One of the most common things people want to know when their planning their trip to Japan is whether they should buy a Japan Rail Pass or not. I saw this question so many times that I decided to give a little help to get a clear idea of what is this famous Japan Rail Pass and if it is really worth it all the time. Deciding if you should buy a Japan Rail Pass for your travel is not that straightforward, so let me help you clarify in which cases you should get it.
So, does the Japan Rail Pass pay off for your travel? A japan Rail Pass is useful for at least one long-distance round-trip or for several medium or short-distance trips. As you can choose between a 7, 14 and 21 days pass, it will also depend on the pass you are buying and the number of days you are staying in Japan.
Now that you have the short answer to your question, let’s take a closer look to the differences between these passes and some examples of common itineraries where you should get the pass or not.
What is the Japan Rail Pass?
The Japan Rail Pass is a multi-use ticket available for all tourists visiting Japan. It is usually less expensive than buying several individual tickets, but this depends on your itinerary. The Japan Rail Pass can be used around Japan while using transportation from the JR Group (with some exceptions that we’ll see later).
Different Japan Rail Passes
There are 2 types of Japan Rail Pass:
- Standard Japan Rail Pass
- Green Japan Rail Pass (first class)
The Standard Japan Rail Pass is enough for almost everyone because the Japanese bullet trains are already very comfortable, but if you feel like getting some extra comfort you can choose the Green Pass instead. The Green Pass is also a good choice if you’re traveling during the peak season because Green Cars never get crowded.
Each type of pass can have 3 validity periods:
- 7 days pass
- 14 days pass
- 21 days pass
The days included in each pass are consecutive days so this means that once you activate your pass in Japan, you have to use it for 7, 14 or 21 days in a row and then it will expire.
All these passes are available for children between 6 and 11 years-old and cost roughly half the adult price. Children under 6 don’t need a Japan Rail Pass, but they don’t have an individual seat either (they have to seat on your knees). If you absolutely need a seat for children under 6, then you have to purchase the pass.
Here’s a table with the Japan Rail Pass prices (prices are updated regularly):
|7 Days||267 USD||134 USD||356 USD||178 USD|
|14 Days||425 USD||213 USD||577 USD||289 USD|
|21 Days||544 USD||272 USD||750 USD||375 USD|
Trains that accept the Japan Rail Pass
The Japan Rail Pass is valid when using transportation from the JR Group, but there are some exceptions. Here’s a small list to help you get an idea of where you can use the pass. The Japan Rail Pass is valid for:
- All JR Group Shinkansen (bullet trains), except Nozomi and Mizuho
- All JR Group limited express trains, express trains, and rapid or local trains
- Narita Express at Narita airport
- Tokyo Monorail
- Several local lines of JR Bus (with some exceptions)
- JR West Miyajima ferry
Is the Japan Rail Pass Worth it Every Single Time?
The answer is no, the Japan Rail Pass is not worth it every single time. More often than not, the Japan Rail Pass is a good purchase for your travel, but in a few cases it is not worth it.
For example, if you’re staying only in Tokyo the pass isn’t worth it because it will be more expensive than all the individual tickets you can buy.
Another example will be an itinerary where you land at Narita Airport and then go to Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and leave Japan from Kansai Airport. In this case, even if it is a long-distance travel, since you’re not doing a round-trip, the pass isn’t worth it. Just check the detail in the picture below.
Even if you’re not leaving from Kansai Airport and instead decide to leave from Narita Airport, you have to be careful picking the pass. The 7 days pass will pay off for an itinerary like Narita Airport => Tokyo => Kyoto => Osaka => Tokyo => Narita Airport, but you would have a real hard time completing this itinerary in 7 days (and the 14 days pass doesn’t pay off for this itinerary). Look at the details in the picture below.
What people usually do is to activate the 7 days pass before they leave Tokyo. They don’t use it to get from Narita Airport to Tokyo or to visit in Tokyo, but they activate the pass right before leaving from Tokyo to Kyoto (or any other distant city). By doing this, you can buy the 7 days pass for the rest of your trip.
