Affordable Alternatives To Japan's JR Pass

The Japan Rail Pass – a trusty bang-for-your-buck multi-use ticket for budget-conscious travellers traversing the Land of the Rising Sun – will see its price nearly double come October.

The Japan Railways (JR) Group, which runs the country’s wide-reaching and famously punctual trains, including its high-speed shinkansen bullet trains, did not give a specific date when it announced the price hike in April.

The passes – sold by official JR retailers and authorised foreign travel agencies – can be purchased and used only by short-term tourists to Japan. Japanese citizens who do not reside in the country are also allowed to use them.

Currently, travellers hoping to cover multiple popular destinations such as Tokyo, Osaka and Hokkaido in a single trip can purchase a regular seven-day rail pass at 29,650 yen (S$273).

A return trip on the shinkansen from Tokyo to Osaka without the pass, for example, will cost about 29,000 yen.

In October, the same pass will cost 50,000 yen. A 14-day pass covering all JR lines will rise to 80,000 yen, up from 47,250 yen now.

But travellers can still enjoy the pass at the current price if they order it before Oct 1.

Several online third-party travel platforms such as Klook have a cut-off purchase date of Sept 25, while the official JR Pass website states that it will be on sale at certain physical sales offices in Japan until Sept 30.

Following that, travellers can activate the pass within 90 days from the date of issue. When activating the pass in Japan, they can also choose a start date that is up to 30 days in the future. In other words, some travellers may be able to enjoy the current price until late January.

Despite the JR Pass still being a valuable and convenient option after the price hike, there are other options that continue to be viable alternatives for budget-conscious travellers.

The Japan Railways Group’s regional train passes will cost up to 50 per cent more from Oct 1. ST Photo: Vera Ang

1. Regional train passes

The price hikes announced in April by the JR Group covered the nationwide rail passes, with increases for its regional passes announced in July.

Regional train passes are nowhere near as all-encompassing as the JR Pass, but they offer unlimited travel within specific areas – perfect for those who plan their trip around one or two connecting areas.

These passes, which are available only to international tourists visiting Japan, were previously a fraction of the price of a JR Pass.

But the price hike saw them increase anywhere from 5 per cent for the five-day Hokkaido Rail Pass to as much as 50 per cent for the JR East Tohoku Area Pass, which covers the Kanto and Tohoku regions. This rose from 20,000 yen to 30,000 yen.

JR Group justified the revision by saying it would expand the lines covered by the passes and introduce automatic ticket gates, as well as increase the number of seats allocated for reservations for some passes.

The transport authority also added that pass holders will receive certain perks, such as discounts at selected stores.

However, despite the increase, regional passes are still cheaper alternatives to the all-encompassing JR Pass, especially if you plan your trips around them.

The JR Pass website lists more than 20 regional passes available for sale that cover several areas including Kyushu, Kansai and Mount Fuji.

Commuters waiting for the train at a train station in Japan. ST PHOTO: VERA ANG

2. Seishun 18 Kippu

According to the JR Pass website, the Seishun 18 Kippu ticket – written in Japanese as the Seishun Juhachi Kippu – is “meant for the younger generation in Japan to explore the country and make beautiful memories during their holiday periods”.

Contrary to its description, there is no age limit for those who purchase or use the 12,050 yen ticket. It is available to foreign tourists as well as Japanese and foreign residents of Japan.

This pass allows unlimited travel on local and rapid trains operated by the JR Group – this excludes shinkansen bullet trains, limited express trains, express trains and sleeper trains.

The exclusion of high-speed trains means more travel time, but will not affect those whose mantra focuses on the journey and not the destination.

The Seishun 18 Kippu allows for five redemptions, and can be used by an individual or shared by a group. The redemptions do not need to be on consecutive days.

For example, a single ticket can allow a lone traveller transport across five separate days.

A Seishun 18 Kippu ticket. PHOTO: NEWSLINER, CC BY-SA 2.5 VIA WIKICOMMONS

For a solo traveller based near Tokyo station, day trips across five days to Nikko, Mito, Yokohama/Kamakura and Odawara stations, as well as a trip back to Narita Airport, would normally cost about 16,000 yen – which is 3,950 yen more than a Seishun 18 Kippu ticket.

A group of five can also travel together for one day. For a group of five adults travelling from Tokyo Station to Nikko Station, a combined round trip using JR trains would amount to about 26,000 yen, as opposed to the 12,050 yen for a single Seishun 18 Kippu ticket.

The ticket goes on sale three times a year during the three main holiday periods in Japan, and cannot be used year round.

  • Spring:
    Period of sale: Feb 20 to March 31
    Period of use: March 1 to April 10
  • Summer:
    Period of sale: July 1 to Aug 31
    Period of use: July 20 to Sept 10
  • Winter:
    Period of sale: Dec 1 to 31
    Period of use: Dec 10 to Jan 10

Information on exclusions can be found on the JR Pass website.

The view from inside a train in Japan. ST PHOTO: VERA ANG

3. Buses

If criss-crossing train tracks and roundabout routes are not for you, perhaps trusty buses may be the way to go.

The Japan Bus Pass, sold by transport operator Willer Express, offers unlimited travel on its various bus routes throughout the country – excluding Hokkaido and Okinawa – across a set number of days.

Dates of travel can be chosen within two months of purchase, and do not have to be on consecutive days.

