The most frequent questions we get asked here at 2 Aussie Travellers are about the Japan Rail Pass. We’re asked whether you need it, is it good value, which one to get, how to use it and even where to go now that you’ve ordered it.
You’ll see a lot of questions in the comments section below. The JR Pass can be confusing so don’t be shy about asking if something isn’t clear after you’ve read through the explanation. With the introduction of even more regional variations recently it’s become increasingly complex but well worth understanding before you spend your travel dollars, or decide not to.
We’ve been booking the Japan Rail Pass regularly for over 13 years now and are happy to share our experience and what we’ve learned along the way so please ask any questions you have in the comments section at the bottom. Things change and your questions help us understand what information is needed and enable us to update the post to keep it as relevant as possible for anyone planning a trip to Japan now.
We refer to the Japan Rail pass often in our articles so this post will put our experience and information about it in one place. It’s a fundamental part of our Japan travel planning and one of our top tips for anyone planning a visit.
We suggest you consider whether you will use the JR Pass early in the trip planning process as it might impact the timing and sequence of the places you visit. That will have a flow-on effect on booking your accommodation and other activities.
Too often we hear from people disappointed because they didn’t know about the JR Pass in time or they’ve been sold one that they really didn’t need. We find the JR Pass to be one of the best travel deals around but we’ll be pointing out a number of situations below where you will want to save your money and just use individual tickets or a different pass.
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Table of Contents
- What is the Japan Rail Pass?
- Is the Japan Rail Pass worth it?
- Calculating the value for you
- Are there situations where the pass isn’t good value?
- Are there other advantages or disadvantages to using the pass?
- Types of Japan Rail Pass
- How to use the Japan Rail Pass?
- Best price for Japan Rail Pass
- Tips when using long-distance trains in Japan
- Our summary of the Japan Rail Pass
What is the Japan Rail Pass?
The passes are a deal offered by Japan Rail (JR) on their railway and ferry network exclusively for foreign visitors to Japan. To use one, you must be in Japan on a tourist visa (under 90 days).
Japan Rail has been trialling the sale of passes at a limited number of stations within Japan but if you want to use one we believe it’s still best to have it arranged in advance. Not only will it be cheaper if you buy it before you arrive in Japan but the whole process is going to go a lot smoother.
We did the price comparison and it was a 13% premium for purchasing the pass once you arrive in Japan. It’s easy to book ahead in your local currency and have it delivered to your door so why would you pay more than you have to? Even if you aren’t on a tight budget there are so many better things to do with your travel funds in Japan.
When you purchase the pass you will be sent a voucher from the travel agent or online distributor. When you arrive in Japan you exchange that voucher at a railway station office for the actual JR Pass. We’ll cover more on the conditions of purchase and the mechanics of activating your pass later.
While we (and most people) refer to THE Japan Rail pass there are actually a series of passes. Some such as the JR East and West passes cover only sections of the country and will be useful for very specific trips, or segments of your trip if you’re planning to travel for longer.
The most useful pass for most visitors and the one you will hear talked about as “THE Japan Rail Pass” is the one you can use nationwide. You can use it on all Japan Rail services including the shinkansen (bullet train), limited express trains, airport and local trains. There are even a few other specific services it can be used for including the ferry across to Miyajima Island in Hiroshima and some JR buses.
Japan Rail is the national railway, it is the largest network by far and you can travel to all prefectures and cities on its trains but not on every train line or to every station. There are many other companies in Japan that also operate train and subway services in different areas. This pass is only for Japan Rail services and can’t be used on private railways, subways or inner-city buses.
Is the Japan Rail Pass worth it?
We’ve purchased the JR Pass for most of our trips BUT only after planning what we wanted to do with it and calculating the value. In most situations, the pass has given significantly more value than the dollars we spent. We’ve used both the 7 and 14-day options and it’s averaged out that we get around twice the value that we paid, or looking at it another way we get half-priced travel, plus the convenience the pass brings. This has worked out the same whether we have used the standard or first-class (green) option.
Your style of travel, where you are going and over what time frame will determine if the pass is worthwhile for you. Our travel style is to select a couple of base cities and explore both locally and by day trips from there. Japan’s train system, especially the shinkansen (bullet train) and limited express trains are phenomenal making it easy to travel this way without moving your hotel and luggage every other day.
