When people think of trains in Japan, usually the image in their heads is that of peak hour in Tokyo, with station staff cramming passengers in the overstuffed carriages like sardines in a tin. So when I say that touring Japan by train is the most affordable option, as well as the most comfortable, I can understand your surprise. For arguments sake, let us first look into the other options to traverse this beautiful country.
Travelling by car, the option giving most freedom is the most expensive and time consuming choice. When factoring in car hire, petrol and tolls (the privately owned highways are a joy to drive though) you will find your travel budget blowing out. You may also run into trouble if you don’t speak Japanese, as in between the major cities English is few and far between, with signage only in the local lingo. This may test your patience as you find your travel time in the country dwindling while on the side of the road trying to make head or tail of maps or locals directions!
Travelling by air, particularly through budget airlines is yet to really take off in japan (excuse the pun). While the passenger numbers are growing each year, it’s easy to see why they have such a tough time expanding when one remembers that modern Japan was built on the back of its extensive rail network. The prices between major cities are comparable to that of tickets for the high speed trains (Shinkansen) but the Shinkansen has no security screening, no hanging around waiting to board and the major stations are in the middle of the city. Most major airports are generally an hour away from the CBD by train or shuttle bus which adds even more time sitting on transport not exploring the country.
So you have decided train travel is the best option but where to from here? Well, there are a myriad of choices when it comes to guided scenic tours, taking you by Shinkansen from the top of japan to the bottom as well as the more focused, regionalized and seasonal itineraries. If you are lucky enough to have a Japanese travel agent like JTB in your local area they would be the first point of call, although most reputable agents should have no problems organizing a scenic tour for you. But if you are a little more adventurous the best option in my opinion would be the JR Rail pass. This pass includes the entire Japan Rail network and will get you almost anywhere in the country with a 7, 14 and 21 day pass available. These passes will enable you to tailor your journey to see the best parts of japan and give the most flexibility. If you are only travelling in one area of Japan you can also get regional, multiple days passes that start at much cheaper prices and might be a better option for the more frugal traveller.
The last consideration one should make before embarking on a scenic tour of japan by rail is the time of the year. The busy periods tend to be early January with the new year and the month of august with many local festivals occurring with obon week (an annual Buddhist event which sees many people return home to commemorate their ancestors) packing out trains all over the country. Weather wise June to around mid- July is the rainy season which can be miserable, but other than that depending on the season you prefer the weather in japan is generally pretty agreeable.
Now you have the right information to get underway, go and start planning your scenic rail tour in Japan!