Where to buy the Japan Rail Pass: Our experiences and tips
Travelling by train is the most convenient and fastest way to get around Japan. The train tracks throughout the country are well developed, the trains are fast, on time, comfortable and therefore perfect to cover long distances in a short time.
However, travelling by train is not cheap in Japan.
Luckily, Japan Railways has a good offer for foreign tourists: the Japan Rail Pass.
With the Japan Rail Pass, you can use almost all trains on the network of Japan Railways (JR) for 7, 14 or 21 days.
We have travelled Japan with the 21-day-pass ourselves and in this blog post we will answer all your questions about the Japan Rail Pass and give you some tips on the best way to travel Japan by train.
In the first part of the blog post you will learn everything about where and how to buy the Japan Rail Pass and whether it is worth it for you.
Where to buy the Japan Rail Pass?
The Japan Rail Pass is an offer from Japan Railways (JR) that is aimed exclusively at foreign tourists.
For this reason, you cannot buy the Japan Rail Pass while being in Japan, but must order it in your home country some time before leaving for Japan.
The Japan Rail Pass is distributed online through various agencies. The prices are set by Japan Railways and are the same for every provider.
You will receive a voucher for the Japan Rail Pass from the agencies, which you then exchange for the actual Rail Pass at a local station, once you get to Japan. That sounds a bit complicated at first, but actually it’s quite simple.
Our tip: We bought our Japan Railpass at jrailpass.com and were very satisfied with the handling. The passes were shipped by UPS Express one day after the order was placed and arrived the next day.
Payment is made either by bank transfer or for an additional fee by credit card or Paypal. If you pay by bank transfer, shipping will take a little longer as the passports will not be shipped until payment is received.
The fee for the credit card payment or payment by Paypal is about 3.5% of the order value. We therefore recommend that you do not order at the last minute and pay by bank transfer. This will take 1-2 days longer, but is cheaper.
How much does the Japan Rail Pass cost?
You can choose between a 7-, 14- and 21-day pass. The prices are in Yen, but are paid in Euro. Depending on the exchange rate, the Euro price can therefore always fluctuate slightly.
Currently the prices are approximately the following:
For children up to 11 years old the Japan Rail Pass costs only half as much, children under 6 years old travel completely free of charge.
For a surcharge of about 30 percent, the JR Pass is also available for 1st class, which is referred to in Japan as the “Green Car”.
Is the Japan Rail Pass worth it?
The Japan Rail Pass is worthwhile for most travellers to Japan. You can easily calculate for yourself whether it is worth it for you.
We have provided you with a small overview of how expensive typical routes are without the Rail Pass. So you can easily see if the pass is right for you:
Longer distances with the Shinkansen (prices for one way):
Tokyo – Kyoto = 13,800 Yen
Tokyo – Osaka = 14,340 Yen
Tokyo – Hiroshima = 18,760 Yen
Kyoto – Hiroshima = 11,290 Yen
Osaka – Hiroshima = 10,430 Yen
Kyoto – Himeji = 5,490 Yen
Osaka – Himeji = 3,180 Yen
Hiroshima – Himeji = 8,490 Yen
Shorter distances and day trips (prices for a round trip):
Tokyo – Narita Airport = 6,440 Yen
Tokyo – Kamakura = 1.840 Yen
Tokyo – Nikko = 11,560 Yen
Kyoto – Nara = 1,420 Yen
Kyoto – Osaka = 1,120 Yen
Osaka – Nara = 1,600 Yen
Hiroshima – Miyajima = 1,180 Yen
On our trip we had a 21-day-pass for 59,350 Yen (481 euros). Without the Japan Rail Pass we would have paid about 70,000 Yen for the routes we travelled. With the pass we saved about 100 euros and we didn’t even travel by train that often.
Where can you exchange the voucher for the passport?
The voucher you purchased at home can be exchanged for the real Japan Rail Pass at most major train stations in Japan. Just look for a sign that says something like “JR Pass Exchange”. That’s the right place for you.
Important: You must bring your passport with you to exchange it, otherwise you won’t get your Rail Pass.
