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Japan Rail pass: budget-friendly train travel

Thanks to the Japan Rail pass of Japan Railways group (JR Group), we have been able to enjoy 21 days on the great Japanese railways at a significant reduced rate. Why have we chosen a train holiday? Why is a JR Japan Rail pass recommended if you are planning to visit Japan by train? What should pay attention to when buying a Japan Rail pass? What is the cost for the rail pass and for single tickets? How goes the procedure to take a JR train with your JR Japan Rail pass? The answers to all of these questions, you can read in this article.

Japan 2015: bullet train / shinkansen / high-speed train
Japan 2015: bullet train / shinkansen / high-speed train

Why did we choose a train holiday?

Firstly, to drive in Japan by car, you need an international driving license that is translated into Japanese. For us, this seemed a bit too much of a hassle for the short travel preparation time we had. Secondly, most places of interest are easily accessible by public transport. So that’s very convenient. The other (few) interesting places we skipped. And finally, a Japan Rail pass from Japan Railways Group (JR Group) offers absolute value for money.

Why is a JR Japan Rail pass a must?

Essentially, this is because the Japanese railways are the top in the world. The staff is super friendly and there are no fellow passengers who disturb you (no loud chatter or music playing or rude passengers or screaming children). Then you have the ease of use (to buy tickets and take the proper train), the punctuality of the trains (never delayed or cancelled trains) and the timetable (simple driving schedule from point A to B and back, high frequency, always on time and little waiting time for your connecting train, tram, bus, ferry). And all this for no money, especially if you purchase a JR Japan rail pass.

What should you pay attention to, when buying a Japan rail pass?

There are three tricky things with a Japan Rail pass going on: first of all, this pass is only available abroad (you actually buy a voucher in your home country which you then exchange at a JR ticket office in a main train station in an important Japanese city), second you have to visit Japan as a tourist (when exchanging the voucher you are explicitly asked to show the temporary tourist visa in your passport that was put in your passport by the customs at the international airport without extra costs) and thirdly you better do not lose your expensive train pass during the trip, because ‘lost is lost’ and no duplicate of the train pass will be given.

Where you can buy a JR Japan Rail Pass voucher in your home country,

can be found on, the official website of Japan Railways Group about the Japan Rail pass. We bought our rail passes in Belgium, in the Antwerp branch of Carlson Wagonlit Travel (Meistraat 35, near the Theaterplein): friendly, helpful staff, smooth handling, a week waiting time and a small advance payment.

What is the cost of the train pass and is this financially cheaper than buying all train tickets separately?

All inclusive our 21 day Japan rail pass cost us 471.50 euros per person (59.350 JP ¥). This seems a lot, but of course driving with a bullet train / shinkansen / high-speed train costs a lot of money. You can also opt for shorter formulas (7 or 14 day Japan rail pass costing respectively 46,350 JP ¥ and 29,110 JP ¥) or passes that are only valid on part of the Japanese JR rail network. You can also purchase the latter in Japan. For the latest update on prices, formulas and special promotions, I refer to the official website of Japan Railways:

Japan 2015: bullet train / shinkansen / high-speed train
Japan 2015: bullet train / shinkansen / high-speed train

The Japan rail pass has proved to be a good investment. For example, on these 21 days of travel we have taken ten times expensive bullettrains. Sometimes it were very long journeys and the price for single tickets (in parentheses) accordingly, eg. Tokyo-Nagano (8190 JP ¥), Kanazawa-Osaka (7850 JP ¥), Okayama-Hiroshima (6430 JP ¥), or Hiroshima-Kagoshima (18,080 JP ¥). We used the railpass from day 4 to 24 during our 34 days in Japan and we made the most out of the railpass.

How did we do this?

  • The first days we visited the area of ​​Tokyo and paid money for the Skyliner train from Narita airport to downtown Tokyo, subway Tokyo and for a ticket-all-in to and back from Hakone.
  • Then we used the JR Japan Rail pass 21 days from day 4 (Tokyo – Nikko – Tokyo) to day 24 (Kagoshima – Kumamoto – Aso) with 10 times a (long) journey with a bullet train, besides many slower, local train rides, the ferry to Miya-jima and two special, more expensive, fast train rides: the child-friendly ‘Aso Boy!’ train from Kumamoto to Aso and the ‘Ibusuki-no-tamatebako’ sightseeing train from Kagoshima to Ibusuki, both part of Kyushu JR railways.
  • The last ten days of the Japan trip (day 25 to 34) we have paid for a train from Aso to Beppu and the bus from Beppu to Fukuoka, after which we have flown to Naha on the island of Okinawa (no train runs here) and finally have returned to Tokyo and have paid for a 3-day subway pass, and for the Skyliner train to and from Narita airport.
Japan 2015: Kyushu Railway Company
Japan 2015: Kyushu Railway Company

Once a JR Japan Rail pass has been purchased, this does not mean that you no longer have any costs. JR group is not the only transport company in Japan. In any case, you will have to pay for the metro in major cities and for some train rides from other companies (eg. the whole transport during the Tateyama – Kurobe Alpine route and the train ride Osaka – Koyasan) but the shinkansen are covered by the JR railpass. Mind you, the fast Nozomi and Hikari bullet trains / shinkansen between Tokyo – Osaka – Hakata (Fukuoka) can only be taken if you pay extra. There are slower (read: more stops), less frequent, alternative shinkansen, that you can take instead and that are with no extra charge included in the railpass. ‘Green cars’ (the Japanese first class) also cost extra money. Seat reservation costs nothing extra.

How goes the procedure to take a JR train with your JR Japan Rail pass?

There is a difference between ordinary trains and bullet trains or shinkansen.

Only Shinkansen have reserved seats so therefore you first have to go to the ticket office in the station to reserve a seat. Seat reservation is free for Japan rail pass holders. Just wait in line until it’s your turn, show your Japan Rail pass along with your passport, say where you want to go, and the staff member will find the fastest connection for you. With your train ticket and Japan rail pass in your hand, you pass the automatic gates (visual control by the official), after which you follow the arrows to the right platform and the right place where your wagon will stop. Despite mainly Japanese characters, you can easily find your way thanks to Western characters of the most essential things (train name, departure time, destination). The trains always run exactly on time (that’s convenient because you can use departure and arrival times to know when to get on the right train or off at the right station) and stop only for a few minutes in the station (so make sure that you are on time).

Japan 2015: bullet train / shinkansen / high-speed train
Japan 2015: bullet train / shinkansen / high-speed train

Usually there was an available seat on the next train but on the busy route Osaka – Okayama – Hiroshima we had to wait for the next train that only drove once every hour. Nozomi trains run enough and very frequent but you can not take that type of shinkansen with the Japan rail pass (unless you pay extra). Because of that we booked two days in advance a ticket for some longer train rides (to be sure of a place), from Hiroshima to Kagoshima and from Kagoshima to Kumamoto. The JR officials speak a word of English and are well trained and will take into account the limitations of your Railpass (no Nozomi or Hikari bullet train).

For other trains than shinkansen there are usually no reserved seats. So it’s very simple: show your JR Japan Rail Pass to the JR Official at the automatic gates, then you can pass and then just wait on the platform for the train. You do not need an additional ticket.

Convinced? Just book and train!


And there’s more…

An other interesting, informative article on ‘Travel Buoy’ (reisboei) about Japan, is our article about ‘pocket wifi’.  Check it out here.


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