Travel

Is the Japan Rail Pass Worth the Money?

japan rail pass worth

A question I get almost on a daily basis is: Is the Japan Rail Pass worth it?

Short answer: Yes, for long distance travelling (e.g. a round trip from Tokyo to Kyoto).

Ok, ok. You want the long answer, right? :)

 

What is the Japan Rail Pass?

In Japan the most convenient way to travel around is by train.
Japan offers a huge variety of train passes that will allow you to save money.
There are regional passes which make sense if you only stick to a certain region during your stay.
There’s also the “Seishun 18 Kippu” which is great if you don’t have a lot of money, but a lot of time.

japan rail pass worth it

The Japan Rail Pass is probably the ultimate budget pass if you use it wisely.

With the Japan Rail Pass you can ride a huge variety of trains, some buses and ferries for FREE!! for either 7, 14 or even 21 consecutive days.

 

Who can obtain the Japan Rail Pass?

The Japan Rail Pass is clearly aimed at tourists.
You can only purchase it outside of Japan and if you’re a foreign tourist to Japan with a “temporary visitor visa“.

You can’t purchase the Japan Rail Pass if you’re already in Japan.

Note: There’s currently a trial period lasting until March 31st 2018 that allows you to purchase the Japan Rail Pass at higher costs inside of Japan at some selected stations.

If you enter Japan with anything but a “visitor visa”, it’s clear that you’re not a tourist. In case you have a “student visa”, “working visa”, “working holiday visa” etc. – even if it’s only valid for a short period of time – you can’t get the pass.

Japanese nationals outside of Japan need to provide documents that prove they’ve been living abroad for at least 10 years.

japan rail pass worth it

Please note that it’s a personalized pass. You cannot share it or hand it over to somebody else. Prolonging the validity period isn’t possible. And don’t even think about forging the pass. You’ll get caught!

 

How much does it cost?

Please note that the prices can change over the time, but I’ll update it regularly (status: February 2018):

Japan Rail Pass Costs (Ordinary ≅ 2nd class)
Duration
JPY ¥
US $
Euro (€)
7 days
29,110 yen
$ 261
208 €
14 days
46,390 yen
$ 416
332 €
21 days
59,350 yen
$ 533
426 €

And if you want to travel a bit more luxuriously:

Japan Rail Pass Costs (Green Car ≅ 1st class)
Duration
JPY ¥
US $
Euro (€)
7 days
38,880 yen
$ 349
279 €
14 days
62,950 yen
$ 565
451 €
21 days
81,870 yen
$ 735
587 €

Green car passes are absolutely not necessary unless you have way too much money and love to splurge. ;)

Please note: Children (6-11 years) only have to pay 50% of above prices.

 

How to buy and activate the Japan Rail Pass?

You need to purchase the pass while you’re outside of Japan.
You can either obtain it online or via a travel agency.

I got my Japan Rail Pass via JapanExperience and was really satisfied with them.

After your purchase you’ll receive a voucher via mail.
Be aware that you only have 3 months to exchange your voucher. So, don’t get it too much in advance!

Upon your arrival in Japan you can exchange the voucher to get the Japan Rail Pass.
You can do so at these JR offices, also right at the airport.

When you exchange your voucher, you need to insert an activation date.
That date can also be in the future, you don’t need to use the pass right away.

However, the starting date has to be within 30 days of the exchange!

japan rail pass worth it

Insider tip: The JR offices at the airport tend to get crowded.
If you don’t intend to activate your Japan Rail Pass right away, exchange it somewhere else.

The pass is then valid for the exact period of time you’ve purchased (7, 14 or 21 days). As for validity, the calendar date is of importance.
If you’re travelling in a train and it gets past midnight, it’s not a problem.
If you have to transfer trains after midnight without having to leave the ticket gates, it’s also ok.
Once you leave the ticket gates past midnight, the JR Pass won’t be valid anymore.

 

Which trains, buses etc. can I use with the JR Pass?

The pass provides access to all train lines operated by Japan Railways (JR) throughout Japan including Shinkansen, limited express, express as well as rapid or local trains and additionally some other means of transportation:

  • all Shinkansen except for “Nozomi” and “Mizuho”
  • Tokyo Monorail (from/to Haneda Airport)
  • JR ferry to Miyajima (careful there are non-JR ferries as well!)
  • JR buses except highway / express buses:
    • JR Hokkaido Bus, JR Bus Tohoku, JR Bus Kanto, JR Tokai Bus
    • West Japan JR Bus, Chugoku JR Bus, JR Shikoku Bus, JR Kyushu Bus
  • non-JR lines connecting to remote JR lines, for example:
    • Ainokaze Toyama Railway (only if you travel from Toyama – Takaoka, not for any stations in between) to JR Himi Line and JR Johana Line
    • Aoimori Railway (only for the following stations: Aomori – Noheji – Hachinohe) to JR Ominato Line (bound for Shimokita Peninsula)
    • IR Ishikawa Railway (only if you travel from Kanazawa – Tsubata, not for any stations in between) to JR Nanao Line (bound for Noto Peninsula)

The pass is not valid for subways or trams. However in big cities you have JR lines covering that (e.g. Osaka Loop Line, Tokyo Yamanote Line).

