The Japan Rail Pass – what is it and is it the best option?

Updated April 2014

2014 Japan Rail Pass

the front of my 2014 Japan Rail Pass

The Japan Rail Pass – the basics

The Japan Rail Pass is a pass used inside Japan for almost unlimited rail and sometimes bus and boat travel across Japan. A voucher for the pass is available at specific travel agents and online outside Japan. You have to give the exact full name in your passport and birthdate when you buy the voucher.

¥ → $ The pass is in Japanese Yen so you are always at the mercy of the exchange rate. I previously bought rail passes through a local travel agency because I got a small discount by buying flight tickets there, too. My dad discovered a better deal online for our last trip and I will now shop around.

Exchanging the voucher for a rail pass

Once you get to Japan, you exchange the voucher for the pass at a JR office or nearby site. We have done the exchange three times. It usually takes around 15-20 minutes for both of us. There is a lot of stamping and filling out forms and printing tickets and double-checking by the staff who do the exchange.

We always fly into Narita near Tokyo. This is a convenient location to exchange vouchers for rail passes, although there are sometimes lineups. This has improved with the renovated office. One hint is to dawdle or simply get lost on your way. Planes land in waves and you can sometimes avoid lineups by arriving at the office later.

arriving at Nagasaki Eki

arriving in Nagasaki at the end of the line!

If you want to exchange your pass at Narita Airport but don’t want to start using it until another date, this is no problem. Exchange your voucher for a pass with a future start date. This is our favorite way to save time when we are already deep into our travels.

Note! Not every train station will exchange vouchers for rail passes. We made this mistake during our 2014 trip to Japan. We had to buy train tickets to Tokyo to exchange our vouchers there, throwing off our transportation budget. Major train stations will have a place to change vouchers but it’s important to read the details before if you want to save your travel yen.

What about the nozomi? I heard you can’t use the Japan Rail Pass on it.

The Nozomi is a super-fast train that links Tokyo and Osaka and is not covered by the Japan Rail Pass. If you bought the Japan Rail pass though, this isn’t a problem. The Hikari shinkansen (bullet train) runs on the same route as the Nozomi and only takes about 30 minutes more. The Kodama train is another option but is slower than the Hikari.

reserved car on Hikari bullet train

Reserved car on the Hikari Shinkansen to Shin-Osaka from Tokyo

We have ridden the Hikari empty in the middle of summer!

empty shinkansen (bullet train) car

Empty car on the Hikari all to ourselves! (Credit: Hitoshi)

Is the Japan Rail Pass the best option?

When browsing the web for the Japan Rail Pass, I get the impression that the pass is the only thing you should buy if you are travelling in Japan.

While the pass is convenient in that you don’t have to figure out tickets on the go, it is not always a savings. To price out your trip, visit my post on Hyperdia. My husband and I have found the pass only worth it for trips longer than a few hours each way. Discount tickets and other passes can be bought in Japan and offer alternatives to the Japan Rail Pass.

directional sign at Isahaya Eki

Which way at Isahaya? (Nagasaki Prefecture)

Using the pass will not necessarily be as easy as hopping on the nearest train. If you don’t want to stand in the aisle on a shinkansen (bullet train) or express train, like my husband and I have come close to doing more than once, a reserved seat is required. This is especially so during peak travel times any day of the week plus holidays. To get a reserved seat, you have to go to a ticket office. Some shinkansen like the Komachi heading up to Akita only have reserved seats.

A pass will not have you flying past the ticket gate. The gate that pass holders must go through is used by everyone needing a ticket fixed, a pass updated, directions or general help. When we travel in large cities, we almost always wait to go through the gate. While this is not an issue for us, it can be an inconvenience.

Do you hold a Japanese passport and permanent residence in another country?

This is not an issue if you want a Japan Rail Pass. Show your passport and proof of permanent residence when you exchange your voucher for a pass. Proof of residence is not required to buy a voucher.

Kojima Station in Okayama

passing through Kojima Station in Okayama prefecture, Kyushu on the shinkansen before rolling over the big bridge to Shikoku

Happy rail passing!

Have you used the Japan Rail pass? What has been your experience?

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2 thoughts on “The Japan Rail Pass – what is it and is it the best option?

  1. Hi, I’m planning my first trip to Japan for the last two weeks this coming October, 2015. I wonder if I have to buy a rail pass at all? I would love to read your comments! I will be spending the first several days in Kyoto, after flying into Osaka. Then maybe a day trip to Nara or Himeji. Then somewhere unknown as of yet for a day or two, then onto Tokyo to finish the trip. 10 days in total. I know thats not very specific but do you think thats alot of ‘rail time’ requiring a pass? Thanks for your time. Brian

    • Hi Brian! Your trip sounds great. I think the pass choice has to do with budget vs. convenience. If you like the idea of not having to buy individual tickets, a pass might be nice. If you’re on a tight budget, the pass might work out cheaper.

      That said, if you want reserved seats, you still need to get a ticket even if you have a rail pass. The rail pass takes care of the regular ticket you’d normally buy to get on the train and the second ticket is for the seat (and is free with a rail pass but not if paying individually for tickets.) As for whether you want a reserved seat, that’s another discussion. 😀

      If you’re into budgeting, one suggestion is to check out Hyperdia.com/en/. This is a fabulous site that has been around for years. You can punch in your routes, find schedules and prices to see if the rail pass is worth it.

      Without typing in your route, based on my experience, the rail pass will probably be close to the individual ticket prices. Generally speaking, if you go back and forth between Tokyo and Osaka or further, the pass is covered.

      Another suggestion is to check JR West’s web page for discounts on local Kansai passes. These don’t usually include trips to Tokyo but they can be useful (read: convenient) and sometimes a nominal savings for local trips. Jumping back to Tokyo, the rail pass is usable on the Yamanote circle line in Tokyo as well.

      Let me know if you have any other questions!

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