JR Passes & Others: Do You Need One?

Many of you probably know already that foreign tourists in Japan have the option of buying something called a JR Pass - but what is a JR Pass, exactly, and does it actually make sense for you to get one?

JR is the shorthand for Japan Railways, which is Japan's largest private railway company. In Japan, all railways are owned by private or semi-private companies, and there are a multitude of small railway companies which operate subways and light rail networks in major metropolitan areas. Japan Railways, however, is the only rail company which operates on a national scale. They're not exactly owned by the government, but they get a lot of financial support from the government, which enables them to provide high-quality service at a relatively low cost.

Basically, not all trains in Japan are JR trains, but most inter-city trains, including the bullet trains (Shinkansen), are JR trains, and JR also operates many of the most integral train lines within cities, such as the Yamanote Line in Tokyo, or the Loop Line in Osaka. The JR Pass is useful because it allows its bearer unlimited rides on any JR Line for the duration of its validity, so if you're going to be traveling from city to city a lot within a short space of time, it has the potential to offer you a significant discount on your travel expenses. JR Passes are available for periods of one week, two weeks, or three weeks.

There are two types of JR Passes for each time period - the regular pass, and the Green Pass. The Green Pass is a first-class pass which allows the bearer unlimited rides in the first-class Green Cars. If you are not a rich person, it is not worth it. But what about the regular passes? They sound like a bargain, right?

Not necessarily. Even the regular JR Passes aren't cheap. A single adult one-week pass costs 29110 yen, and obviously, the two-week and three-week passes cost even more. Train fares within cities are generally quite cheap, and also, within cities, many trains are not operated by JR, meaning that JR Pass holders still need to pay fare for non-JR trains. Therefore, if you're mostly going to be staying in a single city, a JR Pass is a waste of money.

It's also worth noting that the length of your JR Pass need not match the length of your holiday. That is to say, just because you're going to Japan for three weeks DOES NOT mean you need a three week JR Pass! If you're going to be staying in one city for a few days, you probably don't need a JR Pass during that time. Instead, it's probably cheaper for you to plan your holiday so you can get away with a shorter-term JR Pass for the period when you'll be doing the most traveling around. This is easily possible, because despite possibly misleading info from certain travel agencies and websites, the JR Pass may be activated at any time during your holiday. That means that you don't have to activate it right when you arrive, if you don't want to. To reiterate, if you want to spent the first week of your holiday in Tokyo, and then spend your second week traveling around, there's no need to get a two-week JR Pass - in this case, it would be cheaper to get a one-week JR Pass and only activate it on the day you start needing to use it for bullet trains or other expensive, long-distance expresses.

Why? Because the true savings offered by the JR Pass is for travelers who plan on moving between cities a whole lot in a short space of time, because the JR Pass allows (mostly) unlimited rides on bullet trains. But be warned - if you're only planning on taking the bullet train once or twice during your stay, it's probably cheaper and faster to buy individual train tickets. Use the train schedule and route app Hyperdia to calculate the fare for each leg of your trip, then compare that with the cost of the JR Pass. If the price of the individual tickets is less than the price of the JR Pass, the JR Pass is not worth it!

Also, it's important to bear in mind that the JR Pass does NOT allow access to the  Nozomi and Mizuho rapid expresses. Say what?

The Tokaido Line runs down the Pacific coast of Honshu (Japan's big island) from Tokyo to Osaka. South of Osaka, it keeps going all the way to Fukuoka, on Kyushu (Japan's southwest island). South of Osaka, the Tokaido Line is known as the San'you Line, but they're basically the same line. There are a lot of stations on the bullet train Tokaido Line, but the main point of the bullet train is speed, and stopping at every station wastes a lot of time for the people who just want to be able to buzz as quickly as possible between Tokyo, Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, Okayama, Hiroshima, and Fukuoka. These are the major urban hubs, and many, many people travel between them each day for work. Therefore, there are three types of bullet train on the Tokaido Line - the Kodama, which stops at all the stations, the Hikari, which stops at some of the stations (which stations it stops at depends on which Hikari you take, so take care to look at the list of stations before you board the train!), and the Nozomi, which stops at Tokyo, Shinagawa, Yokohama, Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, Okayama, Hiroshima, Kokura, and Hakata (Fukuoka) only. Some of the Nozomi trains terminate at Osaka, then return to Tokyo, while others continue on to Hakata (Fukuoka). South of Osaka, there are also rapid express trains called Mizuho, which only run between Osaka and Hakata (Fukuoka). All of these trains are called "rapid expresses," but in reality, only the Nozomi/Mizuho is the real rapid express. The Hikari and Kodama take a lot more time than the Nozomi/Mizuho. Also, many of them, especially the Kodama, don't travel all the way through from Tokyo to Osaka, meaning that if you're riding the Kodama, you may have to get off and transfer to another train partway through in order to reach your final destination. 

How does this affect travel planning? For one thing, it means you need to budget extra time for travel. For another, it means that you'll have to pay special attention to the train times, because the last train from Tokyo to Osaka is a Nozomi, so if you're traveling late in the evening, the JR Pass will only get you as far as Nagoya.

If you decide that a JR Pass is a worthwhile investment for your travels, be warned - JR Passes may only be purchased from outside Japan, through a registered travel agency. You can't buy one in Japan. If you want one, you need to make sure you get one before you get on the plane.

Then again, if you decide that the JR Pass isn't worth it after all, you might want to look into other, more local train passes. Many local areas offer local-area train passes with more limited access. For example, the Tokyo Wide Pass allows unlimited access to most of the trains in the Greater Tokyo Metropolitan Area and surrounding areas, including Izu and Nikko. It doesn't include bullet trains, but depending on your travel needs, that might not matter. The hot spring resort town Hakone is just an hour from Tokyo and offers a Hakone Day Pass, with free access to all the public transit in Hakone, including the cog railway, funicular, and cable car. Similar offers exist in other parts of the country. Do some research and see if there's a train pass to suit your needs - there might very well be (check this page for more info). And if not, then you can just go ahead buy individual tickets like the locals do.