Japan is great for a lot of reasons but one of my favorite things is how efficient it is to travel by train. Even if you’re spending most of your time in Tokyo, you’ll likely travel by train at some point. Depending on how extensively you plan to move about Japan, it may make sense to get the Japan Rail Pass. This pass allows you to travel unlimitedly on trains, subways, and buses operated by Japan Rail for a set price. Here’s your ultimate guide for traveling around Japan with a JR Pass.
What is the Japan Rail Pass?
The JR Pass is an unlimited-use train pass that is available for 7, 14, or 21 days. The pass must be used on consecutive days once activated. The JR Pass covers travel on trains, subways, and certain non-express buses operated by Japan Rail. Local buses, subways, and non-JR trains will not be covered by the pass. A popular train that is not covered is the Nozomi shinkansen. However, there are plenty of alternative shinkansen (bullet trains) for these routes.
There are two types of JR Pass: standard and green. Green gives you access to first-class on shinkansen, but can be used in the standard cars as well.
Is Japan Rail Pass Worth the Price?
Here’s the breakdown of costs for the JR Pass:
- Standard pass: ¥29,110 ($275 USD) for 7 days, ¥46,390 ($437 USD) for 14 days, ¥59,350 ($560 USD) for 21 days
- Green pass: ¥38,880 ($366 USD) for 7 days, ¥62,950 ($593 USD) for 14 days, ¥81,870 ($771 USD) for 21 days
So is it worth the price? It depends on how much you will travel. If you plan to take the Narita Express to and from Tokyo, this will cost you about ¥6,000 or $57 USD. Say you plan to go from Tokyo to Kyoto and back on a shinkansen. This will run you about ¥27,600 or $260 USD in a standard seat. So even if you only travel to and from the airport and to one other city, the JR Pass can be worth it. Try pricing out your itinerary by searching on Hyperdia to see if it will make sense to purchase the JR Pass.
We used the JR Pass even more than anticipated. In addition to traveling to Nikko, Kyoto, Hiroshima, and Osaka on the shinkansen, we used the JR Pass to travel on the subway and buses. We even took a JR ferry to get to Miyajima! Most subway lines are not operated by Japan Rail, but it was nice to save a little extra money when the opportunity presented itself.
Green Pass vs. Standard Pass: Which JR Pass is Best?
I think the standard pass is a good choice. Not only is it cheaper than the green pass, but the standard cars are so much nicer than Amtrak that it’s already a step up. If you splurge on the green pass, you may need to make reservations to ensure that you get seats in the green car. However, these tickets are less popular so you will likely have no problem getting a seat, even when standard seats are sold out.
Purchasing a Japan Rail Pass
You need to purchase your JR Pass online before arriving in Japan. Many websites sell the JR Pass. We bought ours here along with a Pocket WiFi. You’ll receive an exchange order in the mail. Be sure to exchange the voucher in Japan within 90 days or it will expire.
Using a Japan Rail Pass in Japan
Once in Japan, go to a JR Exchange Office at the airport or any of the main train stations to activate the pass. Make sure to bring your passport! It is possible to activate it for a date 30 days after the exchange date.
Once you’re ready to use your JR Pass, all you have to do is arrive at the station and flash it to the attendant to be let through to the platform. Without a seat reservation on the shinkansen, you will need to line up for the unreserved cars. Check the signage on the platform to see which cars are unreserved. If you arrive early enough, you will likely have no problem getting on. During popular travel times (April 27-May 6, August 11-20, and December 28-January 6), it is recommended that you make a reservation.
If you have specific trains in mind or like the peace of mind of having a seat, you may choose to make a seat reservation.
Reserving Seats with Japan Rail Pass
You can make seat reservations at any of the JR ticket offices in any train station. Seats can be reserved up to a month in advance. Search Hyperdia ahead of time to find the route and train number. This will make it easier for the ticket agent to find the correct train. Alternatively, you can tell them your destination and they will give you your options. We made most of our seat reservations the morning we activated our passes. For some of our return tickets, our timing was open-ended so we lined up for the unreserved car instead.
I was originally super confused by all of the logistics behind the JR Pass, but it’s actually very easy to use. Once it’s been exchanged, all you have to do is flash the pass and you’re free to travel. Reserving seats for free is a great benefit and provides peace of mind for even the most worried travelers (like myself!). If your Japan itinerary includes travel to multiple cities, getting the JR Pass is a no-brainer.
Do you have any experience using the JR Pass? Share tips below!