This post was last updated on July 1st, 2020 at 04:57 pm
You’ve planned out your trip to Japan but there’s one thing left. You are not sure whether to purchase a Japan Rail Pass. It’s a dilemma most travelers face, including me.
This can cause stress and unrest, something you don’t want.
To help you out, I wrote this guide for you. I will help you step by step to determine whether the Japan Rail Pass is recommended in your case. In addition, I will show you why I chose not to buy it. Finally, I will tell you everything about how the Japan Rail Pass works and what it means if you travel around Japan without this pass.
What is the Japan Rail Pass?
The Japan Rail Pass, often shortened to JR Pass, is a pass or train card that allows tourists to use (mainly) trains that belong to the JR network for 7, 14, or 21 days without restrictions. These are, for example, almost all Shinkansen trains, limited express trains, express trains, rapid trains, and local trains. Shinkansen is the same as the bullet train, an ultramodern train that takes you from A to B in no time.
For clarity: the Shinkansen trains not covered by the JR Pass are the NOZOMI and MIZUHO trains running on the Tokaido, Sanyo and Kyushu Shinkansen lines.
Who can use the JR Rail Pass?
The JR Rail Pass can only be applied for and used by tourists. In other words, those who enter Japan and get a standard 90-day stamp in their passport.
Are regional JR Passes also available?
In addition to national passes, you also have the option of purchasing a regional JR Pass. This means unlimited travel with JR vehicles in a certain region. You have the following options:
- JR Kansai Area Pass: 1 to 4 days.
- JR Hokkaido Pass: 3 to 7 days.
- JR West: Sanyo San’in Area Pass: 7 days.
- JR Central: Takayama Hokuriku Pass: 5 days.
- JR East: 5 days.
- All Kyushu Area Pass: 3 to 5 days.
- All Shikoku Pass: 3 to 7 days.
As you can see, these regional passes are issued for a maximum of 7 days, quite short if you ask me. It is true that some of these regional passes do not have to be used on consecutive days. For some of the above passes, you also have several sub-options, for example, the JR Kansai-Hiroshima Pass which falls under JR West.
How to know if your JR Pass is valid on a particular train?
You can easily check whether a JR Pass is valid for the route you want to travel. You can do this simply via Google Maps or via Hyperdia. The latter is the Japanese train planner who gives you all possible options per route. If it says “JR” or “Shinkansen”, then you know that you can travel with a JR Pass for free. Unless the relevant Shinkansen is excluded (see above).
This is an example of what Google Maps looks like if you want to travel from Tokyo to Matsumoto:
As you can see sometimes “JR” is mentioned next to the train, for example, JR Shinano.
Types of trains in Japan
You can roughly find five different types of trains in Japan, which I mentioned above:
- Shinkansen: The most luxurious and fastest trains. Free Wi-Fi is available.
- Limited Express trains: High-speed trains, also very comfortable. (Free) Wi-Fi is sometimes available.
- Express trains: Similar to Limited Express Trains, although there are more.
- Rapid trains: Similar to the local trains (see next), only there are fewer stops. You ‘ll get to your destination faster.
- Local trains: You often sit on benches opposite each other. The train stops at every possible station.
Tips on traveling by train
Traveling by train in Japan is sometimes quite an experience and a bit different than you are used to at home or in the rest of Southeast Asia. For example, know that:
- The trains almost always leave on time. Punctuality is a characteristic of Japanese culture.
- Japanese line up before they enter the train.
- There are no trash cans. Just like on the Japanese streets by the way. This is part of the bring-your-own-junk-along culture.
- The train employees always walk to the beginning of the wagon, then turn around and greet the passengers with a bow.
- There are priority seats on local trains. Stay away from these, because they are intended for the elderly, people with disabilities, and pregnant women.
- Eating and drinking are permitted on trains, although it is less common on local trains than on long-distance trains.
What does a JR Pass cost?
When I saw the prices for the JR Pass for the first time, I was shocked, although afterward, I thought it was not that bad because of the distances and the high speed with which the Shinkansen trains run. In 2020, according to Japan Rail Pass, the rates for the national JR Pass are:
- A 7-day pass: US$275.
- A 14-day pass: US$437.
- A 21-day pass: US$559.
How do I know if I should purchase a JR Pass?
This depends on how you travel. If you visit a large part of Japan and many (large) cities in a short time, the JR Pass will certainly be worth it. After all, you want to travel as quickly as possible and you can often use Shinkansen.
For example, if you purchase a 7-day pass and plan to travel from Tokyo to Kyoto (13,970 yen) and Osaka (2,870 yen) and then back to Tokyo (14,570 yen), the JR Pass is cheaper.