You can use the Japan Rail Pass for night trains, but not for the sleeper cars or private cars. For special compartments in night trains, you’d have to pay an extra fee.

There are some “Liner” trains you cannot use with the Japan Rail Pass, but most of the time this won’t concern you anyway.

The only ferry that’s covered is the JR ferry to Miyajima. The JR Hakata-Pusan ferry to Korea is not covered!

Please note that you might have to pay an extra fee in case you’re travelling with JR, but partly on non-JR tracks. You can find a list of those here.

 

The benefits of the Japan Rail Pass

Apart from the discounts you can get at JR affiliated hotels and JR rental car agencies, you can also make train reservations for free.
There are some trains where a reservation is mandatory, e.g.:

  • Hayabusa and Hayate Shinkansen (Tokyo to Tohoku/Hokkaido)
  • Komachi Shinkansen (Tokyo – Akita)
  • Kagayaki Shinkansen (Tokyo – Kanazawa)
  • Narita Express (Tokyo – Narita Airport)
  • Sunrise Seto / Izumo night trains (Tokyo – Takamatsu / Izumo)

If you use “Hyperdia“, the site / app will tell you which trains you need a reservation for.

For other trains, e.g. the Shinkansen, it’s up to you.
During travel peak season in Japan, it’s probably better to make a reservation.

japan rail pass worth it
You can do so by going to a Travel Service Center or a “Midori-no-madoguchi” (ticket office) at a JR station. Just show them your Japan Rail Pass and tell them which train you want a reservation for.
You’ll then get tickets with the train and seat number and also a stamp on your JR pass.

Please note that making a reservation can take up quite some time, depending how busy the ticket office is.

Personally I don’t like making reservations as I want to be flexible.
If you can’t take the train you have a reservation for, make sure to cancel your reservation at the nearest JR office ASAP. You can just hop onto any other train without reservation or make another reservation.

As long as you use the train lines where the JR pass is valid, you don’t have to purchase any tickets. This means you’ll save a lot of time. That’s another benefit of the pass.

A disadvantage of the Japan Rail Pass is that you cannot use the automatic ticket gates. You actually have to walk up to the manned gate, usually to the left or right of the ticket gates, and show them your pass. In more remote regions, there are train stations without manned gates or manned offices. In that case you can just walk out of the station.

 

Is the Japan Rail Pass really worth the money?

Now that you hopefully know everything about the JR pass, let’s move on to the most important questions.
Does this pass truly pay off?

Actually, that’s fairly easy to answer.
If you plan a round trip from Tokyo to Kyoto (26.160 yen), the 7-day pass (29.110 yen) is already worth it.
Yes, there are still roughly 3000 yen to go, but you easily get this by traveling from / to the airport and within in the city.

In case you only plan to stay in Tokyo with just a few day trips and mainly use local trains, then it’s clearly not worth it.

It’s very easy to calculate, if it makes sense for YOUR next trip or not.
Start with the long-distance trips and enter them into Hyperdia.

You can make the settings “JR Pass friendly” by emitting the private lines and the “Nozomi” and “Mizuho” Shinkansen.

japan rail pass worth it

That way, you’ll quickly get an idea whether it’s worth obtaining the pass or not.
Also, if your trip includes mainly other means of transportation (rental car, taxi, buses, ferries, airplanes), then the Japan Rail Pass won’t be worth the money.

As I used to live in Japan, I wasn’t eligible to get the pass.
However, I used the 14 days pass for one of my recent trips (3 weeks). Although I only took the Shinkansen twice, it did pay off.
The Japan Rail Pass saved me a total of 18.400 yen. I had to pay an additional 11.570 yen which were not covered by the pass. If you check out my trip, you’ll notice that I was visiting some remote places where mainly private railway companies operate. But even then the pass was worth it.

japan rail pass worth it

Although I stayed for 3 weeks, I decided not to get the 21 days pass. As you can see I only spent another 7.390 yen during the time I didn’t have the Japan Rail Pass. The 21 days pass would have cost me an additional 12.960 yen. As I mainly spent my last few days in Tokyo, including a day trip, it wouldn’t have been wise to spend more money.

Another advantage of the Japan Rail Pass I noticed was that I could travel much faster. Usually I would avoid the Shinkansen for shorter trips, but this time I didn’t have to worry and could always choose the faster, more expensive version (as I didn’t have to pay anything thanks to the pass). Very convenient and thus worth the money.

