Japan Rail Pass – a Guide to the JR Pass

Deciding whether to invest in a JR Rail Pass for your stay in Japan? We've got all the answers to your questions on Japan's golden ticket to transport.

Bullet train

Provided by en.wikipedia.org

Two thousand miles of diverse scenery, of fascinating people and local cuisine. A trip to Japan would feel wasted if you didn’t step outside of modern Tokyo and into the depths of Japan’s soul: Kyoto to discover the roots of Japanese culture, Hiroshima for its history and Osaka to test out the best of the nation’s cuisine.

Once you’ve decided exactly where you want to go, it’s then just a question of how you get there. And, as always, the Japanese are well prepared with the most efficient solution. This time, it’s the Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass), which allows you unlimited travel around the country. Adventurous town-hopping tourists, rejoice! This magic all-you-can-ride pass grants you access to trains and buses in every corner of the country. Here we’ve got all the answers to your questions on exactly how the JR Pass works and what type of pass will work best for you.

What is the JR Pass?

JR Pass Prices

Map of Shinkansen Lines

How to Get a JR Pass

How to Activate Your JR Pass

How to Use the JR Pass

Different Types of JR Pass

What is the JR Pass?

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Photo credit: Jennifer Feuchter via Flickr

The Japan Rail Pass is a pass created for visitors to Japan that allows unlimited travel on all of the JR trains (excluding the Nozomi and Mizuho super express bullet trains) over a short period of time. The company Japan Railways (JR) not only runs a number of local trains around Japan but also the shinkansen (bullet trains) which can facilitate your trip up and down the country at high speeds of up to 200mph.

The pass is available for periods of either seven days, 14 days or 21 days. Be sure to choose your ticket carefully as you’re not able to change your ticket to extend or shorten the timeframe once you have arrived in Japan.

 

Am I Eligible For the JR Pass?

The JR Pass is only available to people on a temporary visitor visa from outside of the country. Any long term visitors, residents or Japanese nationals are not eligible to apply for the JR Pass. If you are arriving into the country as a tourist, you will usually be issued with a 90-day tourist visa which means you are eligible for the JR Pass.

Want to know more about Japan Visa Requirements

 

Benefits of the JR Pass

  • Cheapest way to travel – With a return ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto on the bullet train setting you back around $350 and a seven-day JR Pass at just $278, even if you’re planning just one trip the JR Pass is worth investing in.
  • Speedy travel – Although much cheaper alternatives to the shinkansen are available for long distance journeys, the high-speed trains will get you around in record time. For example, the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto takes 2 hours 20 minutes, while the bus journey can take up to 9 hours. To discover alternative traveling options from Tokyo to Kyoto, have a read of our guide for travelling between Tokyo and Kyoto
  • No booking required – Once you’ve activated your pass you can turn up at the train station, show your pass at the ticket barriers and hop on any train – Easy!
  • Ride Tokyo trains for free – Some of the Tokyo train lines are run by JR, including the central circle Yamanote line, meaning you can travel around a lot of Tokyo for free with your pass. Take a look at our Tokyo Subway and Train Survival Guide.
  • The shinkansen experience – The bullet trains are a great Japanese experience, epitomizing Japan’s cleanliness, good service and mind blowing technology.

 

Green Pass

If you opt for the slightly more pricey Green JR Pass you’ll have access to the green carriages on the bullet trains as well as some fast train lines. The green carriages offer a First Class service with bigger, comfier seats, less crowded carriages, a hot towel and free drinks.

If you’d rather just treat yourself to one trip in a green carriage, or a sleeping car, you are able to pay an extra fee in order to upgrade.

JR Pass Prices

7 Day Pass 14 Day Pass 21 Day Pass
Ordinary Pass Adult $278 Adult $444 Adult $568
  Child $139 Child $222 Child $284
Green Pass (1st Class) Adult $372 Adult $603 Adult $784
  Child $186 Child $302 Child $392

*Prices in USD

Map of Shinkansen Lines

How to Get a JR Pass

The JR Pass must be obtained outside of Japan before your stay, as it is not available to buy within Japan. You can buy your JR Pass at certain travel agents in most countries or you can purchase the JR pass online. You will be issued with an Exchange Order on purchase of the pass, which is a confirmation document that you will need to provide in exchange for the JR Pass once you arrive in Japan. Be sure to keep hold of the Exchange Order and take it with you to Japan as you won’t be able to receive your pass without this document.

