If you’re considering a trip to Japan, you’ve probably already heard about the Japan rail pass you can buy that will save money on traveling within Japan. Knowing it’s available, though, is only half the battle. The second half is figuring out how and where to buy the Japan rail pass and if it is even worth it for you.
The Japan rail pass was designed for tourists just like yourself. Many people love the idea of going to Japan for an extended vacation (see our 7-day and 14-day itineraries), hoping around from city to city, seeing all the temples and incredible landscapes along the way; maybe even visiting during cherry blossom season.
Traveling around Japan can be very expensive. Japan has the high-speed Shinkansen train system that whisks people around at an extremely rapid pace. It’s really convenient for traveling long distances in a shorter amount of time, but it’s also quite expensive.
Just one trip on the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto or Osaka will cost you roughly $120-$160 one way. Add two or three other trips, and you’ve blown your budget. That’s where the Japan Rail Pass comes in.
★ If you’re ready to buy your pass, you can get them quickly and easily from this website.
Planning Your Japan Trip?
Get your Japan Rail Pass. You can buy it online here
- In Tokyo: The Strings by InterContinental Tokyo
- In Kyoto: ACE Hotel Kyoto
- In Osaka: Intercontinental Osaka
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What is the Japan Rail Pass?
The Japan rail pass is a virtually all-you-can-use travel pass that only tourists can buy for a specific duration (7, 14 or 21 days). You can use it on pretty much any train, at any time, without the hassle of purchasing tickets in advance.
You can buy a rail pass that gets you standard seats or splurge for the Green Pass, a first-class rail pass that gets you reserved seats, plus other perks, in the best carriages. The pass can provide significant savings over buying single tickets. The current price for an adult, standard, 7-day pass is $219 USD; 14 days is $349 USD.
If you take the Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto and back, you’ll spend $254. Add in the cost of round trip airport transfers on the Narita Express to Tokyo and you’re up to $314 already. Any other travel you take within Japan would essentially be free if you have the JR Pass.
The pass doesn’t only include bullet trains. With the rail pass, you can take just about any train, bus, or even ferry boat in Japan (with a few exceptions; the pass is not valid on the “Nozomi” and “Mizuho” Shinkansen trains because they are outside the national rail system, but you can take the Shinkansen Hikari bullet train instead).
Before you travel, you do have to look at the routes and make sure your route is covered, but most typical routes are.
Buying a Japan Rail Pass
There are a few conditions you must meet in order to qualify to purchase a JR pass.
- You must be traveling to Japan from a foreign country on a tourist visa of less than 90 days. (You MUST get an entry status stamp in your passport when you arrive that states you are there on a tourist visa, or you won’t be able to redeem your rail pass.)
- You are a Japan national living outside of Japan. There are specific conditions you must meet as well, which are listed in this PDF.
You used to not be able to buy the pass once you arrived in Japan, but that is no longer the case. You can get one at some stations and airports in Japan. However, it’s cheaper to order it in advance online. You need to purchase it no more than 90 days in advance of actually using it in Japan, so don’t purchase it too early!
Want to know where to buy a Japan Rail Pass? Just click here to buy your passes from an authorized dealer.
If you order online, you will receive a voucher, which you then trade in once you’ve arrived in Japan for the actual pass. You can do that at any train station or airport. The pass duration begins on the date your specify, that has to be within 30 days of when you get the pass.
How to Use the Japan Rail Pass
When using a JR Pass, you’ll need need to present your pass at any manned ticket window or boarding gate at any station in Japan. The staff will then provide you with a free seat reservation for your chosen route.
Seats must be reserved before boarding any train that requires reservations – this includes most Shinkansen services – but it’s simple and easy to do with your JR pass.
To make things even easier, many stations now offer automated ticket machines which can be used to quickly and conveniently reserve seats in advance. You just have to insert your pass into the machine and follow the on-screen instructions to choose your destination and select a date and time that suits you best.
Once complete, you’ll receive a printed ticket showing the details of your reservation including the platform number and car number that you should board when you arrive at the station. I much prefer using this method because it eases my mind that I’ll be able to get the reservation.
It’s important to remember that a valid ID is required when using the JR Pass – so carry your passport with you. Also note that some services are excluded from coverage by the pass, so always double-check before purchasing tickets or making a journey with your pass.
Overall, the Japan Rail Pass is an invaluable resource for exploring Japan by rail without breaking your budget. With its flexibility and convenience, it’s easy to see why it’s become such a popular option for travelers in recent years!
It’s also worth noting that JR Pass holders are eligible for discounts at restaurants and shops along the journey too – so keep an eye out for discount opportunities!
What Services Are Not Covered by the Pass
Do remember that not all services are covered by the pass. The JR Pass does not cover any non-JR trains or subways, including private railway lines such as Keisei Electric Railway and Tobu Railway.
Additionally, some limited express and express trains may require an extra charge for seat reservations or upgrades to a higher class of service. This is often the case when travelling with Shinkansen bullet trains, so it’s important to check before making a reservation.
Other services excluded from coverage include certain express buses and ferries operated by JR companies, sightseeing buses, as well as airport transportation services such as the Narita Express train and Tokyo Monorail.
The JR pass also cannot be used on overnight sleeper trains like the Sunrise Seto or Twilight Express.
It’s always best to double-check before purchasing tickets or making a journey with your pass.
