Wondering whether the Japan Rail Pass is worth the money? This buying guide covers where you can use the JR Pass, how much value you’ll get on a normal trip to Tokyo and Kyoto, and answers to frequently asked questions about the unlimited train ticket. It also covers our many experiences purchasing the JR Pass and also not buying it. (Updated May 1, 2023.)
For starters, that last point–that we sometimes do not buy the Japan Rail Pass–is probably the most pertinent. We’ll be up front with you: just like every review of the JR Pass, this guide contains affiliate links for buying (discounted) Japan Rail Passes. Unlike many of them, this is not a thinly-veiled advertisement for the pass as a result.
Sure, we’d like you to buy the JR Pass using the links here and we think it makes sense for most visitors to Japan. But there’s no one size fits all advice, and we’re not going to pretend there is to make a few cents in commission. To that end, we’re also going to share our experiences with not buying the Japan Rail Pass, explaining how some of the more efficient travel itineraries is often accomplished without it.
Before we get to the nitty gritty of the review, we should probably start with basics. The Japan Rail Pass for foreigner visitors is an economical “all inclusive” pass on the JR rail lines available for purchase outside of Japan at a discount.
The JR Pass allows visitors unlimited travel for 7, 14, or 21 days via the JR lines. There are also two versions of the JR Pass: the more expensive Green pass, and less expensive Ordinary one (we always buy the latter—more on that below).
Here’s current pricing for the Japan Rail Pass, which is valid through September 2023:
7-Day Japan Rail Pass
14-Day Japan Rail Pass
21-Day Japan Rail Pass
As noted above, this is through September 2023. JR has announced some truly massive price increases that will start sometime in October 2023. The regular 7-day pass will skyrockets from JPY 29,650 to JPY 50,000, the 14-day pass increases from JPY 47,250 to JPY 80,000, and the 21-day pass goes up the most “modest” amount, from JPY 60,450 to JPY 100,000. That last one is “only” a 65% increase, whereas the weeklong and two-week passes shoot up 70%.
Despite this massive price increase, the fastest Nozomi trains on the Tokaido/Sanyo Shinkansen and the Mizuho trains on the Sanyo/Kyushu Shinkansen still will not be included in the base Japan Rail Pass. There has been some confusion about this, but it appears to be the case that these are not included in the new and higher base prices. What is changing is that JR will be offering an additional special ticket that can be purchased to upgrade to the Nozomi and Mizuho services.
Prices and other details have not yet been announced–it’s possible those do end up being included in the base cost, especially if sales drop off a cliff due to the higher prices. We’ll update accordingly when more details are released–and we’ll also share more info on regional rail passes, as those will most assuredly become more popular as more tourists are priced out of the JR Pass.
In the meantime, there are several ways to purchase the Japan Rail Pass, with the most common being third party websites authorized to sell it. We recommend buying the discounted Japan Rail Pass from Klook, which also offers a wide variety of other discounted tickets (including to Universal Studios Japan).
Every authorized third party sells the JR Pass at the same price, and they’re all legitimate and have great customer reviews (at least, the authorized sellers). So there’s honestly not much of a reason to choose one site over another. Maybe you prefer the logo or color scheme of one over another, who knows. We typically use and recommend Klook because they’re more of a one-stop shop for a multitude of Japan tickets and experiences.
If you buy the JR Pass through one of these intermediaries, you’ll receive an Exchange Order rather than the actual JR Pass. The Exchange Order is essentially a voucher–it’s a physical document that cannot be emailed or faxed, only sent through the physical mail. It also cannot be replaced if lost.
In addition to the third party authorized sellers, JR now sells passes via the official website. Oddly enough, their prices are actually higher than via the third parties by 10-15%, so it doesn’t really behoove you to buy via the official site unless you’re purchasing at the last minute, as no exchange voucher is required to pick up your Japan Rail Pass at one of the ticket offices when buying directly from JR. Everyone else should stick to the authorized third party sellers.
The Japan Rail Pass is also currently available for purchase on a test basis inside Japan at all major stations. This includes Narita and Haneda Airports in Tokyo and Kansai Airport in Osaka, as well as pretty much every big station connected to the Shinkansen (Shinjuku, Tokyo, Sapporo, Nagoya, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Yokohama, and many more).
Technically, this is still being advertised as “for a limited time only.” Currently, the JR Pass is available to buy within Japan until March 31, 2024. Japan Railways has not announced whether the internal sales trial will be extended beyond this date, but we’d put the chances of extension above 95%.
Inside sales began ~4 years ago in advance of the Tokyo Olympics and increased tourism, and there’s no reason to believe that’ll change. There have already been major improvements since we started using the Japan Rail Pass (more on those below) and we only expect that to continue. As Japan continues to modernize and streamline its approach to the JR Pass, our expectation is that the entire process is digitized in the coming years.
