So, the JR Pass; man, how I always looked on with envy at all the tourists (including family & friends when they visited) just breezing through the Shinkansen gates, flashing their JR Passes like a wave of a wand, to be whisked away here, there, and everywhere at high speed on Japan’s iconic bullet trains. For me as a legal resident of the country, the JR Pass was unavailable, a magical land of affordable super-fast transportation from which I was forbidden; a round trip from Kyoto to Tokyo alone would’ve cost me around 10% of my monthly salary as an English teacher, so how I longed for one of those passes. Had I been able to get my hands on one, I would’ve absolutely caned it!
…and so when I returned to Japan years later as a tourist, I got a JR Pass and proceeded to do exactly that! In 7 days I did:
Hakata – Shin Osaka
Shin Osaka – Kanazawa & back
Shin Osaka – Inari (Kyoto) & back (for Fushimi Inari Shrine)
Shin Osaka – Tokyo & back
Shin Osaka – Takamatsu & back (over the Great Seto Bridge)
Shin Osaka – Hakata
(I arrived & departed on the JR Beetle ferry from Korea – not covered by the pass unfortunately)
…which was ¥95,880 worth of tickets for ¥29,000. Not bad!
I was seriously going for it though – having previously lived in Osaka, Tokyo, and Kyoto, I wasn’t spending time exploring those cities, but was catching up with friends in the evenings while taking day trips to places I’d always fancied visiting but hadn’t been able to justify the expense. I went to Takamatsu literally just to see the Seto Inland Sea and go over the Great Seto Bridge, because I’m a geek and because, well, I had a JR Pass so fuck it, why not?! I doubt the majority of JR Passes get thrashed quite so heavily, but you can easily get your money’s worth.
JR Pass Example Itineraries
Basically, if you’re doing anything much more than Tokyo – Kyoto return (26,800 yen), a JR Pass is going to be good value; 29,000 yen for the 1-week pass, and obviously the more you use it the better value it becomes. If you’re landing at Narita, you can use the Narita Express to & from the airport on days 1 & 7, which comes to over 5,000 yen; add a round trip to Kyoto, and you’re already saving money. Any other travel you do on top of that – perhaps travelling back to Tokyo from Kyoto via Kanazawa, or taking day trips from Kyoto to Nara or Osaka, or from Tokyo to Nikko, plus all your local JR journeys on Tokyo’s Yamanote Line etc – is money saved.
A 1-week sample itinerary of Narita – Tokyo – Kyoto – Kanazawa – Tokyo – Narita would be 39,000 yen bought as separate tickets, so a healthy saving.
A typical 2-week route might be Tokyo to Fukuoka and back e.g. Narita – Tokyo – Hakata (Fukuoka) – Hiroshima – Osaka – Kyoto – Tokyo – Narita, which would already be 60,000 yen without including any daytrips (e.g. Nagasaki from Fukuoka, Nara from Osaka, etc). As the 2-week pass is 46,000 yen, it’s great value for this itinerary.
However, if you did either of those itineraries without returning to Tokyo i.e. fly in to Tokyo & out from Osaka / Fukuoka, then the pass would no longer be worth it.
How to Buy a JR Pass
If you want to get a JR Pass, there are now two options – buy a voucher before departure, which you exchange for the actual pass at the ticket office after arrival; or, simply buy one in person at the ticket office. Prior to 2017, the former was the only option; since March 2017, passes have also been sold over the counter. The price for a 7-day pass is 33,000 yen bought over the counter in Japan (vs 29,000 yen bought online in advance).
2-week passes are 46,000 online or 52,000 in Japan
3-week passes are 59,000 online or 65,000 in Japan
So, if you’re organised and like saving 40 to 60 dollars, online is still the way to go – I have an affiliate partnership with Japan Rail Pass, so if you click on one of my links to their site (like this one) or one of the ads on this page and make a purchase, you save 40 dollars and I also get a bit of commission (at no extra cost to you) – it’s a win-win, so if you’ve found my site useful or interesting please consider it!
If you’re not so organised, you can just rock up at the ticket office of selected major stations (Tokyo, Shinjuku, Yokohama, Nagoya, Osaka, Hiroshima, Hakata, Niigata, Sendai, & Sapporo, and Narita, Haneda, Kansai, & Chitose (Sapporo) airports) and buy it then & there – the crucial requirement remains that you entered the country on a tourist stamp or visa, and not a work or study etc visa.