The Japan Rail pass also works well for those whose travel style is the complete opposite of ours. Those who travel light and want to cover a lot of towns and cities in a fairly short period only stopping a night or two in each new place will also get great value.
What if I’m a budget traveller?
Although the pass can be an absolute bargain, if you’re on a very tight budget it may not be the best option for you. There are cheaper ways to get around Japan than trains, the trade-off will be time, convenience and potentially comfort so it comes down to what your priorities are.
As an example to take the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto will cost around Y13,850 for a single ticket but the overnight Willer Express bus can be as low as Y5,000 PLUS you will save a night’s accommodation as it literally travels all night. If you don’t need much sleep or you can sleep well sitting up it could be an option for you. While we’ve talked to several people who’ve used and recommended the bus as a budget option we haven’t used it ourselves and I’m just putting it out there as an alternative for comparison.
Is there a benchmark for deciding if you should buy the JR Pass over individual tickets?
This is where it gets a bit tricky and understanding how the pass works and some rough calculations can help.
You will probably hear people saying it’s only worth getting the pass if you’re going to travel by the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto return in 7 days. Like most simplified statements there’s some truth in it but it doesn’t tell the whole story.
The 7-day pass is just slightly more than a return ticket on that route and it’s likely you’ll do at least one or two other trips in that week so almost certainly you’ll get equal or better value from the pass. This two-city itinerary is also the most common travel plan for first-time visitors to Japan which is another reason why it’s a good starting point for deciding whether or not you will buy it.
What is the price of the Japan Rail Pass?
The first thing you need to know is the price of the Japan Rail Pass. It’s a service provided in Japan so the base price is always in Japanese Yen (JPY) and the price is fixed, you won’t see it go on sale. Using the price in JPY makes it easy to compare it to the individual ticket prices and decide whether you want to buy one.
|Number of days||Ordinary Car||Green Car|
|7-day pass||Y 29,650||Y 39,600|
|14-day pass||Y 47,250||Y 64,120|
|21-day pass||Y 60,450||Y 813,390|
Calculating the value for you
If you are planning a different route, even if you only plan to use the train one way and fly back out of a different city it may still be cost-effective. There are so many options and variables that it is almost impossible to give a generic answer. I’d suggest listing out your key routes and then costing them using Hyperdia (very happy to see its return with Japan’s border’s reopening!)
Japan Transit is the best free alternative to Hyperdia I have found as it is user-friendly and you can add in the settings that you are using a JR pass and it will then eliminate trains you can’t use from the search results.
Have a play and see if you get on with it, I still prefer Hyperdia in web mode, its app versions haven’t been great, but I’ve been using it for around 12 years now and it is just what I am used to. One of them will be one of your key tools both in the planning stage and once you’re in Japan. It will help you work out all the information including travel time, any transfers and for this particular purpose the cost. Make sure you take the total price from the top of the screen for the route you choose.
We have found this resource to be both useful and accurate but it can be a little overwhelming initially so have a look, let me know if I need to add more information or a comparison of why I chose this one over the alternatives.
I then jot down the dates and against them any major trips we will be doing that day. Don’t worry about the around-town trips at this stage, that might be a bonus saving but it’s not what is going to help decide if you need the pass or not. Plug those details into the app remembering to include the return fare if it’s a day trip.
Now I look for any 7-day grouping (or 14/21-day if that is applicable) and compare it to the price of the pass. If my dates are still flexible I might move things around so that they work better at this stage.
Are there situations where the pass isn’t good value?
Absolutely! If you’re spending your visit mostly exploring Tokyo with a few days in nearby towns such as Hakone, Nikko, Kamakura or Enoshima the pass will almost certainly not be worth the cost.
You are far more likely to use the subway most of the time within the city and there are passes or private railway options that can be better value for those other trips. Check out our posts on transport tips for first-time visitors to Japan and mastering the Tokyo subway system to get some handy hints if Tokyo is where you will spend a good portion of your time.
The same principle applies to a single base in most Japanese cities where you don’t plan on doing many intercity day trips. The difference in most of those cities is that Japan Rail is generally used on trips anywhere outside the city centre so you may use it more depending on what you want to see and do. If you plan to do a number of long-distance trips (for ideas see 10 top day trips out of Kyoto or Osaka) the Japan Rail Pass may still be a good deal.
Again I’d recommend using an app like the Japan Transit Planner to plug in your key routes and get an idea of the costs involved if you were to buy single tickets.
