Japan Rail Pass – Everything You Need To Know About It For 2020

The Traveling Asian
The Traveling Asian

Have you ever heard of a Japan Rail Pass or JR Pass for short?

It’s something that not too many people are familiar with.

Everyday I see countless posts and threads about people asking “What is a JR Pass?”, “What does it do?”, “How does it work?”

Many too often do we hear from people that missed out on the opportunity to buy one of these passes simply because they didn’t know about it or what it was capable of doing.

You also have the people who bought one thinking that it will definitely be useful when in fact they really didn’t need to buy one at all.

There are many situations like these.

Which is why in this post, we’ll be showing you everything you need to know about the JR Pass. From what it does to where you can get one to also if you even need one.

It’s going to be a long post, so sit back, relax, get some coffee, and lets start!

What is the Japan Rail Pass?

The JR Pass is probably the most useful travel deal to have in Japan.

These passes are typically offered by Japan Rail to be used exclusively for foreign visitors coming to Japan.

In order to use the pass, you must be in Japan on a tourist visa (under 90 days).

Now depending on where you are in Japan, a number of stations within Japan do sell this pass to foreign travelers. However the best way is to still buy it before you arrive in the country.

The reason I say you should still buy it before you come to the country is because not only will it be cheaper, but it will also make the process a lot easier for you.

For instance, if you were to buy the JR pass in Japan, you could be looking at a 15% premium charge for buying it there in the country. That is a big difference! You could save on a lot of money if you were to buy it back in your home country before you visit Japan and use that extra money you saved for spending.

Now when you buy a JR Pass, you’ll be sent a physical voucher from the travel agent or online distributor. With this voucher, you’ll bring it with you to Japan and exchange that voucher at a railway station office for the real JR Pass.

Now you’re probably thinking, but wait…what does a JR Pass do?

To put it in short terms, it provides access to all train lines operated by Japan Railways (JR), including Shinkansen, limited express, express, rapid and local trains.

However even with that said, it can still be pretty confusing.

When people refer to the JR Pass, they are actually referring to a series of passes. The JR East and JR West passes cover only sections of the country. This will be useful if you have some very specific destinations in mind.

Although for the most part, the most useful pass of them all that many people talk about, is the pass that you can use nationwide. This pass allows you to use all Japan Rail services which includes the Shinkansen, limited express trains, airport and local trains. Not only that but there are also some other things you can use it for besides trains like the ferry to get across Miyajima Island in Hiroshima or some JR buses too.

Basically the pass allows you to use the services provided by Japan Rail only and can’t be used by any other private railways or other transportation services by other companies.

Picking Your Japan Rail Pass

Before you buy your pass, you are going to have to decide on a few things.

Which pass will you get?

In all honesty, the Whole Japan Rail Pass is probably the best deal if you are trying to travel around Japan as well as save some money. After all, this pass can be used all throughout the entirety of Japan and is the most common pass that people will buy.

If you are traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto or Hiroshima etc…this will be the pass that you buy.

Although there are other passes that are issued by Japan rail, these passes tend to only work for specific regions of Japan. These areas are also not too common to visit for Japanese tourists. For instance, it would probably be better to buy individual tickets or use a stored value card to travel to those destinations.

Here is a tool from Klook that I commonly use to decide whether or not I need a JR Pass or not. This site will offer many different JR passes as well as show you the areas that they work for. With the Whole JR Pass at the very top, and the individual region sections below it.

So definitely use that tool to see whether or not a JR pass is reasonable for you or not.

How long do you plan on using the pass?

The Japan Rail Pass comes with a 7, 14 and also 21 day option.

So depending on how long you are wanting to stay in Japan and which destinations you want to travel to, that will probably dictate which pass you are going to buy.

For instance, you might be staying in Japan for 1 whole month, but you might only need the pass for a week. The other days in that trip you can just buy individual tickets to travel. It’ll be much cheaper for you and it’ll save you quite a bit of money.

