The Japan JR rail pass – what you should know

It was time to use the most valuable weapon in our Japanese travel arsenal – our JR Japan Rail Passes! We ordered them online in Australia (they cannot be bought in Japan), and picked them up at Shinjuku station with all the required stamps and stickers. We found them to be great value – i’ve even broken down the costs below.

Sketch of a Japanese Shinkansen at a train platform
The Shinkansen arrives at the station

For the next 3 weeks, we could book as many JR tickets as we wanted, or just flash the pass at any JR gate, and unlimited train travel was ours. It came in handy for some subway lines and intercity trains, but most excitingly, we had unlimited rides on the mighty high-speed shinkansen trains; Japan’s famous ‘bullet trains’. I couldn’t wait to experience the speed, comfort and style i’d heard so much about.

The famous shinkansen punctuality

The train arrived right on time, a Hokuriku shinkansen, sliding into the station with its eye-catching, aerodynamic, snake-shaped nose (A few weeks later we took another type of shinkansen to Hiroshima, the Hayabusa, with a long, flattened ‘duck bill’ style).

The barriers opened, we boarded, took our seats, and began to accelerate. The shinkansen picked up speed immediately out of Tokyo station, racing through the northern suburbs of the city. Towers and apartments flashed past the window for a long time, and I realised just how large a metropolitan area of almost 40 million people actually was.

Don’t forget your lunch box

Within minutes of departure, the train carriage came alive with the popping of beer cans, rustling of plastic bags and snapping of chopstick pairs, as the passengers opened their packed bento boxes (ekiben) for lunch. The ekiben are super popular and easy to find at major train stations. They can be sushi, or rice with chicken katsu, sliced beef, or any number of unidentified treats. They are hot, cold… Hello Kitty themed, you name it!

Delighted to have similarly pre-planned, we unwrapped our sushi and felt part of the shinkansen club. I spoke to Cindy, keeping my voice low to adhere to the no-noise etiquette of the shinkansen. I compared the shinkansen to Europe’s high speed lines. Whilst comparable in speed, Japan’s system definitely felt more clean, efficient and futuristic.

A very smooth ride

With the city and surrounding farmland far behind us, the shinkansen swept into some long, sweeping bends as we moved into the mountains, banking like a race car to make the turns smoothly. We spotted distant mountains with patchy snow, villages of wooden houses and tall pine forests.

We were passing through the Japanese Alps to reach Nagoya, our transit station on our route to the small town of Magome. Looking at the shinkansen network map, we saw tracks ribboned up and down the whole of Japan, linking cities, crossing mountains and connecting islands. What an achievement!

Is it actually cost effective?

  • The 21 day pass costs AU$752 (about 59,000 Yen)
  • The 14 day pass costs AU$588 (about 46,000 Yen)
  • The 7 day pass costs AU$369 (about 29,000 Yen)

It depends on how many cities you visit, and how much you use the local transportation. Let’s try and break it down.

Now, let’s imagine a two week holiday in Japan with 4 stops. You visit Tokyo (taking the subway a few times a day to go sightseeing), and then you visit Kyoto, Osaka, Hakone, and back to Tokyo, using your pass for the airport line. This example is in Australian dollars, but can be converted to any currency.

  • You pick up your JR pass in the airport, and take the JR Narita express (NEX) costing 3000 Yen, or AUD$38 (6000 Yen, $76 return)
  • The price of a one-way non-reserved shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto is about 13080 Yen (AUD$166).
  • Kyoto to Osaka costs about 1420 Yen (AUD$18).
  • Osaka to Hakone is 12100 Yen (AUD$154).
  • Hakone to Tokyo is 3220 Yen (AUD$41).
  • A single trip on a JR subway line in Tokyo about 140-160 yen (AUD$1.80 to AUD$2.00). Let’s imagine you take two subway trips every day of your holiday (AUD$56 total).

The total is AUD$511, $77 less than the price of the 14-day pass. But would I still buy it? Yes, for two reasons. Firstly, my subway use might be double my estimate, and secondly, having a pass in your pocket which you can flash at a train guard, instead of figuring out how to buy a shinkansen or subway ticket from the machine when you’re in a hurry, is a very valuable advantage indeed.


6 thoughts on “The Japan JR rail pass – what you should know

  1. Great post Derrick, and bullet train sketch. I remember it well. Took it a few times while I lived there. It was then very efficient (1980s) and I’m sure it’s improved since then. Enjoy your travel posts. Christine

  2. Oh I would definitely recommend the JR railpass too, even though it’s really expensive to pay but the number of trips that you can make on it makes it super affordable in the long run because the ticket for a shinkansen is so expensive individually. Although I would say I usually buy it only if I know I’m going to be doing a few day trips to fully maximise its use rather than just use it for only one or two days. I’ve travelled to so many places from Tokyo on the JR railpass, even all the way to Aomori and back – in one day! 🙂

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