You pay 13,970 + 2,870 + 14,570 = 31,410 yen, or US$291.50, for the individual Shinkansen tickets, which is more than the US$275 that the 7-day JR Pass costs.
However, if you plan to stay a little longer at a certain destination, it will probably be better to ignore the JR Pass.
In order to determine whether or not to purchase the JR Pass, you will, therefore, need to map out a (global) route. Then you look per route which travel options there are including the costs.
JR Pass calculator
Hyperdia is the perfect website to plan your train trip through Japan because it bundles all data about trains and routes. You can see exactly what time trains depart and from which track. In addition, it is indicated which train and carrier it concerns, so you can immediately see whether your JR Pass is valid. There is also an app for Android.
TIP – A faster – but also less specific – method to assess whether a JR Pass aligns with your travel plan is to use the JR Fare Calculator.
I am not a planner at all and I prefer to decide where to go next on the spot. However, in this case, I thought it was useful to make a route and find out if the JR Pass was recommended.
These were the things I knew beforehand:
- In less than 3 weeks I would fly from Kuala Lumpur to Tokyo.
- I wanted to travel for a month or around 30 days. Even though I booked a one-way ticket to keep my options open.
- After my trip, I would go back to Kuala Lumpur, and I didn’t care from where I would depart.
The next step was to map out a global route so that I could somewhat determine the transportation costs of the trip. I had come up with this plan, with the costs per route plus the option to travel with the JR Pass (yes or no). If the JR Pass is possible, I always chose that option:
- Tokyo (7 nights)
- Day trip to Mount Takao: 940 yen one way (JR Pass: yes) – total price: 570 yen * 2 = 1,140 yen.
- Day trip to Kamakura: 940 yen one way (JR Pass: yes) – total price: 940 yen * 2 = 1,880 yen.
- Day trip to Hakone: 1,660 yen one way (JR Pass: yes, to Odawara): total price: 1,660 yen * 2 = 3,320 yen.
- From Tokyo to Matsumoto (3 nights): 6,620 yen (JR Pass: yes).
- Day trip to Kamikochi: 4,650 yen return (JR Pass: no).
- From Matsumoto to Takayama (3 nights): 11,120 yen (JR Pass: yes).
- From Takayama to Shirakawa-go by bus (half a day): 2,600 yen (JR Pass: no).
- From Shirakawa-go to Kanazawa by bus (3 nights): 2,000 yen (JR Pass: no).
- From Kanazawa to Kyoto (5 nights): 7,020 yen (JR Pass: yes).
- Kyoto to Nara (half a day): 720 yen (JR Pass: yes).
- Nara to Osaka (3 nights): 810 yen (JR Pass: yes).
- Osaka to Hiroshima (3 nights): 10,860 yen (JR Pass: yes).
- Day trip to Miyajima: 180 yen one way (JR Pass: yes) – total price: 180 yen * 2 = 360 yen.
- Hiroshima to Fukuoka (3 nights): 9,160 yen (JR Pass: yes).
You can see that I could not use a JR Pass on three of the routes. The same goes for the section from Odawara to Hakone (140 yen). In summary:
- The 21-day JR Pass costs: US$559.
- The total cost of this trip, if I did not buy a JR Pass but chose the above (mostly expensive) options, would be: 1,140 + 1,880 + 3,320 + 6,620 + 4,650 + 11,120 + 2,600 + 2,000 + 7,020 + 720 + 810 + 10,860 + 360 + 9,160 = 62,260 yen, or US$578.
- If I were to purchase a 21-day JR Pass, at least 4,650 + 2,600 + 2,000 + 140 = 9,390 yen or US$87 would not be covered with the JR Pass. I say ‘at least’ because the JR Pass is valid for 21 days and the schedule is 30 nights or 31 days. 11 days are, therefore, not covered.
- In total, I would use JR trains for 578 – 87 = US$491. However, since I planned 31 days and the pass is only valid for 21 days, a significant portion of this would not be reimbursed if I purchased the JR Pass.
- I immediately add that the JR routes selected above are mostly Shinkansen trains and the most expensive options. But even then – in my case – the JR Rail Pass would not be a good choice. If you choose the bus between Kanazawa and Kyoto (which I actually did), you pay only 3,500 yen instead of 7,020 yen. The total cost in this example is a high estimate, you can travel much cheaper.
The bus as an alternative
Since you can also opt for the bus on most routes in addition to the train, the total transport costs can be a lot lower. You may be on the road a bit longer, but if you go on the road for a month like me, it makes little difference whether you travel for 4 hours (bus) or 2 hours (train). Especially when you alternate it is easy to do.
In addition, the buses I have been on were very luxurious. I often had two comfortable chairs to myself and there was always free Wi-Fi. We also always made a stop to eat and drink something.
