​Don’t buy a JR Pass, it is a rip off

​Don’t buy a JR Pass, it is a rip off

Posted by James Zhang on 12th Aug 2019

I go to Japan too often, I can't remember how many times exactly, but I can tell you in 2018 was 6 times and 2019 is 5. Many of you ask me what is my tip of travelling in Japan. Here is one today. 

If you have been to Japan as a tourist, or planning a trip to Japan, you would have came across the term JR Pass. As per Wikipedia: “The Japan Rail Pass, 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.”

(A sample JR Pass)

Basically, JR pass works is like this:

  • You buy the pass for a set period: 7 days, 14 days, 21 days, before you travel
  • You get a proof of purchase, then you bring this to a JR office when you land in Japan for an actual pass.
  • You then can show the pass to the staff at any JR train station or JR operated bus to get a ride.

Sounds nice and easy right? I bought it when I first visited Japan as a tourist back in 2009, deceived by the advertising from the JR website that “it is the most economic way to travel in Japan”. Yet I found out the JR pass is a ridiculous idea and for most, it is a rip off. I will give a few examples to back up my claim, and what are the alternatives.

Some basic information about JR pass (Ordinary)

We will use the regular JR pass here for example, as I am sure very few people would buy the Green class (upper class, business class, whatever you call it). We will also use JPY (Japanese Yen) as the currency unit for easy comparison.

7-day: 29110 JPY  about 275 USD

14-day: 46390 JPY about 439 USD

21-day: 59350 JPY about 562 USD

A one-way Tokyo to Osaka: 13620 JPY

Inflexible structure

The 7 / 14 / 21 days pass is extremely inflexible, and you have to plan your trip based on the dates. The best way to get the most out fo your JR pass is to take the Shinkansen bullet train, between major cities, like at least a return trip between Tokyo to Osaka; one way is a guaranteed lose, as per above table.

What if you have an 8-day trip and only the first day and last days involves Shinkansen? Bad luck, you then must compress your trip to 7 days, or work around your travel schedule, it is very inflexible.

Having to redeem the JR pass upon landing in Japan is a ridiculous idea

One will only be issued a proof-of-purchase before departing for Japan and will have to redeem the actual JR pass once you land. Usually intercontinental planes land on roughly the same time: morning or evening. If you are unlucky enough to land at the same time with multiple widebodies each carrying 300 passengers, the people waiting in front of the airport JR office are like a plate of spaghetti. Compounded with the fact that tourists are from different countries, the communication can be troublesome, further delaying the individual processing time.

Why they have this highly inefficient way of doing things is beyond me, this is the technology leader Japan!

(This blog post reported a 90-min long wait at the JR office, Narita airport)

You can’t even take the true Shinkansen

By the look of it, a round trip between Tokyo and Osaka will allow you to “break even” compared to the 7-day pass. The reality is, you are pretty much classified as a 2nd tier passenger: the most frequent, hop on hop off train is the Nozomi, but luckily for the JR pass holders, it is not for you. JR pass holders can only take the slower Hikari or Kodama trains. For Hikari, while in the old days they used an older generation trains to operate the routes, they have since moved to newer models, just with more stops. The added time is manageable (about half an hour more than Nozomi), however the frequency is a lot less. The Kodama? Forget about it, it is an all-stop slow coach (unless you are going to one of those smaller stations, don’t bother).

Depart Arrival Service
9:00 11:33 NOZOMI 213
9:03 12:00 HIKARI 465
9:10 10:37 NOZOMI 19
9:13 11:45 NOZOMI 161
9:20 11:50 NOZOMI 217
9:23 11:56 NOZOMI 313
9:56 13:53 KODAMA 645
10:00 12:33 NOZOMI 221
10:03 13:00 HIKARI 649
10:10 12:37 NOZOMI 23
10:13 12:46 NOZOMI 165
10:20 12:50 NOZOMI 223
10:23 12:56 NOZOMI 321
10:56 14:53 KODAMA 649
www.hyperdia.com date: 12/AUG/2019

(Above timetable is a schedule I extracted via hyperdia.com, it shows the Shinkansen trains from Tokyo to Osaka on a Monday morning,12/AUG/2019, 9am to 11am, the Hikari service is only available once per hour at peak times)

You see the problem now? You can get on a Nozomi in a matter of minutes, but if you miss a Hikari? Good luck. In Japan, no one takes a Hikari for travel between distant city pairs, it is simply not the real Shinkansen (for convenience sake).

Imagine you would to go to Osaka from Tokyo Narita (really far away from the city), using the railway method, it involves:

  • 1.Go to the JR office to redeem a JR pass (1 hour)
  • 2.Take a Narita Express (NEX) to Tokyo Station, wait + travel (about 1.5 hours)
  • 3.From Tokyo Station, take a Hikari to Shin-Osaka Station (average 3.5 hours as you have to wait)
  • 4.Carry your heavy luggage in between the stations.

