Training your way across Japan is a travel dream for many. The Land of the Rising Sun promises serene landscapes and a culture and way of life that is unparalleled and beautiful. Luckily, train travel in Japan is an efficient and convenient way to explore the country, but admittedly, it can be costly for visitors to the island nation.
Enter the Japan Rail Pass. This pass for foreign visitors adds an even greater convenience to navigating the country’s rail system and can potentially save money for pass holders.
As travelers often grapple with budgeting for their trips, the question that echoes through the minds of many planning a Japanese adventure is, “Is the Japan Rail Pass worth it?” This pass promises unlimited access to the extensive Japan Railways network. However, as with any travel investment, the decision to purchase a Japan Rail Pass requires careful consideration.
In this honest review, we’ll delve into the pros and cons, evaluating whether the Japan Rail Pass is truly a ticket to convenience or an expense better spared for other aspects of your journey.
What is the Japan Rail Pass?
Also known as the JR Pass, the Japan Rail Pass is a special pass for foreign visitors to Japan that offers unlimited travel on most trains nationwide. You purchase the pass for a fixed period of time, either 7, 14, or 21 consecutive days, and it allows you to travel freely on Japan Railways trains during that time frame.
This tourist pass sometimes provides a more economical way to navigate the country, getting around from city to city on Japan’s Shinkansen bullet trains, as well as their limited express and local trains. However, as you will see in this Japan Rail Pass review, the JR Pass isn’t always worth it.
Our Japan Rail Pass Review
While visiting Tokyo with kids, we also took a day trip to Hakone in hopes of seeing Mount Fuji. However, our Hakone Pass was not included on our JR Pass. We had to purchase that separately, although we did get a discount as JR Pass holders.
Aside from our transportation to and from Hakone, all of our train travel was included with our Japan Rail Passes. We did use the metro system in both Kyoto and Tokyo, and purchased individual tickets for our metro rides.
If you are planning a similar trip and wondering “is the Japan Rail Pass worth it for you?”… we crunched the numbers and the Japan Rail Pass only saves you money if you are needing to travel roundtrip from Tokyo to Osaka, or if you are taking a lot of roundtrip day trips to places like Kobe, Nagoya, or Jigokudani Monkey Park (one of the best winter wonderland destinations in Asia).
The JR Pass could actually cost you more than individual tickets if you are flying into one city and out of another, traveling point-to-point through Japan and only visiting 3-4 cities.
However, the convenience of just being able to hop on and off trains may make up for the extra cost if budget isn’t a significant factor for you.
Here is a look at the train routes we took during our Japan trip. If we were to buy the train tickets outright, we would spend 31,920 JPY or $219 USD, while a Japan Rail Pass for 7 days costs $360 USD.
While the JR Pass would not equal a cost savings, their Osaka-Tokyo Hokuriku Arch regional pass would save us money. For example, the Osaka-Tokyo Hokuriku Arch regional pass would cover all of these train routes and cost $169.00, a savings of $50 per person.
ALSO READ: WHERE TO STAY IN KYOTO
Japan Rail Pass Cost
The Japan Rail Pass recently went up in price in 2023. A 7-day pass now costs 50,000 yen or $360 USD.
The increase in price ultimately means you would need to take more train trips to justify the cost of the JR Pass. Previously, the Japan Rail Pass was worth it and personally saved us money on our Japan travel itinerary, but if we did the same trip today, it would actually cost MORE to buy a rail pass than to buy individual tickets for each of the train journeys we took.
2024 Japan Rail Cost
Japan Rail Pass actually has a cost calculator on their website that you can use to help you determine if the Japan Rail Pass or a Regional Pass would cover the cost of your trip.
|Japan Rail Pass Days
Osaka-Tokyo Hokuriku Arch Regional Pass Cost
This regional pass is the one we would purchase if we did our same family trip to Japan today. It includes trains in Osaka, Nara, Kyoto, Tokyo and Nagano.
|Osaka-Tokyo Hokuriku Regional Pass
Where to Buy a Japan Rail Pass
It’s important to note that the Japan Rail Pass must be purchased before arriving in Japan, and it is only available to foreign tourists entering Japan under the “temporary visitor” status.
You can buy the pass directly on the JR Pass website. Ideally, you want to do this at least 2 weeks before you arrive in Japan. You will receive a voucher in the mail within a few business days.
