We recently got a question asking if the JR Rail Pass was worth getting.
As tour operators and people who have lived in Japan, we definitely see the value of the Rail Pass. It really makes traveling Japan affordable and it’s only available for tourists.
We’re going to talk about cost savings, flexibility, ease of use, and exclusions.
With the Japan Rail Pass, you get unlimited use of the JR trains, including the Shinkansen. You pay nothing more, other than what you originally paid for the pass, which saves you money while on your trip.
For example, a 7-day Rail Pass costs 29,650 yen (around $290 USD). This is less than one roundtrip ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto (27,700 yen), plus one trip on the Narita Express (3,070 yen) from Narita Airport to Tokyo. And you have unlimited rides on many more days to go all over Japan!
Complimentary Seat Reservations
With the Japan Rail Pass, you also get complimentary reserved seat tickets. This is really great, because you don’t have to ride in the unreserved car. Seat tickets are an additional 330-730 yen per ticket, depending on the season.
During high season, having a reserved seat on the bullet train is less stressful. The unreserved cars get packed and you may have to stand for several hours.
The Rail Pass offers an enormous amount of flexibility. For example, if you hear about something interesting that you want to go see while in Japan, you can easily change your plans. You can just get on the JR train at no additional cost. It doesn’t affect your budget in any way.
Start at Anytime
You don’t have to start the Rail Pass on the day you land in Japan. You can start it at anytime.
For example, if you’re on a 10-day holiday, you could spend the first 2 nights in Tokyo, and start your 7-day pass on Day 3. It would be valid for Day 3 through Day 9, allowing you to return to Tokyo on Day 9.
Ease of Use
What’s really great about the Rail Pass is that you can use the bullet train Shinkansen as a local train.
For example, if you’re in Kyoto and you want to go to Osaka via bullet train, it’s only 15 minutes. You can just hop on the bullet train. You don’t need a ticket or a reserved seat. The same trip on an express train takes around 30-45 minutes.
It also makes traveling around Tokyo fast and easy. The Yamanote Line is JR line that makes a loop around Tokyo and stops at all the places you want to go, such as Shibuya, Shinjuku, Akihabara, and Ueno.
There are two Shinkansen trains that you can’t use with the Rail Pass, which are the fastest: the Nozomi and Mizuho.
With the Rail Pass, you can ride the Hikari train, the second fastest bullet train. The speed difference is minimal. You wouldn’t even realize it. From Tokyo to Kyoto, the Hikari is only about 20 minutes longer than the Nozomi train. The train runs at nearly the same speed.
The real difference is in the number of stops. The Hikari stops at a few more stations. The Nozomi generally goes from Tokyo directly to Kyoto and Osaka, whereas the Hikari stops at a few stations in between.
Another exclusion is that the Rail Pass doesn’t cover private train lines or subways. The private train lines go to remote locations, such as Koyasan, Kawaguchiko, and Hakone. On the private lines, you will have to get a supplemental ticket. In major cities outside Tokyo, the subways are more convenient for getting around.
So, Is It worth It?
Yes! With the flexibility and the ease of travel, the Rail Pass is definitely worth it. Even with the exclusions, the Rail Pass is still going to save you time and money.
We know a lot of people do the calculations before they go to Japan and won’t buy the pass if there is minimal to no savings.
In fact, you will probably end up saving a lot more than you think. Additional costs may pop up with unplanned excursions and you might take more local trains in Tokyo than anticipated.
As people who used to live in Japan, we used to envy tourists who had the JR pass, because it offers complete freedom to go anywhere you want.
When Is It Not worth It?
If you are only going to visit one city, then the pass is probably not worth it.
For example, if you’re flying into Tokyo and you’re only going to stay in Tokyo, then it’s not worth it. Or if you’re flying into Osaka, and you’re only to visit Osaka and Kyoto.
But if you’re flying from the United States, then you’re going to want to spend at least 8 to 10 days in Japan. The Rail Pass will give you the flexibility to see as much as possible and travel anywhere you like.
How to Buy a JR Rail Pass
Order your pass online up to three months before your trip. The price is in Japanese yen, so it depends on the current exchange rate.
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