Thinking of shelling out for the JR Pass and want to make sure you get your money’s worth? We have the perfect 7-day Japan itinerary to help you maximize your JR Pass. It takes you all over the main island and back to Tokyo!

Those JR passes can end up as one of the most expensive parts of your trip to Japan. But with careful planning, you’ll soon be sitting back, relaxing, and earning that money back. Okay, perhaps ‘relaxing’ isn’t the right term for this itinerary. But if you’re shelling out for the pass, you may as well make the most of it.

Is the JR Pass still worth it?

So, first you might be wondering if the JR Pass is even worth it anymore. Well, after the price increased from ¥29,650 to ¥50,000 (7-day pass) on October 1 2023, we don’t blame you for this question. The truth is that now you need to really maximize your JR Pass for it to be worth it. Before, a round trip from Tokyo to Osaka was enough to cover your cost. That journey comes in ¥29,440 in total for round-trip Shinkansen tickets, so you can see that JR Pass was definitely good value before, but not so much anymore.

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Now, you’ll have to travel a whole lot to make your JR Pass worth it. But not to worry, we’ve devised a great itinerary to help you maximize your JR Pass.

tokyo to kyoto bullet train
On clear days, Mount Fuji is visible from the bullet train. | Photo by iStock.com/vichie81

Things to know before you go

Give yourself a few days in Tokyo before starting the pass and you can have a 10-day break and still see plenty of the country. With this itinerary, you’ll hit all the major bucket-list sights. However, this is not a tour for those who like a lie-in. With lots of travel and plenty of early starts, you’ll be pretty tired by the end of it. But if this is all the time you’ve got in Japan, you need to make it worth it.

The route

Tokyo | Sendai | Kanazawa | Shirakawa-gō | Kyoto | Nara | Osaka | Hiroshima | Fukuoka | Tokyo

You’ll recognize a few, if not all of the names on our list. Take a look at a map, you’ll see we’re covering some real distance (just over 3000 km if you really want to know). That means you’ll spend a good chunk of time on trains. Yay. But it helps that bullet trains are kind of amazing — with comfy seats, folding tables, leg room, and great views, you can at least travel in comfort. Pack some food and drinks, and settle in for the ride.

The longest single journey will be your return one, clocking in at 6 hours, but you’ll more than likely be snoozing away by then so we wouldn’t worry too much. We have tried to cover as much of Japan as possible, but sadly Hokkaidō, Shikoku, and Okinawa just didn’t make the cut. But that’s all the more reason to come back again soon!

The savings (and the costs)

If we add up every Shinkansen ride on this itinerary, the grand total would be an eye-watering ¥80,450 — and that’s not counting non-Shinkansen travel. Compared to your pass which costs ¥50,000, that’s savings of just over ¥30,000. That can buy you a hell of a lot of sushi.

There are a few smaller transport costs in the journey that aren’t covered by the JR Pass though. Also, when traveling within a city keep in mind that private train and bus lines aren’t always covered by the JR Pass.

Look at all the money you’ll save. | Photo by Greg Lane

Cheapo tips and tricks

A trip like this requires schedules and planning, not a laissez-faire attitude. Pay attention to train times and avoid meanderings that lead you miles from the stations. Here are some more tips to make sure your trip runs smoothly!

Station Lockers
Station lockers will be your friends. | Photo by Lily Crossley-Baxter
  • Reserve your bullet train tickets in advance. Trains get full in peak season and during commuting hours. A reservation gives you guaranteed a seat. And seats together if in a couple or group.
  • Store luggage in train station lockers when you can. There’s a lot of walking and city-hopping in this itinerary, often returning to the same station — for example in Kanazawa, Nara, and Hiroshima.
  • Keep some water and snacks in your bag — with so much sightseeing to do you’ll work up an appetite!

Day 1: Sendai (stay overnight)

Tokyo to Sendai
1 hour 54 minutes
Fully covered by the JR Pass

Sendai
Sendai. | Photo by iStock.com/kororokerokero

Leave Tokyo on an early morning Shinkansen and you can arrive in Sendai in time to grab your morning coffee. We recommend leaving by 8 a.m. at the latest, but you’re an early bird Shinkansen services to Sendai start around 6 a.m. This is the farthest north of Tokyo your trip will take you, so take a chance to enjoy the fresh mountain air and cooler weather.

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Once you’ve arrived it’s time to start exploring. Don’t miss Sendai Asaichi Morning Market — the local market is open from morning until mid-afternoon. Located near the west exit of the station, the market sells fresh fruit, veg, and seafood. You’ll quickly see why it’s sometimes called ‘Sendai’s Kitchen’.

Sendai is famous for beef tongue and the city’s Tanabata Festival in August, with amazing decorations and performances. The Zuihōden Temple is a stunning building decorated with complex woodwork and vivid colors. You can access it via the Sendai Loop Bus (not covered by the JR Pass). There are temples and shrines in the city, as well as castle ruins and a city museum, so there’s plenty to keep you occupied.

Sendai side-stop: Zao Fox Village

You could also visit the Zao Fox Village on your way to Sendai. It’s only 15 minutes from Sendai, so you can still arrive in Sendai time for a beef-tongue dinner.

