One of the things tourists love in Japan is the ease of using public transportation. That being said, some travelers ask: Do I need a Japan Rail Pass?
Based on World Economic Forum’s 2017 Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report, Japan ranked 10th on the list of countries with the best ground transportation, next to Denmark (9th place) and beating United Kingdom (11th place). The ranking is based on overall means of transportation including paved roads, subways, and train systems. It is not surprising at all to see The Land of the Rising Sun on the list due to its ultra-efficient public transportation and also being the home to the world’s first bullet train — the Shinkansen.
If you’re planning to visit Japan, you may be asking yourself is: Given the ease of public transportation, do I really need a Japan Rail Pass? To help you decide whether you’d avail of the Japan Rail pass or not, here are some of the important information you should know.
What is a Japan Rail Pass?
The JR Pass gives unlimited train rides for a specific number of days in one of Japan’s biggest railway companies, Japan Rail. It also allows its holder to take trains to almost anywhere in Japan and also gives him/her the chance to take the world-famous Shinkansen when traveling from one prefecture to another. Other forms of transportation are also covered which include select local buses and the Miyajima Ferry (Hiroshima).
The JR Pass could only be purchased and used by tourists whose entry status is Temporary Visitor staying for not more than 90 days.
Understanding Japan’s train system
Japan Rail Passes cost several dimes so before you buy any, try to understand the country’s railroad system first. Not only will it help you plan your itinerary but it could also help you figure out whether you need a JR Pass or not.
Japan’s rail system is mostly managed by Japan Rail (JR) which is the successor of the Japan National Railways, the country’s former government-owned railway company.
There are three types of trains based on the areas that they cover:
1. Urban Trains – These trains are the ones that operate within a specific city only. For example, there are trains that only operate within Tokyo and will not go beyond its borders. This also includes that city’s subways.
Good examples of which are the trains that run in Tokyo’s Yamanote Line. It’s a train loop that only travels at the heart of Tokyo. Here’s a sample urban train map:
2. Regional Trains – Japan is divided into 8 regions and each region is composed of several prefectures. This means that the regional trains pass through most, if not all, of the prefectures in a specific region. For example, Kansai Region is divided into 7 prefectures which include Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, Hyogo, Shiga, Wakayama, and Mie (see map below). If you want to go to Kyoto from Osaka, then you’d need to take a regional train.
3. Interregional Trains – From the term itself, these are the trains that cross regions all throughout the country. The best example is the Shinkansen which is the most common and the fastest way to get from one region to another by land.
How much is a JR Pass?
The JR Pass’ cost depends on the number days it would be valid and on the number of prefectures where you could use them at.
There are two types of JR Passes — Regional JR Pass and National JR Pass.
Regional Japan Rail Pass
There are 21 Regional JR Passes to choose from that cover select prefectures per region all throughout the country. Check out the rates and covered prefectures per region for the mostly bought passes below:
Note that each regional pass does have two types — region-wide and area pass. Region-wide passes cover a much bigger area.
For example, JR Kansai Area Pass only covers JR Lines and buses in Kansai Area, compared to JR Wide Kansai Pass that gives access not just to JR Lines but also to Limited Access Trains, Wakayama Train to Kishi Station (one of Wakayama’s remote areas), bike rentals, etc.
Region-wide passes are valid for five days while area passes are could be valid for 1 day to 7 days, depending on the prefectures and your choice. Check out this link to check the actual rates.
For the complete list of Regional Passes, check out Japan Rail’s website.
The nationwide pass allows travelers to take advantage of all the possible means of transportation associated with Japan Rail. You could take the urban trains and even Shinkansens.
It is available in 7, 14, and 21-day validity period and has two types of tickets — Ordinary and Green Class (first-class tickets). See rates below:
Note that the discounted rate for children aged 5 to 11 applies for Regional Passes, too. Also, children below 5 years old need not pay when taking trains.
Do I need a JR Pass, or not?
This question could be answered depending on your itinerary in Japan. In our opinion, here are the scenarios that could help you decide whether you need a JR Pass or not.