No bus is available between Kyoto, Nara, and Osaka unless you go back to Kyoto and take the bus to Osaka. In this case, however, I’ll stick with the train journeys so 720 + 810 = 1,530 yen. The same goes for the day trips from Tokyo.
The total costs, when I would mostly travel by bus, turned out to be 29,350 yen – about US$272 after research. Quite a difference from the train, right?
We know that the 21-day JR Pass costs US$559. I used an example to show that even if the pass were valid for the full 31 days of my trip, it would not have been a good choice for me to purchase the JR Pass. Cash would be cheaper, even if I regularly took the Shinkansen train. Although I must add that I did not include the train and metro rides within the cities in my estimate. You will see it in the section below where I discuss my actual expenses.
Moreover, the choice not to buy one gave me peace of mind, because emotionally I could be a lot more flexible in my choices. For example, if I’m having a good time somewhere, it’s fine to stay a little longer. However, if you have the JR Pass, staying in one place for longer is not the most logical choice. The more you travel (on JR routes), the more you will benefit from it.
In the end, my route turned out differently than I had sketched. For example, I visited Kamakura for several days and from there I traveled further towards Fuji. In Fuji, I took the train to Matsumoto.
How much have I actually spent on transportation?
Since the above situation was an estimate of the costs, I kept track of all transport expenses during my trip. In addition to the relatively more expensive trips from city to city, there are also the metro and train costs that I have made within the cities.
Since I only used the Shinkansen once, the amount will probably be many times lower than the estimated US$578. However, in practice there may always be costs that you had not calculated in advance.
This is the route I followed including the transport expenses:
- Subway from Haneda Airport to my hostel: 670 yen.
- The subway from hostel to Shinjuku – a neighborhood in Tokyo: 220 yen.
- Total cost for the train and subway in Tokyo, including the train journey to Kamakura: 3,460 yen.
- The train in Kamakura: 280 yen.
- From Kamakura to Fuji City: 1,980 yen.
- From Fuji to Matsumoto: 6,100 yen.
- By bus from Matsumoto to Kamikochi and back: 4,650 yen.
- By bus from Matsumoto to Takayama: 3,250 yen.
- By bus from Takayama to Shirakawa-go: 2,600 yen.
- By bus from Shirakawa-go to Kanazawa: 2,000 yen.
- By bus from Kanazawa to Kyoto: 3,500 yen.
- Trains used in Kyoto: 1,080 yen.
- From Kyoto to Nara and back: 1,280 yen.
- From Kyoto to Hiroshima: 10,770 yen.
- Used trains and ferries in Hiroshima: 1,210 yen.
- By bus from Hiroshima to Fukuoka: 4,250 yen.
- Trains in Fukuoka: 2,260 yen.
These amounts add up to a total amount of 49,560 yen or US$460. I’ve been in Japan for 32 days, so choosing not to purchase the JR Pass was a good choice. Otherwise, I would have spent US$559 for a 21-day card plus the cost of an extra 11 days in Japan.
In other words: I spent 559 – 460 = US$99 less in 32 days than if I bought the 21-day JR Pass.
A side note
I will tell you again: in your case, it can all be different. If you go to many cities in 2 weeks and you have to return to Tokyo, for example, then it can be beneficial.
In that case, read on.
Where can I buy a JR Pass?
You can buy a JR Pass online in Japan as well as up to 90 days before your trip. However, it is cheaper online. It is recommended to purchase the JR Pass via Jrailpass.com, for example, 2 or 3 weeks before you leave.
Please note, you will receive a voucher after ordering that you must hand over when the pass is activated in Japan. A bit old-fashioned, but that’s the way it is. You can also order it abroad, in which case you must provide the address of the accommodation where you are staying. Another option is to have the JR Pass delivered to your accommodation in Japan.
How do I activate my JR Pass?
If you have chosen to purchase a JR Pass, you will need to activate the pass in Japan. The following things are good to know:
- You can activate the pass on presentation of your voucher at one of the Japan Rail Pass Exchange Offices, for example at the airport or at a train station where there is a JR counter. Here you will find an overview of all exchange points where you can go.
- You should activate the pass right before you want to use it. For example, if you are going to travel to Japan for 3 weeks and plan to stay in Tokyo for the first week, it may be beneficial to purchase a 14-day JR Pass and activate it after your stay in Tokyo.
- Your JR Pass is always valid until 00:00 on the last day. In other words, if you opt for a 7-day JR Pass and you activate it on 1 October at any time, you can travel with it until 7 October until midnight (until 11.59 p.m).
- The JR Pass is valid on consecutive days. Therefore, distribution is not possible.
How does the JR Pass work?
An advantage of a JR Pass over not having it is that you no longer have to buy tickets at the counter (this is frankly a small effort though). At the train stations, you always walk along manned areas next to the check-in gates. There you show your JR Pass to the employee, who then gives you access to the platform.
