If you’ve done some research on train travel in Japan, you’re probably aware of the Japan Rail (JR) Pass.
It seems to be the thing to get, but what exactly is the JR Pass and is it right for me?
The JR pass is a discounted rail pass that allows you to take unlimited trips on most JR train lines (plus some other services) run by the 6 companies that make up the JR Group across Japan. This includes JR Kyushu, JR Shikoku, JR West, JR Central, JR East and JR Hokkaido, making it a handy and cost-effective means of seeing some of the best Japan has to offer for a flat-fare.
Who is eligible for the JR Pass?
The JR Pass is only available for purchase outside of Japan and to short-term foreign tourists who are entering Japan as a “temporary visitor”. Basically, anyone who is entering Japan for sightseeing purposes should receive entry permission with this wording. Please note that if you are a resident of Japan, or are entering Japan on a different status or re-entry permit, you are not eligible to use the JR Pass.
Japanese nationals living in a country other than Japan and who are traveling to Japan on a Japanese passport are also eligible for the JR Pass provided they are currently living abroad and have either permanent residency in that country or are married to a foreign national and both are living outside Japan. Written documentation supporting this status is required.
What kinds of passes are available?
The JR pass can be purchased for durations of 7, 14 and 21 consecutive days with the option of an “ordinary” or “green” ticket.
What’s the difference between an “ordinary” and “green” pass?
The green pass allows you to ride in the “green cars” (first-class) for no additional cost on most shinkansen and limited express trains, and a limited number of local trains. They offer larger seats, more leg room and expanded services. For most, however, the seats and space in a regular car are more than adequate.
How much does a JR Pass cost?
Children aged 6-11 are eligible for the child fare. Children aged 12 and up are considered adults.
Babies and children under the age of six can ride for free without a ticket provided they are traveling with a JR Pass holder on an eligible service. They are not, however, entitled to their own seat. If you would like your child to have their own seat, you will need to get them a Children’s JR Pass.
What services can I take using the pass?
The JR Pass is valid on:
Most JR trains – this includes local, rapid, express, limited express and shinkansen or “bullet trains”.
Aoimori Railway between Hachinohe and Aomori, provided pass holders get on and off only at Hachinohe, Noheji and Aomori stations.
Most local lines of JR buses including JR Hokkaido Bus, JR Bus Tohoku, JR Bus Kanto, JR Tokai Bus, West Japan JR Bus, Chugoku JR Bus and JR Kyushu Bus
Tokyo monorail to/from Haneda Airport
Miyajima Ferry to/from Miyajima Island
Do I need a reservation and how can I make one?
While on most local trains seating is on a first-come-first-served basis, some train services such as the shinkansen and limited express services have the option of reserved or unreserved seating. If you have ever booked tickets on such train lines, you will have noticed you receive two tickets. One is for the base fare and the other the seating surcharge (reserved is obviously a little more expensive than unreserved). Not only is the base fare and unreserved seating covered by the JR Pass, but pass holders can also make bookings for reserved seats at no additional charge, guaranteeing you a seat and that your traveling party can sit together.
A limited number of trains only carry reserved seating and hence require a reservation. They include:
Narita Express (Tokyo – Narita Airport)
Hayabusa and Hayate trains along the Tohoku Shinkansen
Komachi trains along the Akita Shinkansen
Most night trains
Simply head into a JR ticket office with your JR Pass (not the exchange order, as explained later) to make a reservation.
The JR Pass is NOT valid:
For any seat (reserved or unreserved) on “NOZOMI” or “MIZUHO” services on the Tokaido, Sanyo and Kyushu shinkansen lines. Pass holders must take “HIKARI”, “SAKURA”, “KODAMA” or “TSUBAME” trains. If you wish to take the exempt services, you will need to pay the base fare plus the limited express charge and additionally the green car surcharge should you wish to ride in the green car.
On JR trains that use non-JR tracks A small number of JR trains travel over non-JR tracks. Such sections must be paid for separately.
Trains that require special compartments or berths such as night trains are not fully covered by the pass.
Trains requiring “liner” tickets A small number of suburban commuter trains require a “liner” ticket that are not covered by the JR Pass, however, such services are unlikely to be used by tourists. They should not be confused with trains that simply have the word “liner” in them such as the Marine Liner, Seaside Liner and Ishikari Liner – these trains are covered by the JR Pass.