Are there other advantages or disadvantages to using the pass?
The main advantage other than the cost-saving is the convenience. You simply show the pass and move through the gates at the station very fast.
You can also make bookings for seats on the shinkansen and other long-distance trains such as limited express. There are two advantages to having bookings, firstly if you want particular seats, like sitting on the right-hand side out of Tokyo to see Mt Fuji you can request that.
More importantly during peak times or seasons, or if you want to take the last train back, it is also worth booking in advance. If you want a very early train one morning or you book a number of your side trips at once it can be a time saver too. You then only need to be at the platform at the required time and will know which carriage you want.
With the Japan Rail Pass, you can make as many bookings as you want, normally this is an additional cost but it’s an included service with the pass.
One thing some people don’t like about the pass is that you are required to carry your passport with you when using it. I can’t recall being asked for it at any gate or on any train but it is something you agree to in the terms and conditions. As a tourist in Japan, you are supposed to have your passport on you at all times for identification anyway.
The main disadvantage or risk I see people experience is getting caught up in maximising the value by trying to squeeze too much into a too short period of time. It can become stressful or you might end up not doing what you really wanted to do.
Finally the most annoying thing, and what I hope I can help prevent here, is anyone buying the pass and finding they didn’t really need it.
With a little bit of planning these risks can be avoided.
Types of Japan Rail Pass
If at this point you’ve decided it makes sense to use the Japan Rail pass you next need to make 4 choices:
The Whole Japan rail pass can be used right across the country, this is by far the most common version and the one you will need if you are including a trip from Tokyo to Kyoto for example.
There are many other passes issued by Japan Rail for extensive travel in very specific regions and these isolated areas are less common choices for tourists. With a few exceptions, when I’ve considered these in the past for sections of our trips I’ve usually found it more cost-effective and flexible to buy individual tickets or use a stored value card in that situation.
I do like the tool on this booking site over many of the other options. They offer a long list of JR Passes but when you select one from the summary screen it shows a map to the left with the covered area highlighted. I like this double-check that you are getting what you intended. They also list the 7-day national pass at the bottom of the regional list and on its own page.
How long do you want to use the pass for
The Japan Rail Pass comes in a 7, 14 and 21-day option. It makes sense to group your longer and more expensive trips during the duration of the pass and continue to explore within your base city outside of that.
Even if you’re staying 2-3 weeks in Japan you may only need the pass for the week when you do your long-distance trips and then buy individual tickets outside of that. The incremental cost of the pass does get cheaper for each additional week though so it’s worth pricing it out both ways.
The Japan Rail pass is ideal for a touring holiday such as our 14-day Japan itinerary to see the best of cherry blossoms that stops off in 10 cities between Tokyo and Hiroshima.
Standard or Premium
Japan Rail has ordinary cars and green cars on the shinkansen and other long-distance trains. These aren’t ‘green’ as in environmentally friendly it is their equivalent of first-class. The seats are larger and grouped in 2 not 3 on each side of the carriage. You usually have a bit more legroom, more comfortable foot and leg rests and sometimes additional facilities like charging points for electronic devices.
We have used both green and standard passes over the years and even when you have a green pass, not every train has that car option. The ordinary car is very comfortable too. When travelling as a couple, it is nice to have that extra space and have the row to ourselves. Generally, the green car is less busy overall and we’ve never had a problem finding space at the back of our carriage to stow our suitcase. I don’t consider it a necessity but yes the upgrade is nice.
Adult or child
The final variable is whether the passenger is an adult or a child. That’s fairly self-explanatory, under the terms of the pass a child is aged 6-11, and if they have turned 12 they require an adult pass. Infants aged 0-5 years won’t require their own pass BUT they are also not entitled to a seat. If you take this option, they must travel on your lap.
How to use the Japan Rail Pass?
The main terms and conditions
For the full terms and conditions at your date of purchase be sure to read them on the provider’s website or discuss them with the travel agent before you make your payment. The general rules are:
- Purchase the pass before travelling to Japan (after April 2017 this is a price and convenience consideration only)
- You must be able to produce the pass and the corresponding passport on request
- The pass may only be used by the person named on it.
- It must only be used within the dates shown on the pass
- It’s for JR (Japan Rail) transport only but that includes certain JR buses and ferries
- The pass can’t be reissued in the event that it is lost or stolen so be sure to keep it safe.
