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Japan by Train: Everything You Need to Know

Japan by Train: Everything You Need to Know

You’ve decided to buy a Japan Rail Pass, now what?

You should start planning out your Japan itinerary, of course, but you should also take time to learn exactly how Japan’s train system is organized. From the Shinkansen bullet train, to local and limited express trains, to subways and other urban rail systems throughout the country, trains in Japan are at once simply and complicated.

Whether you’re a Japan train novice, or are coming back to the country for your first trip after Covid-19, you’ll find value in the guide to Japan trains presented below. Planning a trip to Japan in 2022? Make sure to read this article first.

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Do I Really Need a Japan Rail Pass?

Some travelers get sticker shock when they see Japan Rail Pass prices, but in all but a few cases, it ends up being a far better value. Generally speaking, if you plan to ride more than one Shinkansen bullet train, you should buy a JR Pass.

Let’s look at a simple example. The Tokyo to Kyoto bullet train cost alone is ¥27,000 (around $260) for a round trip, which is ¥2,110 ($20) less than a one-week Japan Rail Pass. This difference disappears when you add the ¥6,000 ($55) it will cost you to travel each way between Narita Airport and Tokyo.

I can speak even more personally—even more passionately—to this truth, after having lived in Japan in early 2021. Unable to avail the Japan Rail Pass due to my residence status, I regularly spent as much on trains for weekend trips to Okayama or Sendai as I would for a 7- or even 14-day Japan Rail Pass!

Japan Rail Pass Options

7 Day Japan Rail Pass

As I alluded to above, a JR Pass 7 days in duration costs ¥29,110, and is valid for seven calendar days, starting the day you activate the pass. You should keep in mind that if you activate your JR Pass in the evening, this would still count as a full day. Hire me to create a JR Pass 7 days itinerary!

14 Day Japan Rail Pass

The most popular pass for travelers to Japan, the JR Pass 14 days option costs ¥46,390 yen, and is the perfect companion for a two weeks in Japan trip.

21 Day Japan Rail Pass

It costs ¥59,350 to buy a JR Pass 21 days in length, which presents the best value on a day-by-day basis for the JR Pass, at a cost of just ¥2,826 (~$26) per travel day. If you plan to spend one month in Japan, this is likely your best Japan Rail Pass option.

Green Car vs Ordinary

All the JR Pass prices I’ve listed so far are for “ordinary” JR passes. The reason for this is that I don’t find the JR Green Car to be spectacular, or worth the extra money—it requires around a 50% premium, and all you get is a slightly bigger seat and a refreshment. While the Green Car is far from a business class experience, the new Shinkansen Gran Class is more opulent, though it is not covered by any JR Pass. What is the difference between Green and ordinary JR Pass? More in price and less in experience, in my opinion.

Other JR Rail Pass Options

Some travelers who plan to stay only in one region of Japan might choose to buy JR pass for one region. For example, if you only plan to travel in Kyoto and Osaka, you might choose one of the JR Kansai Pass options. Although regional JR passes are cheaper and are able to be purchased in Japan (more on that in a second), some are restricted—they often prevent you from using express trains, including the Shinkansen.


How to Choose the Right Japan Rail Pass

Moving past the JR Pass Shinkansen example I mentioned earlier, there are other considerations to make when choosing a Japan Rail Pass. Namely, since the JR Pass only covers JR products (JR-branded trains, as well as JR highway buses and even some JR ferries), you should determine how many days you’ll be using these products.

To put it another way, your JR Pass is most useful outside of cities. If you’re spending 10 weeks in Japan, but spending the first three days in Tokyo and the last three in Kyoto and Osaka, it might not make sense to buy the 14-day JR Pass but rather a 7 day Japan Rail Pass and then a PASMO card (aka a Tokyo train pass for the subway) and a day pass for the bus in Kyoto.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the JR Pass is not good on private trains. Common examples of private trains in Japan includes Tobu services from Tokyo to nearby cities like Kawagoe and Nikko, and the Nankai Lines that go from Osaka to Koyasan.

How to Plan Your Japan Train Trip

Earlier, I mentioned that you should determine how often you need to use JR trains before deciding which JR pass to offer. The ideal way to do this, once you’ve mapped out a skeletal Japan itinerary, is to peruse the Japan train timetables available on HyperDia on in the smartphone app of the same name.

Far from simply being a Shinkansen schedule, this amazing utility will be your go-to not only when you’re planning your trip, but when you’re on the ground and plans change suddenly.

How to Use a Japan Rail Pass

Let’s get something straight: You must order your Japan Rail Pass before you leave your home country, and have the JR Pass Exchange Order in your possession when you enter Japan! You can present this coupon at any JR Pass Service Center (every JR station has one) and after a few minutes, the attend will present you with a shiny, new Japan Rail Pass.

Using the JR Pass is easy—you simply flash the back of your pass at the ticket gate and enter the station. You can board most any JR train with your JR pass, though it’s always a good idea to make Shinkansen reservations (and those for certain other trains, such as the Narita Express), which are free with a JR Pass and guarantee you a seat. To make things abundantly clear, it is not possible to buy Japan Rail Pass at Narita Airport!


Where to Buy JR Pass

The bad news? There’s not really any such things as a JR pass discount—discounts are difficult to come by in Japan in general. The good news? Buying a JR pass is easy, and there are a number of ways to do it. (NOTE: In spite of rumors to the contrary, there is no buy JR Pass Narita Airport option. You need to purchase it and have the “exchange order” in your possession before you fly.)

If you’re like most travelers, you’ll want to buy JR Pass online, since it will arrive directly to your door, usually in just a few days. In fact, when you buy Japan Rail Pass online, USA customers can enjoy one- or two-day delivery!

With this being said, if you live in a city that has a branch of the JTB travel agency (or any other travel agency that focuses on Japan), you can buy JR Pass in person, as well as a Japan SIM card and other goodies you’ll need before your trip! JTB is definitely the best place to buy JR Pass!

Other FAQ About the Japan Rail Pass

Is the JR Pass worth it?

Take it from someone who has lived in Japan and paid “full price” for Shinkansen tickets—the JR Pass is absolutely worth it! A 7-day pass costs less than the price of a round-trip Shinkansen ticket—one round-trip!—between Tokyo and Kyoto. You could reach the cost of a 14-day pass, meanwhile, in just a few days of traveling around Japan by train without it. A JR Pass is a no-brainer!

What is the best train pass for Japan?

Unless you plan to travel hyper-regionally (i.e. in an area like Mie, where private trains dominate, or in Okinawa, where there are no trains at all), the nationwide Japan Rail Pass is the only worthwhile rail pass option in Japan. Note that while some regions of Japan offer their own tailored versions of the JR Pass, these are often more restricted than the nationwide pass, which counteracts any minor savings you might enjoy.

Is JR Pass unlimited?

The nationwide JR Pass offers you unlimited use of JR trains, including all Shinkansen services besides the Nozomi and Mizuho, for the duration of your pass. Note that this is not the case for certain regional JR passes, such as those in the Kansai region or on Kyushu island.

The Bottom Line

Buy your Japan Rail Pass if you haven’t done so already—then bookmark this page and read it often. The key to a successful train trip is practice, but until you arrive on the ground in Japan, coming back here is as close as you’re going to get to that. Japan Railways is the fastest, most efficient and most enjoyable train system in the world—I can’t wait for you to take your first ride. (On the other hand, trains in Japan are not a panacea—make sure to check out my guide to domestic flights in Japan to round out your transport within the country!). Finally, keep in mind that when it comes to the Japan Rail Pass, best place to buy is online!


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