While there are other transportation companies that operate in Japan, the JR Group is by far the most common. They are the predominant rail group within Tokyo and Osaka, and also the main network connecting various cities to one another. Before our first visit to Japan, we read a ton about the Japan Rail Pass, consulting a lot of resources that overcomplicated the decision.
For most first-timers to Japan, whether the JR Pass is for you is quite a simple question to answer. It usually boils down to whether you’re traveling to any major city from Tokyo via the Shinkansen (bullet train). All Shinkansen in Japan are operated by the JR Group, meaning the entire network in Japan is covered with the pass.
The main illustrative example is going from Tokyo to Kyoto and back, as that roundtrip is pretty close to the current cost of the 7-day JR Pass. Between that roundtrip on the Shinkansen trip and getting to and from the airport, you’ll come out ahead by purchasing the Japan Rail Pass. Everything else is gravy.
If you’re only visiting Tokyo, do not buy the Japan Rail Pass. If you’re only visiting Kyoto, definitely do not buy the JR Pass. (There are some JR lines in Kyoto, but most are other companies.) Same goes for literally any single city trip to Japan. Even any trip to a single region in Japan does not necessitate purchase of the JR Pass. For those sticking to the Kansai (Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, etc.) or Kanto (Tokyo, Yokohama, etc.) regions, the Japan Rail Pass is almost certainly not for you.
Basically, if you won’t be using the Shinkansen at least once, the question ends there. Do NOT buy the JR Pass. Pretty simple and straightforward, right? It’s almost impossible to justify the Japan Rail Pass from a cost perspective if you are not venturing beyond Tokyo. Unless you intend upon spending the entire day riding the JR lines around (not a bad way to spend a day!), there’s little chance that the Japan Rail Pass will pay for itself over the course of a Tokyo-only trip.
So, what if you’re only using the Shinkansen once? That’s where this question becomes a closer call. It’s also the scenario in which we most commonly find ourselves, as we’ve become fond of flying into Osaka, taking the Shinkansen from Kyoto to Tokyo, and flying out of Haneda or Narita.
In this scenario, we use Kyoto as a home base and take a variety of day trips throughout the Kansai region to Kobe, Himeji, Nara, and elsewhere. For us, these day trips–and the flexibility and convenience offered by the JR Pass–are the tipping point. We’ve done spontaneous day trips to Kanazawa, Hikone, Uji, and a number of other cities and spots.
We’ve used the JR Pass to visit nighttime illuminations during fall colors and sakura seasons, as well as other special events in far-flung locales, using the long train rides to get work done on multi-month trips. We never would’ve visited these places or had these experiences if paying out of pocket for additional Shinkansen tickets.
The thing is, we’re undoubtedly unique in that regard. Most visitors to Japan–especially ones asking “is the Japan Rail Pass worth the money?”–are not taking spontaneous day trips. More likely, it’s your first visit to Japan and you are, understandably, going to stick to the script and see the highlights around Tokyo and Kyoto.
Nevertheless, you might be considering flying into one of the cities and out of the other. This is especially true for those taking a trip to Japan lasting 10 or fewer days, as the open-jaw route is more efficient and gives you more time to spend in both Kyoto and Tokyo. To that point, if you only have 7-10 days in Japan, you may not have extra time for day trips…and thus not need the JR Pass.
If you do have more than 10 days, or are just planning a whirlwind trip to Japan that’ll take you to as many different places as possible, the JR Pass can be worth it. From Kyoto or Osaka, it’s pretty easy to do a ton of different day trips within the Kansai region, which would be pricey Shinkansen rides without the Japan Rail Pass. If you’re thinking about adding days in the aforementioned cities–or even Hiroshima, Nagoya, or Yokohama–it becomes a very close call even with only doing a one-way Shinkansen trip.
In our view, day trips in that scenario are what tip the scales in favor of buying the JR Pass. If you plan on doing even 2 of those, it makes sense to purchase the pass. Even if you can’t quite see that in the math ahead of time, it usually will work out. You’ll end up taking the train more than you otherwise anticipate for shorter commutes, and it’ll work out in the end. That coupled with convenience and pre-planning makes the pass make sense. At least, between now and September 2023. (After that, all bets are off!)
The case could be made in favor of the Japan Rail Pass on a Tokyo-only trip from the perspective of convenience, but it would not be a very compelling argument. It’s definitely easier to use the pass as you walk through the stations rather than calculating the cost of each route, buying an individual ticket, invariably purchasing the wrong one, and having to go to the adjustment counter.
However, the solution to that problem is not buying the Japan Rail Pass. It’s buying an IC card (like Suica, PASMO, or Icoca), filling it with yen, and just tapping that at the automatic gates as you go. It avoids all of the inconveniences you’ll encounter with individual tickets, and also means you’re not overpaying (like you would if you buy the Japan Rail Pass and only visit Tokyo).
