JR Rail Pass Hacks
Always be Prepared
During my last visit to Japan, I was lucky enough to get a rail pass from my parents to make traveling a breeze. I have to say, although there were some issues at first, having a JR Rail Pass was a great investment. Here are some things to try if you do get a rail pass of your own!
Know when to "Activate" your Rail Pass
One of the first things to know is that your rail pass only lasts between 1-3 weeks, so when activating your rail pass, make sure you time it out so you get the most out of your pass. I almost activated mine the first day which would have been, well, pretty bad. For example, if you have a 14 day rail pass but plan on being in Japan for 18 days, maybe activate it on day 4 over day 1. Keep in mind that not all stations allow you to "activate" your rail pass at their location, so check in advanced before going to Japan (While in Kobe, Sannomiya station wouldn't activate my rail pass so I had to walk to another station to activate the pass).
Take Advantage of All the Services
Most people think a rail pass is great for riding local trains and getting on the Shinkansen. While these are both awesome uses of your rail pass, I was able to get on the Narita Express using my rail pass, and other services available include rides on JR buses and JR Ferries as well. I ended up navigating through Kyoto using the rail pass to get on all my trains and buses. Also, because you can walk into any JR station just by showing your rail pass, you can get easy access to restrooms, perfect if you aren't familiar with the area and have a sudden need to use the bathroom.
Book in Advanced!
I don't mean book your rail pass in advanced. . . Though you should, I mean be sure to book seats on services such as Shinkansen rides or Narita Express. While you may not get access in the green cars (unless you pay an extra fee), you can use your rail pass to reserve seats to avoid standing or the awkwardness of being in someone else's seat. Additionally, if you have no issues with cigarette smoke, I would recommend reserving a seat in a smoking car. The smoking cars tend to have less passengers, making for a comfortable, quiet ride.
Make the Most of Each Station!
More appropriate for when I was using the Shinkansen, but many stations have a lot of great stores and shops to explore. One of my favorite was the small Uniqlo Store selling Basic Uniqlo goods and UT Graphic Shirts. There's also the Eva-Ya Evangelion Store in Hakone, and more to discover. Also, because you can travel all around Japan with your pass, these stations are a great way to pick up local specialties if you don't want to venture too far from the station!