If you’re feeling more adventurous and travel for at least 3 weeks, you can buy a 14 days pass for this common itinerary between Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Hiroshima. Look at the savings in the picture below.
In this case, a 14 days pass really pays off because it will cost you 47,250 yen instead of 52,180 yen. Sometimes people don’t return to Tokyo after visiting Hiroshima and instead they go directly to Narita Airport, but this will only save you less than 100 yen so it is not a big deal.
However, be careful if you leave Japan from Kansai Airport instead because in that case the 14 days pass won’t pay off.
As you can see, finding the good pass for your itinerary is not that simple. This is why I decided to share with you the Japan Rail Pass Calculator owned by JapanHorizon.
Using the Japan Rail Pass Calculator
My Japan Rail Pass Calculator is available for your personal use at this page and it’s very simple to use. You just need to select your departure city, your destination city and check the round-trip box if you want to add a round-trip. Once you select this options, you just have to hit the ADD ROUTE button to add the selected route to your itinerary.
You can repeat these steps as many times as you need and if you make a mistake, you can delete the route by hitting the X button at the end of the row. The cost is calculated instantaneously each time you add or delete a route.
At the end you have a table with the 3 adult passes that change colors according to your itinerary total.
- Red color: the pass doesn’t pay off
- Orange color: it is a close call
- Green color: the pass pays off
Where to Buy the Japan Rail Pass?
The Japan Rail Pass can be bought online in any official website or even in Japan (at least until March 31, 2021).
Buying the pass in Japan is not recommended because this option is relatively recent and can disappear at any time. Plus, the cost of the Japan Rail Pass in Japan is higher than the cost online. The standard 14-days pass will cost 52,960 yen in a sales office in Japan, while you can get online for 46,542 yen at Jrailpass.com, for example. As you can see, it is better to get it before going to Japan if you want to save around 7,000 yen (more than $63).
Still, if you’re reading this post too late and you need information on the sales offices in Japan, there’s a list at this page if you need to take a look (you have to scroll down to half of the page).
How to Buy the Japan Rail Pass Online?
I will show you how to buy a Japan Rail Pass online at Jrailpass.com. You’ll see it’s a very simple process.
You just have to select the type of pass you need (standard or green) and how many passes you need by clicking in the “+” or the “-” symbols. Once you have all set, you must click the “Book Now” button.
In the next page, you have to fill the passenger’s information as shown in your passport. This is very important because you’ll have to show your passport in Japan and if the names in the passport don’t match the names in the Japan Rail Pass, you won’t be able to use it.
Next you’ll have to enter your contact information and the estimated date of arrival in Japan. The date of arrival is used to calculate if you will be able to receive the pass before you leave to Japan.
You will also have to enter the complete address to receive your order. Please be very careful with this part because if you enter a wrong or an incomplete address, you might not receive your order. Once you filled all the fields, you can move to the payment page by hitting the “Next” button.
In the payment information page from Jrailpass.com, you have the possibility of adding an Epic Japan Guide (PDF) for a few extra dollars, but this is not mandatory, and they already offer you the Basic Japan Guide for free.
In the same page, you can also decide to get a Cancellation or Modification Insurance. This might be useful if you didn’t get a wide travel insurance that covers every aspect of your trip like the ones from WorldNomads for example.
If you don’t want the Epic Guide and the insurance, you just have to select “No, thanks” and “I am already covered. I don’t need an insurance” before continuing. Please notice that there’s often a shipping fee depending on the delivery country.
Further below, you can pick your favorite payment method between credit card, Paypal and bank transfer. Keep in mind that a bank transfer can take a few days to complete, so if you’re in a hurry use the credit card or the Paypal payment instead.
Once you fill your payment information, you can confirm your order by clicking the “Pay” button.
You will receive a confirmation email with the details and the order will arrive within a few days (it depends on the delivery country).
How to Use the Japan Rail Pass?
