Saving on Travel in Japan with a JR Rail Pass: My Itinerary, Tips and Cost Savings

Updated November 04, 2023

Japan has long been considered one of the more expensive countries to travel. Recently, thanks to a weakening currency and years of deflation, Japan is becoming more affordable. Getting around inside the country will, however, be one of your bigger expenses. If you aren’t too pressed for time or you are just planning to visit a few locations, the best prices will most likely be found traveling via bus (plus, there are many night buses that will further save you a night’s hotel charge). For longer distances, the bullet trains (Shinkansen) are great, but quite expensive. In fact, you can sometimes get where you are going less expensively by air than by Shinkansen. Where long-distance train travel—including via the Shinkansen—becomes cost effective, is when you use a Japan Rail Pass. During my last trip to Japan in 2013, I mostly stayed with friends in the Yokohama area. I have been to Japan multiple times and I even spent a year teaching English in Inuyama (Aichi prefecture) long ago. Still, I had never been to Kyushu and I thought it would be a great time to do so. With that in mind, before leaving I purchased a one-week JR pass.

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About the Japan Rail Pass

A Japan Rail (JR) pass is available as a one-week, two-week or three-week purchase, with longer-duration passes being cheaper than buying multiple one-week passes. The passes are valid for consecutive days only. Here are the prices as of writing:

Price Increase: In October 2023 the JR train network raised prices for the first time in four decades. I have included the old prices for comparison.

1-week (ordinary): ¥50,000 (old price: ¥28,300)
1-week (green): ¥70,000 (old price: ¥37,800)

2-week (ordinary): ¥80,000 (old price: ¥45,100)
2-week (green): ¥110,000 (old price: ¥61,200)

3-week (ordinary): ¥100,000 (old price: ¥57,700)
3-week (green): ¥140,000 (old price: ¥79,600)

So, a 2-week pass is 20% cheaper than two 1-week passes and a 3-week pass is 33% cheaper than three 1-week passes.

Note: For child options, see the official site.

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The most important thing to know about getting a JR pass is that it is only available to foreigners and non-residents and you can only get it outside of Japan. If you decide it would be a great idea once you have already arrived, you are out of luck unless you have time for a friend or relative to buy it outside the country and mail it to you.

Another JR Pass consideration is whether to get an “ordinary” or “green car” (first-class) pass. I have never actually ridden in the green car, but besides slightly roomier and nicer seats, I don’t see any real value one gets for the greater price. That’s because an “ordinary” Shinkansen is already really nice, with spacious and comfortable seats. Neither pass will allow you to ride the fastest (Nozomi, Mizuho) trains or the overnight sleeper trains, so I think there is really no advantage other than possibly comfort.

The JR Pass will only include JR trains, buses and ferries. There are actually a lot of private railways operating around Japan, so this is not an insignificant caveat. Having said that, JR is the operator of all the Shinkansen routes and will cover most places you want to go, at least between cities. Once in a city, you’ll most likely have to pay local bus and train fares.

In the past, to buy your JR Pass (at least in the U.S.) you had to buy from JTB USA. You still can or you can buy it online and pick it up after you arrive.

My purpose here is not to be a complete resource on all things related to the pass but rather to illustrate how it can be used to save money on your travel. To do so, below I list my one-week itinerary. If you do want some more information about the JR pass, check out the official site and the useful articles, “Is a Japan Rail Pass Worth It?” and “Save Money Before You Go To Japan: Buy A JR Rail Pass In Your Home Country.”

My Itinerary

Note: The price comparison is based on 2013 prices. As you saw above they raised (not insignificantly) the price of the JR Pass recently. I haven’t re-checked the local prices and updated the comparison with the new pass prices so this may or may not be of much value but perhaps the itinerary itself will be helpful.

I started my one-week adventure in Nagoya since I was already there visiting a friend and I ended in Tokyo. For pricing comparison purposes, I used the incredibly useful Hyperdia site.

DayFromToTime (approx. min.)Cost
6Hiroshima –> Miyajima –>Hiroshima¥1,140

As you can see, with my pass costing ¥28,300 (US$276) and the total of purchasing my train tickets separately being ¥87,340 (US$851), I saved approximately ¥59,040 (US$575) or almost 68%.

Note: Unfortunately, in 2022 Hyperdia stopped offering timetable details on its route search service. It also removed the option to exclude Nozomi trains from its search results (which aren’t included with a Japan Rail Pass). The site can still be used to look up routes, fares and travel times, but instead of showing specific times, it will list only approximate travel times, which obviously reduces its usefulness. And, without specific timetable data, details like the list of stations along the way and the list of other departures on the same day are also no longer available. If looking for a Hyperdia alternative, check out Jorudan, which can be used via the website or Android or iOS mobile app (the app is better than the website). There are free and paid search functions, which differ between the web and app. The app includes a JR Pass option, which allows results to be limited to trains covered by the pass, and also lists platform details and stations along the way. These features aren’t available on the website.
A second option is Navitime, which also has a JR Pass option. It lets you exclude results by train category and other modes of transport. Navitime is especially good with bus connections. The service is free and can be used on the website or mobile app (Android, iOS).

Itinerary Notes

I packed a lot into seven days. I started early on day one, stopping in Himeji to see Japan’s most famous castle and the nice Kōkoen (好古園) Garden right next to it. That took a few hours and then I hopped on the Shinkansen again for the short ride to Okayama where I saw the incredible Kōrakuen (後楽園) Garden (one of the three most famous in Japan) and Himeji’s sister castle, U-jō (烏城, the crow castle).

