Updated: May 15, 2019
You’ve decided to travel to Japan and you’re deliberating methods of transport to get to all of your desired tourist destinations. You’ve had a quick google and suddenly you’re baffled by various websites telling you about the JR Pass/Japan Rail Pass.
While researching prior to my trip I couldn’t seem to find a blog or video that made it clear to me what exactly this pass was. Did I need one? How expensive was Japan without it? How did I get one? How did I use it? HELP! Train and subway travel around Japan is incredibly efficient. You can get a train to the smallest of towns in the middle of nowhere. But, it comes at a price. Depending how far you’re travelling and how long you’re staying in Japan, it can be quite expensive. So long that cheap trip to Japan! But Japan is worth the pricey public transport, I promise.
So…What is the JR Pass?
It is a train ticket that gives you unlimited access to all JR trains, subway lines and buses. It’s a bit like a bus or train pass you may have in your own country. You pay for the pass in advance, the price dependent on the time span you’ll be using it for, and you can travel without having to worry about carrying cash for tickets. Only have two minutes to get through to the platform to catch a train? No worries, breeze on through without faffing around with the ticket machines! It’s easy and means you don’t have to worry about transport money while you’re travelling. Japan is a cash based society, you’ll be lucky to find ticket machines that accept credit cards. Do you really want to have to worry about carrying huge amounts of cash for trains? No, we’ve got more important things to buy like Japans delicious sweet treats! There are three pass options. A 7 day, 14 day and 21 day pass. Here’s a rough exchange rate on the pass prices.
As you can see, it’s not cheap. So…if I get one will I be using it every day?
What it covers:
As previously said it covers all JR train, subway and bus lines. The JR lines run throughout the whole of Japan. (Click for a detailed map of JR lines) Tokyo Subway has 5 major JR lines that will get you to most of the popular sight seeing parts of the city: Yamanote Line, Keihin-Tohoku Line, Chuo/Sobu Line (Local), Chuo Line (Rapid), Saikyo Line and the Shinkansen. If you wish to jump on a line that is not a JR line you’ll need to buy a ticket or alternatively you can use these IC cards..
These IC cards are easy to use; buy one at a train ticket machine and top it up with money. As you pass through the platform gates tap the card against the machine on top. Do the same as you exit and it’ll calculate how far you travelled and charge you accordingly. The machine has a screen that will flash how much it’s charging you and how much is left on your card. Each city has a different IC card design but they all work no matter what city you are using it in Okay so, now there are JR Passes, IC cards and normal tickets? What do I use?! You’ll hate my answer…but it depends how long you are staying in Japan and where you are travelling to.
Only staying in Tokyo for a few days? Forget the JR pass and get an IC card. You’re probably only going to be using the subway lines.
Spending 2-3 weeks travelling around various destination, maybe even a few provinces meaning lots of trains? The JR Pass could be cost effective for you.
Is it your wildest dream to ride the Shinkansen Bullet trains around Japan? JR paaaasss!
I spent 17 days in Japan. I began my trip in Hokkaido. I then flew to Tokyo before taking the bullet train to Osaka. When I first reached Hokkaido I needed to get 2 trains to Asahikawa, where I was staying. Those 2 trains would have cost me 70 dollars had I not had the pass. Note I needed to do a return journey also. The bullet train from Tokyo to Osaka was 150-160 dollars. The cheapest tickets for the slow trains still meant you were 120 dollars out of pocket. Unless you wanted to spend 8 hours on a bus for 30 dollars... no thanks! The JR pass covered it.
That was 2-3 days of travel out of my 17 day itinerary already covered by my pass.
In Hokkaido I used the trains to explore the towns of Asahikawa, Biei, Sapporo, Noboribetsu and transport to the airport.
In Tokyo I used the JR subway lines and the Shinkansen Bullet train to Osaka.
While staying in Osaka I travelled to Kyoto, Nara, Himeji and Koyasan.
I travelled a lot. And it was all covered by my pass. There were times when the pass did not cover my journey. I did a 2 day trip to Mt Fuji. The bus was the better option for travel on those days. I didn’t see many JR buses around but maybe I was looking in the wrong place for them. There was the odd time where I’d board a JR pass line and then have to transfer onto a non- JR line. This really only happened in Osaka where I was transferring onto the local metro line to get to my hotel after a day trip to another town.
The Nozomi and Mizuho Shinkansen trains on the Tokaido, Sanyo and Kyushu lines are not a JR line. You need to take the Hikari, Sakura, Kodama or Tsubame trains to avoid paying for an expensive ticket. They are slightly slower by 30 minutes or so but its free on your pass.
So it depends on your itinerary! Only you can decide. Good luck and may the odds forever be in your favour!
How do I purchase one?
Go to the Japan Rail website (www.jrpass.com) and just click ‘order your pass’ in the top right hand corner of the homepage. You will have to purchase this pass a good few days minimum in advance before going to Japan. You cannot buy this pass when you arrive. Why?
The Japan Rail company sends you ‘exchange forms.’ You’ll get a letter in the post with pass instructions and forms you need to take to a JR information desk once you land in Japan. Then you will exchange those forms for the actual pass. Note these JR offices are where you can pick up and activate your pass. (click the link, will open a new tab) All you need to do is give them your passport and forms then will give you your pass. They will ask you if you wish to activate your pass that very same day. I chose to, but you can decide to activate your pass at any time. Your 7,14 or 21 days begin the first time you use it not when you pick it up.
How do I use it?
The train and subway stations will have small offices to the side of the gates with a staff member stood by the window. Pass through here and show them your pass. They’ll give you a nod and you can keep walking. Nod back if you feel cool or mutter a poorly pronounced ‘Arigatou gozaimasu’ You do this to enter and exit the station. Trains have unreserved and reserved carriages. Obviously, you need a reserved ticket to sit in a reserved seat. It’s not always necessary unless you’re riding the Shinkansen Bullet trains, although be aware the unreserved seating doesn’t guarantee you a seat and the trains can sometimes get busy. If you're travelling with suitcases reserved will be less stressful.
If you want to book a reserved ticket for a train you need to go to a JR information desk, tell them which train you’re getting and they’ll give you a reserved ticket. The reserved tickets do not cost extra, this is covered by your pass! Whoo free luxury seats! You’ll need to show the gate officer this ticket alongside your pass when you enter the platforms.
Is it worth it? Lemme work it...
My pass made my travelling so much easier. I travelled somewhere every day and I can only imagine how much cash I would have needed to carry if I didn’t have it.
'Japan Travel' App gives you the option to select only JR Line routes if you really want to maximise your pass.
There was a small portion of my trip where I had both an IC card and the JR pass in my pocket and I developed the worst OCD of checking they were both still there every few minutes. If you lose your JR pass you cannot get a replacement. I like to make travelling easy for myself and being able to cruise through the platform gates while my mind was preoccupied with figuring out where the heck I was going, decreased the travelling stress just a little. And that is the run down on the JR pass! Let me know if you have any questions and thanks for reading! Make sure to be subscribed to my youtube channel to catch 'My first few hours in Japan' video , which includes my JR pass pick up, wifi rental and travelling to Sapporo!