Guide to using the JR Pass
Visiting Japan but unsure if you need to buy that pricey train pass everyone keeps telling you about? Read on!
The famed Japan Rail Pass, or JR Pass, gives travelers a golden ticket to hop around Japan and save lots of cash doing it. Zip between Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Hokkaido by simply showing the pass to train station staff and you’re good to go.
Sounds great, but is it really the magical all-access ticket it claims to be? How do you even use the darn thing? It can all be a bit confusing, so let us break it down for you.
What exactly is the JR Pass?
Japan has over 100 railway companies, one of the bigger ones being the Japan Railways Group, or JR for short. These guys are responsible for issuing these coveted JR Passes which are supposed to work on all trains in Japan and can be an incredibly good value for money.
The pass offers unlimited travel on JR train lines and some buses and ferries within a set number of days. It can also be used on some shinkansen (bullet trains) that’ll jet you from one side of Japan to the other.
However, it does come with certain restrictions you should be aware of and it may not necessarily be right for all travelers.
It can only be used on JR trains
First things first, these passes do not work on all trains in Japan! There are about nine private train companies besides JR in Tokyo alone. If your destination is on the Keikyu line or the Odakyu line, you’re gonna have to pay extra.
Let’s say, for example, you want to visit the thousands of beckoning cat statues at Gotoku-ji Temple in Setagaya, and post them to your Instagram. There aren’t any JR trains that connect to this part of Tokyo. Your “unlimited” pass won’t do any good in this case.
How much does the JR Pass cost?
A seven-day pass costs ¥29,110 for adults.
The prices will increase slightly in Oct. 2019 due to Japan’s consumption tax going from 8% to 10%, so if you wanna save a few coins you’d better buy it now.
Standard passes allow you to ride in the unreserved shinkansen cars while the Green Car pass gets you into the fancy cars with extra comfy seats and more legroom.
Prices until Oct. 2019
Prices from Oct. 2019
Note that on most shinkansen trains, the unreserved seats are in cars one to three. If you have the Green Car pass, you have to reserve your seat in advance for a specific departure time (which can be done on the same day).
During peak seasons like Christmas, New Years, and summer, it may be more difficult to find a free seat to book. Whereas if you have the standard pass, you can just hop on any unreserved shinkansen car and go at any time.
Is the JR Pass worth it?
Imagine you are coming to Japan for one week. Your plane arrives at Haneda Airport in Tokyo where you will stay for three days. Then you’re off to Osaka for two days, Kyoto for a day, and back to Tokyo to catch your flight home.
Traveling between the three cities via shinkansen will cost you ¥27,260 alone.
The price of a few bullet train journeys will balance out the cost of the JR Pass, no question.
If, on the other hand, you are flying into Osaka and only plan on visiting Kyoto’s Golden Pavilion or Nara’s deer park, you probably don’t need the JR Pass. You can easily pop over to these cities cheaper via local train.
Planning a tour of Japan from Hokkaido in the north to Fukuoka in the south? Get the pass! The price of a few bullet train journeys will balance out the cost of the JR Pass, no question.
Tips for using the JR Pass
If you do decide to get the pass, here are some tips for using it.
Plan your route ahead of time
GoogleMaps, Hyperdia, and the Japan Travel by Navitime app are your planning friends.
Be mindful you are taking the correct bullet train
The pass covers unlimited travel on the shinkansen excluding the Nozomi and Mizuho trains! If you’re going from Tokyo to Kyoto, the pass will cover the trip on the Hikari shinkansen, not the Nozomi shinkansen.
What’s the difference? Taking the Hikari shinkansen will get you to Kyoto 20 minutes slower than the Nozomi shinkansen. That’s legit the only difference. Patience is a money-saving virtue, in this case.
Buy it in advance
This pass is for tourists only, and you must purchase it before you land in Japan. Buy it online and you’ll be issued a confirmation voucher which you’ll exchange once you are in Japan.
There are plenty of places to swap the voucher for the real thing, but it’s most commonly done at the airport upon arrival.
Always have your passport with you
You’ll need to provide your passport during the voucher exchange, meaning residents of Japan can’t use it, (sorry ya’ll). You can’t get a refund or replacement if you lose your JR Pass either, so you’d better take good care of it!
Your passport should technically be used in conjunction with your JR Pass and you may be asked to present it at any time.
Get an IC card
Whether you decide to buy the JR Pass or not, definitely get your hands on a super useful IC card, which will save you from having to buy a ticket each time you wanna catch the train.
Load your IC Card up with money and use it to tap in and out of train stations and buses. You can easily purchase one at almost any ticket machine for only ¥500 plus whatever amount you want to load on the card.
Trade it back in at the end of your trip and you’ll get a refund for the ¥500 deposit plus any money that’s left on it. They can be used nationwide, but you need to return it in the region you purchased it in to get your cashback.
IC cards are also widely accepted at convenience stores, coin lockers, and some vending machines if you find yourself strapped for cash.
Keep in mind, the JR pass is valid from the day you start to use it, and if you start using it late in the evening it will still count as a full day.