Is a Japan Rail Pass Worth It?

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Travelling by train is one of the things we love most about Japan. There’s an extensive network, the trains are spacious and comfortable, and they always run on time (we even made a one-minute connection!).

The only downside is the price. Buying a Japan Rail Pass in advance can potentially save you huge amounts of money, though.

In this review, I’ll explore whether a Japan Rail Pass is worth it and share useful tips for using the pass and travelling by train in Japan.

I include exactly how much we saved by using a rail pass on one of our trips and when you shouldn’t use a JR pass.

This post was originally published in November 2017 and was updated in 2019 after our latest trip to Japan (travelling with a JR Pass as usual). 

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What is a Japan Rail Pass?

A Japan Rail Pass is a ticket that provides unlimited travel on all Japan Rail national trains for a certain period. Passes are available for 7, 14 or 21 consecutive days and you can choose between a standard and green (first class) pass.

Japan Rail Passes are only available to foreigners travelling on a tourist visa and must be bought outside Japan.

You can buy your pass online and get it delivered to your home address or even to your first Japan hotel if you’ve left it to the last minute.

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Japan Rail Pass Price

This is the cost of each of the standard Japan Rail Passes in Japanese yen with the current approximate exchange rate in US dollars and the cost per day in dollars.

Japan Rail Pass Cost in Yen Cost in $ Cost per Day in $
7 Day JR Rail Pass ¥29,650 $276 $39
14 Day JR Rail Pass ¥47,250 $439 $31
21 Day JR Rail Pass ¥60,450 $562 $27

These are the latest JR Rail Pass costs after the increase in VAT in Japan in October 2019. 

I don’t think there’s any need to pay extra for the Green Pass to travel first class as we found standard class comfortable with plenty of leg room, tables, and power points.

The only time it might be worth considering is during holiday periods such as Golden Week in late April/early May when standard class trains are busy (you can make seat reservations, though).

We always buy our tickets online with official vendor JRailPass.com. They ship worldwide in two days. 

Buy your Japan Rail Pass from JRailPass.com here

Which Trains are the Japan Rail Pass Valid On?

The JR Rail Pass is valid on all Japan Rail trains, but it can’t be used on trains operated by private companies.

This means you can’t take the fastest Nozomi or Mizuho shinkansen (bullet trains), but there are plenty of other bullet trains and this never caused us a problem.

For example, when travelling from Tokyo to Kyoto you can take the Hikari shinkansen which is only 20 minutes slower at 158 minutes than the Nozomi shinkansen which takes 138 minutes.

A super fast shinkansen (bullet train) in Japan that can be used with a Japan Rail Pass

A super fast shinkansen (bullet train) in Japan

The rail pass can be used on some local trains within Tokyo and other big cities, but not on the metro or buses. It’s mostly useful for saving money on travel between cities. See the local transport section below for more details.

Joyful Trains

Hello Kitty Shinkasen bullet train in Japan

The JR Pass is valid on many of Japan’s Joyful Trains which are fun, character-themed trains. We noticed the Hello Kitty shinkansen in Okayama station and were tempted to hop on for a joy ride (the advantage of a rail pass is you can follow whims like this). 

Destinations where we couldn’t use a JR Pass

If you are only travelling to major cities, you’ll be able to use your JR Pass everywhere. For trips to some smaller towns, you may need to pay extra to take the bus or private railway. 

Even with these extra expenses, the rail pass still saved us money on our three trips. 

On our first trip we visited two places that we couldn’t access with our rail pass. For the mountain temple town Koya-san we used our pass to travel from Kyoto to Osaka and then bought a ticket for the private Nankai Railways train.

For the tiny town of Tsumago in the Kiso Valley we used our pass to get from Nagoya to Nagiso then paid for the bus to Tsumago. 

On our second trip (see our two week Japan itinerary) we used our rail pass to get everywhere except Hakone where we bought a Hakone Free Pass from Odawara train station to explore the area by bus, train, ferry, and cable car.

The only other slight issue was having to take a slower train with one transfer to get to Nikko as you can’t use a pass for the direct train from Shinjuku to the Tobu Nikko station.

