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Are you trying to decide if a Japan Rail Pass is worth it? Find out in this ultimate JR Pass guide.
Travelling through Japan by rail is a breeze.
Japanese rail services are frequent, reliable, comfortable, safe, clean and fast. The signs in major stations are in English as are the announcements and indicators on long-distance trains.
But does the JR Pass save you money? Find out if buying a Japan Rail pass is worth it in this complete JR Pass guide.
What is Japan Rail?
Japan Railways, or JR for short, is the country’s leading railway company comprising the six companies of the JR Group.
JR has an extensive network of trains across width and breadth of Japan, from the shinkansen – Japan’s super-fast bullet trains – to scenic local trains.
If you are travelling by train in Japan, chances are the vast majority of your journeys will be on a JR train.
What is the Japan Rail Pass?
The Japan Rail Pass, or JR Pass, is your golden ticket to travel in Japan, allowing unlimited access to all JR trains, as well some partner railways, buses and ferries for 7, 14 or 21 days.
The pass can only be used by the individual named on the pass and comes in two versions: an ordinary pass, for travel in standard cars, or green pass, which allows you to travel in the green (first-class) cars.
Is it worth buying a green Japan Rail Pass?
In my view, unless you are travelling around Japan during a particularly busy period – the Golden Week at the beginning of May, for example – a green JR Pass does not offer added value.
I have travelled by train in Japan twice and have not experienced problems with getting a seat on the service of choice.
Although the green cars offer wider seats and more legroom, the carriages in the normal cars are clean, comfortable and very spacious. There is room for luggage in the overhead rack or even in front of you (the legroom is that generous!).
Where green cars come into their own is during busy times as they are usually less crowded. You will find green cars on the shinkansen and limited express trains.
Whilst you can upgrade to a green car, this will blow a considerable hole in your travel budget.
Where can you use the JR Pass?
First and foremost, your Japan Rail Pass is valid on all trains operated by JR, including the shinkansen, limited express, express, rapid and local trains. Additionally, you can use the JR Pass on partner railway, bus and ferry services.
Let’s take a closer look at to what else your pass gives you access.
Railway lines where you can use your JR Pass
Tokyo Monorail – useful if you need to travel to or from Haneda airport.
Narita Express (NEX) – connecting Narita airport with Tokyo.
JR Lines in Tokyo – if you use JR lines to get around Tokyo, the JR Pass has you covered. The JR Yamanote Line, the “ring route” connecting Akihabara, Ginza, and Shibuya, is particularly useful.
Aoimori Railway services between Aomori and Hachinohe – but only for travel on local or rapid service trains encompassing the segments between Hachinohe and Aomori, Aomori and Noheji, and Hachinohe and Noheji.
IR Ishikawa Railway Line between Kanazawa and Tsubata – but only for travel on local or limited express trains encompassing the full segment between these two stations.
Ainokaze Toyama Railway Line between Toyama and Takaoka – but only for travel on local trains and encompassing the full segment between these two stations.
Bus services where you can use your JR Pass
The JR Pass is valid on the local lines of JR Bus, including inner-city networks. Here are a few examples of services that I have found to be particularly useful:
- JR Hop-On-Hop-Off bus at Hiroshima
- JR loop bus running between Kanazawa station and popular tourist sites, including Kenrokuen garden.
Ferry services where you can use your Japan Rail Pass
JR Ferry Hiroshima to Miyajima island.
What isn’t covered by the JR Pass?
Two of the super-express shinkansen lines are excluded from the JR Pass.
- Nozomi shinkansen – the alternative is the slightly slower Hikari Shinkansen
- Mizuho shinkansen – the alternative is the slightly slower Sakura Shinkansen
Hop on a Nozomi or Mizhuo shinkansen at your peril. You will get hammered for the full fare.
In some parts of Japan, JR trains run on non-JR lines. To use these services, you will need to pay a supplement, which is collected by the conductor on board the train.
Private rail lines are excluded from the Japan Rail Pass. For example; when visiting Mount Fuji your JR Pass is not valid for local travel within Hakone (it will get you as far as Odawara). If you use the Odakyu trains in the Kanto region or the Kintetsu trains in the Kansai region, you will have to buy a ticket.
Buying and exchanging your JR Pass
Next, we’ll take a look at how much you can expect to pay for a JR Pass, where to buy it and how to exchange your voucher for this golden ticket to train travel in Japan.
How to buy your Japan Rail Pass in 2021
1. Through an online agent
This is the most common and the easiest way to buy your Japan Rail Pass.
When you buy your JR Pass online, the vendor will provide you with a voucher (an exchange order), which you will exchange for the JR Pass once you reach the country. You can collect your JR Pass at a JR ticket office, designated airport or travel agent on arrival in Japan.
