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A guide to the Japan Rail Pass

The rail pass almost essential for travel in Japan, step by step. A guide to the Japan Rail pass

When to buy it? How to use it? I will try to answer all the frequently asked questions on the Japan rail pass, and at the same time I hope to show how to use it to its full potential and how to save money with it.

What is the Japan Rail Pass?

It’s a rail pass that allows travel for 7 , 14 or 21 consecutive days on almost all trains run by Japan Railways Group, in short JR, which is the former national railway company (now privatized and divided into several regional companies, but this isn’t really important for our purposes).

I haven’t used it in all of my eight trips to Japan. You can, in fact, travel by bus (and night bus), rental car, low-cost flights, cheap local trains and other private railways. Moreover, there are many regional rail passes that may just suit your needs. But for a first trip, a ‘classic’ one which includes Tokyo, Kyoto and Hiroshima, the Japan Rail Pass is strongly recommended. Areas where you won’t need a pass are the islands of Okinawa (where there are no trains) and Hokkaido, where the rail network is underdeveloped (but the new Hokkaido Shinkansen has just made it easier to reach this northern island).

It goes without saying that if you are staying  in only one area, for example in Kyoto or Tokyo, the pass should not be bought. You might instead consider one of the local passes if you plan some day trips (see below) or to stay in the area.

The Tokkyu (express) 'Thunderbird' Kyoto-Kanazawa

The Tokkyu (express) ‘Thunderbird’ Kyoto-Kanazawa

How much does the Japan Rail pass cost?

A Japan Rail Pass valid for a week (what I always used in my trips ) costs 29,110 yen, 230 euros at the exchange rate at the time I am writing. If you consider that the round-trip Tokyo – Kyoto on the shinkansen (bullet train) costs 27,200 yen, it’s clear that it’s already almost enough to justify the pass. During the 7 days of the pass you might also want to go to Hiroshima or take some local trains: if it’s what you are planning to do, the pass will save you a lot of money. It is just an example. But, in general, if you take at least two shinkansen trains you should seriously consider buying the pass. There will be more on this below.

Type Second class Green Car (first)
7 days 29.110 ¥ 38.880 ¥
14 days 46.390 ¥ 62.950 ¥
21 days 59.350 ¥ 81.870 ¥

* children between 6 and 11 pay half price

Which trains are included in the Japan Rail Pass?

  • As said almost all Jr trains, identified by the JR green logo are included in the Japan Rail Pass.
  • Shinkansen (bullet trains). The pass includes the shinkansen, high-speed trains connecting the big cities of Japan. It doesn’t include the Nozomi shinkansen, the fastest trains connecting Tokyo and Kyushu, and the Mizuho.
  • Express and local trains. Also included are the express trains (tokkyu in Japanese) and local trains. You will use these for instance for a day trip to Kamakura. 
  • JR trains inside Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka… A typical example is the Yamanote Line in Tokyo, incredibly useful to explore the city, or the Chuo line between Tokyo station and Shinjuku. In Kyoto, the Japan Rail Pass includes for example the line connecting the central station and Arashiyama. Keep in mind that a trip with a local train is cheap and often costs between 200 and 500 yen, while Express trains are often between a thousand and two thousand yen. These trains alone don’t justify buying a Japan Rail Pass.
  • Narita Express. The JR train connecting Narita Airport to central Tokyo (and in some cases Shinjuku and Ikebukuro) can be boarded with a valid Japan Rail Pass (but you will need to book a seat). Keep in mind, though, that if you don’t have a valid pass in those days there is also a discount return ticket that can be bought for 4.000 yen at the airport (but only valid for a period of 14 days).
  • Tokyo monorail. This service to Haneda airport is included in the pass.
  • Some buses and ferries. Included are some local JR buses (not the night buses) and the JR ferry to Miyajima island.
A guide to the Japan Rail Pass: the Shinkansen

The shinkansen (photo by Patrick Colgan)

What is not included in the Japan Rail Pass

  • Some shinkansen trains. As said, the Nozomi and Mizuho trains are not included.
  • Tokyo subway lines. Subway and private lines other than JR in Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka etc. such as Toei , Keykyu , Odakyu , Keihan , Tobu , the Odaiba monorail … just to name a few, are not included. These always have identifiable stations and ticket offices, different from JR.
  • Other private lines. Some destinations are served only by non-JR private lines. For example, Mount Koya requires a specific ticket (2800 yen for the Koya heritage pass). Nikko is also served by the convenient Tobu line. If you don’t have a valid JR Pass you can get a Nikko pass (Tobu free pass for two days from 2,670 yen).
  • Buses. Most buses and trams are not included.
Un treno locale nella zona di Shiga

A local train in Shiga-ken (photo by Patrick Colgan, 2016)

Do I need a Japan rail pass if I only stay in Tokyo or Kyoto?

This is worth repeating as this question is frequently asked. No, it doesn’t make any sense to buy a pass in this case. If you want to explore a particular region (and not others) you can instead consider perhaps one of the local passes. In Tokyo you can also think about buying a Tokyo subway ticket pass or a Pasmo / Suica card.

