Guide to the Japan Rail Pass

Japan Rail Pass

I consider myself to be a reasonably savvy traveler, yet the Japan Rail Pass had me stumped for a while. Why? It’s not the simplest rail ticket around.

After several days researching what the pass is about, whether it is worth it, how to get it and how to use it (which I’m currently doing in Japan) here’s my guide to the Japan Rail Pass.

The Vital Information

  • Yes, the JR Pass is expensive, but it can almost pay for itself with a couple of long distance rides, e.g. return trip from Narita Airport to Kyoto and back.
  • You must buy the pass before you get to Japan.

What is the Japan Rail Pass?

The JR Pass is a discounted rail ticket that allows you to use the national Japanese rail network in Japan without extra cost. It is similar in principle to Europe’s Interail tickets -aimed at tourists to facilitate cheaper transport through the country.

Who can get the Japan Rail Pass?

Japan Rail Pass

It is only available to non-Japanese visitors entering the country on a short-stay, 30-day visa.

What does the Japan Rail Pass cover?

Although the JR Pass covers most of the country, it does not cover every route/train type.  The Japan Guide website provides a good list of exclusions while the JR Pass website has an interactive map of where you can travel.

If time is against you, it may also be more time effective to take routes not covered by the Japan Rail Pass, e.g. to get to Mount Fuji, there is a direct bus from Shinjuku Station to Fuji whereas the pass requires a change of train and an additional fee to travel on a non-covered section of the railway.

Be aware that if you board a train and your Japan Rail Pass doesn’t cover you for the ride, playing dumb tourist won’t get you anywhere. You will have to pay the going rate for that fare, which is likely to equal a lot of Yen.

Although the Japan Rail Pass isn’t valid on the metro in Tokyo, the JR trains cover much of the city, so get hold of the city’s JR map to limit your use and the additional cost of the metro.

What does the Japan Rail Pass cost?

Passes can be bought for 7, 14 and 21 days and cost 28,300, 45,100 and 57,700 Yen respectively for an ordinary ticket.

A green car (first class) ticket costs 37,800, 61,200 and 79,600 Yen for the same periods.

At the time of writing 100 Yen equals around $1USD.

Are the travel days consecutive?

Unlike Interail passes, the Japan Rail Pass runs for consecutive days up to  midnight on the final day (and beyond, to the end of your journey if you boarded before midnight).

If you stay for 10 days and plan to spend a few days exploring Tokyo, it is worth considering getting your pass to start a few days after you arrive to get full value.

Is the Japan Rail Pass worth it?

Clearly, it will depend how much you intend to travel, but if you plan to cover any distance from Tokyo, the ticket is likely to pay for itself within a few rides. Many visitors at least make the journey down to Kyoto and back from Tokyo. Adding in a return fare to Narita airport, the comparative costs assuming a 7-day ordinary Japan Rail Pass are:

JR Pass cost: 28,300

Individual ticket costs:

1,280 Yen – Narita Airport to Tokyo by Rapid JR Local Train

25,400 to 27,000 Yen – return Tokyo to Kyoto depending on train type and reservation

1,280 Yen – Tokyo to Narita Airport by Rapid JR Local Train

The Japan Rail Pass provides travel on the faster Narita Express, which, if bought separately, costs 3,500 to 5,500 Yen for a return trip depending on the ticket type.

If you buy a return ticket in advance you can shave around 10% of the price of buying two single tickets.

How do you buy the Japan Rail Pass?

Japan Rail Pass

 

Japan Rail Pass

The most vital point (that I almost missed) is that you must buy the Japan Rail pass before you arrive in Japan.

The second point to note is that you only ever buy an Exchange Order, which must be swapped for a Japan Rail Pass once you arrive in Japan.

You can purchase the Exchange Order online through a number of sites. I used the company JR Pass and found the online service easy and efficient. As far as I can tell, the price is the same regardless of company.

