So you’ve heard the rapturous stories from fellow travellers about the railway equivalent of a Sizzler buffet, the Japan Rail Pass and its sumptuous all-you-can ride ticket that will take you the length and breadth of Japan if you fancy. The pass allows you unlimited journeys during a set time frame of your choosing to anywhere that JR Rail covers – Japan’s largest train network. However once you calculate the cost of a family’s worth of passes and see all the rules that go with it, you start ponder whether this pass is all it’s cracked up to be. In case you’re wondering what our verdict is, it really depends on how much you plan on moving about while you’re in Japan, and how long you’re there for.
On the upside:
With the Japan Rail Pass you don’t need to try work out fares/ticket machines everytime you jump on a train (big plus!). You can book seats ahead in busy times, or just jump on the next train if the seats are available – it’s flexible like that. You can travel from one end of the country to the other if you feel like it, book a seat then change plans last minute, and it’s all super easy – just wave your pass as you enter the station ticket both area and you’re away. It can also represent seriously big savings if you’re planning on covering a lot of ground in a short time, too.
With its highspeed trains and an efficient network, rail is considered the only way to get around Japan; with the Japan Rail Pass there’s few places you can’t venture.
On the downside:
As the Japan Rail Pass only covers JR lines, in the cities the train routes available on the pass can sometimes be restrictive – there’s a lot of private railway companies in Japan, and so if most of the daily trips you’re taking are within a cities limits (Osaka and Kyoto and Tokyo especially), a city-wide pass or even individual tickets can sometimes make more sense than the JR Pass – although you can still do plenty of sightseeing without dipping into your pocket for additional fares if you plan routes ahead.
Also, the JR Rail Pass is for consecutive days, so as soon as you nominate a day to ‘start’ the clock starts ticking. So if you plan to stop anywhere for a big chunk of time, it’s a bit of a waste. You also have to buy it before you enter Japan, and you can’t book seats or activate the pass until you arrive – expect a bit of delay at the airport train station as there’s usually a big line of people waiting to activate their passes or book their seats as soon as they enter the country, too.
To work out whether it’s better to fly, buy individual train tickets or buy the JR Rail pass, it’s worth looking at your itinerary.
For us, our two week trip went:
May 21st > Narita
May 22-24 >Tokyo (Ikebukuro)
May 24-27 > ferry to Niijima (Izu islands)
May 27> ferry to Tokyo (stay Shibuya)
May 30 > Shikoku
June 2> Osaka
June 3-4> Kamakura
June 5> Depart Narita
Because we wanted to go offshore for a few days to explore some islands (ferries aren’t covered on the pass) and had a few days just exploring Tokyo, we didn’t buy a two week pass as it would have been a giant waste of money for our first week in the country – instead we bought a one week JR Pass and only activated it for the last week of our stay to travel from Tokyo to Kyoto, Nara, Osaka, down to Shikoku and back through to Tokyo again.
A 7 Day Pass is about $320 AUD adults/ $160 AUD kids. A return ticket from Tokyo- Osaka is about 28,00 Yen or $315 AUD, so that meant we got all our other travel and side trips (including the eight hour journey to Shikoku) during that last week for basically free – we saved hundreds per person. We’d also planned to see Miyajima down near Hiroshima, which is covered on the pass and would have bumped our savings up even more.
But by stalling starting our pass for the first week meant making our own arrangements from the airport at Narita to Tokyo, which can be expensive. For us, because we were staying near a major station, the best option was buying a return N’EX ticket (Narita express, 4000Yen per adult https://www.jreast.co.jp/e/pass/nex_round.html) to get us from Narita to anywhere in Tokyo (in our case Ikebukuro), and then just bought individual tickets getting around in Tokyo (it’s easy to get around within the city for under $3-5 AUD a day). After our trip south, our 7day Rail Pass then ran out the day before we flew out of Narita, but the N’EX return train deal we bought at the start of the trip covered us to get all the way from Kamakura to Narita again.
So basically, the JR Rail pass is awesome – if you use it! If you’re not visiting many cities or you’re stopping for big chunks in one place though, then it’s well worth calculating fares and looking at alternatives as per above or looking at flights. With low cost carriers like Vanilla Air, Peach, Jetstar etc as well as cheaper fares for tourists through the Japan Air Pass capped at 10, 800 Yen per leg on the premium airlines like JAL (https://www.jal.co.jp/yokosojapan/), this can also be an option if you’re covering big distances but then stopping for long periods. You could even consider using a combo – the air pass to cover major ground, then use a rail pass to work your way back to your departure city.
Buses are an even cheaper option, and would be well worth considering if you’re not in a hurry (they tend to be much slower but also more affordable than rail). Hiring a car or campervan is also feasible, especially if you’re hoping to visit country areas, although the high private road tolls and inability to read Japanese signs and maps have scared us from doing so yet – we’ll do it one day!
Ordering Your Japan Rail Pass:
From Australia it seems there’s twenty million sites targeting people buying the pass from overseas. We bought ours off JTB Travel as they have been around a long time, are one of Japan’s most respected travel brands, and actually have a presence and offices in Japan – so we figured if there were any dramas they’re not just an online entity or based in a different time zone (you can find them at jtbtravel.com.au). That said, Japan Experience are supposedly good too.
You want to order ahead to make sure the paperwork arrives well before you leave, but then on the other hand you have to start it within three months of issue, so can’t purchase it too far in advance either – so best to buy it two months ahead of travel to fit within that window. Once you purchase they’ll send you a voucher or ‘Exchange Order’ that you’ll then present at JR offices in Japan – not every station has one of these, so make sure you look up your nearest – and then you’ll be issued your Pass on the spot.
Once your Exchange Order arrives in the mail, put it somewhere safe – if you don’t have it with you when you arrive in Japan, it can’t be re-issued/honoured.
How To Use It
There’s a whole heap of rules and important information on the JR English site dedicated to all the gritty gritty details about how to validate and use your Pass at this link over here.
Working Out Routes/Timetables:
To see an interactive map in English showing the routes covered by the Japan Rail Pass click here:
Once you’ve pondered all the possibilities on the map and worked out where you want to go, there’s not much on the JR Rail site to help you work out times – however there’s a site (and app) called Hyperdia ( click for link) which looks clunky and outdated, but will be your best friend once you take the time to work it out:
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Happy Place Hunter's resident Editor In Chief, Caz Emge, has written for publications around the globe for two decades. An avid outdoor buff, in her (limited) spare time she and her videographer husband and two sons gather insights for this site – sharing happy places as they find them Click to read full bio