The very first time I rode a shinkansen, I was about 16 years old, on a student exchange in Japan. For a teenager, the bullet train was a thrill, a sleek metallic beast gliding silently along the tracks at about 270km/h as the exotic countryside flashed past the window.
Decades later, as a travel writer, I find myself jumping on a shinkansen in Japan relatively regularly - and each time is no less thrilling than the first. More than just the speed, a trip on the bullet train is also a cultural experience, with a lunchbox (ekiben) from the station, perhaps a beer from the convenience store, and a rolling vista of landscapes (maybe even Mount Fuji on a fine day).
The bullet trains are expensive (about $130 for the 2.5 hours between Tokyo and Kyoto, for example). But for years, savvy visitors to Japan have used the Japan Rail Pass, which offers unlimited travel on JR trains, to make the trips more affordable. The seven-day pass, costing about $310, easily paid for itself with a return journey from the capital to Kyoto, plus a couple of other side trips.
From next month, though, the price of the Japan Rail Pass will increase... by a lot! That seven-day pass that currently costs about $310 will go up to around $525, while the 14-day pass goes from $495 to $840, and the 21-day pass from $635 to $1050.
The country's main rail operator, JR, says the size of the hike is because prices haven't gone up since the pass was introduced in the 1980s. And while it's true that the JR Pass had become a real bargain, I'm worried that they may have gone too far in correcting the price. Unfortunately, the reality is that it's not going to be good value for most travellers anymore.
The Japan Rail Pass covers more than just the shinkansen - it includes all the trains run by the JR company, on a network of routes totalling about 20,000 kilometres! But these other trains are much more affordable. The hour-long trip from Tokyo to the popular town of Kamakura, for instance, costs about $9 each way. From Kyoto to Kinosaki Onsen is more expensive, about $50, but it's still less than $75 a day that the seven-day JR Pass will now average out to be.
To get good value from the seven-day pass, you would need to do something like Tokyo to Kyoto return and Kyoto to Hiroshima return. And because the JR Pass is only for consecutive days, that all has to be done in a week, meaning it would be a fairly rushed trip to also see all the sights in those destinations.
Curious about whether the 21-day pass offered better value, I did the sums for a trip that went up and down the whole country, from Tokyo down to Nagasaki, up to Sapporo and then back to Tokyo, visiting along the way Hiroshima, Matsuyama, Kyoto, Kanazawa, Nagoya, Aizu, and Nikko. It's a massive three-week trip but you would save about $700 using the JR Pass. This, I'm afraid, is the kind of rushed travel you would need to do to justify buying it now.
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One time in Japan, I had about five days left on my pass, so each morning I went to Tokyo station and randomly jumped on the next departing shinkansen, only then choosing where to stop for the day, before returning that evening. Each day was an adventure, the flexibility of the JR Pass giving me a sense of freedom to discover new places for no extra cost. But although it was a fun way to use the pass, it's not how the average tourist in Japan would do it.
Some visitors have found a "hack", though, where they base themselves in a central location on the shinkansen line and then use the JR Pass to travel to different places every day. From Nagoya, for instance, it's easy to get to Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima, or Kanazawa. And with cheaper accommodation than the more popular cities, it can lead to a good saving overall.
Another option that may be better for some travellers are the regional rail passes, even though they'll also see price rises in October. JR consists of six separate companies covering different parts of the country, each offering cheaper unlimited travel passes within their own networks. JR West, for example, has a pass covering from around Osaka, all the way down past Hiroshima and on to Kyushu for just $240 for seven days (less than half the price of the Japan-wide option!)
Ultimately, the decision about whether to get the JR Pass will depend on the travel you're intending to do on your trip. Because the savings can potentially be quite a lot, it is worth doing some calculations in advance. But be sure to look for whether the places you want to go are covered by non-JR lines, which aren't included in the pass. (The network is so confusing that even the person doing my reservations at Tokyo station got it wrong one time because she didn't realise which company covered that stretch of track.)
Next month's price increase will mean that fewer travellers will find value in the Japan Rail Pass, but hopefully this won't discourage people from taking the trains and relaxing into a long shinkansen ride with a beer and a lunchbox. After all, it's still part of the Japanese experience.
See more about the Japan Rail Pass on Michael's Time Travel Turtle website.