Would you like to travel extensively? Are you planning fewer outings but want to make two or more trips by shinkansen high-speed rail? Will you be in Japan for two weeks or longer?  If yes to any of these questions, than the JR pass is what you want.  Beyond the above criteria I strongly recommend this pass to anyone that is planning to get outside of Tokyo to another large city during their trip.  The Japan Railways (JR) pass allows travel on most train lines and is different from an IC Card.

Does the JR Pass Suit Your Needs

If you travel enough you can save quite a bit of money with this pass. If you are staying in one urban area the entire time of your visit it probably won’t save you any money. But beyond any cost savings it is incredibly convenient.  This added value would almost make it worthwhile even without any extra savings benefit. The JR Pass is easy, affordable, and provides flexible access to the entire country.

Trains go everywhere in Japan and since the central train station is often the centre for many communities both big and small it makes trains ideal transportation to any destination.

Plus the JR Pass takes away all the burden of having to calculate the costs for any trips you take and will prevent you from having to decide if the added cost of transportation during an unplanned excursion prevents you from making the plunge.

Simply put this pass makes life easy.

A landscape format image of a booklet. It has Japanese and English writing and stamped dates. The owner's name is printed on the front.

This is what your JR Rail Pass looks like. Don’t lose or damage this! Photo by Jennifer Feuchter.

Conditions of the JR Pass

You can purchase a rail pass limited to one of the JR regions if you know your travels won’t extend beyond those boundaries.  THe regions are: East, West, Central, Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku.  And there are passes for limited regions or lines within those areas as well.

The JR Rail Pass can be bought for seven, 14, or 21-day lengths of time.  And these days will run consecutively once the pass is activated. It doesn’t begin when you arrive in Japan so you can feel free to stay in one place and then activate the pass once you begin traveling more regularly or further afield.

The pass can be used on almost all JR train lines on their nationwide network. This includes most shinkansen trains! Even the most recent Hokkaido Shinkansen line operating from Northern Japan (Tohoku) through the undersea Seikan tunnel to Hokkaido. The only exceptions are the Nozomi (the fastest train on the Tokaido route connecting Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka) and Mizuho (the shinkansen train connecting Osaka to Fukuoka on the island of Kyushu). You can’t take these express shinkansen trains on the JR Pass but you are still free to use other JR trains running these routes.

There are other private train lines and local suburban lines that can’t be accessed with the JR Pass. But tickets for these and the Nozomi or Mizuho lines can be bought separate from your JR Pass for the regular fare. Overall the JR Pass easily covers the vast majority of all train routes you could expect to use.

A silver train with green markings on its exterior is pulling into a station train platform.

You can use the JR Rail Pass on more than just the Shinkansen lines. Train lines servicing urban centres are also covered – like the Yamanote Line in Tokyo shown above. Photo by Rukin.

Who Can Buy the JR Pass

To buy the JR Pass you must be a foreign national traveling as a temporary visitor. And the pass must be purchased in your home country within a three month period before your trip.  You are not allowed to purchase the pass any earlier than that. You will have to buy the pass through a licensed travel agent or in some cases online. More info about where to buy your pass can be found here. They also provide handy information on how to activate your pass and a list of where in Japan you can do so.  Which is at only their list of designated JR stations, not a station or stop in the middle of nowhere.

If it looks like the JR Pass makes sense then make sure to start looking at currency exchange rates three months out from your arrival in Japan. Since the price is in yen you’ll want to purchase one when the exchange rates are favourable.

When you are traveling with this pass on regular local trains you don’t use it to purchases tickets. You have to present your pass to the attendant at the ticket gate and they will allow you to pass through. For shinkansen or other express train you’ll need to go the actual ticket office (not an attendant at the gate!) and make a reservation for your desired train and time.

First Class Pass

Finally, when you purchase the pass you’ll notice that it’s possible to buy regular or ‘green car’ versions of the pass. The green cars are first class train cars with wider chairs that recline. I wouldn’t recommend them unless you’ve got money to burn and are determined to be as comfortable as possible.  The regular cars are certainly more spacious than an airplane and quite clean. That beings said I’ve had the opportunity to travel a fair bit in the green cars and… it’s pretty awesome.

Plan your trip. If you think you’ll be traveling around quite a bit – and I hope you do! – then pick up the JR Rail pass. It’ll make a last minute unplanned trip to that mountain top onsen so much easier.