets you cover some mind-boggling distances, and saves you time in the day too. Me-mail me if you want more info.
posted by Juso No Thankyou at 3:46 PM on March 3, 2011

Depending on the time of year of your visit and how patient you are, you could also try the Seishun 18 Kippu (Youth 18 Ticket--accessible to people of all ages!). However, since you can only travel on local trains, expect 10-hour-plus trips, unfortunately mostly during the day. Here's detailed information about it:

You'd still need to pay for local trains in Osaka and Tokyo, as this ticket only covers 5 days. I'm pretty sure both have day-passes for the metro systems... however, in Tokyo I found that the day pass was not well advertised, so be sure to ask. (I find metro travel slightly more convenient than JR in Tokyo. Haven't spent enough time in Osaka to be sure.)

All of that said, the JR pass really is a good deal, and the shinkansen is unbelievably convenient. I've travelled on both the JR pass and the Seishun 18 Kippu, and while the 18 worked for me at the time because I wasn't travelling for 7 days solid, and it does make a good story, I will never bother with it again. The JR pass on my last trip (14 days) paid for itself within 72 hours.
posted by equivocator at 3:57 PM on March 3, 2011

Also... I didn't make it to any of these galleries on my last trip, but the website seems very promising.
posted by equivocator at 3:59 PM on March 3, 2011

If you're doing the round trip between Tokyo and Osaka/Kyoto, then as others have said, that pays for the JR pass right there. JR is great for Tokyo (especially the Yamanote line), and will be OK for getting around Kansai.

In Kansai you can get the Kansai Thru Pass which will take you anywhere you would want to go, usually more conveniently than the JR lines. It's 3800 yen for a 2 day pass and 5000 for a 3 day one. I know you could get a Kyoto day pass for around 2000 yen back in 2005 and I would imagine that Osaka has something similar.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 4:36 PM on March 3, 2011

Totally worth it. Remember that it works on JR local trains (very useful in Tokyo and Osaka, less useful elsewhere) and JR ferries as well.

I believe the Suntory museum near the Osaka aquarium has a modern art collection.
posted by twblalock at 4:52 PM on March 3, 2011

The rail pass is a very good deal if you want to go from Tokyo to Osaka. It's expensive to go from Tokyo to Osaka. The only way you might be better off without it is by buying a Osaka trip package from a travel agency in Japan (shinkansen+hotel for a night or two can be cheaper than the cost of a roundtrip shinkansen ticket for some of these deals). But this likely requires being able to talk to the tourist agency people in Japanese, and good luck regarding availability and demand--if you're going during a high season things are going to be expensive.

I would get the n'ex plus suica package from Narita, and then use that for wandering around Tokyo, putting more money on as needed, and then use the Rail Pass for 7 days including when you're going to Osaka/Nara. Nara is fine on JR, Osaka can be more convenient using the subway. Osaka is good for food but not as interesting for sightseeing, in my opinion. I would suggest a side trip to Hiroshima/Miyajima (possible as a slightly grueling day trip if you have a rail pass, but better staying the night in/near Miyajima so you can see the shrine first thing in the morning).
posted by that girl at 5:23 PM on March 3, 2011

As someone ineligible for the Japan Rail Pass, I am jealous of anyone getting to use it, as it is an incredible deal -- especially for tourists. It pays for itself with one return trip to/from Kansai and a return trip on the Narita Express.
posted by armage at 6:12 PM on March 3, 2011

I didn't ride the trains in Japan because I didn't have the pass. It helps... lots.
posted by darkgroove at 6:19 PM on March 3, 2011

Apparently the Suntory museum closed December 26, 2010, which is a shame because they had some nice exhibits there. If you do make it to Hiroshima they've got a nice museum of contemporary art.

If you just want to get around the city (whichever city that may be) then renting a bicycle is a good option (health and weather permitting). These cities are not all that big and you'll have many more opportunities to run into something unexpected from street level than from a train.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 6:31 PM on March 3, 2011

Just to ram the point home...

If you aren't leaving Tokyo at all, the rail pass would probably be a wash. As soon as you take one trip outside of Tokyo you've saved money. The only cheaper option is walking. (And taking the shinkansen is fun!)
posted by Ookseer at 7:35 PM on March 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's true that JR is not the most convenient way to get around the Kansai region, but it is the most easily understandable. I just helped a friend plan a trip in Japan, and trust trying to explain how to transfer between Nankai and JR or Keihan and Kintetsu to the Kyoto subway was really challenging. Best to just stick to JR (even if it takes longer and doesn't deposit you where you want to be).
posted by KokuRyu at 7:49 PM on March 3, 2011

Depending on what kind of art you mean, you could check out the Design Festa gallery (assuming the event's not on at that time).
posted by wintersweet at 9:42 PM on March 3, 2011

Super-detailed breakdown of whether the Japan Rail Pass is "worth it" here. Conclusion: almost always, yes, very worth it.
posted by danceswithlight at 9:52 PM on March 3, 2011

Japan Rail Pass: I believe it also pays for the ferry down by Hiroshima to the deer island (or was it monkey?). But it is worth doing for sure. You have to get it outside of Japan.
posted by lundman at 10:07 PM on March 3, 2011

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