For visitors to Japan who intend to explore outside of Tokyo, the Japan Rail Pass is without doubt the most economical way to travel. Only available to non-Japanese visiting on a tourist visa (“Temporary Visitor”) and Japanese nationals who have spent 10 consecutive years abroad, the rail pass lets you ride most trains and buses that are part of the Japan Rail Company (JR) group network.
How cost-effective the Japan Rail Pass proves depends on how much you use it during your stay, but you can save money even if you only intend on making one return journey outside of Tokyo. A Tokyo > Kyoto return ticket will cost approximately ¥26,000 vs a 7-day Japan Rail Pass priced at around ¥29,000. Using the rail pass on local trains and buses should save you ¥500-1,000 per day and so you’ll at least break-even. Add in another stop on that itinerary or a day trip to somewhere else outside of Tokyo, and the calculation quickly tips in favour of the Japan Rail Pass.
You have the option to purchase 7-, 14-, or 21-day rail passes for the standard or “green car” (first class carriage) carriages. ¥10,000 = $91 (FX rate updated daily).
¥14,550 for a child ticket
¥23,190 for a child ticket
¥29,670 for a child ticket
¥19,440 for a child ticket
¥31,470 for a child ticket
¥40,930 for a child ticket
Okay, where can I get a Japan Rail Pass?
The Japan Rail Pass cannot be purchased in Japan and must be applied for via an authorized travel operator (see the website). Well, at least this used to the case. From March 2017 in an effort to help placate frustrated travellers who didn’t realise this and expected to be able to buy a pass in Japan, the pass has been made available for purchase inside the country at the places listed below (for Tokyo):
- Shinjuku Station
- Tokyo Station
- Haneda Airport
- Narita Airport
However, prices are 10-20% more expensive so it is still better to purchase abroad in advance.
How do I get a Japan Rail Pass abroad?
The application is actually for an “Exchange Order” which can be exchanged for a Japan Rail Pass once in Japan. These Exchange Orders can be purchased through designated agents such as JTB or Nippon Travel Agency. For a list of authorised agents by country, please see the official website.
Note that you do not need to reserve seats on bullet trains or make other details travel arrangements when you apply for the Exchange Order, but you must enter Japan within three months of the Exchange Order being issued.
Once in the country, you can take the Exchange Order to one of the JR ticket offices listed here to exchange it for the Japan Rail Pass. You can specify a starting date for the Japan Rail Pass up to one month ahead, but once fixed this date cannot be changed.
Where can I book trains?
Reservations for the bullet train (shinkansen) are made at the “Midori no Madoguchi”—the JR company’s ticket desk at the stations. For local JR trains like the JR Yamanote Line you just need to show your pass to the station staff at the ticket gates and they will let you through. Incidentally, it’s worth understanding how ticket pricing for shinkansen works because it’s not necessarily the most intuitive system.
When can I reserve tickets?
You can reserve tickets as soon as you have exchanged the Exchange Order for the Japan Rail Pass, even if the period for which you wish the pass to be valid has not yet started. In other words, you don’t have to wait until you can actually use the Japan Rail Pass to ride the trains to reserve tickets for the shinkansen.
Do I have to use the pass consecutively?
Yes. You cannot, for example, purchase a 14-day pass for a three week holiday and opt to split it between the first week and the third week. There is, however, no limit on the number of Japan Rail Passes you can purchase, so in this case you could simply purchase two 7-day passes.
Is it worth upgrading to the Green Car?
The Green Car carriages are more spacious and quieter than the standard carriages, but this is Japan: fellow travellers are polite and generally considerate of those around them. Moreover, the standard carriages are spacious and comfortable by any rule of measure. Nevertheless, it may be worth considering a Green Car pass if you are travelling during one of the country’s peak periods because the standard carriages will be full and finding space for larger luggage may prove a bit of struggle.