Japan is not the most budget-friendly country, and a lot of that is due to the costs of travel. The world-renowned efficiency and speed of their train system makes it easy to get from place to place, but it comes at a steep price!
Japan Rail Passes (aka JR Passes) do cost a good chunk of change, but if you’re planning on travelling around a lot, they can be worth it. We saved 18,110 yen each over two weeks with our JR Passes, or about $217.88 CAD ($163.87 USD). That’s not too shabby!
*All in Japanese yen*
7-day – 29,110 adult/14,550 child
14-day – 46,390 adult/23,190 child
21-day – 59,350 adult/29670 child
How it Works
The pass works for consecutive days. It starts the first day you activate it, and ends at midnight of the last day of the respective period. For example, if you buy the 7-day pass and activate it on Jan 1st, it expires at 11:59pm on Jan 7th. Only foreigners can buy and use the pass.
- You need to purchase an Exchange Order first, which you will eventually exchange for your Japan Rail Pass. These passes can be bought at certain sales offices in different countries, and can also be mailed to you. Make sure to allow at least 5 days for the pass to be mailed. You can also mail the pass to your hostel in Japan (like we did!), just make sure you give them a heads up and ask them to provide their address. For a list of offices in different countries, check out the JR website here. We bought our pass and had it mailed by Japan Experience, check it out here.
- Once you have received your JR Exchange Order, you need to validate it at a JR office in Japan. You can find a list of them here. Make sure to bring your passport with you in order to receive your JR Pass. This process only takes a few minutes, and then you’re almost ready to use it! Note that exchanging and receiving your JR Pass does not activate it, so it’s fine to exchange it a few days before you want to start using the pass.
- You activate it by going to the booth beside any JR station gate, and they will stamp it with the date. After that you will always go through the manual gate and show the pass to the attendant. You also need to show the pass when you exit the station.
Is it Worth it?
The prices above look steep, but long-distance transport in Japan is expensive. We bought the 14-day pass, and saved 18,110 yen each over the two weeks. We were in Japan for 18 days, but planned to have most of our long distance travel within the 14-day period, and spent the other 4 days travelling around Tokyo with IC Cards. This pass is only worth it if you plan on visiting multiple cities in Japan in a short period of time (our specialty!). Our itinerary, including what the transport would have cost, over those two weeks is laid out below:
JR Pass Itinerary
Tokyo to Hakone (Mount Fuji)
- JR yamanote line Shinjuku to Shiagawa – 200 yen
- Shinkansen Shinagawa to odawara – 3050 yen
Hakone (Mount Fuji) to Kyoto
- Shinkansen Odawara to Kyoto – 11560
- Trip Kyoto to Saga-Arashiyama for bamboo grove/temple (JR Sagano line) – 240 yen
- Trip back – 240 yen
- Trip Kyoto to Inari for Fushimi Inari (JR Nara line) – 140 yen
- Trip back – 140 yen
- Trip Nijo to Kyoto back from Nijo castle (JR sagano line) – 190 yen
Kyoto to Nara
- JR Nara line Kyoto to Nara station – 710 yen
Nara to Osaka
- JR Kanjo-Yanatoji line Nara to Osaka – 800 yen
- JR Osaka loop line Tenma to Morinomiya station for Osaka castle – 160 yen
- Osaka loop line Morinomiya to Bentencho for aquarium – 190 yen
- Osaka loop line back Bentencho back to Tenma – 180 yen
- Osaka loop line Tenma to Osaka – 120 yen
- Osaka to Shin-Osaka – 160 yen
Osaka to Hiroshima
- Shinkansen Sakura from shin-Osaka to Hiroshima – 9710 yen
Hiroshima to Miyajima
- JR San-jo line from Hiroshima to Miyajima – 410 yen
- JR Ferry round trip to Miyajima – 360 yen
- JR San-jo line from Miyajima to Hiroshima – 410 yen
Hiroshima to Osaka
- Shinkansen Sakura from Hiroshima to shin-Osaka – 9710 yen
- Shin-Osaka to Osaka – 160 yen
- Osaka to JR Namba via Imamiya – 190 yen
- Back – 190 yen
Osaka to Kanazawa
- Thunderbird from Osaka station to Kanazawa 2.5 hours – 7130 yen
- JR bus from Kanazawa station to garden/castle – 200 yen
Kanazawa to Nozawa Onsen
- Shinkansen Hakutaka from Kanazawa to Nagano station – 8440 yen
- Nagano to Iiyama on same Shinkansen – 1360 (11 mins)
Nozawa Onsen to Tokyo (Ueno station)
- Shinkansen Hakutaka from Iiyama to Ueno – 7900 yen
- Akihabara to Shinjuku on Sobu line – 170 yen
- Back on same line – 170 yen
Total = 64,590 yen
JR Pass Cost = 46,390 yen
Saved = 18,200 yen
Alternative Routes to Save Money
We also looked into cheaper alternative routes (buses, non-JR trains) that make sense. We eliminated routes that took an excessively long time, and save a significant amount (at least 800 yen).
