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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.
|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.
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 nationwide 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 – The JR ferry to Miyajima located near Miyajimaguchi station can’t be missed. There are only two lines and one is marked with “JR.” Just flash your pass as you get on. When you return from Miyajima, just show your pass again to get on the ferry.
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.
As you can see the JR Rail Pass is worth it if you’re travelling a 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.