Riding the Train
Getting your pass: when you arrive in Japan, if you pre-ordered take your exchange order to the JR Pass counter at the ticket office – you can do this at Narita, Haneda and Kansai airports if you want to activate it immediately to use for your airport transfer, or if you want to activate it later head to Shinjuku or Tokyo Station (or any of the others listed at the * above). They’ll check your passport for your tourist stamp/visa and give you your pass – this is a good time to make any seat reservations you already have in mind. If you didn’t pre-order just go to the JR Pass counter with your passport and pay by cash or credit card.
Once you have the pass in hand, you’re then free to pass through the ticket barriers at any JR station at will – you can’t go through the usual ticket gates, look for the manned gate at the side where the staff will visually check your ticket and let you through (in practice, if they’re busy they barely even check, just wave the pass at them and go through. On other occasions they may actually want to take it and have a proper look at it). The first time you do this with your new pass they’re supposed to stamp it to validate it; if they’re busy and not fully paying attention, make sure they stamp it for you! (it’s not such a big deal, but may save you a confusing scene later on)
The shinkansen platforms are accessed via a separate concourse which in turn is usually accessed through a second set of barriers within the JR concourse. At some stations (especially smaller ones) you may find this isn’t the case, but most of the time you’ll be going through two sets of ticket gates to reach the shinkansen platforms so allow plenty of time to navigate the stations. These concourses are packed full of convenience stores, bento shops, and souvenir shops – bento are basically lunch boxes, and the ekiben (a portmanteau of eki, station, and bento) are really good! If you need to eat on the go, do it like a Japanese salaryman and grab yourself an ekiben to enjoy on the train. The trains usually also have food trolleys coming up & down with drinks and snacks, nothing fancy but it does the job.
Seat reservations: most shinkansen and limited express trains have both reserved seat cars and non-reserved seat cars. The non-reserved cars enable you to just rock up and get on any train going to your destination, but if it’s busy there’ll be plenty of others doing the same and you may end up standing. Therefore if you know which train you’re planning to ride you might want to make a seat reservation, you can do this at any ticket counter (not just the JR Pass counters) and it’s free of charge. There are some shinkansen and limited express trains which have no non-reserved cars and thus require mandatory seat reservations, notably the Hayabusa & Komachi (which are the fastest service heading north from Tokyo to Hokkaido & Akita respectively after separating at Morioka).
Exceptions: with the JR Pass you can ride all JR trains, with just a few exceptions. The main ones to be aware of are that you can’t ride the Nozomi or Mizuho trains on the Shinkansen system. The Nozomi is the fastest service operating between Tokyo & Fukuoka, and the Mizuho is the fastest service between Osaka and Kagoshima (the trains don’t actually go faster, they just make fewer stops and so provide a faster service from A to B). This means the fastest service you can use between Tokyo & Osaka is the Hikari, which also operates between Osaka & Fukuoka, and the fastest service you can use between Osaka & Kagoshima is the Sakura. Between Osaka & Fukuoka the Hikari and Sakura overlap; the Sakura is faster over that part of the network (and only marginally slower than the Mizuho).
In addition to those two shinkansen services, the pass doesn’t cover private cabins on night trains (it does cover the non-private cabins, but there are hardly any night trains left anyway and you’re unlikely to ride them unless you’re a train enthusiast), and also there are some JR trains which run along short sections of private railway which require you to pay a supplement. This could potentially happen without you realising, and the conductor or station staff will ask for the supplement – don’t feel they’re ripping you off or anything, it’s just how it works and the supplement isn’t usually much. In any case most visitors probably won’t end up on these sections; the most likely would be the limited express trains from Tokyo to Shimoda (on the Izu Peninsula) and Kyoto to Amanohashidate, or if you go to Odaiba Island in Tokyo Bay on the JR Saikyo Line from Shinjuku/Shibuya the train runs on a private line (Rinkai Line) for the last few stops which’ll cost you a few dollars.
The JR Pass really is the best way to cover a lot of ground in Japan. Next time I have one, should there be a next time, I reckon I’ll ride the Komachi Shinkansen (to Akita) and the Hokkaido Shinkansen just for the hell of it, because they’re the two coolest-looking trains on the planet (the Akita Shinkansen is red, and looks to me like the long-nosed tengu, and the Hokkaido Shinkansen is the racing green one). Don’t care if it makes me sound like an otaku (geek) – I am, and those trains are awesome! Update: since writing this post I’ve been back to Japan a whole bunch of times, and used the JR Pass for every visit (and did indeed ride the red & green trains up north!)
Any questions about the JR Pass? Give me a shout below and I’ll get back to you.
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