Is Japan Rail Pass Worth Buying? (2023 Prices & Review)
Wondering whether the Japan Rail Pass is worth the money? This buying guide covers where you can use the JR Pass, how much value you’ll get on a normal trip to Tokyo and Kyoto, and answers to frequently asked questions about the unlimited train ticket. It also covers our many experiences purchasing the JR Pass and also not buying it. (Updated May 1, 2023.)
For starters, that last point–that we sometimes do not buy the Japan Rail Pass–is probably the most pertinent. We’ll be up front with you: just like every review of the JR Pass, this guide contains affiliate links for buying (discounted) Japan Rail Passes. Unlike many of them, this is not a thinly-veiled advertisement for the pass as a result.
Sure, we’d like you to buy the JR Pass using the links here and we think it makes sense for most visitors to Japan. But there’s no one size fits all advice, and we’re not going to pretend there is to make a few cents in commission. To that end, we’re also going to share our experiences with not buying the Japan Rail Pass, explaining how some of the more efficient travel itineraries is often accomplished without it.
Before we get to the nitty gritty of the review, we should probably start with basics. The Japan Rail Pass for foreigner visitors is an economical “all inclusive” pass on the JR rail lines available for purchase outside of Japan at a discount.
The JR Pass 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).
Here’s current pricing for the Japan Rail Pass, which is valid through September 2023:
7-Day Japan Rail Pass
- Adult: 29,650 yen
- Child: 14,820 yen
- Adult: 39,600 yen (Green)
- Child: 19,800 yen (Green)
14-Day Japan Rail Pass
- Adult: 47,250 yen
- Child: 23,620 yen
- Adult: 64,120 yen (Green)
- Child: 32,600 yen (Green)
21-Day Japan Rail Pass
- Adult: 60,450 yen
- Child: 30,220 yen
- Adult: 83,390 yen (Green)
- Child: 41,690 yen (Green)
As noted above, this is through September 2023. JR has announced some truly massive price increases that will start sometime in October 2023. The regular 7-day pass will skyrockets from JPY 29,650 to JPY 50,000, the 14-day pass increases from JPY 47,250 to JPY 80,000, and the 21-day pass goes up the most “modest” amount, from JPY 60,450 to JPY 100,000. That last one is “only” a 65% increase, whereas the weeklong and two-week passes shoot up 70%.
Despite this massive price increase, the fastest Nozomi trains on the Tokaido/Sanyo Shinkansen and the Mizuho trains on the Sanyo/Kyushu Shinkansen still will not be included in the base Japan Rail Pass. There has been some confusion about this, but it appears to be the case that these are not included in the new and higher base prices. What is changing is that JR will be offering an additional special ticket that can be purchased to upgrade to the Nozomi and Mizuho services.
Prices and other details have not yet been announced–it’s possible those do end up being included in the base cost, especially if sales drop off a cliff due to the higher prices. We’ll update accordingly when more details are released–and we’ll also share more info on regional rail passes, as those will most assuredly become more popular as more tourists are priced out of the JR Pass.
In the meantime, there are several ways to purchase the Japan Rail Pass, with the most common being third party websites authorized to sell it. We recommend buying the discounted Japan Rail Pass from Klook, which also offers a wide variety of other discounted tickets (including to Universal Studios Japan).
Every authorized third party sells the JR Pass at the same price, and they’re all legitimate and have great customer reviews (at least, the authorized sellers). So there’s honestly not much of a reason to choose one site over another. Maybe you prefer the logo or color scheme of one over another, who knows. We typically use and recommend Klook because they’re more of a one-stop shop for a multitude of Japan tickets and experiences.
If you buy the JR Pass through one of these intermediaries, you’ll receive an Exchange Order rather than the actual JR Pass. The Exchange Order is essentially a voucher–it’s a physical document that cannot be emailed or faxed, only sent through the physical mail. It also cannot be replaced if lost.
In addition to the third party authorized sellers, JR now sells passes via the official website. Oddly enough, their prices are actually higher than via the third parties by 10-15%, so it doesn’t really behoove you to buy via the official site unless you’re purchasing at the last minute, as no exchange voucher is required to pick up your Japan Rail Pass at one of the ticket offices when buying directly from JR. Everyone else should stick to the authorized third party sellers.
