A Guide to the Japan Rail Pass

Ride the Japanese rails

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Written by: Vicky Philpott

I had five weeks in Japan and wanted to see as much as possible, this meant investing in a three-week Japan JR Rail Pass. I paid £314, with Fed Ex next day delivery. At first I was confused by the whole thing – ‘so I just get on a train, wherever, whenever I want?’

Apparently, yes.

The pass was brilliant and made getting around the country so easy, and I avoided a lot of hassle trying to work out what ticket I wanted and then actually queuing up to buy it too.

The pass is pretty simple, let me explain it to you.

How to use the JR rail pass

Once you have a JR rail pass you don’t need to buy any other ticket, so long as you’re on the JR network. I travelled from Osaka to Wakayama, for example, and had to pay the fare as it was a local train not covered by the pass. I found a different way back, in order to use my pass. This is quite rare on the main tourist routes, I was just trying to get off the beaten track. You know how it is.

You can book seat reservations if you want to but I would just wander up to the train I wanted a few minutes ahead of schedule and find myself a seat. The only exception was the Shinkansen, which I booked beforehand.

To access the trains you just need to flash your pass, along with your passport, when you go through the turnstiles. There will often be a separate lane for you to go through, so you can show it to a real person rather than the ticket machine.

My trips

Here’s the individual price breakdown of my trips – just so you can get an idea of whether the pass will be worth it for you.

  • Tokyo to Kyoto 8,210¥ | £45.67
  • Kyoto to Osaka 560¥ | £3.11
  • Osaka to Kyoto 560¥ | £3.11
  • Kyoto to Nara 620¥ | £3.45
  • Nara to Osaka 800¥ | £4.45
  • Wayamaka to Osaka 1240¥ | £6.90
  • Osaka to Tokyo 8750¥ | £48.68
  • Tokyo to Yamagata 6800¥ | £37.83
  • Yamagata to Hakodate 9830¥ | £54.68
  • Hakodate to Chitose 5070¥ | £28.20
  • Niseko to Sapporo 2160¥ | £12.02
  • Sapporo to Otaru 640¥ | £3.56
  • Otaru to Tokyo 14470¥ | £80.50
  • Tokyo to Narita Airport 1400¥ | £7.79

As a side note: I’d recommend everywhere I went. In fact, I’d do the exact same trip again. But, as you can see you need to get  quite a few journeys in to make the JR Rail Pass worth it.

All prices are from the excellent hyperdia.com website which gives the train information for the whole of Japan.

= 60,540¥ | £336.88

Total without pass = £336.87

Total with pass = £314

Difference = £22.88

A few tips

  • You don’t need a pass if you’re planning on only staying in Tokyo. I almost bought a week-pass there on someone’s recommendation, which would’ve been a huge mistake. Public transport in Tokyo is around £1.50 a journey.
  • I’d recommend the pass solely on the fact that I’d have definitely missed a few of my trains if I’d had to join the queues at the station.
  • Japan Rail Passes come in 1, 2 and 3-week options. Like InterRail passes, the more you travel around, the better value you get from it.
  • You can buy a first class pass, or a second. I had a second and was more than fine. Trains in Japan are in a different league to the rest of the world!
  • Very important: remember, you can only get the Japan Rail Pass before you’re in the country. It must to be delivered to an address outside of Japan and then you can get it validated at a ticket office when you’re there. You cannot get a Japan Rail Pass within Japan.

The trains

Japan’s trains are awesome. Make sure to do the Shinkansen journey up to and you’ll get to go on the Bullet Train past Mount Fuji. When I did this I was in seat 1A, it was awesome, kind of like I was driving the thing, but not really. You’ll know when Fuji is coming as everyone whips their cameras out.

Food and drink

At every station you’ll be offered the opportunity to buy a Bento Box. The quality goes up with the price, but I enjoyed a salmon sushi dinner alongside an Asahi beer on the Shinkansen. On some trains you can order it as you get on and it comes round hot. I never quite mastered how to do this though.

Which pass should I get?

You need to work out your planned itinerary before anyone can answer that. In hindsight, I should’ve bought a two-week pass really. It didn’t cover enough of the Hokkaido region efficiently to make it super worthwhile, although as you can see from my price breakdown above it was definitely worth it in the end, just.

If money is tight you could mix a 7-day pass up with some bus tickets and make it work that way. I was in Japan for five weeks though, and I’d happily go back. In fact the more I think about it, I need to, sometime very soon.

If you have any more questions about the Japan Rail Pass just message me @Vicky.

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