In Tokyo you can exchange your voucher at the following stations:
A complete list of all stations in Japan where you can exchange your pass can be found on this page of Japan Railways.
There you will also find all opening hours.
When you exchange your Rail Pass, you will be asked from which day the Japan Rail Pass should be valid.
For example, if you are in Japan for 24 days, but only in Tokyo for the first three days, it makes sense to choose the starting date on the fourth day of your journey.
Once the date has been entered, it cannot be changed. So make sure to choose the right date or just exchange it right before your first trip.
Which trains can I use with my Rail Pass?
With the Japan Rail Pass you can use almost all trains of the state railway company Japan Railways (JR). You can travel as often and as long as you want during the validity period.
Also included, of course, are the Shinkansen high-speed trains, with which you can get from A to B very quickly. The only exceptions are the Nozomi and Mizuho-Shinkansen.
These are again particularly fast trains, which make fewer intermediate stops than the normal Shinkansen. On these routes there are also normal Shinkansen, which you can use with the Japan Rail Pass.
Tip: If you start or land at Narita Airport, you can also use the Narita Express with the Japan Rail Pass to get to the center of Tokyo. That’s a nice saving, since this trip costs just under 30 euros.
There is a counter at the airport where you can exchange your voucher directly and then use the Narita Express. Check here if the office is open at your arrival time.
The JR Pass unfortunately does not include subways in the individual cities, such as Tokyo. There are also several private railways in the country that are not covered by the Japan Rail Pass. So always make sure that you catch a train from JR.
In Tokyo and Osaka there is a kind of circular railway, with which you can reach many sights in the city area. These trains are also operated by JR and are included in the Rail Pass. So here you can save some trips with the subway.
In Hiroshima you can also use a sightseeing bus with the JR Pass and the ferry to Miyajima Island.
Do I need a seat reservation?
With the Japan Rail Pass, you can reserve seats for free. Just go to one of the many ticket counters and tell them for which train you want to make a reservation.
You will then receive a stamp in your passport and a small ticket with your seat number on it. On our trips it was never so crowded that a reservation was really necessary, but of course it is always more relaxed when you have one. A reservation is possible until shortly before the start of the journey, you can of course also reserve a few days in advance.
Reservations are only possible on national trains such as Shinkansen and Limited Express. There are no reserved seats on regional trains.
Our tip: If you are travelling from Tokyo to Kyoto or Osaka, it is best to reserve one day in advance and ask for a seat on the right side of the train. If the weather plays along, you will have a great view of Mount Fuji. The opposite direction to Tokyo is best to get a seat on the left side.
How do I use the Japan Rail Pass?
All stations in Japan have electronic barriers at the entrance and exit that open as soon as you hold your train ticket or credit card in front of the card reader.
However, you won’t get through these barriers with the Japan Rail Pass. There is a separate passage for wheelchair users and Rail Pass holders at each entrance. There you simply show your passport before and after the ride and can walk through.
On the train, the Rail Passes are usually not checked again. We were only asked for our Rail Pass once on the train.
Officially it is required that you always have your passport with you when using the Rail Pass to confirm that you are really the person registered on the Rail Pass. We never had to show our passport, but you never know.
General tips and information about train travel in Japan
Travelling by train in Japan is definitely a very pleasant experience. The trains are absolutely punctual and incredibly fast. In three weeks all our trains left and arrived on time. Awesome!
So you can definitely rely on the trains. A few things are nevertheless good to know and we have written them down for you in the next section.
What types of trains are there?
There are a lot of different types of trains in Japan.
The best known is of course the Shinkansen, also known as the Bullet Train. Its futuristic appearance is known far beyond the borders of Japan.
The Shinkansen trains connect the big cities and are extremely fast. Unlike the ICE in Germany, the Shinkansen run on their own tracks. So you never get stuck behind a regional train running in front of you.
Furthermore, the Shinkansen accelerate very fast directly after the stations and also travel at top speed until shortly before the stops.
The Shinkansen reaches speeds of up to 320 km/h and a distance of 800 kilometres can be covered in about 4 hours.
