Japan Railways: Top Sights to See with a Japan Rail Pass

Shinkanse bullet train speeding through Japan past Mt Fuji.

Traveling Japan by rail is one of the best ways to travel Japan. Japanese trains are punctual and fast—particularly the famous Shinkansen line, also called the bullet. The Japan Rail Pass is a convenient, affordable way to travel throughout the country and see the top sites the country has to offer. Here is a guide to traveling Japanese railways.  

The Japan Rail Pass

Before you get to Japan, buy your Japan Rail Pass. The pass is a joint venture by six Japanese rail companies and is the most affordable way to travel Japan by rail. The pass is only available to foreign tourists and offers unlimited use of trains for one to three weeks at a cost that is much lower than buying fare for each individual route. Your pass term begins the first day it is used.

Be sure to buy your pass before you travel to Japan. You must receive your Exchange Order for your pass in your home country, so you should order it a minimum of two weeks before your vacation. Your Exchange Order enables you to collect your pass from the Exchange Office when you reach Japan. 

You must also ensure you qualify for a Japan Rail Pass, because even if you receive an Exchange Order, they will not give you your pass if you don’t meet the qualifications. To qualify you must be a foreign tourist visiting Japan for sightseeing under the status of a temporary visitor. Your passport must have the stamp designating you as a temporary visitor, which you will receive when you enter the country through customs.

Your Japan Rail Pass is valid on a nationwide network of Japan railways, including Shinkansen, Limited Express, Express, Rapid and local buses. 

Also read: Travel Europe by Train: The Fastest, Most Scenic and Popular Routes

Tourist Sites to Visit by Train

Tokyo: You can fly into Tokyo’s Narita airport and then take the Narita Express to the city center. If you are an early riser or took a red eye flight, start your tour of Tokyo at the Tsukiji fish market between 5:30 am and 6 am to see the fish auction. 

For a bit of history, visit the Senso-ji temple, one of the oldest in Japan. Then take a trip to the Meiji Shrine. If you are in Tokyo in late March or early April, go to Ueno Park to see the cherry tree blossoms. Finally, if you love shopping, you can’t miss Ginza, which is Tokyo’s version of Manhattan.

As you tour Tokyo, be sure to indulge in the restaurants from fine dining to small street corner restaurants. Tokyo has the most Michelin star restaurants of any city in the world, and there is a reason for it. 

Mount Fuji: About 70 miles outside of Tokyo is the famous Mount Fuji volcano. You can hike to the summit to enjoy an impressive sunrise or just take in the mountain from below. There are also five lakes around Mount Fuji that offer beautiful views. There are several Japan Rail Pass train routes that can take you to Mount Fuji and the five lakes area.

Niseko: Would you love to ski some of the world’s deepest powder during your visit to Japan? Go to Hokkaido’s Niseko, Japan’s largest ski resort, which also offers a busy nightlife and other activities. 

Kyoto: Japan’s top tourist destination brings you back to old world Japan. For history buffs, ancient Kyoto is a gold mine of seven UNESCO World Heritage sites, 1,600 Buddhist temples, and 400 Shinto shrines. Start with the famous Golden Pavilion, or Kinkaku-ji, a Zen Buddhust temple. Next, visit Fushimi Inari, a bright orange Shinto shrine of nearly 10,000 tori gates that arch over a walking path. 

After dark, go to Gion, Kyoto’s Geisha district, which offers an excellent dining scene. Kyoto, much like Tokyo, has some of the world’s best dining. Whether you pop into an Izakaya, or Japanese pub, or make a reservation at one of Kyoto’s finer dining establishments, you will experience delicious Japanese food. 

Karuizawa: For an escape to nature, visit Karuizawa, easily accessible by high speed train from Tokyo. The city is located near one of Japan’s most active volcanos, Mount Asama, and offers hiking, bird watching in Yachonomori, and hot springs. At the end of April, Karuizawa hosts a wisteria festival when the Kawachi Fuji Garden’s 150 wisteria plants are in full bloom.

Also read: Traveling to Japan for the First Time? What You Need to Know

Navigating Japan Rail

Navigating Japan’s rail system can be challenging, but luckily there are a number of resources available. First, use the HyderDia app, which is a search tool offering Japan train schedules and route information to help you plan your trip. 

Another great resource is Japan Experience’s Japan Rail Pass itineraries, which tells you how to get from one destination to another and makes recommendations for what to do in each place. For Japan Rail maps, the Japan Rail Pass website offers a full map of all routes and destinations.

Regional Japan Train Passes

While the Japan Rail Pass is a great option for many tourists in Japan, if you are just visiting certain regions, you might opt for a regional rail pass instead. For example, if you are considering the Koyasan temple pilgrimage and remaining mostly in the Kansai area, you would want a Kansai Thru Pass, since the Japan Rail Pass doesn’t go directly to Koyasan. 

Planning your itinerary ahead of time will help you determine which rail passes make sense for you and when a one-off route purchase is more economical.

Trip Insurance For Train Travel

When you travel by train abroad, there are a number of events that could interrupt your trip and cost you extra travel expenses, and travel insurance from Generali could help you in certain situations. Before your trip, you might have a life event that causes you to delay or cancel your trip. Trip Interruption or Trip Cancellation coverage can help you recoup some of the costs for covered events.  

If you run into difficulties during your trip, for example, if you find you booked the wrong reservation and can’t find anyone who speaks English to help you, travel assistance services are included in all Generali travel insurance plans and available 24/7. 

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