*Keep reading to see a spreadsheet of every single JR Pass-eligible ride that I took, along with the prices for each ride!
If you’re traveling to Japan, you’ll hear many people recommend the JR Pass. It’s true that transportation makes up a huge portion of your budget any time you travel. In a higher-cost country like Japan, do you know how to get around?
What is the JR Pass?
The pass is issued by the Japanese government for publically-owned transportation lines. They reach basically across the country. You can find a map of all the routes here. Japan has wonderful tourist infrastructure that includes the ability of foreign tourists (and some other exceptions) to buy this glorious one-size-fits-all pass that allows you unlimited travel on the country’s JR lines. Sounds amazing, right?
That’s until you see the prices. Their value in US dollars change slightly according to the exchange rate; you can see the approximate prices below:
[I do NOT endorse these websites, and did not use them to purchase my pass. I cannot vouch for the trustworthiness of these websites.]
Though there is some variation in the pricing, the price for a single adult in a standard car for 14 days is approximately $440. At this time, exchange rates are approximate 1 USD to 106.6 JPY.
Whether you’re visiting Japan for 7, 14, or 21 days, those prices aren’t negligible. These passes are not cheap, especially if you’re traveling as a group or family. Children above the age of 12 qualify for adult prices. Passes can only be bought outside the country (including online) and redeemed upon arrival, but are nonrefundable once they are bought. You can’t “take a day off” after you start using them; once you activate your pass, the days of use must be consecutive. And while Japan is an expensive country, those prices still might make you hesitant.
Before I bought my pass, I tried to do some research into the value of JR Passes. However, I couldn’t find real data about them. My aunt, an experienced traveler to Japan, cautioned me to look at the alternative local and regional passes, calculate their prices, and compare them to the JR Pass. While this is a great option for numbers-lovers and people with a lot of spare time, I am neither. My flight to Japan was sneaking up on me, so I bought a pass for convenience and hoped that I could make the most of it.
[Recommended Read: Everything You Need to Know About Japan]
How I Bought a JR Pass
If you search on the internet, there are many websites claiming to sell JR Passes. Because Japan allows many, many registered travel agencies to sell them, it’s hard to know from the internet alone whether the websites are good or a scam. You have to do your own research on this one. The best way to do it is find out whether your city or a city you are traveling to (outside Japan) has travel agencies that sell them. If you walk into a physical office or trust that company, the risk of scam is much lower.
I went into a travel agency in Taipei, Taiwan. The whole process took me about 20 minutes from start to finish; the representative gave me some short forms to fill out and charged my credit card. I left with a small envelope with a Pass voucher, receipt, and pamphlets. The voucher was for me to hold onto until I took it to be exchanged at any designated location in Japan (these were listed in the pamphlet and mostly included airports and larger train stations).
How I Used My Pass
You don’t have to use your pass right away; you don’t have to redeem it upon landing and start using it right away. In fact, you can go to the redemption counter and tell them when you want to start using the pass. They will print that date on your pass, and it will be valid starting then. You just need your voucher and your passport, and to fill out a short form that has both Japanese and English on it.
I was in Hiroshima so I went to the main train station and easily exchanged my voucher to an actual pass. These are valid for regular city trains and the Shinkansen, which are the Japanese bullet trains that can take you from city to city in a surprisingly short time (1 hour from Kyoto to Nagoya!). The Shinkansen have different names in different parts of the country, which is confusing when you first start out, because the express (no stops at smaller stops) and most expensive ones are not available for your use.
To limit my confusion, I would walk up to a ticket counter and show the agent my Pass and get a reserved seat. The little ticket shows your origin, destination, time, seat, and platform. Before I learned how it worked, I went ahead and exchanged a reserved seat when I got ready to use the Shinkansen every time to ensure I knew when and where to go.
In general, you don’t need to get reserved seats except for very peak times. Trains run very frequently (every 10-20 minutes) with 10+ compartments, and special designated areas for non-reserved seats.
For the Shinkansen or regular trains, you only have to flash the Pass to the people at the gate to be let through. There is no scanning involved.
Yes, I Got My Money’s Worth – By A Lot
In short, I ended up using about $150 of extra value from my pass.
According to my credit card statement, I paid $395.47 for my pass. In April 2016, during my trip to Japan, the exchange rate was about 1USD to 110JPY. This translates to about 43,501.7 JPY. The total value of all my JR-eligible rides was 60,290 JPY, or $548.10 at the 110JPY exchange rate, or about 38.6% more value than what I paid.
