Japan is an awesome country to explore – and there’s a whole lot of this mountainous, food-filled, temple-boasting island nation to come to grips with. One of the best and most affordable ways to do so is with a Japan Rail Pass.
Pay a one-off price for the Japan Rail Pass and you’ll get to travel the rest of your time for free (sorta) on a number of train lines throughout Japan – even Shinkansen (bullet) trains. Awesome!
To help you figure out whether or not you need one, the best places to get your pass, and which specific pass you should go for (there are many), we’ve made this guide to getting yourself a Japan Rail Pass to make your life easy!
Is a Japan Rail Pass Worth It?
Though Japan is far from the super expensive country people seem to think it is (Here is what it really costs), one thing that can definitely add up is train travel. Unlike somewhere like London, for example, there’s no daily cap on the Tokyo metro system, meaning you can run up a bill of well into the thousands of yen. And that’s no fun.
Even more pricey is long-distance travel. Sometimes you’ll be paying through the nose for a five-hour journey on a million different local train changes. And then there’s the very pricey JR-operated Shinkansen (bullet train) – the trip from Tokyo to Kyoto alone costs over ¥13,000!
A Japan Rail Pass for seven days is a little over double that. So getting one is sort of a no-brainer if, while you’re in Japan, you plan on taking two or more shinkansen journeys. It will pay for itself!
Not only that, but a JR Pass will be good for pretty much any JR-operated network. You’ll see signs in larger stations pointing to “JR Lines,” and those will be the ones where you can simply flash your pass and not bother with tickets. Getting around Tokyo on the JR-owned Yamanote Line, for instance, makes it a breeze.
It’s also suitable for JR-operated highway buses, some city bus networks, and even some ferries (as in the JR Ferry from Miyajimaguchi, Hiroshima, to storied Miyajima).
If you’re only planning on staying in one city and its surroundings, however, we wouldn’t recommend the Japan Rail Pass. It’s pricey in itself, so if your budget is something you value, stick to the city you’re planning on visiting and save your money for the izakaya!
Where to Buy a Japan Rail Pass?
Sold by the Japan Railways Group (i.e., JR) with a bunch of different regional variations and even two different classes – Green Car and Standard Car – the Japan Rail Pass can be purchased both inside and outside of Japan (contrary to popular belief).
You can get them for 7, 14, or 21 days. There are even adult and child prices and Green (First Class) tickets available.
Previously, you could only get a JR Pass before you traveled to Japan (outside the country), but there are now options to buy them at airports and certain train stations. It’s a new trial period and can make last-minute decisions easier. However, it is more costly (10 to 13% more expensive, to be exact).
A better option for your wallet is to purchase your Japan Rail Pass outside the country. There are a lot of different sites out there offering the service, and they’ll send you an exchange order. Simple!
Don’t worry if you’ve left it too late to get it sent to your home address though: you can also arrange for the exchange order to be sent to your hotel or Airbnb in Japan!
Note: The JR Pass can only be used by foreign (not Japanese passport-holding or residence card-carrying) tourists.
How to Pick Up a Japan Rail Pass
If you buy this baby online, you get sent your exchange order in the mail – or let’s say voucher. It is typically sent within two business days meaning you can even get a JR Pass last minute.
Now, keep hold of that – you’ll need it to exchange for an actual Japan Rail Pass once you’re in Japan. You lose that, bye-bye rail pass.
You can exchange this order at major JR affiliated stations throughout the country, including Kyoto, Osaka, Shinjuku, Shibuya, and many others. All you have to do is go to the ticket office (usually a separate glass-walled room with queues and travel desks), wait in line, and then the friendly staff will know exactly what to do with the voucher you hand them.
Note: you will need your passport – no copies allowed.
Tip: you can actually start your pass from a date in the future – it doesn’t have to be on the date you pick it up. Anything within 30 days is a-ok. Once you’ve decided this, you can’t change the date and your clock will start rolling from the first time you use your pass on a train. Whether you purchase a 7 day, 14 day, or 21 day pass the days are consecutive so you’ll want to make sure you activate your JR Pass when you know you’ll start traveling a lot.
This is also a good chance to book some tickets. Shinkansen tickets can be purchased via ticket machines, but dealing with an actual human being behind a ticket counter is so much easier. They’ll speak English well enough to help you out.
You can also pick up your JR Pass from Narita or Kansai (Osaka) Airport.
