They say it’s often about the journey, not the destination – and that’s certainly true when it comes to riding the trains in Japan.
Japanese trains, particularly the shinkansen (bullet train), are more than just a way to get somewhere. They are a cultural experience in themselves – and something the JR Rail Pass has made an affordable option for travellers for years.
One of my favourite things to do in Japan is to grab the lunch box known as an ‘ekiben’ from the train station, plus perhaps a coffee (or a beer later in the day) from the convenience store, and then settle into the comfortable seat of a shinkansen.
Smooth as a cloud, the train glides along at high speed, and I just stare out the window, watching the Japanese countryside go past. People always get excited about seeing Mount Fuji from the shinkansen, but I also love seeing the outskirts of the cities and the changing landscapes.
Beyond just the enjoyment of the Japanese trains, buying a JR Pass also made financial sense for many visitors to Japan.
These long-distance shinkansen trips are expensive (about 14,000 yen/US$95 one-way between Tokyo and Osaka, for example) which is why getting a JR Rail Pass has long been a popular way to save money.
That’s because once you’ve bought it, the JR Pass gives you unlimited train travel for a set period of time (7, 14, or 21 days), meaning you can travel to a bunch of places in Japan without spending a fortune.
And even that flexibility can sometimes be worth the cost of a Japan Rail Pass. There was one time I had the pass that I just randomly jumped on a bullet train every day from Tokyo station and did day trips to wherever it was heading!
An important note about the JR Pass. You need to buy it before you arrive in Japan so a voucher can be sent to you!
I recommend getting it in advance here.
A large price increase in October 2023 means the Japan Rail Pass doesn’t offer as good value as it once did – and it is reasonable to now ask if the JR Pass is worth it.
For many visitors to Japan, it will be – but don’t just assume anymore that you should get it. You may be able to have the cultural experience of riding the shinkansen and actually save money by just doing individual tickets.
To see if you should buy the JR Rail Pass, I’m going to go through all the important information now.
Be warned – it can be quite confusing because there’s a complicated series of train networks in Japan that all have their own rules. But I’ve also got some tips for using the JR Pass that will help, if you do decide to buy it.
What is the Japan Rail Pass?
At its simplest, the Japan Rail Pass is a transport ticket that allows unlimited travel on the JR network for a chosen period of time.
You buy it for a set amount of money based on duration (the options are 7, 14, or 21 consecutive days), and then you can use the network as much as you like during that time.
OK, so that’s the simple answer. But it’s more complicated when you look at the details.
Before I go on, a couple of important points to clarify.
Firstly, ‘JR’ stands for ‘Japan Rail’ and is the name of a group of companies that run many of the trains in the country. You may see people (including me in this article) refer to the JR Pass, the Japan Rail Pass, or even the JR Rail Pass. These are just different names for exactly the same thing.
Also, JR (Japan Rail) is actually now made up of six companies, each representing a different part of the country (eg. JR East, JR West).
The JR Pass is a joint product sold collectively by all six companies, so I will mostly just refer to ‘JR’ in general terms, except for when there are particular differences between the companies.
Now, although JR is the biggest train company in Japan, it’s not the only one, and there are quite a few private operators that run different routes around the country.
The JR Pass is not some kind of ‘national train pass’ – it is a pass for use only on the routes that are run by the JR company (with a few exceptions)!
Although it covers most of Japan, this is something important to remember when you’re thinking about whether it’s worth buying the JR Pass.
The things the JR Pass includes are:
- All the shinkansen (bullet train) routes and stops around the country, stretching from Hokkaido in the north to Kyushu in the south. Just note, though, there is a surcharge to get the super-express trains (Nozomi and Mizuho) but you don’t have to use them – they just have fewer stops.
- All the JR train routes between cities and towns not on the shinkansen routes (including places like Nara, Kinosaki Onsen, Kamakura, and Takayama).
- The Narita Express from Narita Airport to Tokyo (because it is owned by JR).
- Any train lines within cities that are run by JR, such as the Yamanote Line in Tokyo, or the Osaka Loop Line.
- All JR buses, which tend to be used between towns in less-populated areas that don’t have train lines, like on Shikoku and Kyushu.
- The JR Miyajima Ferry, which goes to the island near Hiroshima that has the famous Itsukushima Shrine.
- And these exceptions where special deals have been arranged: The Tokyo Monorail from Haneda Airport; the Aomori Railway direct between Aomori and Hachinohe; the IR Ishikawa Railway direct between Kanazawa and Tsubata; and the Ainokaze Toyama Railway direct between Toyama and Takaoka.
So, that’s a lot of Japan that is covered, including most of the main tourist spots that you might go to on a general trip to the country.
But it doesn’t let you use every train in Japan.
What does the JR Rail Pass not cover?
