Are you dreaming of traveling to Japan to glimpse of Mount Fuji, or to try sushi in its birthplace? Are you itching to visit bustling Tokyo and cross the busiest intersection in the world? Or how about walking among cherry blossoms and geishas in Kyoto?
Whatever the draw may be for you, Japan is a fantastic destination all year long. (Yes, even in the wintertime!)
But before you start planning your trip, we're going to warn you that getting around in this chaotic country can have its downfalls. Japan's trains are clean, fast and efficient, making them the best mode of transportation.
So what's not to love? Well for one, train travel in Japan is expensive. Like, really expensive. And it can be confusing, even to a seasoned traveler.
Lucky for you, we're going to share how to save money (and numerous headaches!) on train travel in Japan. If you're planning a trip to the "Land of the Rising Sun", you won't want to miss this...
The easiest and cheapest mode of transportation in Japan is to travel by train with the national rail company called Japan Rail (also known as JR or JRail).
Of those traveling to Japan more than one week, the smartest travelers purchase the Japan Rail Pass. It's a multiple-use discounted ticket that gives you unlimited access to Japan's national trains, including the famous Shinkansen bullet trains. You can purchase these passes in increments of 7, 14 or 21 consecutive days. When we traveled to Japan for one week, we bought the 7-day pass and loved it because it saved us money and it was simpler than buying individual train tickets.
Why should I purchase a Japan Rail Pass?
There are two main answers to this question:
1. The Japan Rail Pass saves you money.
The biggest reason to purchase a Japan Rail Pass to save money. Japan is one of the most expensive countries to travel in the world. See for yourself on our Japan Travel Budget breakdown. You’ll want to do everything you can to save money in this country, and buying a JR Pass is one of them.
We'll be up front and tell you it is still not cheap. We cried a little when we forked over $256 USD for both of our passes, but that's less than we would have paid had we not bought the pass.
The 7-day JR Pass is actually about the same price as a round trip ticket from Kyoto to Tokyo. Not only do you get unlimited train rides on the famous Shinkansen bullet trains (one of the fastest trains in the world), but you can also utilize some of the local buses, subways and ferries throughout Japan.
2. The Japan Rail Pass simplifies your travels
Have you ever seen the Tokyo subway map? Take a look below and try not to go cross-eyed...
Simply navigating Tokyo's "spaghetti bowl" subway system can be utterly confuddling (like that phrase?!).
In order to make the most of your time in Japan, you'll want to narrow down your transportation as much as possible. Having a Japan Rail Pass simplifies the routes you can take, saving you time from searching through time tables and comparing costs to find the best on for you. You'll already know this is the cheapest option.
If you're finding yourself lost in the chaos of Tokyo, here are some handy free apps and websites to ease your transportation pains:
Android: Tokyo Offline Travel Guide
Japan Rail Pass FAQs
Am I eligible for the Japan Rail Pass?
Most likely, yes. The main rule is you need to have a Tourist Visa in order to receive the pass. For most nationalities, including US citizens, it’s free to enter Japan for less than 90 days. When you land in Japan, you’ll have to go through immigration where you will get your Tourist Visa stamped in your passport. Be sure to check with your country’s travel department to see if there is a cost for a Tourist Visa.
Can I purchase my Japan Rail pass when I get to Japan?
That's a great question. We wondered the same thing before our trip. Japan Rail recently (as of March 8th, 2017) started selling the passes a higher price at major stations and airports for a trial period. But I would rather buy it ahead of time online to give me the peace of mind before a big vacation, and it will save you money for an already pricey trip.
It kind of stinks that you have to fork over a (big) chunk of change before you even board your flight, but that's just how it is. Your pass will be mailed to your home address, so do not delay this process. We cut it pretty close by ordering ours a week before our trip, but thankfully, the shipping is fast and we got it just in time.
Tip: Our suggestion would be to book further in advance so you don't freak out like we did! Even though shipping is fast, things happen, and you don't want to worry about it.
Can I have my voucher shipped to Japan?
Yes, you can ship out voucher to a temporary address in Japan, like your hotel. You can choose your home or a temporary address during the check-out process.
How much money will the Japan Rail Pass save me?
