Japan Rail Pass – Is it Worth it?

First-time visitors to Japan are often amazed at the extensive rail network. Admittedly taking a look at the metro map of Tokyo can be incredibly intimidating, but once you arrive you’ll quickly realize how easy it is to navigate the system. Of course, the rail network isn’t limited to just the cities, Japan easily has the most efficient bullet trains – known locally as shinkansen – in the world.

Travellers will be happy to know that the Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass) is a cost effective way to travel across long distances in Japan. The JR Pass is only available to tourists and must be ordered before you arrive in Japan. You’ll receive a voucher which you exchange for your pass in person in Japan. So if you forget your pass at home before departing, you’re out of luck. It really makes no sense why the pass system isn’t done electronically, but those are the rules.

The pass comes in two types: ordinary and green cars. Green cars are first class seats which give you more spacious seats, but ordinary cars are quite comfortable already so there’s no need to upgrade. Let’s take a look at the JR pass price and see what the value is. Note that children aged 6-11 get 50% off the listed rates.

DaysOrdinaryGreen Car
7 consecutive days¥ 29,110¥ 38,880
14 consecutive days¥ 46,390¥ 62,950
21 consecutive days¥ 59,350¥ 81,870

Is the Japan Rail pass worth it?

It really comes down to simple math. If buying single tickets to your intended destinations cost more than a pass, then obviously the JR Rail Pass is worth it. You can look up the exact costs and times of your intended route on Hyperdia, but here’s a quick way to help you calculate if getting a Japan Rail Pass is worth it for you.

  • Tokyo – Osaka: ¥ 14,450
  • Osaka – Hiroshima: ¥ 10,230

Using these base trip costs you can see that the JR pass price will pretty much be even with a 7-day JR Pass if you do a round trip from Tokyo to Osaka. For the 14-day pass you need to go as far as Hiroshima. The price difference is pretty small between a 14-day and 21-day pass so adding another day trip or two and the JR pass price for 21 days all of a sudden becomes an incredible value.

If you’re flying into Tokyo, but departing from Osaka, purchasing one way tickets might be of better value. Also note that you get to select when your JR Pass becomes activated, so if you plan your trip well, you may only need a 7-day pass even if you’re in the country for longer than that.

Related: Tokyo on a budget

Japan Rail Pass

Where is the Japan Rail Pass valid?

Since this is a physical paper pass and not an electronic card type pass, you can not use it at the turnstiles. All you need to do is show it to the ticket agent at the station and they’ll let you through. The following are the types of transportation you can use your pass on.

JR Trains – The JR Pass will give you access to all JR trains nation wide including shinkansen (except Nozomi & Mizuho trains), limited express, express, rapid and local trains. This includes the Narita Express train to/from Narita airport, and the Tokyo monorail to/from Haneda airport. JR pass holders can make free seat reservations for the Shinkansen at any JR station with a JR office.

JR Trains in Tokyo – This is where a lot of confusion comes in. The JR Yamanote and Chuo lines are owned by Japan Rail so you can use those two lines for free with an active pass. The other metro lines are run by different companies and you will need to use an IC card (detailed below). You do not need a JR Pass if you’re staying just in one city.

JR Ferry to Miyajima

Local JR Buses – Not many tourists will use local JR buses, but your pass is valid on them. The one major bus route that tourists may be interested in is the JR tourist loop bus in Hiroshima. Your JR pass is NOT valid for the Raku bus in Kyoto.

Final word

As you can see the JR Rail Pass is worth it if you’re travelling long distance in a set time period. The other advantage is that since you won’t need to buy train tickets, you can make any random side trip when you want to.

If you’re going to be in a single major city such as Tokyo or Kyoto, then you’re better off using a local IC card for your daily needs and supplementing it with individual tickets for any day trips. To be clear, if you’re visiting just Tokyo, then all you need is a Suica or Pasmo card.

