The Japan Rail Pass is known for being one of the best deals you can get for traveling in Japan. But….is the Japan Rail Pass worth it for everyone? If you don’t plan on traveling a lot within Japan, or you are short on time, the JR Pass might not be your best option.
What is the JR Rail Pass?
Traveling by bullet train, or shinkansen, is iconic of Japan and most people looking to visit have come across the JR Pass. It provides a great cost/benefit ratio for people looking to travel by bullet train.
Contrary to popular belief, I have found that the pass is often not the best deal for traveling within Japan. This largely depends on how you’d like to travel, but there are plenty of other options that may save you more money in the long run.
Who Buys the JR Rail Pass?
The JR Rail Pass is for foreign tourists visiting Japan. The eligibility requirements state that the pass can only be used by people on a temporary visitor visa. The longest pass is valid for 21 days. The days must be used consecutively from the first travel date, and the pass is nontransferable.
Can I Use the Japan Rail Pass on All JR Trains?
The Nozomi and Mizuho trains on the Tokaido, Sanyo, and Kyushu Shinkansen lines are exempt from the pass, but the remaining trains are still pretty fast.
Japan Rail Pass Prices
Ordinary Adult Passes
- 7 – day pass: 29,110 yen
- 14 – day pass: 46,390 yen
- 21 – day pass: 59,350 yen
Ordinary Child Passes
- 7 – day pass: 14,550 yen
- 14 – day pass: 23,190 yen
- 21 – day pass: 29,670 yen
Green Adult Passes (Superior-Class Green Car Seats)
- 7 – day pass: 38,880 yen
- 14 – day pass: 62,950 yen
- 21 – day pass: 81,870 yen
Green Child Passes
- 7 – day pass: 19,440 yen
- 14 – day pass: 31,470 yen
- 21 – day pass: 40,930 yen
To put these prices into perspective, if you were to purchase a round-trip ticket from Tokyo Station to Kyoto Station, the cost would be around 26,160 yen. A round-trip ticket on a direct train from Tokyo Station to Hiroshima Station is 36,080 yen.
When these prices and the speed of the trains are taken into consideration, the JR Rail Pass is definitely a good deal for travelers with time constraints who are also looking for a degree of comfort during their trip.
But what if you’re a traveler who prefers to spend more than a week in each city before moving on? The JR Pass is designed so that the cost is roughly one big intercity trip per 7 days, making it not the most economical choice for slower travelers. And if you’re a traveler on a non-tourist visa (working holiday, working visa, student visa, etc.), the JR Rail Pass isn’t even an option.
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What Are the Alternatives?
There are a few alternatives to the famous bullet train, most of which are less costly. Highway buses, low-cost carrier airlines, the Seishun 18 pass, and car & ETC pass rental are a few options that we’ll be discussing.
If you’re interested in the JR Rail Pass to avoid having to calculate individual ticket sales, most cities in Japan have a prepaid IC card option that makes trip planning simple.
To enter the ticket gate, just tap the card on the reader and tap it again on your way out. An IC card can be used for to ride most trains, public buses, some shops, and even vending machines. There’s usually a refundable 500 yen deposit that goes on the card, but I’ve found they make great souvenirs.
Highway Bus (高速バス)
Highway buses are a great low-cost option that was mostly inaccessible to foreigners because the booking websites were only in Japanese.
This has changed considerably in recent years, especially with the expansion of the Shinjuku Bus Terminal in Tokyo. If you book early enough (usually at least 3 months in advance), you can find one-way tickets from Tokyo to Kyoto for only 3,500 yen, making this the most cost-effective intercity transportation method.
Willer Express, a major highway bus company, has a Japan Bus Pass that is available to all people holding a non-Japanese passport. The pass has 3, 5, and 7-day options and does not have to be used consecutively.
Willer Express is mostly Honshu-only, although it does have a route each for Kyushu and Shikoku.
Cons of Highway Buses
The main downside of buses is that they take longer than most other travel options in Japan. Many buses run overnight to combat this. A highway bus might depart from Shinjuku around 11:00pm and arrive at Kyoto Station around 6:00am the following morning.
For an especially budget-conscious traveler, this saves on both transportation and lodging – although you might be pretty tired the next morning.
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Low-Cost Carrier Airlines (LCCs)
In addition to JAL and ANA, the big airlines in Japan, there are also low-cost carrier airlines that can take you around the country at more reasonable prices. Airlines to check out include Skymark Airlines, Peach Aviation, Jetstar Japan, Vanilla Air, Spring Airlines, Air Asia Japan, Air Do, Starflyer, Solaseed Air, Fuji Dream Airlines, and IBEX Airlines. Not all LCCs in Japan have English websites available, but I’ve linked to the webpage of each in case that changes in the future.
Like with most air travel, booking relatively far in advance usually gives you the best deal. Keeping this in mind, you can find flights from Tokyo to Sapporo from around 12,000 yen round trip. A flight from Tokyo to Okinawa is approximately 14,000 yen round trip. I think flying is definitely the way to go for inter-island trips.
Cons of Low-Cost Carriers
Unfortunately, not all areas of Japan are served affordably. The big airlines are fighting to keep their monopoly in smaller, regional airports, so don’t expect to get far off the beaten path with LCCs alone.
