Is a Japan Rail Pass Worth It?
"Is a Japan Rail Pass worth it?"
This might be the most important question you are asking yourself right now as you prepare for your trip to Japan in 2021.
In this post, I'm going to show you whether a Japan Rail Pass is worth it. Using my first trip to Japan and 2020 prices, I'll compare how much my 3-week trip cost with a Japan Rail Pass without one.
I'll also tell you which pass to buy, how to buy and activate the pass, and how to use the pass once you get to Japan.
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Is a Japan Rail Pass Worth It?
Is a Japan Rail Pass worth it?
Let's get this question out of the way first.
The best answer I can give you is this: It depends.
I know you want to hear a more clearcut answer than that. But let me explain and then I think you'll understand why I can't give you one. Then I'll tell you how to use some online tools to see whether the Japan Rail Pass is worth it for your own trip.
The first time I went to Japan, I got a 14-Day Japan Rail Pass in Ordinary Class. I was there for almost 3 weeks (19 days), and I traveled all over Japan. You can check out my Japan Itinerary here.
In order for you to see if a Japan Rail Pass is worth it, let's compare the cost of a Japan Rail Pass with how much it would have cost me if I hadn't bought the pass.
Here is a price list (as of August 2020) of the two different Japan Rail Pass classes from the Japan Rail Pass website. Just an FYI: the online travel agency, Japan Experience, has cheaper prices than what is listed on the Japan Rail Pass website.
I also calculated the exchange rate based on the rate as of August 13, 2020.
Now let’s look at how much it would have cost me if I hadn’t bought the pass. The prices are in Japanese yen. The last column on the right side is the cost of transportation for routes that weren’t covered under the Japan Rail Pass. Here I needed to take a bus or a private train.
You can see that my 14-day pass cost me US$496 (Japan Experience is selling one for US$441 (a 2-day shipping fee is included in the price) while each individual ticket would have cost me US$675 if I hadn’t purchased a JR Pass. That is a savings of over US$179 – US$234. So of course, for a 3-week trip to Japan, a Japan Rail Pass is worth it.
You can easily figure out whether a Japan Rail Pass will be worth it for your own trip to Japan by visiting the Hyperdia website. Enter your stops on your itinerary and calculate how much each individual train ticket will cost you. I’ll explain below how to do it.
My Second Trip to Japan: No Japan Rail Pass
For my second trip to Japan, I didn’t purchase a Japan Rail Pass because it wouldn’t have been worth it. I only traveled to Tokyo and the cities around it like Nikko, Hakone, Kamakura, and Kawaguchi-ko (Mt. Fuji). For two of the destinations, I took the bus. For one destination, I took a non-Japan Rail train (not covered under the Japan Rail Pass), and for the last destination, the train ride was less than US$10.
So you can see that in order to determine whether a Japan Rail Pass is worth it, it depends on your itinerary.
One more thing! You don’t have to travel around Japan by train. You can also use Japan’s bus system. It’s cheaper than taking a train. But perhaps not as fun and not as comfortable.
PRO TIP: No one likes to think about insurance, but accidents do happen. I highly recommend getting World Nomads. This is what I've used for short-term travel. When I quit my job to travel around the world, I switched to Safety Wings. They're very affordable (less than US$100 a month depending on age) especially for those of us who are over 40 years old. They now cover COVID19.
Which trains can you use with the Japan Rail Pass
You can only use trains owned by Japan Rail. Not to worry! Most trains in Japan are run by Japan Rail. These include Japan Rail’s shinkansen trains (bullet trains), limited express trains, express trains, and local trains.
However, you CANNOT use your Japan Rail Pass on the two fastest Shinkansen trains–the Nozomi and Mizuho trains. (Japan gives their trains names like Sakura, Hikari, Nozomi.)
- Nozomi – the fastest train that runs between Tokyo and Osaka stopping at Kyoto and Nagoya
- Mizuho – runs between Fukuoka and Kagoshima
No worries! There are other Shinkansen trains like the Hikari that you can take between Tokyo and Osaka and Kyoto and the Sakura between Fukuoka and Kagoshima that are covered under the JR Pass. The Nozomi gets to Kyoto from Tokyo in 2 hours and 15 minutes, while the Hikari gets to Kyoto in 2 hours and 34 minutes.
Private Non-JR Trains
Japan also has trains owned by other private companies. Most of the time, you can’t use your JR Pass on these trains. Some private train lines that are popular with tourists but on which you can’t use your JR Pass include the Odakyu train or the Hakone Tozan Line that connects Odawara with Hakone and Tobu Train connecting Tokyo with Nikko.
The non-JR Trains that allow you to use your pass are not to places that tourists usually visit. There are only three trains that do this.
