In a significant development for travellers exploring the Land of the Rising Sun, the Japan Rail (JR) network has raised its prices for rail passes for the first time in four decades, resulting in an average price hike of approximately 70%.
The move has led to concerns among tourists, but experts predict that demand will remain robust, thanks to favourable factors like a weaker yen and a steady influx of inbound visitors.
Price Surge Hits Tourists
As of the beginning of this month, tourists purchasing a 14-day unlimited rail pass for travel across Japan will now have to pay ¥80,000 ($534), up significantly from the previous ¥47,250.
Additionally, there are options for one-week and three-week passes, as well as first-class upgrades, with price increases ranging from approximately 65% to 77%.
The JR network, which consists of six train operators, defends these price adjustments by pointing out that previous fares were established when the bullet-train network was less extensive, and now, higher prices are warranted due to service expansion into northern regions.
Covering an extensive 19,000 kilometres (11,800 miles) across the archipelago, the JR network has evolved significantly since its last fare adjustment.
A Shift in Pricing Strategy
Koki Mizuno, a spokesperson at Central Japan Railway Co., explained, “We never raised the prices other than making slight adjustments during consumer-tax hikes.”
He further highlighted that various system upgrades introduced over the years, including online seat reservations and automatic ticket gates, had not been reflected in pass prices until now.
Additionally, travellers now have the option to pay an extra fee for access to the Nozomi and Mizuho, the fastest Shinkansen bullet-train services, instead of being restricted to slower trains with more stops.
Notably, these passes are not available for purchase by residents of Japan and are valid for use on express trains, local lines, and even some ferries.
Mixed Reactions from Tourists
The price hike has garnered mixed reactions from tourists. Some, like Rachel Wright from San Francisco, who explored Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima, Gifu, Kanazawa prefectures, and the Hakone hot spring area over 16 days using a 21-day pass, still consider the passes a valuable option despite the price increase.
She remarked, “Even if you don’t save money, it’s very convenient because you just slide in and go anywhere.”
However, the price increase may prompt some visitors to explore alternative travel options, such as low-cost carriers like Jetstar and All Nippon Airways Co.’s Peach, particularly for long-distance intercity travel.
Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Denise Wong noted that airfares can cost 10% to 70% less than regular train tickets, making them an attractive choice for budget-conscious travellers.
Kylie Hone, an Australian tourist who explored Tokyo, Osaka, Hiroshima, and Kyoto with her family of five, expressed reservations about purchasing passes at the new, higher price. She stated, “It was our last time to buy the passes.”
Trains vs. Airlines: The Battle Continues
Despite the price hike, experts believe that trains will maintain a competitive edge over airlines for short- to medium-distance trips, where air travel is less efficient due to factors like airport access and dwell time. Moreover, modest cost savings for train travel compared to air travel may continue to attract tourists.
When questioned about concerns over losing customers due to the fare increase, JR Central’s Mizuno confidently asserted, “It continues to be a good deal.”
As the new pricing structure takes effect, tourists will weigh their options carefully, balancing convenience, cost, and efficiency while exploring Japan’s diverse landscapes and attractions.
(With Inputs from Bloomberg)