The Japan Rail Pass is also currently available for purchase on a test basis inside Japan at all major stations. This includes Narita and Haneda Airports in Tokyo and Kansai Airport in Osaka, as well as pretty much every big station connected to the Shinkansen (Shinjuku, Tokyo, Sapporo, Nagoya, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Yokohama, and many more).
Technically, this is still being advertised as “for a limited time only.” Currently, the JR Pass is available to buy within Japan until March 31, 2024. Japan Railways has not announced whether the internal sales trial will be extended beyond this date, but we’d put the chances of extension above 95%.
Inside sales began ~4 years ago in advance of the Tokyo Olympics and increased tourism, and there’s no reason to believe that’ll change. There have already been major improvements since we started using the Japan Rail Pass (more on those below) and we only expect that to continue. As Japan continues to modernize and streamline its approach to the JR Pass, our expectation is that the entire process is digitized in the coming years.
While there are other transportation companies that operate in Japan, the JR Group is by far the most common. 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.
For most first-timers to Japan, whether the JR Pass is for you is quite a simple question to answer. It usually boils 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 network in Japan is covered with the pass.
The main illustrative example is going from Tokyo to Kyoto and back, as that roundtrip is pretty close to the current cost of the 7-day JR Pass. Between that roundtrip on the Shinkansen trip and getting to and from the airport, you’ll come out ahead by purchasing the Japan Rail Pass. Everything else is gravy.
If you’re only visiting Tokyo, do not buy the Japan Rail Pass. If you’re only visiting Kyoto, definitely do not buy the JR Pass. (There are some JR lines in Kyoto, but most are other companies.) Same goes for literally any single city trip to Japan. Even any trip to a single region in Japan does not necessitate purchase of the JR Pass. For those sticking to the Kansai (Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, etc.) or Kanto (Tokyo, Yokohama, etc.) regions, the Japan Rail Pass is almost certainly not for you.
Basically, if you won’t be using the Shinkansen at least once, the question ends there. Do NOT buy the JR Pass. Pretty simple and straightforward, right? 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.
So, what if you’re only using the Shinkansen once? That’s where this question becomes a closer call. It’s also the scenario in which we most commonly find ourselves, as we’ve become fond of flying into Osaka, taking the Shinkansen from Kyoto to Tokyo, and flying out of Haneda or Narita.
In this scenario, we use Kyoto as a home base and take a variety of day trips throughout the Kansai region to Kobe, Himeji, Nara, and elsewhere. For us, these day trips–and the flexibility and convenience offered by the JR Pass–are the tipping point. We’ve done spontaneous day trips to Kanazawa, Hikone, Uji, and a number of other cities and spots.
We’ve used the JR Pass to visit nighttime illuminations during fall colors and sakura seasons, as well as other special events in far-flung locales, using the long train rides to get work done on multi-month trips. We never would’ve visited these places or had these experiences if paying out of pocket for additional Shinkansen tickets.
The thing is, we’re undoubtedly unique in that regard. Most visitors to Japan–especially ones asking “is the Japan Rail Pass worth the money?”–are not taking spontaneous day trips. More likely, it’s your first visit to Japan and you are, understandably, going to stick to the script and see the highlights around Tokyo and Kyoto.
Nevertheless, you might be considering flying into one of the cities and out of the other. This is especially true for those taking a trip to Japan lasting 10 or fewer days, as the open-jaw route is more efficient and gives you more time to spend in both Kyoto and Tokyo. To that point, if you only have 7-10 days in Japan, you may not have extra time for day trips…and thus not need the JR Pass.
If you do have more than 10 days, or are just planning a whirlwind trip to Japan that’ll take you to as many different places as possible, the JR Pass can be worth it. From Kyoto or Osaka, it’s pretty easy to do a ton of different day trips within the Kansai region, which would be pricey Shinkansen rides without the Japan Rail Pass. If you’re thinking about adding days in the aforementioned cities–or even Hiroshima, Nagoya, or Yokohama–it becomes a very close call even with only doing a one-way Shinkansen trip.
