Japan Rail Pass (Click here to buy JR Pass) is one of the best deals you can get your hands on if you are going to visit Japan. In this post I will explain why JR Pass is so good, how to choose the right one, and how to order it.
Why Japan Rail Pass is awesome
If you are planning your trip to Japan, it is very likely that you have already thought about how you are going to get around once you are there. You might even have heard about Shinkansen – the Japanese bullet trains which travel at up to 300km/h (186mph). There is no doubt that train is the best method of transportation in Japan as a tourist. The train network in Japan is huge, and the trains are precise, fast and comfortable.
Essentially the JR Pass is a travel pass that let’s you (foreign visitors) travel unlimited with JR Trains through out Japan. The only major exceptions are three super high speed commuter trains (Nozomi, Mizuho, Hayabusa), which the pass is not valid for. The same distances are however covered by other bullet trains which make a few more stops and therefor travel marginally slower. The pass exists in 7, 14 and 21 day versions and exists as standard class or “green car” class which is essentially first class.
So why is this so fantastic? Because taking the train in Japan is normally extremely expensive! A single return trip between Tokyo and Kyoto will pretty much make the JR Pass worth it. A 7-day JR Pass costs around $271 in 2018. A return ticket Tokyo-Kyoto-Tokyo costs $247 or Tokyo-Hiroshima-Tokyo $340.
Added bonus: the JR Pass also covers the Narita Express from Narita Airport to Tokyo (and vice versa) and all local JR trains, including those inside Tokyo as well as trains to almost any destination you can imagine.
Most people like to visit a bit more than Tokyo when in Japan. The table below shows what your standard one week round trip will cost without the JR Pass and how much you can save by choosing a JR Pass instead.
|Total:||$541||or $271 with JR Pass|
|Narita Airport <-> Tokyo (return ticket)||$38|
|JR Yamanote line daily usage inside Tokyo (3 days of ¥500)||$15|
|Tokyo <-> Nikko (return ticket) Day Trip||$95|
|Tokyo -> Kyoto||$123|
|Kyoto -> Hiroshima||$100|
|Hiroshima -> Tokyo||$170|
The right Japan Rail Pass for you
The JR Pass comes in 7, 14 and 21 day versions. You can also choose between standard class and Green Car. Green Car is like a first class cabin, so if you prefer to travel first class that might be for you. There are also passes for children at reduced prices.
Which pass you pick is up to you, but I can recommend to make a rough itinerary of your trip before buying the pass. Depending on your itinerary the 7 day pass might be sufficient for a 10 day trip, or the 14 day pass enough for a 18 day trip if you start or end your trip by staying inside a big city like Tokyo or Kyoto for a few days.
You choose when you activate your pass. It is only valid from the day you activate it at a JR office.
How to order a Japan Rail Pass
JR Pass can only be purchased from outside Japan! So you have to make your decision before you get there. The passes are sold online via foreign vendors. Once you have placed an order they will send you an exchange voucher by courier. This voucher you will have to bring to Japan and exchange for a JR Pass at a JR Train Station.
For my last few orders I have used this vendor. They deliver quickly and the order process is simple. I always got my vouchers within 24 hours of ordering.
How to use a Japan Rail pass
Activation of JR Pass
As I mentioned earlier, you have to exchange your voucher at one of the major JR train stations when you arrive in Japan. You can find a list of those stations here and a map of where to find the major exchange stations here. There are exchange offices at major airports too. At the exchange office you fill in some forms and go to the counter with your voucher, pass port and forms. You will then be issued your JR Pass and you are ready to go! It’s quite simple.
Note: on the forms you fill at the train station you can specify the first day of use for your pass. That is quite practical if you are near an exchange office, but won’t need the pass for another few days.
How to use JR Pass at station
Using the JR Pass is really easy. When you want to enter the train boarding area you walk through the manual ticket check counter instead of the automated one. Here you show your pass to the ticket inspector, and you are good to go. That’s it. Same procedure when you want to leave the gated area. The first time you use the pass it will usually be stamped.
Most trains don’t require a seat reservation. On some trains it’s not possible, on some it’s optional and on a few it is mandatory (Narita Express, scenic trains and sleeper trains). As a JR Pass holder you get free seat reservations, so just head to the ticketing office before boarding your train to get a seat reservation. I can recommend to reserve the day before for long trips during rush hour. I also have a post on how to take the Shinkansen. That post covers reserved and unreserved seating.