Japan’s public transport is, more often than not, spectacular. It’s quick, reliable, and ridiculously clean. While it’s also not too expensive, any seasoned traveller will confirm that those small trips really can add up. With ski holidays not being the cheapest things in the world, planning becomes all the more important.

As such, it’s essential to weigh up your options as far as train fare goes, and the JR Rail Pass is something almost everyone will consider at one point or another. In normal circumstances, I’d absolutely recommend purchasing one, but if you’re just coming to Japan to ski, the decision becomes a little more complex.

Let’s talk a bit about what a JR Rail Pass actually is, when you would or wouldn’t need it, and potential alternatives if it’s not the right choice for your situation.

What is the JR Rail Pass?

The JR Rail Pass is a multi-day ticket that temporary visitors can use on almost all forms of transport provided by JR Group. You are able to travel on a set number of consecutive days, as far as you like, throughout the entire country. If you’ve come for an adventure, it’s the perfect choice. Combine it with the Earth Hopper ski pass and you’ll have an even better time!

There are six JR group members up and down the country in total, which means the JR Rail pass is able to cover an extensive area. While the main JR Rail Pass you’ve likely heard mentioned is one that will allow travelling through all of these member train lines, you can buy passes specific to each area if that’s more cost-effective for your itinerary. More on that in a little bit.

Who is eligible for a JR Rail Pass?

As long as you’re a visitor with a temporary visa (less than 90 days), you’re eligible. In other words, if you’ve come here for a couple of weeks on holiday, that includes you!

How long is it valid for?

Your JR Rail Pass will have a duration of 7, 14, or 21 days. During that time you can go on local trains, shinkansen, buses, monorails, and even a ferry. There are a few restrictions which are worth looking over, but for the most part, you’ll be able to get to anywhere in Japan that you need to. Check out this page for a list of trains you can and can’t go on with the JR Rail Pass.

What is the “Green Car”?

You’ll find it mentioned on the JR Pass website, and will even see special markings for where the green cars stop on the station platform. To put it simply, “Green” is the first class offered by JR on some trains. Unless you’re looking to travel in luxury, I would give it a miss. Sure, the seats are bigger and the cars are often less busy, but that’s not enough to warrant the ¥10-20,000 extra you’ll pay for the privilege. Ordinary carriages are perfectly clean, and I’ve never struggled to get a seat on the bullet train.

Is the JR Rail Pass worth it?

On paper, this seems like a pretty great pass. When you consider the price of a return trip from Tokyo to Kyoto on the Shinkansen would work out to around ¥28,000, the ¥29,650 price for a 7-day pass seems incredible value.

For those who come to Japan to see the sights it’s great, but last time I checked, Kyoto wasn’t the sort of place people dreamed about skiing in. Let’s take a look at an example throughout the rest of this article to work out whether the JR Rail Pass is worth it for your snowsports holiday.

If we take the popular skier’s route from Tokyo to Hakuba, for example, we see it costs between ¥11,000 and ¥12,000 using a combination of shinkansen and local JR Trains (I calculated this by cross-checking both google maps and my personal favourite Japanese travel app, Japan Transit Planner). A return trip would therefore cost around double that number which means you’ll still be left with a few thousand yen to spend for the pass to be worth it. That’s a calculation done with the cheapest 7-day pass.

Nagano Station

If you’re travelling to Hakuba, you’ll likely need to take a shinkansen to Nagano Station

Personally, my ski holidays are spent almost entirely on the slopes with maybe a single day to explore the town somewhere in the middle. As your days may not be spent exploring on local trains, it begs the question of whether the pass would be worth it for you. That said, if you’re hanging around the area for a longer period of time and do plan on exploring some of the local areas on trains, the JR Rail Pass is a fantastic option.

There are a few local passes you could make use of if your ski trip is relatively short which I’ll talk about a bit later, but due to their short duration, they won’t appeal to everyone.

Your budget

Your budget is one of the most important factors to weigh up when considering whether a JR Pass will be worth it for your ski trip or not.

The standard cost for an adult to buy the JR Rail Pass is ¥29,650 for 7 days, ¥47,250 for 14 days, and ¥60,450 for 21 days. If you do decide to go down this route, make sure you purchase them through an agency or an overseas sales office to secure these prices. You absolutely can buy them in Japan, but you’ll be charged an extra fee.

As someone who frequently travels cheaply, ¥29,650 is still a lot of money, even if it’s a good deal. Plus, skiing is an expensive holiday to begin with, so spending all that money on what may end up just being transfers isn’t ideal. So, what alternatives do you have?

For the truly budget-conscious among you, buses will be your best bet to get from Tokyo to Hakuba. This isn’t just the case for this particular ski area, buses tend to work out as the cheapest form of transport all across Japan.

It’s not the most relaxing or stress-free option, let’s make that clear, but at around ¥5,000 per ticket, it’s a lot cheaper. That means a return journey from Tokyo to Hakuba on a bus is about half the price of the train, making the JR Pass not worth it for you if you aren’t planning on doing any sightseeing. You’ll have to endure another hour and a bit of travel, but you’ll save a lot of money in the process.

Your Itinerary

Your intended itinerary will give you an extremely clear idea of whether it’s worth it to get a JR Rail Pass for your ski trip or not. Japan Guide have a Rail Pass calculator you can use to see if your trip(s) will benefit from the use of a pass or not.

On the whole, unless you’re planning to do a day or two of exploring the area around your resort, the train journey transfer to your resort will rarely justify the cost.

JR Rail Pass - regions

Depending on your itinerary it may be worth taking a look at one of the six regional passes that your resort falls into”

It’s worth mentioning here that if your itinerary includes a return journey from Tokyo to Hakuba, a couple of ski days, and/or a couple of exploring days, the JR East Pass might be a better option and it will definitely save you money even if you’re using it only for transfers. It’s a regional pass which means you can only get on specific trains, but at ¥18,000 it’s a decent price for 5 days. The same goes for other areas in Japan, depending on your itinerary it may be worth taking a look at one of the six regional passes that your resort falls into.

Where to buy the JR Rail Pass

As I mentioned above, to get the best price on the JR Rail Pass, make sure to purchase it before you get out here. You can do this in a number of ways, but purchasing it at an online distributor like Japan Rail Pass or J Rail Pass is likely the easiest way. If you’re already in Japan and forgot to grab your pass beforehand, just pop into one of these stations to grab it.

How to use the Japan Rail Pass

If your itinerary includes a bit of skiing, and a bit of travelling, you’ve likely decided the JR Pass (or one of the regional versions) is a good choice. So, how do you use it? Simply bring the voucher you’ve purchased to a JR Ticket office, hand it to the person at the counter and fill in a couple of details. One of those details will be the activation date which is when you’ll be able to use the pass from. Remember, they’re consecutive days, so make sure you’ve written the right date. Now you’ll be able to use your ticket at any barrier just like you normally would.

While I don’t think the JR Rail pass is the right choice for everyone coming on a skiing holiday to Japan, if your itinerary and budget fit, it can definitely save you a lot of money. If you’re travelling to Hokkaido to ski, your best option will be to catch an interconnecting flight to Chitose airport, rendering the JR Pass unnecessary. If you’re travelling in Honshu, Japan’s main island, it may well be your ticket to a fun, cheap, and stress-free ski holiday.


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