Prices for each ride were obtained from the ticket booth maps directly (for most local trips) or from Hyperdia, which is an official website in English, Japanese, and Chinese. It can tell you how to use public transportation to go anywhere in Japan – super useful!
[Recommended Read: How to Learn a Completely New Language While Abroad]
The pass provides a lot of advantages that make it very attractive. The most obvious is a potential for great value. For my trip every ride I took was almost 40% off. Any time you can get that great of a discount on something you need anyway, you are stupid not to take it. If you’re staying exactly 7, 14, or 21 days, you can use it to get you from the airport to the city, which might be expensive otherwise. Getting the whole-country pass gives you more flexibility; you don’t have to worry about leaving value on the pass when you decide to move from city to city.
The pass can be used to get you almost anywhere, with few exceptions. The trains are always on time and usually run often (unless you are visiting a rural area). If you get to the platform one second after the designated time, the train may already have left. Many companies allow you to pay for the pass with a credit card, which you can earn rewards on rather than buying tickets with cash every time. (Rewards for this purchase ended up to be about $8.) Because you pay for the pass beforehand, you don’t have to carry or convert as much cash during your trip.
From purely this standpoint, this pass is clearly an INCREDIBLE deal.
Caveats and drawbacks
That said, I may have been better off not buying the pass.
(But Alice! You said that 40% off is stupid for anyone to turn down!)
That’s completely true, but it belies the non-monetary costs that the pass came with. The most significant is the fact that my itinerary contained a good amount of non-JR travel. Japan provides both JR (public) and non-JR (private) transportation services, and the proportion of each differs greatly from city to city. The price of non-JR travel didn’t add up much because the JR Pass covered the big, inter-city trains, but it was enough to make a dent. This was especially true in the Kyoto area, which is one of the most beautiful and worthwhile cities in Japan to see, but only has two JR lines that take you to only one main attraction. Private buses and rail serve the vast majority of the rest of the area. In Tokyo, my hotel location was near a private subway stop, so I bought single-ride tickets in my time there.
In many other cases, the JR lines to an attraction existed, but it took significantly longer than a non-JR line. My “MUST GET VALUE FROM PASS” mindset ruled, so I spent several unnecessary hours on trains. Since I had no other responsibilities during this travel time, it didn’t impact me much. For someone who needs to save time, this may be a factor to consider.
When I planned my itinerary, I also leaned towards farther attractions than ones directly in the city. I typically like to walk around the city and see what it has to offer, but since I could use transportation freely, I visited most of the UNESCO sites available. The ones in Japan are stunning – the people have done a wonderful job of preserving their history, but I probably wouldn’t have made special trips to some of them without the pass.
Along those lines, I changed my plans several times during my trip. This is more caveat than drawback, since I love that the JR Pass allowed me to change them for free, but I would have tried to rearrange my hotel and hostel reservations if I didn’t have the Pass. For example, I loved my stay at the Park Inn in Osaka* because I had a private room for less than $14/night. I couldn’t find a good deal for Nara, my next stop, so I decided to stay in Osaka because I could take free transportation anyways. After that, I made a special round trip between Nagoya and Narita (would not normally recommend) because there was a special Drum Festival in Narita, and I went from Kyoto to Nagoya and back just to have dinner with my aunt, who was visiting the area with my uncle.
It’s in my nature to make the most of something I have already paid for, and taking those extra trips is part of it!
If you don’t want to buy a JR Pass, there are plenty of other options. For major areas (such as Tokyo and Kansai – the region with Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe), regional passes are available. These may cover more transportation than the national JR Pass. For example, the Tokyo Pass but not the JR Pass covers the route to the lakes around Mount Fuji.
In Kyoto, there are many bike rental shops around the main train station. The station tourist information desk has all their brochures, and each rental shop provides you with a special map. A bike can be very cheap (one gear can cost just 800 JPY) to more expensive, and most shops have electric-powered bikes or motorbikes if you aren’t sure about your biking abilities. They also have several incentives if you rent the bikes for multiple days, or may allow you to pick up the bikes the night before and use it for over 24 hours.
For Kyoto (and other areas), the tourist information center at the main train station sells city bus, private rail, or combined passes that can be a good deal if you take these options for the day. In Kyoto, where the JR lines are sparse, this is a great option.
In most cases, the JR Pass is worth it if you are traveling to several areas of Japan, but watch out for an excess desire to use the pass or situations in which paying for other transportation techniques are preferable.
[Recommended Read: Don’t Pay Your Bank!]
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Have you used the JR Pass? What are your tips for using it?