It's no secret that Singaporeans love visiting Japan. And as most Japan aficionados would know, the unlimited travel Japan Rail (JR) Pass is the most cost effective way to get around Japan if you plan to visit different parts of the country.
But come Oct 2023, we're looking at a whopping 70per cent increase in the JR Pass price. After this crazy big price hike, will the JR Pass still be worth purchasing? Maybe not…but we know Singaporeans. Our love for the land of the rising sun is not going to be diminished with the advent of the rising JR Pass prices. No, we're headed to Japan regardless, and just need to find other ways to save money there instead.
Let's take a look at what the JR Pass increase means for you, how to decide if it'll still be worth getting, and 5 other must-know travel hacks to save money while travelling in Japan.
1. The JR Pass is (for now) the most cost effective way to travel around Japan.
The idea behind the JR Pass is simple: Pay a flat fee, and get to take unlimited train rides around the whole of Japan. If you're going to be travelling to several parts of the country, the JR Pass is definitely more cost effective than buying rail tickets a la carte. Only available to tourists, the pass is ideal for travellers who want to see different parts of Japan during their trip. Travellers also have the option of a seven-day, 14-day, or 21-day pass, so it's fairly flexible.
Sounds perfect for the avid adventurer in Japan? It is — or should we say, it was.
2. The price of the JR Pass will increase by 68-77per cent in Oct 2023.
Yikes! The JR Group hasn't confirmed the exact date of the price hike, but they have announced the new JR Pass prices that'll come into effect some time in October 2023. Here are the price changes you can expect for adult JR Pass tickets for Ordinary Cars (the standard) and Green Cars (more premium):
|New prices (from Oct 2023)||Old prices|
|Type of pass||Green||Ordinary||Green||Ordinary|
|7-day||70,000 yen/ S$679 (+76.8per cent)||50,000 yen/ S$485 (+68.6per cent)||39,600 yen/ S$384||29,650 yen/ S$287|
|14-day||110,000 yen/ S$1066 (+71.6per cent)||80,000 yen/ S$776 (+69.3per cent)||64,120 yen/ S$622||47,250 yen/ S$458|
|21-day||140,000 yen/ S$1357 (+67.9per cent)||100,000 yen/ S$969 (+65.4per cent)||83,390 yen/ S$808||60,450 yen/ S$586|
The pass type worst hit by the price hike is the premium seven-day pass for a Green Car, which will now cost you 70,000 yen instead of 39,600 yen. Its standard pass counterpart will set you back by 50,000 yen, up from 29,650 yen.
3. Is the JR Pass still worth it after the price increase?
We’ve done the math. If you do a seven-day trip in Japan and travel from Tokyo to Nagoya, Nagoya to Osaka, and Osaka to Fukuoka, you can expect to pay about 33,400 yen to 34,840 yen for your a la carte ticket prices:
|Train route||Rail cost estimate|
|Tokyo to Nagoya||11,300 yen(S$110)|
|Nagoya to Osaka||6,680 yen(S$65)|
|Osaka to Fukuoka||15,420 yen to 16,860 yen(S$150 to S$163)|
|TOTAL||33,400 yen to 34,840 yen(S$324 to S$338)|
At the current (soon to be old) JR Pass rates, this makes the JR Pass slightly more cost effective than buying rail tickets individually — by about 3,750 yen to 5,190 yen.
But now that the 29,650 yen pass is set to become a 50,000 yen one, it doesn’t look like the full JR Pass will be worth it. It’s only going to save you money if you add more stops (and thus spend fewer days at each stop) or travel further distances (and thus spend more time travelling on a train).
To see if your itinerary is worth getting the JR Pass for, we recommend you use this free JR Pass calculator. Add the points of interest you want to visit, then scroll down to see how the cost of these a la carte tickets will compare to the cost of a JR Pass. You can also use any of the many free online rail ticket calculators online and compare them against the new JR Pass prices.
Here’s the bottom line: once the JR Pass price increases to 50,000 yen, it’s going to be quite likely that it won’t be worth getting. The good news? There are other ways to save money while travelling in Japan.
4. Japan travel hack #1: Take the bus
If you have time but are short on money, consider taking a bus around Japan instead of the rail. Yes, bus rides are bound to take longer, but that's fair since you get to take them at a lower cost. They're also not heinously long; for example, the journey from Tokyo to Nagoya will take you about six hours by bus. That's not too long to spend on a bus, albeit longer than the one hour 40 minutes you'd need to travel by bullet train.
