Japan Rail Pass explained plus more Japan travel hacks!
There are links on this site that can be defined as “affiliate links”. This means that I may receive a small commission (at no cost to you) if you purchase something through the links. This small commission helps The Starving Artist to keep producing more quality content. Thank you!
So you're going to Japan, congrats! You're going to have the time of your life! Amongst all the excitement you must be wondering about transportation. How are you going to get around this beautiful country without breaking the bank? Some of your expat friends might have suggested a Japan Rail Pass or maybe you've come across the term whilst googling. You probably have a multitude of questions like; what is a Japanese Rail Pass, how does it work & where do I get one? Well, I'm here to answer all those questions & more!
MAIN TRANSPORTATION IN JAPAN
Let me start by giving a brief overview of the ways you can get around Japan.
Every second, car you see on the road will probably be a taxi. They are well maintained, cheap, the drivers are very knowledgeable & their service is the best in the world. Ditch the Uber app in Japan, as you will be paying very high rates. Grabbing a taxi is way-way-way cheaper. The doors have automatic opening & closing so when you hail a taxi there's no need to reach for the door handle. Also note, you will not be let out of the cab until you pay your fare.
Japan has an extensive & highly sophisticated train network. Within the station, there will be maps of station stops & routes however I believe Google maps is your friend when wanting to catch public transport. The trains, like most public domains in Japan, are clean, silent & highly accessible.
If you are a person with a disability you will have complete access to Japanese trains. There is brail on most signs/stairs/stations/bathrooms, tactile paving (not just in train stations but on footpaths across the country), music queues for station stops ( different melodies for different stations), elevators to all platforms, ramps & extensive communication between station staff if you require an escort at your start & end station. These are only some examples I have noticed.
Using public transport in Japan is seamless. If you miss your train you best believe there will be another one coming in 10 minutes or less.
When catching trains in Japan you have three options in paying.
The first & my most favourite is the tap & go prepaid IC cards. You can obtain these cards at any ticketing machine within any station or at convenience stores. The names of the cards differ depending on where you are. I obtained my first IC card in Tokyo thus my card is called a PASMO card ( it is accepted nationwide). The IC card costs about ¥500 (you can get this back once you are done with the card) & you can load it with any amount of money. I highly recommend this option in conjunction with a Japan Rail Pass as it is less hassle than the next option.
The second option is paying for a ticket. At the same ticketing machines, you can pay for an individual ticket to your destination. I have no idea how to explain this method because quite frankly it gives me a headache. It will also give you one too, especially if you have no idea where you are actually going.
The third option is your Japan Rail Pass. Note that the Japan Rail Pass can only be used on Japan Rail (JR) networks. More on this below.
BONUS OPTION (for buses only) is to pay in coins at the end of your ride. Again, you can just use the prepaid IC card & you don't have to worry about anything.
Buses in Japan are much like trains in that they run on time are clean & silent. Navigating bus terminals can be somewhat difficult as there are hardly any signs in English. However, google maps will help you along. Sometimes, depending on where you are in Japan, buses are more frequently used than trains, like in Hiroshima or more rural areas. Sometimes the fare is based on distance & will be displayed on the screen at the front of the bus at every stop. Sometimes it is a flat rate. You can pay in coins or use your IC card (see above for IC card info).
Now with that said let's get into the nitty-gritty.
JAPAN RAIL PASS
The trains in Japan are operated by two different parties. One is privately owned companies like "Tokyo Metro" or "Osaka metro" & the other being JR (Japan Rail). JR has many networks nationwide & when looking for your best possible route on Google maps you can identify a JR line/station by looking for "JR" next to the name.
As pictured here you can see the first circled train line has an "M" symbol; meaning "Metro". This is a privately owned train line where you can ONLY use your IC Card.
The second circled train line has a "JR" symbol; meaning "Japan Rail". This train line is owned by Japan Rail meaning you can use your JR pass OR your IC Card (if you did not purchase a JR Pass).
JR also operates the famous Shinkansen (note the middle train line. However this is a "Nozomi" Shinkansen. Only Japanese nationals can take a Nozomi kind of shinkansen. But don't worry there are other shinkansen tourists can take).
If you are looking to make a trip from Tokyo to Osaka/Hiroshima, taking the Shinkansen is the fastest option. The price for such a trip can cost $120 (AUD). Now that's a lot to fork out for a one-way ticket but that's where the JR pass comes in.
