Looking for alternatives to the Japan Rail Pass for your upcoming trip? Then you’re in luck, there are plenty of options to choose from!

Depending on your travel plans, these options can be convenient and time-saving — not to mention money-saving in light of the massive JR Pass price hikes that kicked in on October 1, 2023. Here are our top recommendations for getting around Japan without a JR Pass, including other rail options, highway buses, and domestic flights. And yes — you can still take the bullet train without a JR Pass!

What’s the best alternative to the JR Pass?

The best alternative is most likely a single-journey Shinkansen ticket. One-way or round-trip bullet train tickets are best for trips between popular cities like Tokyo, Osaka, and Hiroshima. Taking a highway bus or plane can be cheaper, but may take longer and be less comfortable.

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If you are planning multiple inter-city trips, however, a rail pass — potentially even the national JR Pass — might work out to be most economical. Regional train passes are great for exploring a particular region, like Tōhoku, in depth.

All Japan Rail Passes offer incredible coverage across the country, but with the price increase in 2023, they’re just not the same value-for-money that they used to be. That’s not to say they aren’t worth it — they still can be if you make the most of them.

Read more about the different types of JR passes — including how much they cost and where they can take you.

Photo by Aimee Gardner

1. Single-journey Shinkansen tickets: For 1-2 cities

You can buy single-journey bullet train tickets on Klook.

Shinkansen bullet train pass Mountain fuji
Shinkansen passing Mt. Fuji and shibazakura flowers in spring. | Photo by iStock.com/blanscape

Don’t want to leave Japan without riding the world-famous Shinkansen? Not to worry, you don’t have to fork out for a JR Pass to do so. Instead, you can just buy a single-journey Shinkansen ticket. And we recommend it.

Shinkansen travel is comfortable, fast, and much better for the environment than other transport options. Single-journey, one-way or round-trip tickets are a great way to get the Shinkansen experience without splurging on a JR Pass.

The rule with these tickets is that the further (and faster) you want to go, the more they’ll cost. For example, a single-journey ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto starts at ¥13,320, while Tokyo to Hiroshima prices start at ¥18,380. Seat reservations on the Shinkansen require an extra fee that ranges from about ¥500 to ¥2,000, depending on how far you travel.

Single-journey Shinkansen tickets can be bought online, or in person at major JR Stations. There are a few ways to get discounts on Shinkansen tickets, but most of them require some level of Japanese proficiency.

2. Regional JR Passes: For exploring one region in depth

Japan Rail regions.

Regional JR Passes are similar to the All-Japan Rail Pass, but they are limited to specific geographic regions. So while you won’t be able to see all of Japan with one, you’ll instead be able to explore one area in depth.

Note: It is possible to stack regional passes, so you could actually still see all of Japan if you had a lot of time!

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Regional JR Passes cover travel on Shinkansen and JR train lines within their regions. They also usually cover JR buses and ferries, plus some local private train and bus lines.

There is a wide variety of regional JR Passes available, including:

There is also the JR Tokyo Wide Pass, which covers travel around the Greater Tokyo region. Meanwhile, the Hokuriku Arch Pass is a combined JR East and West Pass that can get you between Tokyo and Osaka or Kyoto — and is great for fans of slower travel.

Some regional passes can be used by foreign residents of Japan too, not just short-term visitors, making them a great option if you are seeing friends or family and want to travel together.

Read our full guide to Regional JR Passes for more on the different passes available.

3. Other rail discounts: For those who don’t mind the scenic route

Shinkansen aren’t the only trains in Japan. If you don’t mind taking a slower, more scenic route, there are different discount schemes and passes available.

The most famous is the Seishun 18 Ticket (青春18きっぷ). This ticket costs just ¥12,050 for five uses — that can be five non-consecutive days of travel for one person, one day of travel for five people, or a combination of those.

The catch is that you’re only allowed to use Seishun 18 tickets on local trains — which are slow and far less comfortable than Shinkansen and limited-express trains. Also, these tickets are only available during certain times of the year.

