Japan Rail Pass

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Going to Japan and trying to decide if the Japan Rail Pass is worth it or not?

I'll break down all the pros and cons, costs of buying individual tickets vs buying a pass, and other useful information so you can rest easy in making a decision!

Table Of Contents

What's A Japan Rail Pass

Japan has one of the most modern, comprehensive, and comfortable train networks in the world. They almost always run on time to the exact second! In May 2018, when a train left 25 seconds early - the train company issued a public apology for the inconvenience! I contrast this to my time in Italy where it was quite routine for trains to be super late or never come at all.

A Japan Rail Pass is a special discounted ticket for foreigners that allows for unlimited travel on almost all JR (Japan Rail) trains nationwide. You can choose between 7, 14, or 21 consecutive days and between standard or green (first class). It's much cheaper than buying individual JR Train tickets.

Still, the JR Passes are expensive - so I’ll break down in which cases it’s worth it to you!

Are You Eligible To Buy A JR Pass?

In order to qualify for a JR Pass:

  • You must be hold a non Japanese passport

  • You must be entering on a Tourist Visa and staying less than 90 days

Japan Rail Pass Prices

Type:
Green
Standard
Duration
Adult
Child
Adult
Child
7-day
38,880 YEN
19,440 YEN
29,110 YEN
14,550 YEN
14-day
62,950 YEN
31,470 YEN
46,390 YEN
23,190 YEN
21-day
81,870 YEN
40,930 YEN
59,350 YEN
29,670 YEN

The Green Class is for the 'first class' seats. We found the standard class seats to be just as spacious with plenty of legroom, power outlets, and tables. The only time we would consider recommending the Green Class tickets is during holidays such as Golden Week in late April/early May when the trains are mega busy.

Where can you use the Japan Rail Pass?

You can use the Japan Rail Pass on all JR trains nationwide except for the privately operated trains.

So basically you it gives you access to almost all the Shinkansen bullet trains, except for the Nozomi and Mizuho trains, which incidentally are the fastest ones. But not to worry, the other Shinkansen trains are almost just as fast. For example, when going from Tokyo to Osaka, the Nozomi is only about 20 minutes faster than the Hikari (150 mins vs 170 mins).

You can also utilize your JR Pass on local trains inside cities such as Tokyo, Osaka, or Kyoto.

Is the Japan Rail Pass Worth it?

It really depends on your trip itinerary, but in general you'll save the most money on the trips between major cities. For example, a round trip Shinkansen ticket between Tokyo and Kyoto will run you 26,160 yen. Add in a round trip Narita Express from the airport in Tokyo for 6,000 yen and it totals out to 32,000 yen. With a Japan Rail Pass, you'd have saved money already (32,000 yen vs 29,110 yen).

If you add in Osaka, the Art Islands, and other day trips like Nikko - you will definitely save money with the Japan Rail Pass. On top of all that, you'll be able to use local JR trains in certain cities.

Check out this nifty Japan Rail Calculator - it will help you determine if the Rail Pass will save you money.

Here is one of the routes we did while we were in Japan recently:

japan rail pass prices

If you want to see super accurate prices - check out Hyperdia. Make sure to uncheck the 'Private Railway' and 'Nozomi/Mizuho' lines.

japan train times

One more added convenience of the JR Pass is that it allows you to board any train without having to buy a ticket in advance.


Pros and Cons of the Japan Rail Pass

Pros:

  • Ability to hop on and off trains without having to purchase tickets in advance.

  • Saves you a lot of money, depending on your itinerary

  • Shinkansen Bullet Trains are extremely fast, modern, and comfortable

  • Great for itineraries that cover many cities

Cons:

  • Must be purchased for consecutive day use

  • Can't be used for the Nozomi or Mizuho trains

  • Not great for travelers who like to take their time slowly through each city, due to the consecutive day usage

How Much We Saved

From To Cost in Yen
Narita Express Tokyo (Round Trip) 3000
Tokyo Shin-Osaka 14,140
Shin-Osaka Kyoto 2,810
Okayama Uno 580
Uno Himeji 4,730
Himeji Nikko 19,180
Nikko Hakodate 21,850
Hakodate Sapporo 8,830
Sapporo Tokyo 26,820
Total Cost of Individual Tickets JP¥112,470
Cost of 14 Day Japan Rail Pass JP¥46,390
Savings JP¥66080

So on our two week trip through Japan we saved around 66,080 JP¥ or $590 USD Per Person when we bought the 14 day Japan Rail Pass.

On a shorter 7 day itinerary (Narita, Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Nikko, Odawara) you’ll save around 25,340 JP¥ or $226 Per Person.

When The Japan Rail Pass Is Not A Good Idea

There are a couple reasons where a Japan Rail Pass might not be best for you.

Slow Travel

If you're the kind of traveler who likes to spend an extended amount of time in each city, the JR Pass might not be the best for you since the pass works on consecutive days and is best when using it for travel between cities.

Short Itinerary + Flight

If you're flying into Tokyo and flying out of Kyoto, for example, it won't be worth it to buy the Rail Pass since you'll only be using it once to get to Kyoto.

Regional Travel

If you're only traveling within a certain region such as Kyoto, Osaka, and Nara, you'll probably want to consider getting a regional rail pass.

Budget

If you're on a tight budget and have extra time for travel, the Japan Bus Pass (Willer Bus Network) is definitely a thrifty option. For example you can buy a pass that allows for 3, 5, or 7 days of travel within a two month period. If you time it right, you can also book overnight trains to save on hotel costs. Note: the Willer Bus network is primarily based around Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto - so you'll benefit most from planning your itinerary around these areas if using the Japan Bus Pass.

Where To Buy a Japan Rail Pass

The easiest way to buy a Japan Rail Pass is through an official online vendor such as Japan Rail Pass.

The only info you'll need to provide is your full name as shown in your passport, your nationality, and an estimated arrival date in Japan.

You can send the JR Pass to your home address anywhere worldwide or to your hotel in Japan.

If your order is over $600, shipping is free to USA, most of Europe, UK, and Canada. For all other countries, you'll get 50% off shipping.


How To Use A Japan Rail Pass

When you order a JR Pass, they send you what's called an exchange order. You'll then need to take this exchange order to a JR Rail office when you land in Japan to exchange it for a JR Pass.

There will be a booklet with all the information when you receive your exchange order in the mail.

You'll need your passport, exchange order, and a start date on which you want the pass to begin.

I recommend getting this done the day before you intend to start using your JR Pass.

How To Look Up Train Times

I recommend using Hyperdia to look up train times. Just remember to uncheck 'Nozomi / Mizuho / Hayabusa (Shinkansen)' and 'private railways', since the JR Pass doesn't cover those.

Make sure to uncheck NOZOMI/MIZUHO/HAYABUSA and Private Railway

Make sure to uncheck NOZOMI/MIZUHO/HAYABUSA and Private Railway

After finding the train you want, you mostly just get on the train you want while paying attention to which cars have the unreserved seats.

Also, when you get to the train station - you'll see some entrances have automatic gates. You won't be able to use those - the best way is to just walk past the ticket office window and flash your JR pass. Sometimes you'll be asked to show your JR pass on the train too.

Hyperdia tells you which platform the train will be on, which is super useful for when you have a transfer in the middle of your route.


Do I Need To Make Seat Reservations?

In most cases, you won't need to make seat reservations and can grab a seat in an unreserved car.

The only exceptions would be for during busy national holidays, like Golden Week in late April, and for the Narita Express.

Seat reservations are free for JR Rail Pass holders - you'd need to walk in to any JR ticket office to make the reservation.

Resource List

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Henry WuComment