japan-rail-pass

Is the Japan Rail Pass Worth Purchasing?

One of the questions I see asked most often on the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree Forum message boards is whether or not Japan Rail Group’s Japan Rail Pass is good value for money. It’s a great question which you’ll often get a subjective answer to.

There are so many variables and personal preferences/biases which can determine whether or not the pass is right for someone.

In this guide, I’ll share my experience and offer suggestions to those looking to ride the rails in Japan.

What is the Japan Rail Pass?

Before we talk about whether or not to get the pass, it’s important know what it is (and what it isn’t)!

The Japan Rail Pass is a special ticket which Japan Railway Group (JR Group) offers to visitors to Japan, providing unlimited access to a number of their transportation services for a series of consecutive days. This includes :

  • Almost all JR Group-owned trains including local trains (this includes JR-owned trains in Tokyo, Osaka, and other cities), rapid trains, express trains, BRT service, limited express trains, and the most well-known form of Japanese transportation, the Shinkansen bullet trains (except for trains using the ultra-high-speed Nozomi technology and the Mizuho version of the Shinkanesen)
  • The Narita Express train service from Narita International Airport
  • A number of other non-JR owned rail services (the full list is on the Japan Rail Pass website)
  • Local lines of JR Bus (although there are some exclusions)
  • JR West’s Miyajima ferry service

Not covered by the Japan Rail Pass are :

  • Services provided by private train companies like Tokyo Metro, Keio, Odakyu, etc.
  • Private bus services
  • Taxis
  • Private shuttle services

The Japan Rail Pass is offered in 7-day, 14-day and 21-day versions, and once a pass is activated it must be used on consecutive days.

In addition to the three pass durations, there are two types of service available. The “ordinary ticket” version gives you access to standard-quality train cars and amenities on board trains like the Shinkansen, while the “green car” version gives you access to what JR Group calls a “superior class” service (although is likely unnecessary for most travellers).

The pass can only be purchased outside Japan, and is sold by a number of online companies. I’ve used JRPass.com in the past to purchase mine, and it has arrived via courier within 1-2 business days.

As of this writing (December 2015), the pricing for a Japan Rail Pass is :

Ordinary Ticket Service

  • 7 days – ¥29,110 (adult) / ¥14,550 (child)
  • 14 days – ¥46,390 (adult) / ¥23,190 (child)
  • 21 days – ¥59,350 (adult) / ¥29,670 (child)

Green Car Service

  • 7 days – ¥38,880 (adult) / ¥19,440 (child)
  • 14 days – ¥62,950 (adult) / ¥31,470 (child)
  • 21 days – ¥81,870 (adult) / ¥40,930 (child)

For the purpose of this post, I’ll only focus on the Ordinary Ticket service, since it is most likely the option you’re considering if you’re a budget traveller.

Getting A Japan Rail Pass

When you place your order online, you will receive a voucher via courier which you take with you to Japan.

When you arrive in Japan and you are ready to begin using the rail pass, you will take your voucher to a JR Group ticketing office where you’ll hand over the document, along with your passport.  They will have you fill out a little paperwork and once that’s complete, you will be handed back a paper rail pass (like the one shown at the top of the page).

It’s important to know that Japan Rail Passes will only be issued by JR Group to visitors with a visitor stamp in their passport. Japanese passport holders as well as those who are living in Japan on a work or working holiday visa are ineligible to use the Japan Rail Pass.

Once the JR station agent gives you your pass, be sure to keep it stored in a safe place. It cannot be reissued if lost.

To use the pass at a regular train station, simply show it to the station attendant, and they will wave you through the turnstiles.  If you are taking a trip on a train with reserved seats (like the Shinkansen) or other forms of transportation, you can show the pass to a JR agent at a ticketing office.  They will then hand you back the pass, along with a green paper ticket with your seat reservation confirmation.

A bullet train passes by Mt. Fuji. ©Akira Okada/©JNTO
A bullet train passes by Mt. Fuji. ©Akira Okada/©JNTO

Value For Money

The duration of your visit to Japan, the destinations you plant to visit, and your own personal travelling style are all factors which will determine whether the Japan Rail Pass is really good value for your money.