A 7-day Japan Rail Pass cost about $256 USD and a round trip from Kyoto to Tokyo cost about $251 USD. I told you trains in Japan are expensive. The crazy thing is that round trip ticket only last 4 hours and 36 minutes. That doesn't include any other transportation within the cities themselves or traveling to other big cities, which you would have to pay for if you didn't get the pass.
When you crunch the numbers, it's a no-brainer. The Japan Rail pass will possibly save you hundreds of dollars when traveling in Japan.
How to purchase Japan Rail Pass
1. Purchase Japan Rail Pass online
Just like booking a flight, fill out the name of each passenger, length of pass (7-, 14- or 21-day pass), standard or Green Pass (first class), estimated date of arrival in Japan, and delivery address for the ticket voucher.
Enter your digits for payment, confirm your information and submit your order. That's it. Now you're going to Japan! Don’t you love that feeling of clicking that “order complete” or “purchase ticket” button? Ohhh, so satisfying.
2. Receive your Ticket Voucher in the mail
Once you complete your purchase online, you’ll be sent a confirmation email with a tracking number so you can follow your ticket voucher (also called an exchange order) delivery all the way to your doorstep. It’s a standard two-day shipping delivery so you should plan accordingly. With your ticket voucher in hand, you’re ready to head off to Japan.
Important: The exchange order is NOT your J-Rail Pass, but instead like a voucher of sorts. You will need to present your exchange order along with your tourist visa (stamp in your passport) at the train station.
3. Travel to Japan and get a tourist visa stamp
When you land in Japan, you’ll be guided through immigration where you’ll get a tourist visa in your passport. You’ll need your tourist visa stamp to exchange the ticket voucher for the real Japan Rail Pass.
For Americans and many other nationalities, the visa is free if you’re traveling less than 90 days. (For Americans, you won't need to apply in advance for this visa. You will simply receive a sticker in your passport as you pass through immigration at the airport.)
Other nationalities: If you’re not sure if there is a fee or not, it’s always good to double check on your embassy's website.
4. Visit Japan Rail (JR) Pass Station and exchange for ticket
You’re finally in Japan with the ticket voucher and a tourist visa, Woohoo! Head the nearest JR Exchange office, which are located in larger train stations. (Here is a list of the JR Exchange offices and hours)
This is where you will trade the voucher for your 7-, 14- or 21-day Japan Rail Pass ticket. At the office you can specify the date to start the pass, but remember it cannot be more than 30 days in the future.
Once you have exchanged for your ticket, you're ready to start exploring Japan. You’ll need to book your seats with the ticket office or vendor, but there is no cost since you have the pass. Start planning your trip by using our Japan Itinerary and Top Things to Do in Japan.
Why purchase your ticket through JRail?
To clarify: JRail (www.jrailpass.com) is an official vendor of the Japan Rail Pass. There are a few vendors that sell rail passes in Japan, but JRail is one of the best.
Any way you look at it, buying a Japan Rail Pass is going to be a big chunk of change. We wanted to go with a company that we trust and will provide the service we needed on time.
JRail not only is a certified online retailer but they have some of the most competitive prices anywhere. The exchange orders have a standard two-day shipping with free shipping when the order is over a minimum amount. They have a 24/7 customer service message line and every purchase comes with a free Japan Guide.
If you still have questions about Japan Rail Pass, check our their FAQ page.
Resources for planning a trip to Japan
Traveling to Japan? Now that you have the transportation part of your trip figured out, we've got you covered with everything else you'll need – from a 1-week in Japan Budget, Japan Itinerary ideas, What to Eat in Japan and Top Japan Bucket List Experiences.
Check out all of our Japan resources, and turn that wanderlust into reality!
Essential Japan Trip-Planning Resources
Fun Resources to help you plan your trip to Japan
Disclosure: In an effort to be fully transparent, we want to share that there are affiliate links on this article. We make a small commission when you purchase a Japan Rail Pass through the links on this article at no added cost to you. This small commission helps us continue to share our tips and resources from our travels. As always, you're getting our 100% honest opinion. We are sharing a resource that was helpful for us and saved us money. We think it's helpful to anyone visiting Japan, and wanted to spread the word.