By | 2017-02-24T23:12:23+00:00 January 27th, 2016|Destinations, Travel|

36 Comments

  1. HamTech87 (@HamTech87) September 12, 2016 at 2:32 pm - Reply

    I found the JR Pass to be incredibly convenient for tourism, and far more useful than I initially expected. It seems there are a lot of JR trains that are decent alternatives to other train and bus routes, so we used it a lot. If you use Google Maps for directions as I did, you just have to filter your searches mentally for JR trains. (I wish Google Maps had a filter with just JR trains!) Often our guidebooks didn’t mention the JR alternatives, so look for them yourself to save money.

    Our trip in Kyoto to the Golden Temple was a good example of how we biased our search to a JR line. There are multiple ways to travel there: either an all-bus trip, a trip on a non-JR train to a bus, or a trip on a JR train to a bus. The all-bus is the longest, but you can use the Kyoto Bus daypass. The two train journeys were faster than the all-bus, and not much different in travel time from each other. So of course we chose the JR route. This happened many times — to Himeji, Osaka (twice), Kyoto-Tokyo, and Hiroshima where we also used it for the Miyajima Ferry.

    Waving the JR Pass instead of buying specific tickets to get onto unreserved trains was also far more convenient. Not all JR ticket offices have English speakers; wish you could buy tickets online or at your hotel.

    As for the subways and non-JR trains, it was great to see how the PASMO card worked for all of them that we took. Couldn’t miss a Hashin Tigers game!

    • Barry Choi September 12, 2016 at 5:00 pm - Reply

      HamTech.

      Yes the JR pass is so convenient once you learn exactly where you can use it. The app Japan Trains is also really useful since you can filter it with or without the JR Pass. I did figure out in Kyoto it was easier to use the bus. Even in Osaka, I opted to use my Suica card because it was easier than using the long way via JR pass.

  2. Maxime June 12, 2017 at 8:35 am - Reply

    Do children under 6 travel for free then?

    • Barry Choi June 12, 2017 at 9:12 am - Reply

      Maxime,

      Correct. Kids aged 1-5 ride for free but they’re not entitled to a paid seat. In other words, you can’t reserve a seat for them. If you reserve a seat for yourself, they must sit in your lap. If there is a free seat in the unreserved section, they’re welcome to that.

  3. Lou July 25, 2017 at 3:38 pm - Reply

    Hi Barry, thank you for the tip. I am planning to go to Tokyo – Kanazawa- Kyoto – Osaka – Naoshima -Tokyo, my trip is 15 days. `is this pass works for all these places? thanks you

    • Barry Choi July 25, 2017 at 3:50 pm - Reply

      Hi Lou,

      Generally speaking, a 14-day JR pass is worth it once you make a return trip from Tokyo to Hiroshima. Although you’re not going as far as Hiroshima, your added trips to Kanazawa and Naoshima appear to make the pass of good value. You’ll obviously have to pay regular fares for one of your days. Depending on your itinerary, I would probably activate the pass as soon as you land and pay regular fares the day you depart.

      One tip, get familiar with the JR lines in advance via Hyperdia and download the JR Trains app.

  4. Barbara Chipperfield July 26, 2017 at 12:57 pm - Reply

    Hi Barry, we are planning to travel from Okinawa to Kyoto to spend 3 days there and then return to Narita airport – would the pass be worthwhile – we could use it to do some trips from Kyoto as well.

    thanks, Barbara

  5. Barbara Chipperfield July 26, 2017 at 1:03 pm - Reply

    Oops I meant Yokohama not Okinawa

    apologies

    • Barry Choi July 26, 2017 at 1:40 pm - Reply

      Hi Barbara,

      The 7-day is worth while as long as you use the Narita express and make a round trip to Kyoto, so yes it would be worth it. You would be able to use the pass in quite a few places and make side trips to say Nara and Osaka while in Kyoto. The JR pass is of limited use within Kyoto (except to get o Arashiyama), but it’s still of good value just for convenience purposes.