 

Can I Cancel my JR Pass?

If you decide you’d like to cancel your JR Pass on arrival in Japan, this can be done as long as you haven’t yet activated your pass. A refund, minus a 10% handling fee, can be issued at a JR exchange office.

Unfortunately, in the case that your pass is lost or stolen a refund or reissue of the pass is not possible.

How to Activate Your JR Pass

To activate your JR Pass, go to a Japan Rail Pass exchange office in any JR station with your Exchange Order (purchase confirmation) and your passport. For the activation of your pass, it is obligatory that you have your passport to hand. Moreover, it is also suggested that you carry your passport with you at all times when using the JR pass. Although it is rare that you are asked to show your passport at the ticket gates, you can be turned away if you can’t prove your identity.

The time limit on your pass (7/14/21 days) will start from the day it is activated in Japan. The pass can be activated at any point within three months of receiving your Exchange Order. Remember, your pass doesn’t need to be activated as soon as you arrive in Japan if you’re not planning on moving around a lot in your first few days.

 

Activating Your JR Pass at Narita Airport

JR Travel Center

Photo credit: Cheng-en Cheng via Flickr

If you’d like to activate your pass straight away after arriving into Narita airport, this can be done easily at the JR East Travel Service Center. Make your way towards the station floor where you will find the center at the bottom of the escalator. The JR Pass can be used on the Narita Express, the express train that gets you into Tokyo, so it may prove useful to activate your pass straight away to save you the ¥3,000 ($30) fare into Tokyo.

However, beware that a lot of people have had the same good idea so be prepared to queue for around 30 minutes before being able to talk to someone.

JR East Travel Service Center opening hours: 6.30am – 9.45pm

Get completely organized before you’ve set foot out of the airport by having a look into getting a Pocket Wifi box to keep you connected 24/7 throughout your stay.

How to Use the JR Pass

Once your pass has been activated, you’re free to use your pass at any time of day on any JR train, including local trains and bullet trains. Certain buses are also run by JR, as is the ferry from Hiroshima to Miyajima island. With your JR Pass, all you need to do is pass through the ticket gates via the ticket office at the side of the gates. Show your pass and be sure to have your passport to hand in case they ask you to prove your identity.

 

Do I need to book tickets in advance?

For most trains, it isn’t necessary to book a seat. On some smaller local trains, and of course the metro, there isn’t an option to reserve seats. This gives you the flexibility to turn up at whatever time suits you without committing to a certain time. However, if you are traveling in a group and want to sit together or if it’s during holidays, it is recommended that you book tickets in advance.

Busy holiday periods include the weeks straddling the New Year, Golden Week (end of April, beginning of May) and the O-bon Festival (around August 15th).

Different Types of JR Pass

In the case that you’re planning to travel around, but in just one region of Japan, it may be worth looking into a regional JR Pass:

Type of Rail Pass Areas of Travel Price
Hokkaido Rail Pass Hokkaido $235 for 7-day pass
JR East Pass (Tohoku area) Tohoku $185 for 5-day pass
Jr East Pass (Niigata, Nagano area) Niigata, Nagano area $165 for 5-day pass
JR Tokyo Wide Pass Tokyo and surrounding Kanto area $100 for 3-day pass
JR East-South Hokkaido Rail Pass Unlimited rides between Tokyo and Sapporo $255 for 6-day pass
Hokuriku Arch Pass Unlimited rides between Tokyo and Osaka to Hokuriku area $235 for 7-day pass
Alpine-Takayama-Matsumoto Area Tourist Pass Unlimited rides between Nagoya, Gero, Takayama & Toyama and between Nagoya, Kiso Fukushima, Matsumoto & Shinano Omachi. $170 for 5-day pass
JR West Rail Pass Kansai area $85 for 5-day pass
All Shikoku Rail Pass Shikoku area $95 for 5-day pass
JR Kyushu Rail Pass Northern Kyushu area $100 for 5-day pass
  All Kyushu area $175 for 5-day pass

*Prices are an approximate conversion from JPY to USD.

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