For those who have been, or even planned to visit Japan I’m sure you’ve heard of the Japan Rail Pass. For those of you who are thinking of visiting Japan but haven’t yet heard of this cost-effective, money-saving travel tool, this post is for you. We’ve just returned from Japan, and wanted to share our experience using the new JR East pass, which became available starting April 1st.
Japan Rail Pass
This was actually the second time we’ve purchased one of the passes Japan Railways Group offers. The traditional, nationwide Japan Rail Pass covers the whole country for one, two and three week periods. These are priced at roughly $266, $424 and $538 respectively. Our previous JR pass purchase was the three week pass back in 2011.
All passes are only available to visitors of Japan (on a 90-day tourist visa). You can only get it if you hold a non-Japanese passport. An Exchange Order for the nationwide Japan Rail Pass must be purchased outside Japan. You then take the Exchange Order to an office in a major train station or the airport and receive the rail pass after you arrive. This time we made use of one of the new passes JR offers, a very economical choice if you plan to spend most of your time in a single region. These passes may be purchased even if you’ve already arrived in Japan. Of course, you can order the pass in advance as well.
The New JR East Pass
As of April 1, 2016, they’ve replaced the previously available JR East pass with two new passes: the JR East Pass Tohoku Area and the JR East Pass Nagano/Niigata Area. Both passes cover any 5 days within a two week period. The difference between the two is geography. The Tohoku area pass covers an area of the main island of Honshu north of Tokyo all the way up to the very top. The Niigata pass is only 2000 yen less, but the area covered is much smaller. There is quite a bit of overlap on the two passes, and both include popular tourist destinations like metropolitan Tokyo all the way down to the Atami peninsula and the UNESCO World Heritage Nikko area, a couple of hours north of Tokyo.
Since the price difference was minimal, and we wanted to explore some areas further north, we decided the JR East Pass – Tohoku Area would work best for us. It includes 5 days of open rail travel within any 14 day period for 19000 yen (about $172). The first time you pass through the ticket gates on a chosen day, the JR ticket attendant will stamp the pass, and then it’s good until midnight. Passes cover most trains operated on the nationwide network of JR (Japan Railways). This includes shinkansen high-speed trains, limited express, express, rapid and of course local trains. There are a few non-JR routes covered under special circumstances as well. (Like Nikko)
Another big benefit to the passes is the option to make a seat reservation for any of the train services that have reserved seats. Reservations are for regular, reserved cars, not the Green Car class, which requires either a different pass or a supplementary fee. Having a reserved seat is key during busy seasons and times of day. Of course, we’ve been known to fly by the sear of our pants and jump into a “Free Seating” car at the last minute, but reserved seats are highly recommended when you have the time to arrange for one.
If you are undecided whether purchasing a JR East Pass is a good decision, below is a break-down of our most recent usage. All the fares are a best-guess using Google after the fact, since when using the pass none of the tickets have prices on them. Reserving a seat may have added an additional few hundred yen to the ticket prices. If you have any questions on using the JR East Pass, or the Japan Rail Pass, don’t hesitate to reach out.
Yokohama -> Tokyo ¥470
Shinkansen Yamabiko 131 from Tokyo -> Sendai ¥11,200
Senseki Line from Sendai -> Matsushima-kaigan Roundtrip ¥820
Daily Total- ¥12,490
Senzan Line from Sendai -> Yamadera -> Yamagata ¥840, ¥240
Shinkansen Tsubasa 137 from Yamagata -> Oishida ¥1,940
Daily Total- ¥3,020
Shinkansen Tsubasa 136 from Oishida -> Fukushima ¥4,620
Shinkansen Yamabiko 47 from Fukushima -> Ichinoseki ¥6,130
Ichinoseki -> Hiriazumi Roundtrip ¥400
Shinkansen Yamabiko 55 from Ichinoseki -> Morioka ¥4,120
Shinkansen Hayabusa 34 from Morioka -> Tokyo ¥14,740
Tokyo -> Yokohama ¥470
Daily Total- 30,480 ¥
Yokohama -> Tokyo ¥470
Shinkansen Yamabiko 137 from Tokyo -> Utsunomiya ¥4,930
Utsunomiya -> Nikko Roundtrip ¥1,520
Shinkansen Yamabiko 150 from Utsunomiya -> Tokyo ¥ 4,930
Tokyo -> Yokohama ¥470
Daily Total- ¥12,320
Yokohama -> Fujisawa ¥410
Kamkura -> Yokohama ¥340
Daily Total- ¥750
Grand Total – ¥59,060 or about $539
Purchase Price – ¥19,000 or about $172
Estimated Savings – ¥40,060 or about $367*
*Confession: We’d run out of time at the end of our trip, and on Day 5 we used it thinking we wouldn’t be going anywhere else, even though the cost of our train travel that day was minimal. In doing so, we missed an opportunity to use the pass to get to the airport via Narita Express. Here’s the key. If you are in Japan for 14 days or less, JR offers a round-trip on Narita Express for only ¥4000. That’s a HUGE savings over buying one-way fares at ¥4290 to Yokohama or ¥3020 to Tokyo. (Yes, the special round-trip fare is LESS than one-way to Yokohama.) The caveat here though is that the special round-trip fare is only valid for use within 14 days. Donny was able to take advantage of this. Tamara was staying for longer than that, so she had to buy the regular Narita Express tickets. SO, if we’d bought regular tickets on April 16 for her and saved her pass for the day we returned to the airport, we would have saved ¥4290 instead of ¥750 for Day 5 (about a $35 difference!) Dumb, just dumb.
For more ideas on travel to Japan, check out our destination archives, and look for new posts on our recent trip coming soon!