  6. Carol August 5, 2017 at 4:00 am - Reply

    Hi Barry – we will be traveling to Japan in October. We’ll be there for a total of 15 days, spending the first four days in Tokyo. Initially, we were going to purchase a 14 day pass but it seems that JR lines are not convenient for travel within Tokyo and Kyoto. So, we are thinking of purchasing the 7 day pass so that we can travel from Tokyo to Takayama. (We will be visiting Shirakawa-go and Kanazawa but I believe the buses running to both of these towns are not included in the JR pass). From Kanazawa we will be going to Kyoto which will be our base for the rest of the trip. The first two days in Kyoto we will take 2 day trips to Himeji Castle, and Hiroshima/Miyajima to take advantage of the remaining days of the pass. After these two days we are planning on exploring Kyoto, inlacing the bamboo forest, Mt. Koya, Nara and Osaka.

    My questions is – the 7 day JR pass covers practically the long distance train rides for the first half of the trip. Would it be best to combine the 7 day JR pass with a Kansai Thru Pass or a JR Kansai regional pass? Not sure which of these two passes is more useful to travel within Kyoto, Nara, Mt. Koya and Osaka and between these towns.

    Thanks in advance for your response!

    • Barry Choi August 5, 2017 at 9:07 am - Reply

      Hi Carol,

      A few things to note to help you make up your decision
      – The JR lines IMO, are very convenient in Japan. The Yamanote line goes in a circle and goes to almost every major attraction (except Sensoji), there’s also the JR Chuo line that cuts across the city and is represented by a thin grey line on this map.

      http://bento.com/pix/subway/tokyo_subway_1700.gif

      – The bullet trains now go directly to Kanazawa but not shirakawa as you’ve noted.

      Based on what you’ve listed, to me it does sound like a 7-day pass + a Kansai pass makes sense since you’re doing all your long distance travel in those 7 days. The only question is, where are you flying out of? If it’s back in Tokyo, you need to factor that cost in. If it’s Kansai, then I think you already know the answer.

      The nice thing about the Kansai pass is that it covers the journey to Koyasan which the JR pass does not.

      The only other thing I would advise is to think about your route. I did something similar, but instead of Kanazawa and shirakawa, I spent extra days in Tokyo as the city has a lot to see. It’s really all personal preference, but Japan is a country where you want to slow down when you can.

      I should also note that Nara was the last day trip I took and by the time I got there, I was so tired of seeing temples. I spent an hour there and decided to go back to Kyoto and just eat and shop for a change of pace. The temples in Kyoto and Koyasan are absolutely stunning.

      • Carol August 5, 2017 at 4:00 pm - Reply

        Thanks so much for the information. Sorry, I forgot to mention that we are flying out of Osaka – for this reason, I wasn’t sure the 14 day pass made much sense.

        In regards to Takayakama, Kanazawa and Shirakawa – we were originally planning on spending extra days in Tokyo and doing one day trip to see Mt. Fuji instead. As of right now, the itinerary feels a bit crammed and too fast paced…I might reconsider going to these towns. Have you been to Takayama and Kanazawa? If so, would you recommend one over the other? We would be arriving in Takayama on October 10th and I believe this is the last day of the autumn festival.

        • Barry Choi August 5, 2017 at 4:26 pm - Reply

          Carol,

          Since you’re flying out of Osaka, it seems obvious that your idea of a JR Pass + Kansai pass makes much more sense. I personally did not do Takayama or Kanazawa for the same reasons you are thinking about dropping them now. I felt like my time was better spent elsewhere e.g. more time in Tokyo and Kyoto as my bases.

          I spent 7 days in Tokyo the last time I was there and easily found enough things to entertain myself. Part of the fun of Tokyo is exploring random lesser known neighbourhoods e.g. Yanaka Ginza, Daikayama, Kagurazaka.

          I had debated Mt. Fuji or Hakone, but just cuz of my timing, I didn’t think it would be worth it (there was volcanic ash in Hakone at the time).

          The 2 best places I visited were Koyasan and Miyajima. Both were a touch out of the way, but I LOVED them. Himeji was nice just for the castle. You could easily stop in Himeji on your way back to Kyoto as the only thing to see there is the castle.