There’s also the issue of time. Most domestic flights in Japan require you arrive at least 90 minutes, if not earlier, before your flight departs so that you can check your bags, go through security, etc. This doesn’t include the time it takes to get to the airport. Keep in mind that most airports are some distance from the city. In the end, flying ends up taking at least half a day or more.
The Seishun 18 Pass (青春18きっぷ)
The Seishun 18 Pass is a ticket that’s available seasonally during school breaks. It provides 5 days of unlimited travel throughout Japan on local and rapid JR trains (no bullet trains) and costs 11,850 yen.
Like the JR Pass, this ticket cannot be used at automatic ticket gates; you must go through a manned ticket gate so that railway staff can issue you a stamp. The ticket is also valid on other select routes, such as the JR Miyajima Ferry.
A particularly attractive aspect of this pass is that it can be used by multiple riders at the same time. Each rider uses a “day” on the pass. For instance, a group of 5 people could use the pass for 1 day of travel or a group of 2 people could use the pass for 2 days of travel with 1 day left over. If you’re traveling as a group, keep in mind that you need to stay together for the ticket to be valid.
Cons of the Seishun 18 Pass
A big downside of the pass is the time it takes to travel. The pass is only available on local and rapid trains. As such, it can take close to 16 hours to reach Hiroshima from Tokyo. I don’t recommend it for long distance travel, but some people enjoy the freedom to hop off at will that local trains provide.
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You can purchase the Seishun 18 at most JR stations in Japan. You should probably note, however, that this option is only available during 3 different sales periods. The dates vary a bit from year to year, so please check out the website for details.
There are also plenty of local train passes that provide decent value and often have other discounts (such as restaurant, bus, and attraction discounts) mixed in. It would be a bit difficult for me to provide an exhaustive list, but I will provide some links to help you with your research.
JR East has a list of passes on their website. Most of them, but not all, require you to be on a tourist visa, so make sure to check out their eligibility requirements if there’s a pass you’re interested in.
Non-JR pass options require a bit more digging, but I’ll post a few of the bigger ones. The SUNQ Pass in Kyushu, Tobu Railway passes in the Tokyo area, Odakyu Railway passes in the Tokyo area, Meitetsu Railways in the Nagoya area, Nishitetsu in the Fukuoka Area, and Kintetsu Railways in the Kyoto-Nara-Osaka area all have great offers.
I can personally vouch for the Odakyu Railway Hakone Freepass being a great deal. Transportation in Hakone was significantly more expensive than I expected.
I easily spent more than the price of the pass on the first day and regretted not purchasing it. The pass includes a round-trip fare to Shinjuku, unlimited rides for 2 or 3 days on most of Hakone’s buses, and a wide variety of discounts at local museums, historical sites, restaurants, etc.
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Car & ETC Rental
If you’re traveling in a group of at least 3 people, I recommend looking into renting a car. It isn’t as expensive as it is in Europe and if you’re not too picky about the model, it can be lower than 7,000 yen/day. Gasoline prices are higher than they are in the USA, but are still lower than in most other developed countries. The real expense is in the highway tolls, which are charged by the kilometer and add up very quickly.
ETC, or Electronic Toll Collection, is the most common way tolls are deducted in Japan. There is usually a small discount for people using an ETC instead of paying with cash.
Unfortunately, these cards have a similar application process as a credit card, making them impossible for foreign visitors to obtain. Recently, however, there has been a surge of ETC rental options. NEXCO (Nippon Expressway Company) also has several unlimited ETC passes for certain areas around Japan.
If you can get a group together, the price per person drops significantly and ends up being cheaper than most other options.
Highway buses might still end up being cheaper, but being able to stop on a whim and have a more customized trip is a solid trade-off.
Despite the tolls, I’ve found that the total cost is still considerably less than paying for all the JR trains in rural Japan, which calculate fare based on the kilometers traveled.
Cons of Renting a Car
This option is dependent on at least one person both being licensed to drive and being able to drive in Japan.
If you’re from a country with an agreement with Japan, you only need your license and a certified translation of it.
Otherwise, you’ll need an international driver’s permit within a year of its date of issue. They also drive on the left of the road, which may be a bit intimidating for drivers from right-side countries.
As a side note, hitchhiking is also an alternative to the JR Rail Pass.
However, it does come with a degree of risk and requires a tolerable level of Japanese. It’s also easy for you to break the law by mistake. As such, I won’t go into all the details here. You can read up on it yourself with a google search if it appeals to you.
Is the Japan Rail Pass a Waste of Money?
All-in-all, there are plenty of great value options available depending on your needs.
The JR Pass provides a very specific experience for foreign tourists, and while I agree that it’s a fantastic deal, it shouldn’t be considered the most economical method of travel in Japan.
I personally think it’s a bit of a waste of money because there are cheaper options available, but I recommend you do your research to find the option that’s best for you. This is especially true if you don’t plan on traveling to different cities during your trip.
Drop us a comment below if you have any insights or questions about the Japan Rail Pass. Have fun traveling!
- All train trip prices were obtained through Navitime’s trip calculator
- Other trip prices (flights, car rentals, etc) were obtained through several company websites and averaged