Japan is an awesome place to visit. I’m making a first timer’s budget guide to Japan to help those who are traveling to Japan or are thinking about visiting Japan for the first time. Airfares are cheaper than ever to Japan and award tickets to Japan are quite abundant as well. First of all as a disclaimer, I am not Japanese, but I have traveled to Japan several times and my sister lives there as well. I have done many tourist things as well as non tourist things in Japan. My perspective will focus on getting good bang for your buck and traveling efficiently. For this post, I will focus on planning the trip. I will talk about flight booking and transportation by train.
If you are not using miles, my favorite tool to use is google.com/flights. This tool is easy to use and easy to see when flights are the cheapest. I would aim for non-American airlines because they are nicer overall. The best airline to fly is probably Singapore Airlines, but they can be pricier. Most likely, you’ll be flying into Tokyo because it is the cheapest.
There are two airports in Tokyo: Narita and Haneda. When you do a search, use TYO as the airport code. Narita is 1-2 hours from Tokyo, while Haneda is in southeast Tokyo. Even though Narita is farther, you can take the foreigner discount for Narita Express for 4,000 Yen to Tokyo/Shinjuku/Shinagawa station roundtrip, which takes about an hour. If you want convenience, I would take the Limousine Bus for about 3,100 yen one-way to your hotel if you are staying at one (hopefully with points). For more logistical information, I would go here for Narita and here for Haneda.
If you are using miles, I would look for seats on ANA using United miles, JAL using British Airways Avios or AA miles, or Singapore Air using Krisflyer miles. Both ANA and Singapore flights can be obtainable through Chase Sapphire Preferred points (transferred to United and Singapore). It costs the following for economy class, one-way is half the price:
- United miles: 70,000 round-trip + $45~ in tax
- AA miles: 65,000 round-trip + $45~ in tax
- Krisflyer miles: 55,250 roundtrip + $81~ tax
- Delta miles: 65,000 roundtrip + $45~ in tax
- British Airways Avios: 50,000 roundtrip + (from west coast) + $92~ in tax or 60,000 roundtrip from LAX-KIX(Osaka).
The goldmine for award tickets is definitely using Krisflyer miles because Singapore is the best airline at the cheapest redemption price. The second best option or equivalent would be using BA Avios on JAL, which only cost 50,000 roundtrip from the west coast. One credit card signup can get you a free roundtrip ticket to Japan!
Should I Get a Japan Rail Pass?
One of the most common questions is if you should get the 7-day JR Pass which lets you travel on unlimited JR trains for ~29,000 yen. If you plan on traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto and back in 7 days, I would get the JR pass because a one-way ticket between those two cities is already ~13,000 yen.
I have actually never gotten the 7-day JR pass because we don’t like to rush ourselves in a 7-day schedule. I personally think 7 days to do Tokyo and Kansai area is too short. In addition, I personally do not like backtracking either. Most people want to hit up Tokyo area and Kyoto area, but you waste time traveling back to Tokyo for your flight. One way to avoid backtracking is to fly into Tokyo and then fly out of Osaka.
As shown above, there is a KIX-LAX flight you can take for only 30,000 Avios and about $65 in taxes. One of my goals is to be efficient with cost and time, so an ideal itinerary might look like this:
- LAX-NRT one-way 27,625 Krisflyer miles, spend 3-5 days in Tokyo area
- Shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto, spend 3-5 days in Osaka/Kyoto area (13,000 yen)
- KIX-LAX one-way 30,000 British Airways Avios
In the case above, a JR pass may not be cost efficient, because you would have to take 16,000 yen of JR trains to make your money back. Once you get to Kyoto, you can get a 1 or 2 days bus pass, which will be more practical than a JR pass.
There are also other JR passes that are very useful such as the JR Kansai Pass or JR Tohoku Pass, or the Hakone Free Pass. These passes specialize in certain regions. I have gotten the Hakone Free Pass, which is a 3 day ticket in the Hakone area with a roundtrip ticket from Tokyo (Shinjuku station) for a great price. I’ve shared my experience here about Hakone. My past trip, I got the JR Kansai Wide Area Pass that was a 5 day pass for 8,500 yen. We got to see some cool towns that tourists don’t usually visit using that pass.
