A complete guide to the Japanese Rail Pass
Published: 1/9/23 | January 9, 2023 Japan is one of my favorite countries in the world. The serene beauty of the mountains and temples, the hustle and bustle of the sprawling cities, the great food, and its long history make it an amazing place to visit. However, Japan has a reputation, especially among budget travelers, for being expensive. “Better to skip Japan and head to Southeast Asia,” they say, “that’s where your money goes further.” However, you can travel to Japan on a budget. Food, attractions, and even accommodation (it’s the land of capsule hotels!) can all be found for relatively low cost if you know where to look. However, one aspect of travel in Japan that doesn’t quite live up to its expensive reputation is transportation – especially train travel. Japan’s bullet trains (they are called shinkansen) are beautiful, comfortable, convenient and fast. It is a world-class transportation wonder, racing at speeds of up to 320 kilometers (200 miles) per hour. It runs on special tracks separate from other trains and is an impressive feat of engineering. It’s expensive. There is no way around this fact. Fortunately, there is one easy thing you can do to cut your train ticket prices in half (or more): buy a Japan Rail Pass. You really shouldn’t be traveling across the country without one (and I’m sure they price the ticket and regular tickets in a way that really forces you to buy one). In this post, I will introduce the JR Pass and explain how it works, how much it costs, and answer frequently asked questions I get about the card. What is a Japan Rail Pass (JR)? The Japan Rail Pass (also known as the JR Pass) was created to help travelers get around the country (similar to the Eurail Pass in Europe). JR is Japan’s largest train operator, and the pass provides unlimited access to all of its trains for a set price. The card comes in 7, 14 and 21 day options. Note that these are consecutive days, not travel days. So, if you want to travel around Japan for two weeks, you’ll need to purchase the 14-day option, even though you won’t be taking the train every day. Several JR trains are included in the trail. The most famous is the shinkansen (bullet) train, which is the fastest train that goes to almost every destination and area. The second fastest in Tokyo (limited express). The kyuko (express) train comes next, followed by the kaisoku (express) and kakueki-teisha or futsu-densha (local trains that stop at each station). In short, that means there are JR trains that travel quickly between regions, some that travel between cities with multiple stations, and some slow (but cheap) local trains. In addition, JR trains also serve some urban areas, so they can be used within cities. For example, on my last visit, I used my JR Pass to get around Kyoto and Tokyo instead of buying local subway tickets. The JR Pass must be purchased before you arrive in Japan and must be mailed to you, so you’ll want to order it in advance (more below). How the JR Pass Works The JR Pass is very easy to use – just remember to buy it in advance, while in your home country, as the pass is only available to visitors. (Although you can buy it at select ticket offices in Japan until March 2023, in-person tickets cost much more, so it’s best to order them only in advance.) The pass has several options (each valid for consecutive days, not just travel days): 7 days: JPY 29,650 (JPY 39,600 for a green pass) 14 days: JPY 47,250 (JPY 64,120 for a green pass) 21 days: JPY 60,450 Japanese (JPY 83,390 for the Green Pass) The Green Pass is a first-class option. Since the trains in Japan are truly amazing, you probably won’t need to buy a Green Pass unless you really want some luxury. Additionally, traveling in green cars can be more difficult if you like to be spontaneous, as you must always reserve a seat in advance in green cars, requiring you to visit the ticket office or automatic reservation machines ahead of time to do so. In regular cars, you can hop in and take any available seat. In addition to the standard JR and green passes, there are provincial passes in case you are not traveling across the entire country. These options can save you more money because they are cheaper than regular JR passes. Each region has several pass options, usually ranging from one to seven days. You can buy JR cards for six regions: JR East (for the main island) JR West (for the main island) JR Central (for the main island) JR Hokkaido (for the north island) JR Kyushu (for the southwest island) JR Shikoku (for the southeast island) If you’re only going to focus on one region of the country, consider purchasing a regional JR card. If you want access to the whole country, get the regular JR Pass. If you’re a first-time visitor to Japan, you’ll likely want to get the regular JR Pass, as it covers all major destinations. In short, to get a pass you need to: choose the length of time for your pass (7, 14 or 21 days) choose your class (green or standard – again, standard is more than enough for most travelers) the area you want to visit (all of the country or one area) ) Pay the fee and request the card before you leave home. Online providers but I recommend this one since it’s been selling passes for the longest time). Once you purchase a pass, you will receive a “Replacement Order” in the mail, stamped with a date, that you will hand in to receive the actual pass in Japan. Don’t forget your exchange order at home, as you must bring this document to receive your card in Japan! Once in Japan, you will exchange your order of exchange (hence the name) for a JR Pass at one of the JR offices. Make sure you have your passport (not a photocopy) with you when you go to collect it, as they will check to make sure you have a temporary visitor stamp in