The individual Shinkansen have names such as Nozomi, Hikari and Sakura. All Shinkansen except Nozomi and Mizuho can be used with the Japan Rail Pass.
More JR trains in Japan
There are different types of trains that run at different speeds, needless to say that they are a lot slower than the Shinkansen.
The fastest trains after the Shinkansen are the so-called Limited Express. In contrast to the Shinkansen, they also connect smaller cities. On the Limited Express you can reserve seats just like on the Shinkansen.
After the Limited Express comes the Rapid Express, the Express and finally the local trains.
Local trains are the slowest in Japan. They are comparable to suburban trains in Germany and stop every few minutes at every small station. Seat reservations are not possible and local trains can get very crowded during rush hours.
Private railways in Japan
In addition to the trains of the state-owned railway company JR, there are also a number of private railways in Japan. These usually run on regional routes and some even have their own stations. The Japan Rail Pass is not valid for these trains.
For most lines you have the choice between JR and a private railway. However, there are also routes on which only a private train runs. But this is rather rare.
What is the name system for the trains?
Shinkansen and Limited Express trains have a name and a train number. For example, a Shinkansen is called Hikari 472. The name of the train is on your reservation receipt so you know exactly which train is yours.
The regional trains have no train numbers. These trains are usually named after their destination. For example, the regional train from Osaka to Nara is called Nara-Line.
Where can I find timetables for the trains in Japan?
There are two very good online sources where you can find out the departure times of the trains. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, but are generally recommended.
The Google Maps route planner works very well for train connections in Japan. Just click on the train symbol in your search and Google will spit out the best connection for you.
The most practical thing is that you can enter your hotel as the starting point and Google will calculate the optimal route including the footpath.
Subways and buses are also part of the system, so the search is especially useful when you are on the move.
However, the search has one disadvantage: Google always displays only the fastest connection.
So for the Shinkansen route Tokyo-Kyoto-Osaka-Hiroshima Google always suggests the Nozomi, which cannot be used with the Rail Pass.
For this you have to use option two.
In comparison to Google Maps, the Hyperdia website offers an even more detailed search. For example, you can specify that you want to see the fastest connection on a route, but not on a Nozomi train.
You can also explicitly exclude private railway companies from the search, so that you only get the connection for which the Japan Rail Pass is valid.
If Google is stuck, Hyperdia is the solution.
Is there food on trains in Japan?
There are very few options for food on the trains in Japan. Shinkansen and Limited Express have a mobile on-board bistro, meaning a nice employee goes around the corridors with a cart, selling snacks and drinks and bowing down nicely when leaving each car.
On long journeys with the Shinkansen, we recommend that you buy something to eat beforehand. In the train stations the food is very good. Often there are so-called Bento boxes in which sushi and other dishes are served. This is very tasty and the prices are absolutely okay.
Can I smoke in the trains?
Japan is a country of smokers and so it is hardly surprising that smoking is still allowed on the trains. A Shinkansen with 16 cars usually has 3-4 cars for smokers.
When you reserve a seat, you will always automatically get a non-smoking ticket. If you want to sit in a smoking wagon, you must state this explicitly when making your reservation.
Are there alternatives to train travel in Japan?
Of course you can choose a bus or domestic flight within Japan instead of taking the train.
Domestic flights in Japan operate between the major cities and can sometimes even be cheaper than a train ticket. However, the train is definitely the best option in terms of time, as the train stations are always in the middle of the city and the airports are often relatively far out.
The cheapest option to explore Japan is by bus. They are of course much slower and not as comfortable as the Shinkansen, but a good solution for travellers with a small budget.
Our conclusion on the Japan Rail Pass
We were very happy that we decided to get the Japan Rail Pass. Travelling by train was fast and comfortable and the Rail Pass cost us 100 euros less compared to the single price of the tickets. And somehow travelling by train in Japan is a part of a trip to this country.
We can only warmly recommend the Japan Rail Pass to every traveller to Japan.
Do you also have experiences with rail travel in Japan? We are curious about your experiences and tips and look forward to your comments!