What, if any, Japan Rail Pass should I get?

It's quite common for visitors to Japan to buy a Japan Rail Pass before they go. It can save you money if your trip is involves lots of rail travel. I've purchased a pass for two of our previous trips, but decided not to on this coming one.

While JR is the biggest railway conglomerate in Japan, there are many private railways that compete with/compliment JR. The Japan Rail Pass works only on JR trains; for lines run by other companies, you'll have to buy a normal ticket like everyone else. The Rail Pass is also valid for travel on JR's urban railways like Tokyo's Yamanote line (you have to use a staffed entrance and show your pass), but not on the subways.

The typical sales pitch of the pass is, "It costs less than one round trip between Tokyo and Osaka". For an Economy Class, 7-Day pass, this is true. But if it's a longer pass, or you spring for the Green Car Business Class pass, the math isn't so simple.

Here's a few thoughts before you try to "do the math" on whether or not a pass is worth it.

 

1. People often buy more rail pass than they need

Tourists often want to use their pass on the Narita Express from the airport into Tokyo, so they activate their pass when they land and then spend 3 days seeing the sights in Tokyo and not using the pass much. But if you avoid that trap, you can activate the pass when you're ready to do long-haul travel and "waste" fewer days.

Narita Airport actually has two competing express trains: JR's Narita Express (a.k.a. N'ex) and Keisei Skyliner. Their platforms and ticket counters are right next to each other in Terminal 1. The Skyliner is actually faster than N'ex (41 minutes to Ueno vs N'ex's 61 minutes to Tokyo Station), plus it has more frequent service in the evenings.

(FYI one Japanse yen is worth slightly less than a US penny, so generally just divide ¥ prices by 100)

You can buy a discount Skyliner ticket online (link) before you go to Japan (¥2200 one way, ¥4300 round-trip). You have to take your receipt code and your passport to the counter and they hand you your actual ticket. One other nice add-on Keisei offers is a Tokyo-wide Subway pass: for ¥600 extra, you get a 24 Hour pass good anywhere on the Tokyo Metro and Toei private lines. ¥1000 will get you a 48 hour pass, and ¥1300 will get you a 72 hour pass. While these passes won't work on the Yamanote, Chuo, and other popular urban JR lines, there's almost always a reasonable subway alternative to these.

So for $48 you've got your ride to AND from the airport paid for, as well as 3 full days of unlimited subway rides around Tokyo for sightseeing. This should give you some flexibility in thinking about getting a Pass.
(Yes, I know there are cheaper options from the airport. But given that even a frugal vacation easily costs $15 per waking hour once you total up the airfare, lodging, food and incidentals, it seems ridiculous to waste 2 hours of precious vacation time to save a couple bucks.)

Keisei Skyliner
not intimidating in the least!

2. I sure wish they had the "ride 5 days within one month" option like Eurail Pass

But if they had that, I wouldn't be here blogging about this! Japan Rail Passes are available in 7, 14, and 21-day denominations. All are available in Economy or Green Class (i.e., Business Class). Now that you've thought about your airport transportation options, you might be able to structure your trip so you can buy a shorter pass.

A bit of math:
  • Economy class 21 day pass is $521 (i.e.,  $24 per day). A 14 day pass is $407 ($29/day), 7 days is $253 ($36/day). 
  • In Green class those numbers are $34, $39, and $48/day.
  • FYI, Gran Class, a true First Class experience on newer lines, is not available to pass users, and there is no means to "upgrade" to it from the seat your pass gets you

 

3. If you're only going to be traveling in one region, consider a regional pass. 

You can also buy much cheaper regional passes that might suit your needs more than a Japan-wide pass. Some options are here.


 

4. The normal fare isn't that expensive

Yes, the bullet trains (aka Shinkansen) are fast. So fast that most Americans don't quite grasp that the 2 hour and 30 minute trip from Tokyo to Osaka covers the same distance as Los Angeles to Phoenix (or for an East Coast example, New York to Portland, Maine). Considering what your options to get from LA to Phoenix would cost and how long they'd take, the $126 Shinkansen fare feels pretty, uh, fair, no?

