The Japan Rail Pass is a discount pass for travel on Japan Railways (JR) rail lines and is one of the best value deals for touring Japan. If you’re traveling to multiple regions on Japan’s main islands and you’d like to save some money, a Japan Rail pass is a must-have – it basically pays for itself if you’re making one return trip by Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto.
But don’t leave home without it. The most important thing to remember about the pass is that you must buy a voucher for one overseas before arriving in Japan. While there are many regulations involving who can use the pass and how it can be used, the gist is this: it’s available to tourists visiting Japan with a “temporary visitor” stamp in their passports and can be used for free travel on nearly all trains in the JR system. It can also be used on some JR buses and the JR West-run ferry to Miyajima Island off Hiroshima.
Getting a Japan Rail Pass
To get a Japan Rail Pass, you have to follow these steps:
- Buy a Japan Rail Pass voucher (also known as an exchange order) before coming to Japan at a designated travel agent or other company. These include JTB, Nippon Travel Agency, and other travel firms (it varies by country and region).
- Get a “temporary visitor” stamp in your passport at the immigration counter when you enter Japan.
- Hand in your voucher in return for a pass at a Japan Rail Pass office at JR hubs. You’ll be asked to show your passport as well.
Japan Rail Pass – Cost and types
The Japan Rail Pass comes in two types – Green (for luxurious Green cars) and Ordinary.
They are available with validity periods of 7 days, 14 days and 21 days, calculated from the day the voucher is exchanged for the pass.
When deciding whether it’s worthwhile to purchase a Japan Rail Pass, consider that an adult-fare return trip from Tokyo to Kyoto on the Tokaido Shinkansen bullet train – one of the most popular journeys for tourists visiting Japan – is 26,160 yen. A one-week adult Ordinary Japan Rail Pass is 29,110 yen, less than 3,000 yen more, and it gives you the opportunity to travel anywhere on railways operated by the six regional JR companies. So, for instance, you could take a bullet train to Kyoto, then another to Hiroshima, perhaps stopping for side trips to see the temples of Nara or Himeiji Castle, and then return to Tokyo without paying anything extra.
It’s worth remembering that when riding the Tokaido Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo toward Kyoto and Osaka, Japan Rail Pass holders cannot use the fastest trains, known as Nozomi services. However, they can use the Hikari and Kodama services, which are slower than Nozomi because they stop at more stations. Nozomi trains take 2 hours and 25 minutes to go from Tokyo to Osaka, while Hikari trans take roughly 3 hours and Kodama trains take about 3 hours, 50 minutes.
Some Nozomi trains continue past Shin-Osaka Station onto the Sanyo Shinkansen line to Hakata Station in Fukuoka City. These are also off-limits to Japan Rail Pass holders without extra cost, but they can use the Hikari, Kodama or Sakura services (the latter begin at Shin-Osaka) on the Sanyo bullet train line.
Mizuho services on the Kyushu Shinkansen bullet train also cost extra for Japan Rail Pass holders but Tsubame bullet trains are free.
Users who want to ride in Gran Class cars on the Tohoku and Hokuriku Shinkansen bullet trains must also pay the limited express charge and the Gran Class surcharge.
Nationwide Japan Rail Pass is valid for travel on the new Hokkaido Shinkansen all the way from Tokyo to Shin-Hakodate Hokuto.
Japan Rail Pass is valid on all Shinkansen lines (with the exception of Nozomi and Mizuho services):
- Tokaido Shinkansen (Tokyo – Shin-Osaka)
- Sanyo Shinkansen (Shin-Osaka – Hakata)
- Tohoku Shinkansen (Tokyo – Shin-Aomori)
- Joetsu Shinkansen (Omiya – Niigata)
- Hokuriku Shinkansen (Takasaki – Kanazawa)
- Kyushu Shinkansen (Hakata – Kagoshima-Chuo)
- Hokkaido Shinkansen (Shin-Aomori – Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto)
Japan Rail Pass Value Calculator
Introducing Japan Rail Pass Value Calculator. Add the locations on your trip to find out if getting a JR Pass is worth it. This tool will also recommend regional passes that will cover all or part of your trip.
Using the Japan Rail Pass
To use your Japan Rail Pass, simply present it to JR staff at ticket gates and to conductors aboard trains when asked. You may be asked to show your passport as well.
Shinkansen bullet trains have both cars with reserved and non-reserved seats. You can always try to get an unreserved seat when traveling with your Japan Rail Pass. But if you’re traveling during a long weekend or a holiday period (such as New Year’s around December 28 to January 6, Golden Week around April 27 to May 6, Obon around August 11 to 20, and Silver Week in September), you should consider reserving a seat as trains can get very crowded, sometimes with standing-room only in the aisles and between carriages.
Japan Rail Pass holders can reserve seats for free at ticket offices (Midori-no-madoguchi) in train stations. Note that some train services, such as the Narita Express (N’EX), are all reserved seats.
Using Japan Rail Pass in Tokyo
Japan Rail Pass can be used on all JR lines in Tokyo, including Yamanote Line, Narita Express (N’EX), and Tokyo Monarail to Haneda Airport. Show your pass to JR staff at ticket gates, do not go through an automatic gate. Here is a full map of all JR lines in Tokyo area.
Japan Rail Pass cannot be used on other (non-JR, Odakyu, Keio, Toei) train lines or subways in Tokyo area.
Article by Tim Hornyak. All rights reserved.