Is a Japan Rail Pass Worth It?

November 27, 2017 - Comment

The One Bag Traveler recommends Gear, Destinations and Adventures. Travelling by train is one of the things we love most about Japan. There’s an extensive network, the trains are spacious and comfortable, and they always run on time (we even made a one-minute connection!). The only downside is the price. Buying a Japan Rail Pass

The One Bag Traveler recommends Gear, Destinations and Adventures.

A guide to whether a Japan rail pass is worth it.

Travelling by train is one of the things we love most about Japan. There’s an extensive network, the trains are spacious and comfortable, and they always run on time (we even made a one-minute connection!).

The only downside is the price. Buying a Japan Rail Pass in advance can potentially save you huge amounts of money, though. In this post, I’ll explore whether a Japan Rail Pass is worth it and share useful tips for using the pass and travelling by train in Japan.

What is a Japan Rail Pass?

A Japan Rail Pass is a ticket that provides unlimited travel on all Japan Rail national trains for a certain period. Passes are available for 7, 14 or 21 consecutive days and you can choose between a standard and green (first class) pass.

Japan Rail Passes are only available to foreigners travelling on a tourist visa and must be bought outside Japan. You can buy your pass online and get it delivered to your home address or even to your first Japan hotel if you’ve left it to the last minute.

Japan Rail Pass Cost

This is the cost of each of the standard Japan Rail Passes in Japanese yen with the current approximate exchange rate in US dollars and the cost per day in dollars.

Japan Rail Pass Cost in Yen Cost in $ Cost per Day in $
7 Day JR Rail Pass ¥29,110 $251 $36
14 Day JR Rail Pass ¥46,390 $403 $29
21 Day JR Rail Pass ¥59,350 $515 $25

I don’t think there’s any need to pay extra for the Green Pass to travel first class as we found standard class comfortable with plenty of leg room, tables, and power points. The only time it might be worth considering is during holiday periods such as Golden Week in late April/early May when standard class trains are busy (you can make seat reservations though).

Which Trains Are The Japan Rail Pass Valid On?

The Japan Rail Pass is valid on all Japan Rail trains but it can’t be used on trains operated by private companies.

This means you can’t take the fastest Nozomi or Mizuho shinkansen (bullet trains), but there are plenty of other bullet trains and this never caused us a problem. For example, when travelling from Tokyo to Kyoto you can take the Hikari shinkansen which is only 20 minutes slower at 158 minutes than the Nozomi shinkansen which takes 138 minutes.

A super fast shinkansen (bullet train) in Japan that can be used with a Japan Rail Pass

A super fast shinkansen (bullet train) in Japan

On our first trip we visited two places that we couldn’t access with our rail pass. For the mountain temple town Koya-san we used our pass to travel from Kyoto to Osaka and then bought a ticket for the private Nankai Railways train. For the tiny town of Tsumago in the Kiso Valley we used our pass to get from Nagoya to Nagiso then paid for the bus to Tsumago. Even with these extra expenses the rail pass still saved us money as we travelled on a number of bullet trains.

On our recent trip (see our two week Japan itinerary) we used our rail pass to get everywhere except Hakone where we bought a Hakone Free Pass from Odawara train station to explore the area by bus, train, ferry, and cable car.

The only other slight issue was having to take a slower train with one transfer to get to Nikko as you can’t use a pass for the direct train from Shinjuku to the Tobu Nikko station.

Hida Furukawa near Takayama

We were able to use our rail pass for day trips to places like adorable Hida Furukawa from Takayama.

Is a Japan Rail Pass Worth It?

Whether a Japan Rail Pass is worth it for you depends on your route. If you’ll be travelling at a fast pace to lots of places, especially on the expensive bullet trains, then it’s likely a rail pass will save you money.

Even if you are only travelling from Tokyo to Kyoto and back within a week the pass can work out cheaper. The return trip on the shinkansen costs ¥26,160 (more for a reserved seat). Add in the cost of the Narita Express airport train to Tokyo (¥2820 one way) and you’ll be spending ¥28,980 already. It will only cost you ¥130 more to buy the 7-day rail pass, which you can then use for local trains in Tokyo and side trips to places like Kamakura and Nara.

If you are travelling long distances such as Tokyo to Sapporo, a 7-day rail pass is cheaper than the one-way rail ticket which costs ¥29,410.

To work out whether a Japan Rail Pass is worth it for you, you need to come up with a potential itinerary and then calculate how much it would cost to pay for your tickets as you go.

To get a rough idea use Japan Guide’s Japan Rail Calculator. It’s not 100% accurate, but it’s quick and easy to use. 

The Japan Guide Rail Pass Calculator can be used to work out if a Japan Rail Pass is worth it

My rough calculation for our trip using the Japan Guide Rail Pass Calculator

For an accurate calculation put each leg of your trip into Hyperdia to see the costs. Make sure you untick Nozomi and private railways to get the costs of JR routes (more on using Hyperdia below).

Using Hyperdia to calculate if a Japan Rail Pass saves you money

Using Hyperdia to calculate the fare from Tokyo to Kyoto. Make sure you use the total fare at the top (next to Route 1 etc).

If the cost of the pass is just a little more than individual tickets I recommend buying the pass. It makes travel much easier not…

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