My advice for Tokyo: the Tokyo subway ticket costs 800/1200/1500 yen for 1, 2 or 3 days. Considering that a subway fare ranges from 170 to 310 yen and that this ticket doesn’t include the useful JR lines, it is debatable whether is convenient or not. Therefore, it really depends on where your hotel is (if it’s on the Yamanote line it’s unlikely you will take the subway a lot) and how much do you plan to move around Tokyo. The other option is to buy a rechargeable Pasmo or Suica card. It doesn’t offer any discount, but saves you the nuisance of buying a ticket every time you take a train. And it can be used to buy drinks at vending machines and kiosks, to pay for luggage lockers.

Which Japan Rail Pass should I buy?

The Japan Rail Pass doesn’t need to cover the entire trip. Often for a two-week trip the most convenient option will be to buy a 7 days ticket. This is typically done by leaving the days in Tokyo and Kyoto at the beginning and at the end of the trip and using the Japan Rail Pass to move around Japan in the middle section of the trip. 

To give a practical example of classic route: 14 days

1-4 Tokyo
5 trip Tokyo – Kyoto (from here starts the validity of a 7 days pass)
6-7 Kyoto
8 Kyoto-Nara and back
9-10 Hiroshima
11 Return to Tokyo (end of validity of the pass)
12-14 Tokyo

What is left out from the Japan Rail pass in this case? Transport by JR trains inside Tokyo (600 yen a day), maybe a day trip from Tokyo to Nikko (2.700 yen) and Kamakura (1.800 yen). And then we could add the trains to the airport (4.000 yen). But even adding all these costs they all add up to 13.000 yen (rounded up). Still far from the 17.000 yen difference between a 7 and a 14 days Japan rail pass. As you can see you don’t need a pass for two weeks. See below for more on this.

A Japan rail pass

A Japan rail pass

How do I check the fares of Japanese trains?

Just use Hyperdia.com. Remember to deselect Nozomi trains from the options. The total fare will be displayed on the top left corner.

Often you will see very short times for changing trains. It’s normal in Japan, where most of the trains are perfectly on time.

Here are some typical fares to help you check if a Japan Rail pass is convenient or not:

  • Tokyo-Narita airport return 4.000 yen (Narita express N’Ex round trip ticket 4000 yen, valid 14 days)
  • Nikko return – 2.670 yen (Tobu Nikko pass, JR not valid on this)
  • Kamakura return – 1.800 yen (by Jr train)
  • Tokyo-Kyoto one way – 13.600 yen (by shinkansen)
  • Tokyo-Kanazawa one way – 14.120 yen (by shinkansen)
  • Kyoto – Hiroshima one way – 11.090 yen (by shinkansen, via Shin Kobe or Shin Osaka)

How to order the Japan Rail Pass

Even if there are plans to change things, at the moment the Japan Rail pass must be purchased outside of Japan. A good option is the reliable website JRPass.com (but there are other options). You will receive a voucher – an exchange order –  that you will need to exchange with a Japan Rail Pass once you are in Japan.

Here is a guide on the JR website.

How do I use the Japan Rail Pass?

JRP

A Japan Rail pass. The cover changes from year to year

You can get your pass at ticket offices in major stations. You will need your passport and an exchange order bought outside of Japan (as previously explained). Then you will need to fill out a form and specify from which day you would like it to start (here are the exchange offices and opening times). In some stations (such as Kansai airport or Narita) you could have to queue for up to one hour to get your pass, especially in high season.

Keep your pass with care: if you lose it you won’t get another one!

Once you have a pass you will just show it at the manned entrance to JR stations and you will be let in. With the Japan Rail Pass you will also be able to book seats on trains.

Wait… do I need to book the trains?

It’s recommended and free but it isn’t in any way compulsory (except for a few trains, like the Narita express). Booking is easy and it can be done at any JR ticket office. If the personnel doesn’t understand English and you don’t know Japanese, you might just write down on a piece of paper your destination, and the time and day you wish to travel: it will be more than enough to secure your booking.

In any case, Shinkansen trains always have one or two cars for unreserved passengers. If you are in hurry just ask the conductor… or just board the train. The car for passengers without a reservation are always clearly marked or you can find them once you are on board. With the exception of golden week and other national holidays, and weekends on some routes, you should easily find a seat.

On express trains (tokkyu, in Japanese) if you don’t have a booking you will have to choose seats marked with a red light. Those with a green liked are booked and those with a yellow one are those where a passenger is expected to arrive soon.

The red and green lights on Japanese trains show which seats are available

The red and green lights on Japanese trains show which seats are available

More info?

These are a few useful links where you can find more information on these topics. Have a nice trip!

Check out my book!

Horizon Japan is available on on Amazon as ebook or paperback (and all the other major stores). More info here

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Very useful post, thank you! I’d love to visit Japan sometime soon 🙂

    July 1, 2016
    • patrickcolgan #

      Thank you! An amazing country. After my first trip I have returned many times, and always love it!

      July 14, 2016
  2. thanks for guidelines for japan rail pass.

    December 12, 2016

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