Japan Rail Pass - is it worth it?

Updated March 2024 to reflect extension of Hokuriku Shinkansen


There was a major price increase to the rail pass back in October 2023

New price:

The 7 day ordinary car pass: 50,000 JPY (Previously 33,610 JPY)

The 14 day ordinary car pass: 80,000 JPY (Previously 52,960 JPY)

The 21 day ordinary car pass: 100,000 JPY (Previously 66,200 JPY)


This is a 60% increase from the previous prices! While JR will start allowing pass holders to use the Nozomi trains with an additional charge (for example 4,180 JPY between Tokyo and Kyoto), purchasing the pass will no longer be of much value unless you plan to do day trips on the Shinkansen almost every day.


Example: For a popular itinerary of Tokyo-Kanazawa-Kyoto-Tokyo, single ride tickets cost:

1) Tokyo-Kanazawa 14,380 JPY, via the Hokuriku Shinkansen

2) Kanazawa-Kyoto 7,920 JPY, with transfer at Tsuruga 

3) Kyoto - Tokyo 14,370 JPY on the Nozomi

Total 36,670 JPY, still below the 7 day pass price.


Since October 2023, there is no price difference purchasing from the official site  or buying them from travel agents such as JTB or HIS. The official site will allow the booking of reserved seats but purchasing from travel agents don't give you this option; this greatly reduces the merit of buying from a third party agent unless you want to collect or use points.

Rules of the pass 


Rule 1: It's not good on the Tokyo subways/any non-JR operated line

If you plan to stay in Tokyo for most of your stay, you will be using the subways a lot more, which is not covered in the Japan Rail Pass.



Rule 2: You cannot use it on the Nozomi trains without the supplement

The Nozomi series that runs along the main route serving Tokyo-Kyoto-Osaka-Hakata cannot be used with just the rail pass. These are the most frequent and fastest trains, and give you more options when traveling between Osaka and Hiroshima where non-Nozomi trains are in high demand.

However for the Tokyo-Osaka leg, Hikari trains run every 30 minutes so you might want to target this train to avoid paying extra.


Rule 3: You need to go to a certain location for exchanging your voucher

Activating your Japan Rail Pass requires showing the passport, filling out certain personal details and receiving explanation about its rules. It's only done at designated stations so you need to know the location. During the peak travel season in April, this process was known to have taken as long as 2 hours of waiting in line.  


Once you obtain the pass, you can go to any designated ticket machine and reserve seats if you haven't already done so online. Note that your passport number will be asked every time. If you want to pay extra to book a Nozomi train, this option will also show up in the ticket machine. The language can always be switched to English and the booking process if pretty straightforward.


You can also approach a staffed counter at any station that has them, though they tend to have a long queues.

The staff at major stations usually have some understanding of English, but having an organized note on hand to show to the staff will be a huge help if you wish to book many trains at once. The Japanese are always better at reading English than speaking/listening! 


Price comparison : Rail Pass vs. Buying tickets as you go

The one-way fare for a reserved regular class seat on the Shinkansen

Tokyo - Kyoto: 14,170 Yen

Tokyo - ShinOsaka: 14,720 Yen

Tokyo - Kanazawa: 14,380 Yen

Tokyo - Hiroshima: 19,440 Yen

Kyoto - Hiroshima: 11,740 Yen

Tokyo - Shin Hakodate Hokuto (northernmost Shinkansen stop): 23,430 Yen

Tokyo - Kagoshima Chuo (southernmost station): 31,060 Yen


Cost of the Japan Rail Pass from October 2023

7 Day version: 50,000 Yen

14 Day version: 80,000 Yen


A scenario where the 7 day pass might still be of value: Staying in Tokyo for a week and doing a day trip to Kanazawa and another to Kyoto during the week.


Another scenario: Roundtrip between Tokyo and Kyoto. Plus a daytrip to Hiroshima while you are in Kyoto, all within 7 days. Note that you will not be saving money if you go directly between Tokyo and Hiroshima without a stop in Kyoto (or Osaka or any intermediate station).


A 14 or 21 day pass wouldn't work under any scenario for the casual traveler as you'll end up saving time and money using the domestic flights instead of traveling long distances on the train.


Always look into the option of using flights, including a short section like Tokyo-Osaka. Due to the intense competition, there are sometimes great deals even on the full-service carriers such as JAL, ANA. Tokyo-Fukuoka is another route with occasionally great deals. Aside from JAL and ANA, also look into mid-sized operators such as Skymark and Star Flyer which also has frequent flights for this section. 


One of the few advantages about the rail pass is that it lets you book reserve seats from a unified platform. Without the pass, you would need to navigate through three different platforms (Ekinet for JR East, Smart EX for JR Central and e5489 for JR West) each with different rules on where the physical ticket can be picked up. 

Ordinary car with the 3+2 seat format
Ordinary car with the 3+2 seat format

Green Car (1st Class) or Ordinary?


Another option to consider is whether to go for  ordinary cars or the Green Car (1st Class).


On the ordinary cars, the seats look like this photo- a 3 + 2 format. There is plenty of legroom, and for an average sized person this gives enough width. The green cars come in a 2 + 2 seating arrangement, so you definitely get more elbow room and slightly more legroom.


There is no drink/meal service or departure lounges like some European train operators offer to first class passengers. The only difference is in the seat arrangements. You'll be paying about 50% more for the Green Car seats.


A question to ask yourself- are your plans fixed or do you plan to decide as you go? Riding the Green Car means you always have to get a seat assignment BEFORE you board - always going to the ticket office even when there are long queues and getting the seat designation. You cannot simply hop on board and find some empty seats if you are using first class. This might become a bit of a hassle if you want to leave your plans flexible and decide at the last minute on which trains to take.


On the other hand, if you are travelling in the peak season, you may want to make the extra investment for Green Car. Even when ordinary class seats sell out, there is a chance Green Car seats will be available as they rarely sell out.


The below period is when trains get exceptionally busy.

The "Golden Week" Holiday period - April 27 - May 6

The "Obon" summer holiday period - August 11 - August 16

The Year-End/New Year period - December 28 - January 3


In the first half of the peak travel times, trains heading out of Tokyo becomes packed; the opposite occurs towards the end when trains returning to Tokyo becomes crowded. 

About the new booking website:

Back in 2020 the new JAPAN RAIL PASS Reservation site opened, run directly by JR.

This allows the user to not only purchase the rail pass online but also book tickets prior to their arrival in Japan. This is ideal for visitors arriving during the peak travel seasons, when seats could sell out.


Be careful that you still need to go to a designated JR ticket office and pick up the rail pass before using the trains. JR doesn't have a great E-ticket system that many European rail systems have. Once you have picked up the rail pass, you can go to any JR ticket office or automated ticketing machine to claim your reservation tickets. The ticket machines are plentiful at the major stations and come with various language options - it is likely much quicker than lining up at a ticket office, unless you require assistance with finding the right trains or you have other complicated needs.