I’ve seen it advertised a lot. Use a JR Rail Pass if you want unrestricted travel throughout Japan conveniently. But I’m glad we ditched it, for practical reasons. First it was a lot, lot pricey. The JR Rail Pass is NOT sold inside Japan so you have to buy it at accredited travel agencies overseas or online way before your departure date (3 months at least). The problem is that, these travel agencies (at least in my country) sell them at a steep price–30 to 50 percent higher than the original price. When we inquired at the local travel agency in Kalaw Avenue in Manila that took care of our Japan visa requirements, they sold it $100 higher than the actual price. I don’t really know about the others, but based on our actual experience, we got the idea it won’t give us justice. Personally, I think a JR Rail Pass is better maximized if you are staying in Japan for almost a month and you want to cover a lot of places. We chose instead a flexible combination of local buses and train rides during our Osaka-Kyoto-Tokyo trip (not to mention taxis). Japan’s public transport system is already efficient so all you have to do is look at the signs on trains and bus stations carefully so you can effortlessly travel without much hassle. I’m glad I still have a Suica card, the one I used during my visit here last 2010. This, and the ICOCA card, are cheaper prepaid tickets which I strongly suggest you consider getting when you visit Japan whether on a short or extended period. Both can be interchangeably used in the JR Lines and ordinary subway lines and some buses. What’s more: it can also be used to buy items at convenience stores like 7-11, Lawsons, Mini Stop, etc. Another alternative I think is the Pasmo card. I’m not just sure whether ICOCA and Pasmo cards are sold by the same vendor.
When we touched down Kansai International Airport, we immediately looked for a JR station and bought an ICOCA + Haruka ticket at Y3,030 [US$25; P1,100]. Haruka is a limited express train that runs from the Kansai Airport through Kyoto to Maibara. We decided to take this since our hotel is located in Shin-Osaka station. It was just two station stops because it runs directly from KIX to Kyoto and doesn’t have to pass by other stations like Namba and Osaka . It was much faster than taking the ordinary subway lines.
We used the ICOCA card pretty much during our stay in Osaka and on our way to Kyoto. But when we got to Kyoto Station, we decided to take the Kyoto City Bus single day pass [Y500; US$4; P183.00] for our one-day tour of Kyoto. It operates as a hop-on, hop-off bus and can be bought at the Japan Travel Information Office inside Kyoto Station. Depending on your itinerary, you can visit all of Kyoto’s iconic spots as much as you want, like the Arashiyama area, Kinkakuji Temple, Gion District, Kyoto Imperial Palace, Ginkakuji Temple, Kiyomizu Temple.
But then again, time is of the essence. Because of our limited time, we decided instead to go to Kinkakuji Temple, then to the Kyoto Imperial Palace. We would have visited Gion area but it took us almost half the day to explore the palace ground. It was so vast! We left the park almost at 6 p.m. We decided to just visit Nijo Castle then for an aquarium exhibit since the rest of the shrines and temples are already closed in the evening. When we left for Tokyo, we took the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Shin-Osaka station. The trip to Tokyo was only about 2 and half hours and the cost of our one-way ticket was Y14,450 [US$119; P5,300]. I know the price is steep but it was all worth it. I’ve experienced riding the bullet train four years ago but my friend hadn’t. There’s a cheaper option actually: overnight buses like the ones offered by Willer Express costs half the price depending on the type of bus you ride. Another is the JR Line operated Sunrise Seto/Izumo which is a European rail travel-inspired overnight trains. It costs almost the same as when you ride the bullet train but the travel time is almost 10 hours. The train has hotel-like compartments for those paying extra cash but those who can’t can lounge easily on the nobi-nobi. As I said before, taking taxis in Japan, especially in Tokyo can drain your wallet. Flag down rate is at Y730 [US$6; P267]. Take it only for a very short distance travel. It was a hard lesson learned for us when we had to pay Y20,000 [US$200; P8,000] for a taxi ride when we traveled to a hotel near Narita International Airport. We had no idea then we would be traveling that long and that the taxi driver would give us a run around. 😦 Getting around Japan is easy although sometimes, navigating your way around subway stations can be quite daunting and confusing. But that’s part of the game. As long as you keep an open mind and a humble heart it won’t be difficult. For me, it’s actually more fun and a great learning experience. 🙂
NOTE: Except for the prices in Yen, the prices I indicated here in US dollars and Philippine peso are based on today’s exchange rate. So the price/cost of tickets may vary depending on the next FOREX rates.