I hate answering yes-no questions with “It depends,” but… it depends. LOL.
Depends on what, you ask? On your itinerary: how long you will be traveling in Japan and what your stops will be. You see, the Japan Rail Pass is a complicated thing and there are cases when it will give you huge savings. And there are also times when it isn’t necessary. Let me explain.
First, let’s take a look at the JR Pass.
Also called the JR Pass, the Japan Rain Pass allows the holder unlimited use of the JR long-distance train system across Japan. If you have it, you won’t need to pay for individual ticket per journey, which can mean BIG SAVINGS, supposedly. It is offered to foreign tourists only and is not available for Japan residents.
There are two types of JR Passes: ordinary and green car (first class). And they are available in different validity durations: 7 days, 14 days, and 21 days. These days are consecutive and NOT flexible!
How much is a JR Pass?
As of March 2017, the rates are:
Children aged 6-11 enjoy 50% discount.
Pretty steep, huh? But once you see the usual train fares and seat fees, looking at these numbers will feel better.
Did I just say “seat fees”? Yes, I did. Most long-distance trains in Japan charge for seats separately, sometimes even the unreserved ones. But if you have a JR Pass, you can make seat reservations for free!
When is it wise to use a JR Pass?
If you’re on a multi-city journey across Japan over 7 days or longer AND the train is your preferred mode of transportation.
For example, if you plan on visiting Osaka, Tokyo and Sapporo, all in 10 days. So this means you’re flying to Osaka on Day 1, taking the train to Tokyo on Day 4 (which is Day 1 of your JR Pass use), taking another train to Sapporo on Day 7 (JR Pass Day 4), and exiting Japan on Day 10 (JR Pass Day 7).
If you do this journey by train without a JR Pass, you’ll be spending this much.
Osaka to Tokyo:
Seat: ¥5700 ($51, P2550)
Tokyo to Sapporo:
Seat (Tokyo-Hakodate): ¥11,130 ($100, P5000)
Seat (Hakodate-Sapporo): ¥1550 ($14, P700)
Total Fare Only: ¥18,140
Total Train Expenses: ¥36,520 ($326, P16,400).
Now, compare that to the cost of a regular 7-day JR Pass which is at ¥29,110 ($255, P13,000). You’ll be saving ¥7410. Doesn’t look much, but if you’re planning to go on day trips to other cities from your main stops — say, visiting Kamakura or Yokohama from Tokyo, or Himeji from Kyoto, or Kyoto from Osaka — these savings will rack up.
If you have an even more hectic itinerary, the JR Pass will prove useful. For example, if you’re planning on visiting 5 cities and staying just 1-2 days each. It’s not something I recommend, but I have met some travelers who roll this way.
It’s also a good choice for those who prefer traveling by train (like me!). Even when it takes more time than flying, I would usually choose to take the train because it’s pretty straightforward: no baggage check-in, no need to show up 1-2 hours before, and train stations are usually located centrally, unlike airports.
But it is important that you’re also aware that the train isn’t your only option. More about that below.
Check updated JR Pass rates or book here: Japan Rail Pass.
When is a JR Pass NOT recommended?
When you’re staying in just one or two cities. One of the most common questions we get about Japan travel is “Should I purchase a JR Pass?” But what’s surprising to me is that it is often asked by people who are planning to stay in just one city.
JR Pass is ideal for those traveling long distances. If you’re staying in Tokyo and will be exploring Tokyo alone, you won’t need a JR Pass. If you’re traveling within just one region, a regional pass makes more sense, like the Kansai Thru Pass for the Kansai region.
Even if you’re going on a one-leg long-distance journey, a JR Pass might still not be the best fit. For example, if the only long-distance trip you’re making is Osaka-Tokyo, the Shinkansen is probably the most expensive option out there (¥14,450). You’ll find flights from Kansai Airport to Narita for only ¥4870 ($45, P2150) and day buses from Osaka to Tokyo for around ¥4300 and night buses for ¥6480.
Another important thing to consider: The JR Pass can only be used for JR Lines, and although it is an expansive train system, it does not cover ALL of Japan. There are many parts of Japan that are still best reached through other modes of transportation.
Purchasing a JR Pass makes sense if you’re visiting multiple cities in a span of least 7 days. Otherwise, you might want to consider other modes of transportation.
If you decide to buy a JR Pass, you can check the updated rates or purchase one here: Japan Rail Pass.