Should You Get the Japan Rail Pass?

You would probably have known by now that Japan is an expensive country to visit. Besides the expensive accommodations and food options, travelling around Japan is also not exactly friendly to your wallet. So how would you like to travel around Japan for free?

Well, it’s not really free, but you could really save a lot of money while still travelling around in comfort during your stay in Japan. And you can do this by buying the Japan Rail Pass (henceforth called JR Pass for short).

Things to Know About the JR Pass

  1. You can only buy it outside of Japan. Once you entered Japan, you will not be able to buy it, as it’s not sold domestically.
  2. It’s only available to foreign tourists visiting Japan. So if you are on a working visa to Japan you don’t qualify for it.
  3. The JR Pass is non-transferable and only valid for the person whose name is printed on it. In my experience, the staff at the train stations don’t check your passport against the JR Pass, but that doesn’t mean they don’t.
  4. When you buy your JR Pass, you are presented with an exchange voucher. You will need to bring this voucher with you to Japan and get it exchanged into the actual JR Pass. The exchange voucher is only valid for 3 months to be used to exchange for a pass. So make sure you buy it less than 3 months before your trip. Also, don’t lose the voucher. I’m told that you can’t get a replacement voucher.
  5. The exchange voucher can exchanged into the actual JR Pass at designated major JR stations in Japan. The list of stations is shown here.
  6. When you exchange the voucher for the JR Pass, you will be asked for the start date of the JR Pass. The start date doesn’t have to be the date that you exchange the voucher. You can select a date within a 1 month period as the start date. But once the JR Pass is issued, you cannot change the start date anymore.
  7. JR Passes come in 7, 14 and 21 days validity. The days run consecutively from the start date, so you do need to plan your journeys properly to make full use of the JR Pass. The prices of the various JR Passes are shown below.
    Japan Rail Pass
    Type Ordinary Green Car
    7 consecutive days 29,110 yen 38,880 yen
    14 consecutive days 46,390 yen 62,950 yen
    21 consecutive days 59,350 yen 81,870 yen
    Reduced rates (50% off) apply to children aged 6-11.

    Green cars are like first class carriages and have more spacious seats. They are also less crowded because of the cost. Personally, I find that the Ordinary seats are comfortable and good enough for most people.

  8. The JR Pass allows you free unlimited travel on all JR trains, buses and ferries. JR owns and operates 70% of Japan’s railways, so the JR Pass is really very useful for long distance travel.

Should I Buy the JR Pass?

To answer that question, you have to ask yourself if you plan to travel to multiple cities in Japan. If your travel plan is only to stay in one city, then you are better off not to buy the JR Pass.

I did a tour of Tokyo-Kyoto-Nara-Osaka-Tokyo, which is quite common for many visitors to Japan. This itinerary can be completed using the 7 days JR Pass and allows you ample time to visit most of the attractions in each city. The table below shows the total cost of train tickets for such an itinerary. For Days 3,4 and 6 I assumed a return trip from the main station. The total cost works out to more than ¥31,000 per person, so in this case getting the 7 days JR Pass would be well worth it.

Day 1 Tokyo->Kyoto ¥13,800 Shinkansen Start date of JR Pass
Day 2 Kyoto ¥500 Local train Site seeing around Kyoto
Day 3 Visit Nara ¥710 x2 Local train Day trip to Nara
Day 4 Visit Araishiyama ¥240 x2 Local train Day trip to Araishiyama
Day 5 Kyoto->Osaka ¥560 Rapid train
Day 6 Visit Universal Studios ¥180 x2 Local train
Day 7 Osaka->Tokyo ¥14,340 Shinkansen JR Pass expires at midnight of Day 7
Total Cost ¥31,460

The JR Pass also gives you the flexibility to do side trips without worrying about racking up train tickets which can cost quite a bit. The JR Pass expires on midnight of the last day, so you can actually be on the train even past midnight and the pass is still valid until the end of your journey. Based on the itinerary above, this means that on Day 7 you can spend the whole day in Osaka and catch the late night Shinkansen back to Tokyo, as long as you board it before midnight. If you are wondering what to do in Nara or Araishiyama, you can refer to my previous blogs.

You can also use Hyperdia to check out the cost of train tickets and plan your journey in order to maximise your JR Pass.

JR Pass 2
The JR Pass booklet has a handy little map showing you the train lines covered by the pass.

