Save Money and Travel Freely with a Japan Rail Pass

July 30, 2008

in Asia, Information, Public Transport, Rail, Travel, Web Tips

Today’s post comes courtesy of long time reader, first time guest blogger Dana, currently of North Carolina. Dana blogs regularly at From My Wandering Mind and is head chef at Geek Buffet. You’ll find more descriptions of her recent trip to Japan and China starting here.

Last month, I took a 3-week trip to Asia, promising to look out for money-saving travel ideas to post here. Unfortunately, since it was a business trip, I couldn’t do a full-out frugal version of traveling, but I still tried to take notes along the way. The first and best thing I came across was the Japan Rail Pass.

Despite the fact that I used to live in Japan, this trip was the first time I had ever gotten to use a Rail Pass, and it was awesome. My parents had used them when they came to visit me during my time there, but since I didn’t have one of my own to use then, I didn’t realize the awesomeness I was missing out on. Let me explain, all Q&A style.

What is a Japan Rail Pass?

  • The Japan Rail Pass allows the person holding it to essentially jump on and off any JR train line in all of Japan, as well as some long-distance buses, and maybe some ferries, too. Once you have the pass, you don’t pay for tickets for any of these rides, just flash your pass to the gate people. Japan is not, on the whole, a great place for spur-of-the-moment travel, so in many ways the Japan Rail Pass = freedom. No counting your coins to see if you have enough to get all the short ride train tickets you will need for your sightseeing for the day, no having to search for shinkansen travel weekend deals long in advance. Just go!

Why didn’t you use one when you lived there, if it’s so awesome?

  • This is the tricky and sad part. Rail Passes are only for tourists. Specifically, only for people who enter Japan with a “Temporary Visitor” visa stamp in their passports. Anyone living in Japan long-term is ineligible. Many of my regular Japanese friends hadn’t even heard of it unless they’d had a lot of foreign visitors before.

How can I get one of these golden tickets?

  • Because this pass is only available to tourists, it is, somewhat bizarrely, only sold outside of Japan! Their website has a page with information on where the exchange orders are sold all around the world. Just select your appropriate geographic area.

Wait, what’s an “exchange order”? I thought I wanted a rail pass.

  • This is the other weird thing about the process. You can’t buy a Rail Pass inside Japan, but you do have to be in Japan to pick it up. Basically, what happens is you call up whatever tourist agency you have elected to buy the pass from and order one. They send you a package of information with your exchange order in it, valid for one Japan Rail Pass. When you get to Japan, you find the Rail Pass exchange office in the airport (or a major railway station, if you get picked up at the airport by a friend or something), give them your exchange order and your passport to prove you are a Temporary Visitor, and they give you the Rail Pass, with the dates of validity stamped inside it really big for easy reading by railway gatekeepers. The website explains all this stuff in detail as well.

How much does it cost?

  • For adults, the regular pass costs Y28300 (US $263 at time of writing) for 7 days, Y45100 (US $419) for 14 days, and Y57700 (US $536) for 21 days.

Hey now! This is Less Than a Shoestring here! That’s expensive.

  • Yes, yes, I know! Please don’t go away yet. As awesome as the Rail Pass is, it isn’t for everyone. Here are some ways to figure out if it’s going to be worth it for you to get one. Think about all the places you’re planning to go.

+ How many shinkansen rides will you be taking? If the answer is none, or even just one, then the Rail Pass probably isn’t worth it for you.

> Particularly if you are going to be solely in Kyoto, you shouldn’t bother to invest in one, because all the transportation within that city is primarily by bus, and your pass won’t work on their system.

> If you are going to be only in Tokyo, the Rail Pass will let you jump on and off all the JR trains and subways in the city, but perhaps not enough to really justify spending $250-$500 just for that.

> This page offers a rundown near the bottom of other economy day passes and their prices that you could consider instead.

+ If the answer is two round-trip shinkansen rides (ex: Tokyo-Kyoto and back, and then Tokyo-Sendai and back) the 7-day Rail Pass will pay for itself right away, because the cost of two shinkansen tickets is already about the same cost as one Rail Pass, plus the Rail Pass is taking care of all of your in-city train riding, too, as well as non-shinkansen local trains, etc.

> After that, it becomes a comparison game. As I said, the easiest way to figure out if it’s worth it is to figure out how many shinkansen rides you’ll need to take, look up those prices on the Japan Railways site and compare with the Rail Pass price for the length of time you’ll be in Japan.

+ From the front page of that site, it also looks like Japan Railways now offers some other passes for shorter periods of time and/or limited only to certain regions. Therefore, if you know that all of your travel is going to be only on the east coast, or only in Hokkaido, etc., those might be better deals than the whole-hog Japan Rail Pass, which covers the entire country. But again, those passes appear to only be available to non-Japanese-passport holders, so check out their restrictions to make sure you qualify.

As much as I would like to go back to Japan to live someday, now I’m also completely convinced that I want to go back sometime soon as a tourist, so I can take advantage of the Rail Pass system again. It really makes the experience completely different. Not only is the rail system in Japan super efficient, but now I can go anywhere at any time! The best of all possible worlds! It has always struck me as a rather unfair system to restrict the passes to out-of-country tourists, but take advantage of it if you can.

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Japan Rail Pass Fabulosity « From My Wandering Mind
07.30.08 at 11:59 pm

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Lindsey Kuper 07.31.08 at 12:29 am

Dana, it’s cool to see you blogging over here!

I agree that the Japan Rail Pass is an excellent deal for anyone who plans to be on trains a lot. Alex and I had 7-day passes for an 8-day trip. We flew into Narita, took the train from there to Tokyo, from Tokyo to Hokkaido and back (yep, a long haul), and then the shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto and back, all with our rail passes. We also used them to take the JR Yamanote all around Tokyo. It was fast and easy.

(As the JR website points out, the passes don’t cover the “Nozomi” shinkansen, e.g., the very, very fast trains. But really, all this means is that you might have to take a fast train or a very fast train instead of a very, very fast train. Any of them will probably seem fast to the average American.)

2 Dana 07.31.08 at 7:39 pm

Hi Lindsey! True about the Nozomi trains, and also that all of the levels of shinkansen travel are leaps and bounds above what we have in the US. Heck, I still mourn the lack of the local trains, never mind the shinkansen! Sounds like you guys had a great trip, too.

3 Shane 08.04.08 at 3:43 am

Yes, this is a very good deal for anyone who plans on covering a lot of ground while traveling around Japan.

4 poetloverrebelspy 08.04.08 at 11:48 pm

This post highlighted at Travellious.

5 Jason Dragon 08.08.08 at 12:00 pm

They have something much like this in Hong Kong. It was for their awesome subway system. For about $5 us, you get a pass that is good for exactly 72 hours. After we bought the pass we used it many times, I quickly found out that even if you only use it two times you are already ahead. We spent an entire day taking the subway to most of the stops and looking around. The catch is the same, you must be on a tourist visa and you must show your passport to buy one.

Jason Dragon

6 Sherrie 08.28.08 at 4:33 pm

As someone who lived in Japan for a year and had friends visit me who did buy that pass I would say buy buy buy. Its true its not cheap, but sadly Japan is not really for the budget traveller unless you plan on staying in one and only one city. The trains are expensive. VERY expensive, and as soon as you go anywhere outside of an hour drive the prices rack up fast.

A budget note for the traveller in Japan though that is cheap is to buy your food in supermarkets after 6! At 6 pm all that days food goes down by 75%. And some of it s really quite yummy!

7 poetloverrebelspy 08.28.08 at 5:57 pm

Great tip Sherrie. Thanks!

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