Dissecting the JR Rail Pass | Who Benefits from Buying One

On the starting date of her Japan Rail Pass (one of the Green JR Passes), a woman looks to board the green car in Kyoto.

Ah the mighty Japan Rail Pass… When I originally penned this piece back in 2018, I didn’t think that I would ever need to do as significant an update as I am about to do. Alas, nothing lasts forever my dear readers and that includes the pricing for this ever-economical pass. You see, Japan Railways just recently announced that they are going to hike the price of the beloved Japan Rail Pass by as much as 70%. The new pricing starts in October 2023 meaning that all foreign tourists looking to purchase a pass in Japan will need to pay up if they want to enjoy the same benefits.

As you might imagine, much of the internet is up in arms about the change in price for the beloved Japan Rail Pass. Honestly speaking, given what a steal it was for many people, it’s easy to imagine why they are irate. To put just how much of a money-saving investment it has been thus far in context, know that Japan Rail Pass holders could enjoy unlimited travel on all JR lines for just a little over the price of a round trip ticket to Kyoto Station from Tokyo Station. Because of this, most people would have been foolish not to buy one when making a trip to Japan.

At the same time, you really do need to cut Japan Railways some slack here. The company hasn’t altered their prices for at least 15 years. With inbound tourism again booming in the post pandemic era, it only makes sense for the JR train operator to get the price of the actual pass in line with our current macroeconomic environment in 2023. Remember, a huge swath of people visiting Japan purchase one of these practical passes. To make things a bit more in line with what Japanese nationals have to pay, the price of the Japan Rail Pass simply had to change.

While it is still a steal for those riding JR lines, it is not the pure robbery it used to be anymore. Below, you’ll find the new prices for the Japan Rail Pass as of October 2023…

Regular Pass
・7-day 29,650 yen to 50,000 yen
・14 day 47250 yen to 80,000 yen
・21-day 60,450 yen to 100,000 yen

Green Pass
・7-day 39,600 yen to 70,000 yen
・14-day 64,120 yen to 110,000 yen
・21-day 83,990 yen to 140,000 yen

Just as before, the pragmatic pass will still allow unlimited rides on most JR trains in Japan. This includes a lot of limited expresses, Shinkansen bullet trains and other means of transportation like the JR Miyajima Ferry and the Tokyo Monorail from Haneda Airport. All things considered, it is still a wise investment for many to purchase the Japan Rail Pass. That said, you’ll now need to calculate whether or not you’re going to save any cash or not by buying one. For example, if you’re only using JR’s local trains in Japan, it will not be worth your while to snag a Japan Rail Pass.

On the other hand, those planning to make extensive use of the bullet train would be behooved to have a pass for their trip to Japan. This way, you can hop across the country via the various JR stations and see more locations that you would otherwise be able to. Just do note that Japan Rail Pass holders now do have the added pressure of making the most out of their purchase. Before, it was around the same price as a round trip ticket to Kyoto Station. With the increase in price though, you need to ride many more JR trains in Japan to make it worth the investment.

By the way, though you’ll indeed need to fork over more money now for the Japan Rail Pass, know that there is a bit of a silver lining. Following the implementation of the new system with the higher prices, Japan Rail Pass holders can now ride Nozomi and Mizuho classes of Shinkansen bullet trains. Prior to the change, this expedient class of JR trains was off limits to foreign tourists using the Japan Rail Pass. As part of the new policy though, the pass is valid on the Nozomi and Mizuho trains meaning that you can get around a bit quicker during your next Japan trip.

Some Other Pass Variants

The famous Meoto Iwa off of the coast of Mie Prefecture are just one of many attractions in the middle of Japan that you can see with a Japan Rail Pass or other JR rail pass.

Since the price of the Japan Rail Pass is going up by as much as 70%, I want to take a second (an hour?) to introduce some of the alternative JR rail passes. While THE Japan Rail Pass is the mother of all JR passes and affords unlimited rides on JR Hokkaido, JR East, JR West, JR Central, JR Shikoku, JR Kyushu trains and even some bus lines, there are confusingly also a number of regional passes too. Just like with the Japan Rail Pass, a holder of one of these is generally afforded endless access to local train lines as well as any relevant Shinkansen bullet trains.

All things considered, there are a mind-boggling number of regional passes to be had with many private railways also offering their own special deals (though I’ll leave them out of this analysis). I’ll try to detail as many as I can below, but know that I might not have gotten them all. Especially when you consider that there is always a new JR pass voucher or two popping up, your best bet is to do some digging and inquire at one of the JR ticket offices at major JR train stations should you need more information.

