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 such as Yudanaka where we went 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.
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 national Japan Rail Pass is the most known pass and is always referred to simply as the JR pass. It allows traveling 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 236€, this is just 11€ 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 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 train to Ise. A place that we would skip, looking back at our trip now.
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, later on, we explain how to reserve seats)
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 Japan Rail Pass is calculated in days and not in hours.
This means that a 7-day pass that is for the first time used on July 1st will remain valid until July 7th at midnight.
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 2019) the Japan Rail pass prices are € 247 for 1 week, € 393 for 2 weeks and €503 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 recently changed. It is now for sale on a trial basis in a limited number of JR stations. This trial period has recently been extended until 31 March 2021.
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 € 281 (33.610 JPY) for 1 week, € 443 (52.960 JPY) for 2 weeks and €555 (66.200 JPY) for 3 weeks. (Prices of November 2019, converted from JPY to EUR)
Japan Rail Pass for kids
The general rule is that kids aged 6 to 11 pay half the price of adults for all passes, local as well as national.
Children under 6 are not required to purchase a Japan Rail Pass and can travel for free with their parents. In that case, they need to officially travel on the lap of their parents.
If you travel in a wagon with non-reserved seats you’re requested to take them on your lap when it is busy so that paying customers can use the seats.
In a wagon with reserved seats, they can use any of the vacant seats as long as nobody shows up that has reserved this seat.
The Japanese trains are in no way comparable to airplanes. The seats are usually comfortably wide with ample legroom. Traveling with your children on your lap should not really be a problem.
You can of course always travel outside of peak hours and if you want to be sure your little ones can sit in a seat of their own you can buy Japan Rail Passes for them.
Use Hyperdia to calculate if it’s worth it
Most tourists traveling by train through Japan will save with the Japan Rail Pass. But the pass is too expensive to buy if you’re not 100% sure.
The JR pass is also just one of the many different train passes that exist.
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. We also used it extensively once we were in Japan. We visited the site almost daily to see how we could get around and check the timetables.
The interface looks old-fashioned but the information is up-to-date and trustworthy.
We compared Hyperdia with Google Maps. Both show train information. Google maps may be somewhat more user-friendly 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. Sometimes you will be able to get to your destination in different ways. You don’t have to worry about this at this point as in most cases, the prices for the different trains will be the same regardless of which one 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 prices. As our journey was longer than 21 days this method allowed me to check which period we benefited most from the pass.
Based on this 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 exclusively available to tourists.
The total ticket fare for the individual trips was 71.520 JPY at that time. A JR Pass for 21 days costed 59.350 JPY. (These were the prices in November 2018).
This means we saved 12.170JPY (€ 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.
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.
We noticed that this company doesn’t ship to Asian countries. If you live in an Asian country, read on. If you’re living in Hong Kong, China, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand or Vietnam, you can purchase a voucher for the Japan Rail Pass online with Klook.
Be sure to reserve your pass well in advance because it can take up to 7 business days to send the Exchange order by registered post to your address and they don’t deliver during weekends or holidays. Once you received your Exchange order, you can exchange it in Japan for a Japan Rail Pass.
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.
We exchanged the voucher for the Japan Rail Pass at the moment we wanted to use it for the first time. Alternatively, you could also redeem the voucher at an earlier date.
During the exchange process, you can indicate a starting date for the JR pass up to 30 days in the future.
This is particularly useful if you want to take a specific or early train. We had to search for a while before we found the correct desk (the Shinjuku train station is overwhelmingly large) and when we finally arrived there there was a considerable queue. This meant that we almost missed the train we planned to take.
Allow sufficient time for the exchange process or head to the station when you have a spare moment so 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. It is only valid on JR trains so pay attention that you are getting on the right train. If you accidentally hop on a private railway you will need to pay the full fare. As they usually run on separate tracks the chance of this is very small.
Some trains consist of wagons with reserved and 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.
It will already be indicated on the platform where which wagons are located on the train so that you can line up in the right place. Look for indications on the floor (see picture below) or overhead. It is also indicated on the wagon. (see pictures below)
Luggage on the train
Most trains do not have much room for luggage. Small pilot cases can be stored on the racks above the seats. For large suitcases, you have to look for a place at the entrance of the wagon where there is usually some space between the wall of the wagon and the first row of seats.
There are some rules for taking luggage on the Shinkansen and these will become a little stricter from May 2020. We will discuss them here.
The current rules for luggage on the Shinkansen trains
The current rules stipulate that every one may take 2 pieces of luggage of each 30 kilos on the train. The sum of the height, width, and depth of the suitcase may not exceed 250 cm.
This is a generous rule and if you have to drag your bags yourself you probably won’t have much more luggage with you.
The new rules for luggage on the Shinkansen from May 2020
Starting May 2020 some new rules for luggage on the Shinkansen trains on the popular routes to Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Himeji, and Hiroshima will come into effect.
These are the trains that are affected by the new rules, they traverse Japan from Tokyo to Kagoshima Chuo:
- Tokaido Shinkansen (from Tokyo to Osaka and Kyoto)
- Sanyo Shinkansen (from Osaka to Himeji, Hiroshima, Hakata, and Fukuoka)
- Kyushu Shinkansen (from Hakata to Kagoshima Chuo
If you travel with a different Shinkansen, nothing will change.
Small suitcases are defined as suitcases of which the sum of the height, width, and depth does not exceed 160 cm. These dimensions roughly correspond to a large hand suitcase or a small suitcase.
Nothing changes for this type of luggage. You can take this suitcase on the train without having to make a reservation, but you are expected to place this suitcase on the luggage rack above the seats.
These are suitcases whose dimensions, the sum of the height, width, and depth, are between 160 cm and 250 cm.
