Japan may not belong to the list of most visited countries in the world maybe because of how expensive it is to travel to that beautiful country in Asia. But despite that, there are still some people who frequently visit Japan. With the country’s rich cultural heritage, beautiful sceneries and wonderful people, it’s not really hard to fall head over heels in love with Japan. In order to promote tourism in the country, there’s a great way to save on transportation costs without draining one’s bank accounts as this is where a huge bulk of your travel funds go when you travel to Japan. With the availability of the unlimited use of a JR Pass, it will offer anyone the chance to ride any of Japan’s transportation system that is covered under the Japan Railways Group at cheaper costs.
What is a JR Pass?
The Japan Rail Pass, also known as the JR Pass, is a rail pass that can be used by any foreign tourists who will visit the country. This gives tourists access to unlimited JR train rides, shinkansen rides (except for the Nozomi and Mizuho services), JR bus rides and JR ferry rides.
Your passport must be stamped with “Temporary Visitor” upon arrival at the immigration to take advantage of this. This is one way to encourage people to travel to Japan. The pass cannot be bought within Japan though. For more information, check out this link.
The pass is available for purchase for those tourists who plan to stay in Japan for 7, 14 or 21 days. There are also regional passes available for those who intend to stay on certain areas only. The Regional Passes cover the areas of Kansai, East, Hokkaido, Kyushu, West and Shikoku.
With our 9-day stay in Japan, we bought the 7-day JR Pass which will provide us nationwide access to all the JR trains. We also bought a 2-day Kansai Pass, which covers our Kyoto, Osaka and Nara itinerary. Our friends who only stayed in Japan for 8 days only bought the 1 week pass.
Why buy the JR Pass?
Because it is economical and hassle-free. The JR network is so complex and covers about 20,000km from north to south of the country. With a JR Pass on hand, you have unlimited access to all JR trains, certain bullet trains, JR Buses and the JR Ferry that travels to Miyajima Island in Hiroshima. As long as there’s a JR network on any place you visit in Japan, you can use the pass.
our nationwide 7-day JR Pass
Our 7-day JR Pass, cost us 264USD or 28,352.63JPY (~12,305.04Php). Now, the site where we bought it shows that a 7-day pass costs 270USD. Train fares are bound to increase this April 1st, which probably explains the price difference.
Our one-way bullet train from Kyoto to Hon-Atsugi costs 11,240JPY. From Hon-Atsgui to Hiroshima, our total shinkansen ride would have cost us 17,020JPY. Adding the two will give you a total of 28,260JPY. We also had to ride the local trains to get around Osaka, Nara, Tokyo, and other nearby cities in Japan. We saved a total of 15,730JPY when we used the rail pass during our 7-day stay.
The use of the pass is hassle-free because unlike regular train commuters, who have to buy their tickets and go through those train ticket slot passageway, a JR Pass holder only has to show the provided card to station clerks and you can access any JR trains you want. This makes for train ride hopping fun.
When do you buy a JR Pass?
If you intend to travel to Japan for more than 5 days, I would really recommend that you buy a JR Pass. However, if you decide to just stay in one area, let’s say just within Kyoto, the rail pass would be useless because you’d have to take the bus to roam around Kyoto.
When my friends and I planned our trip to Japan, we were advised to buy the JR Pass a month before our trip. Though ordering one online would only take a maximum of 6 days to have it delivered to your doorstep, we got ours after 3 days, it’s still better to buy it ahead of time to avoid cramming on your travel preparations.
But if you are really excited to buy one, by all means go ahead and do so. Anyway, you can have it refunded after certain fees are deducted within a validity period, which is usually also before the first date of its first use in case you don’t push through with your trip. Once you buy the JR Pass, you are given a maximum of 3 months to activate it.
How to get the JR Pass?
To get the JRpass, one has to purchase it either from reliable travel agencies in your home country or buy one online.
Where to buy a JR Pass online?
There are different online sites that sell the railway pass. We bought ours at http://www.japan-rail-pass.com/. When I compared their rates with another site that offers the same passes, the fares at that link were $2 cheaper.
Once you order the rail pass, you need to pay for the courier fee too. Our order came via FedEx.
