Japan has a reputation as a very expensive place to travel, but it is trying to raise its profile as an international destination with some deals available just for foreign visitors. We here at RocketNews24 have gathered all the information together in one place for your travel-planning pleasure, so now you have no excuse not to visit us!
An oldie but a goodie, the Japan Rail Pass allows for free travel around Japan’s bullet train system, as well as city trains run by JR. The fastest bullet trains, called Nozomi and Mizuho, are not included, however. Passes are available in 7-, 14- and 21-day increments for either unreserved seats or the Green Car reserved seats.
The JR Pass cannot be purchased inside Japan, so you will need to buy it up to three months in advance of travel from a licensed dealer. They will give you a tickets that can be exchanged for the actual pass at a JR ticket office once you reach Japan. If you are planning to cover a lot of ground during your trip, this is an excellent deal.
It is also possible to buy a JR Pass limited to one region, which is cheaper than the full pass. The same purchasing procedure applies. See this excellent JNTO page for more details.
If you are planning to rent a car to drive around Japan, which can be a good option in more rural areas where public transportation is spotty, you may want to consider an ETC pass. ETC is an electronic toll collection system that allows you to enter and exit toll roads without stopping. For Japanese, it is usually connected to a credit card and the toll is automatically deducted, but for foreign visitors there is the fixed-rate Expressway Pass available for Central Japan and Hokkaido.
Naturally, the first thing you will need is an international driver’s license. After that, you can reserve a rental car and the Express Pass at Toyota Rent-a-Car or Times Car Rental. The passes are available for up to 14 days, with the cost starting at 5,000 yen ($49) for two days, up to 16,000 yen ($157) for 14 days. The pass is simply returned with the rental car.
The two major domestic air carriers, ANA and JAL, have special deals for foreign visitors as well. JAL has the Yokoso/Visit Japan Fare and the Welcome to Japan Fare, which offer discounted flat-rate prices on domestic flights to over 30 cities when purchased in conjunction with an international flight to Japan on JAL or a oneworld partner airline. ANA has a similar deal on for Star Alliance customers. Both companies have some blackout dates, so check carefully before booking.
Transportation/Sightseeing Combo Passes
Many cities have begun offering passes that combine unlimited travel on public transportation with discounts at popular tourist attractions. There are really too many to list and many of them are not even restricted to foreign visitors, so be sure to ask at the local tourist information counter what’s available at your destination, but here are some popular ones only for you lucky visitors:
Osaka Amazing Pass– Any schlub can get the 1-day pass, but only foreign visitors get the better value 2-day pass.
Kansai Thru Pass– Unlimited travel throughout the Kansai region with lots of discounts on attractions and it can even be used on non-consecutive days, so take your time!
Feel Kobe– Not a pass per se, but a bunch of coupons that can be used in conjunction with your passport around the Kobe area, including the city loop bus.
Tokyo Metro Open Ticket– International visitors can get a discounted version of Tokyo Metro’s 1- and 2-day unlimited passes. These passes don’t come with any attraction discounts, but they can be purchased in combination with things like the Grutt Pass, a discount coupon book for 78 art galleries, museums, zoos, aquariums and botanical gardens around Tokyo, and offer an additional 8 percent discount at select Bic Camera electronics stores
Some cities and regions in Japan offer a guidebook filled with coupons for foreign visitors called a Welcome Card. The coupons are valid for discounts, free gifts or other special services at attractions, lodging and restaurants in the area. Currently, northern Tohoku, Narita, Tokyo, Shoryudo (a region between Tokyo and Osaka comprising nine prefectures), Kobe, Kita-Kyushu offer Welcome Cards. All are available at local tourist information centers, and many of them can even be printed out online.
As with many other countries, foreign shoppers are exempt from consumption tax on purchases over 10,000 yen ($98). Some shops deduct the tax from your purchase, but most large department stores have a special counter where you take all of your receipts after shopping. Either way, you will have to show a passport, so be sure to bring it with you.
Certain items, such as cosmetics, food, alcohol, cigarettes, medicine, film and batteries are not currently included in the tax-refund scheme, but will be from October 2014, when the law will also change to exempt purchases over 5,000 yen ($49).
In an effort to attract overseas shoppers, some Japanese department stores and retail chains have started offering discounts only available by flashing your passport. Sometimes these are run as promotions only during high seasons, so it never hurts to ask at the customer service counter what deals they might be running, but at the time of writing, we were able to find some more established offers as well:
AEON– Budget retailer AEON offers foreign shoppers a 5% discount
Bic Camera– In a tie-up with Visa, electronics giant Bic Camera is offering 5% off and a free gift when foreign shoppers pay with their Visa card
Free Walking Tours
Why pay for a tour guide when you can get one for free? Volunteering as a foreign-language guide is a popular activity for students and the elderly in Japan, so make use of their friendliness and generosity with their time, and not only will you get a free tour with a local, you might just make a friend too. Larger cities like Tokyo often have established programs, but smaller towns should be able to arrange something through the tourist information office as well. The JNTO has an extensive list of volunteers by region. These volunteers can often be spotted at the entrance to popular cultural sites too.
It’s been mentioned several times already, but the tourist information office is your friend. Not only can they help you with everything from finding accommodation to suggesting local delicacies, they are also a treasure trove of coupons! Most offices have racks and racks of brochures that include coupons, as well as maps that include coupons, and some plain old coupons lying around. Make use of them.
So those are our penny-pinching suggestions. Have we missed anything, readers? Help out your fellow Rocketeers with tips on your favorite deals for the Nippon-bound in the comments.
Image: “Mountfujijapan” by Swollib