Our rating for the JR Pass:
One of the best way to get around Japan—even if you never leave a city's limits—is the Japan Railways, or JR. And in most cases the best way to pay for your JR travel is by using the JR Pass. Here’s why we it’s a good deal for most travelers in most situations.
Japan Railways and Shinkansen
When you travel within Japan, you’ll be amazed about how efficient it is. In major cities, particularly Tokyo, you can go just about anywhere on the subway. When you are going between major cities in Japan, the Japanese railway system will get you there.
The Japan Railways Group, or JR, started as the government-owned Japanese National Railways. Now JR is private and the heart of Japan's railway network. You’ll see JR just about everywhere in Japan.
JR operates six regional passenger companies. JR is so confident you’ll arrive at your destination on time that in many circumstances, passengers receive refunds if trains are late.
Twenty million people use the trains every day in Japan. Forty percent of total passenger travel is on rail. This compares to 90 percent of passenger travel in the United States uses road transport. There are 26,000 daily train services in Japan. The JR Group operate 70 percent of the total rail traffic in Japan.
If you want to go somewhere faster than the normal train, the Shinkansen is for you. The Shinkansen, also known as the bullet train, is not a new phenomenon. It’s traveled Japan’s rails for more than 50 years. Back then, the idea of a train cruising at 200 miles per hour must have seemed impossible.
The Tokaido Shinkansen started in 1964, connecting Tokyo and Osaka. The Sanyo Shinkansen began service in 1975 and connected Tokyo to all the way to Fukuoka. One could travel from Tokyo to Fukuoka in about five hours.
The first Shinkansen train ran at a maximum speed of 120 miles per hour. Today, a Shinkansen can speed along at 200 miles per hour. It was the fastest train in the world until 2002, when China ran a maglev train at 267 miles per hour. Not to be outdone, development has also been underway for the Chuo Shinkansen, a planned maglev line from Tokyo to Osaka. In 2015, a seven-car L0 series maglev trainset set a world speed record of 375 MPH. Talk about fast!
You can certainly fly between cities in Japan, but the locals rarely do. When we left Tokyo to go to other cities, we used JR and occasionally the Shinkansen. From Osaka, we decided that we could get around Japan much easier if we simply purchased a JR pass for our 14-day trip to Japan, based out of Osaka.
Why Get One for a Seven or more Day Journey in Japan
Ordering a pass
A Japan Rail Pass, or a JR Pass, is a great way for tourists to save money traveling Japan by rail. I purchased our passes in advance from the JR Pass website. Note: You must be a “non-Japanese national to purchase a JR Pass. JR will check your passport for its Temporary Visitor status.
I waited to purchased a JR Pass until I knew for sure the duration of our trip. JR Passes are purchased in duration of days: seven, 14 or 21. All I needed to know was when I was going to start riding the train and when the final day of travel would occur.
After I received the JR Pass Exchange Order, or voucher, in the mail, I had to exchange it within the next three months. The Exchange Order can only be exchanged at a JR train station in Japan. You have to show your passport; JR checks you entered the country as a tourist by looking for the Temporary Visitor status.
During the exchange, they asked me to specify the activation date, or the date on which we were to start using the JR Pass. You can set the activation date to be up to 30 days after the exchange date. We set ours for the next day, since that was our first trip. Now we were ready to travel!
JR Passes are not cheap, but if you plan to travel in Japan for more than a couple of days, I highly recommend the JR. It’s easy if you are not taking a lot of luggage since there is limited space for luggage. We saw plenty of people rolling their luggage, so don’t be afraid if you are traveling with luggage. In our case, we wanted to go places for the day, so we only brought handbags and backpacks.
If you know your destinations, there are calculators to determine if purchasing a JR pass is a good investment. You simply have to know the break-even point.
Japan-Guide.com offers the Japan Rail Pass Calculator for this.
Here is an example of a few destinations you might consider leaving from Tokyo. I chose Kyoto, Hakone (home of Mount Fuji) and Hiroshima. We’ve been to all these cities and recommend them. How can you go to Japan and not get as close as possible to Mount Fuji?
See what I mean?
Now you really want to visit Mount Fuji, right?
Here’s the math from the Japan Rail Pass Calculator:
Even if you removed Hakone from your trip, you’d still be better off with a JR Pass:
Let’s remove Kyoto:
You still save money with a JR Pass, even if you only went to Hiroshima and nowhere else.
On many journeys, JR offers green car service. This is the Japanese equivalent to business or first class. To use the green car, you have to purchase a Green Pass, which is about 30 percent more than the ordinary pass. If you purchase a Green Pass, you can sit in the ordinary cars or the Green Cars.
Green car seats are larger than economy, recline 40 degrees and have a footrest. Much like today’s first class on airlines, Green Car service includes an oshibori, or hot towel and a free beverage.
