In the world of international inbound tourism in Japan, Japan Rail’s legendary JR Pass has long reigned supreme as the ultimate travel deal. For only around $220 for seven days, or $350 for fourteen, you could ride all the Japan Rail trains of Japan at your leisure. Since the pass covered most Shinkansen (bullet trains), this was easily one of the greatest travel deals in the world for those looking to explore diverse and distant areas of a foreign country.
However, a recent announcement by Japan Rail Group has thrown the overall future utility of the JR Pass into question. From October, the pass will be receiving a major price hike. For both the 7-day and 14-day pass, the price increase will see costs rise by a whopping 69%. What was once an incredible deal – unlimited bullet train rides for only a little more than the cost of the round trip between Tokyo and Kyoto – will suddenly lose a good deal of its appeal. And given that a major reason Japan Rail introduced the pass was to encourage travel off the well-worn tourism pathways of the Tokaido road, there is some question as to the negative effects this could have on getting tourists out to Japan’s economically disadvantaged hinterlands.
However, there are at least a few new perks planned to offset some of the sticker shock. So, will the JR Pass still be worth purchasing?
The JR Pass: What Does it Offer?
The JR Pass offers unlimited travel on train lines run by the various regional Japan Rail branches throughout the country, with a few notable exceptions. It additionally covers some bus and ferry travel operated by JR subsidiaries. While city and local travel is made somewhat easier by access to JR lines, many local subway and train companies do not accept the JR Pass; instead, the greatest value the pass brings is for travel by high-speed Shinkansen.
The Shinkansen make travel between distant regions of Japan a breeze; lines extend throughout much of the archipelago, and top out at 320 km/h (200mph). Tokaido shinkansen trains departing Tokyo Station terminate at Shin-Osaka in only 2 hours, 27 minutes. The JR Pass allows access to these miracles of modern travel engineering; however, they do not grant access to the fastest Tokaido Shinkansen service, the Nozomi, nor the limited express Mizuho between Shin-Osaka and Kagoshima-Chuo in distant southern Kyushu.
Even with the need to ride the slower-service Shinkansen on these lines, the JR Pass is quite the deal. If you’re motivated to see a lot of Japan outside of the main metropoles, it’s been easy to save hundreds of dollars/euros/what have you by using the pass. All this helped the purchase of the JR Pass become among the first things recommended to travelers to Japan.
What Changes are Afoot?
Below is the translated chart from the recent Japan Rail Group announcement. Prices are split into time limits (7-day, 14-day, and 21-day passes) and by seat type. (Green Car passes allow for seating in the more luxurious/exclusive train green cars.) As you can see, this is a pretty massive increase in pricing.
|Type||Current Price||Following Update|
|Designated JR sellers/agents||Dedicated site|
|Normal car use (Price for adults)||7-day period||29,650||33,610||50,000|
|For green car use (Price for adults)||7-day period||39,600||44,810||70,000|
These account for some pretty dramatic changes. In order to make the 7-day JR Pass worth it, it would now require spending the equivalent of two round trips on the Shinkansen between Tokyo and Osaka. While enough travel within Japan may still make the pass worthwhile, the days of casually purchasing the JR Pass may be over.
However, there is one silver lining. According to JR’s press release, the passes will now allow access to the faster Nozomi and Mizuho services. (They’d better, considering what you will now have to shell out.) The release also mentions discounts at JR-associated tourist destinations, but no details have been given at this point.
Reactions Across the Spectrum
The announced price hike has engendered a good deal of discussion, much of it negative. Others see the JR Pass as still being worth the purchase depending on the nature of the trip itinerary.
Some have pointed out how the price change seems to reflect a desire on the part of the Japanese government for tourists perceived to have a certain amount of money to spend. (Much as did the announced private-flight visas for tourists during the three-year COVID travel lockdown.)
Alternatives to the JR Pass
It’s undeniable how convenient the country-wide JR Pass has been for innumerable travelers. However, it’s notable that the ubiquitous nature of the pass has led to fewer international tourists knowing about local travel deals. One such deal is the JR East Pass; at ¥20,000 (roughly $150), the pass is an incredible bargain for those wanting to explore Japan’s often-overlooked Tohoku Region. With beautiful northern destinations like Fukushima, Akita, Aomori, Miyagi, and Iwate, the pass is beloved by those who actually know about it. (And as the only regional pass of its type available to foreign residents, it’s a great excuse to get out of Tokyo and practice your Zuzu dialects.)
There are numerous other regional passes; the JR hike may also inspire some travelers to make use of other, scenic train lines to move between major sites. The change in pricing won’t spell the end of Japan’s huge international travel boom. For many, though, it does signal an end to ease of access to one of the country’s most admirable travel deals.
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