01 Oct 20

Do I need a Japan Rail Pass?

Chris Kavanagh Japan

So you’re heading to Japan, all excited about your Kumano Kodo or Nakasendo Way trek…or perhaps still thinking about it. You might have heard something about a Japan Rail Pass but really aren’t sure if this is something you’ll need or will be beneficial for you. Should I get one of these passes, you may be asking…

Well, it really is worth going through the exercise of figuring out if it is or isn’t. Depending on your plans, you may have a quick answer or it may take a little longer and a few sums to decide. Here are a few tips to help you figure this all out.

Note: Before going through this process, you need to have a pretty clear plan on how long you intend on spending in Japan and where you want to go.

You will not need a JR Rail Pass if your plans fit the following
  1. If time is short and you will pretty much be in and out of Japan before and after your trek, then you don’t need a JR Rail Pass. We’re talking, one or two nights in a city such as Kyoto or Osaka before your trek and flying home the evening of the final day of your trek, for example.
  2. If you plan on having a few days in one city before and after your trek and don’t intend on doing any day trips while you are there. For example three to four days in Kyoto / your trek / three to four days in Tokyo.
You might need a JR Rail Pass if the below options are more in line with your plans
  1. You intend on basing yourself in a city or two for a number of days before and/or after your trek and also plan to do some day trips from those cities. For example, you might plan to stay in Kyoto for five days and during this time do a day trip to Hiroshima or Nara. Or perhaps you plan to be in Tokyo for a few days and want to include a day trip or overnight to the Fuji Lakes area or Nikko (ie, you are visiting these places on your own as opposed to a pre-booked guided bus trip).
  2. You plan to visit a few cities and locations either before and/or after your trek and you intend on staying a night or two in each. This might include visiting another island such as Hokkaido or Kyushu.

If this is you, then it’s time to check out the following websites.

Japan Rail Pass

  • One of the most important things to consider is that the majority of Rail Passes are for consecutive days travel. Hence, if the majority of your travel is within a city and you’ll be using local trains and buses for getting around, it may not be beneficial for you.
  • A JR Wide pass is the most common pass (7, 14 or 21 days) but perhaps a regional pass may suit your plans instead OR in addition. eg: A 5-day JR Kansai Wide area pass.
  • When you purchase a JR Rail Pass, you are sent a voucher which you exchange at a JR Ticket office once in Japan. You then nominate the date you would like your JR pass to be valid from (ie: you might not want to start making use of the pass until a few days into your trip if that’s when you start travelling further afield).
  • There’s no real need or advantage in purchasing a Green Pass.
  • Sometimes, even if you are staying in the same location for a number of days, it might still work out to be more financially viable for you to purchase a 14-day JR Wide Pass, hence it’s worth doing the sums.
  • For those whose travel plans are based primarily in the Kansai region (including Osaka, Kyoto, Nara) a great value option is the Kintetsu Rail Pass which may work well for you. There is an option that also includes Nagoya.

So now it’s time to grab a calculator and familiarise yourself with these websites:

JR Fare Calculator

This site is very straightforward, simply click on ‘Get Started’ and start entering your to and from city point locations and it will do the calculations for you, quickly and easily indicating if you will get the value of a pass. The map is pretty helpful as well in giving you a visual picture of your route.

Tip: Remember to do a separate search if there is a break in your travels, such as when you are on your trek.

Japan Transit Planner

This is a very handy search engine for planning your journey. You can check train schedules for your dates of travel and you can also work out here how much it’s all going to cost for each individual journey. It’s a little more time consuming than the JR Fare Calculator but the pricing is a little more accurate and it’s handy if you want to plan your times. This site is pretty easy to use; however, I recommend taking 5 minutes to read this Hints page.

Note: This is a search engine only. You can’t book or purchase tickets on this site but you are likely to refer to it regularly once in Japan.

  • Search each of the train journeys you expect to be taking and note the total price for each of these trips, (refer to the price in the blue route information section, next to ‘Ticket’ you will find the total price of the particular journey). Add up the total of your expected train trips in YEN, and then use a site such as XE.com to convert to Australian dollars (or to your relevant currency).
  • Now, compare this total value for your expected train journeys to the price of the Rail Pass options, factoring in your travel duration/dates. Remember, you can choose to activate your pass and commence using it from a particular date.
  • If the total of your expected train journeys is greater than the value of the pass, even if only a little bit, then it’s worth your while to purchase a pass.

Visit the Official Japan Rail Pass site to order your pass. (Note: If you are not an Australian resident, search for your local provider.)

You will need a JR Rail Pass if the options below sound more like your plans
  1. Your Kumano Kodo or Nakasendo Way hike is just one part of a bigger journey. You plan on being in Japan for a while and will be on the go quite a bit.
  2. You will be spending a week or so either side of your hike and during that week will be taking quite a number of train journeys.

Now you just need to follow the steps outlined above to determine which pass is most suitable for you. Sometimes it can work best to have two 7-day JR Wide passes, for example, and once in Japan, nominate to activate them on different dates.

Another option to consider

For those hiking the Kumano Kodo and basing most of your travel within the Kansai region, the Kansai One Pass might work for you. The Kansai area encompasses Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, Wakayama, Koyasan and of course, the Kumano Kodo trek.

You can purchase this pass from the locations listed on the website, once in Japan. It doesn’t give discounts on rail travel as such, but it does make things simpler and from buying tickets each time you need to catch a train or bus. It also provides discounts and benefits at a number of dining, sightseeing and shopping locations. You just top your card up as needed.


Written By

Chris Kavanagh

Chris is a seasoned hiker and RAW’s Japan expert. If you’re looking for the best advice about Japan’s walking trails, Chris is your go-to. With a background in personal training, Chris champions active travel. She loves hitting the gym, exploring local trails and immersing herself in a good book.

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