Here's a comparison of how much it'll cost you via bus vs train for a seven-day trip going from Tokyo to Nagoya, Nagoya to Osaka, and Osaka to Fukuoka.
|Route||Rail cost estimate||Bus cost estimate|
|Tokyo to Nagoya||11,300 yen(S$110)||2,500 yen to 4,000 yen (S$24 to S$39)|
|Nagoya to Osaka||6,680 yen(S$65)||2,000 yen to 2,700 yen (S$19 to S26)|
|Osaka to Fukuoka||15,420 yen to 16,860 yen(S$150 to S$163)||5,320 yen to 8,300 yen (S$52 to S$80)|
|TOTAL||33,400 yen to 34,840 yen(S$324 to S$338)||9,820 yen to 15,000 yen (S$95 to S$145)|
Taking the bus instead of the train could save you up to 25,020 yen, which comes up to about S$243 over seven days. So if you can, extend the length of your trip to budget for more travel time, while freeing up your actual budget. Spend the cash you save on the freshest sushi, historical and cultural attractions, and cute Japanese souvenirs instead.
Of course, if time is money to you, the rail might be a better choice. Use tools such as Japan Transit Planner to estimate journey times and prices on trains and buses, and ultimately decide which option is the most value for money for you.
5. Japan travel hack #2: Take domestic flights
You might be wondering, could I snag good deals for cheap domestic flights that beat or are comparable to the cost of travelling by train? Possibly, but only for certain routes. When we tried to check for flights from Tokyo to Nagoya, Nagoya to Osaka, and Osaka to Fukuoka, we got stuck on the middle leg of the journey. There were very few available flights, and those that were available either took six times as long as the journey by train, or cost up to three times the price.
Having said that, we spotted some really good domestic flight deals for the first and last leg of the journey. In combination with taking the train on the middle leg, the total cost came up to just S$288. Not only is this cheaper than the S$324 to S$338 you'd pay for the journey 100 per cent by train, but it's also going to be faster taking a plane.
6. Japan travel hack #3: Take a night bus to save on accommodation costs
We already know buses are cheaper than trains. But let's take our cost saving one step further — to save on both transport and accommodation at the same time, take an overnight train. These bus journeys are usually six to eight hours long, and are timed such that you'll board the bus at night and reach your destination by the next morning.
Generally, night buses will cost more on Fridays and the weekend, while the cheapest rates are on the other weekdays from Monday to Thursday. Let's assume you're taking the bus on a Monday. Here's what your journey cost and timings will look like on Willer Express:
|Route||Night bus cost estimate||Night bus timing|
|Tokyo to Nagoya||3,800 yen (S$37)||Depart at 10.50pm, arrive by 6am|
|Nagoya to Osaka||2,200 yen (S$21)||Depart at 9.40pm, arrive by 5am|
|Osaka to Fukuoka||4,200 yen (S$41)||Depart at 8.30pm, arrive by 5.10am|
|TOTAL||10,200 yen (S$99)|
When it comes to the most affordable mode of transportation, night buses are the clear winner. Our seven-day itinerary from Tokyo to Fukuoka will cost only about 10,200 yen, compared to up to 34,840 yen on rail and up to 15,000 yen for a regular daytime bus. That’s between $46 to S$239 worth of savings on top of the amount you save from not needing to book accommodations for the night.
7. Japan travel hack #4: Buy a regional JR Pass
Visiting spots within a particular area of Japan, but not travelling across the whole country? Wish there was some kinda half or partial JR Pass? You're in luck, because the regional JR Passes are exactly that!
Like the full JR Pass, these regional versions offer unlimited rides via train for a fixed number of days. The main difference is that these regional JR Passes apply to specific areas of Japan only, and are of course also more affordable than the full JR Pass. Best part is, unlike the JR Pass, they're not increasing in price this year (touch wood!). That's going to make the difference in their prices even more stark.
