If you plan to travel a lot, buy a JR Railpass!
Japan Railways [the "JR" in "JR Railpass"] is the largest railway system in Japan; and a railpass lets you travel on any of their trains free of charge! The railpasses are only available to foreigners, and must be purchased at a travel agency before you go to Japan; once in Japan, you just go to the nearest JR station with a travel agency [most big stations will have one, and usually with someone who speaks enough English to help anyone] and exchange your purchase receipt for your railpass. Anytime you ride on a JR line, just show your pass as your walk by the ticket booth. Real convenient, no?
There is a down side to this deal, though: the railpasses are fairly expensive. Your can purchase them to cover for one, two, or three weeks (three weeks being the best deal overall), but one railpass can cost as much as the ticket to get to Japan in the first place. Prices tend to range from about 50,000yen for one week to about 120,000yen for three weeks [about $500 to $1200]... so if you are planning to spend your whole trip in just one city, it may not be very cost effective to purchase one. But if you plan to travel all over the country, it can really save you money. Consider that the average cost for a one-way train trip from Tokyo to Kyoto in 1998 started at around 35,000yen [about $350], and you can see where these can be helpful on busy trips.
When I visit Japan for just one week to find books and such, I don't normally purchase a railpass... but on my longer trips, when I'm jumping from temple to shrine all over, these have saved me plenty of money and trouble. After all, even when I run out of cash I can still take the train to my hotel!
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