With all being said, the JR pass still may make sense to you, but you can delay the start or end the JR pass early and explore Tokyo locally. For example, here is an example itinerary:
- Land in Narita,get the Keisei airport transfer + 3 day Tokyo subway pass for ~3,500 yen
- Explore Tokyo for 3 days, then activate your 7-day JR pass
- Explore Kansai Area (Kyoto/Osaka area) for 7 days or add in Hiroshima
- Take the JR back to Narita on the 7th day
- Fly home
The reason why you would want to delay activating your JR pass is because you want to explore Tokyo first. The JR pass is not as useful as you think in Tokyo because it is only 1 of the 3 main subway companies in Tokyo. The route can be quite limiting and you will end up having to waste time or buy multiple subway tickets.
If you just want to maximize your JR 7 day pass and you book a roundtrip to Tokyo, I would just go straight to Kyoto upon landing in Narita. I think the most efficient way would be this:
- Land in Narita
- Activate JR Pass, take the JR directly to Kyoto (4 hour bullet train)
- Explore Kansai area for 4-5 days
- Bullet train back to Tokyo, explore for 2 days
- Go to Narita Airport on the 7th day
I would say the method above would cover a lot of ground, but you will be tired. We are more relaxed travelers, so we would not do the above schedule.
My personal recommendation is to focus on one area of Japan if you have one week and two areas of Japan if you have two weeks. For one week of travel, you can do Tokyo + Hakone or Kansai area + limited time in Tokyo. For two weeks of travel, you can base yourself in Tokyo for a week, and base yourself in Osaka for a week. A 14-day JR Pass may make sense in your situation, but most of the time it will end up costing more. Here is what I would do in two weeks if you have RT to Narita booked:
- Land in Narita, take the Limousine bus or roundtrip Narita express for 4,000 yen
- Explore Tokyo using a prepaid Suica card (nonrefundable 220 yen deposit). This is a reloadable card that you can use on ANY subway/JR pass. You just tap the card to enter any subway and it will deduct your fare automatically. In other words, this is pay as you go. It’s well worth it to get this card and load up 1,000-2,000 yen because it will save you a lot of time.
- Or Option 4a, instead of the two options above, get the Keisei roundtrip and 72 hour Tokyo subway card (5,600 yen). I think this is great value and you can initiate your 72 hour subway card later and return to Narita on any day. For example, go to Tokyo via Keisei, activate 72 hour pass the next day, then go to Kansai area, and use your return ticket from Tokyo to Narita a week later.
- Visit Hakone using the Hakone free pass from Shinjuku station (5,100 or 5,600 yen). Or take another day trip to another town besides Hakone.
- Go home at this point, if it is a one week trip. Continue on below if it is two weeks.
- Take the bullet train to Kyoto or Osaka (13-14K yen)
- Get the Kansai Area or Kansai Wide Area pass to explore the area for 5 days or so.
- Take the bullet train back to Tokyo (13-14K yen), explore a bit more or skip Tokyo and head to Narita directly.
- Total = 4K+5.5K+27k = about 37,000 yen vs. 14-day JR pass at 46,000 yen + 5,600 for Hakone.
I think the main problem with the JR pass is that you may be in an area where there are no JR trains, but only private train companies. Hakone is one example. You can get to Hakone with the JR pass, but once you are there you have to buy a Hakone free pass to explore the area.
A final thing to consider is flying within Japan. Avios are great for flying within Japan because most flights are only 4,500 Avios with almost no tax. I’ve explained this here. However, I think using Avios saves you a good amount of money, it is not that time efficient because you have to get to the airport early and airport transfers can take time.
In conclusion I think Option 1 is ideal and Option 4/4a is another close competitor. Option 2 might make sense in your situation if you are traveling for 1.5 weeks. Travel to Japan can be quite complicated and take lots of logistics planning, but do what makes sense in your situation. In most cases, I would not recommend the JR 7-day pass and would focus on certain area passes instead. Hopefully this first timer’s budget guide to Japan has helped you make some decisions regarding flights and transportation within Japan. If you have any questions, please ask.