questions & answers: using the japan rail pass

is there a way to make reservations before coming to japan?

Is there a way to make reservations before coming to Japan?

I remember a few years ago doing that for a friend coming to Japan: he was supposed to send a photocopy of his passport and his voucher, and with that I could make the reservations before he actually came to Japan.

That was a few years ago.

I tried to do that again, and the JR employees looked at me as if I was coming from another planet, and assure me such a thing is not possible and has never been... Yet I remember doing it (fuzzily, as it was quite a few years ago).

Are they right? Is there no way to do advance reservations? Was it somehow cancelled in recent years?
Is my memory failing me?

If there is indeed no way to make seat reservations before coming to Japan, then I will be much more careful before recommending JR Pass to friends. Not being able to do reservations in advance in combination to not having access to Nozomi means a very high risk of not getting the seats you want in peak season, like mid-August.

While the JR Pass is in general a good deal, especially if you travel a lot, it implies restrictions. That one just does not make sense, and is a very good reason to avoid it for peak seasons, depending on how much you plan to travel and how much it would make you save.

ikkyu
ikkyu

Hi Ikkyu.

Seat reservations

As far as I am aware, for counter reservations you have never been able to make reservations with a photocopy of the Exchange Order - I think you have always needed to show a valid Japan Rail Pass. You could've just got lucky last time!

Regarding reservations in general, you can reserve JR-East trains online, however for other JR networks, you will have to reserve your seats over the counter in Japan.

If you are on a very strict schedule, one way to ensure you have seats for your travels on exactly the train you want to use is to reserve all your seats for your trip as soon as you arrive in Japan at the JR counter in the airport (seat reservations are free for JR Pass holders). In my experience this has always been successful. I've also always had great success just booking as soon as I turn up at the station. If all else fails, there is always standing room for travel.

Value of Japan Rail Pass

Whether a JR Pass is suitable for you is all down to personal preference, convenience and size of wallet. The Japan Rail Pass is by far the cheapest way to travel across Japan as long as you go above 1 return journey from Tokyo - Kyoto. Any more travel than that and with a JR Pass you basically travel for free. In addition I think it's a far more convenient option for non-Japanese speakers, though english language signage in Japan is improving.

This year the use of the JR Pass has been expanded free of charge to include the new Sakura/Kyushu Shinkansen that lets you travel from Osaka all the way to the bottom tip of Kyushu on the same train, and the new Hayabusa Shinkansen from Tokyo to Shin-Aomori. It's still not possible to use Nozomi trains, but that's much more value essentially free of charge.

If you buy individual tickets, well, you have to buy individual tickets, and these can get really expensive. I think It's also pretty hard (impossible?) to book JR train tickets outside japan for non-japanese speakers. If your friend is desperate to book in advance they are lucky to have you in country!

Hope this helps!

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mari
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Hi Mari,

Thank you for your answer.

I am sure I did the photocopy-based reservation in the past. It may have been at JTB and not JR, I cannot remember that. At the time, it was a normal procedure that I had read about in advance.

However, it doesn't exist now, that's for sure. JTB site, various JR sites mention that reservations are possible only with the JR pass itself (they don't mention the JR East online reservation system).

I did have problems trying to reserve seats for the o-bon period, even when trying to do the reservations one week or more in advance; I'm talking from experience on that. The issue is that o-bon is a peak period, the shinkansen available for JR Pass holders are limited. I had in some case had to rework travel plans because the train could not be booked.

I will indeed try to make the reservations with them from the airport when they arrive. That will also probably eat a couple of hours (again, from past experiences) that I would rather have spared them by doing it myself before they arrive. Non-reservation or standing is not the best way to travel with children (even teens), but well, yes, there is also this possibility. I'm upset because I try to do my best to plan the nicest possible trip for my friends, and this look like something JR could fix - if they cared.

