The advice I got most when I told people I was going to Japan was either, oh get a JR rail pass as you’ll need it. or it was don’t get a JR rail pass it was a waste of money we never used it. When deciding if you need a rail pass there are some things to consider which I will explain here and also provide some things to remember or look out for. The answer to do I need a JR rail pass really comes down to how are you travelling. So read on and this post should help you decide.
The JR rail pass is a train ticket provided by the JR rail lines, these are a series of rail companies that were formally the government railroad. They offer a pass to tourists that offer unlimited trips including on most of the Shinkansen (bullet train) for a period of time measured in 7 day increments. The cost is roughly $250 for each 7 day block you want, the price does go down some if you get a 21 day or 28 day pass.
How do I buy it?
You purchase a voucher for the number of days that you want in seven day increments from a website. The company will typically send you the voucher in the mail or via FedEx. And you must buy it outside Japan as it is for tourists only. So you will need to buy it a few weeks before you leave. The terms and conditions do say that you must exchange the voucher within 45 days of purchase but this doesn’t seem to be an issue. JR Rail or the companies that make up JR rail do not sell vouchers directly, you must purchase from a third party.
Note: As of mid 2019 you can buy a JR rail pass when you are in country. This was setup for the 2020 Olympics. You will pay more and this service may not last past the Olympics so google to see if it is still available.
Who should I buy my voucher from?
This is a personal choice. The price is set by JR rail so looking from one site to another the price should be the same. The things I looked for is what does buying the voucher from one site get me over another. One site was offering a discount on Pocket WiFi devices when reserved with a voucher purchase. Another offered storage of one piece of luggage for the length of the voucher purchased plus a day. Another site offered pickup service in their Tokyo office. Look around and pick the vendor that offers the best perk you will use.
I Have my Voucher Now What?
You must exchange your voucher and set it’s activation date. You can exchange a voucher up to 30 days before it’s activation date so you don’t need to rush and do it the day you need it. Activation takes place in a JR rail station in the Welcome Center (Think service center for tourists). You present your voucher fill out a form and an agent will create your rail pass for you. You can then reserve seats on a Shinkansen train for a future date which is very handy. The Exchange process is easy but you must do it at a Welcome Center and not a ticket office. Here is a link to a list of welcome centers where you can do the exchange. Make sure you note the hours that they are open.
When is my Pass Valid for?
Your pass is valid from Midnight on the activation date until 11:59 PM on the 7th, 14th, etc day after that. Note the pass is valid for 7, 14, 21 consecutive days and not 7 days total over your trip. As an example if you buy a 7 day rail pass and activate it on July 1. It will be valid from Midnight on July 1 to 11:59 PM on July 7. If you are on a train on the last day your pass is valid and that train arrives at your station after midnight you will need to buy a ticket to get out of the station as you show your pass when you enter and leave a station. So if you board a train in Osaka at 9:15 PM on the 7th and you arrive at Tokyo station at 12:02 AM on the 8th you will need to pay for that trip as it technically isn’t covered by your pass.
How Do I Use my Rail Pass?
This is the easy part you enter the JR rail station go up to the manned access point near the automated gates and show the attendant your pass. They will wave you through and into the station. You get on your train and ride it and when you get off and leave you again go through the manned access point and show your pass.
If you are taking a Shinkansen you will go to any JR rail station and go to the ticket office and show them your pass and passport. They will ask where you are going and when and they will reserve you a seat on the Shinkansen. You can do this up to 30 days before your travel date. You then go through the manned access point as before and proceed to buy an EkiBen and wait for your train to arrive on the platform. If you don’t want to get a reserved seat you can sit in the open cars if there is room available, but one of the benefits of the pass is that you can get a reserved seat for free.
If you are transferring from a JR line to a private line or subway, you will not be able to use the transfer gates, you will need to exit through a manned gate and walk around to the gate for the other line and swipe your suica card to enter.
Should I Buy a JR Rail Pass?
I left this to now to explain what the pass is. The answer to this question is maybe. I recommend using a JR Rail Pass calculator to decide if it is worth it. I will provide links to some below. Basically you enter in where you are going and it will tell you if a certain pass will save you money or not. If you are just staying in just one city with subways or private rail lines then a JR pass is probably not worth it. But if you are going to see multiple cities it may make sense. You also don’ need to buy the pass for your entire trip in most cases. If you are staying for 14 days you can buy a 7 day pass and have it active for half your trip when you will be travelling.
Lets see some examples on a pass calculator:
1: You are going to Tokyo and Kyoto and back to Tokyo and will be in Japan for 7 days.
As you can see on this trip it would be cheaper to just buy two Shinkansen tickets and not buy a 7 day rail pass. However, if you think you might go to Nara or Kobe while in Kyoto it would then put you over the cost of the pass and save you a few dollars.
2: You are in Japan for 21 days, and are considering buying a 14 day rail pass. You are planning on going to: Tokyo, Hiroshima, Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, Kobe, and then back to Tokyo.
As you can see you would save $33 buy buying a rail pass. And if you had it active for the front and back of your trip you could also use it to get to or from Narita airport on JR rail. This is the trip we did and we bought our JR Pass to cover this.
What Did You do? What Will You Do?
On our last trip of 21 days we bought a 14 day JR rail pass through Voyagin
. With it I got a discount on my pocket WiFi device, free luggage storage for 1 bag for the length of my pass + one day at their office in Shibuya, and I could pick the passes up in Shibuya at their office. The savings in luggage storage was $75, which meant for my wife and I we saved $150. I also didn’t need to remember to pack the vouchers before I left. We also used JR rail in Tokyo when it was convenient and our passes were valid to save on general rail costs.
For our next trip where we plan to just go to Tokyo and Kyoto we will not be buying a rail pass as the price will be more then the cost of the Shinkansen tickets to and from Tokyo.