If you want to visit multiple places in Japan, and do it on a budget, then the trains should be top of your list when it comes to transport.
Train travel in Japan is, if you’re used to the European system, mindbendingly fantastic: the trains are staggeringly reliable and so punctual that if your Japanese is shaky you can safely work out which stop to get off at by noting the time the train should arrive there. However, they’re not cheap: local trains cost a few pounds, but you pay more on top for a Tokkyu express, which you’ll want if moving between towns, and even more for a Shinkansen ticket.
Fortunately, if you’re a foreign visitor, you needn’t worry. If you hold a non-Japanese passport, and you plan ahead, you can buy a Japan Rail Pass, getting you hundreds of pounds of rail travel for a low, fixed fee.
The Japan Rail Pass
Japan Rail Pass tickets are only available to foreigners, and for strictly limited times. They entitle you to travel on just about* any train operated by the Japan Rail (JR) companies, plus a handful of ferries owned by JR. With a pass you can simply walk onto any train with non-reserved seating (listen for ‘jyuuseki’ in announcements), or reserve seats on Tokkyu and Shinkansen services, free.
An all-Japan pass is available for 7, 14 or 21 days – details here. This must be purchased outside Japan before you travel. If you’re sticking to a smaller area, though, look for the far cheaper local passes: JR East (details) covers Tohoku, while JR Kyushu (details) offers both all-Kyushu and north-Kyushu tickets. Both standard- and first-class (“Green Class”) tickets are available; standard reserved seating on Japanese trains is so good that I can’t imagine why anyone would pay for the latter.
Keep in mind that you’ll have to collect the pass in Japan, and that the locations for doing so are limited – and with limited hours; you can’t just visit any ticket office and expect them to do it. Collecting at an airport might be easiest – both Narita and Haneda have JR locations – but the queues at the JR office at Narita are often huge.
Japan still has a handful of sleeper trains, running on the old express tracks and covering long distances overnight – but they are a dying breed. I caught one – the Hokutosei, from Sapporo to Ueno (Tokyo) in early 2014 and wrote about it here.
Booking train tickets far in advance is normally not necessary – if you’re picking up a rail pass, you should be able to get any long distance tickets you need on the same day. In larger stations, you’ll normally find a ticket booking office – the so-called Midori no Madoguchi (literally, “green ticket window”) – where you can do this; in small stations without one just use the ticket office by the gate.
If you do need to book tickets before arriving in Japan – like when I accidentally crashed into the middle of the Golden Week holiday – it is possible to book train tickets online, but it is rather complicated. See my guide, “Booking Japanese train tickets from outside Japan“, for details.
* A handful of the very fastest Shinkansen are exempt from the all-Japan pass, and you pay a surcharge for sleeper trains