your passport. JR Pass is only available for visitors and they are very strict in verifying that you are a tourist. You have three months from the date printed on the exchange order to receive your JR Pass, but you do not need to start using the card on the same day you receive it. For example, let’s say you want to pick up the card as soon as you arrive but want to spend some time in Tokyo before heading out to see the rest of the country. You can select any date within one month of replacing the order as your starting date. (But once you’ve issued a pass, you can’t change your start date.) Once you have your pass, you don’t have to worry about getting tickets, as you can simply use your pass to go straight through the automatic gates. In addition to using the shinkansen and other trains, the JR Pass provides access to: local buses operated by JR (such as the Hiroshima tour buses or JR buses around Sapporo) ferries operated by JR (such as those from Hiroshima to Miyajima Island) JR lines that pass Across metropolitan areas (such as Tokyo and Osaka) Free seat reservations (otherwise, seat reservations cost about 330-930 JPY) JR Card is not valid for: Nozomi Lines and Mizuho shinkansen for Japanese citizens or residents, such as foreigners working in Japan (only those Those with a tourist visa can use the passport) Is the Japan Rail Pass worth it? at all! Although you may initially get sticker shock when buying a pass, you’ll save hundreds of dollars during your trip with one—even if you only visit 2-3 cities. For example, without a rail pass, a ticket from Tokyo to Osaka costs about 27,000 yen (round trip), yet you can get a seven-day rail pass that includes unlimited travel on JR trains for only 29,650 yen. So for the price of one round-trip ticket, you get unlimited travel. It’s a no brainer! Here are some other examples of one-way train tickets on shinkansen trains with unreserved seats in a “normal” class (non-green car): Tokyo-Hiroshima: JPY 18,380 Tokyo-Kyoto: JPY 13,320 Tokyo-Fukuoka: 23, 390 yen Kyoto-Hiroshima: 10,570 yen Kyoto-Osaka: 4,230 yen Hiroshima-Fukuoka: 9,000 yen Nagano-Kanazawa: 8,440 yen Tokyo-Yokohama: 3,210 yen Hakodate-Tokyo: 23,500 yen As you can see, it doesn’t take It only takes one longer trip from Tokyo (eg Hiroshima or Fukuoka) to justify the cost of the pass. You will likely use it much more! And even if you don’t take bullet trains, a pass still makes sense. For example, a trip on a local train from Kyoto to Tokyo costs about 8,360 yen — instead of 13,320 yen for the bullet train. However, the local train journey takes nine hours and requires several transfers, rather than a direct three hours, making it a less-than-ideal option for most travelers (especially if your time is tight). It is often simply not worth the cost savings. You’d better use bullet trains and enjoy the high speed experience as they take you from one fantastic destination to another! Frequently Asked Questions About the Japanese Rail Pass Is the JR Pass only for tourists? yes. Only people visiting on a tourist visa can use the JR Pass. Can the Japan Rail Pass be used on the Tokyo subway? Yes, some (though not all) subway lines in Tokyo are operated by JR, which means you can access them for free with a JR Pass. This is true for the entire country. Metro lines and local metro lines are excluded from the corridor. Can I change the days I want to use my Japan Rail Pass? Once the card is activated, the dates are set. How do I activate a Japan Rail Pass? To activate a JR Pass, bring your exchange order and your passport to the JR office in Japan. Once they verify your identity and visa status, they will activate your pass. Can I use JR Pass from Tokyo to Kyoto? The distance is 445 kilometers (283 miles), and the journey takes less than three hours on the high-speed train. Are buses included in the JR Pass Yes, JR does operate some bus routes, which are included in the JR Pass. Some of the destinations where JR buses are present include Hokkaido, Shikoku, and Kyushu. Can I cancel my Japan Rail Pass? You can cancel your passport as long as it is not activated, but once it is activated, you cannot. *** Train travel is the best way to see Japan. The trains are clean and fast and the scenery is great. I like to travel across the country by train. While buying a train ticket may seem like an expensive option, it will save you a lot of money – a unique Japanese experience you won’t forget! Click here to get your Japan Rail Pass today! Book your flight to Japan: logistics tips and tricks Book your flight Use Skyscanner to find a cheap flight. They are my favorite search engine because they search websites and airlines all over the world so you will always know that no stone is left unturned! Reserve your accommodationYou can book your hostel with Hostelworld because they have the largest inventory and the best deals. If you want to stay somewhere other than a hostel, use Booking.com as they constantly show the cheapest rates for cheap guesthouses and hotels. My favorite places to stay in Japan are: Don’t forget about travel insurance – travel insurance will protect you from illness, injury, theft, and cancellation. It is comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. My favorite companies that offer the best service and the best value are: Are you looking for the best companies to save money with? Check out my resources page for the best companies to use when traveling. I list everything I use to save money when I’m on the road. They’ll save you money when you travel, too. Be sure to check out the Japan Rail Pass if you’ll be traveling around the country. It comes in 7, 14, and 21 days and can save you a lot of money! Want more information about Japan Be sure to visit our robust Japan destination guide for more planning tips!