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While other countries have tried to catch up, there's still nothing quite like Japan's rail network.
Since 1964, Japan's Shinkansen trains have zipped travelers between major cities — currently at speeds up to 200 mph. Add in regional and local trains, and you can get pretty much anywhere on Japan's main islands by rail.
If you're planning to visit more than one city, a Japan rail pass can make it cheaper and easier. But there's more than one rail pass: Travelers have dozens of options to choose from. Picking the right one is key to balancing cost and ease.
Here's what you need to know about getting a pass, Japan rail pass prices, and where to buy a Japan rail pass.
Types of rail passes in Japan
Japan's train companies offer foreign tourists dozens of rail pass options. Picking the right one for your trip depends on which part or parts of Japan you want to visit.
If you want the flexibility to go anywhere, you'll want to get the countrywide Japan Rail Pass — also referred to as the JR Pass. This pass is sold in increments of seven days (up to 21 days). It lets you access virtually any JR-operated train — as well as JR-operated buses and certain ferry boats — across Japan during the validity period.
However, don't overlook regional passes. These rail passes can be a cheaper option when you need unlimited travel within a particular area.
For instance, say you plan to visit the eastern part of Japan. JR EAST offers a half-dozen types of rail passes, each covering a different region from Tokyo.
Meanwhile, JR WEST offers nearly a dozen train passes in and around Osaka and Kyoto.
The Hokkaido Railway Company offers a variety of train pass options around the northern island of Hokkaido.
Japan rail pass prices
Japan rail pass prices vary drastically, starting around $17 for a one-day Kansai Area Pass to up to $644 for a three-week Japan countrywide pass in the first class Green Car. The cost depends on which Japan rail pass (or passes) is right for your trip.
Keep in mind that some passes are cheaper when purchased abroad. Usually, this is a modest savings. For example, you'll save around $7 when buying a five-day Hokkaido Rail Pass abroad. Still, it's worth considering as a way to reduce the cost of your trip.
If you plan on visiting Tokyo and Kyoto or Osaka on the same trip, you'll likely want to get a countrywide Japan rail pass. That's because Tokyo is part of the JR EAST region, and Kyoto and Osaka are part of the JR WEST region.
Cost of countrywide Japan rail pass
For ease and simplicity, most tourists consider getting the countrywide Japan Rail Pass. While you can wait until your arrival in Japan to purchase this pass, the cheapest way to get this Japan rail pass is through authorized sales offices online.
The cost varies slightly by the sales office, so shop around for the cheapest price. At the time of writing, Japan-Rail-Pass.com sells countrywide Japan rail passes at the following prices.
Green Car (first class)
Consider combining rail passes
Let's say that you're planning a 10-day trip to Japan. The simplest solution would be to buy a 14-day countrywide Japan Rail Pass for around $350. However, you may be able to save by combining a couple of rail passes instead.
If you're flying into Tokyo, the three-day JR TOKYO Wide Pass can be a steal at around $71.
To start, you can use the pass to travel to downtown Tokyo from either major airport. Then, use it to visit iconic Tokyo neighborhoods like Shinjuku and Akihabara, take a day trip to Lake Kawaguchiko to view Mt. Fuji or visit the UNESCO-recognized shrines and temples of Nikkō. During the winter, you can use this pass to ski or snowboard at Gala Yuzawa.
» Learn more: Best airlines to fly to Japan
The JR EAST website includes several other itineraries that are cheaper when you buy the JR TOKYO Wide Pass rather than buying individual train tickets.
When you're ready to visit another city, activate your seven-day Japan Rail Pass, which costs around $220. This will let you visit Kyoto, Osaka, Nagoya, Sendai and Hiroshima or Sapporo. Adding up the passes, you'll pay $293 vs. $350 for a two-week pass.
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Where to buy a Japan rail pass
How to buy a rail pass depends on the type of pass you choose. Different passes have different purchase requirements. For some, the only option is to buy a rail pass in Japan. Others are best purchased before you depart.
Countrywide JR Pass
The countrywide Japan Rail Pass can be purchased in one of three ways:
Online from the Japan Railways Group.
In person at a JR ticket office in Japan.
Through an authorized sales agent.
Buying a Japan Rail Pass online or from a JR ticket office would intuitively be the cheapest option. But these are actually the most expensive options. Plus, you'll have to navigate limited business hours — even for the website.
That means the cheapest option is actually to buy through one of the dozens of authorized sales agent offices located around the world. While prices vary slightly between retailers, the process is generally the same. You'll receive a packet in the mail with a voucher that you'll need to exchange and activate once you arrive in Japan.
Regional Japan rail passes
Unlike the countrywide Japan Rail Pass, you'll generally want to buy regional rail passes directly from the JR company that sells them. The best way to do so will depend on the company and the type of pass.
For example, you can purchase JR TOKYO Wide Pass in advance online. However, the pass costs the same, and it may be simpler to wait to purchase it from a vending machine or ticket office in Tokyo.
However, consider purchasing JR Hokkaido train passes before leaving for Japan to get a discount of the price of the pass.
If you're considering getting a Japan rail pass
Getting a rail pass can be a great way of saving money on travel within Japan. However, don't simply default to the countrywide Japan Rail Pass. Instead, check to see if the cheaper regional train passes are a better fit for your trip.
If you plan to purchase a countrywide pass, shop around for the best option. Prices will vary between authorized sales agents, so take a few minutes to check the options.
For regional passes, check your purchasing options. You may be able to save by purchasing your pass in advance. If not, see how to purchase the pass once you arrive. It may not be worth it to purchase the pass online, especially as you'll likely need to visit a ticket office or kiosk to get it anyway.
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