To JR Pass or not to JR Pass: Traveling by Train in Japan

There is a lot of preparation and planning that goes into any trip! For some countries, we found we could just roll up and we’d be able to figure out a plan. Other countries, we wish we did a lot more work ahead of time to make the most of our time and budget. When we were traveling to Japan, we thought that we were mostly prepared for the challenges we would face – language barrier, slightly more expensive than other Asian countries, and living arrangements that didn’t include beds. But what we didn’t expect was that traveling throughout Japan can be confusing, exhausting and expensive!

In our opinion, one of the hardest and most expensive parts about visiting Japan is the price of transportation. Our $100 a day budget was lasting us fine while we were settled in one place, but trains to see any other parts of Japan were just astronomical! From Tokyo to Kyoto, a 3-hour bullet train would cost us $120 each! We were told by many travelers to purchase a JR Pass, which would allow us to travel freely, but for a price. Sometimes we aren’t the best listeners (or the best planners) and decided to go without…and it wasn’t until we were at the Tokyo train station that we realized our mistake.

But, being the adventurous and budget-conscious people that we are, we thought there had to be another way – like taking local trains to 6 different cities for over 9 hours of traveling. Ok I know that doesn’t sound like an easy trip for most people, but given our free time frame and desire for adventure, it wasn’t bad at all! We purchased what is called the Seishun 18 pass for 12,000 yen (around $110). This pass is good for 5 days of unlimited travel on local and rapid trains, but not for bullet trains. In our case, we used this $110 ticket for:

  • 2 people to travel from Tokyo – Kyoto
  • 2 people to travel from Kyoto – Osaka
  • 1 person to travel from Osaka – Nara

So overall, given our circumstances, we were able to make use of this unique discounted ticket, all for less than one ride on a bullet train!

But if you are going to be in the country for a short amount of time and still want to see multiple cities, check out the Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass). The JR pass is an all-you-can-ride discounted train pass, and allows you to travel on all Japan National railways and the Shinkansen bullet trains. You can even use it for local trains, metros in various cities, airport transfers, ferries and buses! While it can still be expensive, it can cut down on costs of individual tickets and will save you time. For example, the train directly from Tokyo to Nagasaki costs around $235, while the 7 day JR pass runs around $300. You can book JR passes before you travel and in increments of 7, 14 or 21 days. Be sure to follow the procedures that follow the pass, such as registering it with the JR office when you arrive in Japan. Check out this article for more information on JR Passes! 

When you are planning to go to Japan, definitely look at what cities you want to see and the price to get to them. Sometimes a bullet train or JR Pass will make sense, but maybe you can use a cheaper, slower mode of transport. Anyway you decide to travel, we hope you have a wonderful trip in Japan!

Matthew & Stephanie

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