October 19, 2018

Dissecting the JR Rail Pass

The JR Rail Pass is often heralded as a MUST BUY when visiting Japan but there are actually a few scenarios where it is more costly to do so.

A woman waits for a using her JR Rail Pass waits for her bullet train at Kyoto Station

OK, it’s about time that someone deep dives on this topic. You see, one of the most common debates among travelers to Japan is whether or not they should buy the JR Rail Pass. In fact, I must get asked about the pass at least once or twice a week on social media. After all, while certainly costly, few other deals can save you as much money as a rightly used JR Rail Pass. Still, before making a purchase, it would be well worth your time to at least consider some alternatives. While highly dependent on one’s itinerary, there are often cases where it is more economical to avoid the pass.

Before moving on, let’s first pause and review what exactly the JR Rail Pass is for those who have yet to do extensive research. Truth be known, there are actually many different types of JR Rail Passes (which I touch on later) but for the purposes of this article, we’ll use the term to refer only to the nationwide pass. This handy ticket can be used on ALL JR train lines, including the bullet trains. Moreover, the JR Rail Pass can also be used for many buses, monorails, and ferries that are operated by JR.

Someone using their JR Rail Pass speeds by Mt. Fuji on a bullet train

One thing to keep in mind is that while JR Rail Pass holders can indeed ride the bullet train, they are not eligible for the Nozomi Super Expresses that run on the Tokaido Line (the trains that connect Tokyo and Kyoto). This means that you’ll need to eschew the fastest trains in lieu of the slower Hikari trains. One more important thing to note is that the pass is only available to travelers on temporary visas. Keep this in mind if you plan to travel with someone living here as they will need to opt for the slower trains to tag along with you.

When purchasing a JR Rail Pass, buyers can choose from several different durations running between 7, 14, or 21-day lengths. Once your ticket is activated though, it is valid for only a couple of consecutive days. The length of this period depends on which JR Rail Pass you purchased and it’s important to keep in mind that you cannot just use one day here and another day at a later time. Failing to account for this is a big newbie mistake that I see many travelers making.

The JR Rail Pass is not usable on the Fujikyu Railways network

Anyway, while valid nationwide, it’s important to know that JR does have limited access in certain regions. These specific locales are often covered by smaller, private train lines (such as Fujikyu Railways which is pictured above) meaning that, in most cases, you cannot use the JR Rail Pass. While there are a few exceptions, as a general rule, you should expect to have additional fares. As such, the JR Rail Pass may not be the best buy for travelers looking to visit many of these areas.

With the above advice stated, let’s discuss who should consider buying a JR Rail Pass. Typically, those who are looking to travel long distances in a short amount of time or want to hop on and off en route benefit the most from the pass. Tourists opting for the standard Tokyo-Kyoto-Osaka route are likely to not save much with the pass. Nevertheless, the JR Rail Pass affords options that standard tickets do not. Side trip to Kobe from Osaka? No problem! Wanna grab lunch and see Nagoya Castle on your way to Kyoto? You can do that as well if you wish.

A tourists using his JR Rail Pass awaits his bullet train’s departure

For travelers looking to cover some serious ground, the JR Rail Pass is definitely something to consider. From Tokyo, you can take the bullet train all the way up to Aomori or as far west as Fukuoka. From there, you can even hop another bullet train all the way down to Kagoshima in the south. In either direction, there’s endless options like Aomori Prefecture’s Hachinohe to see and do explore the way. There are literally endless options for discovery if you’re only willing to do a bit of digging.

Looking for a bit of inspiration and guidance? Let’s examine the example of someone journeying from Tokyo to Fukuoka. En route, this lucky traveler will have the option to see Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, Hiroshima, Okayama, Himeji, and Shimonoseki. You’re really spoiled for choice as each of these spots alone could fill a two-day itinerary. Furthermore, many locations also have day-trip excursions for those looking to get off the path. If time is well budgeted for, a JR Rail Pass can really save some coin here.

As previously mentioned a JR Rail Pass is not always the best or most affordable option. First of all, the pass might be somewhat out of the price range for travelers on tight budgets. In these cases, I recommend limiting travel to just one city like Tokyo with the possible addition of a day trip to Kamakura or Kawagoe. There’s easily enough content in just the Greater Tokyo Region alone to keep you busy for weeks on end. If you need some inspiration, just check out any of the other articles on this blog or send me a message on social media.

The JR Rail Pass is not eligible to be used on the Hakone Tozan Line

Anyway, for travelers who are planning to visit areas that are poorly serviced by JR, purchasing the JR Rail Pass is often a waste of money. While JR’s network between major cities is unparalleled, you’ll often find that privately owned train lines and buses are more convenient for local areas. Hakone in Kagawa Prefecture, for example is serviced by the Odakyu group’s trains. Moreover, when it comes to urban destinations, places like Osaka are best explored via subway and a JR rail pass will do you no good there.

As long time readers will have likely gathered by now, Japan has many great hidden gems that do not fall along the bullet train lines. With this in mind, I recommend making a list of the places you want to go. Once you have decided on where you want to go, then and only then look into transportation options. I suggest investigating the following:

  • Transportation between each of your designated locations
  • Transportation within the local area
  • Transportation for any side excursions you wish to do

The next step is to calculate the cost of all JR lines that you plan to use. This is a bit of a pain in the butt however it is an easy way to save some cash. Now, keeping in mind that your pass is invalid on non-JR trains, compare the total to the cost of the JR Rail Pass. In a surprisingly high number of cases, the pass actually works out to be more expensive than just paying the regular fare.

A tourists looking to make the most out of his JR Rail Pass tries to decipher a map of Tokyo’s trains

Now I am sure that many of you are now thinking that calculating the price of all your JR trains seems like a herculean task that requires the use of an arcane astrolabe. Luckily, this isn’t the case. Thanks to my ever-reliable friend Hyperdia, the process is easy even for those with no Japanese ability. Whenever I am out and about traveling, I make constant use of Hyperdia to calculate the best routes and it never fails me. Just input where you are and where you want to go and the site will calculate the best route for you.

Before wrapping up, I’d like to also mention that the nationwide JR Rail Pass isn’t the only way to save money on transportation when traveling in Japan. In fact, there are actually a lot of other passes to choose from too. Below are a few cherry picked options to consider depending on where your travels take you. When properly used, these can help you save a good bit of money.

A tourists weights buying the JR Rail Pass vs. just paying for trains

In closing, before you invest in a JR Rail Pass, do some research and determine if it’s the right option for you. For some travelers, the JR Rail Pass is a godsend whereas conversely, it’s an unnecessary expense for others. As shown above, there are several other viable options for passes that may be more cost effective than the nationwide one. Furthermore, Japan also has many great alternatives such as highway buses for those traveling on a shoestring budget. There’s something out there for everyone even if the JR Rail Pass isn’t for you.

Personally, I’m of the opinion that if you’re planning on only traveling around a specific section of Japan, there are better options than the nationwide JR Rail Pass. For example, JR has a special Hokkaido-only pass for visitors to Japan’s northernmost island. Similarly, there are also JR passes for only Osaka, Nara, and other regions. Most locations have some sort of regional pass available so do your digging. As always, Google is your friend here!