I’ve only been back in Berlin for a full week, but Japan is starting to feel like a lifetime ago.
With so many experiences packed into our trip, it’s hard to believe we were gone for only two weeks and not two months. We traveled through bustling metropoles, dense forests, mountain towns, and natural canyons. Our busiest days, we were in four locations before dusk! Japan was as immersive as any country I have ever seen — and such extensive travel was only financially feasible thanks to the JR Pass.
When you’re traveling as extensively as we did, the JR Pass is an incredible deal for the money. But it all depends on where you’re going, and what distances you’ll cover.
Why travel Japan by train?
Japan’s infrastructure and train network truly distinguishes the country from the rest of the world. Trains in Japan are freaky fast, luxuriously comfortable, and reliable like no other.
In 2014, a bullet train’s average delay was 54 seconds.
With the rising popularity of train travel, airlines have struggled to attract travelers, even with rock-bottom ticket prices. It’s no surprise that they have trouble competing with such impeccable train service.
If you’re going to travel long distances in Japan, train is the way to do it. I found traveling by train a relaxing way to rest after a busy day of sight-seeing, as well as the perfect opporunity to read up on the next destination in my itinerary.
What is a JR Pass?
JR, short for Japan Railways, is a company that owns a dominating portion of the nation’s railway systems. You can get from the southern reaches of Kyushu to Hokkaido in the north by riding exclusively JR trains.
Map of lines covered by the JR Pass - Note that this is slightly out of date, despite being on the official website. For example, Toyama → Nagano is now connected by shinkansen. As of 2016, you can also travel by bullet train to Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan.
The JR Pass gives you unlimited access to all the trains run by Japan Railways, as well as some partner trains, ferries, etc. There are regional variations of the pass, such as Toyko-area, JR West, and JR East. The most popular pass covers all areas. In short: You can take unlimited trains through all three main islands of Japan with this rail pass!
Some of Japan’s most beautiful landscapes can be seen by train. These photos were taking traveling to, and returning from, Takayama in the Japan Alps.
How much does a JR Pass cost?
Presuming you’re an adult and you want to take the normal train, the costs are as follows:
|Duration||Cost ¥||Cost $||Cost €|
Who qualifies for the JR Pass?
Luckily, pretty much any foreign tourist qualifies. The only people who don’t get to enjoy the wonder of the JR Pass are Japan nationals living in Japan and permanent residents. You have to be coming into Japan as a “temporary visitor”, which is the visa granted to most visitors on entry.
How do you use a JR Pass?
Normally, you can just walk through an attended ticket checkpoint, flash your pass with the date facing up, and walk through. Outside of Tokyo, no one really bothers checking the date.
Some trains require that you make a seat reservation, and others don’t. When you need to take a “reserved” train (it’ll be indicated when you’re looking up times on a website like Hyperdia), you simply go to the ticket office the same day, wait in line, show your pass, and they’ll print out some nice, teal tickets for you and make a note in your pass about your reserved train.
These tickets were from our trip from Osaka to Takayama, which would have cost ¥11,820 ($108/96€). Already 1⁄4 of the cost of our JR Pass saved in one set of tickets!
What is (and isn’t) covered by the JR Pass?
Luckily, what’s covered by the JR Pass is totally sufficient to get around Japan. But you will end up with some extra expenses for local transit, such as bus fare, metro tickets, and possibly even a non-JR train (you can only take a JR train part-way to Mt. Fuji, for example).
The most important part of the JR Pass, in my humble opinion, is that it grants you access to the shinkansen, popularly called “bullet train”. This makes it possible to get traverse huge distances over Japan in a much shorter time than you could taking trains in Europe, for example. There are different types of shinkansen, two of which are restricted. Generally, this doesn’t affect your choices.
Some routes are not accessible by the shinkansen, and you’ll take a normal train to get there instead. The best is the “Wide View” train, which has huge windows for viewing the gorgeous Japanese landscape.
The JR Pass also covers the (rather cheap) ferry ride from Hiroshima to Miyajima. I wouldn’t say this is a “key feature” of the pass, however.
Within Tokyo, you can use JR lines to get around — for example, the “ring” route, Yamanote Line, which can get you through areas like Akihabara, Ginza, and Shibuya, is “free” with the JR Pass. Generally, the JR area and the non-JR area are separated in many train stations, so you can just show your pass and you’re on your way to the train!