  7. Barbara Chipperfield August 5, 2017 at 10:59 am - Reply

    Thanks Barry, that’s really helpful

    are there any other places you would recommend we visit from Kyoto that would utilise the pass

    kind regards

    Barbara

    • Barry Choi August 5, 2017 at 11:05 am - Reply

      Barbara,

      If you have time and are willing to do a long day-trip. Hiroshima / Miyajima is well worth it. I LOVED Miyajima. That being said, since you only have 3 days in Kyoto, you really only have time to choose ONE day trip. So it would have to be Nara or Hiroshima/Miyajima.

      You could also make a long day trip out of Nara e.g. Kyoto –> Nara –> Osaka –> Kyoto. The distance between each place is only 1 hours by JR trains. Be sure to purchase the Nara bus pass if you do this route to save time. Also note that in parts of Osaka, your JR pass will not work, but you can use your Suica or Pasmo card instead.

  8. Sherie August 9, 2017 at 3:28 am - Reply

    Wow Barry, you seem like the person who may be able to give me some advice. I am travelling to Japan with my family in December. We are spending 3 nights at Disneyland (we arrive in Tokyo in the evening), 3 nights in Tokyo, 7 nights in Osaka and 7 nights in Hakuba before travelling back to Tokyo to fly home. The whole transport thing is confusing me. We are planning day trips to Hiroshima, Nara and Kyoto. Should we get a 21 day pass or is that not worth it?

    I appreciate any assistance you are able to provide.
    Sherie

    • Barry Choi August 9, 2017 at 8:43 am - Reply

      Hey Sherie,

      A few things to note

      You’ll make your money back with the 21day pass as long as you go from Tokyo -> Hiroshima roundtrip. However, if you’re able to rearrange your itinerary, you could get away with a 14 day pass e.g. depart Tokyo Day 5 and return to Tokyo before the 14-day pass is up.

      I personally think the 21-day pass is more convenient, but note that you’ll still need to pay for local transit in some places e.g. Some lines in Osaka, Kyoto, and Hiroshima.

      You’ll also want to look at your route to and from Hakuba. From what I understand, connections can be difficult.

      http://www.tabitabihakuba.com/get-hakuba-osaka-kyoto/

  9. Vicki Allan August 24, 2017 at 8:42 pm - Reply

    Hi Barry,
    I have read all your comments and I’m still confused on what is best for us, 2 couples.
    We will be flying into Haneda airport then we need to get to Kyoto for 2 nights from there we will be going to Osaka 2 nights and then onto Tokyo for a few nights before boarding our cruise on the 13th of October.
    We have tours booked in Kyoto but no where else so will probably need trains for sightseeing.
    What would you suggest?

    • Barry Choi August 24, 2017 at 8:47 pm - Reply

      Hi Vicki,

      It Assuming you’re in Kyoto and Osaka for 4 days combined total, you could probably just get a 7-Day JR pass and activate it whenever it’s convenient for you. The JR pass will be of limited use within Kyoto and Osaka, but the round trip ticket from Tokyo – Kyoto will pretty much mean you’ll break even. You can use the JR pass in Tokyo to get you to most major attractions.

      To supplement your local travel, get a suica or passmo card which you can use for non-JR trains. In Kyoto, the tourist bus pass will likely be your best option.

      https://www.moneywehave.com/kyoto-tourist-bus-the-raku-bus/

  10. Leon September 18, 2017 at 12:06 am - Reply

    Hi Barry, can you help me decide the best pass to get please? I’m traveling from Tokyo (and Kamakura & Yokohama)-Kanazawa-Takayama-Kyoto (and Koyasan)-Osaka-Hiroshima (and Miyajima)-Fukuoka

    I’m traveling one way and not returning to Tokyo via train, total time in Japan is about 17 days, I know it’s a busy agenda! I’m curious whether JR is the best option or maybe something else?

    Thanks!
    Leon

  11. Karen September 18, 2017 at 7:21 am - Reply

    Hello Barry,

    My husband and I are planning a trip and we are struggling to understand if the JR Pass will work for us. We need to travel by train from Kanazawa to Kyoto, from Kyoto we would like to do a anumber of day trips to Nara, Konya-San and Kinosaki and the. To go from Kyoto to Tokyo.