In our view, day trips in that scenario are what tip the scales in favor of buying the JR Pass. If you plan on doing even 2 of those, it makes sense to purchase the pass. Even if you can’t quite see that in the math ahead of time, it usually will work out. You’ll end up taking the train more than you otherwise anticipate for shorter commutes, and it’ll work out in the end. That coupled with convenience and pre-planning makes the pass make sense. At least, between now and September 2023. (After that, all bets are off!)
The case 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 argument. It’s definitely easier to use 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 not buying the Japan Rail Pass. It’s buying an IC card (like Suica, PASMO, or Icoca), filling it with yen, 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.
This is truer than ever now that IC cards can be loaded into digital wallets and used on your iPhone or other smart device. You can reload this with your credit card, and do so before even leaving home when the conversion rates are most favorable. IC cards can be used at train stations, restaurants, retailers, and even certain vending machines.
Speaking of recent developments, the JR Pass is now automated! It now looks just like a regular train ticket, and can be used at automatic ticket gates to enter and exit railway stations. This is a huge and overdue upgrade.
Previously, you had to pass through the staffed gate and present the Japan Rail Pass to an employee who waved you through. That had become more tedious in recent years as tourism to Japan exploded, as there were often backups at these manned gates with confused foreigners asking questions, fare adjustments, and more. The automatic tickets cut down on a lot of waiting, and–at least for us–the occasional missed train as a result.
Our sincere hope is that the next step is an entirely digital Japan Rail Pass. Logically, it seems like you could purchase the Japan Rail Pass online, activate and set the start date yourself, and use it via Apple Wallet (etc.) just like an IC card. Given how long it took Japan just to advance past the handwritten paper pass, that’s probably still years away, but I can dream. (Here’s hoping it’s one of the as-yet unannounced “improvements” teased with the massive price increases for October 2023!)
For now, the Japan Rail Pass voucher can be purchased online or through travel agents outside of Japan and still must be exchanged in person. As noted above, what you receive when purchasing is only a voucher, which then must be exchanged at offices in major JR stations. Again, 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 passport.
The distinctions between the Green and Ordinary versions of the Japan Rail Pass mostly relate to the Shinkansen. 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. We purchase the JR Pass to save money, so that defeats its purpose for us. The “ordinary” cars on the Shinkansen are more than sufficient–they offer much more legroom and space than flying coach on an airline. Your mileage may vary on this, but we see this as a slight upgrade in the experience for a massive premium in pricing.
Ultimately, most of you who are researching this question 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. Even if you don’t do the round trip voyage (in which case it’s a no brainer), the Japan Rail Pass is usually a good option that’ll enable you to take day trips beyond the two major cities.
You’ll also 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’ve used the JR Pass to travel from Tokyo to Hiroshima, with stops at Nagoya, Kobe, Himeji, and Hikone along the way, before ending up in Kyoto all within the span of 7-days–and probably got quadruple the value of the pass in the process. The Japan Rail Pass is not always a must-buy for us, and there are definitely one-way scenarios where it’s unnecessary, but we’ve found that it usually works out in our favor. That’ll almost certainly change in October 2023.
If you’re planning a trip to the Japan, check out our other posts about Japan for ideas on other things to do! We also recommend consulting our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto and Ultimate Guide to Tokyo to plan.
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!
I hope the pass is never fully digitized. The last thing I want is yet another app to screw me over if my phone is lost or breaks or stolen or buggy or updating or not compatible or can’t conect to the internet…
Looks like I will be buying the JR Rail pass for at least 14 days. Thanks again for this article! I am assuming activating the JR Rail pass at the airport makes sense to ride the train from the airport to Tokyo. Then our next week will be going to Osaka and using the rail a lot from there to the surrounding areas. We are spending 28 days in Japan but will be confined to Tokyo for the latter 2 weeks, and from what I gather the rail pass is overkill for that.
Bullet train is by far my favorite way to travel! When we ordered our JR passes, we had the option to add pre-loaded Pasmo cards for the same price you’d pay at the station. It was handy, as it was one fewer step to accomplish when we landed in Tokyo, and I would highly recommend it!