Getting the pass if you’re at home

Make sure you leave enough time to take advantage of the free delivery (if available in your location). Passes are received within 3 working days in the UK but if you need to guarantee delivery sooner, it will cost £4.99. As I left things to the last-minute (typical), I paid for the guaranteed delivery option and received the pass within 2 days.

I understand similar speeds are available in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, America, Asia and Russia. The JR Pass company also delivers passes around the world and has an option to have the pass sent to you by DHL. Here are the full delivery options.

Planning your trip: I used the Japan Lonely Planet Guidebook. Although it’s not filled with pictures, it’s got all the details you need including train and bus routes and times as well as city maps. You can find it here.

Getting the pass if you’re already travelling (outside Japan)

If you’re already on the road, you can buy an Exchange Order from Japan Airlines and authorised agencies in many countries around the world agency. The list of agencies is eclectic and includes travel agents such as Trailfinders (UK), KNT and Nippon agencies.

The more important point to note is that the agencies listed tend to be based in capital cities – London, Bangkok etc., so you may want to factor this into your route and booking timetable.

A list of overseas agencies can be found here.

How to swap your Exchange Order for a Japan Rail Pass

Japan Rail Pass

Japan Rail Pass

This is where Japan’s usually impressive efficiency seems to fall a little below standard.

As mentioned above, when you order your pass, what you’re actually sent is an Exchange Order, not the pass itself. The Exchange Order will merely state the number of days of validity and your name.

When you get to Japan you must exchange (the clue is in the name!) the paper you have for your actual Japan Rail Pass.

A list of stations with exchange offices can be found here. I used the one at Narita Airport.

At the office you will be asked to fill in another piece of paper (see what I mean about duplication of effort?).

Pay attention to this form as your Japan Rail Pass will be generated from this document and it can’t be changed once it has been issued. It can be hard if you’ve just stepped off a flight, but  double-check you get the start date right particularly if you are getting a post-dated pass or if you’ve taken a night flight/crossed the international date line and therefore lost a day.

Knowing I’m not at my best after a long flight, I made a note of my start and end dates before I left home and simply copied those without brain work when it came to the exchange.

You will then be handed your official Japan Rail Pass. Treat is as cash as it cannot be replaced if it is lost.

The advantage of getting your pass at Narita airport is that you can get immediate value by hopping on the Narita Express. The downside is that you won’t be the only one with this idea and will stand in a long queues (by Japanese standards – i.e. not too long) as a bunch of exhausted tourists try to grapple with the complex system. Be patient, the staff will work faster than in any country I’ve ever visited to get you on your way.

How to use the Japan Rail Pass

Japan operates a barrier system in its stations, but the pass is a card that cannot be slotted into the machines. Instead you must present your pass to a guard each time you enter and leave a station.

Don’t worry Japanese efficiency has returned by this point and guards are always available, there are rarely queues and it’s a good double-check that you can use the train/line you’re about to take.

Are there alternatives to the Japan Rail Pass?

There are other regional tickets available at lower costs including the JR East Pass (mainly for travel in and around Tokyo) and Kanto Area Pass (for the region around Kyoto, though you still have to pay to get south if you start travelling in Tokyo). If you’re focusing on a specific area, check if there is a better value pass before you buy the full Japan Rail Pass.

For more information, I found the Japan Guide website the most helpful.

Having cracked the Japan Rail Pass, all I need to do now is figure out the Metro, JR and Suica system in Tokyo – a whole different post is merited on that subject!

Want to read more travel planning tips for Japan? Click below.

Guide to Japan

For more travel planning tips and stories about Asia, see:

Asia Button

Article written by

Jo Fitzsimons is a freelance travel writer who has visited over 60 countries. www.indianajo.com is the place where she shares destination details, travel itineraries, planning and booking tips and trip tales. Her aim: to help you plan your travel adventure on your terms and to your budget.