    We would be very grateful for any advice.

    Kind regards

    Karen

    9 Oct Takayama 02 301 Car
    17th century medieval town
    Museums
    Kanazawa 10 Oct Kyoto 02 Train
    Travel to Kanazawa to drop off car
    Kyoto 11 Oct Nara
    1h by Car less by train
    Train
    Kyoto will be the central base and Nara, Koya-San and Kinosaki will be day trips by train (not car)
    Home to 8 UNESCO World Heritage Sites Todaiji Temple Fushimi Inari Shrine
    World’s largest wooden structure and home to Japan’s largest Buddha
    Kyoto 12 Oct Koya-san
    3h 30m by car and will be less by train
    Train
    Kyoto will be the central base and Nara, Koya-San and Kinosaki will be day trips by train (not car)
    Kongobuji Temple and Garan temple complex
    Kyoto 13 Oct Kinosaki Train
    Kyoto will be the central base and Nara, Koya-San and Kinosaki will be day trips by train (not car)
    Onsen Town Hot Springs
    Kyoto 14 Oct
    Booked Castle Tour with Ken
    Kyoto 15 Oct Tokyo Hilton
    Tokyo 16 Oct Hilton
    Customised tour of Tokyo with Yoko

    • Barry Choi September 18, 2017 at 9:40 am - Reply

      Hey Karen,

      Is there a reason you’re renting a car to Kanazawa? Also, I see you’re starting in Takayama? Is there a reason for this too? What airport are you flying into?

      What I’m getting at is, if you build your itinerary a bit differently, you could probably maximize different passes.

      The Kyoto Thru Pass will cover your for Nara and Koya-san. Kinosaku (if you mean Kinosaki Onsen seems out of your way). When you depart Kyoto, you could get the Takayama-Hokuriku Area Tourist Pass which would get you to Kanazawa and Takayama. You could then use that same pass to get to Nagoya before purchasing a one way ticket to Tokyo.

      http://www.surutto.com/tickets/kansai_thru_english.html
      http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2361_takayama_hokuriku.html

      If you’re schedule is fixed, one way-tickets might be your best option since you’re renting cars. If you don’t rent a car, a 7-day pass may be good enough as long as you arrive in Tokyo by the time it expires. Use the following sites to check how much you’ll spend on one way ticketes.

      http://japan.aoimirai.net/jrpass_calculator.html
      http://www.hyperdia.com/

  12. Melody September 21, 2017 at 7:30 pm - Reply

    Hi Barry,

    I need some suggestions.

    So I’m planning to go to Japan next March 2018 and going for about 14 days. I’m flying in and out from Tokyo Narita Airport. I’m not sure if I should get the 7 days pass or 14 days pass. My plan is to stay in Tokyo the first 2 nights, then move to Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, Nara the next 6 days, then coming back to Tokyo on the 9th day in Japan. My problem is that do I need to use the JR pass from Narita to Tokyo and Tokyo to Narita or a general pass will do and be much cheaper? And I will be activating the JR pass on the 3rd day in Japan to travel to Kyoto area. So I’ll only need a 7-day pass.

    • Barry Choi September 21, 2017 at 8:12 pm - Reply

      Melody,

      Using a 7-day pass and activating it on day 3 is probably your best bet. You can buy individual tickets for the Narita Express or take the bus.

      One personal thing to note, I found Kobe to be incredibly boring. I went there for the beef, but I didn’t think it was anything special.

      • Melody September 21, 2017 at 11:32 pm - Reply

        I’m actually going Kobe just to try Kobe beef tenpanyaki too!! Can you recommend some restaurants ??

        Will the individual tickets for Narita Express be too expensive?

        • Barry Choi September 21, 2017 at 11:42 pm - Reply

          Melody,

          Steakland is the most popular spot, but honestly, I think teppanyaki style steak is really overrated. I personally would rather make a run to Hiroshima and Miyajima if you have the time.

          As for the Narita Express, it should be around 3,200 Yen for an ordinary class ticket. Some people think that’s expensive, but I think it’s pretty reasonable considering it’s like a 60min train ride.