As of January 2021, the price of Japan Rail Passes purchased online are as follows:
|DURATION||ORDINARY PASS||GREEN PASS|
Tips for buying your JR Pass exchange order
- As JR Pass exchange orders are valid for 90 days from the date of issue, don’t place your order more than 90 days prior to your date of travel.
- But do order your JR Pass exchange order well in advance of planned travel to Japan.
- When you place your online order, you will be asked for an approximate arrival date in Japan. This is just so the agent can ensure that your pass will arrive on time. You will decide the exact start date of the pass when you arrive in Japan.
2. At a JR-designated sales office or agent overseas
Alternatively, buy your Japan Rail Pass at a JR-designated sales office or agent overseas. Again, the agent will provide you with a voucher, which you will exchange for the JR Pass once you reach the country.
Some agents will deliver the pass to your hotel in Japan. However, in that case, you won’t be able to use your JR Pass on the journey from the airport.
As you may need to enter your passport number to prove your foreign status, make sure that you have this handy when you buy your exchange order.
3. At a JR ticket office in Japan
As of January 2021, it is possible to purchase the JR Pass in Japan. However, there are two important points worth noting:
- This is a pilot scheme which has been extended until 31 March 2021. It is not known if this period will be further extended.
- It is considerably more expensive to buy your JR Pass in Japan than to purchase it online.
Where can you buy the JR Pass in Japan?
How to activate your JR Pass
If you have an exchange voucher, you need to exchange it for a JR Pass when you reach Japan. For this, you will need your passport again.
In order to exchange your voucher for a Japan Rail Pass, you MUST have a “Temporary Visitor” stamp in your passport.
Here is a list of locations where you can exchange your voucher for a JR Rail pass.
On both visits to Japan, I have exchanged my voucher for a JR Pass on arrival at Narita Airport, which allowed me to use it on the Narita Express.
Now, clutching your shiny new JR Pass in your sweaty palm, you can use it from that day for the consecutive number of days of the pass’s validity. For example; a 7-day pass that is used for the first time on April 1st will remain valid until April 7th at midnight.
Using the JR Pass
To gain access to the railway platform, pass through one of the manned gates and flash your pass at the attendant, date side up. You will need to repeat this when exiting at your destination.
Alternatively, where the JR station has an automatic ticket gate, you can use this, inserting your JR Pass into the slot. Just don’t forget to retrieve it from the other side!
You will not be able to go through automatic ticket gates indicated to be “IC only”.
JR Pass and seat reservations
Most JR trains have carriages with reserved or non-reserved seats. For these services, you do not need to make a seat reservation. Simply hop on one of the carriages with non-reserved seats.
Although carriages with non-reserved seats tend to be busier, I have never had difficulty finding a seat.
However, on trains that have carriages with reserved seats only, reservations are compulsory.
You can identify which services require a seat reservation using the HyperDia website (more about that later).
Additionally, you need to reserve seats on the Tokaido, Sanyo or Kyushu shinkansen when travelling with oversized baggage (the total measurement of the three sides is over 160 cm and within 250 cm).
When I did reserve a seat, I usually did so around the time of travel and have never been unable to do so. However, travelling during busier times of year is likely to be another story.
Seat reservations with a JR Pass are free. Head to the ticket office (Midori-no-madoguchi), show your pass, and the clerk will issue a reservation ticket and annotate your JR Pass. Easy.
Just allow enough time as the counters in the ticket office are often busy.
Finding your train carriage is simple. Signs on the platform indicate where each carriage will stop, allowing you to queue at the correct spot.
Using the JR Pass on the Narita Express
The Japan Rail Pass is valid on the Narita Express, connecting Narita Airport to Tokyo.
The train departs from the terminus underneath terminal 2 and stops at Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, Shibuya, Shinagawa and finally Tokyo.
Seat reservation is compulsory on the Narita Express. If you are activating your Japan Rail Pass at Narita Airport, the clerk there will take care of this for you.
Using the JR Pass to get from Haneda Airport to Tokyo
From Haneda airport, you can use the Tokyo Monorail to get to Hamamatsucho station, from where you can continue your journey on the Yamanote line. All three terminals of Haneda Airport are served by the monorail.
Using the Japan Rail Pass to get from Kansai airport to Kyoto or Osaka
Your JR Pass is also valid on the Limited Express Haruka, connecting Kansai Airport to Kyoto and Osaka. From the station at Kansai Airport’s Terminal 1, the Haruka stops at Tennoji Shin-Osaka Station before continuing to Kyoto Station.
Let’s cut to the chase! Is the Japan Rail Pass worth it?
As a (very) general rule of thumb, if you are making at least one long-distance return journey on a shinkansen, it is likely a 7-day JR Pass will be worth the money.
A good example is the return train journey from Tokyo to Kyoto. This will set you back a minimum of 26,640 YEN, a mere 3,010 YEN short of the cost of a 7-day pass.
