Japan Rail Pass: a good purchase that could be a lot better

Bullet trains in JapanAt first glance the Japan Rail Pass looked very expensive. £444 for 21 days of unlimited rail travel (up to £476 now thanks to the ever-strengthening yen). Would we really travel enough to make the investment in the rail pass pay off? We had crossed Europe from Lisbon to London earlier this year for roughly half that amount.

Looking back, the JR Pass offered great value for money. Not only did we travel across the length and breadth of Japan but we soon learned that to use the shinkansen (bullet-train) services without a rail pass is very expensive. Without our passes the rail journeys we made would have cost us over £1,000 each.

 

What’s so good about the Japan Rail Pass?

You can use your Japan Rail Pass on all JR trains apart from the fastest variety of bullet train, a restriction that really doesn’t cause a problem. What is particularly handy is that you can make free reservations on all of the trains (apart from the slow local services) right up to the moment you board the train.  A reservation grants passengers a seat in the reserved cars, where even on a busy service the amount of space and levels of comfort you enjoy would not be found in many European first-class carriages.

Using the JR Pass is easy and in most parts of the country we were consistently surprised at how the journey to our next randomly chosen destination was made in quick time and with minimal fuss. English signs on all stations and even English announcements on many services make for an easier task than many would-be visitors might expect. Making reservations at the ticket offices never a problem with the right combination of nods and smiles as we perfected the dual skills of repeating strange place names while pointing at calendars.

 

Japan Rail

 

Where Japan Rail get it wrong

The greatest failing of the Japan Rail Pass is that you can only buy one for 7, 14 or 21 days. Perhaps I am missing something blindingly obvious here, but it seems to me that the Japanese tourism authorities are damaging their international tourism revenues by not offering a longer pass. We met several fellow visitors during our time in Japan and the majority of them were staying in Japan for three weeks. When we asked why, they explained that they had booked their flights to tie in with the validity of their rail pass. Surely the Japanese government would prefer to get four weeks of custom from their international tourists rather than tying them to a three week trip?

We were the exception to the rule but this was purely down to my shoddy planning in booking the flights before even making a cursory check about how the rail passes worked. I’m glad we did have the month as it happens but there’s no doubt our travel habits changed for the final week when we had to pay for each ticket we needed. Buying a combination of rail passes (21 + 7 day, or 14 + 14 day) is not an attractive option as this would penalise you very heavily for that final week.

Our rail fares in the final week after our Japan Rail Pass expired cost us around £130 each. More than that however, the lack of a rail pass meant that we tended to stay in the main cities and take day trips within the urban areas rather than hop on a train for an hour to visit a quirky random suggestion.

Time for a 4 week Japan Rail Pass?

If you ask people at the end of their three weeks in Japan most will tell you that they wish they’d stayed for longer. I hope a 4 week Japan Rail Pass is introduced soon to allow visitors to enjoy more of this fascinating country without being penalised for wanting to do so.

 

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Freelance travel writer

10 Responses to “Japan Rail Pass: a good purchase that could be a lot better”

  1. There are many benefits to using rail lines, I’m glad your sharing them! And just something to keep in mind, traveling by rail is the more environmentally responsible decision!

    October 7, 2011 at 5:39 pm
  2. Sounds like a good recommendation. You should forward it to the Japanese tourist bureau.

    October 8, 2011 at 4:50 pm
  3. The Japan Rail Pass is a must for anyone thinking about doing some serious travelling in Japan and I like the idea of a 4 week pass for those longer trips.

    October 9, 2011 at 2:34 am
  4. Great info on the rail tickets and I second TT – submit that idea for the 4 wk pass!

    October 9, 2011 at 9:18 pm
  5. Isn’t the rail pass fairly new?

    The rail system in Japan is amazing, but I seem to remember a few years ago when you had to buy separate tickets for each of the different companies managing each line. It sounds like even the existence of a rail pass is a huge step forward.

