No doubt, while on vacation in Japan, transportation can be one of the largest (and perhaps unexpectedly expensive) expenses. Train systems across the country are incredibly convenient, and all that talk about transport being on time to a T, is totally true. Most visitors, barring those looking to travel into parts of the countryside only accessible by car, will have no trouble hitting all the points on their destination list by train. Given that, when planning to come to Japan, many people want to know in their planning, is the Japan Rail Pass worth it for me?
And the answer is: the Japan Rail Pass is a great value for a certain kind of traveler. So let’s go top to bottom looking at how the pass works.
We didn’t name this the ultimate guide for nothing! We’ll give you a simplified breakdown on the entire process of buying and using the pass, prices, and provide a handful of relevant links to help you plan your vacation.
The Japan Rail Pass offers unlimited use of transportation run by the 6 companies that comprise the Japan Railways Group, giving you access to multiple train lines, limited buses, and one ferry line.
Transport covered by the pass includes:
- JR Group trains (limited express, express, rapid and local)
- JR Group Shinkansen trains, with the exception of the Nozomi (fastest trains) and Mizuo trains (Kansai-Kyushu limited service trains).
- Tokyo Monorail (Haneda Airport Access)
- Aomori railway service (must disembark at major stations Aomori, Noheji, and Hachinohe)
- IR Ishikawa Railway (must disembark at major stations Toyama or Takaoka)
- JR Bus lines (local lines only)
- JR West Miyajima Ferry
The official site has conveniently created a JR Route Map and a Shinkansen Route Map. And for those who prefer apps and navigation sites, Navitime has an easy to use navigation program that prioritizes routes covered by the JR Pass. Head to the site, punch in your route, and on the right side of your navigation results, a small JR Pass icon will appear to indicate that stretch of route is covered. (Fare is also calculated and shown, but so long as the icon appears you’re covered).
And access to all of these routes is truly unlimited! Ride as many times as you’d like while your pass is valid.
Price (As of December 2018)
As you can see below, the Japan Rail Pass is sold based on period of use. Choose your start date, activate your pass, and your travel begins from there. Note, you cannot ‘pause’ your pass or break up the usable days, the pass must be used consecutively. And for visitors with a longer stay, the 14 and 21 day passes provide huge discounts.
- 7 Day
- 29100 JPYAdult Ordinary
- Adult Green: 38,880 JPY
- Child Ordinary: 14,550 JPY
- Child Green: 19,440 JPY
- 14 Day
- 46,390 JPYAdult Ordinary
- Adult Green: 62,950 JPY
- Child Ordinary: 23,190 JPY
- Child Green: 31,470 JPY
- 21 Day
- 59,350 JPYAdult Ordinary
- Adult Green: 81,870 JPY
- Child Ordinary: 29,670 JPY
- Child Green: 40,930JPY
How to Buy
The pass is available for sale for at registered retailers worldwide. Refer to the list by continent and country on the official Japan Rail Page to see where you can purchase. At the point of purchase outside of Japan, you will not receive the pass itself. You will receive something called an Exchange Order. After arriving in Japan, you must activate your pass to initialize the start of your Pass validity period. (See details below.)
Though the official site doesn’t make mention of this, there are a number of online retailers where you can purchase the Pass, though the sites often have mixed reviews, so be careful when making your purchase. Japan Rail Pass by Japan Experience, is one of the cheapest options, though many reviewers issued complaints about late shipping… and not the best customer service. JRPass.com receives generally good reviews from customers in the US and across Europe. Voyagin is another site with high rates of satisfaction and standard prices.
In Japan After Arrival (Available until March 2019)
For those who want to make their purchase after arrival, the JR Pass is currently running a special trial where the pass can be purchased at designated offices until March 31st 2019.
Scroll halfway down the official page to see the section titled Sales Offices in Japan for the complete list of vendors. Offices can be found in the following airports:
- Narita Airport Terminals 1, 2・3
- Haneda Airport International Terminal Kansai Airport
- New Chitose Airport
- Sendai International Airport
- Central Japan International Airport
In addition, several major stations across the country have sales offices. Refer to the above link with updated hours of operation to make sure you can get your pass the day you need it. The convenient thing about purchasing in-country is that you can activate your pass at the same office at the point of purchase. As a downside, prices in Japan are standardized and tend to be slightly more expensive than online options or offices abroad, so consider that balance between budget and convenience.
