sayonara, japan rail pass

both of my old rail passes. if everything had continued according to the progression, i should have done a 30-day rail pass in december 2021. alas!well, it’s not actually dead, but this is it – the end of an era. the Greatest Deal in the history of rail travel has come to an end: they just jacked up the price of the japan rail pass by a huge percentage. there is simply nothing that could or ever will beat it in terms of price and convenience: unlimited travel on the national JR network (including expensive shinkansen) for the duration purchased, no reservations or additional fees required (contrast europe, where the interrail pass isn’t even that great a deal and comes with a lot of caveats, and then on top of it every individual country tacks on a bullshit reservation system and additional fees). it even covered certain ancillary services attached to the JR network, like the JR miyajima ferry and some notable buses, like the one from yamaguchi to akiyoshidou cave. It basically paid for itself after just a handful of shinkansen trips, since the normal prices for those are usually quite high. the only consolation is that the dollar is so strong against the yen now that the price increase in real terms is about 20% less in USD than it might be.

really, though, it had a good run: i just found an article online that says that until now, the price of the japan rail pass has barely been increased since it was introduced in freaking 1981. i suspect the price probably got frozen at those original rates due to the collapse of the bubble economy in the early nineties, which resulted in decades of deflation in japan. additionally, they may have kept the price low to stimulate tourism: many don’t know this, but up until around 2010 japan was actually a surprisingly unpopular tourist destination for its size and history, mainly due to disinterest and its impenetrability (i only learned about this while researching my concrete essay). however, now the circumstances have changed, both economically and touristically. after trillions in covid stimulus globally, japan’s economy recently achieved a miraculous, modest bump in inflation, and of course japan is also now a massively popular tourist destination.

i’m glad i managed to get One Last Great Rail Pass Trip in late 2019, preceding not only the price increase but all the covid stuff as well. i spent weeks meticulously planning a rail pass itinerary that spanned the entire country and included a bunch of random remote onsens and stuff i wanted to go to. many said it couldn’t be done, it was far too ambitious. but i pulled it off with myself and a small group of friends flawlessly, and even managed to improvise a few visits to some doremi-related events that were going on as well. it’s possible to execute really insane rail itineraries in japan because the system is extremely reliable, the train will always arrive at exactly the time it says in the timetable and you don’t have to leave leeway anywhere. my planning was also possible thanks to an extremely powerful (and free) train timetables website/app called HYPERDIA, which has unfortunately been kneecapped since then and is basically useless now.

i remember my last time picking up the rail pass particularly vividly, at the rail pass exchange office in shin-osaka station. they had a camera crew and hostess from a japanese variety show lurking in there, ready to waylay tourists and interview them for one of their recurring segments. naturally i kept them busy for a good 10-15 minutes. i like to think i kept things classy, showing off several cheap YMO records i purchased at the mandarake that used to be in america-mura (they relocated to den-den town i believe, a more fitting location). i also demonstrated my brilliant “matryoshka suitcase” system, in which i put my stuff in a smaller suitcase inside of a bigger suitcase, so that i could bring an extra suitcase for bringing stuff back without having to deal with two suitcases on the way there. they were amazed at my ingenuity. maybe i am now a meme in japan, or maybe they never aired the interview at all, who knows.

in memory of the old rail pass, i’ve put together this little graphic in MS paint detailing my last rail pass trip in 2019, reconstructed from my notes. maybe it can also serve as research material or inspiration. honestly this itinerary is so absurd and involves so much train travel (especially on the shinkansen) that even with the increased rail pass price, you’d still be saving a good amount of money by using a rail pass for it.