Because standards are so high on Japanese trains, even the ordinary cars are usually perfectly sufficient for most travelers. But, if you want a little more space and a bit more peace and quiet, the Green Car is a good option. Because Green Cars are more expensive, they tend to be less crowded and the people who ride them are often quieter than the those in the ordinary cars.
The downsides of a Green Car would be price and prior reserved seating. All Green Car seats are reserved, so you have less flexibility in terms of just jumping on the next train leaving a station. You must go to the ticket office and reserve your seat. For most travelers, this isn’t a problem.
The other notable item is that you should purchase the JR pass from your home country, and it must be delivered to you in your home country. JR does have a trial period which started on March 8, 2017 and ran until March 31, 2019 whereby you could purchase a Japan Rail Pass at a limited number of stations in Japan. As of this writing date, I’m not sure if this trial will be renewed.
Even if this capability is renewed, you should be aware that buying the Japan Rail Pass in Japan will be significantly more expensive than buying it online ahead on time.
You will have a voucher and it can’t be used until you go to your first train station office for your first trip. The very first trip you want to take, you’ll go to the train office and exchange your voucher for the actual JR Pass. At the train office, you will fill out a form. You’ll put your entry date into Japan on this form. This date has to be within 30 days of the exchange. In other words, don’t enter Japan and decide to spend 31 days or more doing something and then deciding it is time for your pass. You’ll miss the window. Once the pass is validated you will be able to use your pass starting on the date you have chosen for the consecutive number of days for which your pass is valid.
Japan Rail Pass Math
On our recent trip to Osaka, you have plenty of blog posts from us. Since I am an undergraduate mathematics major, I thought it was important to post the mathematical rationale for a Japan Rail Pass. I wasn’t surprised that our investment in a two-week Green Car paid off. Clearly, you do not need to go to the extra expense of a Green Car, but we found that it was quieter and a bit roomier than the other class train. We liked that we had reserved seating, but we did have to make reservations in order to do this.
Anyway, here is our math.
The above shows a single rider’s cost for all the trips we took. Madeline and I would have doubled that cost so our total cost would have been approximately ¥200,000 for standard car service between the destinations above. However, since we had Green Car service, there would have been an approximate 30 percent surcharge on top of this make the cost closer to ¥260,000. We only paid ¥126,000 so that’s a savings of ¥134,000 or $1,200.
Green Car vs. Ordinary Car
The Green Car experience was introduced in 1985. The Green Class cars became available giving passengers the option to enjoy a first-class travel experience. We’ll talk more about the difference between economy and first-class cars later when we discuss the JR Rail Pass.
We didn’t know which pass to buy now that we knew we wanted the pass. I wanted to understand the tradeoffs between the two types of cars.
The advantage of a Green Car pass is that they allow you to ride in the Green Car on any JR train that has such cars. This includes almost all Shinkansen. Green Car seats are more comfortable and spacious. The Green Cars tend to be quieter than ordinary cars. They also tend to be less crowded. The seats are more spacious seats and they recline. The cars have extra luggage storage and usually have places to plug in your electronics. This makes it easy to work on your laptop, if you are a blogger.
Traveling with a Green Car Japan Rail Pass is slightly less convenient than travelling with an ordinary Japan Rail Pass. You must reserve in advance all Green Car seats. This means you need to plan your trip and get your tickets at the JR station. In our case, we would regularly go to the Shinkansen section of any JR station.
There is no fee to reserve seats, but you must go into a JR ticket office to do so. There will be a line. In Japan, there always seems to be a line for something but the Japanese are so polite and calm about it. The wait in line rarely took more than 10 minutes.
Green car seats can fill up on a journey, so you are wise to do a bit of planning. You don’t want to show up at the JR station and just hope for the best. Luckily the Shinkansen run all the time so if one train is full, you probably can go on the next one.
The decision of choosing between a Green Car and ordinary Japan Rail Pass is a combination of money and greater flexibility. Ordinary passes are cheaper and allow greater flexibility. Green Car passes are more expensive and less flexible, but the seats and cars are significantly more comfortable and luxurious with more room for luggage.
The trains all run on time, no matter what car you are in. They are all very clean and the Shinkansen are indeed very fast. You can’t lose no matter what you choose.
If you travel during peak travel period like sakura (cherry blossom) season you are wise to plan ahead. Above is a JR sign for the season. It’s not just tourists that are flocking to see the sakura. The Japanese people are all interesting in going to see sakura locations all over Japan. We planned for this and had no trouble even in the middle of sakura weeks.
Other dates that fill up include New Years, Golden Week, and Obon to name a few.
We are very glad we decided to use the Japanese Rail Pass and we’d highly recommend it to you if you are going to use the Shinkansen to a few places during your stay.
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