Everything You Need To Know About The Japan Rail Pass

japan rail pass

When you think of transportation in Japan, obviously the Japan Rail Pass comes to mind. Experiencing the world-famous bullet trains is one of the most popular items on bucket lists for first-timers – and trust me, they are just as wonderful and efficient as their reputation suggests.

Now, on to the serious stuff. I tested the JR Pass over a period of 14 days using many different types of trains across the country, from the regional slow trains to the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shinkansen. Start the kettle and make yourself comfortable, this is a long one!

Japan Rail Pass: What It Includes & How It Works

My standard pass (i.e., not first class) pass gave me access to unlimited travel on shinkansen trains and JR lines alike without reservations or hassle. You just show up at the train station, present your pass to a staff member, and make your way to your platform. Simple as that!

Where you can use your pass:

  • JR lines across Japan
  • JR inner city lines in Tokyo, suburban Osaka and suburban Kyoto (I was in Tokyo for 5 days and didn’t use the subway once)
  • The Narita Express
  • JR bus services (I didn’t pay for transit within Kyoto, I only used the JR buses)
  • JR Miyajima Ferry

There are, however, a few restrictions. Japan’s rail network is exploited by several companies, including private ones, which are not covered by the pass. These smaller companies mostly operate in remote areas but a few, like the Nozomi and Mizuho bullet trains, are present in big cities and can easily be confused with the JR bullet trains. This is probably the only negative aspect of the JR Pass: while the network isn’t restrictive by any means, it doesn’t cover everything, and if you want to venture far off the beaten path, well, it’s gonna cost ‘ya.

japan Must-See Attractions

What you need to do to get a Japan Rail pass:

  • You can’t purchase the pass in Japan. You MUST order it online before you leave.
  • You will need to activate your pass at a JR rail exchange office before you can use it. It has to be stamped and authenticated by a member of staff in order to be valid for travel. I went to the station at Tokyo Narita airport.

  • I used HyperDia.com to look up timetables and itineraries. You can select the types of train (or, incidentally, untick the Nozomi trains) you want or can travel on and view up to five different routes for your journey.

  • You can’t go through turnstiles with your JR Pass. You have to go head to the fare booth at either ends of the gate and show your pass to a JR employee. I’m only saying this to spare you from being that annoying westerner blocking the turnstiles while trying to swipe your pass (sadly, a true story).

Although most trains have many empty seats due to regular service, reservations are sometimes necessary on busy lines during holidays. Remember, though, that most JR employees don’t speak English so prepare accordingly and print out a copy of your itinerary in Japanese. There seldom is free and fast Wi-Fi in Japanese train stations, which is why I also recommend getting a MiFi for the duration of your trip.

japan rail passJapanese train stations are IMMENSE!

Japan Rail Pass: Is It Worth It?

Whether or not the pass is worth it entirely depends on your itinerary. Some of my friends (hi Laurence, hi Benjamin!) went hiking in the Japanese Alps and paid a small fortune to get there, whereas my husband and I stuck to the main sights and didn’t have to pay extra. At this point, it really depends on the type of traveller you are.

The bottom line is that if this is your first time visiting Japan and you want to tick the main sights off your bucket list, then yes, absolutely, the Japan Rail pass is worth it. Unless you plan on sticking to one or two cities, I wouldn’t recommend going to Japan without a Japan Rail Pass in this scenario (or, at the very least, a regional pass). I sincerely appreciated the peace of mind that pass gave me, not having to worry about communicating in a language that isn’t my own, about surprisingly expensive fares, about anything, really. All I had to do was sit back, show my pass when asked, and enjoy the remarkable Japanese scenery.

Once you get the hang of it, the Japan Rail Pass is an absolute life-saver.

What is not worth the expense, in my opinion, is the first class pass that will grant you access to the green cars. The standard cars are comfortable, spotless, and in overall, irreproachable; I don’t feel like the first class is an absolute necessity in the way it is with the Eurail pass, for instance.

Prices start at $338 for a 7-day pass and $535 for a 14-day pass. Considering a Tokyo-Osaka shinkansen ticket roughly costs $90, the pass ends up paying itself in no time if you move around every few days like I did. Considering I took the train on 19 separate occasions for both long and short distances, boarded one ferry, and hopped on countless buses, I saved over $1000 with my pass – the Narita Express alone is $40 each way.

