Why the Japan Rail Pass May Not Be Worth It in 2024

For many years, the Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass) has been one of the world’s best travel bargains. I know because I have used it twice.

This changed in October 2023 when Japan Rail hiked the prices of its most popular passes by almost 70%.

Whilst it may remain a good deal for those travelling long distances over a short space of time, the Japan Rail Pass is unlikely to be good value for the majority of people. But if you prioritise convenience and flexibility over cost, it is still worth considering.

In this JR Pass review, I will walk you through figuring out if a Japan Rail Pass is worth it and consider alternative options.

JR-pass-GUIDE AND exchange-voucher
The JR Pass from my first visit

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JAPAN RAIL PASS IN A NUTSHELL

Do you want to get straight to the bottom line? Here are the pros and cons of the JR Pass.

CONSIDER A JR PASS IF YOU

  • value convenience and flexibility over cost
  • are trying to see a lot of the country over 7-10-days

ThiNK TWICE if you ARE

  • following the classic first-time 10-14-day itinerary of Tokyo–Kyoto–Hiroshima–Tokyo
  • focusing your travel in one or two areas of Japan
  • travelling to areas that are largely served by buses (e.g. Japanese Alps)
  • spending time in areas that are largely served by non-JR railways (e.g. Mt Fuji)

What is the Japan Rail Pass?

Japan Railways (JR) is the country’s leading railway company comprising the six companies of the JR Group.

The Japan Rail Pass, or JR Pass, gives you unlimited access to all JR trains – as well as some partner railways, buses and ferries – for 7, 14 or 21 days. These include the shinkansen, Japan’s high-speed bullet trains, as well as limited express, express, rapid and local trains.

It must be used on consecutive days.

The pass comes in two flavours: an ordinary pass, for travel in standard cars, or a green pass, which allows you to travel in green (first-class) cars.

japan-shinkansen-train-interior-of-carriage
JR shinkansen, an ordinary carriage
train carriage with brown seat with yellow headrests
Green carriage

If you want the lowdown on how the pass works, take a look at my guide to the JR Pass.

Japan Rail Pass Prices (December 2023)

DURATIONORDINARY PASSGREEN PASS
7-day50,000 JPY (£278)70,000 JPY (£389)
14-day80,000 JPY (£445)110,000 (£612)
21-day100,000 JPY (£556)140,000 (£7791)
Cost of JR Pass, December 2023. GBP equivalent cost is based on the currency exchange rate at the time of writing and may fluctuate.
front of japan rail pass
JR Pass – front
back or jr pass showing ticket
… and back

Why a JR Pass May Not Be a Good Deal

japan-shinkansen-train passing platform
A shinkansen train

1. Buying point-to-point tickets will be cheaper for most travellers

Gone are the happy days when a 1-week JR Pass saved you money if you were simply doing one return journey between Kyoto and Tokyo.

As the base fare on JR trains is calculated by the number of kilometres, the pass offers the best value for long-distance journeys. Unless you have an intensive schedule, travelling long distances over a short time period, a JR Pass is unlikely to be a good deal.

Even if you follow the Golden Route (Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka) in just a week, a JR Pass will not save you money. Ditto, the classic 2-week itinerary for first-time visitors to Japan that adds Hiroshima and Mount Fuji to the Golden Route.

The JR Fare Calculator is the quickest and easiest way to compare the cost of point-to-point tickets with the JR Pass. The downside of this tool is that it can only support one-way or return journeys from the start to the endpoint, not side trips in between.

screen shot showing a train route across japan and price of tickets
Screenshot from JR Fare Calculator

To determine fares on a journey-by-journey basis, I use Navitime.

This takes a little more time and effort but is worth it to get a clearer picture of costs, particularly if you plan to use cities as hubs for day trips to other destinations. For example; on my first visit to Japan, I used Tokyo as a base to visit Kamakura and Nikko.

2. The JR Pass Will Not Cover All of Your Transport Needs

You may think that once you buy your JR Pass all of your transport expenses are taken care of. Think again.

Urban transport

You cannot use the JR Pass to ride on subways or trams within cities.