The additional upside of the PASMO card is that it’s nearly universal, meaning you can use it on lines that are not operated by the JR Group. We typically use the PASMO card in tandem with the Japan Rail Pass. (Just be mindful of not using the PASMO card by accident in places that accept the JR Pass!)
This is especially true when traveling within Kyoto, as many of the rail (and all of the bus) lines in Kyoto are not operated by the JR Group. For practical purposes, this is the most notable instance of non-JR lines you’ll probably encounter in Japan, although we encounter non-JR lines from time to time in other places, as well.
This is truer than ever now that IC cards can be loaded into digital wallets and used on your iPhone or other smart device. You can reload this with your credit card, and do so before even leaving home when the conversion rates are most favorable. IC cards can be used at train stations, restaurants, retailers, and even certain vending machines.
Speaking of recent developments, the JR Pass is now automated! It now looks just like a regular train ticket, and can be used at automatic ticket gates to enter and exit railway stations. This is a huge and overdue upgrade.
Previously, you had to pass through the staffed gate and present the Japan Rail Pass to an employee who waved you through. That had become more tedious in recent years as tourism to Japan exploded, as there were often backups at these manned gates with confused foreigners asking questions, fare adjustments, and more. The automatic tickets cut down on a lot of waiting, and–at least for us–the occasional missed train as a result.
Our sincere hope is that the next step is an entirely digital Japan Rail Pass. Logically, it seems like you could purchase the Japan Rail Pass online, activate and set the start date yourself, and use it via Apple Wallet (etc.) just like an IC card. Given how long it took Japan just to advance past the handwritten paper pass, that’s probably still years away, but I can dream. (Here’s hoping it’s one of the as-yet unannounced “improvements” teased with the massive price increases for October 2023!)
For now, the Japan Rail Pass voucher can be purchased online or through travel agents outside of Japan and still must be exchanged in person. As noted above, what you receive when purchasing is only a voucher, which then must be exchanged at offices in major JR stations. Again, these offices include those at Narita Airport and Kansai Airport.
If it’s your first time in Japan, we highly recommend making the exchange at the airport, as this is the easiest location. Even if you don’t plan on using the Japan Rail Pass right away (you should time its start date strategically to encompass all of your Shinkansen rides), that’s fine. You can specify a start date in the future.
The upside of redeeming at the airport is that the JR office is far easier to find, and more convenient. On our first visit to Japan, we did not follow this advice. We waited until going to Tokyo Station (an overwhelming labyrinth the first time you experience it) to redeem our passes, and we just about had a meltdown trying to find the office.
At the office, a representative takes your voucher, reviews your passport (for the appropriate “temporary visitor” status stamp), and provides you with the pass, which is then to be presented to the window at JR gates (where they wave you through) with your passport.
The distinctions between the Green and Ordinary versions of the Japan Rail Pass mostly relate to the Shinkansen. With the Green version, you’re able to board the Green car on the Shinkansen (and some limited express trains). Think of this as First or Business Class on an airline—larger seats and slightly more spacious.
We have never purchased the Green Pass, and never will. We purchase the JR Pass to save money, so that defeats its purpose for us. The “ordinary” cars on the Shinkansen are more than sufficient–they offer much more legroom and space than flying coach on an airline. Your mileage may vary on this, but we see this as a slight upgrade in the experience for a massive premium in pricing.
Ultimately, most of you who are researching this question are going to want to buy the Japan Rail Pass. Making the trek to Kyoto is well worth your time and money, and riding a state of the art bullet train is an experience in itself. Even if you don’t do the round trip voyage (in which case it’s a no brainer), the Japan Rail Pass is usually a good option that’ll enable you to take day trips beyond the two major cities.
You’ll also use it plenty as you commute around Tokyo and (to a lesser extent) Kyoto. If you head to other cities, you’ll get even more value out of the pass. We’ve used the JR Pass to travel from Tokyo to Hiroshima, with stops at Nagoya, Kobe, Himeji, and Hikone along the way, before ending up in Kyoto all within the span of 7-days–and probably got quadruple the value of the pass in the process. The Japan Rail Pass is not always a must-buy for us, and there are definitely one-way scenarios where it’s unnecessary, but we’ve found that it usually works out in our favor. That’ll almost certainly change in October 2023.
If you’re planning a trip to the Japan, check out our other posts about Japan for ideas on other things to do! We also recommend consulting our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto and Ultimate Guide to Tokyo to plan.
Have any questions about using the Japan Rail Pass that we didn’t cover? Have you used the Japan Rail Pass in the past? Any thoughts or additional tips based upon your experience? Please share your thoughts or questions in the comments below!