We are flying into Osaka and have reserved an airbnb there for 6-days. We are uncertain about Tokyo and leaning toward not going. We definitely want to do day trips to Kyoto and Nara. Is the JR pass worth it for just those trips? Our dates are 17 Nov-24 Nov.
Hi Tom! I love reading your blogs so much.
We are going to Japan May 27-June 15 and are wanting to get the JR Pass. I’m wondering how many days we want the pass for. We will go from Tokyo-Hakone and stay there for one night. Then go from Hakone-Kyoto. We are going to do 5 days in Kyoto and surrounding areas then do Kyoto-Tokyo. I was thinking we would want the 21-day pass, but we will be at Disney at the end of our trip for 5-6 days. What do you think we should do (7, 14 or 21 day pass)?
Take the first day you’ll need to use a Shinkansen and the last day you’ll need to use a Shinkansen, determine how many days that is, and buy that duration of pass. Getting a pass for the regular train rides within each of the cities is overkill–just pay out of pocket (or buy day passes) for that.
Thank you for all the tips! Quick question: you mentioned that going to the airport to pick up the JR pass does not activate it same day and that you can specify when you want it to start. I was told otherwise by a Japanese friend…How would I go about specifying when it should start? Do the people who work at the JR pass places at the airport speak enough English should I have any questions?
Also, I know this pass works from Tokyo to Osaka. Would it also work from Osaka to Kyoto, Osaka to Nara, and Osaka to Kobe? Or would I have to get the JR West pass too? Thank you so much!
You do not have to activate it the day you pick it up. You can specify a later date. There will be someone at the JR offices with enough English to answer most questions you have.
The Japan Rail Pass works throughout Japan on JR lines. The other passes are more limited in scope of where they can be used.
Your Japan articles are so incredibly helpful as I plan our honeymoon that will happen in November 2018. Can’t thank you and Sarah enough for sharing your wealth of information. I do have a question about reserving seats with the JR Pass. I believe you have traveled through Japan during the autumn at some point: would you consider that a busy time-period that warrants reserving seats in advance? We’ll be using the JR pass to go from Hakone > Osaka > Himeji (RT back to Osaka) > Hiroshima > Miyajima (RT back to Hiroshima) > Kyoto > Tokyo (to end our trip at Tokyo Disney!). I’m nervous about reserving trains in advance because we’d like to have a bit more flexibility, but don’t want to find ourselves without seats due to overcrowded trains. My gut tells me I should reserve the Kyoto legs in advance because we’re going around Labor Thanksgiving, but that I should be okay without reservations for the other trips. I’d love your perspective if you have time to answer!
If you’re traveling around that time of year, you should absolutely reserve seats when you know your plans for certain. That weekend is one of the busiest of the year (if not *the* busiest) in Japan.
Helpful info! Thanks!
Hi, we (a family of 6 adults and 2 children) will be flying off to Japan within 2 weeks. I am still thinking on whether the JR pass is worthed to buy or not as our travel plan is as follows.
20/2-22/2 (Osaka) and 22/2-27/2(Tokyo) we will be arriving thru KIX and our flight back will be thru Narita. Thus, grateful if I can get your insights on it. Thank you for the above comments as well. It does gives me am insight.
Sorry, I missed this comment before and I realize it’s too late now (then again, it would’ve probably been too late before given the processing time on the JRP).
I’d probably skip the Japan Rail Pass with only a one-way Shinkansen ride on your trip. You can buy discounted Shinkansen tickets at Osaka Station, and day passes in Tokyo that should make it work out to be cheaper that way.
I just bought my JR pass. Its simple, JR pass is excellent for great distance (e.g. Fukuoka to Tokyo or Tokyo to Hokkaido) Obviously if you plan to stay within the same prefecture, then JR pass is not for you. But if you plan to travel further than 200 miles away.. then JR pass is an option. Dont forget that one way –> from Tokyo to Osaka (regular ticket) costs easily $120.. so now you can do the math, JR will turn out to be 60% cheaper when traveling around Japan.
Awesome tips guys, thanks.
If you are just exploring Tokyo and the surrounding area, there is another JR pass that is 700 yen for the day. I like to get this if I want to go around to mutiple areas in one day, like Shibuya, Shinjuku, Shin Okubo, Akihabara, Tokyo Station, etc.
