Last spring we went to Japan for the first time. We went to Tokyo, Yamanashi (Fujikawaguchiko), Kyoto, Osaka, and Hiroshima within a 10-days worth of travel. We went to these 5 places and the itinerary I made took the JR pass into great consideration in terms of our movement from one area to another and the timeline of our travel. I'd like to share this to you all in case you are wondering if the JR pass would really be the best fit for your travel itinerary.
You may check the specific places we visited during our 10 day trip in my other article:
Part 1 (Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto): https://www.odigo.jp/articles/11316-our-10-day-trip-to-japan-tokyo-osaka-kyoto-hiroshima-yamanashi-part-1
Part 2 (Hiroshima and Yamanashi): https://www.odigo.jp/articles/11342-our-10-day-trip-to-japan-tokyo-osaka-kyoto-hiroshima-yamanashi-part-2
You might also want to check-out some of the Japanese food we tried while on this trip especially for first time travelers!
Click this link for my other Odigo article (Japanese Food recommendations for first time travelers)
Let's be honest, the pass can be a bit pricey and it only entitles you to certain JR operated mode of transportation. So if you would like to really squeeze the juices out of your JR pass, here are some tips and some travel itinerary arrangements to help you determine if your travel could exhaust the benefit of the JR pass.
I wouldn't talk about the hows and specific details for the purchase or use of JR pass but I would give you instead some insights on, "When is it necessary to buy one?", or "What type of travel plans would make the JR pass your ultimate travel pass?".
For the specific details, purchase and terms and conditions of the JR pass please visit this website: http://www.japanrailpass.net/en/ or through another article here in Odigo https://www.odigo.jp/articles/2156-the-jr-pass-what-it-can-do-for-you .
Here are the Three (3) major points for you to consider if the JR pass would be best for your travel itinerary:
1. If you will stay for 7 days, 14 days or 21 days in Japan. Any less than that, I'd recommend you get the day passes instead. The JR pass could be purchased based on the number of days exactly as either good for 7, 14 or 21 days.
When I went to Japan last spring, we stayed for 10 days. So instead of buying the 14 days worth of JR pass, we purchased the 7 days pass and used a 3 days pass on the area to which we stayed around. The local trains may be a bit expensive but if you will stay for 5 days max, using the day passes or the pre-paid smart cards for public transportation (suica, icoca, etc.) will still be cheaper than purchasing the JR pass just to use the JR local trains. Besides, some areas would entail you to use the subway (tsukiji market in Tokyo), buses (e.g Fukuoka area) or the monorail (e.g Odaiba) for easier access.
2. If you will travel to more than 2 prefecture/s through the bullet train (shinkansen).
Bullet trains are really expensive in Japan. If you plan to travel to at least 2 prefectures you can really save a lot if you use the JR pass or the island/area specific passes (e.g JR-Kyushu, JR Central, JR East). But like most first time travelers in Japan, we traveled from Tokyo toward South to Yamanashi (Fujikawaguchiko), Kyoto, Osaka and even went to Hiroshima (day trip) then back to Tokyo (there were some circumstances that ought us to go back to Tokyo, but yes I know we could have saved a bit more if we exit via Osaka instead). These places aren't exactly close to each other. Well, Kyoto and Osaka perhaps but the rest are really far from each other. We used the bullet train 4x in our trip! So we really saved a lot since usually a one-way ticket from Tokyo to Osaka would cost 13,620 yen and our JR pass (ordinary) was worth 29,110 yen.
Here's are sample breakdown of the actual cost of our travel if we did not use the JR pass:
A. Tokyo to Osaka (one-way) 13,620 yen + Osaka to Hiroshima (2-way) 19,420 + Osaka to Mishima Station (going to Yamanashi) (one-way) 12,000 yen
= 45,040 yen!
B. Also, although we didn't use the bullet train but used the Special Rapid Service on the JR Kyoto Line from Osaka Station to Kyoto Station, we went back and forth for 2 days between these two areas. We had our accommodation in Osaka (Nanba Station). So for 2 days (2-way tickets each) that costs at around: 1,120 (two-way) x 2 days = 2,240 Yen. The JR pass gives you the flexibility to choose whatever type of train you'd like to take to fit your schedule as long as the said train is included in the scope of the pass.
3. If the areas you plan to visit would mainly be accessible via the local JR trains like in Tokyo (central area especially through the Yamanote loop/line), Osaka, and Kyoto. This is where Odigo plays a vital role in the planning of your trip. Via odigo you can easily plot out the sites and identify their proximity to each other. You can then check if the areas you want to visit are conveniently accessible using the JR lines. Also, since you are using the pass you will be asked to just enter via the special entrance-exit lane, show your pass to the guard, and you don't need to actually compute for the fare for each areas you will visit. In short, it is hassle free. If you will use the JR pass in combination to the number 2 tip, plus your unlimited ride to all local JR trains you will really save a lot.
Extra: You can also use the JR pass for the JR Miyajima Ferry which is at 180 yen (one-way).