If you don’t buy the pass directly in Japan, you will always receive an exchange order (not the real pass). You must trade the exchange order to get the real pass once you get to Japan because you can ride the trains using the exchange order.
Exchange the Voucher for the Japan Rail Pass
This exchange order can be traded for the pass at any exchange office in Japan (mostly at the airports, Ticket Offices or Travel Service Centers). To get you pass, you have to give the exchange order and your passport for confirmation. Your passport must have the Temporary Visitor stamp because if you don’t have it you can’t benefit from the Japan Rail Pass (a copy of your passport is not accepted either).
Be careful with the exchange order validity because it must be used within 3 months. If you want to know more about buying the Japan Rail Pass in advance, you can read my previous article on the subject.
Seat Reservation With a Japan Rail Pass
The seat reservation fee is included in the Japan Rail Pass price, so you don’t have to pay an extra fee to reserve your seat, but you still need to get to the ticket office to make a reservation. If you have planned a detailed itinerary, I would recommend making all the seat reservations at once. Like this you will have all your tickets with you and won’t lose time.
Please notice that seat reservation is not mandatory for trains that have non-reserved cars. If you pick a train that has reserved cars only, then you must make a seat reservation. Making a reservation is also recommended when traveling during the high season because the trains are usually crowded. Seat reservation is particularly recommended during these dates:
- From April 27 to May 6
- From August 10 to 19
- From December 28 to January 6
Use Hyperdia to Find Train Names and Schedule
Hyperdia.com is the most used website to search for routes and timetables for the Japanese railway. It’s not very user-friendly at first sight, but I will explain to you how to use it and you’ll see that it’s in fact really simple.
The homepage looks like the picture below. There’s a lot of information, but the only thing you really need to use is the “Timetable and Route Search” at the left.
You could search using only the basic options, but it’s better to do a more detailed search to have the best results. You have to click the “More options” button to view all the options.
In the picture below you will see a common type of search for using the Japan Rail Pass. Let me explain to you the search conditions. The “From”, “To”, “Date” and “Time” are obvious, but then you have the “Type” condition. This condition is used to search for trains either using the date and time of departure or the date and time of arrival. It can be really useful if you have to be at a certain city at a certain time and don’t know how long it takes to get there.
The next useful conditions are “Order” and “Max Routes”. “Max Routes” is used to define the max number of routes that the tool will show you (you can select you to 10 routes) and “Order” is used to order the routes by whatever condition you selected (time, transfer or money).
The next 2 options are very important, and you should definitely use them if you don’t want to pay extra fees.
In the “Type” condition you should keep “Bullet Train Shinkansen”, “Limited Express” and “Express”, but you should uncheck “NOZOMI/MIZUHO/HAYABUSA Shinkansen”. As I told you before, the Japan Rail Pass can’t be used on Nozomi and Mizuho.
The “Corp” condition is used to show you the lines operated by the Japan Railway Group or by the Private Railway. When using a Japan Rail Pass you will want to use the Japan Railway Group because you will have extra fees on the private railway.
Once you entered all your options, you can hit the “Search” button.
The search results page varies according to the number of routes you decided and how you wanted them to be ordered by, but let’s look at a simple route example.
While everything seems pretty obvious, you will notice that there are different prices everywhere and picking the wrong price happens a lot. When looking at this route, the price is 13,850 yen and it’s located at the top. This price includes the basic fare (8,360yen) plus the seat fee (reserved seat 5,490 yen). Please notice that even if you don’t reserve a seat, you will still have a seat fee (4,960 yen for an unreserved seat in this route).
Also keep in mind that the seat fees can change according to the routes, the distance and the season, for example. So make sure you check the tickets for your travel dates, otherwise you can end with a wrong estimation of your budget.
And that’s it! You are now an expert in the Japan Rail Pass and in the Hyperdia timetable and route search.
I hope that all this information will be useful to make your Japan transportation experience a little easy and feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.
Have a nice travel!