How to Use a Japan Rail Pass
So, now you’ve got your ticket. The Japan Rail Pass is your ticket – unless you want to reserve a ticket (which is thankfully FREE when you’ve got a JR Pass).
You can reserve a seat at any JR Ticket Office throughout the country. We recommend that you do reserve, especially if you’re going on a busy shinkansen route (Kyoto → Tokyo, Kyoto → Hiroshima, or vice versa). You could even request “Fuji-san gawa,” which means “Fuji Side.” On a clear day, you may catch a glimpse of the mountain between Kyoto and Tokyo.
You will also have to reserve for some trains, such as the Narita Express and the Tohoku/Hokkaido shinkansen.
If you don’t reserve a seat, there are non-reserved seats and carriages on bullet trains, but we do recommend reserving. It’s free, for one thing, and for another, you’ll have to turn up pretty early, because Japanese bullet train riders are very, very punctual! These trains can fill up!
Once you’ve got your ticket for the Shinkansen, or you feel like passing through any JR ticket barrier, go to the attended gate. Flash your pass, and you’ll be waved through by the staff. Note that the first time, they’ll take your pass away from you. Don’t get freaked out, it just marks the first time it’s being used.
You can plan all your train travel on Hyperdia. This will allow you to see which train lines you’ll need between your destinations, and also if a reservation is required.
Pros of a Japan Rail Pass
- Saves time. You won’t have to rely on all sorts of rickety local trains with multiple changes and roundabout routes. Shinkansen are super fast trains, and with a JR Pass, you can usually use these as much as you like. Only flying is quicker (and that’s more of a pain and even more expensive).
- Saves money. Like we said earlier, Shinkansen and even regular train journeys can be one of the main drains of your budget in Japan. With a JR Pass, traveling long distances over a short period of time saves you hundreds of dollars. The only time it doesn’t save money is if you only have a few destinations or are staying in one area. We also noticed that trains aren’t as well connected in Hokkaido – so it may not be worth getting one if you are only traveling to Japan’s northern island.
- Opens up the country. You’ll be able to go to places that you may not have been able to afford to get to otherwise. Meaning, with a seven-day pass, you could be in a different city every night! When I had my JR Pass I hadn’t even heard of bunny island, but once I did and I had the JR Pass to get me there without extra costs I went as soon as I could.
- It’s not just trains. Local JR buses, some highway buses (JR-operated, of course), and even some ferries can be used with the Japan Rail Pass.
- Discounts! Another bonus is that you can even get money off a stay at a JR-affiliated hotel. Amazing!
Cons of Having a Japan Rail Pass
- Not worth it for long stays. If you’ll be staying for three months, you’ll have time to travel slower and use local trains. Take your time! See the sights! Break up local train journeys with stays in towns you’ve never heard of. It’s all good.
- Money isn’t a worry. If all that form filling-in and ordering vouchers and getting them exchanged sounds like a hassle, and you’ve got the money, you can just book your Shinkansen tickets as you go.
- It’s only good for JR Lines. Fun fact: there are loads of different rail companies in Japan, especially within cities. So if you’re only in Tokyo, we’d say it’s not worth it. It’s best to map out where you want to go before purchasing and do a cost comparison to discover what’s right for you.
- It can’t be used on some JR train services. The JR Pass isn’t valid for Nozomi and Mizuho Shinkansen, i.e., the fastest bullet trains to Kyoto and beyond. We don’t know why, but that’s that.
- It IS a lot of money to spend all at once. The cheapest general JR pass will set you back ¥29,210, and that’s only good for seven days, whether you use it or not.
The Best Value Japan Rail Passes
Get this: there’s not just one JR Pass for 7, 14 or 21 days. You can actually choose to buy a Japan Rail Pass for a specific region of the country, which is pretty awesome, pinpointing your adventures and keeping it relatively affordable.
Here are our favorite regional passes that we think are worth your consideration:
JR Hokkaido Rail Pass
Hokkaido is a destination in Japan that could easily be seen as just Sapporo and Hakodate. But this northernmost island is vast. And it’s honestly best done with a rail pass dedicated solely to Hokkaido.
There’s so much to see here, from the ice floes of Abashiri to the northernmost point of Japan in Wakkanai, snowboarding in Niseko, and exploring Kushiro National Park. It’s immense.
