JAPANESE TRANSPORT: Budget Airlines Verses the Japan Rail Pass

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By Claire D'hooghe | March 16, 2016

JR PASS

Can’t beat Japanese Transport! The you-beaut JR Pass you’re given in exchange for the papers you receive in the mail. Photo via japanexplorer.com.au

Unless you want to ride a pushbike from one end of the country to the other, or rent a car and have to figure out where to park the thing when you’re not driving it, there’s only two ways to get around Japan. You can fly, or take the train. We have travelled by both means so I’d say we’re pretty reliable sources to compare both modes, and with supreme comfort at stake for your next trip, you can trust our experience.

JR PASS ELIGIBILITY

The consideration when deciding on train or plane is simple: you ARE NOT eligible for the Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass) if you do not have a tourist visa. Unless you are planning on traveling Japan for under 90 days then don’t even think about it. It’s for a tourist; that’s the point and it’s the reason why we have used both means of transport. On our last visit we held working-holiday visas, which meant we weren’t eligible for the economically awesome Japan Rail Pass.

The JR Pass is a time-limited pass that permits unlimited travel on all major forms of transport provided by JR Group (with a few exceptions). It’s available for Standard and Green (first class) Cars and can be purchased for 7, 14 or 21 days. Only catch is the JR Pass MUST be purchased outside Japan before you leave – this can be done at any travel agent or the Japan Rail website and you’ll receive the exchange order in the mail.

If you are not eligible, your hand is forced and you have to travel by plane. Based on our first hand experience, all comparisons refer to budget airlines.

PRICE

The price of the JR Pass depends on how many days you purchase: 7 days costs ¥29,110, 14 days, ¥46,390, or 21 days, ¥59,350 (all prices for Standard Cars). This might seem steep but considering the amount of hours you’ll spend on a train and how far you’re going to travel it’s a really good deal. Best part about it is it starts when you want it to.

So when you arrive, go to your nearest JR station on THE DAY you want to START YOUR TRAVEL and the documents you got in the mail will be exchanged for a you-beaut legit pass and you’ll be on a bullet train faster than you can say shinkansen (bullet train).

Shinkansens are ridiculously expensive without a JR Pass and are such a unique, comfortable way to travel around Japan so again; the price is definitely worth the experience.

Depending on the time of year you’re traveling and where you want to go, planes can cost the same or less than the JR Pass. We took several return flights through Japan over a month period that ended up costing similar to a 7-day Rail Pass. By using apps like SkyScanner we were able to plan our trip around the better prices using the month-view feature. The time of year is important, during cherry blossom season (around April, particularly Apr 27 – May 6) there are consecutive public holidays when almost everyone in Japan travels, similarly during Obon week (Oct 11 – 20) and in the New Year period everywhere will be busy. Avoid these periods and you’ll most likely find a very affordable price.

CONVENIENCE

If this was a game of 1-on-1, the JR Pass is LeBron James and cheap airlines are present-day Charles Barkley in a wheelchair. There is no comparison, and it’s almost embarrassing; trains are so much more proficient, convenient and cost effective.

Japan has the best rail system in the world and this makes it incredibly easy to just show up at any shinkansen train station (which are everywhere, and easily accessible) and be on the next train to wherever you want to go within an hour. No planning necessary, so it’s great for the spontaneous traveler. All you gotta do is rock up, throw your luggage on a rack and wander ’round the unreserved cabin ‘til you find a free seat. All major JR stations are fairly close to the middle of the city, if not in the middle of the city, so finding your hostel or a place to crash when you arrive ain’t gonna be hard at all.

Another great convenience of the JR Pass is that it can also be used on some trains within cities, meaning you might be able to get around without any extra subway costs.

On the other hand…

Planes have one good convenience point: it’s quicker to get from one place to the other… but that doesn’t factor in the time it takes to get to the airport, line up for check in, get through security, sit at the boarding gate, board, get off the plane, pick up your luggage and get out of the airport to where you’re staying. The plane ride itself might have only taken an hour but all the other shit you have to do means it takes the same amount of time (if not longer) to travel, with way more responsibilities.

COMFORT

Japanese trains are incredibly spacious and comfortable. They all have toilets and shinkansens will even have vending machines, in-carriage attendees and possibly even charging points. Cheap airlines, on the other hand, are the most cramped of all airlines, especially Japanese ones. Even though Japanese people are extremely polite and they won’t spread their arms out over your space, you’re still uncomfortably sandwiched in between a couple of strangers.

EXPERIENCE

A long train ride is the perfect place to put your headphones in and zone out as the beautiful Japanese countryside passes by, watching a snowcapped Mt Fuji stand majestically in the background of traditional villages and expansive rice fields. Or curl up in all that space you have and get some quality reading time in. Shinkansens are unique to Japan and riding on one is an essential experience for all first-time travelers, compared to cheap airlines, which you can experience anywhere in the world.

EXTRAS

The only extra you have to pay for with the JR Pass is optional: if you want to reserve a sleeping compartment on an overnight train, that’s going to cost some extra cash. Unless you are very picky and particular about your sleeping arrangement it’s not necessary, the standard seats are spacious and comfortable enough. Whereas planes come with a buttload of hidden costs: want to pay by credit card? That’ll be a surcharge. Got 20kg of luggage? Boom; there’s another surcharge. You need extra legroom ‘cause you’re two foot taller than the average Japanese adult? Sorry, pay up.

If you’ve read this far and still haven’t figured out traveling by train is a way better option if you’re on a tourist visa then I’ll spell it out again: trains are superior to budget airlines when traveling Japan. They trump planes in every aspect and will get you the most relaxing, convenient, value-packed transport around Japan. If you’re not eligible or only want to travel to one city than a budget flight will be cheaper, but remember all the associated costs that come with it.

While you still have to figure out how buy a subway ticket and learn the dangers of the subway either way, if you have a choice, choose the JR Pass, man. Seriously.

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