Highway buses Previously some highway buses were eligible for use with the JR Pass. As of 31 March 2013, this no longer applies. However, local JR buses may still be used.
How can I get a JR Pass?
You will need to purchase your JR Pass via an authorized JR sales agent abroad. They will then send you what is known as an “exchange order”. The exchange order must be exchanged for the JR Pass in Japan within 90 days of purchase. If for some reason you do not redeem your exchange order for the pass – for example, if your entry to Japan is denied or you need to delay your trip, you can apply for a refund from the company you ordered it through within 1 year of purchase (fees/penalties apply).
Once you get to Japan, you can then swap your exchange order for the actual pass at a designated JR ticket office exchange point. Don’t forget to bring your passport with you as it is necessary to prove your “temporary visitor” entry status and hence eligibility to receive the pass. The person(s) named on the exchange order must be present at the exchange point to receive the pass i.e. you cannot obtain a JR pass on behalf of someone else.
When can I start using the JR Pass?
When you obtain your JR Pass at the designated exchange point, it is necessary to decide on the starting date of the pass. You can choose any date within 30 days. The pass will then be valid for 7, 14 or 21 consecutive calendar days from the chosen date. You should consider your starting date carefully as once printed on the ticket it cannot be changed. It is therefore a good idea to have at least a general plan of when you are wanting to travel before picking up the pass to maximize your use of it.
Note that a calendar day is considered midnight to midnight, not a 24-hour period. So even if on the starting date of your JR Pass you don’t start using it until 3pm, that first day will still end at midnight, not 3pm of the next day. If you are on a train at midnight on the day that your JR Pass will expire, you may continue your journey, including transferring trains after 12am, until your final destination for no additional charge. However, this only applies to transfers within JR stations. If you are required to leave a station i.e. to transfer to the shinkansen (bullet train) after midnight, that part of the journey will not be covered and will require a separate ticket.
How can I use the JR Pass?
Simply show your JR Pass to the station officer at manned ticket gates to be allowed in and out of stations. The JR Pass cannot be put into the automated ticket machines. Be sure to always carry your passport when using the pass, as you must be able to produce it to confirm your ownership of the pass on request.
Is the JR Pass worth it?
That all depends on how much you plan to travel on eligible services. The JR Pass is designed for travelers wanting to cover some distance, not for urban travel only. If your itinerary is 7 days in Tokyo (and there is plenty to keep you occupied!), then the JR Pass would not be worth your while. Not only will the cost of the JR Pass be more than actual costs if you pay on a per trip basis, but it would also significantly limit trips covered by the pass considering the number of non-JR and subway lines.
If, however, you plan to travel from Tokyo to Kyoto on an equivalent shinkansen, that would normally set you back ¥13,220 or ¥26,440 return for a reserved seat. This is almost the cost of the ordinary 7-day adult pass (¥28,300). So provided you plan to go and come back within a 7-day period and given that you can also use the pass on eligible services for sightseeing both in Tokyo and Kyoto as well as on the Narita Express to/from Narita Airport, you can save some money here.
If you plan to combine several long-distance trips and especially if you plan to use the shinkansen, the savings can be significant.
Just keep in mind that the pass is valid for consecutive days and you are probably going to want to spend a couple of days in a city you have traveled far to see. Therefore how much moving around you want to do should be factored into whether a particular pass is worth it for you. The good thing about being able to take the shinkansen though, is that you can start your day early and not lose a day or a big part of it to travel time.
Want to work out how much your itinerary would cost?
Check out our post on how to use the website Hyperdia to search Japanese train timetables to work out your schedule and costs for your desired itinerary.
I’m not eligible for the JR Pass or it doesn’t work for my itinerary/budget. Are there any other discounted rail options?
Yes! Depending on your travel dates, the 5 non-consecutive day “Seishun 18 kippu” may be a great option. View our side-by-side comparison between the JR Pass and Seishun 18 kippu here. Also be sure to check out the relevant JR Group website of the area you’ll be visiting to see what the latest promotional travel/sightseeing deals are!
For more on the JR Pass and all the latest terms and conditions, click here.