About the value... Yes ,it does depend on what your plan are. certainly, it is good value for them this time, they will use tickets for about 60.000 yen with a pass of 45.000 yen (two weeks version). 1 return trip to Kyoto from Tokyo is indeed about the same price as the JR Pass, which is what I always say to my friends when explaining about the JR Pass (my usual summer vacation is about showing friends and family around in Japan).

Of course, you could use Nozomi if you bought the tickets instead of using the pass, and there are some other plans possible if you reserve in advance and in the right periods, like Puratto Kodama for about 10.000 yen one way Tokyo-Kyoto. There are other ways too, like night buses which cost in the range of 5000~8000 yen one way, depending on the type of bus and comfort, and bringing you to the place you want to visit in the early morning.
If you forsake the idea of the pass, and see what else is available outside of JR too, you may end up with good deals/convenience. For instance, to go to Nikko with JR meant you had to do a detour and change trains at Utsunomiya, while another company has a direct line which is cheaper, too. Going to Narita from Tokyo is faster and cheaper on the Skyliner than on the Narita Express, etc... And with the split of JR in regional companies, some deals may end up better when using local passes (like JR East pass) in combination with other companies.

Having a JR Pass lets you save a bit in local transportation too, like using the Yamanote loop in Tokyo, that's true. On the other hand, there are quite a lot of other train companies in Japan on which the Pass doesn't work, so depending on the place you visit, the value varies.

In short, the JR Pass is not always as big a value as one may think, although it does have good value in a number of cases. It depends a lot of where you go, and how much you travel.

About having someone in Japan to make reservations... yes, I realize this is not the most common case for visitors. But they do have access to travel agents, so if it was possible to do reservations from abroad or from Japan in advance of having the Pass itself issued, then other people could do that though agents. I think this is what I did in the past, probably thought JTB, when I did those advance reservations.

Anyway, I'll live with that for this year, check if there is anything I can do using the JR East online reservation system, and otherwise do what I can on the day they arrive, at the airport. "Shikata ga nai", as they say.
But I think this is a big flaw in the JR Pass system, which, again, could be remedied in a number of ways if the JR group looks into it.

ikkyu
ikkyu

From the site of JR East:
"Passengers who plan on using the JAPAN RAIL PASS to travel on Shinkansen and some Limited Express services in the East Japan Railway Company area can use this site to reserve seats before arrival in Japan. (Reservations cannot be made for the Tokaido & Sanyo Shinkansen, or for the Kyushu Shinkansen)"

Too bad, it was the Tokaido Shinkansen I wanted to book. Ah well...

ikkyu
ikkyu

Choice is a great thing! The Puratto Kodama is a great option for the budget traveller if you don't mind the restrictions (and if you live in Japan and can speak Japanese), and night buses are also a great choice, especially if you're on a tight budget and are happy to travel in this way. In fact I have friends who have travelled from Fukuoka to Tokyo by hitchhiking on a shoestring, so it is even technically possible to travel in Japan for free!

Ultimately, though, it's a question of balancing convenience, speed, flexibility and price with your holiday, and for most travellers ((especially those getting outside the Tokyo metropolitan area) the JR Pass is by far the best option. Of course, if you are not travelling enough to make a JR Pass worthwhile, then I couldn't advise you to buy one.

I think the main thing holding back an integrated country wide non-Japanese reservation system for JRPass holders is precisely what makes the Japan Rail Pass such good value: It would be hard to financially justify the investment in a non-Japanese reservation system for JR Pass holders that can make reservations for free. (although JR-East has managed to).

I think there is also some concern that making reservations free to book online (or otherwise) will encourage people to make speculative reservations "just in case", but ultimately not use them, preventing JR from selling a seat reservation in the normal way. This is ultimately why in the JR-East system you must enter your CC details so that they can charge you in the event of a no-show.

Despite this, and that the JR-East system is incomplete for trains that cross JR zones (as you discovered), I hope that it will encourage other networks to make similar tools available. We will have to wait and see.

I hope you manage to book the reserved seats at the airport when your friends arrive, and sorry I couldn't be of more help.

M

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mari
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