Hida Furukawa near Takayama

We were able to use our rail pass for day trips to places like adorable Hida Furukawa from Takayama.

On our third trip, the only place we couldn’t get to with a JR Rail Pass was Kawaguchiko (to see Mt Fuji at Lake Kawaguchi). 

We were travelling from Okayama (on the same line as Hiroshima) and could only take the shinkansen as far as Mishima where we took a 1.5-hour bus ride to Kawaguchiko. 

From Tokyo you can get to Otsuki with a rail pass and only pay the regular fare for the final section to Kawaguchiko. 

We also visited the very cool Naoshima Art Island as a day trip from Okayama. The rail pass covered our train to Uno port but didn’t cover the 20-minute ferry (which is inexpensive anyway). 

Fujisan View Express train with Mount Fuji behind

Unfortunately, the Fujisan View Express train can’t be used with a JR pass

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Is a Japan Rail Pass Worth It?

Whether a Japan Rail Pass is worth it for you depends on your route. If you’ll be travelling at a fast pace to lots of places, especially on the expensive bullet trains, then it’s likely a rail pass will save you money.

Even if you are only travelling from Tokyo to Kyoto and back within a week, the pass can work out cheaper. The return trip on the shinkansen costs ¥26,640 (more for a reserved seat). Add in the cost of the Narita Express airport train to Tokyo (¥3070 one way) and you’ll be spending ¥29,710 already.

If you buy the 7-day rail pass, you’ll only save ¥60, but you can then also use it for local trains in Tokyo and side trips to places like Kamakura and Nara.

If you are travelling long distances such as Tokyo to Sapporo, a 7-day rail pass is only slightly more expensive than the one-way rail ticket which costs ¥27,240.

Japan Rail Pass Calculator

To work out whether the JR Pass is worth it for you, you need to come up with a potential itinerary and then calculate how much it would cost to pay for your tickets as you go.

To get a rough idea use Japan Guide’s Japan Rail Calculator. It’s not 100% accurate, but it’s quick and easy to use. 

The Japan Guide Rail Pass Calculator can be used to work out if a Japan Rail Pass is worth it

Is a JR Pass worth it? My rough calculation for our trip using the Japan Guide Rail Pass Calculator shows that it is.

For an accurate calculation put each leg of your trip into Hyperdia to see the costs. Make sure you untick Nozomi and private railways to get the costs of JR routes (more on using Hyperdia below).

Using Hyperdia to calculate if a Japan Rail Pass saves you money

Using Hyperdia to calculate the fare from Tokyo to Kyoto. Make sure you use the total fare at the top (next to Route 1 etc).

If it’s a close call

If the cost of the pass is just a little more than individual tickets, I recommend buying the pass. It makes travel much easier not having to buy tickets and being able to hop on and off trains as you like.

You can also use the pass for some local travel (especially in Tokyo where it can be used on the trains but not subways) and day trips. 

Our our latest more unconventional trip from Kyoto-Kinosaki Onsen-Okayama (with day trips)-Mishima (for the bus to Kawaguchiko)-Tokyo we bought a 14-day Japan Rail Pass.

As we were travelling at a fairly slow pace, this worked out roughly the same price as if we’d bought the tickets individually, but the convenience made it worth it. 

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Our Savings with a Japan Rail Pass

For a previous two week trip to Japan we flew in and out of Tokyo and used a 7-day Japan Rail Pass to travel to Nikko, Hakone, Takayama, and Kanazawa—see our detailed Japan itinerary.

Here are the savings we made by using a Japan Rail Pass. This includes a side trip from Takayama and using the pass for local trains in Tokyo on our final day with the pass.

From To Cost in Yen
Tokyo Shinjuku Nikko 5,380
Nikko Odawara (for Hakone) 8,200
Odawara Takayama 12,000
Takayama Hida-Furukawa (side trip) 240
Hida-Furukawa Takayama 240
Takayama Kanazawa 5,610
Kanazawa Tokyo Station 13,920
Tokyo Station Shibuya (within Tokyo) 200
Shibuya Takadanobaba (within Tokyo) 170
Takadanobaba Shibuya (within Tokyo) 170
Total Cost of Individual Tickets   JP¥46,130
Cost of 7 Day Japan Rail Pass   JP¥29,110
Saving   JP¥17,020

We saved over ¥17,000 or $150 per person with the Japan Rail Pass!