However, if you’re not 100% certain that you will get good value out of your Japan Rail Pass, you need to total how much the individual point-to-point train tickets will set you back. Also bear in mind that JR regional passes are available and, depending on your itinerary, these may be a better bet for you.
Therefore, to decide if a JR Pass is good value, you first need to sketch out an itinerary and calculate travel costs in the absence of a pass. To help you do this, HyperDia is your best friend.
Using HyperDia to calculate if a JR Pass is good value
HyperDia, which shows you the time of train services along with their price, may not be the slickest website out there but I have found its information to be reliable and up-to-date. Also available as an app, it is my go-to travel resource in Japan.
As a Japan Rail Pass holder, you can use filters to exclude services that are excluded from the pass; private railways and Nozomi and Mizuho shinkansen for example (although Japan Rail Pass holders can now travel on the Hayabusa shinkansen).
Now the fun begins.
To see if the Japan Rail Pass will be worth it, you will need to enter all of your anticipated rail journeys individually. In return, Hyperdia will display the timetable and the price, which is made up of the train fare and the seat fee.
Although the reserved seat fee is more, for costing purposes the relatively small difference is nothing to worry about.
To give you a better idea of what this looks like, let’s look at a couple of Japan itineraries that I have followed.
2-Week Japan train itinerary #1
This is classic first-timer’s Japan itinerary, using Tokyo and Kyoto as bases for day trips to surrounding towns and cities.
|Narita Airport – Tokyo||3,070|
|Tokyo – Kyoto||13,320|
|Kyoto – Nara (return)||1,440|
|Kyoto – Hiroshima – Mijayama (return)||21,540|
|Kyoto – Tokyo||13,320|
|Tokyo – Kamakura (return)||1,860|
|Tokyo – Narita Airport||3,070|
|TOTAL COST OF INDIVIDUAL TICKETS:||57,620 YEN|
|COST OF 14-DAY JR PASS:||47,250 YEN|
Using a JR Pass saved a minimum of 10,370 YEN
2-Week Japan train itinerary #2
On my second trip to Japan, I headed down to Kyushu, home to volcanoes and hot springs, whilst including Osaka, Himeji, Kanazawa and an unscheduled return visit to Kyoto.
|Narita Airport – Tokyo||3,070|
|Tokyo – Osaka||14,900|
|Osaka – Hakata||15,280|
|Hakata – Kagoshima (return)||21,280|
|Hakata – Himeji||14,280|
|Himeji – Kyoto||5.370|
|Kyoto – Kanazawa||7,020|
|Kanazawa – Tokyo||14,380|
|Tokyo – Narita Airport||3,070|
|TOTAL COST OF INDIVIDUAL TICKETS:||98,750 YEN|
|COST OF 14-DAY JR PASS:||47,250 YEN|
Using a JR Pass saved a minimum of 51,480 YEN
As you can see, a JR Pass was worth it on both trips to Japan and saved me a LOT of money on the second trip.
And these savings do not take into account other benefits such as travel on JR rail and bus in urban centres. It really was the gift that kept on giving.
However, depending on your itinerary, a JR Pass may not be your best option.
If your travel is confined to a limited area of Japan you may be better off with a regional rail pass. Depending on the pass, different durations and flexible days are available.
Regional JR Passes
Regional JR Passes are issued by the companies that comprise Japan Railways: JR East, JR West, JR Central, JR Hokkaido, JR Shikoku, JR Kyushu. Passes from each of these six local companies allow unlimited travel within their respective region.
As with the country-wide Japan Rail Pass, your travel itinerary will determine if you will save money from a regional JR Pass. Therefore, to decide if a local pass will offer good value, apply the same technique as the Japan Rail Pass.
Is the Japan Rail Pass worth it? The bottom line
The Japan Rail Pass can be an astonishing bargain.
However, you need to do your homework to determine if the pass is good value for you. Plan your itinerary first and then pick a pass accordingly.
Although a JR Pass is likely to be worth it if your itinerary includes a fair bit of intercity travel, if you are planning just a single one-way shinkansen journey a point-to-point ticket may be a better bet.
If your travel is confined to a specific area, it is worth checking if a Japanese regional rail pass will represent better value. For example; if your itinerary is focusing on Osaka, Kyoto, Himeji and the surrounding area, consider a Kansai Area Pass.
Finally, the benefits of a JR Pass are not just economic.
It’s hard to put a value on the flexibility that this pass offers with the freedom to change your plans at will. Two travel lessons that I have learned is the need for flexibility and having a Plan B if things go wrong.
My second visit to Japan coincided with the rapidly emerging threat from the coronavirus pandemic, forcing me to change my itinerary to allow a speedy exit from Tokyo. With a JR Pass in hand, changing my plans was not an issue.
As for the pottery towns and hot springs of Kyushu? Something to look forward to on a return trip, JR Pass in hand.
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