You can use the Hyperdia website (which has options for searching with and without a rail pass) to look at exact times and prices for specific trips

Hyperdia

 

5. Sometimes, you should just fly

I love trains. A lot. And I love the Shinkansen more than any other train in the world. But once you've sailed past Mt. Fuji at 300 kph while eating a self-heating bento box and drinking a nice Otokoyama cup sake, you've checked off most of the "Bullet Train Experience" from the bucket list; spending 8 hours on a train, even in Green or Grand Class, gets boring.

Peach!
Intra-Japan flights can be quite cheap if you fly on a Low Cost Carrier (LCC) like Peach or Vanilla, with a few caveats:
  • There's no First Class on LCCs
  • Even if you fly a national carrier like ANA and book First, there's no priority line at security
  • Airplanes have abysmal on-time performance compared to the Shinkansen
  • Remember to factor the cost of getting to/from the airport into your pricing comparison
  • Remember to tack on two+ hours of time for getting to/from the airport to any fly vs. train time comparison.
I had to go from Fukuoka to Sapporo, a distance of 2338 kilometers (think San Diego to Vancouver, BC) and yes, it's an engineering feat that the Japanese rail system can make that trip in 13 hours. But I'd rather fly and be there in 5-ish hours door-to-door.

 

6. You can't sit with us!

Unfortunately Japan Rail Pass holders are barred from riding the fastest bullet trains (e.g., Nozomi, Mizuho). For example, on the Tokyo – Osaka run, the Nozomi is about 25 minutes faster than the Pass-friendly train. For long-distance trips, using the pass can add hours to your journey. This is especially important if you're using Google Maps to track train times, it assumes you're riding Nozomi.

If I'm on a fast train, I care a lot less about comfort. Only when the trip crests 3 hours do I start wishing I had the comforts of the Green car. So yes, for many trips, I'd say Economy on Nozomi is better than Green car on the slower Hikari.

Remember that the Japan Rail pass is only available to foreigners, so if you have (or make) any Japanese friends you'd like to travel with, I can promise you they'll silently roll their eyes when you tell them they have to take the slow train.
I mean, fellow New Yorkers, try to imagine your friend is visiting and wants you to go with them somewhere in the city but their tourist MTA card won't let them on any express subway trains? Or for you non-New Yorkers, imagine a visiting friend rented a car for their trip that wasn't allowed use the freeway, just surface streets. No big deal for a short trip, but for a long one, you'd roll your eyes loudly and you know it.  
Beyond the speed, riding Nozomi/Mizuho trains have a few other perks. Because so many visitors to Japan get the pass, the Nozomi/Mizuho trains have a lot fewer foreign tourists (i.e., Shinkansen novices) and are therefore less chaotic than the others. Also, since so many Japanese people use the Ta-Q-Bin courier service to move their bags when they travel, the Nozomi is refreshingly devoid of European backpackers trying in vain to shove a 60 kilo backpack into the overhead rack.

So who is on the train with you? Well, your train mates are likely to be a bunch of salarymen on their way back from a business trip. They're obnoxiously entertaining in their own way until they pass out from their 4th Sapporo tallboy.

 

7. Fewer lines to stand in

Seat reservations are free with a pass, but you still have to go to stand in line at a JR office and do it in person. When you purchase a ticket, you can skip the line and do everything from a machine. I should point out here that I highly recommend bringing several cards with you to the machine – we found that in some machines, ONLY our Barclays-issued cards (e.g., our JetBlue and Arrival+ cards) would work because in kiosks they can operate in Chip+PIN mode.
Note: that's just my own "anecdata" on the topic of cards in kiosks. I don't really care if your Chase FartyPoints™ card "worked just fine" this one time back in 2011 in an old Keihan Railways machine in Kyoto. I'm just saying if you've EVER traveled abroad with a credit card, you know all about the "card roulette" you have to do now and then, so bring a few to choose from if you're going to try and use a JR train ticketing machine. And if you have a Barclays card, don't leave it in your sock drawer back in the US. 

These yellow ones at least warn you!

Card roulette anyone?


TIP: When reserving a seat with your rail pass, filling this form out while you wait can speed things up

 

In conclusion…

Well you're probably more confused now than you were before you started reading, but, hey, there's nothing more Japanese than being completely OCD about planning out your travel, so think of it as "getting into the local mindset" 😁 But seriously, think through your trip a bit before just blindly buying a pass that covers the entire duration of your visit – there might be faster and cheaper options if you plan a little bit.

 

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