Just as Europe has its famous Eurail Pass, so too does Japan have its own version: the Japan Rail (JR) Pass. Now, you don’t need a pass in order to ride JR trains around Japan, but many foreigners enjoy the convenience of an all-you-can-ride pass to easily travel the country. But does the JR Pass actually save you money when travelling Japan?
First: The Number Crunch
A JR pass must be used on consecutive days within its allotted timeframe. That means a 7-day pass must be used in 7 days – after that, it will no longer be valid.
Considering this, you should divide a JR pass cost by the # of travel days to get a daily average. A 7-day JR pass costs ¥29,110 (~$251 USD), or ~¥4,158 (~$36 USD) per day. Compare this against what you’d spend on transit per day in 7 days (there’s lots of options!), and you will determine if the pass is cheaper to use. Hint: it’s probably not. Here’s why.
1. The JR pass only works on JR lines
A JR pass may get you from one city to the next, but will not work on anything else. Local buses, subways, and non-JR trains must be paid for out of pocket and you should factor in those additional costs. Meanwhile, there are other ways to cover such costs and get around Japan – with and without JR trains – which leads me to my next point…
2. There are cheaper, more flexible tourist passes throughout the country
Throughout Japan, regional passes can be used on inter-city and public transit. This is the case for the Kansai area, arguably Japan’s most popular region after Tokyo, as it includes Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, Kobe, Hyogo, Wakayama and Shiga. A multi-day Kansai Thru Pass (price breakdown below) can be used in and between all of these cities – some of which are hours apart. Better yet, it includes unlimited use of inter-city trains, subways, and buses and can be used on non-consecutive days. Finally, you also get discounted entry to multiple attractions. How thrifty is that?!
Overall, regional passes tend to allow more flexible planning. Passes can typically be purchased at Tourist Information Centres, which are common in airports and rail or bus stations.
3. It’s often cheaper to buy train tickets as you go
Simple as it seems to flash a JR pass every time you board a train, it’s really not that hard nor is it expensive to buy train tickets as you go. This is especially true on short distance routes. Kyoto to Osaka for example, costs just ¥410 (~$3.60 USD) and takes a little over an hour by regular train (JR takes just as long). Needless to say, the average ¥4,158 ($37 USD) daily cost of a 7-day JR pass would not pay itself off for that day’s trip!
If you want to work out whether buying tickets as you go will be cheaper, put in your desired destinations on Google Maps and crunch the numbers. Put in your start and end destinations, hit search, select transit, and the options, costs, and time will be visible, including for JR and non-JR trains.
4. Budget buses are plentiful and efficient
While Japan is famous for its high speed bullet trains, sometimes routes by bus can take nearly the same amount of time, or less. Most of the time they’re the cheapest method too!
Willer Express is Japan’s biggest budget bus company. It sells 3 and 5-day Japan Bus Pass passes and offers 20+ routes around Japan. Best of all, the 3-5 days allotted in the passes can be used anytime, non-consecutively within 2 months.
A great example of its cost effectiveness is the fact that you could visit 5 major cities across the country (Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, Kyoto, and Hiroshima) with a 3-day or 5-day pass for one third to half the cost of the JR pass (see further below). Bus passes and reservations can be made on the Willer Express website.
5. JR Trains are NOT everywhere
It’s easy to assume that the JR pass would take you to just about any city in Japan, however, this is not the case – nor is it always the fastest or cheapest, either.
Most recently we discovered a lack of JR coverage when looking to do the Koyasan temple pilgrimage trail, a ~3-hour journey from Osaka. This would be included in our Kansai Thru Pass via a train and bus combo, yet the JR trains do not even run there, rendering a JR pass useless in this scenario. Be sure to consider any journeys not covered by JR that you’d need to cover out of pocket.
Japan Travel Options: A Quick Look
If you’re still not sure whether the JR pass is right for you, consider these options and how they may work in your itinerary. Remember, you can always buy transit as you go, or do so in combination of that with any of these options.
JR 7-day Pass
- Cost: ¥29,110 (~$251 USD) for a 7-day pass.
- Benefit: Works nationwide, potentially ideal for limited, fast-paced travel.
- Downfalls: Only works on JR lines – does not work on local transit or non-JR trains. Some destinations not reached by JR. Must be bought before arrival in Japan.
- Must be used consecutive days? Yes – must use back-to-back within the 7 days of purchase for 7-day pass, 14 days for 14-day pass, etc.
- Where to buy: Online at japan-rail-pass.com.
Willer Express 3 or 5-day Pass
- Cost: ¥10,000 (~$88 USD) for 3-day pass, ¥15,000 (~$132 USD) for 5-day pass
- Benefit: Nationwide coverage, 20+ routes including most popularly visited cities. Overnight bus routes can save $ on accommodation. Can be bought on arrival in Japan.
- Downfalls: Sometimes slower, somewhat less comfort compared to train travel.
- Must be used consecutive days? No. a 3-day or 5-day pass can be used any days in a 2-month window.
- Where to buy: Online on Willer Express website.
- Cost: ¥5000 (~$44 USD)
- Benefit: Affordably covers the popular Kansai region (Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, Kobe, Wakayama, Shiga, Hyogo). Works on public and intercity transit and covers large distance for the cost. Can be bought on arrival in Japan.
- Downfalls: Only works in Kansai region.
- Must be used consecutive days? No.
- Where to buy: Any tourist information centre in the Kansai region, Osaka Airport, hostels, and more (see website for broad list of locations).
So, is the JR pass worth the cost?
If you’re moving around the country at rapid speed, in a tight timeframe, with minimal 1-night stopovers, then the JR pass might be the best solution for you, and the website with the best prices is japan-rail-pass.com. But if you have time to see Japan more thoroughly, we find it cheaper to alternate between Willer Express bus passes, buying train tickets as we go (including JR lines), and/or using regional passes. The pay-as-you-go approach seems the best way to stretch travel dollars and explore at a reasonable pace!
More Thrifty Tips for Japan
- Find the cheapest accommodation in each city with HotelsCombined.
- Find the cheapest flights into Japan and around the country with Skyscanner.
- Check out our other guides: “6 Tips to Travel Japan on the Cheap” and “How to be a Frugal Foodie in Japan“
Have you used the Japan Rail (JR) pass? Did you find it cheaper or convenient for your trip? Share your experience below!