Definitely filing this one under the “things we’ve learned” tag. Maybe we should add “the hard way”, because when we were planning our trip, we overlooked this detail. We focused on big picture things: how many days we wanted to stay in each place and where we would stay. While we took into account travel times, we didn’t think about the JR Pass until everything was booked. However – before I go off on a huge tangent, let me explain the JR Pass.
What is the JR Pass
TL;DR: If you’re not planning any trips outside of Tokyo, don’t get a JR Pass and instead get a Suica or a Pasmo card.
Basically – it’s a rail pass that gives you free rides on any of the JR lines, including the Shinkansen (bullet train), but it’s ONLY for tourists and you have to purchase a redemption voucher outside of Japan. (Note: During March 8-31st, there will be a trial run of JR Pass sales at certain train stations in Japan. Click the link for more info)
They’re available all over the place online, but since we jumped on this one late, we went to the HIS in Downtown. They asked to see our passports (to make sure we were traveling there on a tourist visa) and they filled out a voucher with our info on it.
Should you get the JR Pass
Honestly? Unless you’re doing a lot of traveling around, it’s not worth it. I mentioned it in the summary of tips on Japan – depending on the current conversion rate, how long you’re planning to stay, and where you’re planning to go, it can save you a little. Really, though, you’re paying for the convenience of just showing folks your pass.
For example our trip:
We actually purchased the 14 day pass, which for us, wasn’t worth it. It wasn’t a huge loss since we did use it to get around the Tokyo Metro area during our trip, but if we ever go back, we’ll definitely keep our big travel days within a 7 day period to really make use of it (or not purchase one). #LessonLearned.
Suica and Pasmo
I’m combining these two because they’re essentially the same. Basically the same as the Clipper Card in SF or the MetroCard in NYC, you can purchase them at the train station machines (instructions are in English) and add funds as required.
Once you have them, you won’t have to read maps to figure out how much each ticket will cost (we did this a couple times before we just picked up a card). You just add money to it and tap it on the sensor on the way in and the way out.
If you’re like me and get anxiety at the idea of trying to figure this out, The Japan Guy did step by step posts for how to get a Suica and how to get a Pasmo card. It’s from back in 2011, but it looked the same when we were there last January.
Returning your Suica or Pasmo Cards
To get the 500 Yen deposit back, you just have to go to any ticket office at either any JR East station (Suica) or any non-JR subway line / Narita Airport / Haneda Airport (Pasmo). You give your card to the clerk at the desk and they’ll return any money you have on the card.
We actually decided to keep our cards because the line at the Midori no Madoguchi (JR ticket office) was insane and we were running late to the airport. Both Suica and Pasmo cards expire if they are not used for 10 years.
A few more tips
- If you’re worried about your luggage on the bullet train, ask them for seats near the end of the car. There’s a space behind the last row of chairs where large luggage will fit.
- If you have a ton of time to kill before your train, you can put your luggage in a nifty locker – for up to 3 days at some places. Just remember to take pics of where you put it and your receipt, in case you forget/lose it. The passcode on your receipt is how you get your things back!
- Buy your shinkansen tickets ahead of time, even if you don’t have to for the non-reserved tickets with a JR Pass. It makes life easier knowing you’ll have a seat, and you’ll avoid that pesky travel anxiety.
- You can use your passmo/suica card at vending machines and at some convenience stores – just look for the card logo on the machine/register. Easy way to use the last of your card balance.
That’s it! Since we only have a day in Fukuoka on our upcoming trip, doubt we’ll have much more to add about Japan, but super excited for the week in Korea!