Sorry JR, you didn’t make a yen of profit with me ;-)

Japan Rail Pass: A Few Photos

japan rail passLeaving Inari station in southern Kyoto

japan rail pass277 km/h!!!!!
japan rail passImmaculately clean carriages, because Japan
 
japan rail passTokyo Central

japan rail passSome views on the way to Kyoto from Tokyo! (That’s Mount Fuji, just in case you were wondering)

japan rail passWaiting for my train in Kyoto

japan rail passThe famous shinkansen trains

japan rail passNagano station

The Case Against Driving in Japan

My husband and I rented a car to tour the Japanese Alps because many of the destinations we wanted to visit were either not accessible in a reasonable amount of time or were simply not serviced by Japan Rail. Admittedly, we were even a little bit excited about finally driving on the “other side of the road”.

But what we had failed to look up were the tolls – rookie mistake, I know. And a costly one at that! We almost had a heart attack upon paying the first one: $51 for a 30-kilometre journey between Nagano and our ryokan in Yudanaka… more than what we paid for the two-day rental! We ended up returning the car after one day because it was so bloody expensive to keep it, skipping a few destinations and taking the train straight to Matsumoto Castle further south.

In short: under no circumstances would I ever recommend driving in Japan, especially considering how efficient and extensive the rail network is.

japan rail passA bento box bought on the platform, a classic Japanese thing to do

Japan Rail Pass and Japanese Trains:
Technicalities & Random Observations

  • Europeans and North Americans typically avoid the food sold in train stations (ew, gross!); however, grabbing a bite on the platform is commonplace in Japan and an experience in its own right. As it should be! The food is delicious, well-priced, and readily packaged for takeaway.
  • Train employees on the platforms will bow at arriving trains; conductors and other train personnel will bow upon leaving a car. Every. Single. Time.
  • On a totally unrelated but not any less interesting note, everyone should see the cleaning teams at work at least once in their life. They robotically clean out an entire train (FYi – each car has 100 seats) in just seven minutes. Because Japan.

  • Japanese people tend to be very quiet on the train. Don’t listen to loud music in your headphones, keep the talking to whisper level, and for the love of God don’t blow your nose unless you want to cause mass panic.
  • You can get discounts on JR Hotel Group with your pass. I didn’t find anything that suited my taste or needs so I didn’t use it, but it’s good to know it exists.
  • In smaller commuter and regional trains, seats can easily be switched directions because they are equipped with flipping back rests. Some shinkansen trains even have automatic rotating seats! The Japanese do not like to face backwards
I received a complimentary pass from Japan Rail Pass for reviewing purposes. All opinions are my own.
 

34 Comments on Everything You Need To Know About The Japan Rail Pass

  1. Alexandre
    January 13, 2016 at 12:34 pm (1 year ago)

    I agree, the JR Pass is a must for almost any first time visitor.

    The flexibility of the pass is such that you can decide on a whim in the morning to have a day trip anywhere without being worried about reservations or seats. I never made a reservation and was always able to get on the train. Only once I had to stand up, even not even for the whole trip. This was during Sakura peak tourism season. I know trains in Japan areas supposed to be crowded, but that might just be a few specific lines during rush hours.

    Anyway, a must really. It pays for itself really quickly.

    Reply
    • Marie-Eve
      January 15, 2016 at 1:04 pm (1 year ago)

      Yes, it’s nice not to have to worry about reservations!

      Reply
  2. Sue Potgieter
    January 14, 2016 at 9:16 am (1 year ago)

    We loved the JR pass. We did not use it a lot in Tokyo as my son lives there and is used to getting around on the shortest possible time and it takes a bit of planning. For long trips to Osaka,Kyoto and Hiroshima it was brilliant.Comfortable,fast and oh so efficient. We did reserve seats which one can do for free but its not really necessary. We loved that the train stops exactly at your marking on the platform. Not an inch out of line. Japanese efficiency at its best

    Reply
    • Marie-Eve
      January 14, 2016 at 1:54 pm (1 year ago)

      Oh yes! The markings make boarding such a smooth and neat process. That’s Japan for you!

      Reply
  3. Laurence
    January 14, 2016 at 2:26 pm (1 year ago)

    Great article ! We went to Japan last October and upon Marie’s advice, we bought a three-week JR pass. Marie is right : it is perfection ! We got to see so many cities, from Yakushima (train stopped in Kagoshima) to Kamikochi. We got the regular pass (not first class) and it’s roomy, clean and super comfortable. It was great ! The JR pass is a must for anyone who wants to go to Japan.

    Reply
    • Marie-Eve
      January 15, 2016 at 1:06 pm (1 year ago)

      Glad to see you enjoyed your pass! I knew you would!

      Reply
  4. Vanessa
    January 17, 2016 at 10:56 pm (1 year ago)

    Does anyone have a link to share where I can purchase the rail pass? Thanks!

    Reply
  5. Mary @ Green Global Travel
    February 2, 2016 at 6:19 pm (12 months ago)

    Great tips about the Japan Rail Pass! And some amazing photos of the trains. It’s great to know – that despite Japan’s expensive reputation – bargains are to be had.

