Many people are asking themselves if it’s really worth it to buy the Japan Rail Pass, because it’s among the most important things to decide on when planning for a trip to Japan. I want to help you answer your question, as I too asked myself if the JR Pass was worth it or not and if yes, for which period, etc.
In this post I will provide you the method I used to decide if the pass was suitable for my trip.
- Read more about what to prepare when traveling to Japan.
Decide the length of your stay in Japan
Maybe you have a fixed budget, or maybe you have a limited time, no matter the reasons, you will not stay longer than what you afford. But since you already decided it’s time to go to Japan, you probably have your savings. It’s not an easy task to plan a budget for a trip, so I won’t tell you how much money you will need, because we all have different needs and travelling styles.
- Find here inspiration about Japan.
But you know what is the maximum of days you can spend on your stay in Japan. Let’s work from that.
Choose where you want to go in Japan
You already set up the number of days for visiting Japan. I was crazy about Japan long before knowing I wanted and could afford to go there, so I had some places on my bucket list that I wanted to see. If you don’t have your Japan bucket list, you can begin your research, or find inspiration for choosing places. Whether you like nature, culture, people, technology, traditions, food, or anything you can think of, Japan has it all to offer.
Start listing your places, then make a chronological plan that fits in the period you can afford. So there you have your planning for Japan.
Do the math for the transportation
Ok, I will not talk about all the transportation, I only want to highlight the transportation covered by the JR Pass. You have tons of information about the train network covered by the pass, plus the ferry to Miyajima (if it’s on your list).
Now you have to open Hyperdia and set it up in English. This is THE TOOL that will help you plan your journey.
More options: check JR and un-check Nozomi, airplane, airport shuttle. Some of the local trains and Limited Express Trains are covered by the Pass, but for some you will have to pay if you want to take them. For specific lines check with the JR Pass providers.
Do these searches and keep a table with the results. Reiterate until you covered all destinations on your Japan bucket list.
Optimize your commuting days to minimize the period you’ll need the JR Pass
I know I’m talking in engineering terms with optimizations and minimization, but this is the holy graal of maximizing your budget.
If you want to traverse Japan from N to S or S to N, your maths are pretty straight forward: you take the train when you have to take the train, inside the period time covered by the JR Pass you opted for.
But let’s say you land in Tokyo and during your holiday you want to make a tour to Kyoto, or farther, with some stops in between. And before departure, you have to come back to Tokyo in order to fly back. Assuming you want to spend several days in Tokyo, it’s maybe wise to split them in two parts.
- Read here about the main activities and places to see in Tokyo.
And since you have to come back to Tokyo from the south of Japan, you will have to take the train for a very long distance. This means it’s very expensive when not having the pass (check on Hyperdia).
Did you know that the shinkansen from Hakata to Tokyo only takes 6h (with a change at Kobe) for more than 1000 km???
But if you can arrange so that that last long train journey is covered by the JR Pass, you have saved yourself tons of money. Just try several options for the days you will be commuting until you are satisfied.
Check out my example on how I did the math to save close to 1,000€ by buying the JR Pass
In the following table I put my research of the trains we wanted to take in Japan. An approximate exchange rate was used to transform Yen to Euro. For the scenario without JR Pass, a range was considered. As a results, potentially 624 to 1014€ were saved simply by buying the pass.
RT – round-trip
1 way – one-way trip
- During the trip we had to give up Ito-Hakone and Hakata-Beppu.
- Instead, we spontaneously added Kyoto-Osaka, Kyoto-Fushimi Inari and Hiroshima-Fukuyama.
Disclaimer: Please note that train rates may have changed. Do your own research! The same Yen to Euro rate during our trip was used for conversions.
Main advantages when using a JR Pass
- Flexibility. In my previous example I showed that our planning didn’t go accordingly, so we had to improvise and take other trains. Also, even if we did take the train for the mentioned destination, we were free to choose at what hour we took a train.
- Less stress. You’re in Japan, people may not speak your language. Save yourself the stress of explaining where and when you want to travel. You just show the pass and go without explanations.
- Skip queues. This was our favourite in Japan. There are special queues for tourists with passes and they work really fast, as you can go only by showing the pass.
- Enjoy more. With no queues for reservations, no stress of interacting with people who don’t understand your language, the ability to skip that line, you have more time to enjoy your trip.
FAQs about the JR Pass I asked myself and found the answer to
Booking seats: You can reserve your seats for no extra charge. But probably you won’t have to. Because trains are not full and you can just pick a seat in class 2. For the 6h train ride we didn’t book our seats. It’s up to you. Please note that in small stations the staff may not speak English.
The transportation covered: you can use the JR Pass on the Japan Rail trains and on Miyajima ferry. Further information on the JR Pass website. You have to find the one for your region/country.
Transportation not covered: aside of the trains that belong to private rails (non JR trains), you cannot use the Nozomi and Mizuho shinkansens. These trains usually are direct from A to B, without or with few stops.
7, 14, 21 days JR Pass: See previous points to check which one you need.
JR Pass in Tokyo: You can use it on JR trains that go through Tokyo, but you cannot use it on the subway lines or on non-JR trains. For that you have Pasmo, Suica or 24-72h Tokyo passes.