All you need to know about Japan Rail Pass (JRPass)- Why & how-Pros & Cons!

If you’re planning a visit to Japan, apart from flight tickets, your major expenditure will be local transport in Japan. While bullet trains are super fast, they are super expensive as well. For example, if you’ve to go from Osaka to Tokyo (8750 Yen), Tokyo to Hiroshima (11600 yen) and from Hiroshima back to Osaka (5600 Yen), just these 3 bullet train tickets (in cheaper Hakura class without seat reservation) will cost about 25000 YEN or about INR 14000. If you've planned extensive city hopping, buying individual tickets will be too expensive. This will be hugely detrimental for tourists who come with a limited budgets. To overcome this, tourists are given an option called JR Pass. JR Pass is an unlimited ride pass that gets you free ride for a fixed period (7 or 14 or 21 days) on all trains operated by Japan Rail. For vast majority of tourists, having a JR pass at hand will work out both cheaper and convenient than trying to travel without one.Over a period of 1 week you can make full use of JR Pass that costs about 18k for travel worth a lot more tan that. During my Japan travel in April 2017, I did buy a JR Pass and made full use of it. In this post, I am detailing everything you may need to know about Japan Rail Pass (JRPass). Do read it before your Japan trip.

Benefits of JR Pass
  • Keeps your Japan local transport budget under check. One time purchase of JR Pass is usually cheaper than buying multiple individual tickets. Assuming you’ll be traveling between 2-3 major Japanese cities, the value of JR pass will be recovered within first few trips- as individual train tickets are expensive and add up to much more than JR Pass value. JR Pass is sold at highly subsidized rates to keep tourists happy
  • It covers most of Japan, I would say around 80%. Japan Railways operated Bullet trains runs extensively across length and breadth of Japan. Many city level local trains are also operated by JR
  • You can select exact date from which to activate it. If you’re arriving on say 2nd Feb 2018 evening, wish to spend 3rd Feb at leisure exploring local surroundings and begin your Japan exploration from 4th till 10th Feb, you can get your JR Pass activated from 4th Jan, to make full use of it
  • Liberty and Convenience- you can flash your JR pass and enter any JR Train, get down at any station of your choice. This offers very high flexibility and freedom compared to having to buy your ticket for every journey.
Limitations of JR Pass
  • Wastes day time. Bullet train in Japan doesn’t run in the night- so you can’t use night time for intercity commute to save day time for siteseeing. You’ll have to spend precious day time (though you can reach other end of Japan in just a few hours) for intercity travel or spend extra on night buses. I wouldn't say this is major drawback though.
  • Doesn’t offer full coverage- you still have to spend a few thousand rupees extra, particularly in cities like Kyoto, Tokyo because JR Pass can only be used on trains operated by Japan Railways. In many cities other operators dominate. Local buses and train tickets need to be bought separately if it is not operated by Japan Railways. Even in Tokyo only a part of local train network is operated by JR, rest by other operators. Visiting Mount Fuji? Only partially covered by JR Pass. So do factor some extra budget over and above JR Pass spending.
  • Not valid on the fastest bullet trains (Nazomi) JR pass is to be used on Hikari trains which are a few minutes slower (because of additional stops)
  • JR may not be best option for all destinations: In some instances- like visiting Nara- if you wish to use JR Pass then you’ve to wait longer for the train and walk longer from train station to Nara shrine. At times it will be more convenient to buy a Non-JR  train ticket in the interest of time and convenience.
  • Need to be bought while in India. JR Pass need to be bought while in home country. Once purchased, no refund possible. 
  • If you’re going to be stay put in one city with only limited out of city travel, JR Pass may not be worth it.
  • Limitations: JR Pass is sold only to those visiting Japan on Single Entry tourist visa. Others (Japan residents, student/business/PR visa holders etc) are not eligible to purchase JR Pass.
  • No guaranteed seat: Since JR Pass is unlimited and no one knows from where to where and in which trains you will use it, there is no seat assignment, so you getting a place to sit is not guaranteed when you train with JR Pass. I never had to stand during my trip, but depending on peak hour, season and other factors this may change.
How much does it cost for a JR Pass? 
JR Pass costs about 255 USD for 7 days, 406 USD for 14 days and 519 USD for 21 days (That is INR 16k, 26k and 33k respectively. Actual cost will be another thousand or two thousand rupees more, considering currency conversion cost, courier cost etc. For the purpose of this post, we'll keep 1 week JR Pass at a final cost of about INR 18000. If you're buying longer duration one or first class one or for multiple people, the economics will differ. Do your math accordingly.
JR Pass cost information, taken from JRPass.com.  Cost for Children is 50% of Adult fee. FedEx Delivery cost USD 20.
Regular vs First Class (Green class)
First class pass gets you bigger and better seats in trains that have green class. If your budget permits spending another 100 USD and you think you can afford little more luxury and comfort you can go for first class pass, else regular pass will be just fine.