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A Tokyo to Kyoto Sample Itinerary and Savings

Here’s an example for a typical 10 day trip to Japan arriving in and departing from Tokyo and visiting the highlights. 

Spend the first three days in Tokyo (pay out of pocket for the Narita Express train from the airport), and then activate your 7-day rail pass on the day you leave for Kyoto. 

Spend six days in Kyoto and take day trips to Nara and Osaka (which are inexpensive on local trains) and further afield to Hiroshima by bullet train (where you’ll really appreciate the pass). See more Kyoto day trip ideas

Return to Tokyo for your final day and use the pass to take the Narita Express train to Tokyo Narita Airport.

Here’s how much you would save by purchasing a JR Rail Pass for this itinerary: 

Japan Rail Pass costs and savings for Tokyo to Kyoto itinerary

Is a Japan Rail Pass worth it for this Tokyo to Kyoto itinerary (with day trips)? Yes!

By purchasing a 7-day JR Pass for this trip, you save at least ¥21,290 or $200 per person!

You’d even save money if you bought a 14-day pass, which you might consider if your trip is longer. You could then use it for both journeys on the Narita Express from the airport and local trains and day trips from Tokyo. 

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When Not to Use a Japan Rail Pass

If you are flying into Tokyo and out from Osaka (or vice versa) and only travelling to Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, a rail pass will be more expensive than the one-way shinkansen ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto. 

If you are only travelling in one area of Japan, such as Kansai where Osaka and Kyoto are, paying for tickets individually will likely be cheaper than a JR pass. You might want to look into a regional rail pass instead such as the Kansai Area Pass

If you are on a really tight budget and are travelling at a slow pace, it could work out cheaper to take the bus. Willer offers bus passes from ¥10,200 for three days of travel within two months. 

We much prefer train travel, though, as it’s faster, more comfortable and spacious, we can work on the tables, and I don’t get travel sick (a problem on the bus on Japan’s winding mountain roads).

The gorgeous view on the Hida wide view train from Takayama to Toyama.

The gorgeous view on the train from Takayama to Toyama.

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Where to Buy a Japan Rail Pass

Japan Rail Passes are sold by some travel agents outside Japan, but the easiest way to buy a pass is online.

We bought our passes for our last two trips from JRailPass.com who are an official JR Rail Pass vendor. You will receive an exchange order that you exchange for the pass when you arrive in Japan.

The exchange order must be exchanged within three months, so don’t order too far in advance.

The purchase was very easy. For each passenger you need the full name exactly as it’s written on their passport and their nationality.

You are also asked for an approximate arrival date in Japan, but this is just so they can make sure your passes will arrive on time. You don’t need to decide the exact start date of the pass until you get to Japan.

 

The process for buying a Japan Rail Pass online

The form to fill in when buying a Japan Rail Pass online

They can ship passes worldwide and they usually arrive within two working days, although ours took three days to Indonesia. On one of our trips we were already travelling so we got the pass delivered to our hotel in Bali. 

There are extra credit card and shipping fees unless your order is over $600 when there’s free shipping to the UK and Europe.

In the US the passes are sent by UPS and worldwide they use FedEx International Priority. You are given a tracking number to track the progress of the delivery. Someone has to sign for the delivery. 

Sending a Japan Rail Pass to Japan

If you’ve left buying your pass to the last minute, you can get the exchange order sent to your first hotel in Japan. It’s best to check with your hotel or Airbnb host first, but it shouldn’t be a problem with bigger hotels.

On our last trip we were staying in an apartment in Kyoto for a month before we started our two-week rail pass trip. As I wasn’t sure what would happen if we missed the delivery (and we wouldn’t be able to read any notices in Japanese), the agent who managed the apartment agreed to receive delivery for us. 

