Japan by Train: Skip the JR Pass!

Spend any amount of time researching a trip to Japan and you’re bound to encounter all manner of helpful articles extolling the benefits of the Japan Rail Pass. This pass, a money-saving transit pass available only to foreigners and sold in 7-, 14-, and 21-day durations, allows unlimited travel on the bulk of the Japan Rail Group’s nationwide network of trains (including most shinkansen “bullet trains”) and some buses and ferries.

At first glance, the JR Pass seemed like a no-brainer of a purchase, especially since we’d be visiting without our bicycles and relying heavily on the country’s outstanding railway system to get around. But, the more I looked at it (and the more time I allowed my natural aversion to pre-purchasing to settle in… I blame the videogame industry for this reluctance) the less the JR Pass seemed to make sense for us.

Shinkansen N700 Series by Sui-setz [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Shinkansen N700 Series by Sui-setz [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
For starters, it seems like a hassle. You have to purchase the pass from a licensed sales agent outside of Japan then turn in the voucher at a major JR Station office once inside the country. Okay, that’s relatively pain-free, but back in the USA, before we left, I didn’t know whether or not each of the legs of our journey would be possible using JR lines. In fact, I was pretty sure we’d be taking a lot of local trains, which the pass wouldn’t always cover. I spot-checked the cost of our longest leg — Osaka to Hiroshima — on the invaluable Hyperdia website/app and decided that we’d probably need to do a lot of long-haul trips to make the JR Pass worthwhile. Lastly, the biggest pass was for 21 days and we were going to be there for 6 weeks. Do we buy two passes each? Do we buy one and activate it in the middle of our trip? Ugh. Too many questions. When in doubt, I always take the path of least headache, least restrictions. My recommendation to Kristin: “Let’s skip the passes. Worst comes to worst, we end up spending an extra hundred dollars or so over the course of six weeks. It’ll be worth it to have the extra flexibility.” She agreed.

That was then, back in February. Now it’s May and it’s time to tally up our transit costs and see whether not buying the JR Passes for a longer trip was a smart decision.

Prices for the JR Pass, as of February, 2015.
Prices for the JR Pass as of February, 2015. From www.japanrailpass.net

For comparison’s sake, we were considering buying two 21-day “Ordinary” adult passes per person (all figures from this point on are for two people). This would have been a total of 237,400¥ or, $1,995 USD, based on the average exchange rate we encountered during our stay (119:1). Yes, we can probably put “sticker shock” down as another reason why I decided against the passes. These things aren’t cheap!

I’ve been tracking our expenses, by category, for every day of the trip. This was a little easier when we were bicycling everywhere and we didn’t have large transit costs (aside from a Trans-Atlantic Crossing). To not over-inflate our daily expenses, I broke out our point-to-point transportation costs for Japan into the separate “major expenses” page of our tracking sheets.

We had a total of 14 point-to-point travel days in Japan that ended up costing a total of $1254 USD for the two of us, a very big savings. That included two rides on super express “Nozomi” shinkansen trains that weren’t covered by the JR Pass, so in addition to the monetary savings we also saved some time. We also had a lengthy ride on a highway bus not covered by JR Pass.

The route we took through Japan, in pursuit of the blooming cherry blossoms.
The route we took through Japan, in pursuit of the blooming cherry blossoms.

But, wait, is that all the transit you took? I’m glad you asked! No, it wasn’t. If you add up all of the subways, taxis, ferries, cable-cars and shuttles that we took (almost none of which are covered by the JR Pass), that adds an additional $602 USD to our total transit expenditures.

So, in essence, not only was our total transportation expense of $1856 USD more than a hundred dollars less than the cost of the JR Passes for that 6-week duration, but more than 33% of those costs wouldn’t have been covered by the JR Pass anyway (several of our train tickets were on local lines not covered by JR trains).

What if you only bought a single 21-day pass and optimized it for the most expensive part of your trip? Another great question, thank you for asking!

The most costly 3-week period for our point-to-point travel totaled $825 USD, while two 21-day JR Passes to cover that same duration (one each), expertly timed with prior knowledge we didn’t actually have, would have cost $997 USD. Another example of not getting the JR Pass being the smart decision. And, again, that $825 includes several local trains and shinkansen rides that were not covered by the JR Pass.

I’m not suggesting that buying a JR Pass is always going to be a losing proposition, but it’s certainly not the money-saving silver bullet(train) it’s made out to be in the travel guides. In our experience, and as I think these numbers bear, the JR Pass is going to only make sense if you’re doing a shorter trip that involves more frequent travel days. We tended to stay at least 3 nights in each of our destinations, cutting back on the amount of time spent on transiting from destination to destination.

Final Verdict: The JR Pass should only be considered for whirlwind tours of Japan’s major cities and transit hubs. Those planning on visiting smaller, more remote towns or spending three or more nights in each location will save money by not buying the JR Pass. Happy travels!

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Doug Walsh

Writer, Traveler

Doug Walsh is a writer, traveler, cyclist, and gamer who spent two years traveling from Seattle to Singapore, the long way around, by bicycle and sea. He's the author of the upcoming novel "Tailwinds Past Florence."

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About Us

We're Doug & Kristin Walsh, a couple of Washingtonians who love to travel, both abroad and in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest. We set off to travel the world in 2014, primarily by bicycle. We're back home now, but the travel bug continues to be fed every chance we get.

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