When JR Pass is worth and when it is not? Below is a comparison of a few scenarios
#
Travel Plan
Without JR Pass
With JR Pass
Remarks
1
Based in Tokyo, short visit, couple of day trips to nearby attractions- Mount Fuji, Nikko etc
3600 YEN (Nikko return)
7000 YEN (Mt Fuji day tour)
4000 YEN (Tokyo local travel, airport travel)
Total about INR 9k
18000 INR
5000 INR for travel not covered by JR
23k
For short visits like 3-4 days and if you’re based in one main city, JR pass is not needed
2
Visit Multiple cities in Japan over a week- Tokyo, Nikko   Hiroshima, Osaka, Himeji, Kyoto etc
More than 25k INR
18000 INR
5000 INR for travel not covered by JR
23k
Do the math- even if JRPass works out marginally expensive it is worth for the time saved, flexibility n local train usage
3
Land in Osaka, Explore Osaka, Kyoto, head to Tokyo, explore Tokyo and nearby, return from Tokyo
Close to 20k INR
18000 INR
5000 INR for travel not covered by JR
23k

4
Enter and Exit via Osaka Kansai, only visit nearby cities- Osaka, Kyoto, 1 week
Close to 8-10 K INR
18000 INR
2000 INR for travel not covered by JR
20k

5
2 weeks trip- detailed exploration of Japan
INR 40k + easily
Option 1: Buy 1 week JR pass, another week on your own
18k + 7k extra (approx) = 25k INR

Option 2: Buy 2 week JR Pass (26k INR + 4k extra = 30k)
If you're traveling across length and breadth of Japan, JR Pass is highly recommended
Note: Prices are indicative, taken from online at the time of preparing this post. Actual cost varies depending on date, time, train, stations, class and so on. Refer http://www.hyperdia.com/en/ for actual ticket costs between cities.

Below are a list of reasons/scenarios which make your decision to buy or not to buy a JR Pass for your Japan trip easier
Reasons to buy JR Pass
Reasons NOT to buy JR Pass
Wish to travel across length and breadth of Japan without worrying about cost or having to buy ticket for every journey
Not planning extensive travel within Japan, will be based in one or two cities and exploring around
I am sure I will be traveling a lot- cost of JR Pass will be much cheaper than buying individual train tickets
I want to use intercity night buses- don’t want to spend day time traveling between cities
My trip duration is in multiples of 7 days (7, 14, 21 etc) or I can optimize travel such that I can buy JR Pass for the 7 sequential days during which I will be traveling a lot.
I want to travel in fastest train and with a confirmed seat assignment, even if it is expensive
Having a clear picture of my expenditure is important to me and I would like to minimize unplanned /additional spendings
Most places I am planning to visit don’t seem to have connectivity by JR (i.e. you can’t use JR Pass)

You’re not eligible for JR Pass (only tourists can buy JR Pass) Work permit holders, PR and other visa holders and Japanese nationals can’t buy JR Pass

You’re not sure of your trip, exact itinerary etc and prefer NOT to spend a huge amount upfront (JR Pass is NOT refundable)
Where to buy JR Pass?
You can buy JR Pass online before your trip, on websites like ‘JRPASS.com’. There're a dozen other websites selling JR Pass. However factor a week’s time for them to physically send the pass by courier to your address in India (yes, JR Pass is not electronic yet, still involves a paper pass) or you can walk to select travel agents in your city authorized in selling JR Pass. In Chennai, a travel agency inside Ambassador Pallava hotel in Egmore sells JR Pass. 

Pre-requisites for JR Pass
You should have Single Entry Japan Tourist Visa (Other visa holders not eligible)

Tips to make the most of JR Pass
1. Activate it for exact dates needed. If you're visiting for 9 days, arriving day 01 evening and departing day 9 morning, you can activate JR pass for Day 02-08. Or if you haven't planned anything for day 01 and day 02, you can activate it for Day 03 to Day 09
2. Trains in Japan are extremely punctual. Refer websites like Hyperdia, note the availability of trains to your next destination and plan your day around it
3. Book your hotel/hostel within walking distance from a train station served by JR. This will save lots of time and money
4. On your day 01, familiarize yourself on how to recognize JR trains, stations etc. Will be more convenient and quick on rest of the days.
5. Stations will involve lots of walking. Do keep a buffer of 5 to 10 minutes to identify right platform, walk up to right spot on the platform.
6. Sometimes there will be JR train options but it may take longer or you've to wait more compared to another earlier/quicker train on which JR Pass is not valid. Decide on case by case basis.
7. JR Pass can also be used for some ferries like Hiroshima-Miyajima ferry
8. On select overnight trains (there're a few I am told, not bullet trains) if you board before midnight on the last day of your JR Pass validity you can still use it even if your destination will only be reached next day.