Tokyo to Hakone
- Shinjuku to Hakone-yumoto on the Odakya Ltd. Express Super Hakone – 2280 yen
- Saves 980 yen (including the 210 yen bus from Odawara to Hakone-Yumoto), but it takes 30 minutes longer (accounting for bus ride from Odawara to Hakone-Yumoto).
Tokyo to Kyoto
- You can bus from Tokyo to Kyoto for an average of 5800 yen. We didn’t go direct from Tokyo to Kyoto, as we stopped in Hakone to see Mount Fuij, so this route wouldn’t make sense for us, but could save you some money.
- Save 8000 yen, but takes 6.5 hour longer
Osaka to Hiroshima
- You can bus between Osaka and Hiroshima for about 4600 yen, they depart from Osaka Station’s JR Express Bus Terminal
- Saves approximately 5000 yen, but takes 3.5 hours longer (5 hours instead of 1.5 hours on the Shinkansen). Would save 10,000 yen round trip.
Kanazawa to Nozawa Onsen
- Taking the JR Iiyama line between Nagano and Iiyama instead of the Shinkansen (coming back from Snow Monkeys) – 530 yen
- Saves 830 yen, but takes 34 minutes longer
If we took all of these alternative routes, it would have saved us 19,810 (assuming we did not have the pass). That would take our total travel costs to 44,780 yen, or 1610 yen less than the JR Pass. So you could do it cheaper than the JR Pass in theory, but it would mean 14.5 more hours of travel, while only saving 1610 yen.
Soooo….Is it Worth it?!
For us, yes! But in the end it depends on your personal trip and schedule. The best we can do is give you a step by step outline to work out if the pass is worth the money on your trip:
- Plan out the cities you’re going to visit.
- Figure out your timeline. Are you going to visit those cities within one, two or three weeks? Try to plan your long distance trips within one of those periods to maximize your pass.
- Enter each trip into HyperDia to figure out the fares for each trip, or use our outline above if you’re taking similar routes. Make sure to choose whether you want a reserved seat or not in HyperDia, as it changes the price.
- Add up the fares, and see if your total is less than the respective pass you are thinking of buying.
- Also consider that you could save 200-800 yen a day while travelling around certain cities using the JR Pass (especially Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and if you go to Miyajima near Hiroshima).
- If you’re not rushing around Japan, check out our longer alternative routes and fares and replace them with the bullet train fares of the same trip to see if that lowers your total below the JR Pass total.
We think would be hard to make the one week pass worth it, unless you really rush a lot of long distance travel. On the other hand, if you’re heading down to Hiroshima, a round trip on the Shinkansen is more than a one week pass. We managed to save a lot using the 14-day pass and our trip was a little squished, but we didn’t feel too rushed.
The best way to make the pass worth it is to plan your long distance travel all within the period of your pass. We were in Japan for 18 days, spent 4 days in Tokyo, the activated the 14 day pass for the long distance travel to Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima, Kanazawa, Nagano and back to Tokyo to maximize the JR Pass value.
The two week pass breaks down to cost 6613 yen/day, and you simply won’t spend that much on subway/train rides in Tokyo. We obviously didn’t spend more than 6613 yen each and every day while using the pass, but being under that per day average for 3-4 days in a row in Tokyo makes it very hard to make the pass worth it the rest of the way. It worked out well for us to not use the pass while we were in Tokyo, and then activate it for our long distance travel. It’s probably a good idea to plan to stay in Japan a few days longer than the length of the pass, to take advantage of this strategy.