Lastly, you can also use the pass on the Tokyo monorail, which is handy if you fly into or out of Haneda airport. Tokyo’s other airport, Narita, is also connected to the city by a JR line called NEX, Narita Express. Either way, getting to and from Tokyo’s airports are covered.
Get to the point! When is the JR Pass worth it?
When planning your itinerary, it’s easy to see how much the individual train rides would cost you otherwise. One of the easiest ways is just to put the two cities into Google Maps. Google will usually give you a price in yen for the cost of the trip. However, this isn’t very detailed information per se — you can save about 1,000 yen by opting against “reserved seating” (which is only an option on some trains — others are fully reserved, and you are required to pick a seat in advance).
Another good way to plan costs is using Hyperdia, but you have to be sure to adjust the times/dates accordingly (considering the time difference) to get accurate results.
This is perhaps the key for deciding whether or not you’re likely to need the JR pass during your trip to Japan: Are you taking at least one longer-distance train ride? If so, just getting to and from this destination may make up for the lion’s share of the cost of your JR Pass.
Making the most of the 7-day JR Pass
Here’s a sample itinerary that would just barely make up for the cost of the JR Pass in 7-days:
As you can see, the only long distance is between the Kansai region of Japan, and Tokyo.
|1. Tokyo → Kyoto||¥14,320||3. Kyoto → Osaka||¥410|
|2. Kyoto ↔ Nara||¥1,130 (x2)||4. Osaka → Tokyo||¥14,870|
With JR Pass: ¥29,110, Without: ¥31,86.
Not immense savings — yet! But if you take the trip to Takayama in the Japan Alps and cut out the cheap day trip to Nara, the savings become more apparant:
Just adding 4. Takayama results in more savings, because you’re taking two longer-distance train rides.
|1. Tokyo → Kyoto||¥14,320||3. Osaka → Takayama||¥11,050|
|2. Kyoto → Osaka||¥410||4. Takayama → Tokyo||¥13,760|
With JR Pass: ¥29,110, without: 39,540. That’s about $90 or 80€ in savings!
In short: If you’re a first-time traveler to Japan, it’s unlikely you’ll travel far enough to manage immense savings with the JR Pass. However, the convenience of not having to buy tickets for every single trip could also outweigh a small difference in cost.
Making the most of the 14-day JR Pass
That said, it is much easier to make a 14-day trip worth the cost of the JR Pass. Consider that just adding Hirosaki to my itinerary, which is on the veeeeery northern tip of Japan’s main island, would have cost me almost the entire cost of the JR Pass. That said, going to such a northern part of Japan required about 8 hours of travel in itself, so it’s unlikely that 7-day visitors would want to sacrifice this much of their trip to pure transit.
To give you a concrete example, here’s my two-week itinerary (minus the trip to Kawaguchi-ko/Mt. Fuji which was only partly covered by a JR Line), as well as how much it could’ve cost without the JR Pass:
|1. Tokyo → Kyoto||¥13,910||7. Himeiji → Osaka||¥1,490|
|2. Kyoto → Nara||¥1,130||8. Osaka → Takayama||¥11,820|
|3. Nara → Kyoto||¥1,130||9. Takayama → Hirosaki||¥26,840|
|4. Kyoto → Hiroshima||¥13,600||A. Hirosaki → Nikko||¥16,320|
|5. Miyajima ferry (2x)||¥320||B. Nikko → Tokyo||¥3,110|
|6. Hiroshima → Himeji||¥8,290||Total without JR Pass||¥97,960|
Taking the trip I did in Japan without the JR Pass could have cost me ¥97,960 — ($901 / 797€). Instead, I paid ¥46,390 ($427 / 377€), less than half the cost. Consider the fact that our train ride up to Hirosaki to see the cherry blossoms in Spring could make up for half the cost of the JR Pass on its own.
View of the snowy Japan Alps from the train ride to Hirosaki, near Nagano.
Again, is the JR Pass worth it?
Of course, it’s got to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. The shorter your time in Japan is, the less time you want to spend on a train.
That said, it doesn’t take much to make your trip worth the JR Pass. Your time in Japan will be more interesting and varied if you take a couple longer train rides and see what fewer eyes have seen. The JR Pass makes that possible!