Is Japan Rail Pass worth? We break it down

Should you get the Japan Rail Pass?

Travelling to Japan is on the top of many people’s bucket list, and it is easy to understand why. The country has a fascinating culture, blends tradition and modern to perfection, and has excellent cuisine to boot. 

All of these comes at a price though, as Japan is one of the most expensive cities in the world to visit. What can you do to keep your budget as friendly as possible yet able to explore to your heart’s content?

Consider investing in a Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass) for your transportation needs then, as it can shave off some precious dollars to go into your next bowl of delicious ramen. 

Read on to find out if the Japan Rail Pass is worth it and if it saves you any money.

Let’s Zip Up and Go Japan!

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What is the Japan Rail Pass?

Local train in Japan

Just like you can find the Eurail Pass in Europe, Japan has a similar version called JR Pass. Essentially, it is a pass that allows you unlimited travel on selected train lines and even some buses, across the entire country. 

It is most suitable if you are engaging on cross country travel using the extensive train network, which can be much more efficient than flying as the use of bullet trains, or Shinkansen, has cut down travel times tremendously.

The JR Pass is exclusively used by foreigners only, and comes either 1 week, 2 weeks, or 3 weeks passes.

Tip: get yours online as the price is often cheaper than when you get it in country. 

Besides the validity of the passes, you can also choose between the Ordinary JR Pass or the Green Car JR Pass. More on that later.  

Major lines covered by JR Pass

On which train lines can you use the JR Pass?

There are several train lines in Japan such as Tobu and Odakyu, but in terms of scope and size, Japan Railways is the largest, covering about 70% of all lines in the main islands of Honshu, Shikoku, Kyushu and Hokkaido. The JR Pass only works on Japan Railways lines, so do take note of that while planning your itinerary.

What is the difference between Ordinary and Green Car tickets?

As we mentioned earlier, you get to choose from 2 types of tickets: the Ordinary and Green Car.

Essentially, Ordinary are your regular seats, while Green Car grants you access to first class cabins (available in most Shinkansen and limited express trains).

In the Green Cars, the seats are much more spacious, and thanks for lesser people using this selection, there are hardly any crowds here, which gives you more privacy and peace. That is really worth it if you are engaged in some heavy long distance travel across the islands. 

However, that’s not to say that Ordinary class is not good. They are excellent in their own rights, as is all train travel in Japan. Their level of service and comfort ranks among the top in the world. If you have never been to Japan, you will be super impressed by their train standards. 

If you purchased an Ordinary pass and wish to upgrade a ride to Green Car, it is possible to do so, but you will need to pay a supplement, which can add up to quite a lot. In our opinion, you should just decide on the type of ticket ahead of time and stick to it. 

There can be lots of confusion later on if you want to make changes. 

Another important point to take note when using Shinkansen is the class of the train. There are lots of classes (yes, it can get confusing quickly), but there are 2 that the JR Pass does not cover: the Nozomi and Mizuho. So make sure not to board this types when you are travelling around Japan. 

The sign boards in stations are clearly marked, and indicates which type as well as the train number clearly.

kodama class train JR Pass
Kodama class train

Where you can use the JR Pass?

Since the JR Pass does not cover every single transport operator in Japan, you will need to know exactly where you can use it. We look at a few of the key places you will likely be using it. 

First of all, you can use the pass on all Japan Railways train lines (denoted by the alphabets JR). This means local trains all the way up to Shinkansen rides. 

Secondly, if you are flying in to Haneda airport, the JR Pass lets you ride the monorail to Tokyo city centre for free. 

Thirdly, you can use it on local buses, which is very useful to help you get around a city on a budget. Take note you cannot use this on highway buses. 

There are a few other situations where you can use the JR pass too. Check them out here

How much is the JR Pass?

Here’s a look at the different pricing: (approximate USD value)

Ordinary: 

  • 7 days – 29,650¥ ($277; $39.50 per day)
  • 14 days – 47,250¥ ($442; $31.60 per day)
  • 21 days – 60,450¥ ($565; 26.90 per day)

Green Car:

  • 7 days – 39,600¥ ($370; $52.90 per day)
  • 14 days – 64,120¥ ($600; $43 per day)
  • 21 days – 83,390¥ ($780; $37 per day)

Expect to pay about 10% more if you intend to get it at one of the exchange offices in the country. Online booking is always better!

But, is the JR Pass worth it?

While the numbers look huge, it makes more sense to break down a trip with an example to understand if it’s worth it to buy a JR Pass. 

Let’s consider this scenario:

You are planning a 14 days trip to Japan and you intend to spend 2 days in the capital before heading out the Osaka, followed by Hokkaido in the north, and back to Tokyo for your flight home.

Here’s the travel cost (by train): 

  • Shinkansen (Hikari class) from Tokyo to Osaka: 13,500¥
  • From Osaka to Hokkaido: 36,520¥
  • Total: 50,020¥

As you can see, in such a situation, even a Green Car JR Pass is well worth the money, but there are a couple of disclaimers to make here. You cannot take the Nozumi class Shinkansen, which is the fastest type of bullet trains in service. They make lesser stops, hence you get to your destination in the shortest amount of time. 

Second, there is always an option to fly, for example from Osaka to Hokkaido. The 2 main things to consider is the amount of time you have versus the ticket prices at the time of travel as it can vary widely during different seasons. 

Another likely scenario is if you travel from Tokyo to Osaka, and on to Fukuoka, then back to Tokyo. Round trip tickets without a pass will set you back 54,310¥, so a JR Pass will make total sense here. 

The bottomline is, if you are planning a multi city trip in Japan, and will be commuting mostly by bullet trains (who wouldn’t? they are awesome!), then be sure to consider the JR Pass. 

Very often, you will find the a pass gives you much greater savings, and it is likely a Green Car pass is cheaper too, making your train travels very comfortable. Book your JR Pass here.

Japan JR Pass: Conclusion

Hopefully, this short article can help you to understand the JR Pass and whether it is worth it. 

Short trips to single cities will not require the JR Pass, but if you intend to travel to any other city by bullet train, you should consider using it instead, as it can help you to save a fair amount of money. 

When are you visiting Japan? Do you have experience with the JR pass? Leave us a comment to let us know how it went!

If you found this article useful, be sure to share it and pin to Pinterest!

What to read next: 

Logistics before visiting Japan

Stay connected
Before you travel, make sure to pre-book a mobile router so that you can get access to the internet easily with WiFi. The router can be shared by a few friends, making it super budget friendly. 

Save on currency exchange rates
Stop paying exorbitant rates forever! Make use of TransferWise debit card to get the best rates across the globe. You can also use it to transfer money worldwide for cheap.

Find cheap flights.
Air tickets are usually the bulk of your expenses. Set up an alert and snag cheap fares with Skyscanner.

Find the best accommodation.
Book a place ahead of time to get good rates. Booking.com has transparent fees and excellent rates. 

Handy travel guide.
For the old school kid in you, get a travel guide book and get lost exploring the city.

Photos.
Your mobile phone can do a pretty good job, but if you need an upgrade, we recommend the Sony A6000 (US) (International)

Travel insurance.
You don’t need us to teach you to be a responsible adult, do you? Get a quote here.

Planned for you activities in Japan.
Need a guide to show you and your group around? Lots of operators here to choose from here. You know who they are and how they are reviewed. 

More resources to help you.
All other useful travel resources we use when we book our trips.

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