This post offers details about the Japan Rail Pass, including whether it’ll be worth buying for your trip, and answers to frequently asked questions about its use. For starters, the JR Pass for foreigner visitors is a cost-effective “all inclusive” pass on the JR rail lines available for purchase outside of Japan. It allows visitors unlimited travel for 7, 14, or 21 days via the JR lines. There are also two versions of the JR Pass: the more expensive Green pass, and less expensive Ordinary one (we always buy the latter—more on that below).
You can find current pricing on the Japan Rail Pass website. One thing to note is that JR is testing new policies with the pass, and right now, it’s actually available for purchase inside select stations. You still need the “Temporary Visitor” stamp in your passport to be eligible to purchase it. (That’s the stamp anyone coming from the United States and most other countries will receive.)
While there are other transportation companies that operate in Japan, the JR Group is by far the most pervasive. They are the predominant rail group within Tokyo and Osaka, and also the main network connecting various cities to one another. Before our first visit to Japan, we read a ton about the Japan Rail Pass, consulting a lot of resources that overcomplicated the decision. Really, whether the JR Pass is for you is quite a simple question to answer…
Basically, it comes down to whether you’re traveling to any major city from Tokyo via the shinkansen (bullet train). All shinkansen in Japan are operated by the JR Group, meaning the entire shinkansen network in Japan is covered with the pass (with a couple of minor exceptions detailed below). The main illustrative example, since we so enthusiastically recommend it, is going from Tokyo to Kyoto and back–that trip alone roughly pays for the cost of the Japan Rail Pass. A round-trip shinkansen fare is roughly the price of a 7-day Japan Rail Pass, so that’s essentially the break-even point.
If you’re only visiting Tokyo, do not buy the Japan Rail Pass. (There isn’t that simple?) It’s almost impossible to justify the Japan Rail Pass from a cost perspective if you are not venturing beyond Tokyo. Unless you intend upon spending the entire day riding the JR lines around (not a bad way to spend a day!), there’s little chance that the Japan Rail Pass will pay for itself over the course of a Tokyo-only trip.
An argument could be made in favor of the Japan Rail Pass on a Tokyo-only trip from the perspective of convenience, but it would not be a very compelling one. It’s definitely easier to flash the pass as you walk through the stations rather than calculating the cost of each route, buying an individual ticket, invariably purchasing the wrong one, and having to go to the adjustment counter.
However, the solution to that problem is buying the PASMO card and filling it with 2,000 yen (or however much you think you’ll need) and just tapping that at the automatic gates as you go. It avoids all of the inconveniences you’ll encounter with individual tickets, and also means you’re not overpaying (like you would if you buy the Japan Rail Pass and only visit Tokyo).
The additional upside of the PASMO card is that it’s nearly universal, meaning you can use it on lines that are not operated by the JR Group. We typically use the PASMO card in tandem with the Japan Rail Pass. (Just be mindful of not using the PASMO card by accident in places that accept the JR Pass!)
This is especially true when traveling within Kyoto, as many of the rail (and all of the bus) lines in Kyoto are not operated by the JR Group. For practical purposes, this is the most notable instance of non-JR lines you’ll probably encounter in Japan, although we encounter non-JR lines from time to time in other places, as well.
The Japan Rail Pass voucher can be purchased online or through travel agents outside of Japan. Note that what you receive when purchasing is only a voucher, which then must be exchanged at offices in major JR stations. These offices include those at Narita Airport and Kansai Airport.
If it’s your first time in Japan, we highly recommend making the exchange at the airport, as this is the easiest location. Even if you don’t plan on using the Japan Rail Pass right away (you should time its start date strategically to encompass all of your Shinkansen rides), that’s fine. You can specify a start date in the future.
The upside of redeeming at the airport is that the JR office is far easier to find, and more convenient. On our first visit to Japan, we did not follow this advice. We waited until going to Tokyo Station (an overwhelming labyrinth the first time you experience it) to redeem our passes, and we just about had a meltdown trying to find the office.
At the office, a representative takes your voucher, reviews your passport (for the appropriate “temporary visitor” status stamp), and provides you with the pass, which is then to be presented to the window at JR gates (where they wave you through) with your paasport.
The distinctions between the Green and Ordinary versions of the Japan Rail Pass mostly relate to the shinkansen usage. With the Green version, you’re able to board the Green car on the shinkansen (and some limited express trains). Think of this as First or Business Class on an airline—larger seats and slightly more spacious.
We have never purchased the Green Pass, and never will. The only time we’ve ridden a shinkansen on which space was an issue was in advance of Super Typhoon Vongfong, when everyone was in a rush to get out of Osaka before the storm—which would cause downtime on the rail—hit.
Every other time we’ve ridden the shinkansen, it has been maybe two-thirds full (at most). We almost always have an empty seat between us, and find traveling in the “ordinary” cars on the shinkansen to be a more pleasant experience than flying coach on an airline. Your mileage may vary on this—we’d also never pay extra to fly First or Business Class when flying.
For this same reason, we no longer do reserved seating for the shinkansen—most of the time, it’s just a waste of time. Unless you’re traveling during an incredibly busy time, you’re better off just lining up for general boarding.
Literally every single time we’ve done this, we caught an earlier train than we would have if we took the extra time to go to the JR office to book a reserved seat. (Unlike airlines, which might run a particular route a few times per day at most, there’s a seemingly nonstop supply of shinkansen between Osaka/Kyoto and Tokyo.)
There is one other shinkansen-related caveat to using the Japan Rail Pass. It cannot be used for travel on NOZOMI and MIZUHO trains on the Tokaido, Sanyo, and Kyushu shinkansen lines. These express trains do not offer any type of seating, reserved or standby.
We made the mistake of using one of the express shinkansen lines (oops) once, and it wasn’t too big of a deal. Tickets are checked once you’re on the train, and the JR rep explained to us that our pass wasn’t valid for the train we were on, and politely indicated we needed to depart at the next stop (which was likely halfway back to Tokyo since it’s an express train). Once we were off the train, another shinkansen for which our pass was valid came by within like 10 or 20 minutes. More stops, but still incredibly fast.
In the end, we’re guessing most of you are going to want to buy the Japan Rail Pass. Making the trek to Kyoto is well worth your time and money, and riding a state of the art bullet train is an experience in itself. After that roundtrip voyage, the Japan Rail Pass is entirely added value, and you will use it plenty as you commute around Tokyo and (to a lesser extent) Kyoto. If you head to other cities, you’ll get even more value out of the pass. We once did Kyoto, Nara, Osaka, and Tokyo all within the span of 7-days (not recommended), and probably got quadruple the value of the pass in the process. The Japan Rail Pass is a must-buy for us on any trip to Japan we take that goes beyond Tokyo, which is pretty much all of them.
Have any questions about using the Japan Rail Pass that we didn’t cover? Have you used the Japan Rail Pass in the past? Any thoughts or additional tips based upon your experience? Please share your thoughts or questions in the comments below!