Just about every first-time traveller to Japan, on beginning to research how to get around the country, will come across the JR Rail Pass.
This train ticket pass covers travel on any railway line run by Japan Rail National Trains, including most of the Shinkansen bullet trains as well as the Tokyo Narita airport express trains, and providing access to all the major towns and cities across the entirety of the country.
The JR Pass is all-inclusive and unlimited, allowing the holder to hop on and off as many JR trains as they like during the validity of the pass. Given that individual train prices for the longer Japanese journeys can be quite expensive, the pass can quickly pay for itself if more than a few journeys are planned.
At the same time, the pass itself is also pretty pricey, and so it's worth spending a bit of time considering which train journeys you are likely to be taking and whether it might be cheaper to purchase individual train tickets.
For our part, being first-time visitors to the country, we knew we would want to see as much as possible during our time in Japan, and so would likely be making plenty of use of the local train services. Also, being unfamiliar with the country meant that there was a certain peace of mind having purchased our tickets in advance, and not having to figure out how to get new tickets on site each time we wanted to take a train.
And so for those reasons, we opted for the 3-week JR Pass for our trip. In hindsight, having seen just how efficient and easy it was to purchase train tickets all over Japan, we would be far more confident simply paying as we go the next time that we visit Japan.
As a result, we thought it would be interesting to see - after the fact - whether we actually did get good value from our Japan Rail Pass during our vacation. And so…
Is a JR Rail Pass really worth it?
This is, of course, an entirely individual question, and no two people will have exactly the same answer.
It is completely dependent on how many train journeys you will be taking, how far the distances traveled will be, and over which period of time the travel will be done.
For us though, here follows a list of the journeys we ended up taking during our 3-week travels around Japan, that were included in the JR Pass. This will hopefully give an indication of the routes we took (all are 1-way journeys, unless otherwise stated), and for anyone considering a similar itinerary, whether a JR Pass could be good value:
- Narita airport to Central Tokyo (on the Narita Express)
- Tokyo to Nikko (return)
- Tokyo to Kyoto
- Kyoto Station to the Fushimi-Inari shrine
- Kyoto to Okayama and Uno (for Naoshima island)
- Uno to Hiroshima
- Hiroshima to Miyajima island, including the Miyajima ferry (return)
- Hiroshima to Osaka
- Osaka to Himeji (return)
- Osaka to Nara (return)
- Osaka to Odawara (for Hakone)
- Odawara (Hakone) to Tokyo
Totaling up the individual prices of these journeys gives a cost of around 76,000 Japanese Yen. Or roughly £500.
Given that the UK price of a 3-week JR Pass is around £415 as of 2021, this means that buying the JR Pass gave us a saving of close to 20%. Definitely good value!
But the comparison doesn't end there. The prices we used to estimate the cost of buying the individual tickets are all for basic train tickets, which generally do not include seat reservations. While the JR Pass does allow a seat to be reserved.
It is difficult to know how much value to assign to this aspect of the pass, but it is definitely worth considering how much comfort you would derive from knowing you have a train seat awaiting you on your journey, no matter how full the train may be. Given that we were visiting Japan during the popular end-of-March early-April cherry blossom season, we were certainly happy to know our JR seats were guaranteed during this peak visitor season.
It's clear from the above that our decision to buy a 3-week JR Pass was absolutely worth it. In fact, given the benefits of knowing in advance how much to budget for train travel, we would suggest that - even if it's a close call whether the pass is value for your specific circumstances - you should go ahead and buy it, just for the convenience and added peace of mind.
Buying the JR Pass
The most important thing to remember with the JR Rail Pass is that it is only available to foreigners, and as a general statement can only be purchased outside of Japan. So plan in advance, and purchase your pass before leaving on your trip. (There are some limited options to purchase a JR Pass in Japan itself, but since these are in any case more expensive, it is best to purchase the pass before departing.)
In the UK there are many sellers of the JR Pass, and a quick online search will bring up a multitude of options. Other than ensuring that the seller is reputable, it is worth spending a quick bit of time shopping around. We found that the UK prices of the pass varied by up to 10% between some sites.
How to Activate a JR Pass
Once you've bought a Japan Rail Pass, you will receive a voucher stating the type of pass purchased, and the date by which it needs to be exchanged.
To activate the JR Pass, this pre-purchased voucher needs to be exchanged at a local Japan Rail Service Center once in the country.
At Tokyo's Narita airport this is straightforward. After clearing customs, the route to the train station in the airport (found on the B1 lower level floor) is well-signposted. Head to Japan Rail's 'JR East Travel Service Center' in the station, to exchange the voucher for the actual JR Pass you will be using during your visit, and reserve a seat on the next departing Narita Express train. You will also need to provide your passport as proof of identification.
From there, the platform for the Narita Express trains is literally a 1 minute walk away from the service center.
Any other tips for travelling around Japan?
Hyperdia - the Hyperdia website is a good resource for anyone planning their train travel during a trip to Japan. It is an easy way to search individual train journeys and to price up the cost of the tickets, before deciding whether to purchase a JR Rail Pass.
And the Hyperdia app is a great on-the-ground resource in Japan, for researching train services and planning day trips. We found it particularly useful when doing journeys outside of the main cities - like our day spent hiking the Kibune to Kurama trail during our stay in Kyoto. There is also an option to limit search results to those train journeys for which the JR Pass is eligible, which is invaluable for anyone travelling on the pass and wanting to make sure that a particular journey is included.
Pocket WiFi - Getting around in a foreign country is made immeasurably easier if you have access to online maps, and so having some mobile data is useful.
Renting a pocket WiFi router for this purpose for a trip to Japan is easy and relatively cost-effective, and can be done either in advance or purchased on site.
For our part, we ordered our pocket router online before travelling and organised for it to be delivered straight to our first hotel - one less thing to manage on arrival!
Also - luggage forwarding -
Traveling from place to place, hopping on and off public transport laden down with suitcases and bags, is part and parcel of being a traveller.
In Japan though, there is an alternative for those wanting a more relaxed travel experience: the amazing Takkyubin Japanese luggage forwarding service!
We mostly made use of it when we had 1 or 2-night stops between longer stays: we would ship our larger luggage on to our next long-stay accommodation, travelling hassle-free with only hand luggage for a day or so, while our suitcases awaited us at our following hotel.
Definitely worth considering, and we wish more countries had this amazing option!