Guide to Using the JR Pass
The Japan Rail Pass (or JR Pass) is a nationwide rail pass allowing you unlimited travel on trains operated by Japan Rail (with a few exceptions, see below) for a fixed number of days. It’s amazingly good value if you’re planning to cover a reasonable distance – basically any itinerary exceeding a Tokyo-Kyoto round-trip will work out cheaper using the JR Pass, potentially saving you hundreds of dollars.
If you’re visiting for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and want to get some sightseeing done while you’re in the country (e.g. by visiting Kyoto and Hiroshima in addition to Tokyo), the JR Pass is probably the way to go (see some example itineraries below).
How to Buy the JR Pass
There are two ways to buy the JR Pass – advance booking online, or in person once you’re in Japan. Doing it in advance saves you 40 to 60 dollars, you just need to make sure you do it in good time as you have to recieve a physical voucher (called an ‘exchange order’) in the mail to be exchanged for the pass once you reach Japan. Don’t order a pass the day before you fly! The passes are sold by various online sales agents, usually with free shipping (depending where you are), and usually good for delivery within 48 hours – but really it’s best to allow a week at least to be safe. Note that traditional bricks & mortar travel agents in your country may sell them too, but likely with a steeper markup.
If you fail to sort it out in time, or you didn’t realise you wanted one before you got there, you can just take your passport along to a designated sales point* and buy one over the counter for a slightly higher price (the crucial requirement remains that you entered the country on a tourist stamp or visa, and not a residency permit):
7-day passes are 29,000 purchased online or 33,000 purchased in Japan
14-day passes are 46,000 purchased online or 52,000 purchased in Japan
21-day passes are 59,000 purchased online or 65,000 purchased in Japan
So, if you’re organised and like saving 40 to 60 dollars, online is still the way to go – I’ve used the JR Pass many times and have bought them both ways. 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 banners 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! I use them whenever I purchase a JR Pass online, they’ve provided great service and fast delivery every time. Click the banner to make an order or browse their site:
(*over the counter sales points are the following stations: Sapporo, Sendai, Niigata, Tokyo Station, Shinjuku, Yokohama, Nagoya, Osaka, Hiroshima, Takamatsu, Hakata (Fukuoka), New Chitose Airport (Sapporo), Tokyo’s Narita & Haneda airports, and Kansai International Airport)
The JR Pass: is it worth it?
Man, back when I lived in Japan 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. As a legal resident of the country, the JR Pass was unavailable to me at the time, 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 screw it, why not?! I doubt the majority of JR Passes get thrashed quite so heavily, but you can easily get your money’s worth. Since that first one I’ve been back to Japan multiple times and used a JR Pass every time – I never did quite as much on one pass again, but I always saved money with it.
Should You Buy the JR Pass for the Tokyo Olympics?
If you’re just attending events in Tokyo and staying only in the Tokyo region, then it won’t be worth it – just pick up one of the local IC cards instead.
On the other hand if you’re planning to attend events outside Tokyo (like football in Sendai or the marathons in Sapporo) the JR Pass could be very useful – the easiest way to Sapporo is to fly, of course, but you could consider getting a JR Pass and making a trip out of it with a few stops in the Tohoku region and Hokkaido (e.g. Hakodate at the southern tip of Hokkaido, and see here for my Tohoku recommendations).
If you’re only attending events in Tokyo but want to do some sightseeing beyond the Tokyo region, then the JR Pass is the way to go (and really it does make sense to see a bit more of Japan while you’re in the country). At the very least I’d recommend visiting Kyoto and Hiroshima, you could get a 7-day pass and spend 2 nights in Hiroshima and 4 nights in Kyoto.
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 potentially use the Narita Express to & from the airport on days 1 & 7, which comes to over 5,000 yen (though often people staying longer than 7 days will time their pass activation & usage to cover the Narita Express on either the first or final day); add a round trip to Kyoto, and you’re already saving money. Any other travel you do on top of that is more money saved.
A 1-week sample itinerary of Tokyo – Hiroshima – Kyoto – Tokyo would be 45,230 yen bought as separate tickets, so a healthy saving (plus potentially an airport transfer).
A typical 2-week route might be Tokyo to Fukuoka and back e.g. Narita – Tokyo – Osaka – Hakata (Fukuoka) – Hiroshima – 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.
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 rugby fans 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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