If you’re traveling to Japan and have done even a modicum of research on transportation, I’m certain you’ve come across information about the Japan Rail Pass.
Perhaps you’ve read about how great it is and how you mustmustmust get one to save time, money, sanity, etc.
A History Lesson
On my first trip, I skipped on the pass just to get a better understanding of Japan’s extensive train system: their ticket booths, ticketing system, differentiating between the JR lines, Tokyo Metro, and local/city subways. Plus, I didn’t know if I really needed it. I didn’t regret that decision at all until I had to take a shinkansen back to Tokyo from Kyoto, and it cost me a hefty $170 to go one way.
My second trip included side trips to Osaka, Hiroshima, and Kobe, which I knew were costly, and I didn’t want to fork up hundreds of dollars for the shinkansen… again. So I made sure to purchase my rail pass from an authorized vendor.
I purchased my pass from JRailPass.com, and their prices for the Standard pass are:
7 Days: $254
14 Days: $405
21 Days: $518
Prices for children aged 6-11 are $128, $203, and $260.
The other pass type is the Green Pass, which is considered the First Class option. The seats are more comfortable and more roomy. On the Hokkaido line going to and from Hakodate, you’re offered a hot towel and a drink by the staff. Because its benefits can’t be found on a lot of lines, I wouldn’t recommend this pass. For a full breakdown of the benefits, click here.
Is Getting a JR Rail Pass Worth It?
Yes… but only if you venture outside a bit.
If you use it strictly for travel within Tokyo, you’ll have forked up more money just for the convenience of using the pass and not because of actually saving anything. The benefit to its convenience is not significant either, as it’s really quick and easy (after a couple tries, of course) to purchase tickets from the machine.
Let’s take the 7-day pass for $254, which breaks down to $36.29 every day.
Most of the time, visitors take just a small handful of trains throughout their day.
For illustrative purposes, let’s create a crazy itinerary that involves visiting multiple areas in a single day. For the record, I don’t recommend this type of itinerary because there isn’t enough time to actually do anything if you’re visiting these many spots.
Crazy Itinerary I Don’t Recommend:
Shibuya to Minato: ¥200
Minato to Tokyo: ¥160
Tokyo to Shinjuku: ¥200
Shinjuku to Ikebukuro: ¥160
Ikebukuro to Yokohama: ¥720
Yokohama to Shibuya: ¥640
Even with a side trip to Yokohama, you’re still far from the $36.29 base cost.
Even if you opted for the 14-day pass, which breaks down to $28.93 per day, you’re still a ways from recouping what you spent.
So When Is It Worth It?
The savings lie in taking the shinkansen, or bullet train.
Kyoto, the original capital of Japan, is located just 2.5 hours away from Tokyo and is super famous for its beautiful temples, cherry blossoms, traditional areas, and geisha. One can easily take a day trip to Kyoto… at the cost of ¥13,910 one way. With a roundtrip fare of ¥27,820, that pretty much pays for your pass already.
Before you splurge on a pass, make a rough itinerary with your destinations. If you’re staying in Tokyo the whole time, pass.
Alternatives to the JR Rail Pass
A cheaper alternative to the JR Rail Pass is its Seishun Juhachi 18 Kippu railway ticket, which can be used for all JR local and rapid lines. This 5-day pass costs ¥11,580 and can be transferred/used by up to 5 people. The ticket is stamped for everyday that it’s used, so if there are 5 people in your party, you can use the one pass for all 5 members in one day. Or, you alone can use the pass for a whole 5 days.
The downside is its limited timeframe for use.
|Period||Travel Dates||On Sale|
|Spring||March 1 – April 10||February 20 – March 31|
|Summer||July 20 – September 10||July 1 – August 31|
|Winter||December 10 – January 10||December 1-31|
The Keihanshin metropolitan area, which consists of Osaka, Kyoto, and Kobe, is the second largest metropolitan area in Japan. While there are a few JR lines in the area, there are also a lot of local lines that the JR pass does not cover. The main touristy areas of Osaka, such as Dotonbori and Shinsaibashi, have only local subway lines, operated by Osaka Municipal Subway. If you’re staying in Osaka for a while and visiting neighboring cities, I recommend getting a Kansai Thru Pass instead. This pass covers all non-JR trains, subways, and buses in Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe, Himeji, Nara, and Mount Koya.
For a complete list of other JR Rail Pass alternatives throughout the country, check out Japan Guide’s Rail Passes post.
BENEFITS OF THE JR RAIL PASS
Saving money! I ended up spending $400+ for three people to take the shinkansen from Kyoto to Tokyo.
CONS OF THE JR RAIL PASS
- You have to go to a designated JR ticket office to exchange your voucher for a pass. I wouldn’t consider this a con, but I’ve heard/read from several people who do consider it one because of the extra side trip. This inconvenience, however, is minor.
- Depending on your itinerary, it might be more costly in the long run. As suggested above, map out a rough draft of the top places you plan on going to and calculate the fares.
A copy of my rail pass: