I can’t begin this post with anything other than the following sentence: Japan is one of the most amazing – and most rewarding – destinations I’ve ever travelled to.
We travelled around Japan for three weeks. We explored cities, discovered temples, visited snow monkeys and ate, according to our photos, pretty much constantly. Even though we were only there for a short time, we managed to cover a lot of ground, with visits to Tokyo, Nagano, Takayama, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Miyajima, Osaka and Kobe, as well as numerous day trips.
When Chris asked me, during our itinerary planning, what I wanted to see while in Japan, my immediate answer was “Everything”. While I know it’s impossible to see the entirety of the country (but, oh how we tried), the only reason we were able to see as much as we did can be attributed to our decision to use the Japan Rail Pass.
If you’re in the middle of trying to decide how you’d like to get around Japan, whether it’s by car, train, bus or boat, read on to discover why I loved the Japan Rail Pass and why I think it offers the best value for anyone wanting to explore Japan.
What is the Japan Rail Pass?
The Japan Rail Pass (or JR Pass) is only offered to visitors travelling to Japan for the purpose of sightseeing. The JR Pass allows you to make use of train services run by the six companies that comprise JR. But the Pass is not limited to trains only – you can use it for certain buses and the ferry between Miyajima and Miyajimaguchi too.
There are a few different types of JR Pass you can buy, based on the following:
- Length of travel: You can buy a seven-day JR Pass, as well as 14-day and 21-day versions.
- Type of car: You can either buy a Standard/Ordinary Car Pass, or Green Car, which is the equivalent of First Class.
- Region: If you’re only exploring a particular part of Japan, you can buy a Pass dedicated to that region, such as the JR East Pass, the JR Hokkaido Pass or JR West Pass.
Up until March 2017, you had to buy a JR Pass before travelling to Japan. Until March 2018, some Japanese train offices will sell the JR Pass, but at a higher price than what you could pay by buying beforehand through a travel agency or online. For peace of mind (and to save money), I’d always recommend buying your Pass before travelling. Since we are based in the UK, we got our JR Passes via HIS Europe. And I couldn’t be happier: As specialists for travel in Japan and other Asian countries, we not only received the JR Pass quickly from HIS Europe, but they also gave us plenty of insider tips on the destinations we were planning to visit. The whole process was really easy, and we picked up our exchange orders from HIS Europe’s central London office a few days before leaving the UK.
Note: Exchange orders must be redeemed within three months of purchase.
When we arrived in Japan, we took our exchange vouchers to the JR office at our closest train station, which was Tokyo’s Shinjuku station, along with our passports, and received our JR Passes (complete with pretty cherry blossom trees on the front covers). You need to bring your passport so that the ticket office staff can see the tourist stamp you received when arriving into Japan. Your JR Pass will have the start date printed on it (you can specify your preferred start date at the ticket office); your seven/14/21-day period begins from there, whether you use the Pass every single day or not.
When in Japan: How to use the JR Pass
Now that you’ve exchanged the voucher for your shiny new Pass, the exploration can begin. If you’re starting in Tokyo like we did, then you’ll be happy to know that you can use the JR Pass for the city’s Yamanote central loop line (which has most of the city’s popular stops). In other cities, you will have to buy tickets to use their local lines, but places like Kyoto and Osaka feature JR lines too, which will always be free for Pass holders to use. If your Japan journey starts elsewhere, make sure to check which services the JR Pass is valid for.
The most important thing to know is that you can’t use the JR Pass at the automatic ticket barriers. Instead, most stations will have a manned ticket booth to the side of these barriers. Usually, you’ll just have to show your Pass to the personnel here, as well as your train tickets if you’re travelling further afield. You’ll only ever need your passport when transferring the exchange order for the Pass, so there’s no need to bring it along with you after that initial meeting.
You won’t need to get individual tickets when commuting on Tokyo’s JR subway lines, but you will need to buy tickets for other train journeys. And, since the JR Pass only covers JR services, there will be times that you may have to pay out for particular legs of a journey that are run by other companies. For us, this was a rare occasion, but it’s good to keep these extra fees in mind when planning your budget.
The train journeys vary between local trains, which, for all intents and purposes, look like ordinary trains and the shinkansen, or the bullet train. The latter are super slick and can travel up to a speed of 320km/h!
Planning a rail journey
Before you get onto either of those train types, you first have to plan your journey. There’s nothing wrong with spontaneity but, if you have a tight schedule or are travelling in peak seasons, I need to emphasise this: Plan ahead. We were travelling in autumn, which is the second most popular season after Japan’s springtime, and there were a few occasions when our desired train journey had sold out.
When it comes to planning, there are two apps that I became very attached to: Hyperdia and Citymapper. Citymapper became my go-to for navigating Tokyo, as it lists all public transport options as well as points of interest. For the rest of the country, I don’t think I could’ve done without Hyperdia.
There’s an online version of Hyperdia, but I recommend downloading the app as well. Before we left London, I took the time to watch the tutorial on how to search for the correct train journeys (such as unselecting NOZOMI/MIZUHO bullet trains, which aren’t covered by the JR Pass) and then it was really easy from there. The search results will always show a few options, displaying overall journey time, the amount of train changes and any extra fees.