Purchase, exchange and activation date for the JR Pass
There are three dates to be aware of if you decide to use the pass.
Purchase date: For best value and convenience this needs to be before you leave home, or at least before you arrive in Japan if you are on a longer travel plan.
You can buy the pass up to 90 days ahead of when you plan to use it. If you think exchange rates are likely to move up a lot you might do it early but otherwise, I’d suggest looking into it a month before you fly giving you time to look into all the options. They usually only take a couple of days to arrive but allowing a bit more time gives a comfort margin if there are delays with the delivery. What you receive at this stage is a voucher for a Japan Rail Pass, not the pass itself.
Where to purchase: Most of our passes have been purchased online which has been a very quick and smooth process. One of the first ones we ever bought was through a large local travel agent chain in Australia and it was a comedy of errors.
It ranged from staff who we are told ‘unexpected quit’ after 4 days leaving phone messages for them, then the vouchers were sent back and forward between the branch and head office 3 times for no obvious reason and then we were told they had dropped between folders in the filing system and sat unseen on the bottom for another week. The end result was a lot of unnecessary stress and it took almost 3 weeks to finally get the pass – hence my commitment to planning ahead whenever I can. I also now always use an online specialist rail pass booking service.
Exchange date: Once in Japan you can exchange the voucher for a pass at a JR station office whenever you want, this is simply receiving the pass and it doesn’t activate on this date unless you want it to of course. You will usually be given a very simple form to fill out with your name, dates and a few details in English, you present it with the voucher and passport and they write up your pass and hand it to you. Before you leave the counter check your name is written correctly (it must match your passport) and that the dates are correct.
Activation date: The activation date is the day you want to first use the pass. It can be the date you exchange your voucher and pick up the pass or any date after that as long as it will be used within the 90-day purchase window. The pass works on calendar days, not a 24-hour period.
Best price for Japan Rail Pass
Because the wholesale price of the pass is fixed there is only a small variation in price between providers that results from the difference in their profit margin, exchange rates used and who absorbs the delivery fee.
Buying the pass is a sizable outlay of cash so we want to purchase from a company that offers a good price, who we trust, can offer prompt delivery and is easy to deal with.
We have used JRPass for a number of years now. They have been competitively priced, had quick delivery and we have had no issues dealing with them.
Tips when using long-distance trains in Japan
There are a few things we have noticed when travelling inter-city on Japanese trains. These tips might be useful if you are going to be spending a bit of time travelling on them:
- If you have a booking and are in a carriage with allocated seating, you must sit in that seat and only that seat. Don’t move to ‘spare’ seats with a better view as people will board at all stops along that route and they will reasonably expect to sit in the seat they booked.
- Place small to medium baggage in the racks above the seats, if you have large luggage there is a section at the back of each carriage to place it in. We’ve not had any issue with getting luggage space when moving between cities with our suitcases as locals mostly travel with small cases. If you have larger suitcases you need to book your seat, this is free with the pass and will avoid incurring a surcharge for luggage storage if space is unavailable.
- It’s perfectly OK to eat and drink on long-distance trains. You can bring food with you or purchase it from the trolley that goes past periodically. You’re expected to take the rubbish off the train at the end of your trip and out of courtesy not to bring overly fragrant food onboard.
- It is normal practice in Japan to keep your voice low when chatting on public transport. Talking loudly or being on the phone is generally considered impolite.
- If travelling with children it will help to have activities to keep them quietly entertained. There is some tolerance for children being children but not running around the train, standing on seats or shouting.
- Be waiting at the marked area of the platform for your carriage before the train is due to arrive. Allow any exiting passengers off first then board promptly. Trains, especially the shinkansen run to a very tight timetable and they won’t hold the train for you as you race down the platform.
Our summary of the Japan Rail Pass
We have consistently found the Japan Rail Pass to be easy to use and to represent excellent value on our travels. That said, everyone’s circumstances and travel style will differ. Invest a little time before you book to ensure you get the right pass for your needs.
This article turned out longer than I intended but I hope it has answered your questions. The terms, conditions and prices for the Japan Rail Pass do change over time and I will update this article regularly to ensure it is as current as possible.
Before purchasing you should always read the agents website details carefully or ask them to clarify anything you are unsure of. If you have any queries in the planning stage that I haven’t answered here please leave them in the comments section below, I will answer you directly and also update additional information in the article for others.
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