One spring I flew in to Haneda airport and ambitiously tried to see a city a day by rail. It can be done but the itineraries have to be kept short and hotels needs to be close to the train station or in the center of where you want to explore. Here is more of what I learned from the experience.
1. Getting a JR rail pass is the best option
I traveled from Tokyo all the way to the southern island of Kyushu and back in two weeks and only paid $386. If I would have bought tickets leg by leg the cost would have been in the thousands of dollars. When I lived in Japan 5 years ago I paid 5400 Yen each way to go from Shizuoka to Nagoya during the holidays to stay with my best friend’s family.
2. Reserve your seat – it’s free
I also found out that getting reservations in, near or through areas from Kyoto to Osaka is necessary. In Kyoto I had to get a reservation after finding out all the trains were fully booked for the next two hours. I was on my way to Hiroshima and I wasn’t able to see most of the city because of the time loss. The problem with securing seats are tons of tour groups who can take all the seats, non-reserved seats go fast in tourist hot spots, and tons of business commuters.
3. Getting from cost to cost takes forever
Unless you are going from Tokyo to Kanazawa on the new Hokuriku Shinkansen line going to the opposite sides of the coast can be painfully long even though the distance isn’t that great. Don’t pack in too many escapades that take you from east to west because your time will be swallowed by travel. The Shinkansen also doesn’t run along the western side of the island so any travel there takes much longer.
4. Not everything is covered by the pass, but you get extras
Buses in Kyoto are not ran by JR and cost about 250 Yen each way. I arrived in Kyoto late in the day and thought I could make it to Kinkakuji temple. The temple was closing right as I got to the entrance and most of the shops around it were closed too. Make sure the places you are going to are open, many sites close early in the afternoon. Also, watch your transfers, some locations are not served by the JR line and the costs can be quite high. Sometimes you will have to take the subway line so be prepared with cash or a card.
Hiroshima is a very rail pass friendly city. There are JR bus tours you can ride for free and they take you to all the famous sites and parks. Shizuoka is also a great JR pass city with buses going to all sorts of cool areas in and near the city. The ancient Toro ruins was one of my favorite spots. JR operated ferries are also covered by the pass, I found this out when I didn’t have to pay to take the ferry to Miyajima. Major JR pass perk.
Some transfers are easy where you switch lines and usually have to wait a half hour or so. Other transfers require a bit more work case in point: Osaka. Traveling to Koyasan from Beppu was about a seven hour mess of walking, transfers and station switches. To go from the JR Osaka loop lines to the Nakai line requires walking for nearly 10 minutes through underground shopping tunnels with sporadically marked directions for the Nakai line that seem to disappear the closer you get to your destination. Traversing large underground stations can be a mess in general.