- Aoimori Railway between Aomori and Hachinohe
- IR Ishikawa line between Kanazawa and Tsubata
- Ainokaze Toyama Railway Line between Toyama and Takaoka
There are certain stipulations you must follow to use your JR Pass on these lines. Please visit the Japan Rail website for additional information.
Tokyo Japan Rail Trains
The Tokyo Monorail (connects Haneda Airport with Hamamatsucho station) and the Narita Express (connects Narita Airport with Shinjuku and Shinagawa stations) are covered under your JR Pass.
There is also a JR Train called the Yamanote line that does a loop around Tokyo stopping at many of the major tourist areas like Shinjuku, Shibuya, Ueno, and Tokyo Station.
Kyoto and Osaka Trains
You can use your JR Pass on the Limited Express Haruka which connects Kansai Airport with Osaka and Kyoto.
Local Japan Rail Buses
You can also use your JR Pass on some local buses owned by Japan Rail. These are in the following cities:
Japan Rail Ferries
You can also use your JR Pass on the JR ferry that travels between Hiroshima and Miyajima.
Which Japan Rail Pass Should I Buy
Now let's talk about which Japan Rail Pass you should buy.
Japan Rail Pass comes in three consecutive lengths of time.
- 7-Day Pass
- 14-Day Pass
- 21-Day Pass
The Japan Rail Pass also comes in two classes:
- Ordinary Pass - Passholders sit in the Ordinary Cars
- Green Pass -1st Class. - Passholders sit in the Green Cars, which are 1st Class cars. Each train has at least one Green Car.
Japan Rail Pass: Price
Here's how the two ticket classes differ in the price for 2020. We don't know the 2021 price yet. Hopefully, it will be comparable.
Japan Rail Pass: Comfort
The Green – 1st Class cars are more luxurious than Ordinary class cars. There is more legroom and the seats are more comfortable. It’s also less crowded and quieter.
Here is what a Green Car looks like:
Ordinary Class pass holders can sit in the reserved and nonreserved cars. Here is what a typical Ordinary Car looks like:
You can also see how much legroom you can get in Ordinary Car as well.
I found the Ordinary Class cars to be comfortable enough. They were rarely crowded as well, and I rarely had another person sitting next to me. If you’re traveling on a budget, I think the Ordinary Class cars are perfectly fine.
Japan Rail Pass: Convenience
Another great reason to choose the Ordinary Class Japan Rail Pass over the Green Pass is that the Ordinary is so much more convenient to use than the Green Pass
- With the Green Pass, you MUST reserve a seat before boarding any train. You need to do this in person in Japan at a JR Booking Office or at a JR Rail Office. The seat reservation is free, but it can be a hassle to do it if you’re in a hurry.
- With the Ordinary Pass, you don’t need to reserve a seat. You can just get to the train station, show your pass to the rail officials and jump on any train covered under the JR Pass. You need to however sit in the unreserved car. If there are no seats available, you have to stand. BUT you can also reserve a seat if you want at a JR Booking Office or at a JR Rail Office. Seat reservations are free of charge. I usually reserved a seat just because it was the best way to ensure that I was getting on the right train.
I bought an Ordinary Class ticket and I was very satisfied with my choice.
There are also regional passes, meaning they only cover one region. They’re usually for Japanese travelers and foreign travelers who just want to cover one region. I’m not going to cover those passes here. You can see my Japan Day Trip post to find out about those passes and my Hakone Day Trip post to find out about the Hakone Free Pass.
Who Can Use the Japan Rail Pass
In order to use the Japan Rail Pass, you need to be a foreign citizen and you must enter Japan on a tourist visa (called a Temporary Visitors visa), which is usually good for 90 days.
You CANNOT use the Japan Rail Pass if you enter on a student, instructors, or working holiday visa.
Where to Purchase the Japan Rail Pass
You must purchase the Japan Rail Pass BEFORE entering Japan. You can buy the pass online from a travel agency. Here are two possible trustworthy places to buy the pass:
- Purchase the Japan Rail Pass from Voyagin Travel Agency
- Purchase it from Japan Experience. They have offices in London, Paris, Madrid, Berlin, Los Angeles, and Kyoto.
When to purchase the Japan Rail Pass
When you buy the Japan Rail Pass, you MUST purchase it no more than 90 days before you arrive in Japan. For example, if you arrive in Japan on April 1, 2021, you need to purchase the pass online a few days AFTER January 1, 2021.
Whomever you purchase the pass from, check to see if it's refundable and /or if you need to pay a penalty to get a refund.
I personally would purchase the pass 30 days before my trip to Japan.
How to Purchase and Activate the Japan Rail Pass
Follow these steps for purchasing and activating your Japan Rail Pass. It might seem confusing at first, but Japan is a well-organized country with an incredibly well-organized tourism industry. Once you’re there, you’ll realize how little you needed to worry about your trip.