While it may require a bit of mathematics, I highly suggest you use a service like Jorudan to outline some of your itinerary. This will help you divine which JR pass you should purchase or whether you need to buy one at all. In most cases, those of you who are going to be taking a few Shinkansen ought to look into buying some sort of pass in Japan as they afford unlimited travel while the pass is valid. Which one to get though depends entirely on your route and how much train travel you envision doing in Japan.

The Tokyo Wide Pass

To explore Tokyo, the Tokyo Wide Pass is one of the best options out there and let’s you ride all sorts of JR trains to places like Nikko.

Let’s kick things off with the Tokyo Wide Pass. Should you only be staying around Japan’s capital, this 10,180 yen pass is the perfect purchase. With it, you’ll be able to make use of any and all regular JR trains as well as the Hokuriku Shinkansen (as far as Sakudaira Station in Nagano), the Joetsu Shinkansen (as far as Gala-Yuzawa Station) and the Tohoku Shinkansen (as far as Nasu-Shiobara Station). The pass is valid for but a mere three days but in that 72-hour period, you can see a lot, especially when you can ride the bullet trains.

Frankly, I only recently came across the Tokyo Wide Pass when researching for this guide. While I’d love to detail all of the recommended spots that you could get to in three days on this pass, there is simply so much in this area that it would take a few thousand words to cover it all. Thus, I suggest you check out my area guides list and see which of the many regions covered you should visit on your next trip to Japan. At the end of the day, with locales like Nikko, the Nasu Highlands, Niigata’s Snow Country, etc. to pick from, there’s just too much to feature here.

By the way, at least according to my research, you can book the Tokyo Wide Pass even if you’re not a foreign tourists so long as you have a non-Japanese passport. Annoyingly, Klook’s online reservation platform seems to hint that it can only be picked up at the JR ticket counter at Ueno Station. For my other expat friends out there, this might be a great way to zip around to all of the various train stations for cheap while also making it back to Tokyo for work on a Monday.

The JR Hokkaido Pass

Hokkaido has some great JR pass options but it’s better to just rent a car than rely on JR trains.

Available only to tourists, the JR Hokkaido Pass comes in two variations, a five-consecutive day offer that costs 19,000 yen and a seven-consecutive day one that costs 26,000 yen. With the pass, you can traverse Japan’s northernmost prefecture. In other words, this is a great bargain as you can travel all across Hokkaido’s networks of train lines (limited express trains included). This will allow you to get to all of the major cities and tourist destinations in Hokkaido and also covers the trip to New Chitose Airport. Note that the Hokkaido Shinkansen is not included on the pass (more on that next).

One thing to know about Hokkaido though is that it is vast. Thus, you really might want to instead consider getting around via a rental car. While this does indeed mean that someone needs to drive, it beats having to navigate the local buses and whatnot that you’ll need to make use of to visit the top spots. All things considered, most ordinary cars should be able to make it from central Sapporo to famous destinations like Furano and Biei in around the same amount of time (or less) that JR train travel would take. The benefits really come once you’re there as you can easily hop from spot to spot without waiting.

While I am only starting to break down the elephant that is Hokkaido myself, I think that trying to navigate the massive prefecture with only local buses and trains would be a nightmare for many. In all but one of my trips to Hokkaido, I’ve had access to a private vehicle. While I don’t drive myself, it would be really hard to do an adventure up there only on public transportation. Thus, I don’t think that this Hokkaido Pass is worth it if you can instead rent a car. At the same time though, if local train lines are your only option, it will save you some money.

Tohoku & Hokkaido Passes

The Tokoku JR Pass is a great option if you’re just heading north and don’t need a full fledged Japan Rail Pass.

First things first, you need to realize that there is not just one pass for this section of the country but many. The standard is the Tohoku Area Pass which goes up to Shin-Aomori Station on the bullet train but there are add-ons to this that also include the southern portions of Hokkaido. These range from 20,000 yen to 27,000 but most people will only need the standard Tohoku Area Pass unless they are going as far as Hakodate or Matsumae up in Hokkaido. Do note that, at least as of this writing, only the base Tohoku Area Pass is available to foreign residents.

Should you want to head north but not be interested in Tohoku, know that there is also a JR East pass that covers travel up into Nagano and Niigata. This can be had for only 18,000 yen and will give you access to the shinkansen trains that run to the Hokuriku area. That said, there are better options for visiting this part of Japan so I would forgo this option if I were you. I’ll cover these in a the following sections so continue reading if you want to visit this part of Japan.

JR Central Rail Passes

The central regions of Japan have a ton of JR pass options if you’re not getting a Japan Rail Pass.