So, now you know what the JR Rail Pass does cover, let’s have a look at what it DOESN’T cover, because it can certainly be confusing.
In most cases, if the transport line doesn’t have JR in the name and has a different company in the name instead, it’s probably not covered.
These are some of the things NOT included in the Japan Rail Pass:
- The super-express Nozomi and Mizuho trains on the shinkansen. Although, you can now pay a surcharge to use them with your JR Pass (The Tokyo to Osaka surcharge is ¥4960 (US$34) for example.)
- Any route run by one of the other 16 main private train companies. This includes companies like Tobu (which goes to Nikko), Kintetsu (around Osaka region), Keisei (including to Narita Airport), and Odakyu (to Hakone). Often there are JR alternatives to these routes, though.
- Most of the transportation within a city, such as the Tokyo Metro, Osaka Metro, and Kyoto Subway. (Those cities do have JR lines that go to some parts of the city, though).
- Any buses that aren’t run by JR
The rules about what is and isn’t included is the most confusing in the big cities, where there are often multiple companies using the same stations. (But using the JR Pass just for cities is bad value anyway, so this may not be such a big issue.)
The most important things to look out for are whether you want to go somewhere obscure that maybe doesn’t have a JR train line (which may factor into whether it’s worth buying the JR Pass in the first place).
Or if there are multiple options, make sure you get the JR route. For instance, Tokyo to Nikko is serviced by both Tobu and JR, so you can get there for free using the Japan Rail Pass on the JR route, but you would need to pay about ¥3900 (US$26) each way on Tobu otherwise.
Different types of Japan Rail Passes?
When it comes to choosing a Japan Rail Pass, there are a few different options (which you’ll see here when you go to buy the pass).
And, there are also some alternatives that I’m going to mention further down.
The first choice you have to make is the duration for your JR Pass (and this is something you can’t change after you’ve bought it).
There are three possible JR Pass durations to choose from:
- 7 days
- 14 days
- 21 days
I’ll discuss the exact prices in the next section, but basically the per-day cost of the pass gets cheaper the longer the duration.
So a 7-day pass is about ¥7100 (US$48) a day, while the 21-day pass is about ¥4700 (US$32) a day. (Remember, though, the duration of the pass is for consecutive days.)
The second choice you have to make is between a JR Pass for the Ordinary Car or the Green Car.
The ‘Green Car’ is essentially the ‘first class’ of the train and is available on all of the shinkansen and some of the ‘tokkyu’ (limited express) routes on other lines.
The Green Car has fewer seats and each seat has more space. They tend to be less crowded, and there are small advantages like your own power point in the seat.
On some routes you’ll also get a refresher towel and free tea and coffee.
For the most part, though, the Ordinary Car is perfectly comfortable and there’s no real need to spend more to get a Green Car JR Pass. But, having said that, it may be a fun treat (I’ve certainly enjoyed travelling in them!)
Regional JR Passes
I mentioned earlier that JR (Japan Rail) is actually made up of six companies that each cover a different part of the country (JR East and JR West, for example).
And although the main JR Pass we’ve been talking about covers the whole country, you can also buy some other regional JR Passes that just give you travel in a certain area.
These are usually much cheaper, and may make more sense if you’re just concentrating your travel on one part of Japan.
For instance, JR East has several passes, including one that covers from Tokyo to the west, including Nagano and Niigata (great for skiiers) for ¥27,000 (US$182) for 5 days, which is about half the price of the 7-day JR Pass.
And JR West has several passes, including one that covers the Osaka region like Nara and Kyoto, plus all the way down to Hiroshima and Miyajima, for ¥23,000 (US$155) for 7 days (less than half the cost of the 7-day JR Pass).
You can’t use these passes to do some of the popular shinkansen trips like between Tokyo and Osaka/Kyoto, because those cities are in different regions, but they will definitely be good value for some visitors.
Other transport passes
And I’m also just going to briefly mention that quite a few cities or regions have their own travel deals that cover a range of modes of transport in their area.
These are obviously a very different product to the JR Pass, which is about saving money if you’re doing lots of long distance trips on the shinkansen.
The city or small regional transport passes are mainly useful if you’re going to be doing a lot of small trips around that area over a day or a few days.
I’m talking about the Hakone FreePass which covers the train from Tokyo and then three days around Hakone, for instance. Or the Kansai Thru Pass, which gives you three non-consecutive days around the Kansai area to places like Kyoto, Kobe, Nara, or Koyasan.
You may want to consider using one of these passes for your time around that region, and then saving the JR Pass for the days when you’re going to do some big trips.
How much does the JR Rail Pass cost?
OK, now it’s time to talk money, which is obviously the biggest factor on whether it’s worth buying the JR Pass.
It used to be a bit of a no-brainer for most people travelling to Japan who were going to visit a few different cities in a short time.
