Traveling through Japan is easy and fast. The trains are reliable and on time and you can get almost everywhere by train. In this Japan Rail Pass review article, we will explain if buying a Japan Rail pass might be interesting for you. So, let’s find out if buying a Japan rail pass is worth it!
Is the JR pass worth it?
For a moment, I was considering renting a car for a part of our trip to the more remote areas as Yudanaka to see the snow monkeys. Looking back I am glad I didn’t do it. We could reach all our destinations quickly and easily by using the train.
Renting a car is expensive and then you have to add the expenses for tolls and fuel, which are not cheap either. So we are absolutely in favor of traveling by train through Japan.
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Make sure to go up with the escalators in the train stations in Osaka and Kyoto for the beautiful views or to catch a gorgeous sunset.
What is the Japan Rail Pass?
The Japan Rail Pass, commonly referred to as JR Pass, is a special pass that allows unlimited train travel to the holder of the pass for a duration of 1, 2 or 3 weeks. The pass is strictly personal and each individual traveling needs to have his/her own pass. The pass is only available to foreign tourists who visit Japan for a period of up to 90 days.
Japanese Nationals that have been living outside of Japan for at least 10 years do also qualify for a pass but must provide proof of their foreign residency.
The Japan Rail Pass may look expensive at first but most probably getting a pass will save you money.
There are 2 different versions of the pass. The ordinary pass allows for travel in normal cars, the green pass allows for travel in the green (first class) cars.
Read also: Our ultimate Japan travel guide with all our Japan articles.
We found that those normal cars were already very comfortable but green cars still offer wider seats and more legroom. The green cars are usually less crowded as well. Green cars are available on Shinkansen and limited express trains. It’s possible but very expensive to upgrade to a green car.
If you do want the extra luxury of traveling in a green car you better opt for the green pass directly.
If your journey will be concentrated in certain parts of Japan you should have a look at the regional passes.
The Japan Rail Pass is the most known pass and allows travel throughout the whole of Japan. If your journey will be concentrated in certain parts of Japan you should have a look at the regional passes. These are issued by the regional companies that constitute JR. (JR East, JR West, JR Central, JR Hokkaido, JR Shikoku, JR Kyushu) Each pass allows unlimited travel in the respective region. More details about the respective regional passes are given further down in this article.
The Japan Rail Pass may look expensive at first but most probably getting a pass will save you money. Certainly, if you travel a considerable number of long-distance journeys. A return ticket Tokyo – Kyoto would cost you 206€, this is just 20€ less than the price of the 7-day pass.
Further down in this article we explain how you can use the website of Hyperdia to calculate whether buying the jr pass would be to your advantage. This website shows you the timetable of the trains along with the price, it’s a very convenient website to arrange your travel itinerary.
Where can I use my Japan Rail Pass?
Your Japan Rail Pass is valid on mostly all trains operated by JR. You can use the pass to ride for free on the shinkansen (commonly called the bullet trains), limited express, express, rapid and local trains.
Additionally, you can use the Tokyo monorail, the JR Ferry to Miyajima island and all local JR buses. These three are probably most useful for foreign tourists :
- JR tourist hop-on hop-off bus at Hiroshima
- JR bus running between Kanazawa station and Kenrokuen garden
- JR bus from Kyoto to Takao
If you have this pass you can also use it for the JR trains that ride the inner city network in Tokyo and in other large Japanese cities like Osaka and Kyoto. They operate a very extensive network that is almost as good as the metro network of these cities.
Some trains are excluded. Make sure you don’t accidentally hop on one of them because if you ride these trains you will need to pay the full fare. These trains are :
- The Nozomi Shinkansen : instead you can use the slightly slower Hikari Shinkansen
- The Mizuho Shinkansen : instead you can use the slightly slower Sakura Shinkansen
In some segments, JR trains run on non-JR tracks. In those cases, you will need to pay a supplement when you travel along such a segment. This fee is collected by the conductor on board of the train. There’re quite a lot of such segments, but normally you do not encounter too many on normal tourist routes.
The only train we used where a supplement is required is the Mie to Ise. A place that we, looking back at our trip now, would skip.