Oh boy does JR Central have a TON of rail pass options to choose from. To keep this article as short as feasibly possible (something that’s hard to do in a compendium such as this), I’ll list each of them below as well as the train lines and areas that the JR pass in question works on…

  • Takayama–Hokuriku Area Pass
    During the pandemic, I actually had a chance to use this pass as part of a promotion. If you’re going to check out Hida-Takayama, Shirakawago or Gokayama, the 14,260-yen pass is a good investment. You can ride all local trains as well as the JR buses that go to the aforementioned villages. You also get a few limited express trains as well as free usage of the Shinkansen between Toyama and Kanazawa Stations.
  • Alpine–Takayama–Matsumoto Area Pass
    Just like with the Takayama–Hokuriku Area Pass, this one affords you unlimited travel around the Kiso Valley, Matsumoto and the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route. It’s a bit costly though at 18,600 yen and doesn’t include transportation to the region. When you factor that in, it might just be more economical to go for the full fledged Japan Rail Pass.
  • Ise–Kumano–Wakayama Area Pass
    Should you be heading down to the likes of Mie Prefecture and the Kii Peninsula where the Kumano Sanzan are located, then this is the pass for you. At only 11,120 yen, this one will enable you to travel all throughout the region. Don’t quote me but I think you also get some limited express train rides as part of the package.
  • Mt. Fuji–Shizuoka Area Pass
    Heading down to the Mt. Fuji area or the Izu Peninsula? Well, this three-day pass might be one that you want to consider. For 4,570 yen, you’ll get unlimited train travel throughout the region. In comparison to JR Central’s other rail passes, this part of Japan is actually reachable via local trains from Tokyo meaning that you don’t need to pay too much extra to get to where you can use it.

Hokuriku Arch Pass

The Hokuriku Arch Pass is a great alternative to the beloved Japan Rail Pass now that the price is going up.

With the exception of the Mt. Fuji–Shizuoka Area Pass, none of JR Central’s other offers really do it for me. The simple reason for this is that you need to somehow first get to the area where the pass starts being valid. As a result, the various offers are misleading. In essence, you are easily looking at a rather large additional fare when you take into account the fact that a round trip ticket can costs just as much as what the pass does. In these instances, it might just be wiser to pay a little extra and get that all-encompassing Japan Rail Pass.

Enter the Hokuriku Arch Pass. A collaboration between the branch ticket offices of JR East and JR West, this offer was designed to promote what is being called the “New Golden Route.” For those not in the know, understand that the traditional Golden Route follows the Tokaido Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto and Osaka. Thus, any destination like Nagoya that happens to be on the stretch is considered to be part of the Golden Route. As of now, it is extremely overcrowded with both tourists and business travelers.

The Hokuriku Arch Pass seeks to get people off of the congested Tokaido Shinkansen network and instead shuttle travelers to Kyoto via Kanzawa and central Japan. With a cost of only 24,500 yen, the Hokuriku Arch Pass is now an extremely good deal as it still can get you to Japan’s ancient capital of Kyoto. At the same time though, you also get to experience locations that most tourists on typical itineraries never get to see. Given that the Japan Rail Pass is now 50,000 yen, the Hokuriku Arch Pass is now far more economical.

The Two Kansai Area Passes

Kyoto and Osaka have a surprising number of Japan Rail Pass alternatives.

Perplexingly enough, there are two passes on offer for Japan’s Kansai region. These are the Kansai WIDE Area Pass and the Kansai Area Pass. Both cover travel to and from Kansai International Airport as well as a number of popular destinations like Kyoto, Osaka, Nara and Kobe. Of the two, the major difference is that the Kansai Area Pass only allows access to the slower local trains whereas the Kansai WIDE Area Pass includes some bullet train trips.

All things considered, I would say that both options don’t seem all too appealing unless you are entering Japan via Kansai International Airport and don’t plan to travel too far out of this neck of the woods. If this sounds like you, the 5-day Kansai WIDE Area Pass is what you’ll want to snag for yourself. Know that it will cost you 10,000 yen but that should be easy enough to make up if you add up all of the independent travel costs.

JR West Rail Passes

There are a ton of options in the Kansai area for rail passes if you’re not getting a Japan Rail Pass.