But, with an increase in price in October 2023, the JR Rail Pass is now a lot more expensive.
The new price for the different types of JR Pass are:
|Green (First class)
So the cheapest option, is the 7-day pass for the Ordinary Car, which costs ¥50,000 – or about US$338. That works out to be about ¥7100 (US$48) a day.
If you were to get the 21-day pass for the Ordinary Car, that would work out to be about ¥4700 (US$32) a day.
It’s interesting to note that the 21-day pass is the same price as two 7-day passes, which means there’s probably no reason to split your trip into two separate passes to try to save money.
When it comes to the Green Car, the 7-day pass costs about an extra ¥2800 (US$19) a day to have the nicer carriages. For the 21-day pass, it’s about ¥1900 (US$13) a day extra – which is probably good value if you were doing a shinkansen trip every day.
It should also be noted that what I’m quoting here are the official prices.
However, there are lots of authorised resellers of the Japan Rail Pass, and you’ll find a range of slightly different prices if you look at these various retailers (online and on-ground).
That’s usually because they are marking it up slightly to cover the postage of the voucher, or perhaps discounting it slightly to be a bit more competitive. But there’s generally no more than about a 5 per cent difference.
I mention it just so you don’t get concerned if the price doesn’t match exactly.
A cost comparison of the JR Pass
Now we have all this information, let’s crunch the numbers to see if it’s worth buying the JR Pass.
You certainly can save a lot of money, but it depends on how much travel you’re planning to do, and in what period of time.
A common trip for visitors is to go from Tokyo to Kyoto and then back again, all on the shinkansen. This return trip would cost you about ¥26,000 (much less than the ¥50,000 for the 7-day JR Pass). So it would not be worth getting the JR Pass.
Even if you used the pass for the Narita Express (¥4000 return), a couple of days in Tokyo (where an all-day pass for suburban JR lines is just ¥750) and you did a side trip from Kyoto to Osaka on the shinkansen (¥2800 return), you’re only spending about ¥34,000 – so the JR Pass is still not worth it.
On the other hand, let’s look at the calculations if you want to spend the 7 days doing a lot of travel (maybe after you’ve spend some days in Tokyo).
You might do a day trip to Nikko from Tokyo (¥11,000), then go down to Hiroshima (¥18,000) and spend a couple of nights there with a visit to Miyajima on the ferry (¥400), then go to Kyoto for a couple of nights (¥11,000), and then come back to Tokyo (¥13,000).
All of that travel is going to cost about ¥53,000. It’s only slightly more than the 7-day pass costs, but you’ll probably find a few other ways to use the pass during that time, and it saves you the hassle of buying tickets each time. So in this case, it is worth it.
If you haven’t worked this out already, I’m going to share the main way to get good value from the Japan Rail Pass – use it for longer and do a fair amount of travel in that time.
Looking at the 14-day JR Pass, for instance, here’s a reasonable way to spend your time in Japan:
Tokyo to Nagasaki for a couple of days, then Hiroshima for a couple of days, across to Matsuyama to see Shikoku for a few days, over to Kyoto for a few days (with side trips to Osaka and Nara), up to Kanazawa for a day, down to Nagoya for a day, and then back to Tokyo.
All of that travel is going to cost you about ¥90,000 (not taking into account the smaller side trips you’ll do as part of that). So that’s a minimum saving of about ¥10,000 (US$70) as well as not having the hassle of buying tickets all the time.
If you had an even longer trip in Japan, you might do everything I just suggested in the 14-day itinerary, and then head north for the other week, going to Sapporo for a couple of days, and then stopping at maybe Aizu-Wakamatsu and Nikko on the way back.
All of that would cost about ¥160,000. Compared to the ¥100,000 price of the 21-day Pass, it’s clearly a HUGE saving of ¥60,000 (US$400).
Now, it’s a lot of travel, and it’s perhaps faster than I would normally recommend going. But it’s a fun way to see lots of Japan and, in a situation like that, you definitely will make the most of a JR Pass.
If you’re more of a slow traveller and don’t want to visit as many places, you may find it’s not worth getting the JR Pass now with the cost increase.
To check some train prices yourself to do some calculations, you can use a tool like Japan Transit Planner.
Tips for using the Japan Rail Pass
Regardless of where you buy the Japan Rail Pass before you arrive, you’ll need to go to one of the main train stations to exchange your voucher for your pass.
In Tokyo, places where you can pick up the pass include Narita and Haneda Airports, as well as JR stations at Tokyo, Ueno, Shinjuku, and Shinagawa.
You can see the full list here of about 65 pick-up locations across Japan.
When you exchange the voucher for your JR Pass, you have to nominate the start date. That doesn’t have to be the same day that you do the exchange.