There are many regional JR Passes, and we've covered them more extensively in our complete JR Pass review. But briefly, here are some popular passes that may appeal to you:
|Regional JR Pass||Best for||Price||Valid for|
|JR Tokyo Wide Pass||If you’re going to be based in Tokyo, but want to make some trips out to Greater Tokyo.||10,180 yen (S$99)||3 days|
|Hokuriku Arch Pass||Travelling from Tokyo to Osaka and Kyoto via the scenic Hokuriku region.||25,500 yen (S$248)||7 days|
|Hokkaido Rail Pass||Travelling all over Hokkaido. Inhale the freshest seafood, and depending on the time of year, visit flower fields or hit the ski slopes!||20,000 yen (S$195)||5 days|
|Alpine-Takayama-Matsumoto Area Tourist Pass||Soaking in beautiful alpine views as you make your way through Gifu, Toyama and Nagano prefectures.||
|Ise-Kumano-Wakayama Area Tourist Pass||Historical sites and scenic views from Nagoya to Osaka, including the Grand Shrines of Kumano, the Wakayama Electric Railway famous for its “Station Master Cats”, and Nara Park known for its friendly deer.||
8. Japan travel hack #5: Visit free attractions
In Singapore, the best spots will cost tourists a pretty penny to visit. For example, an entrance ticket to the Flower Dome and Cloud Forest at Gardens by the Bay is priced at $53, while the full Singapore Flyer + Time Capsule experience will set a visitor back by $40. Visiting just two attractions a day will set one back by almost $100.
But for tourists visiting Japan, you'll be glad to know that there are a good number of attractions that are completely free to visit. You'll still need to pay bus/rail fees to get there, but once you do, you can just waltz right in to these places without paying a single yen:
- National parks: Did you know that all 34 of Japan's national parks are free to visit? You also don't need a permit to visit or stay, and there are no opening or closing hours to speak of.
- Nara Park: You've probably heard of or seen photos of Japan's picturesque "deer park", home to over a thousand free roaming deer. But what you may not know is that entry to the park is free! That said, you'll probably succumb to buying little treatos for the deer. Each packet of these deer crackers costs 200 yen, and can be fed to the deer by hand as they're pretty used to people.
- Hot springs a.k.a onsens: In Japan, there are both public and private hot springs. The public ones are free, but are, well, public. So stand tall and don't be afraid to show what your mama gave you! Okay in all seriousness though, if that doesn't sound like something you can do, pay for a private onsen experience instead. If you have tattoos, you should check ahead if the onsen is skin art friendly — some areas are more conservative, and tattoos are frowned upon. Psst, don't know where to start? Our colleague recommends the onsen town Kusatsu Onsen!
- Shrines: Many shrines in Japan are free to visit, with the exception of some really touristy ones. For a start, check out the Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine in Kyoto and the Meiji Jingu Shrine in Shibuya.
- Temples: Like the shrines, there are a good number of temples in Japan that don't charge an entrance fee. One example is Tokyo's oldest temple — the well-known, colourful Senso-ji Temple in Asakusa.
9. Japan travel hack #6: Shop at a 100 Yen shop
Remember the days when everything in Singapore’s Daiso shops cost $2 flat? Those everything-at-2-bucks-days are now a thing of the past. Now, each product from Daiso will cost you something between an awkward $2.14 to an equally awkward S$25.47.
In Japan, Daiso is just one of many 100 yen shop options that remain true to their affordable dollar-store concept. Take your pick from Daiso, Seria, Watts, and Can Do, which altogether have over 5,500 locations across the country. Some of these are multi-storey, department store style behemoths! You can expect to find tableware, kitchenware, tools, gardening items, stationery, and just random fun things you never knew you needed. I’m sure you know what it’s like to get lost in a Daiso-esque wonderland.
10. Japan travel hack #7: Buy food and drinks from vending machines
It might be tempting to visit a boutique cafe in Japan and fork out between 800 yen and 1,000 yen for your coffee fix for the vibes. But if once is enough for you, fill up on your daily caffeine quota more affordably the rest of the days you spend in Japan by visiting a vending machine.
There are tons of coffee vending machines that you can find practically everywhere — it's said that there is one vending machine for every 23 residents, and Japan has the highest density of vending machines in the world. These machines dispense both hot and cold drink options for both coffee and tea, and at a fraction of the price you'd pay at a larger coffee chain or cafe. Expect to pay only 100 yen to 200 yen for your cuppa, which is just S$1 or S$2!
While vending machines selling beverages make up more than half of Japan's four million food and drink dispensers, there are a good number of food options as well. Don't think that these machines only sell packaged potato chips and chocolate bars, or that something out of a machine can't taste fresh and good. These days, Japanese vending machines even dish out caviar, fresh sashimi, and wagyu steak.
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This article was first published in MoneySmart.