          • Melody September 21, 2017 at 11:45 pm

            Unfortunately, I dont have the time to go down to Hiroshima. How much approximately did it cost in Steakland and do I need to make a reservation?

            Does the JR railway take the same amount of time to reach Tokyo (60min) ?

  13. lila September 26, 2017 at 5:27 pm - Reply

    hi barry, I’m hoping you can help.

    we are travelling to japan in October this year leaving UK 04th arriving at narita airport on the 05th. we are wondering if it is worth getting a JR pass for our time. we need to make the following train journeys

    narita airport to tokyo (05th)
    tokyo to kyoto (08th) first available train in the morning. how early do they start?
    koyto to osaka(kansai) airport (10th)

    or does it work out cheeper to do individual tickets?
    many thanks

  14. Leigh October 9, 2017 at 8:56 am - Reply

    Hi
    My sister and I want to travel from Hiroshima to Mt Koyo overnight then onto Osaka. Is this possible to use Japan rail pass?

    • Barry Choi October 9, 2017 at 10:08 am - Reply

      Hi Leigh,

      The JR pass would only cover Hiroshima to Osaka. You would have to purchase the Koyasan World Ticket to get from Osaka to Koyasan.

      https://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2358_012.html

      Note that Hiroshima to Osaka is about 3 hours and then Koyasan is another 1.5 – 2 hour journey, so plan accordingly. If you can, try to stay overnight in Kyoto or Osaka before heading to Koyasan in the morning.

  15. Kristy October 16, 2017 at 12:32 am - Reply

    Hello Barry,

    My partner and I are arriving at Narita Airport and are spending 6 nights in Tokyo, then going to Kyoto for 3 nights, Hiroshima/Miyajima for 1 night, Osaka (with a day trip to Nara) for 4 nights, then flying out of Kansai Airport. Would you advise the 7 day rail pass is more cost effective (activating it on last day when we go to Kyoto), the 14 days rail pass and activate from day 1, or just purchasing one way tickets and forgetting about the rail pass altogether?

    Thanks in advance.

    • Barry Choi October 16, 2017 at 8:48 am - Reply

      Hi Kristy,

      The 7-day pass would indeed be the best value for you. I agree it’s best to activate it the day you depart Tokyo (use it to get to the Shinkasen station). You can then use it in Kyoto (to get to Arashiyama), Hiroshima / Miyajima and then to get to Nara while in Osaka.

      There is a JR circle line in Osaka which you can use, but I found it to be not that convenient and just paid to use the regular lines.

      You could also use your JR pass to go to Himeji if you wanted another day trip from Osaka.

  16. Maria Kee October 22, 2017 at 9:56 am - Reply

    Dear Barry,

    My family will be flying to Osaka in November, taking a train to stay in Kyoto for 2 nights, then 4 nights at Osaka. Plan to go to Shirakawa-go & Kanazawa from Osaka. What is the best travelling method?
    Is it worth getting the 7 day JR pass?
    Any suggestions on what & where to go to while in Kyoto & Osaka.
    Please advise.

    • Barry Choi October 22, 2017 at 1:30 pm - Reply

      Hi Maria,

      If the furthest you’re headed is Shirakawa-go & Kanazawa, I don’t think the 7-day JR pass will be worth it as normally you would need to make a return trip to Tokyo to break even.

      I’m looking at the Kanzai Thru pass and I doubt it would be of good value.

      I suspect your best bet is to just pick up a ICOCA or PiTaPa card and just pay as you go.

      Use the following sites to schedules and costs to figure out what’s the best value for your itinerary.

      http://japan.aoimirai.net/jrpass_calculator.html
      http://www.hyperdia.com/

  17. Cathy December 6, 2017 at 12:23 pm - Reply

    My son is traveling to Tokyo with a friend for 2 weeks. They have a few activities planned, but were planning on getting the JR Pass for convenience.. can you travel to places like Osaka or Kyoto and return in a day? Can you see things like the countryside of Japan just taking trips on the train? Is there a better pass to get if staying mainly in Tokyo?

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