Use your Japan Rail Pass to get from Narita or Haneda airport to Tokyo
Your Japan Rail Pass is valid on the Narita Express (N’EX) that connects Narita Airport to Tokyo. The train makes stops in Tokyo Station, Shinagawa, Shinjuku, and Ikebukuro stations. The train stops at Terminal 2-3 station at Narita airport. (located underneath terminal 2).
The Narita Express only has cars with reserved seats so don’t forget to reserve your seats when you exchange your voucher for your pass at the airport. (seat reservation is free with your pass)
If you arrive at Haneda airport you can use the Tokyo Monorail to get to Hamamatsucho station from where you can continue your journey on the Yamanote line. The monorail has stops at all three terminals of Haneda Airport.
Use your Japan Rail Pass to get from Kansai airport to Kyoto or Osaka
Your Japan Rail Pass is valid on the Limited Express Haruka that connects Kansai Airport to Kyoto and Osaka. The train stops at Tennoji Station and Shin-Osaka Station in Osaka before he continues to Kyoto Station in Kyoto. The train station at Kansai airport is located underneath terminal 1.
How much is a Japan Rail Pass?
You can buy a Japan Rail Pass valid for a period of 1, 2 or a maximum of 3 weeks. We traveled slightly more than 3 weeks through Japan and bought a JR pass for 21 days. You can choose when you activate your pass. You will be able to use the pass from that day for the consecutive number of days that you ordered your pass. The duration cannot be split across multiple periods.
The JR pass price is higher when you buy the pass in Japan, so it’s a much better deal to buy the pass online in advance.
Currently (November 2018) the Japan Rail pass prices are € 224 for 1 week, € 357 for 2 weeks and €457 for 3 weeks if you buy your Japan Rail Pass in advance online. You can buy your Japan Rail Pass online here.
Japan Rail Passes have long only been available for purchase through a travel agent online. That has changed recently. It is now for sale on a trial basis in a limited number of JR stations.
The Japan rail pass prices are higher so it’s a much better deal to buy the pass online in advance. If you buy your Japan Rail Pass in Japan you would pay € 253 (44000JPY) for 1 week, € 400 (71000JPY) for 2 weeks and €500 (90000JPY) for 3 weeks. (Prices of November 2018, converted from JPY to EUR)
Use Hyperdia to calculate if it’s worth it
In most cases where you travel by train through Japan, you save money with the Japan Rail Pass. But the pass is too expensive to buy if you’re not 100% sure.
That’s why you best start by arranging your travel plans. Once your plans are fixed you can pick the pass that best suits your plans.
Hyperdia is an excellent website that we used to arrange our travel plans and once in Japan, we checked the site almost daily to get around and see the timetables. The interface looks old-fashioned but the information is up-to-date and trustworthy.
We compared Hyperdia with Google Maps that also shows train information but time and time again Hyperdia turned out to be the most reliable source of information for prices and timetables.
Hyperdia is your best friend to help you plan public transport in Japan.
Very handy for owners of a Japan Rail Pass is that you can use filters to indicate that you only want to ride the trains that are operated by Japan Rail (JR) by unchecking “Private railway”. Also, the Nozomi and Mizuho shinkansen can be excluded from the search results. This way you avoid paying extra by ending up on the wrong train. See the screenshot below to see the respective filters. (The Hayabusa shinkansen has in the meantime become free for Japan Rail Pass holders )
To see if you will benefit from the Japan Rail Pass you can enter all your train segments individually. Hyperdia will show you the timetable and the price. In most cases, the price for one segment will be the same regardless of which train you take.
The price is composed of the train fare and the seat fee. The majority of trains have both reserved and non-reserved cars but the distribution between reserved and non-reserved seats can vary widely from only 20% non-reserved seats to 60% on other trains. Some trains like the N’EX are completely reserved. Seat reservation is also included in your Japan Rail Pass.
For this reason, I would advise using the price including the seat fee for the comparison.
More about seat reservations later.
Below is our Japan itinerary. I listed the trains we took along with their price. As our journey was longer than 21 days this method allowed me to check which period we benefited most from the pass. As a result, we only activated our pass on day 5. We bought a subway pass for our first days in Tokyo. This subway pass is very cheap and also only available to tourists. We have a separate article about this subway pass and public transportation in Tokyo in general.