Another option is to investigate rail passes and discounts specific to your destination. For example, there are various discount travel passes in Kyoto. Meanwhile, if you’re heading from Tokyo to Nikkō, the Nikkō World Heritage Area Pass is a good option.

Many other cities and regions have travel passes too, so we always recommend stopping by the nearest Tourist Information Center to see what’s on offer.

passengers
Take a nap on a night bus. | Photo by iStock.com/Maja-Mitrovic

4. Bus travel: Slow — but cheap!

You can buy bus tickets online via Willer Express or Kosoku Bus.

Highway buses in Japan are an affordable way to travel. While they can be less comfortable than a Shinkansen, they have their own advantages.

Firstly, you’re guaranteed a seat at no extra cost. You also don’t have to fuss with transfers, and if you opt for a night bus you can save on hotel costs. Plus, they allow you to discover the joys of Japanese service areas, which often have excellent food, local produce, and shopping opportunities.

Bus passes in Japan

Willer Express offers a Japan Bus Pass, which is like the road version of the JR Pass — but a lot cheaper.

There are three-, five-, and seven-day bus passes available. They cover unlimited bus travel on non-consecutive days within a two-month period (overnight trips count for only one day).

You can opt for a Mon-Thu Pass, that’s only valid for travel from Monday to Thursday, or an All Day Pass that you can use on any day. Prices range from ¥10,200 to ¥15,300, depending on the number of days of use, and which pass you choose.

Japan Bus Online also has a Tōhoku regional pass. It provides free travel for either two or three consecutive days in Tōhoku for ¥6,000 or ¥8,000. If you’re in Tokyo, you’ll need to make your way to Fukushima or further north first before you can use it. The English website is quite comprehensive and can give you lots of ideas to help you plan you trip.

Photo by Maria Danuco

5. Flying: Sometimes the savings are worth the extra hassle

There have always been some destinations in Japan that you simply have to fly to, like Okinawa. But with increasing Shinkansen and train prices, domestic flights are becoming more viable options for those wanting to travel within Japan, in general.

If you’re lucky and get your flights on sale, it can also be cheaper than a Shinkansen. For example, a one-way Shinkansen ticket from Tokyo to Osaka starts at ¥14,400, but you can often find flights for under ¥10,000.

RouteAirlineOne-way FareDate
Tokyo Narita => Osaka Kansai InternationalPeachUS$29.00 May 22, 2024Booking options

Important: If you opt to fly, you’ll need to factor in the time required for travel to/from airports (and check-in procedures). You should also consider the extra cost of travel to/from airports, which can add up.

6. Rental cars: If you want to visit hard-to-get-to places

You can book rental cars on Klook or Kayak.

While driving on Japanese highways can be uninspiring, and road tolls add up quickly, renting a car can give you the opportunity to visit remote areas that are otherwise hard to get to.

We especially recommend rental cars for Hokkaidō, the Tōhoku region, Kyūshū, and Okinawa. However, we definitely don’t recommend driving between major cities like Tokyo and Osaka — taking the Shinkansen or flying will be faster, potentially more cost-effective, and much better for the environment.

Before rushing off to book your rental car, make sure you have the right type of licence. Also, make sure to book accommodation with parking!

Time for a roadtrip.

Frequently asked questions

How do you get around Japan without a JR Pass?

Even if you don’t have a JR Pass, you can take Shinkansen and trains in Japan. You’ll just need to buy tickets instead. Plus, you can also take a bus, fly, or even drive between most major cities in Japan.

Is the JR Pass worth it?

Since the price increased in October 2023, the JR Pass isn’t as good value as it used to be. But, if you plan your trip carefully it can still save you money — particularly if you visit 3-4 different cities.

What’s the best way to get around Japan

We won’t sugar-coat it — despite the sometimes steep prices you just can’t beat the Shinkansen when traveling between major cities. It’s speedy, it’s comfortable, and it’s convenient. Plus, it’s way better for the environment than flying or driving.

While we do our best to ensure it’s correct, information is subject to change. Post first published in January 2015. Last updated in October 2023, by Maria Danuco.

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