Also, pay attention to Shinkansen and certain Limited Express Trains. These have an area with reserved seating areas and an area where you can freely choose your seat. If you have accidentally taken a reserved seat, a conductor will kindly point this out to you. If the seat is not reserved, you can probably still sit there.
Using the JR Pass for ferries and buses
In addition to trains, you can also use JR buses and JR ferries in some cities. Some examples are:
- The JR Miyajima Ferry that will take you from Miyajimaguchi to Miyajima Island. However, the costs are negligible at 180 yen (US$1.65) for a single ticket.
- JR buses run in Kanazawa and Hiroshima. The same is the case in Kyoto between Kyoto Station and Shuzan.
- There are also JR buses between the cities, although you can no longer use them nowadays with the JR Pass. But it’s okay, given the perfect train connections, this is not necessary at all.
Using the JR Pass in the big cities
In some cities, local transportation is also partly arranged by JR. On those routes, you can also travel for free with your JR Pass.
JR Pass in Tokyo
In Tokyo you can use the JR Pass on the following routes:
- Yam JR Yamanote loop line (including Shinjuku, Ueno, Akihabara and Tokyo Station)
- Ch JR Chuo-Sobu line
- N JR Nikko line to Nikko
- Fu Mount Fuji and Hakone
- Ita Narita Express (to Narita Airport)
- Disney Tokyo Disney Resort
- Mon Tokyo Monorail (to Haneda Airport)
- Trains to Yokohama and Kamakura
Wondering how you can get the most out of your JR Pass while staying in Tokyo? You can read about it here.
JR Pass in Osaka
In Osaka you can use the JR Pass on the following routes:
- Uka Haruka Express (to Kansai Airport)
- Osaka JR Osaka Loop line
- Z Tozai Line
- Sak JR Sakurajima line to Universal City Osaka
- JR Rapid JR Express from Shin-Osaka to Osaka Station
Wondering how to get the most out of your JR Pass while staying in Osaka? You can read about it here.
JR Pass in Kyoto
In Kyoto you can use the JR Pass on the following routes:
- Uka Haruka Express (to Kansai Airport)
- Sag JR Sagano line (Arashiyama bamboo forest)
- N JR Nara line (Fushimi Inari and Nara)
- Sagano Scenic Railway
Wondering how you can get the most out of your JR Pass during a stay in Kyoto? You can read about it here.
Can I use the JR Pass to reserve a seat in the Shinkansen? And what about luggage?
With the JR Pass, you can possibly reserve a place in advance for the Shinkansen, although this will not be necessary in practice. And if a train is unexpectedly full, you just grab the next one that probably goes half an hour later.
But be careful, because from May 2020 there is a new rule: if you have large luggage with you in the Shinkansen of Tokkaido, Sanyo or Kyushu, you will have to reserve a seat. Luggage is “large” when the length + width + height of your bag or suitcase is between 1.60 meters and 2.50 meters. If the total is above 2.50 meters, your luggage will not be allowed.
Do you want to reserve a seat? This is usually possible up to a few minutes before departure at a JR counter.
You can carry two pieces of luggage per person and the maximum weight is 30 kilograms.
What if I don’t have a JR Pass?
If you do not purchase a JR Pass, you will have to buy separate tickets. I have done this every time and it was all easy and fast. The machines have an English option and you can check the price of the ride on Google Maps. Then click on the same price (or travel value) on the machine, after which your ticket will be printed.
Alternatives are apps or cards on which you deposit credit (for example PASMO and Suica), so you can easily check-in and out without having to buy tickets. I recommend these options especially within the cities if you travel a lot by metro and train. For example, if you are staying in Tokyo for a week, the PASMO is very useful.
Besides the train, I also advise you to take the bus every now and then. As I said, I have done this regularly and I really liked it. Tickets can be bought at the bus counters, usually, you will find them around the train stations. I advise you to do this a day in advance.
Cheating the system?
Don’t think that you can just get around in Japan by buying a cheaper ticket than is required. Because although there are hardly ever any checks on the local trains, if your ticket has too low a value, you simply receive an error message when checking out at your destination. You will then be approached by a counter employee and will have to pay the difference between the actual ticket price and what you paid.
Cheating the system like that will not work anyway since you do not have a ticket to check-in and pass the gate.
You will almost always be checked in the Shinkansen trains and the Limited Express Trains. Even if this is not the case, you will receive an error message when checking out and employees will come to you.
Can I refund my JR Pass?
Yes, you can refund your JR Pass up to 15 days after the purchase has been made, with a 15% penalty fee. What this means is that you’ll have to pay 15% of the total amount and you get 85% back. For more information, take a look at the refund page of the official JR Pass website.