How to Activate the Pass
When you activate your pass, you will turn in your Exchange Order for the official JR Pass to be used with your passport. As shown above, exchange orders differ in appearance based on the vendor.
Passes must be activated at authorized offices, which include Ticket Offices, Travel Service Centers, and JR Information Desks located in major JR stations across the country. For the complete list, see the official list of Exchange Offices.
Please note, that in order to exchange, you will need to have a valid travel visa for Japan (eligibility for on-arrival visas vary by country). Residents, short or long term, are not eligible. In addition, the pass must be activated within 3 months of the purchase date, and the start date must be within 30 days of activation.
Using the Pass
This is key: don’t forget to bring your passport with you at all times! In JR stations, there will be a window on the side of the automatic ticket gates where passengers with tickets and IC cards will pass through. Don’t go through the gates, show your card to the attendant at the window and you will be allowed to pass through (attendants will periodically check the validity of your pass). After a day or two in, you’ll see pro-pass holders flipping open their passport to the correct page and barely stopping as they pass through the gates.
Reservations for the Shinkansen and Limited Express Trains
Travel plans can change at the last minute, but for those who like to plan ahead, JR East has created a convenient reservation site that allows you to ‘order’ tickets (for both reserved and non-reserved seats) online up to 30 days prior to the date of travel. You can even make reservations from abroad before activating your pass. Once arriving in Japan, you can pick up your tickets in person at the Shinkansen Ticket Windows. Reservations can also be made at the ticket window in JR stations at any time.
Deciding if the Pass is Right for You
So now that we’ve given the basic information on how the pass works, you might still be thinking, is buying the pass worth it for me? As we said at the start, it really depends on the person, but an easy way to determine whether or not the pass is right for you, is to calculate the cost of the Shinkansen tickets and limited express train tickets that you would be using over the course of your vacation, and if the cost of the tickets meets or exceeds the cost of the pass, then you’re definitely getting your money’s worth.
Just to make things a bit easier to understand, we created a couple mock itineraries.
Day 1 Shinagawa Station to Hiroshima Station, Reserved Seat (18,880 JPY)
Day 2 Stay in Hiroshima
Day 3 Hiroshima Station to Shin Osaka Station, Reserved Seat (10,240 JPY)
Day 4 Stay in Osaka
Day 5 Shin Osaka Station to Nagoya Station Reserved Seat (6,360 JPY)
Day 6 Stay in Nagoya
Day 7 Nagoya Station to Shinagawa Station Reserved Seat (10,890 JPY)
Total Cost: 46,370 JPY
Day 1 Activate at Haneda/Narita Airport
Day 2 Stay in Tokyo
Day 3 Stay in Tokyo
Day 4 Shinagawa Station to Shin Osaka Station Reserved Seat (14,250)
Day 5 Stay in Osaka
Day 6 Shin Osaka to Kyoto Reserved Seat (2,820)
Day 7 Kyoto to Shinagawa Station Reserved Seat (13,710)
Total Cost: 30,780 JPY
Based on these two itineraries, both plans exceed the cost of the regular pass (29,110 JPY).
However, if your plan looks somewhat like Itinerary 2 and you’re hoping to save money, you could cut your transportation budget nearly in half by opting for cheaper options such as overnight buses combined with local trains in place of the Shinkansen. If you’re really packing in the plans, such as in Itinerary 1, you won’t want to waste time in transit, and the value of your rides will far exceed what you pay.
Don’t feel like doing the calculations yourself? Japan Guide has created an easy to use calculator that determines whether or not buying the pass pays off based on your Shinkansen fare. Access the calculator here. Just note, costs are approximate and do not necessarily reflect most recent fares.
A Final Note: Going Green?
You’ll see that there are two grades of passes: Green Passes and Ordinary passes. Green Passes give you access to Green Cars, the equivalent of First Class. Green Cars promise lots of legroom and wide seats with good back support. Really, this is for if you’re looking to ride in luxury. If your plan includes making several long-distance trips, this extra bit of comfort might change your travel experience a great deal. One thing that might prove slightly inconvenient for some passengers, is that green cars require reservations in advance, unlike the regular cars which you can hop on at any time.
Have you made a JR Pass purchase in the past? Leave us a comment below and let other readers know about your experience!