Just as was the case with JR Central’s litany of options, you’ll rejoice to know that the western half of Japan also has a number of passes too. Like with before, I’ll list these out with a quick blurb on each for brevity…

  • JR West All Area Pass
    Costing 23,000 yen, this deal allows for seven consecutive days of travel in western Japan. As far as the JR West All Area Pass is concerned, this region is defined as anywhere between Shin-Osaka Station and Fukuoka as well as the Kanazawa area.
  • Kansai–Hiroshima Area Pass
    At 15,000 yen, this one primarily allows travel between Shin-Osaka and Hiroshima. Confusingly it also can be used to go to Takamatsu in Kagawa. The pass’s benefits can be enjoyed for up to five days in total.
  • Kansai–Hokuriku Area Pass
    This is basically a watered down version of the JR West All Area Pass and only allows for travel west as far as Okayama. In exchange, you’ll pay 6,000 yen less, meaning that you can snag this pass for only 17,000 yen if that is the route you have in mind.
  • Sanyo & San’in Area Pass
    In a similar vein, the Sanyo & San’in Area Pass cuts off Kanazawa and central Japan from the JR West All Area Pass in exchange for a 3,000 yen discount. Though it’s valid for seven days, you’d do well to just pay a bit extra and get the Hokuriku Arch Pass if Kanazawa is somewhere you’d like to also visit.
  • Hokuriku Area Pass
    At only 5,090 yen, the Hokuriku Area Pass is quite affordable. At the same time though, it’s also extremely limited. For four days, you can enjoy unlimited travel between Kanazawa and Kurobe Unazaki Onsen and this includes the Hokuriku Shinkansen.
  • Okayama–Hiroshima–Yamaguchi Area Pass
    Essentially the opposite of the Kansai–Hokuriku Area Pass, this one covers all travel west from Okayama to as far as Fukuoka. The five-day-long pass will set you back 15,000 yen.
  • San’in & Okayama Area Pass
    If you’re looking to do an epic tour of Okayama, Tottori or Shimane, this might be something you consider purchasing. Valid for four days, the San’in & Okayama Area Pass will let you travel all throughout these three prefectures for 4,580 yen.
  • Hiroshima & Yamaguchi Area Pass
    As the name suggests, this pass covers all travel in Hiroshima & Yamaguchi but it also affords travel as far as Hakata Station in Fukuoka. At 13,000 yen, the five-day-long ticket might be worth getting if you’re flying in and out of Fukuoka

On that note, I’d only ever recommend using any of JR West’s passes if you’re flying in and out of Kansai International Airport (or somewhere more rural within the parts of Japan that are covered like Fukuoka). While all of these passes have their own niche appeals, those flying into Narita or Haneda Airport will likely just do better getting the granddaddy Japan Rail Pass. This way, you don’t have to worry about first getting to the region where your pass is valid. Note that all options in this section are only available to those on temporary visas.

The JR Shikoku Pass

Those not on the Japan Rail Pass tickets should get the Shikoku Pass if going to Japan’s smallest main island.

Now, things are finally going to get a little bit simpler. Basically, the All Shikoku Rail Pass is the only option available but you can buy one that is valid for three, four, five or seven days. The price for these ranges anywhere between 9,000 yen and 13,000 yen but you’ll also need to somehow get yourself to Shikoku to make use of the pass. Given that a rental car is a better option for many parts of Japan’s smallest island, you might just consider skipping this pass altogether.

On the prefectural level, one buy that I would consider though is the Kagawa Mini Rail & Ferry Pass. In addition to covering travel by train, this one can be used to island hop around the Seto Inland Sea. I am not too sure of the actual pass details so consider asking at a JR ticket office if you think that this might be something you want to look into.

The Setouchi Area Pass

A good alternative to the Japan Rail Pass is the Setouchi Area Pass if you’re looking for a JR pass.

To be rather blunt, I don’t know why you would want to get the All Shikoku Rail Pass when there is the amazing Setouchi Area Pass. Like with the previously introduced Hokuriku Arch Pass, the Setouchi Area Pass is one of only a few options out there that can compete with the Japan Rail Pass. At only 19,000 yen, this offering allows you to easily traverse the ever-popular Kansai region as well as the prefectures of Okayama, Hiroshima, Yamaguchi, Kagawa, Ehime and Fukuoka. What’s more, it’s valid for a whole week too.

The only downside to the Setouchi Area Pass is that you will need to first get to Kansai or Fukuoka to start making use of it. Thus, those of you who are flying in and out of Haneda or Narita would just be better off getting the all-encompassing JR Rail Pass. Tragically, unlike with the Hokuriku Arch Pass, I can really only recommend it to those of you who are flying into Kansai International Airport or Fukuoka Airport. As amazing as the Setouchi Area Pass is on paper, it just doesn’t work out well for many.

The JR Kyushu Pass

If you’re going to Kyushu but not buying a Japan Rail Pass, JR’s Kyushu Pass is a good JR pass to buy.