1. Purchase the JR Pass online
Purchase the Japan Rail Pass online BEFORE arriving in Japan no more than 90 days before your trip.
- Purchase the Japan Rail Pass from Voyagin Travel Agency
- Purchase it from Japan Experience. They have offices in London, Paris, Madrid, Berlin, Los Angeles, and Kyoto.
2. Receive your Japan Rail Pass Voucher (Exchange Order)
The online agency will then send you a Japan Rail Pass Voucher–also called Exchange Order (see photo above) via express mail. For example, in the United States, you can have the pass sent to you by Fedex or USPS. It took me 3 days to receive my pass.
3. Exchange the Voucher for the Pass
Take the Voucher (Exchange Order) with you to Japan and go to a Japan Rail Office to exchange it for the actual Japan Rail Pass.
There’s an office in Terminal 1 and another office in Terminal 2 and 3 at the Tokyo Narita Airport and an office at Haneda Airport in Tokyo. There’s also an office at the Kansai Airport in Osaka. I exchanged mine on the day I arrived at Narita Airport.
Here is a list of additional Japan Rail Offices where you can exchange your Voucher for the actual Pass.
You’ll need to fill out a form and show your passport (not a photocopy) when you are doing the exchange.
4. Select the Date to Activate Your JR Pass
You will also need to tell the Japan Rail Office when you want the actual Pass to begin.
For example, if you arrive on April 1, you can have the Pass activated on April 4. Usually, you want to activate your Pass on the day you take your first train trip.
You have 30 days from the date you exchange your Voucher for the Pass to activate your pass. If your exchange date is August 1, then you must activate the Pass before August 30.
5. Make Seat Reservations
You can also make seat reservations at this time for any future trips. I made my seat reservations for my next 3 train trips.
Now you can start using your Japan Rail Pass. Go on to the next section to find out how to use it.
How to use your Japan Rail Pass
The following steps are based on both my experience and the most up-to-date info on Japan Rail websites as of August 2020.
1. Search the Japan train schedule
The first thing you want to do is to research the Japan train schedule to find the best train for you to take. Do this by visiting the amazing website Hyperdia.
You can search for both train and bus times on the Hyperdia website.
On the left-hand side, enter your departure and arrival city, date, and departure time.
Then click on the “More Options” link.
You can change the “Max Routes” from 5 to another number. A Max Route of 5 just means that you’ll get 5 search results, while if you enter 10, you’ll get 10 search results.
Unclick the following:
- Nozomi, Mizuho, Hayabusa (Shinkansen) – You can’t use your Japan Rail Pass on the first two trains
I also unclick the following, but you don’t have to:
- Airport Shuttle
You’ll get a list of trains that leave around the departure time you selected. You’ll learn a lot of info here such as departure and arrival times, price, name of the train, and track number.
Price: I’ve highlighted the final price of the train ride that you’d have to pay if you didn’t use a Japan Rail Pass.
Train name: I’ve also highlighted the name of the train. You want to pay attention to these names because as I said earlier, you can’t use your Japan Rail Pass on Nozomi and Mizuho trains, so make sure you don’t try to travel on these trains.
I also highlighted them because you’ll notice that the train from Tokyo to Toyama is Shinkansen Kagayaki 503, which is a bullet train. But the train from Toyama to Takayama is Ltd Exp (Wide View) Hida 8, which is NOT a Shinkansen (bullet) train. This means that when you get to Toyama, you’ll need to go from the Shinkansen section of the train station to the non-Shinkansen section.
Track number: I found that the track number is NOT always correct. I always visited the Japan Rail Office before each time I took a train to confirm the track number by getting a seat reservation.
2. Get a Seat Reservation
Remember that if you have a Green Pass, you MUST make a seat reservation. BUT if you have the Ordinary Pass, it’s optional.
Why you should make a seat reservation even with an Ordinary Pass
I always made one for several reasons:
- It’s free.
- I’m assured of which track I need to catch my train from. I found that the track information in Hyperdia was not always correct.
- A JR employee can tell me of a route or line that I might not have been aware of.
- It’s also good to make seat reservations ahead of time because JR employees can tell you if a certain line isn’t running due to track conditions. For instance, when I was trying to make a seat reservation from Tokyo to Takayama, I wanted to go through Toyama because it was quicker and I was told the scenery was better. Luckily, the JR employee told me that the route from Toyama to Takayama wasn’t running due to a mudslide, saving me from ending up stranded in Toyama and having to possibly backtrack to Tokyo.
Where to make a seat reservation
As of June 2020, there are now three ways to make a seat reservation.