When we received our order, we were given what looked like airline tickets which shows our full name in it. That was not the actual pass. It’s just an ‘exchange order’ that you need to provide at the JR ticket office when you arrive in Japan.
received our Exchange Order ticket 3 days after buying our JR Pass online
Update 03.31.2014: You can now buy the JR-West Rail Pass at the Travel Desk of the Kansai International Airport upon arrival starting April 1, 2014. For more details, click the following link: http://www.kansai-airport.or.jp/en/pdf/jrwest.pdf
How to use the JR Pass?
The JR Pass can only be used upon your arrival in Japan. After going through immigration, you need to find the JR Ticket Office which is usually located at the entrance to the train stations outside airport terminals. There are also designated JR offices on each train station. The JR Office at the Kansai Airport is located outside the 3rd floor of the airport terminal.
finding a JR Ticket Office at the KIX Airport to activate our Kansai Pass
Once you see the office, you need to show your exchange order together with your passport. The staff at the ticket office will validate the documents to activate the rail pass. You also need to fill up your complete name, country and passport number.
Once everything is done, they will give back the exchange order along with your passport. You’ll also receive your JR Pass card. This is what you will show at each JR station whenever you ride any of the accredited trains in Japan.
our 2-day Kansai Area Pass, covering the areas of Osaka, Nara and Kyoto
Upon your first use of the card, the train station clerks will get the card and stamp it. After that, all you have to do every time you pass through the JR stations is show it to the clerk at the station window. Some clerks would really inspect your card and ask for your passport so it is important that you carry your passport with you all the time. Others would simply wave you off to the other side, an indication that they are giving you the permission to go through. This usually happens when they are busy attending to other people’s concerns. During our whole stay, we were never asked for our passport whenever we passed through the station. Our other friends were asked to show their passports, though.
Note: Lost or stolen JR Pass cards or Exchange Order won’t be replaced so you need to make sure you guard your JR Pass with your life if you don’t want to screw up your travel budget.
Validity of the Japan Rail Pass
Your JRPass will be activated on the day you turn over the exchange form at the JR Ticket Office. Cut-off time is every 12 midnight. So for example, if you arrived in Japan via the Kansai Airport at 8pm on March 4th and activate the pass on the same night, Day 1 of your 7-day JR Pass will only give you coverage from 8pm to 12mn of that day. The card’s validity will last from March 4 up to March 10 only. That’s how they count the 7-day validity of the card.
Is Getting a JR Pass Worth It When Travelling to Japan?
This really depends on how long you will stay in Japan. If you are travelling in one city, or if you will only stay less than 7 days, you have to weigh in your options. There’s this excellent site called Hyperdia.com which provides detailed information on train schedules and train fares. Once you have plotted your travel itinerary in Japan, you can check out the site and determine if you will indeed need one during your visit.
To give you an idea, let me show you a summary of my travel expenses during my 9-day stay in Japan.
a summary of my 9-day transportation expenses in Japan
For 9 days, we would have spent a total of 47,910 for our JR train rides. But after skillfully plotting our itinerary vs our travel dates, and after buying the Kansai Pass and the nationwide JR Pass, we have saved a total of 15,610JPY (~6,744Php or ~150USD) for all those train rides.
Here’s a downloadable Excel file to show you my complete 9-day Transportation Expenses in Japan.
How to Maximize your JR Pass?
Do you love to go on long train rides? By long, it means more than 3 hours of sitting on speeding trains where your seats shake while the bullet trains crazily dart through Japan’s complex railways and countless tunnels. Are you the adventurous type? Would you consider travelling to almost any place in Japan to discover off-the-beaten paths and experience how locals live? If the answer to all of these questions is a resounding YES, then I definitely suggest you buy a JR Pass and maximize it’s cost to the best of your ability.
How? Go on joy rides with the shinkansens!
joy ride with Japan’s bullet trains, the Shinkansens
That’s basically what our host in Japan suggested we do. Being obedient travellers that we are, we took that suggestion seriously. After researching the best places to visit in Japan where I could maximize my JR Pass, I decided that Hiroshima would be the best place to go. Why? I got to ride a JR Ferry too! There were also JR buses in the area but we failed to hop on one due to limited time.
All of us may have a different travel itinerary in Japan but the JR network has pretty much covered most of the major railway tracks in the country. So wherever you decide to go and for how long you will stay in Japan, always consider getting the JR Pass for this will surely help you with your travel budget and at the same time enjoy the hassle-free bus ride, ferry ride or train ride experience.