Want help planning your trip?
Want to plan your own Japan trip, but need a bit of help? ViaHero helps travelers plan independent trips in Japan. A local expert will help you plan your perfect trip and it’s very reasonably priced! You can even use our coupon code SAVOREDJAPAN for a 5% discount at checkout.
When is the JR Pass Not Worth It?
I did a lot of research on our train journeys before we went to Japan to see if the Japan Rail Pass would be worth it for us. You should also do that research. The only way to truly know if the pass will benefit you is to look up each route you wish to take, write down all the associated ticket costs and add it all up.
For a quick look at the typical cost of tickets to and from top cities, take a look at the chart on japan-experience.com. It will help you quickly add your costs. There are three main scenarios where the JR pass is not worth it.
- Your trip isn’t long enough to warrant the cost. Since you can only buy the Japan rail pass in week-long segments (7, 14, or 21), it might not be worth it if your trip falls in between those amounts. Being there for just 5 days didn’t give us enough time to benefit from the cost of the 7-day ticket. However, if you’re there for 10 days, you could work your itinerary so that a 7-day pass would be worth it.
- You are only taking shorter-distance trains. It’s the longer distance train routes that cost the most. If you don’t plan to take any or many long distance trains, then the tickets you need likely won’t add up to the cost of the pass. For instance, for us, we only needed a one-way Tokyo to Kyoto, costing $124, and a couple of shorter journeys, so our total train bill came only to $200, not the $265 cost of the rail pass.
- You want more control of your journeys. This is especially important when you’re traveling during a peak travel period. If you absolutely MUST take a specific train, you will probably want to secure tickets for that train well in advance, which you cannot do with the Japan Rail Pass, because you can’t make reservations until you’ve traded your Exchange Order for the actual pass.
★ If you’re ready to buy your pass, you can get them quickly and easily from this website.
Japan Rail Pass Frequently Asked Questions
What does the Japan Rail Pass cover?
The Japan Rail Pass covers most services operated by JR companies, including most Shinkansen bullet trains, local and express trains, as well as certain express buses and ferries. It also offers discounts at restaurants and shops along the journey.
However, it does not cover any non-JR trains or subways, private railway lines such as Keisei Electric Railway and Tobu Railway, sightseeing buses, or airport transportation services such as the Narita Express train and Tokyo Monorail. Additionally, some limited express and express trains may require an extra charge for seat reservations or upgrades to a higher class of service.
How do I reserve a seat with the Japan Rail Pass?
Reserving a seat with the Japan Rail Pass is easy! Simply present your pass at any manned ticket window or boarding gate at any station in Japan – you can even use automated ticket machines if available – and the staff will provide you with a free seat reservation for your chosen route. Remember that valid ID such as an original passport or driver’s license must be presented upon request when using your JR pass.
Are there any discounts available when using the JR pass?
Yes! Most JR Pass holders are eligible for discounts at restaurants and shops along their journey too – so keep an eye out for those! Additionally, some limited express and express trains may offer additional discounts when using the JR pass – so always double-check before purchasing tickets or making a journey with it.
Is it safe to travel alone with a JR Pass?
Absolutely! The majority of travelers who use their Japan Rail Pass find it to be very safe and convenient – especially since they can reserve seats in advance by presenting their pass at any manned ticket window or boarding gate at any station in Japan. Just remember to bring valid ID whenever requested!
Can I use my Japan Rail Pass on overnight sleeper trains?
Unfortunately no, the JR pass cannot be used on overnight sleeper trains like the Sunrise Seto or Twilight Express.
Can I have my pass sent to Japan?
Yes, if you order your JR Pass with this link, they can send you the voucher wherever you’re staying in Japan. You will then use the voucher to exchange for the real JR Pass when you arrive at any JR exchange office in Japan.
Do the 7 / 14 / 21 days need to be consecutive?
Yes, the number of days you purchase for your pass must be used consecutively. Once the pass has been activated, the validity period of the pass begins and it expires the set number of days later, whether it be 7, 14, or 21 days. It cannot be changed or extended.
Getting to Japan
Many top airlines have direct flights into Japan. Top Japan airlines include ANA and Japan Airlines, but you can fly to Japan with most U.S. airlines that fly internationally, like United and American.
Something to consider, which will help maximize your time in the country, is to fly into one city and out of another, such as flying into Tokyo and out of Osaka.
Doing this will save time and money. Once you arrive at the airport (Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, and other major airports) there is a convenient train that takes you into the city center.
- In Tokyo, that train is called the JR Narita Express. A one-way journey takes about an hour and costs approx. 3000 yen. You can use the Japan Rail Pass for this train.
- In Osaka, rapid trains take you from the airport to Tennoji Station within 50 minutes for appox. 1060 yen, and to Osaka Station within 70 minutes for approx. 1190 yen.
- In Kyoto, the Limited Express Haruka train will take you to Osaka airport in about 75 minutes.
Only you can decide if the Japan Rail Pass is worth it for you or not. The two main benefits of the pass are monetary savings and the convenience of not having to figure out how to buy tickets for each journey. If those two things are important to you, then you should definitely buy the JR pass.
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Laura Lynch, creator and writer of Savored Journeys, is an avid world traveler, certified wine expert, and international food specialist. She has written about travel and food for over 20 years and has visited over 75 countries. Her work has been published in numerous guidebooks, websites, and magazines.