- Booking Office: Go to JR booking office (midori no madoguchi) at the train station either a few days before or on the day of travel to get a seat reservations, The JR offices are generally very easy to find. There is sometimes a window specifically for non-Japanese speakers. The JR office then would give me a seat reservation ticket with the car # and seat # (see the above photo).
- Reserved Seat Ticket Machines: As of June 2020, at some train stations, you can make seat reservations from ticket machines. You need to scan your Japan Rail Pass’s QR code into the machine to avoid paying a seat reservation fee.
- Online: For certain train lines, you can make a seat reservation online. I have not made seat reservations in this way before. Here are a few websites where you can make reservations:
How far in advance can you make a seat reservation
You can make a seat reservation up to 30 days in advance of your train trip.
When to definitely make a seat reservation
There are certain days of the year when Japan Rail highly recommends making a seat reservation well in advance. These days are the following:
- April 27 – May 6
- August 10 – 19
- December 28 – January 6
However, I was in Japan twice in August during these dates, and I didn’t have any problems making a seat reservation at the last minute.
3. At the Train Station
In the past, Japan Rail Pass holders couldn’t go through the electronic gates at the train station to reach to the platforms. They had to go through a side entrance where they would show their Pass to a train station employee.
Now in many stations, Japan Rail Pass holders need to go through the electronic ticket gates. You just insert their Japan Rail Pass into a slot in the machine. Your pass will come out the other side. Just don’t forget to retrieve it! Here is a set of instructions on how to use the machines.
4. Find Your Track and Car
Next, find your track. You’ll see signs in both Japanese and English with the track number, the name of the train, and the departure time.
Your seat reservation will tell you your car and seat number.
Make sure you are in the correct section of the station. Shinkansen trains (bullet trains) are in a different section from limited express, express, and local trains. I often found myself going crazy looking around for my limited express train and not finding it only to realize I needed to exit the Shinkansen section of the station and enter a different section.
Find out how many cars your train has. Electronic signs on the platform will tell this information.
After that, you’ll see signs along the platform (on the floor or above you) telling you where to stand to enter your car when the train arrives. You can see in the photo above that if your train has 8 cars and your seat is in car 4, you should stand here.
Some Ordinary cars are only for reserved seats and some are for unreserved seats.
You want to be lined up in front of the correct car because the time between arrival and departure for a train can be quite short.
Luggage on Trains in Japan
You can take 2 pieces of luggage with you at no cost on Japan Rail Trains. You can store your luggage on wracks above your seat. When I traveled, there was rarely anyone sitting next to me so I often put my bag on the seat next to me.
If you have oversized luggage (greater than 160 cm), then you need to put it in the oversized luggage and make a seat reservation in advance on the three most popular shinkansen lines (Tokaido, Sanyo, and Kyushu lines—Tokyo-Nagoya-Shin-Osaka-Kyoto-Hiroshima-Hakata-Kagoshima). If you don’t, you may be fined 1,000 yen. You can read about the oversized luggage requirements here.
Eating on Trains in Japan
Yes, you can eat and drink on Japan trains. You’ll find lots of places in the train station that sells snacks and bento boxes.
Unfortunately, when I was in Japan, most of the time the announcements telling passengers which station the train was arriving at wasn’t in English or any other foreign language. However, on some trains, there was an electronic sign in the cars that indicated the name of the stop in English. If there are no signs, you just need to pay attention to the signs on the platform of the station the trains pull into. Those are in Japanese and English. You can also follow along on Google Maps.
So is the Japan Rail Pass worth it? As you can see, it depends. The best thing to do before making the decision on whether to purchase a rail pass is to plan out your itinerary (even if it’s tentative) and then use Hyperdia to calculate the cost of each individual train ride. Then you can decide for your trip whether the Japan Rail Pass is worth it or not
For more planning tips for your trip to Japan, check out my post on 12 Must-Follow Japan Travel Tips
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Looking for more on Japan? Check out these posts:
- Japan Itinerary: The Perfect 3 Weeks in Japan
- Tokyo Itinerary: How to Spend 4 Perfect Days in Tokyo
- Hakone Itinerary: How to Spend 2 Days in Hakone
- Kyoto Itinerary 4 Weeks: A City of a Million Temples
- Nara Itinerary: The Perfect Day Trip from Kyoto
- Matsumoto Itinerary: Exploring Japan's Coolest Castle
- Shirakawago Itinerary: Enter a Japanese Fairytale
- The Ultimate Day Trip to Hiroshima and Miyajima
- Kamikochi Hiking: The Perfect Day Trip from Takayama
- Takayama Itinerary: Travel Back in Time to Old Japan
- The Best Ever Guide to Japan's Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route
- Top 10 Must-See Places to Visit in Kyoto
- 13 Things You Need to Know Before Going to Japan
- The 20 Best Novels to Read Before Visiting Japan