Although the cost of the pass does get cheaper for each additional week you add on, you might not need the pass for the entirety of your trip.

Picking Standard or Premium

The Japan Rail system has different classes of seats. It has ordinary cars and the green cars on Shinkansen and other long distance trains.

Now the green car is typically considered a first-class type of deal. The seats here are bigger and grouped by 2, not 3 on each side of the carriage. You also get a bit more legroom, better foot rests, and sometimes depending on the car, you might have additional facilities like outlets to charge your electronic devices.

Plus, usually the green cars are a lot less crowded and less busy overall. You will never have a problem finding space to put your baggage.

Now typically both the ordinary cars and green cars are fairly comfortable. You aren’t missing out too much if you pick the ordinary car.

In my honest opinion, I don’t think it is a must to upgrade to the green car pass, but if you want the extra amenities and comfort, then by all means go ahead.

Is the passenger an adult or child?

The last thing you have to figure out is whether the passenger is an adult or a child.

If you are trying to buy a pass for a child, they need to be ages 6 through 11. If they have turned 12 years old, then they will need an adult pass.

An infant that is under 5 years old will not need their own pass however they are also not entitled to a seat. Which means they must travel on your lap if you choose this option.

How To Use The Japan Rail Pass?

Purchasing The Pass

Purchasing Info

When buying a pass, you should buy your pass before you leave for Japan or at least before you arrive in Japan. This is to save you both time and money if you do it before.

If you were to choose to buy it at a station in Japan, then you will need to pay a premium up charge which can make the pass a lot more expensive.

You are able to buy these passes up to 90 days ahead of when you are planning to use it.

One you buy the pass, you will be given a voucher for a Japan Rail Pass ( not the pass itself).

Where to purchase

There are a few different ways you can purchase a pass.

The first way is through a travel agency. You can find these either in your home city by a quick google search or online.

The second way is by buying the pass online as there are many different JR Pass websites out there that sell this type of pass.

The third way is by buying it for a premium up charge inside Japan.

However in all my experiences, buying it online seems to work the best as the entire process was relatively easy and smooth.

Exchanging The Voucher For A Pass

Once you have arrived in Japan, it is time for you to exchange the voucher you have received for a pass at the JR Station Office. You can do this whenever you want as the pass isn’t activated at this time.

You will usually be given a simple form to fill out with your basic information, and you present that form with your voucher and passport. Then they’ll take that information and write you up a pass.

Do note that before you leave the counter, you should check that your name is written correctly ( must match the passport) and the dates are correct.

Activating The Pass

You want to make sure to only activate the pass whenever you are planning to travel as once you activate it, it will start counting by the days till it expires.

The date can be any date that you decide you want to travel from, which means it can be the date you exchanged the voucher for the pass, or it can be any date in the future within a 90 day time frame.

Do note: the pass works by calendar days, not a 24 hour clock period.

Price Of The Japan Rail Pass

Depending on where you buy your pass, the price of the Japan Rail Pass can vary from place to place.

Here is an example of a price list from the travel agency JTB USA:

Number of daysOrdinary CarGreen Car
7-day pass$281 $376
14-day pass $448 $608
21-day pass $573 $791

Is JR Pass Worth it?

Is it worth it?

That really depends on what you are going to be doing in Japan.

For instance, if you are traveling to all sorts of different places like Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Hiroshima, etc.. then yes it will totally be worth it. It will save you a lot of time and money by using the JR Pass.

However if you are just going to be in Tokyo, then there is simply no point in you buying a JR Pass as you aren’t going to be traveling anywhere else.

To put it simply, if you are going to have at least some sort of long distance travel inside Japan, then the JR Pass will totally be worth it. But if you are just going to be inside one city and that’s it, then it is better to not buy the pass at all.

