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. In this section we’ll do our best to answer all the questions we get regularly. If you want to know something that isn’t answered here please ask in the comments section below. We’ll do our best to answer all queries personally and also update the post where relevant to keep it as a current as possible for anyone planning a trip to Japan.
As we refer to the Japan Rail pass often in our posts I want to put our experience and information about it in one place. It’s a fundamental part of our Japan travel planning and one of my top tips for anyone planning a visit to look into it early in their trip planning process. That said I’m not trying to convince anyone to buy it, just to be aware it’s available and I’ll be pointing out a number of situations where it won’t be your best option too.
Table of Contents
- What is the Japan Rail Pass?
- Do I need the Japan Rail Pass?
- 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?
What is the Japan Rail Pass?
The passes are a deal offered by Japan Rail on their network exclusively for foreign visitors to Japan who are visiting on a tourist visa (under 90 days). This is why it’s important to know about them early in your travel planning as it’s too late once you arrive and someone in your hotel or at the izakaya (pub) mentions it. As things currently stand you have to purchase your pass before you arrive in Japan. This changes in April 2017 when there will be a few sales offices in Japan selling them but it appears you will pay a 13% premium for purchasing them in country so if stretching your travel dollar is a priority then early planning is still worthwhile.
When you purchase, either through a local travel agent or an online distributor you will be sent a voucher. Once 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 THE Japan Rail pass there are actually a series of passes. 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 and the one you will hear talked about generally is Japan wide. 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 like the ferry across to Miyajima Island in Hiroshima and JR buses. The pass however is only for Japan Rail services, they don’t operate the subways or inner city buses and there are a number of other private railway providers you may come across where the pass can’t be used. That said you can traval pretty much from one end of the country to the other using the Japan Rail Pass with no out of pocket cost.
Do I need the Japan Rail Pass?
We’ve purchased the JR Pass for each of our trips so far BUT only after planning what we wanted to do and calculating the value. In each case the pass has give significantly more value than the dollars we spent. We’ve used both the 7 and 14 day options and generally get around twice the value, or half priced travel, plus the convenience the pass brings.
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 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. Backpackers who want to cover a lot of towns and cities in a fairly short period only stopping a night or so 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 for you. There are cheaper ways to get around Japan than trains, the trade off is time and potentially convenience and comfort so it comes down to which of these is your priority.
As an example to take the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto will cost around Y13,700 for a single ticket but the overnight Willer Express bus can be as low as Y5,000 PLUS you will save a nights accommodation as it literally travels all night. If you don’t need much sleep or you can sleep well sitting up it could be a good option. While we’ve talked to several people who’ve used and recommended the bus as a budget option but 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 by it?
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 approximately the same price as a return ticket on that route, so given it’s likely you’ll do at least one or two other trips in that week it’s a safe assessment to say 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 good starting point for deciding whether or not you will buy it.
However if you are planning a different route, even one way and flying 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 on the free Hyperdia trip planning resource. This is one of our most used tools both in planning and in country, 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 for the route you pick not the component price along the side. We have found this resource to be extremely useful and very accurate but I will put a short post up soon on using Hyperdia as although I find it an invaluable tool there is so much information included that initially it can seem a little overwhelming.
Are there situations where the pass isn’t good value?
Absolutely! If you’re spending your visit mostly exploring in Tokyo with a few local day trips out of the city such as Hakone, Nikko, Kamakura or Enoshima it will almost certainly not be money well spent. 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 much better value on those longer 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 basing yourself in most Japanese cities if 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. However unless you plan to do a number of longer distance trips (for ideas see my 10 top day trips out of Kyoto or Osaka) it’s still not likely to be cost effective.
Again I’d recommend using Hyperdia 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 for me 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 or at the back of the carriage to be near the suitcase stowage for larger bags you can request that. During peak times or seasons, or if you want the last train back but don’t want to miss getting a seat 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 save time as you then just have 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.
The main disadvantage is that you are required to carry your passport with you. I can’t recall being asked for it at any gate or on any train but it is a requirement of the pass. You are apparently supposed to carry it as a tourist in Japan at all times for identification anyway.