You will want to bring that voucher with you to Japan, where you will exchange it for your Japan Rail Pass, typically at your arrival airport. This is a physical document that cannot be emailed.
How to Use your Japan Rail Pass
When you arrive in Japan, you will head to the Japan Rail Pass counter. You will typically find this at the rail station where you are taking your first train journey. This rail station will likely be at the airport, if you plan to take the train from the airport to the city center of either Osaka, Tokyo or another Japanese city.
At the counter you will present the voucher that was sent to you in the mail. It is VERY IMPORTANT you have the voucher that was sent to you in the mail before your trip. They will exchange your voucher for your activated rail pass.
You do not typically need to reserve seats on the trains in Japan, unless you are visiting during a popular festival or event. The exception to this would be the Narita Express, and a few other trains that always require a reservation. You can make those reservations right up until the train’s departure at the Japan Rail Pass counter.
For the most part, you just need to check the train schedule and show up at the train station in time to board the train that will take you where you are trying to go.
Once activated, your pass is active for the consecutive number of days that you purchased it for. For example, the day you arrive and use your pass is day one of your 7, 14, or 21 day rail pass. Your pass is for consecutive days. So, even if you do not use the pass one day during your trip, that day still counts as one of your days.
The Japan Rail Pass is valid on almost all Japan Railways trains except for the NOZOMI and “MIZUHO” train lines. The Nozomi Shinkansen train is the fastest train between Tokyo and Kyoto/Osaka. However, while this train isn’t included you can still take the Hikari Shinkansen Bullet Train, which services the same route.
It’s also important (and convenient) to note that the Japan Rail Pass includes airport access train lines. So, it can be used for travel to and from major airports served by JR lines – like Narita, Hanita, and Kansai.
Do kids need a Japan Rail Pass to ride the trains in Japan?
Japan is one of the best places in Asia for a family vacation. Part of the reason Japan is so family friendly is because of how easy it is to get around the country.
If you’re visiting Japan with kids, children five years old and under do not need a pass or individual train tickets to ride the trains in Japan. Another reason to visit Japan when your kids are still young!
For kids 6-11 years old, you can purchase a child pass, which is half the price of an adult pass.
When the JR Pass is NOT worth it
While the Japan Rail Pass is worth it many times and will save some travelers money, there are some instances where the Japan Rail Pass is not worth buying.
For travelers staying in one region or city for an extended period of time, it may not be the most economical option. For example, if you are spending 5 days in Tokyo, you would not want to buy a 7 day Japan Rail Pass that activates on the day you arrive.
However, the Japan Rail Pass is a great choice for those intending to explore various parts of Japan during their visit.
Something else to consider when buying a JR Pass, is that the pass does not cover rides on the metro system or subways within cities, nor does the Japan Rail Pass cover most buses or other public transportation options like trams. There are a few above-ground trains that take you around some metro areas that are included on the pass, but for the most part.
Conclusion: Is the Japan Rail Pass Worth It?
So, is the Japan Rail Pass worth it? I wish I had a solid yes or no answer for you, but it honestly depends on your itinerary and travel style.
The Japan Rail Pass offers a convenient travel solution for those seeking to explore the country by rail and visit a lot of places during their 7, 14, or 21 day trip. The upfront cost is a bit steep and does not always make financial sense. You will want to calculate the cost of individual train tickets and compare that to the cost of a rail pass.
One of the greatest advantages to the Japan Rail Pass or one of the regional passes is the flexibility and convenience offered.
The pass’s worth ultimately depends on your travel itinerary, preferences, and the frequency of your train journeys. For those planning an extensive journey across the country using the high-tech train system that Japan is famous for, the Japan Rail Pass undoubtedly proves its value, offering both savings and convenience. Yet, for more localized or shorter trips, it might not be as cost-effective.
Weighing the pros and cons, the decision to invest in a Japan Rail Pass should be tailored to your specific travel needs and preferences.
We hope we answered your burning question ‘Is the Japan Rail Pass worth it?’ If you have any other questions about train travel in Japan, we’d love to hear from you. Leave your thoughts in the comments below.
Did this post answer the question ‘Is the Japan Rail Pass worth it?’ Pin it to save it for later!
Did you know…
When you make a purchase or book hotels, tours, or other travel services, through our links, we receive a small commission, at no extra cost to you. We only EVER recommend service providers, websites, or products we personally use when booking our own travels. Your support enables us to keep producing helpful travel content. Thank you!