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How to Exchange a Japan Rail Pass

You don’t receive the pass at first but an exchange order that you can then exchange for your pass when you arrive in Japan. A booklet with information on where you can do this comes with the exchange order.

We exchanged ours at the JR Rail office in Shinjuku Station and it was quick and easy. We had to fill in a short form and show our exchange order and passports (don’t forget to bring yours). You have to choose the start date for the pass within the next month and this can’t be changed.

If possible, it’s best to do this a day or so before your first travel day so you don’t have to worry about it on the day. Otherwise, make sure you allow plenty of time before your train departs in case there are queues.

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Can You Use a Japan Rail Pass for Local Transport in Tokyo and Kyoto?

For local transport within cities you can use the JR Rail Pass on some train lines but not the metro or buses. 

As local transport isn’t very expensive (with the exception of the fast airport trains), it might not be worth activating your pass until you leave the city. See above for how to calculate this. 

Tokyo

In Tokyo, the Japan Rail Pass is quite useful. You can use it on the JR Yamanote line, which is one of the most used lines in the city and connects major hubs such as Shinjuku, Shibuya and Tokyo Stations.

There are a number of other JR train lines that crisscross the huge city—the Chuo line is another one we often use.

You can’t use a JR Pass on the Tokyo Metro.

The pass can be used on the Narita Express train which is the most comfortable and quickest way to get from Narita Airport into the centre of Tokyo. You can activate your pass at the JR Travel Service Centre in the airport train station.

Kyoto

In Kyoto, the pass is of more limited use for local transport. You can’t use the pass on the metro or buses, but there are a couple of train journeys you could use it for.

You can take the JR Nara line to Inari (to see Fushimi Inari shrine—one of our top things to do in Kyoto).

You can also take the JR Sagano line to Saga-Arashiyama station to see the famous bamboo grove and many beautiful temples in this neighbourhood. 

If you are flying into Kansai Airport near Osaka, you can activate your rail pass at the airport train station and use it for the Limited Express Haruka train, which is the best way to get to Osaka or Kyoto.

If you’re not ready to activate your pass on arrival at the airport, the ICOCA & HARUKA discount set is an excellent deal for travelling to Kyoto. You can then use the included ICOCA card to easily pay for local travel within all the major cities in Japan. 

Osaka

Although there are a few JR train lines within Osaka, the Osaka subway is more useful for getting around, and this is not included with a rail pass. 

Local Transport Cards

As you can’t use a JR Rail Pass on many forms of local transport within the cities, if you are staying for more than a few days, it’s worth picking up a prepaid IC transport card. You can buy them at ticket machines and counters in train and metro stations. 

In Tokyo you can buy a Suica or Pasmo card and in Kyoto and Osaka you’ll get an ICOCA card. Whichever card you buy you can use them in cities all over Japan, so you don’t need a separate card for Kyoto and Tokyo. 

You add money to these in advance and then just tap on and off all local transport. 

The initial card purchase includes a ¥500 deposit, which you can get a refund for if you return your card at the end, but only in the area you bought it. You can’t get a refund for a Suica card in Osaka or an ICOCA card in Tokyo. 

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Finding Train Times

The best site for finding train times in Japan is Hyperdia. I don’t know how we’d manage without it! 

When searching for train times on Hyperdia, untick the boxes for “NOZOMI / MIZUHO / HAYABUSA (SHINKANSEN)” and “Private Railway” as these trains aren’t valid with a JR Rail Pass.

Using Hyperdia to find trains that can be used with a Japan Rail Pass. These are the boxes to untick.

Untick the boxes circled in red to find trains that can be used with a Japan Rail Pass. You could also untick Airplane but these rarely come up.

Hyperdia also has a mobile app with a button you can tick to search only for trains that are valid with the pass.

The default order for search results is by Time, but on more complicated routes I sometimes chose Transfer instead to find trains that are a little slower but with fewer transfers.

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Making Seat Reservations

You don’t need to make seat reservations to travel with a pass on most trains—you can just hop on any unreserved car.

The most commonly used train that does require a seat reservation is the Narita Express from Narita Airport into Tokyo. If you want to use your pass on the airport train, you can swap your exchange order for a pass and get the seat reservation at the airport JR office.