According to the japan-guide.com website, a traveller utilising the pass will pay only about 3,000 yen for a trip from Tokyo to Hiroshima, compared with a regular train ticket which can cost up to 18,000 yen.

Anyone holding a non-Japanese passport will be eligible to buy the pass, including non-Japanese citizens living in Japan, foreign students and long-term travellers.

To kill two birds with one stone, travellers can also opt for overnight highway buses, saving on accommodation through the night as well. After all, there is nothing better than to magically awaken already at your destination.

Seat reservations are required for each ride and can be made online until one hour before departure.

If criss-crossing train tracks and roundabout routes are not for you, perhaps trusty buses may be the way to go. PHOTO: UNSPLASH

Willer’s bus network is centred on Japan’s two primary urban areas, Tokyo and Osaka/Kyoto, and connects with secondary cities across the country. This means that those based around the primary areas will be able to shuttle back and forth, but will not be able to travel between secondary cities directly.

Two options are currently available.

The first, a Monday To Thursday Pass, offers options of a three-day pass for 10,200 yen, five-day pass for 12,800 yen and seven-day pass for 15,300 yen. This cannot be used on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays.

The second, an All Day Pass, offers a three-day option at 12,800 yen or a five-day option at 15,300 yen.

Both types of passes cannot be used during certain blackout periods spanning one or two days before and after Golden Week, Obon and the New Year holidays.

For example, 2023’s Golden Week spanned April 29 to May 5. The blackout period for the Japan Bus Pass was from April 28 to May 7.

Obon lasted from Aug 13 to 16, with the blackout dates being Aug 10 to 16.

The blackout period for New Year holidays began before Christmas on Dec 23, 2022, and ended on Jan 3, 2023.

The actual blackout dates for 2024 have yet to be listed on the Willer Express website. Those who wish to purchase the pass near these periods should check for updates on its website before purchasing.

The pass can be used for up to one overnight and two daytime bus rides a day on buses operated by Willer Express, but does not cover the same route in the same direction twice on the same day – for example, two rides from Osaka to Hiroshima.

Travel on the same route but in different directions, such as a trip from Osaka to Hiroshima and back, is allowed.

Overnight buses departing after midnight count as a ride taken the previous day.

A sample itinerary on japan-guide.com for a popular series of destinations spanning Tokyo, Hiroshima, Kyoto and back to Tokyo known as the “Golden Route” will cost about 40,000 yen with regular train tickets. The same route costs 29,650 yen with the JR Pass, and has to take place across seven days.

Via the Japan Bus Pass, travelling along the “Golden Route” costs 10,200 yen, and can be used across up to two months.

Highway buses are also a viable option for those who do not wish to be restricted by a pass. Leading bus companies offering such services include Willer Express, as well as JR Bus.

However, prices often vary by date instead of route. Willer Express highway bus tickets from Tokyo to Osaka in May cost between 2,800 yen and 6,000 yen, while those in June cost between 3,900 yen and 6,000 yen.

4. Domestic flights

Those travelling relatively long distances within Japan can often find domestic flights a surprisingly affordable and fast option, especially if a trip is booked in advance or during promotional periods.

Japan Airlines (JAL), ranked the world’s fifth best airline in a global poll of more than 20 million travellers in June, offers flights at a special fare only for individuals residing outside Japan, with an international air ticket to and from Japan through what it calls the JAL Japan Explorer Pass.

According to the airline, the fare can be used to access more than 30 cities across its domestic network. Fares begin at 5,500 yen for routes within Hokkaido, as well as routes departing to and from Tohoku.

Routes between Tokyo and Osaka, as well as between Okinawa’s main island and outlying islands, are priced from 7,700 yen, with all other applicable routes beginning from 11,000 yen.

The reservation and purchase of domestic flight sectors must be completed via the JAL website.

Japan Airlines offers flights at a special fare only for individuals residing outside of Japan. PHOTO: JAL.CO.JP

A one-way ticket on Jetstar Japan from Tokyo’s Narita Airport to Osaka’s Kansai Airport can go as low as 4,810 yen in October, with the flight taking a little over 90 minutes (prices accurate as at Sept 18).

Japanese budget airline Peach Aviation offers one-way tickets for the same route for as low as 5,290 yen – slightly more than the above Jetstar flight on the same day, but still at a quarter of the price of a JR pass.

Bonus: Free shuttle services

Not an alternative to the JR Pass per se, but free shuttle services within cities help to stretch a traveller’s dollar.

For example, there are at least four loop buses in Tokyo that help tourists explore the city for free.

The Tokyo Bay Shuttle takes passengers through the Odaiba district’s attractions and landmarks, while the Marunouchi Shuttle covers the bustling areas around Tokyo Station.

The Metrolink Nihonbashi ferries visitors through the Nihonbashi commercial district, while the Panda Bus – yes, it is a bus that looks like a panda – takes sightseers around the rustic streets of Asakusa.

If you plan to visit or stay at onsen (hot spring) bathhouses or traditional inns known as ryokan, such facilities may also offer free shuttle services to and from train stations to their doorstep, so you may want to check while booking a getaway.

Ultimately, if you are going to be exploring multiple tourism hot spots all over Japan over an extended trip, or wish to quickly bounce to and from various prefectures for your appointments, you may still want to opt for the regular JR Pass.

However, if you are a budget-conscious traveller who is going to only one or two destinations within Japan, these options may be less heavy on your wallet.

This article was originally published on The Straits Times.