Japan Rail Pass: How it Works and Will it Save You Money?

Japan Rail pass and bullet train.


Is it Cheaper to Buy a Japan Rail Pass?

Whether a Japan Rail Pass  will save you money will depend on your itinerary.  If you are planning on visiting several different places and/or covering long distances, a JR pass will likely save you money, sometimes a lot of it.  However, if you will only be exploring one or two cities and rarely travelling outside of those areas, then a JR pass probably won’t save you money.

If you are mainly visiting only one region, it will likely be more economical to purchase a regional rail pass for the duration of your stay.  There are regional passes available for Kansai, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku, as well as eastern, western and central areas of Japan.

Once you have an idea of your itinerary and the places you want to visit, use Hyperdia to compare the cost of individual train tickets to the cost of a JR pass.  The Hyperdia website allows you to select only JR trains or private trains, so you can also compare costs on different lines.

As an example, the cost of a one-way ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto on the Shinkansen bullet train is ¥8,210 ($95 CAD/$72 USD).

Cost of an Ordinary Adult Japan Rail Pass


Cost of Japan Rail Pass


In short, a Japan Rail Pass will almost certainly save you money if you are travelling almost everyday.  If you prefer to move at a slower pace, purchasing individual train tickets will likely be your best bet.  Cheaper still are buses, for those who have a tight budget and the luxury of slow travel.  Check out our Two Week Itinerary for Japan to see how much distance we covered.


Where to Use a Japan Rail Pass

The Japan Rail pass is valid on JR trains throughout the country, including shinkansen (bullet trains). The JR pass can also be used on some JR buses and ferries.  However, it is not valid for tickets on Nozomi / Mizuho / Hayabusa (shinkansen) line.  The JR pass can not be used on private rail lines, except in very few exceptions where a connection on the JR line is not possible.  Local subways are also not included in the pass, however, it can be used on the Tokyo Yamanote Loop Line which circles through the main districts of Tokyo.

If you are purchasing and activating a JR pass such that it is valid at the beginning and/or end of your trip, you will be able to take the Narita Express, N’Ex, train between Narita airport and Tokyo.  The N’Ex usually costs ¥3,000-4,500 ($35 – $53 CAD) for a one-way ticket or ¥4,000 ($46 CAD) for a round-trip ticket to any station in Tokyo.  While there are cheaper options for getting to and from the airport, if you happen to have a JR pass, the Narita Express will get you to Tokyo in under an hour.


"Busy Train Station," George Alexander Ishida, license
“Busy Train Station,” George Alexander Ishida

Buying a Japan Rail Pass

The JR pass is only available to visitors on a tourist visa who are visiting for 90 days or less.  According to the JR pass website, “Japanese nationals living outside Japan are also permitted to use the Japan Rail Pass under certain strict conditions, and must show proof of eligibility on activation of the Japan Rail Pass in Japan.”

The JR pass should be purchased in your home country.  As of March 8, 2017, the JR pass will be available for purchase in some rail stations, but it will be more expensive than buying it ahead of time.  Keep in mind, however, that the voucher that is sent to your home is only valid for 90 days.  Therefore, you do not want to purchase your pass more than 90 days before you will be activating it.

Some sellers will send a JR pass voucher to your hotel in Japan.  If you are really stuck, contact an agency to see if they can accommodate you.


"Bullet Train," Jon Wick, license
“Bullet Train,” Jon Wick


Activating Your Pass

When you are ready to start using your pass, you can exchange your voucher for the actual JR pass at a JR office, located in airports and main train stations.  You can exchange your voucher for a pass before your intended dates of travel, but you will have to choose a start date at the time of exchange.  Furthermore, this start date can not be more than 30 days after the date of exchange.  From your start date onwards, your JR pass will be valid for the period of time for which it was purchased (e.g. 14 days) on consecutive days only.

See here for a list of JR exchange offices.




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13 Replies to “Japan Rail Pass: How it Works and Will it Save You Money?”

  1. Havent been to Japan but looking at the rail pass when I get there (hopefully soon) Useful tips here. Great post 🙂

  2. Very useful post with all the necessary info on JR, the kind of post I like! I had always heard about this JR so I thought that it was the only valid option for travelers. Now I know I need to plan the itinerary and compare different options. Thanks!

  3. Thank you! I know that travelling in Japan requires a lot of advance planning and I would appreciate more useful posts like this on the other aspects of cost-saving in Japan!

  4. I bought a 1 week rail pass for my 2 weeks there. They are so expensive! Some of the trips you can do on buses for WAY cheaper. I guess it just depends on how quickly you need to do Japan!

    1. They are so expensive. We just barely broke even on our 2 week pass. If we had been more energetic travellers, it would have saved us money, but you really do have to be on the move a lot.

  5. Didn’t know much about the rail pass so this is very helpful, thanks!

  6. I didn’t realise Japan was so expensive! Thanks for the info – really helpful.

  7. Useful information! We hope to visit Japan sometime next year and we will have to consider how to travel around the country.

  8. Wow, this was so useful! You really broke it down for us perfectly. Definitely sending this to a friend who is heading to Japan soon 🙂

  9. The hubs and I would like to visit Japan so this is great information to have. Thanks so much for sharing!

  10. Useful post! I’m planning a trip to Japan so I’ll definitely keep in mind this! 🙂

  11. I needed this info, Jen! As I always try to travel on a budget and spend less money, this was great to know!

  12. You can check out our 2 Week Itinerary to see how much ground you need to cover to make the pass worthwhile. We just broke even on our passes as we didn’t end up taking as many day trips as we originally planned.


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