One of the biggest costs in visiting Japan after flights and accommodation, is transport – travelling around the country. Purchasing a Japan Rail Pass is one way to save money on your travel costs, but the pass itself is quite costly – it will quite possibly be one of your biggest expenses in Japan. So – is a Japan Rail Pass worth it?
The best way to determine whether a Japan Rail Pass is worth it, is to plan ahead. A pass is a big financial investment, so therefore it’s wise to also invest time in researching your actual costs and whether you’ll save any money by purchasing a pass. Here is everything you need to know about transport in Japan, and how to go about determining if a Japan Rail Pass is worth it for you.
Transport in Japan
Transport in Japan is made up of high speed bullet trains – shinkansens – express trains, local trains, trams, subways and buses. The majority of lines are owned by Japan Rail, however some are privately owned. Japan Rail lines are indicated by the prefix ‘JR’ before the name of the particular line. The Japan Rail Pass gives you unlimited use of all ‘JR’ lines within a certain period of time. The bullet trains are included in the Japan Rail pass (except Nozomi and Mizuho shinkansens), providing you with an incredibly fast way to get around the country.
How Long is the Pass Valid For?
The Japan Rail Pass is available as a 7, 14 or 21 day pass. Once you’ve determined how long you are spending in Japan and where you wish to visit, you can work out what pass would suit you best. Note that these passes run for consecutive days – you can’t select which 7 days you wish to use the pass, only the starting date and the pass will then be valid the following 7 days. Therefore it’s wise to plan for all your major, long distance travel to fall within the window of the passes validity.
Work Out Your Itinerary
The Japan Rail Pass pays for itself when you travel longer distances, rather than shorter distances. It’s no point purchasing a 7 day pass and using it straight away if you plan on spending several days in Tokyo first, when you’ll likely be travelling on short distance local trains and subways (which are not even covered by the pass). Instead, opt to start the pass for when you plan to leave the city on your first ‘long distance’ trip. It is incredibly easy to cover a LOT of ground in Japan by travelling on the shinkansen, so whilst you might be on the move every other day during your travels in Japan – by doing so you not only see more of the country but also make the best use of your pass.
Determine What Your Travel Costs Will Be
We used the English website Hyperdia to plan all our travel in Japan. The website is not only useful for checking train times when you’re actually in Japan, but also to look up the costs of various train travel to help you plan ahead.
On the website, you can enter both your start and finish destination – the website will then generate the next five available routes. Whilst you’re still in the planning stage, the main information you want is the cost – which is displayed in Japanese Yen in the top left. You can then keep a tally of all the fare costs for all the travel you wish to do in the country.
You may wish to travel from Tokyo to Kyoto and then back, and determine that the return shinkansen trip is still cheaper than purchasing the pass – therefore it doesn’t offer you any savings. However, if you were to travel Tokyo to Kyoto, to Osaka and then onto Hiroshima – via bullet train to save you the most time – the total cost of this travel exceeds the cost of the pass you want, therefore saving you money and worth the purchase.
Purchasing a Japan Rail Pass
Once you’ve made the decision that purchasing a Japan Rail Pass IS worth it, you need to make sure you do this prior to entering Japan. Why? Because they’re not available within the country. There are a number of reputable agents who sell the Japan Rail Pass – we purchased ours through Japan Rail Pass by Japan Experience. Our order arrived in just 3 days via Fed-Ex and we were able to track our order online, and we had no issues!
Note that you won’t physically receive a Japan Rail Pass in the post, but an exchange order. Once in Japan, you present the exchange order at the JR office within your nearest major station (a list is included with your exchange order), and they will present you with a pass. This is when you nominated the date you wish for it to start.
Categories of Japan Rail Passes
There are two classes of Japan Rail passes – Ordinary and Green 1st Class. The difference between the passes is that the Green 1st Class enables you to ride in the 1st class carriages of the shinkansens which are supposedly more roomy than ordinary. However, after riding in ordinary class we can assure you that there’s more than enough room here! Purchasing the Green 1st Class also means you must reserve ALL your trains. It costs nothing to do this, however it does mean that rather than arrive at the station and jump on the next train, you must reserve your seat via the JR office. We rode in non-reserved carriages the entire time and never had a problem getting a seat. We also liked the freedom of not being locked into a reserved train – if we decided to sleep in, we could, and we would just take a later train. Whichever Japan Rail Pass you purchase is up to you, but we couldn’t fault an ordinary pass.
Using the Japan Rail Pass in Japan
Once your Japan Rail Pass is activated, you can then use it to ride all JR modes of transport. On arriving at any station, rather than using the turnstiles, enter your train via the staffed window and show the staff member your pass. Apparently they can ask to see your passport also – we were never asked, but carried them with us anyway.
Once on the train, a conductor will come pass asking to see your ticket – all you need to do is show them your pass. Upon exiting the station after your journey, you simply exit via the staffed window showing them your pass once again.
Another benefit to having the pass was not having to buy individual tickets for each journey – the queues for the machines and shinkansen offices in major stations were crazy long – with a pass, you never have to line up.
How Much Did We Save?
We purchased a 14 day Japan Rail Pass for our 22 day trip to Japan. With a few days in Osaka at the start, and several days in Tokyo at the end, we planned for the bulk of our travel to fall within the middle 14 days to make the most of our pass. However as we were travelling at a somewhat slower pace, we did have a few stops where we were based for a few days – therefore not making use of the pass. In fact, there were 5 days out of the 14 where we did not use our JR Pass at all! Despite this, in 14 days we racked up a total of $819.41 AUD of travel EACH across various JR modes of transport. As we purchased our 14 day pass for $525.00 AUD each, this means we saved nearly $300.00 AUD per person on our travel costs. Just imagine how much more value we could have gotten out of our passes if we’d travelled even more!
So in summary, is a Japan Rail Pass worth it? For us, yes. We were able to see a huge amount of the country in very little time, travelled in comfort and enjoyed every minute of it. However, we did our homework prior and knew that we would in fact be saving money by spending money on the Japan Rail Pass.
Our advice? Japan is a country that not a lot of people get to travel to because it’s so expensive. If you are lucky enough to visit, the reality is you may only do it once. Wouldn’t you want to make the most of your visit and see as much as possible? The best way to see as much as possible in Japan is to take the high speed shinkansens – you could visit a new destination nearly every day travelling this way. Whether you’re visiting for 10 days or 20 days, by planning your trip in advance and reviewing your expected costs, you’ll find that purchasing a Japan Rail Pass will not only save you time – both in travel and not having to purchase tickets every time you enter a station – but it WILL save you money.
Did you find this post helpful? Have you travelled in Japan on a Japan Rail Pass before? How did you find it? Let us know in the comments below!