This article teaches you how to buy the JR Pass voucher, how to exchange the voucher in Japan, and discusses whether the pass is a smart investment or not.
The information provided in this article comes from both the JR Pass official site and from my own personal experience purchasing and using the JR Pass. I have gone to Japan with and without the pass, so I will also compare my experiences and give my insight on whether it's a good investment or not.
(Note: I purchased my JR pass before the price increased in 2023.)
What Is the Japan Rail Pass?
Commonly referred to as the JR Pass, the Japan Rail Pass is a voucher that any non-Japanese national who is visiting Japan for less than 90 days on a tourist trip can purchase. The pass allows those who qualify to ride most trains around the country including some shinkansen (the Japanese bullet train) lines and the Miyajima Island ferry.
The JR pass can be purchased for either 1, 2, or 3 weeks at a time and the price varies depending on the duration of the voucher.
How to Buy the JR Pass Voucher
The JR Pass cannot be purchased when you're in Japan, the voucher must be purchased online in advance. This is because the pass is not available to Japanese citizens or those living or studying abroad.
1. Purchasing the voucher in advance The first step is heading to the JR Pass website and purchasing the voucher online. I suggest doing this at least a couple months before your trip, as the paper vouchers are mailed to you.
Personally, I felt safer spending a little extra money for the FedEx express shipping because I could track the shipment. The passes are not cheap and it gave me peace of mind receiving them in one day rather than waiting and worrying whether they were lost in transit.
2. Exchanging the vouchers at a designated JR Pass office in Japan The most efficient place to exchange your JR Pass in is the airport upon arrival to Japan (I learned this the hard way, just trust me). Although you may be exhausted and overwhelmed when you arrive at the Japanese airport, you'll thank yourself later if you exchange your pass immediately. This can be done at the JR exchange office outside the train terminal in the airport.
If you don't exchange your voucher for the JR pass at the airport, you'll later have to take a train to a JR train station that has an exchange office in it. Not all JR stations have a JR Pass exchange office. So unless you happen to go through one of those stations anyway, you'll have to make a designated trip to one of the JR stations listed here.
3. Using the JR Pass To use the JR pass, you need to simply show it to the employee in the booth or glass office that will be located on either the far left or right of the turn styles. Do not try to walk through the turn styles, those are designated for those with tickets or suica cards. And that's it! Since the passes allow unlimited access to regular JR train lines, you don't need to provide any more information to the employee, you're free to ride the trains!
4. JR Pass Limitations The JR Pass allows you limited access to Japan's shinkansens, which are the most efficient method to travel around Japan. The only lines that the pass doesn't cover are the Nozomi and Mizuho lines, because those are the super express lines. But don't worry, the regular shinkansens can get you to the same locations, there's just a few more stops on the way.
Also, keep in mind that while the JR train lines are the the most common in Japan, they are not the only train lines in Japan. The JR pass does not cover the private train lines or the metro system.
Now that we have the nitty-gritty details out of the way... the real question is: Should you buy the JR Pass? Is the JR Pass worth the money?
Let's be honest for a second here: The JR Pass is expensive. There! I said it. Depending on how long you're staying in Japan, the JR Pass could cost you almost half as much as your plane ticket. So if you're going to make the investment, you want to really make sure it's worth it for you.
I wish I could tell you straight out whether the pass is worth it for you or not, but it's not as simple as that. What I can tell you is how to determine if it's a good option for you and tell you my experience with it.
When I travel to Japan, I try to see as much of the country as possible. On my last trip, I went to Tokyo, Osaka, Hiroshima, Fukuoka, Kyoto, Kamakura and Chiba. So was the pass worth it for me? Absolutely.
Pretty much, if you know you're going to be traveling by Shinkansen: get the JR Pass. When I went, a one-way Shinkansen ticket to Kyoto from Tokyo was about $180 USD. I did some calculations before I went and realized that without the pass, I would've spent easily over $1,000 USD on train, shinkansen, and ferry tickets combined. So was my $520 USD ticket worth the investment? 100%, it saved me a ton of money.
(Note: The cost of a JR Pass increased in 2023. It now costs $718 USD for a 21-day pass. But, given the estimated cost savings from above, it's still worth the money if you plan to travel by Shinkansen often, as I did.)
However, if you're going to stay in the Tokyo area or are going to use alternate forms of transportation such as Japan Bus Lines, then you shouldn't get the pass. The local JR trains are not that expensive and if you're not going to be traveling far or using shinkansens then it's not worth the money.
Another thing to keep in mind is that if you don't get the JR Pass, you'll have to either stand in line at the ticket office each trip and purchase your tickets through an employee or buy a re-loadable Suica card.
From first-hand experience, you do not want to have to stand in those ticket lines every day... The lines can get very long and buying the ticket can be complicated if you don't speak Japanese or the employee doesn't speak English. So if you've done the math and the JR Pass seems like it will be about the same price as the tickets you'll have to buy: then get it, for pure convenience.
How to Estimate Your Train Costs and Compare
As a part of my travel planning, I always look at how long it will take to get to my next location and how much it will cost. I made a whole post and YouTube video on trip planning if you'd like to check them out, but here is the gist. I use Google Maps to enter the starting location (ex. Tokyo) and destination (ex. Kyoto). Google Maps will tell you exactly which trains to take, how long it will take, and how much each one will cost. This is how I predict what my train costs will be and whether the JR Pass will save me money.
If you've used the JR Pass, what was your experience like? Did you save a ton of money or do you prefer the alternate forms of transportation Japan has to offer? I would love to hear about your experiences in the comment box below!
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