Anything else?
What you get in India is a payment receipt. This needs to be exchanged for Actual Pass upon your arrival in Japan. Most airports have dedicated counters where you can walk in, show your receipt and exchange it for actual JR Pass. It is a half page size printed pass as of now that you need to carry around and show to railway staff at the stations to gain access. I am sure in future this will be automated/converted to smart card.

Note that JR Pass can’t be used for all trains operated by Japan Railways. Particularly faster Nazomi trains. JR Pass can be used only on Hikari and few other bullet trains that are slower by a few minutes compared to Nazomi. Even on trains in which it is allowed, you’ve to get into specific compartments (compartments with unreserved seats)
How to identify if a train is JR or not?
This is lot easier than I had thought. Look for icon JR in the train schedule. There’re clear markings everywhere in English and Japanese. Most trains and even station names may begin with JR. 

You can use online websites to identify next available train, which platform etc. Of course you can ask any railway staff if still struggling- they will try their best to guide you. When using Hyperda.com uncheck the Nazomi option as shown. Then it will remove faster Nazomi trains on which JR Pass is not valid.
My personal experience using JR Pass:
I tried to make the most of JR Pass during my trip to Japan in April 2017. Purchased it in Chennai-had to pay about  INR17700 total for the 1 week regular pass. I landed in Osaka, went to Kyoto, then to Tokyo, then to Nikko, Hiroshima, Himeji and back to Osaka. Would have definitely spent more than JR Pass value if I had to buy individual tickets. Still I had to spend about INR 3k to 5k extra on local transport as I had to use non JR service in some parts- main one was trip to Nara and local transport in Kyoto. Besides money, time it saved (I don't have to decide exact station n get a ticket) and flexibility it offered (I could decide ad-hoc where to go next or where to get off) was of great value.

Happy journey to Japan! Do comment if you have any questions or feedback on JR Pass

Other useful Japan posts: Japan Tourist Visa * Japan trip on low budget * Bullet train experience * 12 unique experiences in Japan * All other Japan posts here.
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12 comments:

  1. Such a detailed post!
    Will use your suggestions for sure when I plan my Japan trip :)
    Have a wonderful year, Shrinidhi!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks and happy new year to you too. Visit Japan soon

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  2. very meticulous, your flow of thought reminded me of my grandmother Parwati Hande-Rao. she called it the pro-con chart before making a decision.

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  3. Congrats on your winning the Indiblogger Award. Wishing you a great year ahead.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Brilliant post! During my trip to Japan, I was advised against buying the pass because of the same reason you have mentioned for Nara and because I traveled by Nazomi. But as you rightly pointed out, the decision depends on the itinerary and how one is planning to explore the country.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Very useful post.

    Is renting a car economical and convenient option in Japan if 3-4 people travel together?

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    Replies
    1. Japan is not known for its expressways unlike say Germany. Not very sure about car rental, economics and timings. Cities have lots of traffic. I am guessing if there're 4 people sharing expenses it might be cheaper

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  6. Hi, i have been doing my research on ways and means to travel within japan. We are planning to visit in and around Tokyo from 8-15 April 18.We would be buying the JR pass for a week. We were wondering if we could fit in a trip(maybe a night halt or 2) to Sapporo and Hokkaido. Also we are planning to travel to Hiroshima on our last day in order to maximize the JR pass. We will be heading to Osaka on our way back, plan to visit places in the Kansai region for a week from 15-21. Head back to India via Hong Kong. Sight seeing in Hong Kong for a couple of days :) What would you suggest for travel within the Kansai region?? And also could you tell me where exactly did you buy the JR pass in Hotel Ambassador from? They seem to be clueless about it? Thanks and regards.

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    Replies
    1. Hi Deepak
      I've not been to Sapporo and Hokkiado, so unable to offer any personal advise. If you have only 1 week, Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Hiroshima will keep you busy. Stuffing in more destinations not recommended.

      Kansai region has good network of JR and non JR trains. You can rely on them for most destinations.

      Ambassador hotel reception staff should be able to guide you-it is sold in the travel desk, located somewhere deep in ground floor. If it doesn't work out you can buy online, they will ship it via FEDEX

      Hope this helps

      Delete

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