Why It’s Not Necessary To Buy A JR Pass To Visit Japan
A few years ago, I went to Japan on a tight budget. So, how best to prepare such a trip and be sure to make the best plans? One, obviously, passes through blogs and travel forums.
And, when one asks what is the best way to travel in Japan, the eternal answers given were thus:
- “Buy a JR Pass, it’s easier.”
- “Buy a JR Pass, it’s cheaper.”
- “Buy a JR Pass, it’s worth it even just for Tokyo-Kyoto.”
But the verdict on the JR Pass was too certain, so rather than rely on the community, I decided to be pragmatic; to play with the numbers and see what emerged. So inspired by “Event Interblogueur Traveler – Write Travel Tips”
organized by “Remy the Fucking Backpacker”
, I decided to write an article about why we should not (necessarily) buy a JR Pass to visit Japan.
SO, HOW DOES THE JR PASS…. PASS?
JR Pass, as its name indicates, is a pass that allows you to take all the Japan Rail trains in 2nd class during the period of validity of the pass, with the exception of Nozomi Shinkansen, the high-speed train.
The length of pass can be 7, 14, or 21 days. The price obviously varies depending on its duration and it’s possible to purchase while still in France. It is very important to note that it is not possible to purchase this pass in Japan.
Another important point is that the Japanese railway system, as opposed to the French system, is composed of several railway companies across the country, so it is not uncommon to have to change trains over long distances, and even change the station. So, we must check before buying a JR Pass if the cities you want to go to are covered by Japan Rail lines.
HOW MUCH DOES THE JR PASS COST?
It depends on the agencies in France, whose prices fluctuate depending on the Euro/Yen exchange rates. If I use the adult fare as an example (the only existing discount is for children aged 6 to 11 years anyway), the costs are as follows (as of 2 September 2012):
- 7 days: 28,300¥ (287€)
- 14 days: 45,100¥ (457€)
- 21 days: 57,700¥ (585€)
Well you see, this is far from being a cost-efficient necessity. But, then, how does one travel cheaper than with a JR Pass?
THINK ABOUT THE NIGHT BUS
To go from Tokyo to Kyoto, we often think of Shinkansen Nozomi, the high-speed train that connects the two cities in just over 2 hours, but this trip is not included in the JR Pass and costs 12,710¥ one-way without a reserved seat (add 810¥ if you want a reserved seat). Hikari Shinkansen costs the same price but add 2:40 to the trip time. It’s 25,420¥ round trip, so we see that, indeed, it is better to take a JR Pass to ride this train.
But there are night buses!
I then passed through 123bus, whose English site is run by Willer Express.
They are not the cheapest, but they are among the few to have a website in English and an online booking system.
There are many different prices ranging from 3,780¥ one-way version of “budget” close to 9000¥ in “business”.
My choice was the version of Relax “with extra spacious seats” which costs 5500¥ one-way.
The “Relax” version is in fact sufficient and normally costs 5100¥. If you are lucky enough to get a promotion, it can cost 4500¥. The reduction also applies if you book two or three weeks in advance.
There are also special buses for women with nicely decorated seats!
So not only is it cheaper than the train, but the more you save one night’s accommodation.
But the question remains: can you sleep in a night bus? If not, then check out the bus comfort option. With 140° tilt seats and a ”head cover” to block all light, I would say yes. If you don’t want to end up “jetlagged” like I did, choose this option!
REGIONAL PASSES TO CONSIDER
Like I said, different companies share the lines of the country, and each trip has implemented one or more regional passes, some of which, like the JR Pass, are reserved for foreigners and are even more interesting.
JR WEST PASS KANSAI AREA
It covers the Kansai region (Kyoto, Nara, Himeji, Osaka, Kobe, Kansai Airport to name only the most famous points).
- 1 day: 2000¥ (20€)
- 2 consecutive days: 4000¥ (40€)
- 3 consecutive days: 5000¥ (50€)
- 4 consecutive days: 6000¥ (60€)
(Again, with the exchange reflecting the rates of 2 September 2012)
With this pass, you can go from Kyoto to Himeji and return during the day to see Shirasagi-jō (White Heron Castle) for 2000¥ when the cheapest path normally costs 4400¥ round trip.
KANSAI THRU PASS
It covers the same area but not the same lines.
- 2 consecutive days: 3800¥ (38€)
- 3 consecutive days: 5000¥ (50€)
With it you can get to Koyasan, for example, whose trip alone costs more than 4,000¥.
TOBU WORLD HERITAGE PASS
This pass includes the train and bus around Nikko from Tokyo. It is valid for 2 days and includes entrance fees for two shrines and a temple.
- 2 consecutive days: 3600¥ (36€)
The return trip to Nikko alone costs 5,600¥ less with this pass.
This pass allows you to tour the region to see Hakone Lake Ashi and take a ride in the cable car or galleon in hopes to see Mt Fuji.
- 2 consecutive days: 5000¥ (50€)
- 3 consecutive days: 5500¥(55€)
This is a bit more touristy than the previous passes and this is the only ticket that I have not used personally.
There are others (JR East Pass, Hokkaido Rail Pass, Kyushu Rail Pass…), but I’ll let you search based on the region you visit. The principle and benefits are the same.
I’ll illustrate with my own example to make it more meaningful.
I arrived to and left from Tokyo and spent two weeks in Japan following the most classic tourist route: Tokyo, Kyoto, Himeji, Nara, Koyasan, Nikko.
I would have been able to buy a JR Pass for 14 days, but I preferred:
- Tokyo – Kyoto – Tokyo Night Bus = 9900¥
- Kyoto – Himeji – Kyoto with JR West Kansai Area Pass 1 day = 2,000¥
- Kyoto – Nara-Kyoto Kansai Thru Pass with 3 days = 5000¥
- Kyoto – Koyasan – Kyoto with the same pass
- Tokyo – Nikko with Tobu World Heritage Pass = 3600¥
A total of 20,500¥ (205€
) on my 15 days, compared with 45,100¥ (451€
) JR Pass 14 days (which does not go to Koyasan, and with which I would have paid an extra 2 nights’ accommodation)
So, more than 250 euros in savings! What could be better?
THE LAST WORD
If you do not want to sleep in a bus or you’re looking for simplicity, the JR Pass can be a good solution.
BUT if you want to save money, or you want to be flexible on your travel dates, you can forget it without regret!