Is the Japan Rail Pass Worth it?

Questions about the Japan Rail Pass come up all the time when communicating with guests during the planning phase of their Japan vacation. The Rail Pass is a fairly well publicized element of Japan travel, but it can be a bit daunting when trying to figure out travel plans and rail prices in Japan.

So is the Rail Pass worth it? That depends on a number of factors: the route that you’ll be taking through the country, where you’ll be flying in and out of, and how long you’ll be here. However, it’s almost always a worthwhile investment. Here are some tips, info, and sample itineraries that lay out the exact nature of the savings that can be had if you opt for the Rail Pass.

bullet train

The Basics

The Japan Rail Pass allows foreign visitors to travel on almost all trains operated by JR Rail throughout Japan. This includes the bullet train, but pass holders are restricted to slower trains (same speed but they make a few more stops along the way) with departure times a little more spread out than faster trains. If you want a reserved seat on the bullet train, you’ll still have to visit a station ticket window to get a seat, but the cost is included in the Rail Pass price.

The pass also works on the ferry to Miyajima Island in Hiroshima, and allows for travel on some JR buses, but a few local lines and rural spots are not covered (don’t let this worry you). The pass will also not cover subways and private lines, meaning that some of your rides in cities like Osaka, Kyoto, and even Tokyo will require you to buy a regular ticket. And if you plan on taking a special train like one of the few remaining overnight sleepers or a limited express train with reserved seats, you will have to pay for those seats (it’s not too much though).

Think of the pass as being mainly for the long haul trips between cities. If you plan on visiting at least two cities on your trip, the Rail Pass is most likely the best option for you.

The actual process of getting the pass needs to be taken care of before traveling. You’ll buy the pass online through a third party reseller website. They’ll mail you a voucher to show at the JR Rail office in Japan to get your pass. You can decide what date the pass validity period starts when you pick it up here.

The Price

The Japan Rail Pass isn’t cheap, but neither is long distance rail travel in Japan. You can purchase the pass in three different time increments from 1 to 3 weeks. However, the pass doesn’t need to start on the day you land in Japan. If you won’t be doing most of you traveling until the second week of your two week vacation, you can opt to have a one week pass become valid halfway into your trip.

Below are the prices as quoted on japanrailpass.net, valid as of Oct 2018.

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There are two tiers of passes. The ordinary pass will allow you to sit in standard train seats, while the green pass gives you access to the first class cars (when available). The difference is negligible, and I find the regular bullet train seats comfortable and roomy compared to western standards anyway. This is not as big of a difference as coach and first calss seats on an airplane. Trains are generally very quiet here, but in my experience, I’ve found that the green car is likely to be just as noisy as the regular one. However, If you’ll be doing a lot of traveling between cities and sitting for long periods is difficult, the green car might be worth considering as the seats are slightly bigger and recline a little farther back. Plenty of legroom and luggage space with either option.

Regular seats (left) are in a 3 x 2 arrangement usually, while green cars (right) are often 2 x 2, allowing for a bit more room.

bullet train regular car

The Fares

Once you know which cities you’ll be visiting, it’s time to do the math and see if the pass is right for you. For reference, here are some same fares for reserved train seats along some common routes that many people include in their visit:

rail prices.png

These prices are for standard season adult fare + reserved seat. During peak travel seasons in spring and autumn, prices go up a bit, but the Rail Pass remains at a fixed price. You can look up routes and prices yourself at Hyperdia.

The Math: 8 to 10 days in Japan

Let’s take an average Japan vacation and price it out. Most people arrive and depart from the same airport, and it’s usually Narita in Tokyo. Assuming they follow a popular route for about 8 to 10 days, here’s the train fare breakdown:

sample trip 1 fares.png

Note that I left out the final trip back to Narita Airport, as a 7 day pass wouldn’t work for the while trip. With some planning, the time in Tokyo could be balanced so that all that’s missed by the Rail Pass is one trip to the airport. the key is making sure the more expensive longer trips are covered.

route 1.png

For the above plan, the 7 day Japan Rail Pass priced at 29,110 yen is worth it. The traveler would save about 4,000 yen, and possibly also be able to use the pass for some shorter rides in the cities as well for some additional savings. It also takes the hassle out of having to worry about carrying money and paying for tickets as you go.

If this traveler is not returning to fly out of Tokyo and instead flying home from Kansai Airport in Osaka like the route below, the pass would NOT be worth it. Sadly, I’ve seen guests make this mistake and buy a pass that ended up costing them more than just paying for tickets as they travel.

sample trip 2 fares.png

The Math: 14 days in Japan

Here are the details for a longer stay in Japan, including visits to Hakone and Hiroshima, as well as a day trip out of Tokyo:

sample trip 3 fares.png

Even if this plan was squeezed into less than 14 days (and that certainly is doable), the two week pass at 46,390 yen is still worth it. If it went over 14 days a bit, you’d want to make sure to fit in that last ride to Tokyo before the pass ran out.

route 2.png

Be careful of getting the two week Rail Pass if you won’t be using it throughout the entire period. Having a pass while in Tokyo for the first 4 or 5 days of your two weeks isn’t totally worth it, as you won’t get much use out of it there. In that case, consider buying the one week pass and having it start the day that you plan on departing Tokyo on the bullet train.

Conclusion

Yes, the Japan Rail Pass is usually worth it. It saves you money, time, and stress. Just go over your route carefully as you plan your trip and structure it around the pass dates as necessary.

bullet trains

A few more things to keep in mind:

  • When applying for your pass online ahead of your trip, double (triple!) check all the information that you enter. If there is a single spelling error on your pass info that doesn’t match your passport, they will not issue your pass in Japan. When you receive your pass voucher in the mail, check it carefully. Thankfully, the companies that sell the passes will usually be able to correct it for you, but make sure you have enough time to do so before you leave.

  • The savings detailed above work out in similar percentages when applied to green cars, so don’t worry about getting a better deal one way or the other. It just comes down to your preference in how you travel.

  • Do not lose the voucher that they send you in the mail! You will NOT be able to pick up your Rail pass without it.

  • When the pass restricts you to certain trains (like the slower bullet trains), please follow the rules and make sure you board the correct train. If you get on the wrong train, you may be asked to pay for a ticket upgrade, or they may let off at the next station.

  • There is a temporary trial program now where travelers can buy a pass in Japan once they arrive, but it’s cheaper and easier to take care of this before you depart for your vacation.

  • The Rail Pass prices are regulated, so if you see it for more (or less) than the prices shown above, something is fishy.