Like with the JR Shikoku Pass, JR Kyushu’s offering is one that covers the entire island. It comes in three varieties that range from three consecutive days to seven and will cost you anywhere from 17,000 yen to 20,000. When it comes to Kyushu, I find that most travelers fly to the prefecture that they plan on visiting and then return via airplane to Tokyo or Osaka. Thus, I cannot imagine recommending the JR Kyushu Pass over the standard Japan Rail Pass. The only exception might be for someone returning to Asia via Fukuoka who only wants to see Kyushu.

That said, the JR office in Kyushu also has a joint pass with JR West called the Sanyo–San’in Northern Kyushu Pass. At 23,000 yen, this rail pass in Japan covers huge swaths of western Japan. Sanyo–San’in Northern Kyushu Pass holders can travel all across the Kansai region as well as the northern parts of Kyushu. Should you not be making use of Haneda or Narita, this is actually a great deal if you aren’t looking to include Tokyo on your trip. However, if you are planning to do Tokyo, this might not be the best option.

Japan Rail Pass & JR Pass FAQs

The Green Pass allows travelers access to the Green Car on JR trains. While more expensive than the standard Japan Rail Pass, those with Green JR Passes don’t need to worry about not getting seat reservations with a green pass.

While I am sure that I missed some details regarding the Japan Rail Pass and all of the various regional passes, the above should give you almost all you need to know when deciding whether or not to buy one. Even with the price now going to 50,000 yen for ordinary cars and 70,000 yen for the green car, it is still an insanely good deal. That said, it is no longer as clear cut as before whether or not it will save you money so do look into some of the other options that I’ve introduced here.

Now, I’d like to end this article by going over some miscellaneous questions and frequent points of confusion regarding the rail passes in Japan…

  • Can I purchase a JR pass online?
    Yes, you can purchase a JR pass online via a number of different partners. You can also pick one up in Japan at the train station. If you buy online, you’ll have to go and activate it at a station on one of the JR lines.
  • Do you need to buy it before arriving in Japan?
    In the past, you used to need to purchase online but these days, you can also snag a Japan Rail Pass at any major JR station in Japan. If you buy before, it is often a bit cheaper though it does depend on the type of rail pass.
  • What do I do about seat reservations?
    When riding the bullet trains, JR pass holders will often need to reserve a seat. Normally, this is done when buying a ticket but pass holders will need to inquire at a dedicated JR office. These can be found at most large stations served by JR trains.
  • What areas aren’t accessible with a pass?
    Japan is a vast country and thus it is really hard to answer this in a few short sentences. I suggest that you dig around in Jorudan or a similar service to figure out which pass makes sense if one does at all. Remember, the Japan Rail Pass and its kin generally only applies to JR lines so areas that are primarily reached by private operators are not covered.
  • What ferries can be used by pass holders?
    As far as I can tell, only the JR Miyajima Ferry is covered by the Japan Rail Pass. That said, the Kagawa Mini Rail & Ferry Pass does include a number of JR ferry routes from what I can tell. That said, I’ve never used it myself nor do I know anyone who has so I cannot comment further.
  • Can different rail passes be stacked?
    Yes, they can. That said, be sure to do the numbers as multiple JR passes might just come in to be as expensive if not more expensive than a Japan Rail Pass which covers everything from JR buses to night trains.
  • Can I ride the Narita Express to Tokyo?
    You can use the Japan Rail Pass to take most of JR’s expedient train services like the Narita Express. That said, seeing as the clock starts ticking only when you activate your JR pass voucher, it behooves you to hold off as long as you can. Thus, I would suggest making the trip to Tokyo without activating as this allows you to push the starting date of your actual pass back to when you
  • What about the Tokyo Monorail from Haneda?
    Since the Tokyo Monorail is jointly owned by JR East you can indeed use the pass to get to and from Haneda.
  • How about Kansai International Airport?
    Yes, both Japan Rail Pass holders and those with other tickets for the Kansai region can make use of the Haruka express to Osaka and Kyoto. Just make sure to get a seat reservation before you get on the train.
  • Is the Green Pass worth the extra price?
    This is hard to say. Generally, all of the limited express trains and bullet trains are luxurious enough as is. Thus, unlike with local trains, Green Cars on the Shinkansen aren’t that much of an upgrade. At the same time though, you can almost always get a seat in Green Cars, even during busy seasons. Sadly, the Green Pass does come with one major downside; you’ll need to go to the ticket office every time to make a seat reservation.

Well… That was way too many words on the JR rail passes. I hope this provides you with some value and gives you some insights into the new pricing structure.

Until next time travelers…

Subscribe to My Newsletter

Donny Kimball
Donny Kimball

I'm a travel writer and freelance digital marketer who blogs about the sides of Japan that you can't find in the mainstream media.

Articles: 306