When I was researching my trip to Japan, I came across lots of advertisements for the Japan Rail Pass. The Pass, which can be purchased in three different time blocks (one week, two weeks, or three weeks) has so many different iterations that it’s hard to decide which to buy- if at all. You can splurge and purchase for the entire Japan Rail system, or focus on certain regions like Shikoku or Hokkaido. There’s the East Pass that covers Tokyo, but you’ll need the Kansai Pass to see Kyoto. I knew I wanted to go to Hiroshima, which would require traveling to the West and that’s an entirely different pass.
As a first time Japan traveler with very little time to plan my journey, I knew that it was probably smart to invest in a pass given how expensive the trains could be. The catch was, I had a free, really nice accommodation in Tokyo that I wanted to use as much as possible to save money (and, it’s Tokyo! Awesome!) So I took a bit of a leap of faith. Given that I was going to be in Tokyo for at least a month, but I wanted to be able to travel outside of that city on as many day trips and weekend trips as possible, I chose the three week All Japan Pass. After 21 Days of sightseeing, with the majority of my nights in my plush hotel bed, was the pass worth it?
Train travel is by far the easiest and most efficient way to get around Japan. Yet, it’s insanely expensive. Each time I got onto a perfectly punctual, clean and comfortable train though, I remember why it is that they charge such high prices and somehow it didn’t seem so expensive after all. Especially when you see the choreographed routines the cleaners do to prepare the cars between trips. It’s almost as elegant as watching synchronized swimmers.
I was in China before my trip and had a hard time finding the JR authorized vendor. The crazy thing about the pass is that it’s actually a paper ticket, which kind of scared me knowing that I would be traveling around for a few weeks before going to Japan. At about $500, this isn’t something that you’d just want to throw in your backpack and lose.
It’s important to note that even the most encompassing of the passes doesn’t cover all journeys. They don’t cover the fastest of the high speed trains and they don’t cover all lines (because not all lines are owned by JR Railways). For example, when I wanted to travel to the monastery dotted mountain community on Mt Koya, the farthest that I could go on the pass was Hashimoto. From there, I had to transfer to the Nankai Koya Line which is currently an ¥870 expense. The railway up the mountain is an additional ¥390.
When I purchased my ticket in Fall 2015, for ordinary seats, a 21 Day pass was about $477 USD or around ¥49,000. That’s less than $23 a day. I considered it quite a deal. Now, seeing that prices have increased to $570, it’s a more difficult decision.
The majority of my travel plans were made last minute, which is easy to do with the pass. Outside of peak rush hour times (and especially after work hours on Fridays) the trains weren’t that busy and I didn’t need a reservation. I liked to book them if I had time since it’s free to do using the pass, but it usually wasn’t necessary. The main advantage was that I didn’t worry about lining up on the platforms beforehand, which for a control freak like me can be a very stressful experience.
Before investing in the pass, even if you don’t have time to plan out all of you travel, I recommend looking up the costs of traveling to your must see places. The trips I knew I wanted to take were:
Tokyo- Kyoto- Nara- Koyasan- Hiroshima- Tokyo
Tokyo- somewhere in the mountains- Tokyo
A round trip ticket from Tokyo to Hiroshima is almost ¥40,000, and doesn’t include the additional side trips that I wanted to take to Nara, Mt.Koya and Kyoto. A day trip to Nikko (which was one of the most beautiful temples I saw in Japan and well worth the trip) would set me back an additional ¥9,000. Combined, these two trips were the cost of my 21 day pass. With this in mind and knowing that as I traveled around a bit I would discover new places I wanted to visit, I bought my pass.
So, was it worth it to buy the 21 Day pass? For me, it absolutely was. Not only was it great motivation to get moving on those days when I would have loved to sit around a cat café in Tokyo, but I saved a ton of money. Here’s my Japan train cost breakdown:
Note that these are the prices that I paid when traveling in Fall 2015. Some prices have changed, and they also vary according to the day, time, and route. I’ve also listed how much I was required to pay for private rail lines that don’t accept the JR Rail Pass. Some of these rates include a reserved seat fee, but I didn’t always reserve in advance.
The only place that I found I needed to pay a substantial amount of additional money to travel to was Mt.Koya. The only train line to the base of the mountain is privately owned as is the cable car up and the bus at the summit. (The bus isn’t included in my calculations as I didn’t include when I paid for other intercity buses, only buses that were required to arrive at a city).
Interestingly enough, I only used my 21 day pass for 19 days but still managed to get almost double the value out of it. I would have used it to travel from Tokyo to Narita airport, but I had managed to buy so many incredible souvenirs (including breakable tea sets and soup bowls) and decided it was safer to take a bus directly from my hotel.
Should you buy the Japan Rail Pass?
If you’re planning on doing a fair amount of travel through Japan, I highly recommend the JR Rail Pass. Make sure to check out the estimated fares on Hyperdia, and look to see if you need an All Japan Pass, or if you can just buy for one region. Unfortunately, the region passes are quite limited, especially if this is your first trip to Japan and you want to explore the major cities (Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima etc.).
Note that on Hyperdia it almost seems that there’s two prices listed- in fact, the combined prices is the actual price. I mistakenly though that the seat fee was a reservation fee- it’s not. You must pay both the fare and the seat fee for each journey. Making a reservation is an additional cost.
However, if you’re short on time, aren’t planning on crossing many regions, or are at the other end of the spectrum and have ample time to take buses and explore regional discounts, it might not be worth it for you. Japan does have a substantial bus network that is pretty cheap, but it will take longer than a high speed train.
Whatever you decide, just know that you have to make the call before you enter Japan since a pass can only be purchased internationally!