If you are visiting Japan for the first time, “riding the bullet train” will probably be on your must-do list. Bullet trains, locally known as Shinkansen, are a novel way of travel for many tourists who don’t have high-speed trains in their own countries. I personally love traveling by the Shinkansen because it’s an eco-friendly and efficient alternative to flying.
A common question that arises when you think of riding the Shinkansen is – is it worth buying the Japan Rail Pass?
The answer to this question depends on a number of factors such as:
- The number of days you plan to spend in Japan
- The places you want to visit
- The number of long-distance train journeys you plan to take
Since the answer isn’t a straightforward yes or no, I’ve written this detailed article giving all the information you need so that you can decide for yourself. To help you further, I’ll show you my own trip report on how I saved money with the JR Pass.
If you want to skip the info and buy the JR pass, you can buy it here.
What is a Japan Rail Pass?
Japan Rail Pass or the JR Pass is a pass that gives you unlimited access to all JR operated trains and buses, some ferries and airport transfers. It’s particularly useful when you intend to take multiple long-distance journeys between different cities in Japan using the Shinkansen. Also, the pass is convenient and cost-effective when used properly.
Where to buy Japan Rail Pass or JR Pass?
The 5 steps of buying and using the Japan Rail Pass is as illustrated in this picture. It’s important to note that only tourists to Japan, who are visiting Japan on a tourist visa for a maximum duration of 90 days, are eligible to buy the JR Pass.
How to buy and use the Japan Rail Pass
- To buy the JR pass, visit this website. You can have the order delivered to your home address or to your temporary residence in Japan.
- What you receive in the mail is not the pass but an Exchange order or Exchange Voucher. This Exchange order cannot be used directly, you have to exchange it for the JR pass once you arrive in Japan.
- On arrival, after you get the tourist visa stamp in your passport, exchange the voucher for the Japan Rail Pass at any JR East Travel Service Center. You can find one at the Narita International Airport and at Haneda airport in Tokyo. If you are not in a hurry, you can also exchange it later at other JR East Travel Service centers in the city. Remember, you need your passport and the original exchange order for the exchange.
- Activate the pass when you exchange it. You can choose the date when you want to start using it. However, the start date can’t be more than 30 days away. If you know your plans in advance, you can also reserve your seats at this time. Reserving your seats is recommended as the trains get booked quickly especially in peak tourist season.
- Once the pass is activated, you can use the pass on all JR trains and buses in Japan.
Can you buy JR Pass in Japan?
JR Pass is available in Japan, on a trial basis till March 2020, for a much higher price in major airports and train stations.
In Japan, the Japan Rail Pass is available at the following train stations: Sapporo, Sendai, Niigata, Tokyo, Shinjuku, Yokohama, Nagoya, Osaka, Hiroshima, Takamatsu, Hakata.
It’s also available in these airports: Narita Airport(Terminals 1,2, and 3), Haneda Airport – International Airport, and Kansai Airport.
Types of JR Pass
Depending on your travel plans, you can buy either a 7-day, 14-day or 21-day Japan Rail Pass. An ordinary 7-day JR Pass costs 271 USD, the 14-day pass costs 433 USD and the 21-day pass costs 554 USD.
If you want to travel first-class, then you can buy the Green Class Pass. The Green Class Pass costs 363 USD for a 7-day pass, 587 USD for a 14-day pass and 764 USD for a 21-day pass.
With the Green Pass, you have access to separate First-class carriages, extra-wide seats, more luggage space, and more privacy. Depending on the train, you’ll also get free amenities like drinks, Oshibori hand-towels, and candy. The Green Pass is helpful during the peak tourist season, especially during the Golden Week in Japan, when the trains are very busy.
Where can you use the JR Pass?
JR Pass can be used on all bullet trains except for the Nozomi and Mizuho on the Tokaido and Sanyo lines.
Is the JR Pass Worth it?
As I said at the beginning of the article, assessing the worth buying a Japan Rail Pass depends on your individual travel plans. Here are two case studies, one shows you when a JR Pass saves you money and the other shows a case when the JR Pass is not necessary.
