Is The Japan Rail Pass Worth It?

Japan has arguably the best rail network in the world, and it should be part of everyone’s trip to the land of the rising sun. Why fly when the train is so quick and comfortable?

That said, it isn’t the cheapest country to get around. If you don’t plan it properly, you could end up spending a lot of money. Luckily the Japan Rail Pass can make it affordable.

What Is The Pass?

It lets you travel on virtually any train throughout Japan, even the Shinkansen (Bullet Train). There are a couple of exceptions though – you cannot use the absolute fastest Shinkansen trains (Nozomi, Mizuho and Hayabusa). This sounds bad but there really isn’t much difference – they are only about 20-30 minutes faster depending on the length of the journey.

There are also some railways not operated by Japan Railways, for these you’ll have to pay. We didn’t come across any however.

This is one train that (sadly)  you won't be travelling on!

This is one train that (sadly) you won’t be travelling on!

Does It Save Money?

Well ideally yes, else it would be a bit pointless. The pass costs £160 for one week, £255 for 2 weeks and £326 for 3 weeks.

Now this is a lot but usually it will be a lot less than you would spend buying tickets. There are however some circumstances where it probably wouldn’t be the best idea – the main one being if you are only planning to go to Tokyo and one or two other places – it may actually work out more expensive.

Also, if you use the much slower but much cheaper alternative rail services then you could probably save money if you DONT get the pass. However you will spend a lot more time on the rails. There are also routes where no Shinkansen service operates and so if you’re spending most of your time there, then it’s worth doing some maths.

The most helpful website you’ll ever find for trains in Japan is Hyperdia. You can search for any route in any part of the country and it will tell you all possible combinations, and the cost. It’s still essential if you get the rail pass, for finding out train times.

This sign might look confusing but it alternates with English

This sign might look confusing but it alternates with English luckily

In most cases though, the pass makes sense. Trains are not cheap in Japan (though usually far cheaper and better value than the UK) and so long distance journeys can soon add up.

In our case we checked and checked prices and made sure we were making a saving. Initially it wasnt huge but still worthwhile, but it actually turned out to be far more than we thought.

Our Route

These are the journeys we made, and what it would have cost us if we had bought tickets.

OriginDestinationPaper Ticket Cost
Total£390.04
TokyoMatsumoto£51.82
MatsumotoNarai (return)£6.42
MatsumotoShin-Osaka£54.43
OsakaNara (return)£8.87
OsakaKyoto (return)£15.74
OsakaFukui£30.54
FukuiTakefu (return)£11.86
FukuiKanazawa£13.86
KanazawaHiroshima£82.54
HiroshimaMiyajima (return, train & ferry)£6.42
HiroshimaOnomichi£13.64
OnomichiTokyo£93.90

As the pass cost us £255 each, you can see we made a substantial saving. All costs listed are for unreserved seats to make it as close as possible to what we did.

It’s about more than the cost though. Theres a lot to be said for the freedom of having the rail pass, being able to take day trips without worrying about the cost and the chance to use the Shinkansen for short trips which you wouldn’t do if you had to pay. Also no worrying about which ticket to buy, which seat to reserve, buying tickets online or at the station – it saves you so much time as well as money.

Our only regret was not getting the pass for 3 weeks. Each additional week costs less than the last, so the extra 3rd week would have only cost us £75. We could have used it in and around Tokyo (we probably spent £20 each on Metro fares) and also taken trips that we just couldn’t afford towards the end, such as to Nikko. We also could have visited somewhere else – as awesome as Tokyo is, a week was probably a bit too long.

Obtaining The Pass While Travelling

The traditional way of getting the pass is to order it before you leave the UK (or your country of residence), receive the exchange order and take it with you to Japan where you exchange it for the actual pass.

Well for us of course, we didn’t even expect to visit Japan initially, plus the exchange order is only valid for 3 months. A lot of information online is not very helpful with regards to this. One option would have been to find a travel agent in either Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Taiwan who could issue us them. But the list of authorized agents isn’t the biggest, and the travel agencies probably are geared more to the local market.

Just when we were getting a bit frustrated with the whole thing, I found JRPass. They’re a UK company, their prices are good (while the prices are generally fixed some agents tend to charge more) and most importantly they were happy to deliver worldwide, in fact it was even an option on checkout.

So our exchange orders were issued in London, then sent to our hostel in Tokyo where we picked them up. It cost a bit more of course – £12 each for delivery, but it was worth it.

Is It Worth Getting The Green Pass?

The green pass is the first class pass. It’s not hugely more expensive than the standard pass, but the standard class Shinkansen trains are so comfortable (probably equivelent to UK 1st class) unless money is no object it just seems like a waste. There is the argument that the green cars would be less crowded but with any pass you can pre book tickets for free. On all the trains we took, only once was it packed and still we managed to get seats.

Terrible photo showing the interior of the Shinkansen

Terrible photo showing the interior of the Shinkansen

Exchanging The Pass

Depending on where you read, exchanging the order for the pass sounds complex, but it really isn’t. You can exchange the pass as soon as you arrive in Japan but you need to pick a start date which the staff print on it – if you start it on the day you exchange and all you’re planning to to is explore Tokyo, then you’ll waste valuable days of your pass.

The station staff provide you with your pass which consists of an unnecessarily large piece of card, with the pass stuck on, probably to stop you trying to use it through ticket gates.

On the first use of the pass, you need to get it stamped by the staff as you go through the dates. I don’t know if this is essential but it seemed to be required. After this it’s activated and ready to go.

There are a number of stations that you can exchange the pass at and it needn’t be the one you are starting your journey from. We trekked all the way to Tokyo station (which is the name of the main station in Tokyo) but it can also be done at Shibuya, Ueno and Shinjuku stations. A full list is here.

Using The Pass

When you enter a station with the JR pass, all you need to do is walk over to the manned booth at the edge and wave the pass at a guard who will let you through. You cannot use the ticket gates with the pass. There is one problem with this approach – frequently we would be held up because the ever polite Japanese guard was spending several minutes telling someone a train time, while we were starting to panic about missing our train!

You can book seats for free, for any journey, at any station. There is usually a bit of a queue to do this but if we got to a station early we tended to just book a seat because we could – the reserved carriages were usually a lot emptier than the non reserved.

What Are The Trains Like?

It depends on the train type, but the trains in Japan are universally clean and comfortable. The Shinkansen has the most comfortable seats, with loads of leg room. Some trains have power sockets, though no Wi-Fi unless you purchase a complicated pass before you travel. This isn’t a huge surprise because Japan is behind the times a bit with free WiFi.

(The above is a video from the window of a bullet train showing just how quick these things are – the world flies by!)

Shinkansen trains also have snack and drinks services, as well as actual vending machines on board. On some trains there are smoking rooms and there are lots of roomy toilets.

The interior of a non Shinkansen train

The interior of a non Shinkansen train

The non Shinkansen fast trains such as the Ltd Express Thunderbird have slightly older interiors and no power sockets but they are still extremely comfortable.

Is the Japan Rail Pass worth getting? Almost certainly yes!

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