    October 10, 2011 at 6:32 pm
  6. James Bunting #

    Andy
    The JR Pass could certainly do with a flexible option as people travelling will certainly wish to stopover from time to time and not feel they are wasting travel days. Indeed, the regional companies that offer their own passes, JR Hokkaido, JR East, JR West, JR Kyushu, already do so. However, remembering that JR as portrayed outside of Japan is only a marketing operation, each company is totally independent, there may be logistical reasons why a flexi pass is not offered.
    With regard to cost, considering the speed and comfort it is a bargain. Compare this with £429.00 for unlimited travel in the UK for only 14 days.

    Elizabeth
    The JR Pass has been around for over 20 years. I hope you haven’t been missing out on this valuable travel tool.

    October 18, 2011 at 2:28 pm
  7. James Bunting #

    Can’t type straight – the UK pass is £650.00 for 14 days.

    For real Japanese rail travel try the Seishun 18 Kippu. 5 days travel on any JR company route for JPY11500 (£95.00) within either of the summer and winter holiday periods. The difference is that you can only use it on local or rapid trains, but is certainly a good way to see the country if you have the time. You can buy as many as you to cover the length of your travels need as, indeed, you can with a JR Pass.

    October 18, 2011 at 3:02 pm
    • Thanks James, yes I saw the Seishun 18 Kippu but it was not valid during our travel period otherwise it would have been a good option. Agree that these flexible options do exist but I still think (from my limited research) there is a perception that 3 weeks is the ideal trip length to Japan and I can’t help believing this is linked to the rail pass length. I wonder if JR offered a 4 week unlimited pass for say 70000 yen (c £600) whether it would encourage longer visits to Japan. No disputing that it’s a bargain – I would just like to see them encouraging more people to experience their services for longer.

      October 18, 2011 at 6:53 pm
  8. I agree that the Japan Rail Pass offers an incredibly economical way to travel throughout Japan by rail.

    Here is a sample itinerary to popular tourist destinations in Japan, comparing point to point ticket fares, with the cost of a Japan Rail Pass. This is if you are arriving at Narita airport and traveling around for a week. Of course if you stay longer and purchase a 14 day or 21 day Japan Rail Pass, then the savings are even greater.

    If you buy point to point tickets:
    Narita airport to Tokyo: 2,930 yen
    Tokyo to Kyoto: 13,020 yen
    Kyoto to Hiroshima: 10,590 yen
    Hiroshima to Hakata: 8,500 yen
    Hakata to Tokyo: 20,210 yen
    Tokyo to Narita airport: 2,930 yen
    TOTAL FARE: 58,180 yen* (approx. £464 or $743 US)

    *please note fares may vary, depending on the train

    If you buy a Japan Rail Pass
    Japan Rail Pass: only 28,710 yen (approx. £229 or $367 US)
    (7 day – ordinary pass)

    That’s a potential savings of £234 or $376 US if you opt for the Japan Rail Pass!

    Another great comparison is if you just look at doing Tokyo to Kyoto, return, which is probably the most popular route for visitors. Just this route adds up to approximately 26,040 yen. Which is not far off the price of a 7 day Japan Rail Pass at 28,710 yen, where you will have the freedom to do so much more.

    November 2, 2011 at 8:08 pm
  9. Glad you had a great trip Andy, and were so adventurous.

    A good way with the Rail Pass is to organise when your travelling and your “staying put” times are going to be.
    A 4-week trip could be:
    Arrive Tokyo, stay for 3 or 4 nights (you can present your Rail Pass Exchange Order at the beginning of your stay, but ask for the start date to be a few days later. That means you can start making seat reservations in advance of your journeys).
    Then leave Tokyo and travel with the 21-day Pass.
    End up in Kyoto, and stay there for 3 or 4 nights – there’s so much to see there – before flying home out of Osaka (KIX airport)

    February 29, 2012 at 10:40 am