That’s a great tip! I believe this is the pass you’re referencing, for those who are curious about it: http://www.jreast.co.jp/e/pass/tokunai_pass.html
Just want to share an example of an itinerary similar to one I had recently which worked out better than buying a national rail pass:
1) Buy ticket Tokyo->Kyoto on unreserved seat Nozomi Shinkansen: 13080 yen
2) Stay 4 nights in Kyoto
3) Buy and activate JR West Kansai-Hiroshima Pass: 13000 yen. This pass gives you 5 days of unlimited travel around the whole area from Kansai to Hiroshima. You don’t have to buy it ahead of time and unlike the national pass, it allows you to use the Nozomi bullet trains, which are faster and more frequent.
4) Optional: after that pass expires you could spend any number of additional nights in Kyoto or Osaka area. You could also just put your entire Kyoto/Osaka stay on the back end of the JR West pass.
5) Buy ticket Kyoto->Tokyo on unreserved seat Nozomi Shinkansen: 13080 yen
TOTAL COST: 39160 yen
Using the national pass, I would have needed at least a 14-day pass (46390 yen) and I would have been restricted to using the slower, less-frequent Hikari trains.
My total doesn’t include the cost of using any local JR lines before and after activating the JR West pass but those are really cheap and more often than not, the optimal route is a non-JR train line.
Additionally, if your only trip outside of Tokyo was the Kansai area but you want to stay there more than 7 days, buying tickets individually would be way cheaper than a 14-day pass. The trains that run between Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, etc, are super cheap (400-600 yen each). Looking it up on Hyperdia, a simple Tokyo->Kyoto->Nara->Osaka->Tokyo itinerary is only 28210 yen total. There are also cheap local area passes (the JR Kansai Area Pass starts at 2200 yen and covers all the way to Himeji – or the Osaka Amazing Pass, which includes transportation + a bunch of attractions) that you could use for a busy travel day.
Thanks, that is also very helpful. Are the cheap trains you were talking about in the Kansai area bullet trains, or are the slower trains. Either way that sounds like a good option for trips longer than seven days.
The cheap trains are not bullet trains – usually just rapid or local trains.
Taking the bullet train between Kyoto and Osaka almost never saves time, anyways, because the bullet train only goes to Shin-Osaka station, from which you would have to transfer to another line to get into the city center. Whereas, the regular trains will take you right there. Same deal with Kobe (bullet train goes to Shin-Kobe).
From central Osaka, the quickest route to where I wanted to go in Kyoto was the Hankyu line, which goes directly to the tourist areas of either Gion or Arashiyama (as opposed to the JR lines which go through Kyoto Station). It also happened to be the cheapest at only 400 yen.
Yeah – bottom line is, the 7-day is almost a no-brainer if that fits your schedule. But going beyond 7 days, it’s worth looking at going without a national JR pass. You really need to be moving around a lot using bullet trains to make it worth the money.
@TDS – Thanks for the extensive comments and itinerary you provided here. I’ve never done a Japan Rail Pass longer than the 7-day one, so I haven’t thought about strategizing beyond that. We are planning on doing traveling beyond that in the future, so I’m now looking at how we might be able to leverage the other passes (in tandem with a 7-day JR Pass) to do our Japan-hopping more cost-effectively. Thank you!
Wow Tom, these last few posts you have done have been just what I was looking into, thanks. You don’t have access to my search history do you? And if so most of my searches are purely acedemic. ? Thank you for breaking it down so simply.
So the JR pass doesn’t work in most of Kyoto, does this PASMO thing cover every other type of public transportation that the JR pass does not? So would I only need a JR pass and a PASMO to be covered anywhere I needed to go? Thanks.
Pretty much. Just remember that the PASMO card is like a reloadable gift card, not an “unlimited” card like the Japan Rail Pass. Because of that, we try building our itinerary around JR routes when possible–but not to the point that we’re going out of the way to save a little money.
Thanks again. I’ll have to read up on the PASMO thing. You seriously saved me hours of time with this post, and you are right, a lot of other sites really over complicate this whole Japan railpass thing when it seems as though it’s actually pretty straight forward.