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 post, 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.
- What is a Japan Rail Pass?
- Japan Rail Pass Cost
- Which Trains Are The Japan Rail Pass Valid On?
- Is a Japan Rail Pass Worth It?
- Our Savings with a Japan Rail Pass
- When Not to Use a Japan Rail Pass
- Where to Buy a Japan Rail Pass
- How to Exchange a Japan Rail Pass
- Finding Train Times
- Making Seat Reservations
- How to Use a Japan Rail Pass
- Japanese Train Etiquette
- More Reading to Plan Your Japan Trip
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.
Japan Rail Pass Cost
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||¥29,110||$251||$36|
|14 Day JR Rail Pass||¥46,390||$403||$29|
|21 Day JR Rail Pass||¥59,350||$515||$25|
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).
Which Trains Are The Japan Rail Pass Valid On?
The Japan 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.
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. Even with these extra expenses the rail pass still saved us money as we travelled on a number of bullet trains.
On our recent 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.
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 ¥26,160 (more for a reserved seat). Add in the cost of the Narita Express airport train to Tokyo (¥2820 one way) and you’ll be spending ¥28,980 already. It will only cost you ¥130 more to buy the 7-day rail pass, which you can then use 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 cheaper than the one-way rail ticket which costs ¥29,410.
To work out whether a Japan Rail 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.
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).
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) and day trips.
Our Savings with a Japan Rail Pass
For our recent 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|
|Nikko||Odawara (for Hakone)||8,200|
|Takayama||Hida-Furukawa (side trip)||240|
|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|
We saved over ¥17,000 or $150 per person with the Japan Rail Pass!
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 on a really tight budget and are travelling at a slow pace, it could work out cheaper to take the bus. Willer offers buses passes from ¥10,000 for three days of travel within two months.
We much prefer train travel 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).
If you are only travelling in one area of Japan, such as Kansai where Osaka and Kyoto are, you might want to look into a regional rail pass instead.
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 from JRailPass.com who are an official JR Rail Pass vendor. You will receive an exchange order that you exchange for the pass in Japan.
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.
Japan Rail Pass can ship passes worldwide and they usually arrive within two working days, although ours took three days to Indonesia. There are extra credit card and shipping fees unless your order is over $600 when there’s free shipping to many countries including the US, UK, Canada and much of 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.
If you’ve left buying your pass to the last minute, you can get it sent to your first hotel in Japan, although I would check with the hotel first. We had no problems getting ours delivered to a hotel in Bali.
The exchange order must be exchanged within three months so don’t order too far in advance.
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.
Finding Train Times
The best site for finding train times in Japan is Hyperdia. Once you’ve done your search untick the boxes at the bottom of the search results for “NOZOMI / MIZUHO / HAYABUSA (SHINKANSEN)” and “Private Railway” as these trains aren’t valid with a JR Rail Pass.
Hyperdia also has a mobile app with a button you can tick to search only for trains that are valid with the pass, but I didn’t find this reliable.
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.
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 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.
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 found it helpful to write down the date, train time and route I wanted reservations for.
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.
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.
More Reading to Plan Your Japan Trip
- Two Weeks in Japan: A Detailed Itinerary
- Planning a Trip to Japan: Dos and Don’ts
- Where to Stay in Japan: The Ultimate Guide to Accommodation
- Vegetarian Survival Guide to Japan
- 17 Cool Things to Do in Tokyo
On both our trips to Japan we found a JR Pass saved us hundreds of dollars. 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.
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