You don’t need a Japan Rail Pass if…
1. You only intend to visit 1 prefecture. If you’d be staying in one prefecture only, you could avail of a city pass instead.
2. You plan on exploring several regions in Japan but you have limited time. If you only have four days in Japan and you want to visit Tokyo and Hokkaido (prefectures that are so far from each other), it might be more practical to travel via Japan’s local airlines. Traveling by train, even via a Shinkansen, could take hours.
You need a Regional Japan Rail Pass if…
1. You’d be staying in one up to two regions and only have few days to spend.
2. If you want more flexibility in terms of validity period, since Regional JR Pass’ validity ranges from 1 day to 7 days, depending on the prefecture.
You need a Nationwide Japan Rail Pass if…
1. You’d be travelling the entire Japan or most of the regions. We availed of the Nationwide JR Pass (valid for 14 days) and we were able to visit several regions in Japan during our 17-day stay in the country.
2. You have ample time to travel by train via Shinkansen from one prefecture to another.
3. You’d be in Japan for 7-21 days and your itinerary is so robust that requires gazillion train rides.
4. You want nationwide Shinkansen access.
Japan Rail also has recently released the JR Fare Calculator (as shown below) to better assist you in finding out whether it is cheaper to buy a JR Pass or to simply buy train tickets every ride. Access the calculator through this link.
Where to buy JR Passes?
There are three ways to purchase a JR Pass:
1. Buy it from Japan Rail’s website – You can purchase it using your Visa or Mastercard. Once the purchase is made, they will deliver the Exchange Order (the document you need to claim your JR Pass upon your arrival in Japan) to the address you indicated in one to two business days.
2. From local travel agencies – For Filipino travelers, one agency that sells JR Pass for the lowest price (as of 2017) is Reli Travels and Tours. We were able to compare prices from several travel agencies back then and they offered it at the cheapest price. Reli Travels and Tours’ branches are located at SM Megamall, Dusit Thani Hotel Manila, Binondo, Las Piñas, and Mall of Asia.
3. Buy it from Klook – Klook is a travel website that sells not just tours or tickets to destinations but also select JR Regional Passes . However, be sure to compare their price to the price of Japan Rail website and to a local agency.
Note that you have to buy the JR Pass in your country before heading to Japan. Currently, they don’t sell it in Japan to prevent their residents from availing of the same offer intended only for those tourists.
How to activate and use your JR Pass?
Activating your JR Pass
Make sure that you bring the original Exchange Order document with you in Japan and you could exchange it at the designated Travel Service Center or at the Japan Rail Ticketing Office.
Just present your Exchange Order together with your passport. After they validate your details, they’ll give you the Japan Rail Pass Ticket (shown below). The ticket is non-replaceable, so make sure to keep it secured with you all the time.
Using it for Urban and Regional Trains
For every train ride that you take, you need not pass through the automated ticket gates. Just show your JR Pass at the gates manned by train personnel located near the automated ticket gates and the staff will let you pass through.
Note that getting your JR Pass doesn’t mean you have to activate it on the same day. You can opt to activate it on a different date, depending on when you plan to use it for the first time to last until your chosen validity period.
Using the JR Pass for Shinkansen
You can reserve seats in advance for Shinkansen which is highly recommended especially during peak seasons. Just head to the train station’s JR Ticketing Office, show your JR Pass and inform the staff of your destination plus your preferred departure time. The staff will print your Shinkansen Tickets(shown below) with your chosen seat and train car number.
If you don’t want to reserve seats, that is fine too! The Shinkansen does have cars allocated for passengers who chose not to reserve seats in advance.
1. Couldn’t emphasize this enough: The Exchange Order and the JR Pass are irreplaceable. Make sure you keep them secured.
2. JR Passes are not accepted in most subways in Japan.
3. You can take all the bullet trains except Mizuho and Nozomi Shinkansen (the two newest Shinkansen trains) which require separate tickets.
We hope this article could help you better decide whether you need a JR Pass or not. Most importantly, plan your itinerary well and try to compute how much each train ride would cost to make sure that you’d be saving money, and not the other way around, with JR Pass. 😉