After the garden closed, I headed back to the station and caught another Shinkansen all the way to Kumamoto. I wanted to spend an entire day in Kumamoto to see its famous castle (熊本城) and Suizenji Garden (水前寺公園). I also wanted a full day to see Kagoshima so I decided to just make Kumamoto my sleeping base for three nights. I found the nice Guest House Kumamoto, run by a friendly guy named Koji that only cost ¥3000 per night for a spacious, and quiet private room. I think this decision worked out well and I was glad not to waste time or energy transferring hotels.

Since Kagoshima is only about an hour away by Shinkansen, I went there early in the morning and saw Sakurajima (桜島), Sengan-en Garden (仙巌園, a.k.a. Iso Teien Garden 磯庭園) and the Satsuma Kiriko (薩摩切子) cut glass factory (some really nice and incredibly expensive glassware!).

Nagasaki is almost three hours from Kumamoto so again I left early and arrived with most of the day to explore. I saw the Atomic Bomb Museum and peace park, Glover Garden (with a great daytime city view) and Insayama (the so-called “10 Million Dollar View,” ranked as one of the best night views in the world).

From Nagasaki I headed to Hiroshima to see its Peace Museum and memorial park as well as the incredible Miyajima island. I have been to Hiroshima before, but it was years ago and I was glad to visit again.

From Hiroshima I headed to stay the last night in Kyoto and saw some of the sights there on my last day before boarding my final Shinkansen back to Tokyo in the evening. I have been to Kyoto several times so my one-day trip was just sort of a nostalgic return, though I did see Arashiyama, an area I had not previously visited. For first time visitors, Kyoto really deserves multiple days (see below).

Modifying My Itinerary for a Japan Newby

I think my itinerary was a great one that saw a nice mix of famous and not-so-famous tourist spots. If I were visiting Japan for the first time, and starting from the Tokyo area, I would probably spend a few days in Tokyo and then take a Willer Express bus to Kyoto and spend multiple days there. Kyoto is truly incredible and absolutely deserves multiple days to see properly (Note: if you wish to visit the Imperial Palace, that can only be done twice a day via free guided tours. You must register with the administrative office on the grounds at least 20 minutes beforehand, but when I went it was fully booked, so I recommend booking ahead). You should probably include a day trip to Nara as well (45-75 minutes, ¥690).

After Kyoto, I would start my one-week JR pass, following something like the itinerary I have described to fully maximize your travel cost savings. I thought Kumamoto was a great (and cheap) 3-night base but you could do the same from Fukuoka if you preferred. Also, I originally thought Nagasaki merited two days, but if you arrive early and don’t waste much time, it can be seen in one instead, freeing up a day to see some other place or spend an extra day in one of the other locations.

Specialized Passes

Keep in mind that many Japanese cities offer one-day or multi-day passes for the buses, subway, and/or tram lines. These are not included in the JR Pass since they are not JR services, but for a concentrated day of sightseeing, they can be money savers. Check online for your intended destinations to plan ahead and/or ask at the information desk when you arrive. Since I bought a pass for most of the cities (I was able to get by with just JR service in Hiroshima), I didn’t try to use my Suica card (see below), which in theory works across the entire country for trains and subways, but I believe is not accepted on the trams found around Kyushu.

Willer Express now offers a Bus Pass of 3, 5, or 7 days of your choice within two months of purchase. A 3-day pass is ¥12,800 (¥10,200 for M-TH), a 5-day pass is ¥15,300 (¥12,800 for M-TH) and a 7-day pass is ¥15,300. Willer doesn’t cover as many destinations and routes as the JR train system, notably stopping at Fukuoka. Thus, almost half of my itinerary would not be possible with this pass. On the other hand, The Sun Q Bus Pass provides unlimited rides on highway buses and local buses across Kyushu on three or four consecutive days. It comes as an All Kyushu version (3-day for ¥11,000 and 4-day for ¥14,000), a Northern Kyushu version (3-day for ¥9,000), and a Southern Kyushu version (3-day for ¥8,000). Thus, you could combine these bus passes. Alternatively, it might be a good idea to pair a bus pass with the JR Pass, say a one-week JR Pass with a 3- or 4-day Willer Bus Pass.

For more info on long-distance (highway) buses in Japan, see the Japan National Tourism Organization bus page.

Around Osaka, you can get the Kansai Thru Pass for ¥5,600 for three days (two days is ¥4,480). This is a great deal if, for example, you want to go to Kyoto one day, Nara the next, and Himeji the next. The pass is valid for buses and trains within the cities so you can easily get around and pack those three days with lots and lots of sights.

Finally, make sure you look at whether particular towns or sights you want to visit have special transport/admission deals. Going to Nikko from Tokyo, for instance (very highly recommended), you can get one pass for the train, the buses and entrance fees. (hat tip to Time Travel Turtle).

Miscellaneous Tips

  • Be aware that for historical reasons, Fukuoka’s train station is called Hakata. If you search for schedules to “Fukuoka” online, you will likely be given an itinerary for a totally different city in northern Japan.
  • Consider buying a using a Suica card, which is an IC card that allows you to ride trains and buses and even shop with a single tap. It can also be used with discount tickets.
  • If your stay will be 14 or fewer days, you can save a bit of money by buying a N’EX TOKYO Round Trip Ticket (¥5,000 vs ¥6,140 to ¥9,400 regular price, depending on destination).
  • Check out this interactive map of the Japan Rail Pass.

Final Thoughts

I think a JR pass can be a great way to save money when traveling in Japan, but as with so many things in life, it all depends on your plans. Generally, you will save money if traveling long distances and if comparing to separate train ticket purchases. For shorter trips and/or for trips where you will be staying in one place multiple days, the pass may or may not save you any money. Still, the bullet train is a unique and cool experience, so even if you can save a few bucks opting for buses instead, I highly recommend at least trying a one-week pass for the convenience and experience.

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