You might want to make seat reservations when travelling at busy times (such as during the Summer Olympics 2020) and especially during Japanese national holidays—see a list of holiday dates here.

Seat reservations are free for rail pass holders and can be made at any JR station ticket office. It doesn’t have to be the station you are travelling from, so you can save time by getting a few seat reservations at once. Smaller stations will have shorter queues.

You could also make your first few seat reservations when exchanging your exchange order for a pass. We did this in Kyoto Station on our last trip, which saved time as the queues were long. 

All you have to do is show your pass and give them the train time you want the reservation for.

Staff may speak English, but I find it helpful to write down the date, train time and route I want reservations for. This is why it’s best to research times on Hyperdia in advance. 

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How to Use a Japan Rail Pass

To use the Japan Rail Pass all you need to do is get on an unreserved car and find an empty seat.

You can’t use the automatic gates to access the train platforms, so just walk past the office window and show your pass. You may also be asked to show the pass on the train.

We found the Hyperdia app useful for looking up train times and departure platforms while we were out. The app is free for 30 days, so download it just before your trip. After that it costs $2.99 for one month or $25.99 for a year.

When you are travelling on a bullet train you can see which cars are unreserved on the screens, and then find the corresponding number on the platform to see where to wait. The panels on the side of the carriage will also say whether it’s reserved or unreserved.

Trains are always on time so a 10-minute transfer time is fine. Hyperdia tells you the departure platforms so you can be prepared and head straight to the platform for your connection.

Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo, Japan

The busy Shibuya Crossing outside Shibuya train station in Tokyo. There is order in the chaos!

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Japanese Train Etiquette

The Japanese are generally a quiet and respectful people and it’s important to follow these rules when travelling by train:

  • Be quiet – Keep your volume low when taking, don’t talk on your phone and make sure it doesn’t beep or ring. We even saw signs warning you not to type too loudly on your laptop!
  • No eating – The exception is on bullet trains when buying a bento lunch box at the station is a big part of the experience. On local trains we didn’t see anyone eating or drinking anything other than water. 
  • Don’t smoke – Unless there’s a designated smoking car on the bullet trains.
  • Don’t sit in the priority seating – On local trains these seats are designated for the elderly, pregnant women, and people with disabilities. If the train is quiet you can sit here, but be prepared to give up your seat if necessary.
  • Queue – There are designated spots to wait for the train marked on the platform, so join the orderly queue.
  • Be patient – Stand to the side and wait for people to get off the train before you get on.

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More Reading to Plan Your Japan Trip

On all our trips to Japan, we’ve found a JR Pass saved us hundreds of dollars and made travel much easier. Hopefully the tips above will help you work out whether a Japan Rail Pass is worth it for you. Let me know if you have any questions in the comments below. 

Buy your Japan Rail Pass here.

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31 Comments (8 pingbacks)

  1. Hi,

    Thank you for your blog of knowledge :)
    I am taking my family to Japan, we will be there for 10 days – you mentioned that you can activate the pass later on? Could you explain that further? Thank you. I think It would be best if we waited 3 days, then activated our 7 day pass.

    Reply ↓

    • During your first 3 days in Japan take your passes to a JR office in a train station and you can choose your start date and activate it. You’ll then be ready to go on your third day (or whenever you choose to start it). You get more detailed instructions on where to go when the pass is mailed to you.

      Reply ↓

  2. Hi All,

    We are a family of four and planning to travel to Japan on June 07, 2020, for a week. Would you recommend us to purchase the JR Pass? We are two adults and 2 children (17 and 14-year-olds)

    Would you also recommend where we should stay on the budget?

    Thanks and Regards,
    Long Nguyen

    Reply ↓

    • It really depends where you are going. You need to plan your route first then calculate how much it would cost if you buy tickets individually (using the tools in this post).

      I use Booking to find hotels and Airbnb (for apartments in the big cities) and you can sort by budget. Osaka is cheaper than Tokyo and Kyoto if you find them too expensive.

      Enjoy your trip!

      Reply ↓

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