Once the start date begins, the pass is only valid for consecutive days (ie, the next 7 days for a 7-day pass). So even if you don’t use it at all on some of those days, they will count as part of the pass duration.
If you’ve used a Japan Rail Pass back in the day, you may remember it as a large piece of cardboard that you had to show the guard at the gate each time.
Now, though, it’s just the normal small ticket with a magnetic strip. You’ll just put it through the ticket reader at the automatic gates like everyone else, and it will let you through.
Most of the carriages on the shinkansen require you to reserve a seat before you board (although there are usually a few unreserved carriages that you can just jump onto if you’ve forgotten).
Reserving a seat is free with the JR Pass and you can now do it at the kiosks at the station. (Or you can still do it at the counter at a JR station.)
The reservation comes as a similar-looking ticket to the JR Pass – be careful not to accidentally throw out your pass at the end of the trip, because you can’t get it replaced for free!
When it comes to whether the JR Pass is worth buying, I wanted to share a few more tips to consider when you’re doing calculations – which may help you save money and find more value.
- The JR Pass does include the Narita Express, which is normally about ¥4000 return. But because the JR Pass is for consecutive days, it may not make sense to begin using the pass to get from the airport if you’re then just going to hang out in Tokyo for a few days.
- On that note, using the JR Pass just to get around Tokyo (or Osaka) is terrible value. The Tokyo Metro is much more convenient than the JR lines, and a 24-hour unlimited Metro pass for Tokyo is only ¥600 (compared to the ¥7100 a day that a 7-day JR Pass averages out to be).
- The best use of a JR Pass is for the shinkansen – and the more trips, and the longer the trips, the more value the pass offers. So, if you’re planning to visit a few cities, think about which 7 days (or 14/21 days) you want to use the JR Pass to maximise the travel you’ll do during that duration. You may even consider moving a shinkansen trip a day earlier or later to fit into that 7-day duration.
- One interesting ‘hack’ that people use is to base themselves for the 7 days in a city on the shinkansen line that has easy access to all the places they want to visit, and then do day trips each day using the JR Pass. For instance, staying in Hamamatsu gives you easy access to Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Nagoya, and Mount Fuji. With generally cheaper hotel rates than Tokyo, you can save even more money this way.
- If you are only going to be spending time in one part of Japan (the Kansai region around Osaka, for instance), it’s definitely worth looking at the regional JR Passes instead, because they are much cheaper but still allow you to use all the same transport within that region.
- Although you can now pay a surcharge to use the super-express Nozomi and Mizuho trains (¥4960 between Tokyo and Osaka, for example), I don’t think it’s worth it at all, as you only save about 30 minutes.
- For really long-distance trips like Tokyo north to Sapporo or south to Fukuoka, tourists would often do a flight instead of the train. So if you’re calculating value, using the cost of flying can often be a more accurate way of comparing.
Ultimately, the best way to use the Japan Rail Pass is going to depend on your own itinerary and interests. But because it’s quite an expensive pass now, it’s definitely worth doing some planning and considering any changes to your plans to make the most of having it.
How to buy the JR Rail Pass
Buying the JR Pass does involve a little planning because it has to be done in advance.
First of all, just a reminder that the JR Rail Pass can only be bought by foreigners coming to Japan as temporary visitors.
When you pick up your physical pass, they will check your passport to compare the name with your booking, and even look for your entry stamp from immigration.
Something that’s often confusing to people getting the JR Pass is that, until recently, the official train company, JR, didn’t sell the JR Pass directly.
Even now, it’s not the primary seller of its own pass. Instead, it uses a range of distributors around the world – and many of them try to sound like they are the only official one. (You may have noticed this if you tried to search for where to buy the JR Pass!)
Of all the different vendors, I recommend buying your JR Pass through GetYourGuide.
Why? Well, because they are a large international company that has years of experience selling travel products to countries all around the world. In fact, they are the company I use for most of my tour recommendations.
They have excellent customer service in multiple languages, can handle multiple currencies, and have all the logistics in place to get you your voucher as quickly as possible.
In short, I think GetYourGuide is more trustworthy than some of the smaller online retailers you may find by searching, and they’ll be able to help you if something goes wrong.
To finish up, just a reminder. You have to buy the JR Rail Pass in advance. And the voucher for the pass has to be mailed to you before you arrive.
So leave enough time to arrange that – I recommend buying it about a month in advance (you don’t have to nominate the start date for the pass duration until you exchange the voucher in Japan).
If you get stuck, though, there’s recently been a change which means there is one way to buy it online without needing to get a voucher. It costs a bit more, but may be a good option if you won’t be able to receive your voucher at home. (You’ll still need to pick up a physical pass in Japan.)
Whatever you decide, though, you will certainly enjoy the Japanese train experience. Make sure you grab an ekiben from the station, enjoy the view out the window, and make the most of exploring this fascinating country!