12 Responses

  1. alyse
    alyse at | | Reply

    Hello!

    I have a question about how to get the JR pass – On the JR website it says you need a tourist visa, but when I go on my country’s embassy (USA) it says I do not need a visa for short travel (We will be there 10 days)

    Should I still apply for a visa to get the JR pass or is no visa application necessary since @ passport control I would tell the individuals we were here for 10 days on vacation…

    Thank you!

  2. Susan Galvin
    Susan Galvin at | | Reply

    Thank you Jo Fitzsimons for your nice post. What is the more cost saving way to travel Japan? By rail or by bus?

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  4. Jade Wu
    Jade Wu at | | Reply

    Hi, will be in Japan for 8 days, 7 nights. Splitting time between Tokyo and Kyoto. Is it worth it to buy JR pass for 7 days. Will we be able to purchase Narita Express round trip and travel on 8th day to airport after pass expired? Thanks

  5. Marie
    Marie at | | Reply

    my daughter bought 2 x 14 day rail passes, as she was intending to stay 60 days. However she now needs to cut her holiday short due to a new job opportunity. How can she cash in the unused 14 day pass in Japan?

  6. pooja jain
    pooja jain at | | Reply

    hi, my family is planning to go from Tokyo to Osaka and then take a return flight back from osaka only .
    in tokyo we plan to spend 6 days and also in osaka 5 days where i plan to go from there to nara and kyoto, i want to know if the jr pass is convenient to cover all destinations or i need to buy individual pass of those regions.?
    also for travelling in tokyo city should i purchase an additional metro pass since the jr pass doesn’t cover the tokyo metro. ?
    also how can i reserve seats in the train, can i do them in advance or chose the unreserved seat option , do you recommend the i reserve my seats for all the train journeys i take?
    also is the green class option a better choice than the ordinary class pass.?

    thanks a lot, your article has been very helpful in clearing a few doubts

  7. Shoua Lee
    Shoua Lee at | | Reply

    Hi! Thank you for sharing this information. I had heard about the JR rail pass, but hadn’t done any research on the cost/benefits. My family (2 adults and 2 small children) will ebevisiting Japan in August 2013 (first time) and we’ll be spending about 10 days there; traveling from Tokyo to Osaka and back to Narita. But we’d like to make some stops in between; Kamakura perfecture (Atsugi US naval base), Hakone (Mt Fuji), Nagoya (2005 Expo site), and Kyoto to name a few. It seems it would be best to buy the JR pass, but I’m a little worried about the different rail systems and limitations of the pass. Would you recommend the 7 day pass or 14 day pass since our planned trip duration is smack in the middle? Thanks again!

    1. IndianaJo
      IndianaJo at | | Reply

      Hi Shoua, check out this map link, which lets you search the JR stations: http://www.jrpass.com/map From a quick check, most of the places on your itinerary should be covered by the pass and if you’re wanting to cover that much ground, I’m sure you’ll get more than your money’s worth with the pass. You can get to Mt fuji by Jr but the entire route isn’t covered by the pass and the bus is more direct/quicker. Don’t worry about the train system. It’s actually super easy to figure out (basically it’s all signposted ‘JR line’. Plus, the Japnese people will go out of their way to help you, so asking for help is very easy (if someone doesn’t speak English they will search tirelessly to find someone who does). Hmm, 10 or 14 days probably depends how long you’ll spend in Tokyo. If you’ll be there for 3 days in total, say 2 at the beginning and 1 at the end, you may be better off going for 7 days as a return from Narita is cheaper than an extra week’s pass. Alternatively, you could do Tokyo then Fuji by bus and start you pass after that, which is what I did. But, if you want to get moving almost immediately, even one long distance trip will cover the cost of the extra week’s pass. Hope that helps. Have a great trip! Oh, if you get a chance, try the Japanese pizza. nothing like it’s Italian equivalent – more like an over stuffed omelete and sublime!

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