The total ticket fare for the individual trips is 71520 JPY. A JR Pass for 21 days is 59350 JPY (November 2018). This means we saved 12170JPY (€ 90 at current exchange rates)
Something that is not in this overview, because it is difficult to plan in advance, are the trips within cities like Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka. Your Japan Rail Pass is valid on the inner city network which is kinda like a subway system.
This means that in reality, you will benefit even more from the pass than what is shown here.
Hyperdia is your best friend to help you plan public transport in Japan.
Ordering your Japan Rail Pass
Buying your pass beforehand is the cheapest option. Online is the best place to buy a JR pass and it can be bought up to 90 days in advance. At the moment you can also purchase it in Japan but that will be more expensive. (see the prices above)
After you have ordered the pass, a voucher will be sent to your home address which you can use to collect the pass in Japan. Your voucher should be there in 2-3 days’ time but don’t take any risks and don’t wait too long to order them.
Alternatively you can also have your pass delivered to your hotel in Japan but in that case, you won’t be able to use the pass for the trip from the airport.
The Japan Rail Pass is only available to tourists and you will need to enter your passport number on the order page to prove your foreign status.
Make sure to have your passport handy when you make your order.
Exchanging your Japan Rail Pass
The first thing you need to do is exchange the voucher. You can do that up to 90 days after purchasing the voucher. To exchange it you will need your passport again.
Here you find a list of locations where you can exchange your rail pass.
One option would be to redeem the voucher the moment you want to use it for the first time. This is what we did.
Alternatively, you could also redeem the voucher at an earlier date. During the exchange process, you can indicate a starting date up until 30 days in the future. This is a useful option if you have little time at the time of your departure. After all, it can be pretty busy at the counters and you need some time for the exchange.
So if you have a spare moment you can already redeem your voucher and avoid any stress the moment you need to catch your train.
Using your Japan Rail Pass
Once exchanged, you will be able to use your pass to enter the train stations. You always need to pass the manned counters at the sides of the gates where you need to wave your pass to the attendants. And you need to repeat this when leaving the train station.
Your Japan Rail Pass is sufficient to get on the train. Of course, you need to pay attention that you are getting on the right train. Some trains consist of wagons with reserved or non-reserved seats. Without any seat reservations, you can make use of the wagons with Non-Reserved seats with your Japan Rail Pass. You can also opt to reserve seats, this is free with your Japan Rail Pass.
You will need to reserve seats for certain trains as these consist of reserved wagons only.
Your Japan Rail Pass allows you to reserve seats in advance for free. You can do this a few days in advance up until a few minutes before departure. The trains that serve the inner city network do not have reserved seating. All other trains usually consist of a combination of cars with reserved and non-reserved seating. This will be announced in advance. Signs on the platform also indicate where each car will stop. This allows you to line-up in advance. There are only a few trains on which only reserved seats are available. We usually went to reserve seats the moment we took the train and only on 2 occasions we couldn’t get a reserved seat anymore.
So reserving seats is certainly not necessary but it can be useful if you do not want to search for a seat and if you want to sit together.
Cars with non-reserved seats tend to be busier and, in those cases where we didn’t have reserved seats, we often ended up not sitting together.
In order to reserve seats, you need to go to a counter that you recognize by this symbol at the side. There you show your Japan Rail Pass and say where you like to travel to, what day and what time. Keep in mind that there are usually queues at the counters.
The Local JR Passes
Each of the 6 local companies that make up JR offer their own passes for unlimited travel within their respective region. There are many different passes. Whether you will benefit from one of them will really depend on your travel plans.
To calculate if it’s worth it to buy one of the regional passes you are best of by using the same technique as the Japan Rail Pass.
JR East operates in the central, eastern and northeastern parts of Japan. Major cities located in this region are Tokyo and Nagano.
Popular tourist spots are Mt. Fuji, Hokkaido, Matsumoto and Nikko.
JR East offers several passes (see below).
The JR Tokyo wide pass is probably the best option if you are planning a city trip to Tokyo with some side trips to nearby places like Mt. Fuji and Nikko.