We tended to book our train journeys the day before and, in case the people at the ticket office couldn’t speak English, I’d have my Hyperdia search results ready so that I could point out our preferred rail journey. Booking in advance will also be important if you’re travelling with luggage – you’ll definitely want to secure a seat reservation. And, luckily for all of us, seat reservations are free for anyone with a JR Pass.
The carriage number and seat number will be printed on each ticket. When waiting for a train to arrive, take a look around the platform for a train map or signs pointing out the positions of the different carriages. Since trains can get busy, it’s useful to line up to be ready to board the carriage printed on your ticket.
Is the JR Pass worth it?
If you start looking at rail journey prices in Japan, it becomes easy to see why so many travellers opt to use the JR Pass. The Pass was, after all, created to ease sightseeing within the country, so it makes sense that the more you travel in Japan, the more you’ll save by using the Pass.
There’s no better way I can illustrate this point apart from sharing a snapshot of our own train journeys, which involved everything from one-way legs and overnight stays to day trips.
Price breakdown for our itinerary:
Tokyo Narita > Tokyo (return) = ¥2,980
Tokyo > Nikko (day trip) = ¥6,340
Tokyo > Kamakura (day trip) = ¥1,840
Tokyo > Nagano (one way) = ¥7,110
Nagano > Matsumoto (day trip) = ¥2,280
Nagano > Takayama (one way) = ¥10,530
Takayama > Kyoto (one way) = ¥9,960
Kyoto > Hiroshima (one way) = ¥11,090
Hiroshima > Miyajima (return) = ¥1,180
Hiroshima > Osaka (one way) = ¥9,480
Osaka > Nara (day trip) = ¥1,600
Osaka > Himeji (day trip) = ¥2,980
Osaka > Kobe (one way) = ¥410
Kobe > Tokyo (one way) = ¥14,680
Total = ¥82,460*
Considering that the current price for a 21-day JR Pass (ordinary class) is ¥59,350* (£391*), we made a saving of ¥23,110, which is the equivalent of around £152*. The price breakdown above doesn’t even include all of our journeys, and doesn’t take into account the cost of subway day tickets we would’ve had to buy if we didn’t have the Pass.
Yes, I know it may hurt a little to pay a big amount like this before even starting any Japan explorations, but there’s no doubt that the JR Pass will save you money in the long run, as it definitely did with us. The only time I wouldn’t get a JR Pass is if you’re only planning to be in Japan for a few days and have no intention to visit other places for the duration of the trip. If you’re only travelling around one part of Japan, then I’d suggest looking into the region-specific Passes as opposed to the Japan-wide Pass.
Practical tips for travelling by train in Japan
I’ve given you the most important facts and figures related to the JR Pass, but this section is about all of the other things we learned while exploring Japan by train. Without any further ado:
- Pocket wifi is a must: I realise this doesn’t particularly pertain to train travel, but we felt like our pocket wifi was our mini saviour (especially since we’re experts at getting lost). Pocket wifi will also be handy for using Hyperdia and other apps like Google Maps. You can buy these but we chose to rent ours, opting to pick it up at the airport on arrival.
- To send or not send luggage: We were told conflicting things about this one. Japan does offer many luggage delivery services, where instead of travelling with your luggage, it’s picked up and delivered to your hotel in your next destination. We decided to travel with our luggage and, yes, that meant we had to lug our bags around with us, but we didn’t find this to be too much of a hassle and there was always space to stow these on the train carriages.
- Avoid rush hour: Oh man, Japanese trains can be BUSY, especially in Tokyo. If you can, avoid travelling between 07:30 and 09:30 or between 17:00 and 20:00. If you think the London Tube during rush hour is cramped, well, my friend, you ain’t seen nothing yet…
- Buy some snacks: Japan’s trains tend to be fast – but that doesn’t mean you won’t be spending plenty of time on trains anyway. Purchase snacks, or better yet, a bento box, beforehand. I got completely obsessed with Japanese drinks vending machines (dispensing bottles or tins of both hot or cold drinks) while I was there, and I always made sure to stock up from the machines located on the train platforms. Some trains may have a food cart too.
- There is plenty of English signage: I think I was vaguely concerned about not being able to speak Japanese but this anxiety dissolved as soon as we arrived. Most signs in train stations are in Japanese and English, so we didn’t have any issues navigating to the correct trains and platforms.
- Be respectful: Common sense is called for here. When on the train, don’t listen to music without headphones, don’t be messy and keep conversations to a low volume. On some trains, there may be priority seats: be prepared to give these up to whoever needs these more than you.
I don’t often write purely practical posts like this but I remember, during my own research for the trip, feeling extremely grateful towards all of the other travel blogs and websites that helped us to prepare. So now I’m paying it forward by sharing what I learned while using the JR Pass – and I couldn’t gush about this Pass enough. Our trip to Japan would have been completely different without the JR Pass and, by simply having it, we felt more freedom to see and do as much as possible within the time we had in the country.
The next time we travel in Japan – and I’m already thinking of that next time – we will, without a doubt, use the JR Pass all over again.
Have you travelled in Japan? Did you make use of the JR Pass too? I’d love to hear about your experiences and favourite destinations in the comments below.
Note: Our JR Pass was sponsored by HIS Europe in exchange for a review but, as always, all opinions and my now over-the-top obsession with anything to do with Japan are entirely my own.
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* All prices were current at the time of writing. Train journey prices were provided by Hyperdia.
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