As you can see there’s no universal answer to whether you should get the Japan Rail Pass or not.
It greatly depends on your travel plans, but it’s very easy to find out if it’s worth it for YOUR trip.

Let me know if you have any additional questions.

9 Comments

  • I went to Japan with a 21-day JR pass in 2004, and part of that was Golden Week. Everything you wrote sounds about the same as my experience.

    As for the big question “was it worth it?”, I ended up averaging one JR trip every two days, a mix of types (shinkansen, local trains, and one bus ride). If I did the math right, I broke even. So I could have just bought tickets there as needed, and paid the same amount. If I had been taking JR transit every single day, then the pass would have been a better deal.

    One thing that is different about my experience was that I would always go into the JR ticket office at each station I was starting my trip from and tell them, in Japanese, that I wanted to go by train (lest they put me on a bus), today, to a particular city. The clerk would then write down a little itinerary for me so I knew when & where to switch trains, then they would give me the necessary ticket. But get this: even though my pass was the “ordinary” type, they *always* put me in a reserved seat on the green car on the shinkansen. I didn’t have to ask or pay the upgrade fee. Was I just lucky?

    The clerk would also always ask how many … so it seems I could have gotten free tickets for my Japanese friends if I wanted to?! I never tried to get away with that, so I never found out if it would work or if the friends would need their own passes or what.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience. :)

      I always check my itinerary online before I go. If I change something on the go, I look it up via app. Back in the days (e.g. in 2004) that wasn’t really an option, so kudos to you.
      Hm. Strange. Maybe they weren’t very familiar with the Japan Rail Pass back then? Or you were really extremely lucky.
      Also, how good was your Japanese at that time? :)

  • Hi, I have used a 21day Japan Rail Pass in March-April 2016. As I have used it a lot, I later calculated that it has given me around 65-70% discount off the regular train prices (paid 475 eur back in 2016, travelled for ~1400 eur). I travelled extensively to many places (summing up ~7000km), many one-day city visits in the Kansai area, intra-Osaka as well with some trains (it is possible), Hiroshima, then Takayama, Kanazawa, and even to Hokkaido with the then-brand-new Tokyo-Hakodate shinkansen (and to Sapporo) for couple of days. Maybe I have stayed too little time at some places, and travelled a lot, but do not regret it at all. So yes, it really depends on where you want to go, and how much travel you will do, in order to see if it’s worth it. Little bit of calculation will go a long way. In my case, the JRP was the best investment I have made on that trip. And yes, Hyperdia is your very best friend.
    Regards.
    Sorry for any mistakes, English is not my native language.

    • Hi Georgi,
      I’m glad to hear that.
      Yes, when you travel a lot (esp. long distance) the pass is absolutely worth the money.
      I once travelled from Hokkaido to Chugoku in one day … but that was while I was still living in Japan, so I couldn’t use the JR pass. :(

      No worries, I’m not a native speaker of English, either. ;)
      Thanks so much for your comment. ^__^

  • I have used the Japan Rail Pass a number of times. My travel agency [InsideJapantours.com] got it for me every time it made economic sense. I liked it a lot. I used hyperdia.com to find the most convenient hours, then I went to the railway office to reserve my seat at those hours. I like reserved seats, it saves lugging a suitcase from car to car. Hyperdia is also a very useful site to find which platform to use, etc. This saves time when the interval between connections is short. I have also downloaded maps of stations from the Japanese railway sites. This is particularly useful for large train stations.

    • I’m glad to hear that.
      Thanks for sharing your experience.
      As for dragging around your luggage from car to car, usually you know which car numbers will be the non-reserved ones, so there’s not that much walking around.
      For most Shinkansen there are usually only 3 to 5 cars with non-reserved seats.

      Personally I try to get the seats to the very back, so I can put my luggage behind them. That’s not always possible when you get a reserved seat.

  • HI, this resource is great and I’m planning my trip – but even with Hyperdia and the JR search I can’t always see if the JR options are adding a huge amount of time to my travel. We will have children and are trying to minimise our train time. We are travelling Osaka-Kyoto-Takayama-Nakatsugawa-Tokyo-Nara over 14 days. As Tokyo is in the middle, I can’t make a 7 day pass work but I am still not sure if a 14 day pass will save a lot of money or whether the local train systems will be more useful. There is a LOT of choice in the system and local knowledge is much appreciated. The part I’m very unsure about is travel from Takayama to Nakatsugawa – I think it will have to be via Nagoya on JR? Or should I bus it to Matsumoto and train from there?
    Yours in confusion!

    • Hi Anna,
      I’d probably take the Ltd. Express Hida, change to the local line in Minoota and later in Tajimi. That’s almost 200 mins, but still faster than by bus.
      It should be covered by the JR pass.
      Via Nagoya will take even longer. Unless you want to stay for a while in Nagoya it makes no sense.