The JR West area covers famous cities as Osaka, Kyoto, and Hiroshima. Popular tourist places are Himeji, Nara, Miyajima, Kanazawa, Takayama, and Kobe.
The Kansai area pass is the most popular pass. It covers Himeji, Nara, Kobe, Osaka, and Kyoto. You can also use this pass to get to Kansai airport.
To get to Hiroshima you would need the Kansai – Hiroshima pass. Takayama and Kanazawa are included in the Kansai – Hokuriku pass.
JR Hokkaido covers Hokkaido island, Japan’s second largest and most unspoiled island.
This island is a paradise for nature lovers.
JR Hokkaido offers the Hokkaido rail pass. With this pass, you can ride all JR Hokkaido trains with the exception of the Hokkaido Shinkansen.
In collaboration with JR-East they also offer the JR Tohoku-South Hokkaido pass and the JR East-South Hokkaido pass.
JR Kyushu covers Kyushu island, Japan’s third largest island and a less touristy area of Japan. Major cities are Fukuoka and Nagasaki.
Tourist spots are Yakushima, Kurokawa onsen and Mount Aso, one of the largest active volcanoes in the world.
JR Kyushu offers two passes which either cover the northern or the southern part of Kyushu.
JR Shikoku covers Shikoku island, Japan’s fourth largest island. JR Shikoku offers 3, 4, 5 or 7 day passes for unlimited travel on all trains.
Good to know
As an extra, you can also use your pass for the JR ferry to Miyajima and some bus lines that are operated by JR.
In Hiroshima, JR operates a Hop-on, hop-off bus that takes you to all the tourist spots. They operate another bus in Kanazawa but we have not used this as in Kanazawa all tourist spots were within walking distance.
You cannot use your Japan Rail Pass for the JR express buses between cities, but I wouldn’t know why you would use those with such a good train network.
There are a lot of JR local bus lines you can use with your Japan Rail Pass but I don’t know them because we simply haven’t used them. You can always get the information about the buses upon arrival at the counters of the tourist service in the train stations.
More Japan Travel tips
If you want to score cheap flights to Japan we advise you to have a look at Momondo and Skyscanner. Both are flight aggregators that compare several hundreds of booking sites and give you an overview of the best flights and the cheapest sites to book them.
Momondo and Skyscanner are both very good at finding good deals, of the two, Momondo is probably the one with the most intuitive user interface.
Those who are always on the lookout for the best deals should join the Dollar Flight Club. Joining is free and once you’ve joined you will get alerts in your mailbox whenever cheap flights out of your home airport have been found.
I recently joined the club and already saw some incredible deals. Joining is free and it can literally save you thousands of dollars.
Expenses abroad can be seriously inflated by fees from your bank or credit card. That’s why I’m a huge fan of my N26 account. The account is available to most EU residents. The checking account is free as well as the associated Mastercard and there’s no exchange rate provision when you use to card for payments abroad. There’s a 1,7% exchange rate provision when you withdraw money abroad but even that is free with the premium Black Mastercard.
The app is another great feature of the card, you can follow your expenses in real-time and instantly block your card if you see any signs of fraud.
Book your hotels in advance.
It is the custom in Japan to book your hotels in advance. Especially in busy seasons, like the golden week or the cherry blossom season, you will run the risk of not finding a place to stay or having to pay excessive prices for your hotel room.
If you are traveling to Tokyo, our guide about where to stay in Tokyo for the first time will help you to choose the best place to stay in Tokyo.
Are you also going to Osaka? Take a look at our best recommendations about where to stay in Osaka. You can find our detailed Osaka itinerary here. Wondering what to do in Osaka at night? This article will help you out.
Read our 15 tips for traveling for the first time to Japan article. These articles will help you plan your trip.
If you are going to Tokyo, read our guide to Tokyo’s public transport to find out our best tips to use the public transport.
Wondering what to wear in Japan? Take a look at our complete Japan packing list.
Last but not least… As you might expect health care in Japan is excellent but it comes at a high cost. Make sure you have some sort of insurance before you leave for Japan. We never had anything serious happen on any of our journeys around the world but you know what they say, better safe than sorry…
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Have you traveled through Japan by train? Please let us know your tips in the comments below.