|From Wikipedia: Nikko... shall I, or shan't I? Oh... I did.|
For a visitor to Japan, checking the benefits of a Japan Rail Pass should be practically a reflex reaction. A 7-day or 14-day Japan Rail Pass is perfect for a typical first visit to Japan in which the visitor zooms around on Shinkansens (bullet trains) between Tokyo, Kyoto, Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Currently, those passes are priced at £184 and £293 respectively.
Even though my itinerary wasn't entirely fixed, I priced out what I did have using Hyperdia. I could already see that our train tickets would come to over £300 and I would still need to buy some extra ones, since we're staying for 17 days. It looks like the 14-day pass will just about work for us, doesn't it? Just about...
Well, it turns out there is a better option, practically tailor-made for a trip like ours. Japan Rail offers many less well-known regional passes. We'll be travelling around Tohoku prefecture with a few days at either end in Narita and Tokyo respectively. We have a few days of long-distance expensive train journeys, interspersed with days of cheap, slow local transport or car hire.
The Tohoku regional pass costs £124. It allows just five days of train travel, but very importantly, it allows you to spread them out as you like over a 14-day period. And incidentally, it includes Tokyo. It may even include a car hire discount, but I haven't looked into this much as yet. It would pay for itself on our very first 'expensive' day of travel.
For the 14-day pass to prove better value, we would need to spend an average of £20 a day on local transport. I already know that's not going to happen: so far our most expensive 'local transport' day comes in at £10. As it is, having five 'expensive' days to play with encouraged me to look at Nikko, a town of which the Japanese apparently say "Never say beautiful until you've seen Nikko". It's not technically in Tohoku, but it is on the Tohoku pass.
Somehow, Nikko really pulled my itinerary together, and by the end of the morning, I'd booked two night in a fancy ryokan in Nikko and two nights immediately before that near Sendai station (because we really want to visit Yamadera, and perhaps the coast, on opposite sides of Sendai).