Less than 7 days

If you are visiting Japan less than 7 days, I would highly recommend not getting the Japan Rail Pass. Unless you are making a whirlwind trek from one end of the country to the other by Shinkansen, there is no good reason to spend money on the pass.

7 to 14 days

If you are visiting for 7 to 14 days, the Japan Rail Pass may be an economical purchase, depending on a few factors.

First, let’s take the ordinary ticket price (¥29,110) and divide it by the 7 days it is valid for.

In order to make the 7-day Japan Rail Pass worth purchasing, you will need to spend about ¥4,200 per day on transit.

If your plans are to stay in the Tokyo area (or any other single city, for that matter) for the entire duration of your trip, it is practically impossible to spend in ¥4,200 per day in transit costs. To put this in perspective, in Tokyo, the metropolitan district Tokunai pass gives you 24 hours of unlimited travel on all local and rapid JR East trains inside the 23 special wards of Tokyo for ¥750. Even if you need to use Tokyo Metro or a couple of other private rail lines to get around the city (sometimes a private line or subway can be more convenient to take than a JR train, and in some districts like Odaiba private rail is your only travel option), you’re still not spending an additional ¥3,500. For this reason, the Japan Rail Pass can be terribly overpriced and not recommended.

One of many Japanese bullet trains. ©JNTO
One of many Japanese bullet trains. ©JNTO

Where the Japan Rail Pass becomes a rockstar, however, is when you decide to leave Tokyo and take a longer-haul trip by Shinkansen. Let’s use a trip from Tokyo Station to Osaka by Shinkansen as an example.

The bullet train journey – one way (Tokyo Station to Osaka) would normally cost ¥14,450 (source : Google Maps transit information – Friday, December 4, 2015).  For the sake of argument, double that number to get the cost of a round trip ticket and you’re sitting at ¥28,900 – just a couple hundred yen short of the cost of the Japan Rail Pass. If you were to leave Tokyo to visit Osaka for a day or two and then come back to Tokyo, effectively all your transportation on JR trains after that point would be gravy.

I’ve seen some arguments online that you can make the same trip to Osaka and back by limited express or other slower trains and save money.  And that’s true – the cheapest ticket I found for the same route would cost just under ¥10,800.  However, it would require six transfers, and take nearly nine hours to reach your destination. (By comparison, a ride on the Shinkansen is just under 3 hours.) While it is possible to go to Osaka for less money by train, you are ultimately paying with your time – which may be a limited resource if you are on a shorter visit to Japan.

I’ve also seen arguments that you can save money by taking a low cost carrier like Jetstar or Peach to Osaka.  And – it’s true.

I’ve seen airfare for as little as ¥6,000 to travel from Tokyo to Osaka. However, you also have to factor in the price of transportation to Narita or Haneda (Narita Express costs about ¥3,100 for a one-way ticket.) Suddenly, that ¥6,000 flight is closer to ¥9,000.  And, if you factor in the time needed to get to the airport (which can be as much as 90 minutes from some points in Tokyo) and clear security, the entire journey may take as long – if not a bit longer – than just taking the Shinkansen from Tokyo Station.

However, if you have no plans to return to Tokyo other than to fly home (if Tokyo is your arrival and departure point), using a low cost carrier to shuttle you across Japan may be a valid (and economical) option.

My best advice is if you are planning to start and end your travels in a home base city like Tokyo, but also intend to take side trips to other parts of Japan and you want the Shinkansen experience, a Japan Rail Pass would be good value for your money during a 7-day window.

If you are staying between 7 and 14 days, I would recommend paying per-use for local transit in your base city (either using rechargeable transit money cards like SUICA or PASMO or – if Tokyo is your base – by buying a Tokunai city pass each day), and only activating the Japan Rail Pass (which – remember – must be used on consecutive days) when you intend to travel beyond your home base using the Shinkansen. You can then use the Japan Rail Pass for all JR group transportation during that period of time.

14 to 21 days

If you’re visiting Japan for 14 to 21 days, the big question you might be confronted with is if you should purchase a 7- or 14-day pass. Remember that the pass is good for consecutive days of travel, so the clock starts ticking from the moment you activate it.