    Reply
    • Marie-Eve
      February 3, 2016 at 1:30 pm (12 months ago)

      Thanks Mary! Japan really isn’t that expensive when you really break it down. It’s just the plane ticket that’s expensive.

      Reply
  6. Rashaad
    February 2, 2016 at 6:23 pm (12 months ago)

    I’ve lived in Japan but never been eligible for the Japan Rail Pass due to being a resident of the country. It is wonderful, though.

    Reply
    • Marie-Eve
      February 3, 2016 at 1:29 pm (12 months ago)

      Yes it was! I will definitely get one next time I visit Japan.

      Reply
  7. Noelia
    February 29, 2016 at 10:32 pm (11 months ago)

    First of all I wanted to say that I love your blog! :)

    Thank you for this post. I am currently planning a two week trip to Japan and I keep changing my opinion about getting a JR pass or not. I believe we probably will…

    Are there any places you recommend? We were planning in going to Tokyo and Kyoto but I don’t know if we should also add another destination.

    Thank you!!

    Reply
    • Marie-Eve
      March 2, 2016 at 11:52 am (11 months ago)

      Thank you so much Noelia! I don’t think the pass is worth it if you only plan on visiting Tokyo and Kyoto; this pass is meant for people who want to go around Japan or do a lot of day trips outside the main cities. Let me know if you have other questions!

      Reply
  8. Jen
    March 10, 2016 at 5:50 am (11 months ago)

    Hello! Me and my family will be travelling to Japan by the end of this month. We will be visiting Osaka, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Hakone and Tokyo. I will purchase a 7 day JR Pass. But I’m a bit nervous and overwhelmed by the thought that none of us can speak or read Japanese and we might end up in the wrong train.
    Is public transport tourist friendly?

    Reply
    • Marie-Eve
      March 11, 2016 at 11:07 am (11 months ago)

      Yes, boards switch from Japanese to English regularly. Japanese is predominant, but you’ll be fine. Bring a Japanese dictionary just in case. And if you’re nervous, get to the station well in advance, that way you can confirm with employees on the platform that you are getting on the right train.

      Reply
  9. Mary Gabor
    March 16, 2016 at 12:10 am (10 months ago)

    Hi were going to japan this april for sakura, and i want to ask if koryama station in fukushima is
    Includes on the jrpass.

    Reply
  10. Jann
    April 10, 2016 at 7:18 pm (10 months ago)

    Hi Marie, me and my wife are going to Japan for 6 days (the 6th was the flight back to manila)

    We were wondering if its worth to grab a jrpass (7daypass) because most of our itenerary is on tokyo only and we will only go to osaka 1 day for USJ and another half day to stroll around then go back again to tokyo before we go back to Philippines

    Lookin forward for your recommendation

    Thanks :)

    Reply
    • Marie-Eve
      April 25, 2016 at 1:05 pm (9 months ago)

      Hey Jann, if you only plan on taking the train a handful of times I doubt a pass will be beneficial. You’re probably better off paying for single tickets. You can look up the fares on Hyperdia.

      Reply
  11. Joy R
    July 1, 2016 at 8:23 pm (7 months ago)

    I am traveling to Japan next month for 6 days. We are staying in Nagano (just outside Tokyo) and will visit the sights at Shinjuku and Shibuya, but would also like to go to Kyoto, Hiroshima, and possibly Nagasaki. Is the 70Day Pass a good value for this and local usage within Tokyo?

    Reply
    • Marie-Eve
      July 3, 2016 at 7:10 pm (7 months ago)

      Are we talking about the same Nagano? The one I have in mind is really quite far from Tokyo… I think your plans are also a bit ambitious for a 6-day trip. You could spend those in Kyoto alone and not see everything! With just six days it would be better for you to stay in Tokyo or Kyoto inner city, otherwise you’ll be spending your whole time on the train. Therefore I do not think you will need a pass.

      Reply
  12. Rose
    July 11, 2016 at 10:38 am (7 months ago)

    Hi! We will be in Japan for 12 days and I can’t figure out how will I use my JRP. Please advise. :)

    Option 1:
    Day 0 Fukuoka
    Day 1-2 Hiroshima
    Day 3-6 Tokyo
    Day 7 Travel to Kyoto
    These will cover the 7-day unlipass.
    Day 8-10 Kyoto (Purchase passes within Kyoto)
    (Ride a plane from Osaka to Fukuoka)
    Day 11-12 Fukuoka

    OR

    Day 0 Fukuoka
    Day 1-2 Hiroshima
    Day 3-6 Kyoto
    Day 7 Travel to Tokyo
    These will cover the 7-day unlipass.
    Day 8-10 Tokyo (Purchase passes within Tokyo)
    (Ride a plane from Narita to Fukuoka)
    Day 11-12 Fukuoka

    Thank you!

