For those of you who are planning on taking that long desired trip (not to mention very expensive) to Japan, trying to keep commuting expenses at a minimum by just obtaining a JR Pass can be a money saver and at the same time such a pain in the a**. There is a wealth of information found on the internet and it’s kinda hard at first to make sense of all the data slammed right at your face when doing research, including Japanese terms and all the complex train maps. It’s also hard to plan at first and you’ll be asking if you’ll really be saving lots money by getting a JR Pass, or if you’d be better off just commuting at a regular price (since some routes are not covered by JR Pass).
Trust me, I’ve been there. This is the reason why I wrote this article, to help you easily make sense of all these information (get only the relevant information, basically, and avoid information overload) and be confident that you will not get lost on your next trip to Japan, and save valuable time and money in the process.
First of all, what is a JR Pass?
The Japan Rail Pass (ジャパンレールパス japan rēru pasu?), also called the JR Pass, is a rail pass for overseas visitors sold by the Japan Railways Group, and is valid for travel on all major forms of transportation provided by the JR Group in Japan, with a few exceptions. The Rail Pass is designed to stimulate travel and tourism throughout the country, and attract foreigners since the really expensive train travel in Japan puts off budget conscious travellers. The Rail Pass is designed for tourist use, and therefore has conditions for its purchase and exchange.
The Rail Pass comes in two varieties, one for each class of service:
Standard Car(普通車 Futsūsha) – normal car, still clean and spacious and still gets you to where you want to go.
Green Car(グリーン車 Gurīnsha) – first class car, where there is less crowd and more space for you. They will also serve you refreshments only on selected routes. For me, it is not advisable to get a Green Car pass since it is more expensive and I’m not sure if the train routes I’ll be using serves refreshments. Plus, less space is not an issue for me as you still get your own space.
Furthermore, the pass is time limited based on the length of pass purchased. Three time periods are available: seven-day, fourteen-day and twenty-one-day passes, which provide the user unlimited use of JR transportation services. The table below summarizes the prices for each pass.
The amounts are listed in Japanese Yen. Since the JR Pass is still expensive for most of us, some of you may think that you may be able to get it somewhere at a more cheaper price and spend lots of wasteful time researching where and how. Unfortunately, there is no place, website, or even a black market wherein you can get one (trust me, I already did that for you). Since the constant thing is the amount in Yen, you can only get one for a cheaper price if you time your pricing, for example, buy a JR Pass at a time when the value of Yen drops against your base currency (meaning you can buy more Yen using your base currency).
When purchasing the Exchange Order (see below), the purchaser will pay the appropriate amount in the purchaser’s home country currency based on the current exchange rate.
Who is eligible to take advantage of the JR Pass?
- A foreign tourist visiting Japan, who has a passport bearing the “Temporary Visitor” entry status stamped at immigration, and who can present the actual passport at the time of exchange. A photocopy of the passport is not acceptable. If you are a foreigner in Japan but do not have a “Temporary Visitor" status (since you might have a Working Visa or a Permanent Resident status), sorry but you cannot obtain a JR Pass.
A Japanese national living in a foreign country,
- who is qualified to live permanently in that foreign country, or
- who is married to a non-Japanese residing in a country other than Japan.
Here are the ways you can obtain a JR Pass
While the Rail Pass is sold by the JR Group, it is obtained by purchasing an Exchange Order from many sources (distributors, and yes, these distributors are so many, they often cause confusion due to the wealth of information they create on their internet). The Exchange Order cannot be obtained in Japan. As I’ve said earlier, price will not differ that much so just choose to buy from a reputable vendor that you are comfortable buying a JR Pass from.
Note: In any way you choose to obtain your Exchange Order, always make sure that your name is correctly spelled out in the Exchange Order and is same as the name on your passport.
- Online – Google JR Pass and it will return to you a list of online JR Pass shops which allows you to purchase one online. Most of the times, the prices are listed in US Dollars and each site may differ by a dollar in pricing. Once purchased online, they will ship you your Exchange Order via a reputable third party courier service (usually FedEx). Note that the shipping fee (usually USD $11-14) will be added to the total once you checkout, though some offer free shipping.
- Local travel agency – better as you will get a personalized service, and you can easily contact them if you have concerns with your pass. You’ll also get your Exchange Order instantly and not wait for courier if you choose to buy from your local travel agency. In case you’re asking, I bought mine from one.
Exchange Orders an also be purchased from Japan based airlines such as Japan Airlines or All Nippon Airways, thus, you are sure that you are buying from a reputable source.
So how do you use your JR Pass?
This is the most frustrating part due to the wealth of information on the internet causing info overload, so let me enlighten you a bit.
- First thing you need to do when you arrive in Japan is to get your actual JR Pass by presenting your Exchange Order and Passport with the “Temporary Visitor" stamp at one of the nearest JR ticket office (usually in the main station of the airport you will be arriving at).The Exchange Order itself cannot be used for travel, and must be exchanged at a JR ticket office.
- For those who are traveling on lengthy distances (e.g. Tokyo-Osaka v.v.), use the Shinkansen (Bullet Train). Take note (if not memorise) that The JR Pass is valid on the Kodama (Normal, stops at all stations), Hikari & Sakura (Express, stops at main stations only) types of Shinkansen, but is not valid on the Nozomi & Mizuho classes (Super Express, stops at very large cities only). To make sense of all these, below illustration will be helpful to you:
- In practice, the Hikari and Sakura bullets reach the same top speed as the Nozomi and Mizuho trains and use the same type of actual train, but stop at more stops on each route. For example, for the trip down from Tokyo to Kyoto, the Hikari service runs 15mins slower than the equivalent Nozomi service, and so for holiday travel it is more than acceptable.
- If you wish to view and print Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo city maps, you may download here
- Last but the most important thing you should know: for both bullet train and non-bullet train travels across the JR scope, Hyperdia is all you need in looking for the best and appropriate route. Just select your desired departure time, destination, and it will show you all the available routes (including foot travel from one station to the other), including the duration if travel and time of arrival, and it’ll show you how much you’ll need to pay (for the locals who are not using the JR Pass). You can also select only JR routes so you’ll be sure that you do not need to pay extra for non-JR routes. If there are no available JR routes, just tick ‘Private Railways’ and it’ll show you alternative non-JR routes how much you’ll need to pay for using a non-JR route. Hyperdia is available for download on iOS only and is not available on Android (UPDATE: Hyperdia for Android now available [for a fee] on the Play Store for those in US and Japan only). It is important to know that using Hyperdia requires an internet connection so you may need to rent at the airport a WiFi pocket device for the duration of your stay. You may also opt to just use the internet at your hotel and just plan your routes for the whole day.
My tips to ensure the smoothest travel as possible across Japan
- Using your smartphone with a Google Maps app, download the map of a specific city onto your smartphone so you can just go offline and use the GPS system to locate yourself in the map.
- Don’t be afraid to ask locals and foreigners alike. Japan is a relatively safe country. Most officers in the train stations know how to speak some English just enough to give you directions. If you are out of the train stations, it is best to ask the students as most of them study English.
- Plan ahead. Especially in a non-English speaking country, you must plan the routes you’ll be taking weeks beforehand to save you time and money. Doesn’t it feel good when you feel like you’ve already lived in that city because you did your research? Also, researching weeks before travel adds up to the excitement and to me is an experience in its own.
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