As I mentioned before, you would need to spend ¥4,200 per day to break even using a 7-day Japan Rail Pass.  With the 14-day Japan Rail Pass, you will need to be spending roughly ¥3,320 per day to break even. Again, if your intention is on staying in one city the entire time, this is clearly not a product to consider.

In February of 2015, I purchased a 14-day rail pass for my visit to Japan, with good intentions of heading out and seeing more of the country.  But, even with a 17-day stay, time caught up with me and I only made one long-haul trip by rail out of Tokyo (to Sendai and Fukushima City). That was not enough to justify the cost of the 14-day Japan Rail Pass.

In my opinion, you need to be able to have two long-haul Shinkansen trips scheduled in to your itinerary to make the 14-day pass worthwhile.

One itinerary which may make the 14-day pass worthwhile is by travelling from Tokyo to Osaka (¥14,450), Osaka to Hiroshima (¥10,420) and then Hiroshima to Tokyo (¥19,300). The total price for this journey – via Shinkansen – without the Japan Rail Pass would be ¥44,170. That would leave you needing to use another ¥2,220 (or roughly ¥160 per day) in additional travel on JR trains to make this pass break even (which is totally doable).  However, if this is the only long-haul trip you are going to make during a stay in Japan, you’d be better off buying a 7-day Japan Rail Pass, using it during the window when you travel Tokyo-Osaka-Hiroshima-Tokyo, and then pay per use for the rest of your transit needs while in Japan.

21 days or more

If you are visiting Japan for 21 days or more, you have three validity windows open to you to choose from with the Japan Rail Pass (7, 14 and 21 days).

To break even with the 21-day version of the Japan Rail Pass, you would need to spend roughly ¥2,830 per day on travel using JR Group trains.

Truthfully, I struggle with recommending the 21-day pass, unless you are planning an itinerary which will see you jumping from destination to destination across Japan during the three weeks it’s valid for. For some people, this may be a real possibility, and obviously – as demonstrated above – you will see savings at some point once you’ve been on enough trains and buses.

However, for an average traveler who is making their first trip to Japan and is likely not straying far off the beaten path, it’s tough recommending this pass.

Too Long, Didn’t Read

If you scrolled all the way to the bottom and just want the short notes, here they are.

  • Japan Rail Pass is available in three validity periods – 7, 14 and 21 days.
  • Good for use on pretty much any form of transit JR Group operates, with a few exceptions.
  • You must be in Japan on a tourist visa.  Work visa and working holiday visa holders are unable to use the Japan Rail Pass.
  • For visitors who don’t plan to leave the Tokyo area, a Japan Rail Pass is not an economical option.
  • For unlimited daily travel on Tokyo’s JR trains, a special Tokunai pass can be purchased from ticket machines for ¥750.
  • To break even with a 7-day pass, you need spend about ¥4,200 on travel per day, or by making a roundtrip Shinkansen voyage from Tokyo to Osaka
  • To break even with a 14-day pass, you need spend about ¥3,320 on travel per day, or by making a longer, multi-stop roundtrip – Tokyo-Osaka-Hiroshima-Tokyo, for example
  • To break even with a 21-day pass, you need to spend ¥2,830 on travel per day, and ideally be travelling across large swaths of the country for the entire duration of the pass.
  • Visitors staying in Japan longer than 7 days who have intentions of only making one or two side trips from a home base (like Tokyo) should consider purchasing a 7-day Japan Rail Pass and have it activated on the first day they choose to travel beyond their base.
  • Cheaper transportation options are always available (slower limited express trains, low cost air carriers) but there will always be a trade-off of some sort (longer travel times or airport shuttle fees, respectively.)

By no means am I the authority on using the Japan Rail Pass, and present this only based on my personal experience in visiting Japan (and based on my personal travel preferences – which tend to lean toward keeping things simple and getting somewhere as quickly as possible.) Everyone has their own style, and you may find other opinions online about whether or not the Japan Rail Pass is of good value.

If you’ve used the Japan Rail Pass, I’d love to hear your perspective. What has your experience been? Would you use it again? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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