When I went to Japan, I bought the 7 day pass and it gave me lots of benefits. I was traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto To Hiroshima to Kyushu and vice versa. I was able to travel to many different cities and spend time in each one of those places. The pass has given me significantly more value than the money we spent buying the pass.

So it really all depends on how much traveling you are going to be doing in Japan.

Worth It For Budget Travelers?

The JR Pass can definitely be a great bargain as you are able to travel to many different places for a pretty cheap price.

However if you are on a very tight budget, then this pass may not be the best option for you.

There are plenty of other ways for you to get around Japan besides using a train. The only trade off here is that it will take a lot longer in time as well as convenience. Also depending on how cheap you want to be, comfort might be lacking as well.

For example, a regular single ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto will cost you about Y14,000 or about 140 dollars USD. Where as if you take one of the night buses from Tokyo to Kyoto, it can go as low as Y5,000. Not only that but you will also save on your night accommodation because the bus travels all throughout the night.

So if you want to save some more money, then this pass might not be worth it to you. But you are going to be sacrificing time, comfort as well as convenience.

Is There A Time When The Pass Isn’t Useful?

Of course there is!

If you are only going to be spending your time exploring one particular city and maybe some nearby towns, then of course the pass will most certainly not be worth it.

If you are only going to be spending your time within one particular area, then you are most likely going to be using the subway for most of your travels. Plus there are also passes and private railway options that you can use which are a better value for those other tips.

The pass is only worth it if you are going to be going to be doing a few long distance travels in Japan. Otherwise skip out on buying the pass and use the cheaper options instead.

Advantages or Disadvantages

Advantage

The most important advantage other than saving money is the convenience and time aspect.

You simply just show them your JR Pass and they’ll let you move through the gates and get onto your seat. Short, simple, and fast.

You are also able to make some bookings for seats on the Shinkansen and other long distance trains like the limited express. These bookings are great because if you want a particular seat, then you can simply request that seat and you’ll be given it.

You are able to make as many bookings as you want mainly because this service is included in with the pass.

Disadvantage

One big disadvantage with using the pass is that you are required to have your passport on you when you use it. They don’t always check for your passport, but if they do, then you better have it.

The other thing that I don’t like about it is that it can stress you out easily. By this I mean, because you have a limited amount of days to use the pass, you might be frantically trying to figure out a schedule on when to travel and where to travel. This can put a lot of pressure and stress on you, and you might miss out on some things you want to do.

The last thing is that if you buy a pass and find out you don’t really need it. This can be a huge money waster and make you frustrated.

Which is why you need to figure out your travel plans first and how you are going to travel. This will mitigate any risks that might happen.

Tips For JR Travel

Here are some tips which I think you all might find useful when traveling on a Japan Rail Train.

  • It is perfectly fine to eat and drink on a long distance train. You are able to bring food with you or purchase it from the trolley that comes around from time to time. Do know that it is expected for you to take your trash with you off the train and throw it away. (side tip: don’t bring smelly foods onto the train)
  • It is considered rude to talk too loudly on the train as most people will be quiet. If you must talk, try to do it in a low voice.
  • If you have some small or medium sized bags with you, then put it in the racks above your seat. If you have larger luggage with you, then put it in the back of each carriage.
  • If you pre-book a seat, make sure you sit in that correct seat. You are not able to move around even if the seat is vacant.
  • When waiting for the train to come, remember to let the passengers in the train to come out first before you start walking inside.
  • Trains run on a tight schedule, so make sure you are not late for your train.

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Overall, the JR Pass isn’t too hard to understand.

It can definitely be a very convenient thing to have if you are planning to travel to many places in Japan.

If you are in the USA, one website I definitely recommend is JTB USA. They do a phenomenal service and are very easy to use.

So hopefully this list was able to help you better understand how a JR Pass works and what it is.

Also, if you are planning to visit Japan anytime soon, you might be interested in some of my other Japan posts.

Or you can check out my complete list of things to do in Japan by clicking here.

Let me know how your trip goes!