(It is not fun to carry your luggage, jumping between platforms in a hot summer day, my.wheretherebedragons.com)

You would spend easily 6 hours. 

Exceptions, and limited routes in the major cities

Apart from the half baked Shinkansen usage, the JR pass really have no other meaningful use.

Inter-city Express requires copayment: the Haruka Express from Kansai airport to Osaka / Kyoto; the Thunderbird Express from Osaka to Kanazawa, just to name a few. For NEX, it use to be you have to pay for something like 2000yen extra, it is since covered by JR Pass, however still have to get a ticket from the JR office, which is slower compared to a vending machine.

Osaka: JR only has the loop line in Osaka, it is not nearly convenient as subway. Around Osaka there are Hanshin, Hankyu, Nankai (which you need to get to Sakai!), and a few other operators, so for the most part, JR is pretty useless.

Tokyo: Again the Yamamoto line is similar to the Osaka loop line, which is a very restricted way of travel compared to the subway.

(JR Yamamoto line, pointed by the red arrow, is the only useful JR Pass applicable line in Tokyo, which is nothing compared to the subways)

Kyoto: Apart from getting you to Arashiyama from Kyoto Station, the 600 yen bus day-pass is all you need.

Pro Tip: travel by air is cheaper

“A round trip between Tokyo to Osaka on a Shinkansen will allow you to break even” is used to justify buying the 7-day JR pass, however flying is a cheaper and time-saving option.

In Japan, both ANA and JAL offer a special tourist fare, they are called ANA Experience Japan Fare and JAL Japan Explorer Pass.

Both fare work similarly: you can travel between two Japan cities for a set fair of 5400/7560/10800 JPY (varies by city pair). In the case of Tokyo to Osaka, it is 7560 JPY. Almost half price compared to the Shinkansen. The longer distanced Tokyo to Sapporo and Fukuoka is 10800 JPY compared to the Shinkansen’s 23,000 / 27,000 JPY fare.

(A screen shot from JAL website, promoting their JEP special fare)

So if you are flying into Tokyo and going to Osaka, taking a domestic flight is cheaper, faster and most importantly, a lot less stressful as you don’t need to worry about the luggage. If you happen to have Star Alliance (for ANA) or One World (for JAL) status, it is a even more enjoyable journey.

(I am flying to Osaka via Tokyo on Oct 3, landing in Tokyo at 17:05 and arrive at the Osaka Itami airport at 19:50)

This is a trip that I will be taking in October, as you can see, I land at 5pm and by 8pm I am already in Osaka. In Osaka I will be flying to the Itami airport as well, it is the one far more closer to the CBD than Kansai airport. If I was on a Hikari, I would likely to have just passed Yokohama. 

One may ask: why not I just buy a multi-city itinerary? Truth is sometimes it is more costly to buy a multi-city itinerary than buying the foreign-tourist special fare spearately.

(Taken in Feb, 2017, on my way from Tokyo to Osaka. Pro tip: you can enjoy some spectular view of the Mt. Fuji if you are flying from Tokyo to Osaka, make sure you get the right window seats and get your camera out, 10 minutes into the flight you will be able to see the Mt. Fuji up close)

Suica / Icoca

When not taking a Shinkansen (there is really no reason to take one unless you wanted to experience it), the easily way is to get yourself a Suica (Tokyo issued) or Icoca (Osaka issued) smart card. They are both Japan-wide smart commute cards that will save you a lot of time and money (if your journey involves multiple rail operators) and you can use them to buy drinks at the convenient store, and pay for storage lockers as well.

(Suica and Icoca, two major rechargable commute cards in Japan)

Bottom line

If you are a true road warrior, doing a super long round the country tour in Japan, taking a ton of Shinkansen trips, then the 21-day JR pass could possibly make sense, however for a ordinary folk doing about 10 days trip, it is inflexible and costly, there are far better alternatives. 

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FYI: Airline options: generally you can choose either carrier domestically, but if your inbound carrier and domestic carrier belong to the same alliance, you might get an easier transit as you don't have to change terminals.

ANA: All Nippon Airways, a Star Alliance member, you should choose ANA if you are flying with ANA, United, Singapore Airlines, Lufthansa, or any other Star Alliance members. Check out the ANA Experience Japan fare here: https://www.ana.co.jp/en/es/promotions/share/experience_jp/

JAL: Japan Airlines, a One World Allance member, you should choose JAL if you are flying into Japan with JAL, Qantas, American Airlines, Cathay Pacific, British Airways or any other One World members, check out the Japan Explorer Pass page here: https://www.world.jal.co.jp/world/en/japan_explorer_pass/lp/