If you travel with these suitcases, you will have to reserve a seat from May 2020. You must state that you are traveling with suitcases and to the extent that we interpret the new rule, you are then allocated the seats at the entrance of the wagon behind which space is provided for placing the luggage.
This would mean that there will only be 5 seats per wagon for people traveling with large suitcases. It is, therefore, best to reserve your seats well in advance. You can read how to do this below.
If you travel with a national JR Pass, this does not entail any additional costs as seat reservation is included with this pass. However, this is not the case with some regional passes.
If you nevertheless take your bags on the train without having reserved the correct seats, a fine of 1,000 JPY will be charged. Your bags will then be stored in a special compartment. In addition, if you do not have reserved seats, you will also be charged the additional cost to upgrade your ticket to a reserved seat.
The number of pieces of luggage is still 2 per person and the maximum weight has also remained unchanged at 30 kg.
Suitcases of which the sum of the height, width, and depth is greater than 250 cm are not allowed on the train.
This was also the case in the past, but with the introduction of the new rules, there is a good chance that this will now be more strictly enforced.
Here is a news article about the new rules.
Forwarding luggage with Yamato
Is your luggage too large, couldn’t you get seats to travel with your luggage or do you simply want the comfort to travel without luggage? Then we have good news because that is very easy in Japan.
The country has a very handy service for sending luggage to your next hotel. You can arrange this at the reception of your hotel or Ryokan.
Most hotels work together with Yamato for this.
The service costs around € 15 for 1 large suitcase.
In return, you travel comfortably to your next destination and you no longer have to drag your big suitcases.
With your Japan Rail Pass, you can reserve seats in advance for free. You can do this a few days in advance up until a few minutes before departure.
As of May 2020, you must reserve seats on the Tokaido, Sanyo or Kyushu Shinkansen when traveling with large suitcases.
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 on the information board. 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.
Finding a seat on the trains was never really difficult and those times that we did reserve a seat, we only did it at the moment that we took the train. Only on 2 occasions, we could no longer get a reserved seat.
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.
You can also reserve seats online if you’re traveling on trains operated by JR East ( including the Hokuriku Shinkansen). When traveling on JR West trains you need to use this link to reserve seats. The other companies don’t currently offer online seat reservation.
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, previously known as the Kanto Area Pass, is a great option for those who are mainly visiting Tokyo and plan to do a few side trips from the capital. You can use this pass to visit Mt. Fuji and Nikko. The pass is not available online but for sale in major train stations and at the airports.
The Hokuriku Arch Pass can be of value for those who want to visit the 3 major touristic cities of Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. The pass is valid for 7 days and can be used to travel between these cities. You pass by Kanazawa, a city worth an extra stop. Travel to Nara and Kobe is also included in this pass.
Above are the two most valuable passes. But those are not the only passes issued by JR East. Below are some more travel passes. We give a short description of each of them, if you click on the link you will get more info about the pass, including where it can be used (in some cases shown on a map).
Tohoku area 5-day flexible pass: This pass is valid in Tokyo and the Tohoku region. This region includes Nikko, Sendai and the Izu Peninsula, among others. This is a flexible pass, the 5 days that this pass is valid for don’t need to be used consecutively, you can use the pass on 5 days over a 2-week period starting on the day of first use.
East-South 6-day flexible Hokkaido Rail pass: This pass is valid in the Tokoku and Hokkaido region. Hokkaido is the island North of Japan. This is a flexible pass, the 6 days that this pass is valid for don’t need to be used consecutively, you can use the pass on 6 days over a 2-week period starting on the day of first use.
Nagano – Niigata 5-day flexible pass: This pass can be used to travel from Tokyo to Nagano and Niigata. It also covers Matsumoto. This is a flexible pass, the 5 days that this pass is valid for don’t need to be used consecutively, you can use the pass on 5 days over a 2-week period starting on the day of first use.
JR West & JR Central
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 Wide 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. The pass covers the Sanyo Shinkansen between Shin-Osaka and Okayama. It is valid for 5 consecutive days starting on the first day of use.
An alternative to the Kansai Wide Area pass is the JR West Kansai Rail Pass. You can buy this pass for 1, 2, 3 or 4 consecutive days. The pass covers roughly the same region as the Kansai Wide Area pass but does not include the use of the Shinkansen. All popular tourist locations such as Himeji, Nara, Kobe, Osaka en Kyoto are included, also Kansai Airport is included.
Below are 2 other useful JR West passes:
To get to Hiroshima you would need the Kansai – Hiroshima pass. This is an extensive version of the JR Kansai Wide Area pass that includes the Hiroshima en Miyajima region. Rides on the Sanyo Shinkansen are included (between Shin-Osaka and Hiroshima). The Haruka airport express is also included as well as the Miyajima JR ferry. The pass is valid for 5 consecutive days.
Takayama, Shirakawa-go and Kanazawa are included in the Kansai – Hokuriku pass. The pass covers the Sanyo Shinkansen between Shin-Osaka and Okayama and the Hokuriku Shinkansen (between Kanazawa and Joetsu-Myoko). The Haruka airport express is also included. The pass is valid for 7 consecutive days.
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. You can opt for a pass of 3, 5 or 7 consecutive days. A 4th variant is a pass valid for 4 non-consecutive days over a 10-day period.
In collaboration with JR-East, they also offer the JR Tohoku-South Hokkaido pass and the JR East-South Hokkaido pass.
The JR Tohoku-South Hokkaido Pass is an extension of the JR East Hokkaido pass. In addition to what’s included in the JR East Hokkaido pass, it also covers the South of Hokkaido.
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 three passes which either cover the northern part, the southern part of the whole island 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
Here you will find all our Japan articles.
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 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.