The JR pass allows you unlimited rides on any JR network including JR buses. It does NOT allow you to ride on any privately owned train/bus networks. This is where your prepaid travel card comes in handy. There are many options when choosing the right Japan Rail Pass so it's a good idea to have an outline of what you want to see in a brief itinerary.
CHOOSING THE RIGHT PASS
When choosing a JR pass you have two options. You can either buy a regional pass or a national pass.
Regional passes are only valid for certain area's & for shorter times (5-7 days). For example, "The East Pass" (<<<click this link to help with the explanation. It's not an affiliate link I swear!)
Within the "JR East Pass" heading, there are actually 4 passes you can purchase. One of them being the Hakone Free Pass, the other three, are passes for certain areas within the area of Honshu (Tokyo area).
The second pass allows transportation in all of Honshu as well as the lower parts of Hokkaido. The third only allows transportation in all of Honshu. The fourth is a special pass, (5-day flexi pass) that services area's such as Nagano & Hakuba (if you're going to the snow in these area's I highly reccomend the 5-day Flexi pass).
5-DAY FLEXI PASS EXAMPLE
My trip to Hakuba is a perfect example. This pass allows you 5 non-consecutive days of travel in a 14 day period. So, the first day I used this pass for my Shinkansen ride to Nagano from Tokyo. After spending a week in the snow I used the pass for my return trip to Tokyo. That leaves me with 3 days of travel on my card. I then used my flexi pass to get around Tokyo & to a few other places nearby. By the 3rd day it had pretty much paid itself off.
Regional passes are great if you are staying in one area for most of your trip. If you are staying in the Kansai area (Kyoto, Osaka, Nara & Kobe) then purchasing the Kansai pass is your best bet. For a more in-depth view of the passes visit the JAPAN RAIL PASS website.
If your itinerary has you jumping around a lot, from Tokyo to Yokohama to Osaka to Kyoto to Hiroshima then a national pass is your best friend. A national pass allows you "free" (its not free because you prepaid your pass but it feels free because you don't have to hand over any more money, amirite?!) transportation on ANY JR network (Buses, trains & Shinkansen).
The national pass can be purchased for 7, 14 or 21 days depending on your time in Japan. After a few trips on the Shinkansen, it really does pay itself off. If you plan on staying more than 21 days you can purchase multiple passes (including regional). Be advised though, if you are working/living in Japan or a Japanese national you are not eligible for any JR passes. It is for tourists only.
HOW TO BUY A JAPAN RAIL PASS
YOU CANNOT PURCHASE A RAIL PASS ONCE YOU HAVE LANDED IN JAPAN. This is a prepaid sort of deal. You can purchase Japan Rail passes on many websites, online & in person travel agents. Prices for the passes are somewhat universal & there are no coupon codes (trust me I've tried). However, I went to a travel agent in Brisbane & the price was about $10 cheaper than what I saw online.
When you purchase the rail pass, have your passport handy. The name on the rail pass cannot be exchanged or changed. Furthermore, the rail pass, if lost or damaged will not be replaced once you are in Japan. Treat the pass like real money. If you purchase your pass online, you will need to print out any documents they send you as you will need to present them in person when you arrive at a JR ticket office to redeem your pass. If you purchase your pass in person, you will be given these documents. Keep them safe!
REDEEMING YOUR PASS
Redeeming your pass is very straightforward. Within any major train station, head over to the JR ticket office. From there you can ask for your JR pass to be redeemed. Again have your passport handy as well as some contact info of where you are staying. Only redeem your pass when you want to use it or express the exact date for when you want it to be activated.
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
The JR pass can be excellent value for money or terrible value for money depending on what your itinerary is. Be sure to have a brief outline of where you want to go & what you want to see before purchasing any of these passes.
An example of BAD VALUE FOR MONEY can be if you are staying exclusively in Tokyo & you buy one of the Honshu passes. You are more likely to catch NON-JR trains in Tokyo & use your IC card (Tokyo metro). You might even have to go out of your way to catch JR trains to pay off your pass. However, if you decided to go on a Shinkansen to Hokkaido, Yokohama or make frequent day trips around the Honshu area then this pass would pay itself off.
An example of EXCELLENT VALUE FOR MONEY would be if you paid for a national pass & you made frequent trips on the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Osaka to Himeji to Kyoto to Hiroshima. Plus if you used your pass for smaller trips in between on JR lines your pass would pay itself off in no time.
I hope this blog post was useful for any new travelers to Japan. Navigating a foreign transportation system can be daunting, especially one as complicated & sophisticated as Japan. If this guide has been useful please share or leave a comment.