Most big cities do have a few JR lines that you can use, like the Osaka Loop line and the Yamanote line in Tokyo. However, in my experience, the usefulness of these urban JR trains is limited and trying to stick to them can be more trouble than it’s worth.

The JR Pass does include a handful of local buses. I found these useful when visiting Kanazawa.

parked blue bus in japan
The JR bus in Kanazawa was very useful

Private rail lines

Japan has several private railways and there are some destinations where these will be your only choice. For instance, the Fujikyuko Line serving popular Kawaguchiko on Mt Fuji’s northern side is not included in the JR Pass.

japan-mt-fuji-view-from-shinkansen
View of Mount Fuji I captured from the shinkansen to Kyoto

Intercity buses

For the parts of Japan that trains cannot reach there are buses.

A good example of this the Northern Japanese Alps. Although Matsumoto and Takayama are served by JR trains, access to smaller towns in the Alps is covered by the Alpico and Nohi buses.

Nozomi and Mizuho shinkansen

If you use the faster Nozomi and Mizuho shinkansen as a JR Pass holder, you will be hammered for a hefty supplement.

However, this has never been a problem for me. The Hikari or Sakura services cover the same routes at the same speed, albeit with more stops.

guard looking out of a window of a high speed train in japan

3. You may be better off buying a regional pass

Regional JR Passes are issued by the companies that comprise Japan Railways: JR East, JR West, JR Central, JR Hokkaido, JR Shikoku and JR Kyushu.

Depending on your itinerary, a regional pass can be good value, better than a country-wide pass or point-to-point tickets. The bad news is that they can appear bewildering at first glance and you’ll need to spend time figuring out what they include.

Popular regional passes include the Kansai WIDE Area Pass and the Kansai-Hiroshima Area Pass.

Kansai WIDE Area Pass
chinese lantern in cobblestone street in osaka at night
  • May be good value for travellers visiting the Osaka/Kyoto/Nara/Kobe + one side trip
  • Valid for 5 consecutive days
Kansai-Hiroshima Area Pass
wooden pier reaching out to sea at sunset at santhiya-resort-koh-yao-yai
  • May be a good option for travellers based in Kansai who want to venture further west
  • Includes the shinkansen to Hiroshima and the ferry to Miyajima
  • Valid for 5 consecutive days

Planning to visit Mt Fuji and the Five Lakes? A Mount Fuji Pass gives you unlimited bus and train travel within the area as well as free or discounted access to many attractions. One, two or three-day passes are available.

If you fancy soaking in one of Hakone‘s famous onsens, take a look at the Hakone Free Pass. This gives you unlimited use of Odakyu-affiliated buses, trains, boats, cablecars and ropeways in the Hakone area plus discounted admission to selected tourist attractions on two or three consecutive days.

Is the Japan Rail Pass Worth it? The Bottom Line

So is the Japan Rail Pass worth it? Sadly, it is not the bargain it once was.

It may still be worth considering if you want to pack as much into a 7-10-day itinerary as possible. However, if you are planning a classic 14-day Tokyo–Kyoto–Hiroshima–Tokyo itinerary you are likely to be better off buying point-to-point tickets.

If your travel is confined to a specific area, a Japanese regional rail pass may be a better bet. For example; if your itinerary is focusing on Osaka, Kyoto, Himeji and the surrounding area, consider a Kansai WIDE Area Pass or the Kansai-Hiroshima Area Pass.

Finally, the benefits of a JR Pass are not just economic. It’s hard to put a value on the flexibility that this pass offers with the freedom to change your plans at will.

Decades of travelling have taught me the need for flexibility and a Plan B if things go wrong. My second visit to Japan coincided with the rapidly emerging threat from the coronavirus pandemic, forcing me to change my itinerary to allow a speedy exit from Tokyo.

bridget coleman the flashpacker 2

About Bridget

Bridget Coleman has been a passionate traveller for more than 30 years. She has visited 70+ countries, most as a solo traveller.

Articles on this site reflect her first-hand experiences.

To get in touch, email her at hello@theflashpacker.net or follow her on social media.

2 thoughts on “Why the Japan Rail Pass May Not Be Worth It in 2024

    • Bridget says:

      Yep! There’s a lot to get across. If you have a specific question, ping me an email and I’ll help if I can.

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