We chose the flexible four-day pass. What this means is you can travel all across the island on any of its JR-affiliated trains and buses within a 10-day period. You basically get to travel as much as you want within four lots of 24 hour periods.
It is a little pricey, though, with this four-day flexible pass costing ¥22,000, so it may not be worth it depending on your plans. But you will save money if exploring Hokkaido at a fast pace is what you want to do!
JR Kansai Wide Area Pass
If you’re flying into Osaka and want to explore the Kansai region, this is the pass for you. Kansai is a western area of Japan that’s full of amazing cities like Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe, and even Nagoya, as well as fantastic history and nature.
This pass is good for the beaches of Shirahama to the south, the incredible Buddhist complex of temples and winding old pilgrimage routes of Koya-san, the ancient temples of Kyoto, and the famous (and famously beautiful) 500-year-old castle at Himeji.
You can even get to the sand dunes of Tottori and one of the “Three Famous Views of Japan” at Amanohashidate. A part of the island of Shikoku is covered by this pass, too. Incredible.
You’ll get to see a lot of Japan with this pass. And it comes at possibly the best value of any pass. Five days of JR local and rapid trains, Shinkansen and JR buses (don’t forget ferries) will only cost you ¥9,000.
All Shikoku Rail Pass
This one is different from the others in that it’s not just JR Lines!
The All Shikoku Rail Pass gives you free travel on all of the JR trains running around the island of Shikoku, as well as private railway lines and even trams and the ferry to Shodoshima (awesome, by the way).
For anyone thinking of attempting the famous 88 Temple Pilgrimage around this island, and you don’t feel like hiking the longest of distances, this would be a great pass to get you around.
There are tons of places to see on this beautiful island other than just the temples, however. There’s the lively city of Kochi in the south, the incredible whirlpools at Naruto (near Tokushima), the city of Matsuyama which boasts Dogo Onsen (one of Japan’s most famous), and the vine bridges of the tucked-away Iya Valley.
For seven days, the All Shikoku Rail Pass will set you back ¥12,000.
Final Thoughts on the Japan Rail Pass
A Japan Rail Pass is the way to get around the country. You see a lot of people using them – and it’s easy to see why. You can travel some serious distances with a JR Pass, and just three journeys will have already equated to more than the price of the seven-day pass.
But it’s not just the general pass. The region-specific passes really help to unlock Japan, pinpoint your adventures, and save you money. But really, it’s being able to easily get around this remarkable country that makes the Japan Rail Pass worth what you pay, opening up places you might have only dreamed of seeing.
When is the Best Time to Visit Japan for Good Weather
It depends. If good weather for you is seriously hot, we’d recommend August. However, if good weather means no rain and clear skies, then that would be January or February (though it is cold).
The typical ‘best weather’ of Japan has to be spring, however, especially April and May. It’s not too hot, not too cold, and you don’t have to wear a coat anymore. That’s when we visited and had a lovely, and mostly comfortable time. See a month by month breakdown of Japanese weather here.
Quick Travel Tips for Japan
- Capital: Tokyo is the capital of Japan while Sapporo is the capital of Hokkaido.
- Currency: The Japanese Yen(¥) is the currency of Japan. Most places in Japan do not accept credit card and it’s always advisable to have cash on you.
- Visa: Most visitors can enter Japan visa-free for 90 days – check with your embassy.
- What to Pack: It all depends on when you visit Japan. See our full Japan packing list here.
What to Pack for Japan?
Wondering what to wear in Japan? You aren’t alone. Japan can be a very tricky country to pack for as there are so many styles you can go with, and of course, every season is different.
We’ve traveled to Japan during all their four seasons. Most of Japan is a four-season country and winter travel is vastly different than summer. Here are the essential Japan packing list items to bring with you depending on the season you visit!
Sometimes it’s nice just to have a real book in your hands when traveling. We recommend picking up a Lonely Planet to get you through the wireless nights.
Chances are you’ll want a camera for your trip to Japan. Our favorite pocket-sized point and shoot camera for quick trips are the Sony RX100V. It takes fantastic photos and video and is the size of your palm. To up your photography game, a bit consider the Fuji X-T3. We just bought that camera and found the images to look amazing. Check out our other travel cameras here.
Japan mainly uses the Type A plug like North America, but there is generally no socket for the grounded portion. Make sure you find a good universal adapter like the one I have to keep you charged. Otherwise, you may struggle to find one once you land.
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