 

Where Can I buy the JR Pass?

You can order the JR Pass online at this website. Otherwise, if you live in Singapore, you can go to JTB’s office at Ngee Ann City in Orchard Road to buy and collect the exchange voucher on the spot.

 

How to Use the JR Pass?

Go to any of the designated JR stations to exchange your voucher for the JR Pass. Each voucher has to be shown together with the corresponding passport. Tell the counter staff the start date and they will issue the JR Pass.

JR Pass 1
The JR Pass folds into a small booklet that is slightly larger than your passport on the long side.

Once you have received your JR Pass, you can use it immediately to reserve seats on the Shinkansen or take the local trains. For local trains in Tokyo, it’s not necessary to reserve seats. You cannot use the automatic gates, but can only use the manual gate. Show your JR Pass to the station staff as you pass through. So far, they just wave me through without checking the date on the JR Pass or asking to check my passport.

The Shinkansen has come to symbolise the industrial and technological prowess of Japan and if you’ve never sat in a bullet train (or Shinkansen), the JR Pass allows you to travel on the Shinkansen. You can go to any of the JR stations with a ticketing office and make your reservations. The JR Pass allows you to book all classes of Shinkansen trains except the Nozomi and Mizuho trains. The only difference between these 2 types of Shinkansen and the rest is that they are the super-express trains with very few stops in between.

JR Pass title
If you are in the need for speed, the Shinkansen is your thing. Travelling at up to 320km/h, these super fast trains can get you from Tokyo to Osaka (397km) in just 2.5 hrs. The JR Pass allows you to ride these trains and you should, as the tickets for the Shinkansen are really expensive. This is the best way to make your JR Pass pay for itself.

 

So there you have it, a short introduction to the JR Pass and when you should consider getting one. For more information regarding the JR Pass, you can check out this website.

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11 thoughts on “Should You Get the Japan Rail Pass?

    1. Thank you. It’s really worth it and I would like to try using it for different itineraries next time. Tokyo to Hokkaido on the new Shinkansen track sounds interesting.

      1. I did that exact route last year – nonstop from the capital to Hakodate. 4.5 hours on a train might seem daunting at first, but it was a remarkably comfortable ride and seemed over before I realised it. Fully covered by the pass, of course (provided one travels in the correct class).

        https://withinstrikingdistance.wordpress.com/2018/09/10/rail-report-tokyo-to-hakodate-on-the-tohoku-and-hokkaido-shinkansen-japan-02-october-2017/

        As for different itineraries – there are some journeys that might not be fully covered by the pass, but where the pass would help generate significant savings over paying the full cost up front. This is probably my favourite example (base fare 11,990 yen covered by the JR Pass, additional cost 16,970 yen paid in cash):

        https://withinstrikingdistance.wordpress.com/2016/08/23/rail-report-tokyo-to-izumo-on-the-sunrise-izumo-overnight-train-japan-05-06-july-2015/

        Not worth getting a pass for this journey alone, of course – but the other journeys I took during that holiday made the investment worthwhile, and the 11,990 yen base fare that the pass eliminated was just an added saving.

        Cheers.

      2. Very informative post! I’m just wondering how to make the JR pass worth it for this trip. If I go to Hokkaido I would like to spend more than 7 days, so a 7 day pass isn’t so viable. A pity the rapid train from Hakodate to Sapporo takes such a long time.

  1. Excellent summary, mate. One thing to point out regarding item 1:

    “You can only buy it outside of Japan. Once you entered Japan, you will not be able to buy it, as it’s not sold domestically.”

    JR are currently selling the pass through selected ticket offices inside Japan, although it’ll cost you a bit more than purchasing an exchange order overseas. More details here:

    http://www.japanrailpass.net/file/jr_pass_release_en_180301.pdf

    The current trial period for in-country sales is set to end on 31 March 2019, and whether it will be extended beyond that date is anyone’s guess. Personally I’d rather buy an exchange order ahead of arrival (as it’s quite a bit cheaper), but this might come in handy for those who, for one reason or another, arrive in Japan without an exchange order and decide that a pass would be worth getting.

    Cheers.

  2. Great post. Totally agree, the JR pass is awesome. We just were in japan in the summer for 2 weeks with my wife and our 4 small kids. The JR pass got us around everywhere and was well worth it in our 14 days there. Highly recommend it. Here’s a a quick video of our journey there.

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