    Reply
    • Marie-Eve
      July 13, 2016 at 11:25 am (6 months ago)

      Hey Rose! Can’t help but wonder why you’re starting in Fukuoka – are you not landing in Tokyo? Option 2 makes a lot more sense in terms of transportation and is a lot more time-efficient. Unless you have specific reasons to be spending so much time in Fukuoka I would advise spending an extra day elsewhere on the first part of the trip while your pass is still valid (Nara, Itsukushima island, Kanazawa, Osaka, for example). Enjoy your trip!

      Reply
  13. Paula - Gone with the Wine
    August 21, 2016 at 11:49 pm (5 months ago)

    Just found my way into your blog and I am enjoying it immensely. Thank you for this thorough explanation of the rail pass and other posts of Japan. We will be heading there in November.

    Reply
    • Marie-Eve
      August 22, 2016 at 6:17 pm (5 months ago)

      Happy to help Paula!

      Reply
  14. Melissa Carroll
    October 3, 2016 at 4:50 am (4 months ago)

    Hi Marie-Eve
    So interesting to read your information on the JR Pass. I have some questions to ask and hope you can clarify for me.
    My family and I will be travelling to Japan in January 13th for 10days of which I have put a rough itinerary together. arrive Haneda Airport 9am, booked a hotel in Akasuka, stay 3nights, then we will head to Nagano for 3 nights for the snow and snow monkeys, staying at Hotel Yudanaka. After that we want to go to Kyoto…and stay for 2nights then head back to Tokyo for last two nights before heading home.
    So shall i buy a JR East 5day flexible pass and then purchase separately for a shinkansen to Kyoto or shall we fly to kyoto on a budget carrier or shall i purchase a shinkansen + hotel package from Japanican?
    Any input would be appreciated.

    Reply
    • Marie-Eve
      October 6, 2016 at 12:08 pm (4 months ago)

      I think three nights in Nagano is a bit generous, as there is very little to do in the area aside from the snow monkeys (and skiing). As far as the train pass in concerned, I think it would be more cost-efficient to do all the shinkansen rides on the pass rather than purchase them as the fast trains are quite costly. I would not recommend flying as the Kyoto-Tokyo ride is particularly scenic, with good views of Mt Fuji in the first hour (when travelling towards Tokyo, take a seat on the left-hand side of the carriage).

      I would not recommend getting the JR East pass as it doesn’t allow you to travel to both Kyoto and Nagano.
      My advice: the 7-day pass might be a better fit for you: https://www.japan-rail-pass.com/jr-pass
      You can start using it when you travel to Nagano, and you’ll be good for the remainder of your stay in Japan. Don’t use it to get from the airport and into Tokyo as the bus/train transfer is quite cheap, it would be a waste to use your pass for that.

      Don’t forget that you need to activate your pass at a JR rail exchange office before you can use it. I went to the station at Tokyo Narita airport.

      Reply
  15. Leanne Crockford
    October 25, 2016 at 5:42 pm (3 months ago)

    Hi Marie-Eve thank you for this information we are travelling to Japan in March 2017fot 20 days with another couple and plan to use the rail for our travel. Can you fill us in on taking suit cases on board? Appreciate your help. Leanne

    Reply
    • Marie-Eve
      November 4, 2016 at 4:12 pm (3 months ago)

      There are compartments for baggage on both ends of each carriage, although space is limited for massive suitcases. Japanese people travel light, so try to keep that in mind! And there seldom are spaces for big ass suitcases inside train stations, should you wish to leave them for the day. The smaller the suitcase, the better your chances! A 26-inch is the maximum size I would recommend.

      Reply
  16. Catherine
    November 22, 2016 at 11:51 am (2 months ago)

    Thanks for a great article! My partner and I are headed to Japan in March/April 2017 and our first long train ride is from Tokyo to Kyoto. May I ask what side of the train you sat on so I can snap a similar pic to yours of Mt Fuji? I am assuming the right hand side? Thanks in advance :)

    Reply
    • Marie-Eve
      November 22, 2016 at 1:45 pm (2 months ago)

      On the right-hand side of the train! :-) Have a great trip!

      Reply
  17. Susan Galvin
    December 28, 2016 at 9:26 am (4 weeks ago)

    That’s like an article needed for me to Travel Japan.

    Reply
    • Marie-Eve
      December 30, 2016 at 9:16 pm (3 weeks ago)

      Glad you found it helpful!

      Reply

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  1. […] you need a car to get there? No, you don’t. If you’d rather travel by rail (which I highly recommend you do, as car rentals in Japan are very expensive), get off at either Yudanaka, Nagano or Shibu and take […]

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