Benefits of a Japan Rail Pass

By Jane B. Holt
This item appears on page 12 of the August 2020 issue.

On almost all of the 6-week, twice-yearly trips to Japan that my husband, Clyde, and I have been making for the last eight years, and on annual visits beginning in November 1999, we have found the Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass) to be a no-brainer money saver.

To quote Chris Rowthorn (formerly of Lonely Planet and now of, “If you do just one round trip on the Narita Express (N’EX) train between Narita Airport and Tokyo, and one round trip on the shinkansen (bullet train) between Tokyo and Kyoto, a pass WILL save you money” (

The pass can be used on most shinkansen and some JR bus lines as well as on JR limited express trains, JR local trains, short-run JR city trains (such as the Yamanote line in Tokyo) and a few JR ferries, including the popular Miyajima JR ferry, but the best way to get value for yen with the pass involves long-distance travel.

Knowing your proposed itinerary, you can use the Japan Rail Pass Calculator at to compare the cost of buying all your tickets separately to the cost of a JR Pass covering the same route. This tool allows you to input most destinations, but smaller locations are not included; to price those, you’ll need to refer to HyperDia ( A JR Pass includes the cost of reserved seats, so you’ll need to figure this in when using HyperDia for pricing.

Computing costs with the calculator and Hyperdia will show you if the pass will pay off for all your train travel. If buying a pass is even remotely a “close call,” I recommend getting it anyway just for the flexibility it provides.

(While you are on the site, poke around and see what else it has to offer. This is one of the most comprehensive sources of information for visitors to Japan.)

In addition to using a JR Pass to get reserved-seat tickets for a planned itinerary, it can be used for spur-of-the-moment travel in non-reserved cars, allowing you to change your plans mid-trip to make a long-haul day trip to a location where the weather is better or where you’ve learned a special event is taking place. Also, if you miss your train, you can make a new reservation at no extra cost.

While your JR Pass will not pay off for use only on short trips on local lines, if it is already activated, it will save you money on local lines, of course. But the pass should not control your daily travel plans nor encourage you to take a less direct route in order to save a bit of money. If another line works for you, then that is the way you should travel.

Short hops on local trains are relatively inexpensive and can be paid for with cash or an IC card (Intelligent Card) if you do not have a JR Pass. Within a city, taking a metro or subway is also inexpensive, and using either makes sense, even if you hold an activated JR Pass. Often, a day pass for either bus or metro, or a combination pass, can be a cost-saving purchase, but you need to calculate the number of trips you expect to make.

Buses in Kyoto are notoriously crowded and unpleasant and should be avoided at all costs unless they’re the only way to access a site. JR Buses are few and far between, and not all accept the JR Pass. One notable exception is the JR Bus from Kyoto Station to the very popular dry-landscape rock garden at Ryōan-ji.

I wrote extensively about JR Passes a while back (“Procuring Japan Rail Passes to Follow the Cherry Blossoms,” Feb. ’15, pg. 16), and my recommendations there still apply.

Some final advice from Chris Rowthorn — “Short hops on local lines are cheap, while long-distance travel is expensive, and the Japan Rail Pass only pays off when you use it to cover expensive travel.”

Hinesburg, VT