The only other disadvantage or risk I can think of is getting caught up in maximising the pass value and trying to squeeze too much into a too short period of time and ending up stressed or not doing what you really wanted to do. Or alternatively buying the pass and finding you don’t really need it. I believe both of these can be avoided with a little bit of planning and research.
Types of Japan Rail Pass
If you’ve decided it makes sense to use the Japan Rail pass you next need to make 4 choices:
The Japan rail pass can be used right across Japan, 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. The JR East pass and JR West pass are for extensive travel in specific regions and the isolated areas are less common choices for tourists. When I’ve considered these in the past for parts of our trips I’ve found it more cost effective and flexible to buy individual tickets or use a stored value card in this situation.
How long do you want to use it for
The Japan Rail Pass comes in a 7, 14 and 21 day option. Ideally 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 staying 2-3 weeks in Japan you may only need the pass for the week when you do your longer distance trips 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 stopping off in 10 cities between Tokyo and Hiroshima.
Standard or Premium
Japan Rail have what are called ‘green cars’ on shinkansen and other long distance trains. These aren’t ‘green’ as in environmentally friendly it is their equivalent of a business class. The seats and larger and grouped in 2 not 3 on each side of the carriage. You usually have a bit more leg room, more comfortable foot and leg rests and sometimes additional facilities like charging of electronic devices.
Adult or child
The final variable is whether the passenger is an adult or child. That’s fairly self explanatory, under the terms of the pass a child is aged 6-11, if they have turned 12 they require an adult pass. An infant aged 0-5 doesn’t require their own pass BUT they are also not entitled to a seat if you take this option.
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 site or discuss with the travel agent before you make your payment. However the general rules are:
- Purchase the pass before travelling to Japan (after April 2017 this becomes 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 JR buses and ferries
- The pass can’t be reissued in the event that it is lost of stolen.
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: This needs to be before you leave home, or at least before you arrive in Japan if you are on a longer travel plan. (As mentioned earlier from April 2017 there will be a local purchase option in a few stations but the price will be higher). You can buy the pass up to 90 days ahead of when you plan to use it, I guess you might do that if you think exchange rates are likely to move up a lot but otherwise I’d suggest getting onto it a month before you fly giving you time to shop around for the best price and although they usually only take a couple of days to arrive it gives a bit of time to play with. What you receive at this stage is a voucher for a Japan Rail Pass, not the pass itself.
Most of our passes have been bought online which was a very quick and smooth process but the first one was through a large local travel agent chain in Australia and it was a comedy of errors. It ranged from staff who apparantly ‘unexpected quit’, the courier tickets showing them being sent 3 times back and forwards between the branch and head office for no obvious reason, and then being dropped between folders in the filing system and sitting unseen on the bottom for another week. The end resulted was a lot of stress and it taking almost 3 weeks to get the pass – hence my commitment to planning ahead whenever I can.
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 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.
Etiquette on Japanese trains
There were a couple of things we did notice on Japanese trains to be aware of:
- 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 reasonable expect to sit in the seat they booked. Japan is a very populous country and what keeps it running so smoothly is polite and considerate behaviour, it would be uncomfortable for most Japanese people, even the conductors to have to ask you to move.
- 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 never had any issue with getting luggage space on the trips when were were moving around with our suitcases as locals mostly travel with small cases.
- 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 rubbish off the train at the end of your trip and out of courtesy not to bring overly ‘fragrant’ food onboard.
- Again it is normal practice in Japan to keep your voice low if you converse on public transport, talking loudly or being on the phone is generally considered impolite. Again it’s just part of living harmoniously in crowded confines. Children should have activities to keep them amused and quiet. There is some tolerence for children being children but not running around the train and shouting.
- Japan is generally very orderly and queuing is normal. Be waiting at the marked area of the platform before your 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.
In summary we have consistently found the Japan Rail Pass to be easy to use and represent excellent value on our travels. That said everyones circumstances and travel style will differ and an hour to two planning to make sure you get the right pass for your needs, or no pass if that makes more sense, is worth the effort.
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 periodically to cater for that. However before purchasing you should always read the agents website details carefully or ask them to clarify for you 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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