Case Study 1:
Let’s say a traveler purchases a 7-day Japan Rail Pass. He activates the JR Pass at Narita International Airport and travels by Narita Express to Tokyo. The traveler spends 4 days in Tokyo, visiting the local attractions using the JR Yamanote Line and other JR trains. Then, he travels to Kyoto, via the bullet train, and spends 3 days there. He then travels back to Tokyo to take the Narita Express to Narita International airport for his return flight.
|Trip Details||Cost||JR Pass|
|Narita Express to Tokyo(round-trip)||6140 JPY||covered|
|Tokyo to Kyoto (Hikari bullet train)||28,340 JPY||covered|
|Total||34,480 JPY (approx. 315 USD)||29,650 JPY (approx. 271 USD)|
In this case, as shown by the table of expenses, the traveler saves approx. $44 USD when he uses the Japan Rail Pass . From this case, it’s clear that if you plan to take at least one round-trip from Tokyo to Kyoto, the 7-day Japan Rail Pass almost pays for itself. You can save more by using the local JR trains and buses.
Case Study 2 (Negative Case):
This second case shows a scenario when a JR Pass isn’t necessary. Same as the case above, a traveler purchases a 7-day Japan Rail Pass. He arrives in Tokyo, spends 4 days there, then travels to Kyoto to spend the remaining 3 days. However, his return flight leaves from Kansai International airport instead of Tokyo. So a round-trip from Tokyo to Kyoto isn’t required.
|Trip Details||Cost||JR Pass|
|One-way Narita Express ticket to Tokyo||3000 JPY||covered|
|One-way trip to Kyoto (Hikari bullet train)||14170 JPY||covered|
|Kyoto to Kansai Internarional Airport||4960 JPY||covered|
|Total||23,640 JPY (approx. 216 USD)||29,650 JPY (approx. 271 USD|
Here, the traveler actually loses $54.93 USD if he buys the JR Pass. If your itinerary resembles this one, I would suggest you are better off purchasing your tickets separately rather than the JR Pass.
How I saved 1000 USD with the Japan Rail Pass
If you are a regular reader of my blog or follow me on Instagram, you already know that I like slow travel. That means, I usually spend a month or more in a single place exploring it in-depth rather than rushing around.
Following my slow travel philosophy, I was based out of Tokyo for the 34 days of my Japan trip. Unlike me, many people would probably have explored the length and breadth of Japan in 34 days. I, however, stuck mainly to Tokyo and took day trips to Kyoto, Nara, Kumano Kodo, and Mount Fuji.
For the trip, I purchased a 14-day Japan Rail Pass which cost me 433 USD. Since I wasn’t planning to take any long-distance journeys in the first week of my trip, I didn’t activate the pass right away when I landed. So, I had to purchase tickets to Narita Express separately.
I activated the pass a week later when I made my first Shinkansen journey to Arashiyama near Kyoto. As expected, I was able to see only Arashiyama and the surrounding region on that day. I had to return to Kyoto several times, a total of 4 times, to see Kyoto and Nara.
One might imagine, going to and fro from Tokyo to Kyoto 4 times is bound to be stressful. Surprisingly, it was not. Travel via the Shinkansen was very relaxing. The journey from Tokyo to Kyoto is only 2 hrs and 40 mins on the Hikari and the seats were so comfortable that I slept through most of it. Also, I didn’t take these day trips back-to-back. I spread them over a period of 14 days so that I wasn’t stressed out.
So, without further ado, here are my trip details.
My Trip Costs
|Trip Details||Cost||JR Pass|
|Tokyo to Kyoto (4 round trips)||112960 JPY||covered|
|round trip Kyoto to Nara (Hikari bullet train)||1440 JPY||covered|
|one-way journey from Tokyo to Mount Fuji||1140JPY||partly covered|
|Tokyo- Nagoya-Nachi (round-trip)||38,320 JPY||partly covered|
|Local transit in Tokyo(14 days)||(280 *14)=3920 JPY||covered|
|Total||157,800 JPY (approx. 1,442 USD)||47,250 JPY (approx. 433 USD|
As you can see from my trip report, I saved more than a 1000 USD. I realize that most people wouldn’t follow this type of itinerary. Regardless, what’s clear from the report is that if you plan on taking more multiple long-distance journeys, the Japan rail pass is really useful and can save you a lot of money.