It’s a mountainside park where foxes live in the wild, but close enough to be seen and fed — in spring you can even hold some cubs. On the way to Sendai, get off at Shiroishizao Station. Then get a taxi to the village (or the rare bus).

Zao Fox Village
Your cute new friend. | Photo by Lily Crossley-Baxter

Day 2: Kanazawa (stay overnight)

Sendai to Kanazawa
3 hours, 22 minutes
Fully covered by the JR Pass

Wake up early and catch the Hayabusa Shinkansen to Ōmiya — the first one departs at 6:37 a.m. Then jump on the Kagayaki Shinkansen to arrive in Kanazawa. Aim to arrive before lunch time so you have plenty of time to enjoy the city.

You can explore the Ōmichō Market near the train station for fresh veg, street snacks, and souvenirs. When you’re finished head to Kenrokuen Garden — the most beautiful garden in all of Japan.

Higashi Chaya District Kanazawa
Higashi Chaya District | Photo by Lily Crossley-Baxter

Afterwards, visit Higashi Chaya District. The tea houses here were once frequented by geisha but now are open to the public. If you visit Kaikaro tea house, entry price of ¥750 includes tea service. The nearby Ochaya Shima Geisha House has been converted into a museum. Don’t miss the Hakuza gold leaf store — Kanazawa produces 99% of domestic gold leaf. The store has a warehouse converted into a completely golden tea room, as well as souvenirs with gold leaf.

Kanazawa Castle
Kanazawa Castle | Photo by Lily Crossley-Baxter

If you still have time, head to Ninjadera (officially called Myōryū-ji Temple), a temple with deceptive defenses built for the Maeda Lords in the Edo period. The guided tour will show you all the hidden tunnels, secret doors and staircases, traps, and more.

Stroll through the older areas in the evening to enjoy the ambience. Stay overnight in Kanazawa.

Day 3: Shirakawa-gō (stay overnight in Kyoto)

Kanazawa to Kyoto, round-trip to Shirakawa-gō
2 hours, 15 minutes (plus round trip to Shirakawa-gō)
Round trip to Shirakawa-gō not covered by the JR Pass

From the East Gate of Kanazawa Station catch a morning highway bus to Shirakawa-gō. You will need to book your tickets online in advance. The trip Shirakawa-gō is not covered by the JR Pass. Expect to pay around ¥5,000 for the round trip. Alternatively, you could join a day tour, this will set you back ¥11,795 but covers the round-trip from Kanazawa and the services of an English-speaking guide.

Famed for their picturesque tilted roofs, the houses of Shirakawa-gō are often photographed buried in snow but are equally picturesque year-round. The Gassho-zukuri farmhouses are up to 250 years old and the names translates as ‘constructed like hands in prayer’. This allows them to withstand the weight of snow in winter.

Shirakawago
Shirakawa-gō | Photo by Lily Crossley-Baxter

The main town of Ogimachi is beautiful to stroll through (if you ignore the occasional washing machine and concrete visitor center) especially when seen from the Shiroyama viewpoint. There is an open-air museum across the river with relocated houses, moved to prevent their destruction. Dotted around the village are especially well preserved houses such as the Kanda house and the Myozenji Temple. There’s also the Doburoku Festival Museum where you can try the locally produced sake and the onsen at Shirakawagō-no-yu.

When you’re finished looking around, head back to Kanazawa for you onward journey.

Onward journey: Kanazawa to Kyoto

From Kanazawa, take the Thunderbird Limited Express to Kyoto. There are about one or two departures per hour, so be sure to check the timetable in advance. This part of the journey is fully covered by the JR Pass and takes 2 hours and 15 minutes.

Once you’ve arrived in Kyoto, you can go for a wander beside the Kamo River (if you have the energy). Don’t miss the famous Pontochō restaurant street — and the more affordable street running along the narrow river parallel to the Kamo.

Day 4: Kyoto (stay overnight)

Full day in Kyoto, some travel not covered by the JR Pass

Kyoto view
Wander the streets of Kyoto. | Photo by iStock.com/tawatchaiprakobkit

Kyoto has an incredible amount of things to see. Just make sure you’ve got your walking shoes one before you head off. However, before you leave just know that the JR Pass isn’t very helpful for getting around in Kyoto. Instead, you might be better off with a different discount travel pass for Kyoto. For example, we like the Skyhop Bus Pass — it gives you unlimited use of the Skyhop Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus starting at ¥3,500. The Skyhop bus has multilingual audioguides and stops at a lot of major attractions. Sound good? You can buy it online here.

When it comes to specifically where to go today, it’s completely up to you. But don’t pressure yourself to fit everything in, you just can’t. We recommend visiting classic spots like Kinkaku-ji Temple, Nijō-jō Castle, and Gion. Or head a bit out of town to Sagano Bamboo Forest (also known as Arashiyama).

Day 5: Nara (stay overnight in Osaka)

Kyoto to Osaka, stop in Nara
1 hour, 46 minutes
Fully covered by the JR Pass

Your first stop today is Nara. Just outside of Kyoto, it’s known for stunning temples, great views, and of course, ravenous deer. You can catch the JR train in the morning, ideally around 9 a.m. Once you arrive, walk towards Kōfukuji Temple and you will be greeted by a temple complex as old as the establishment of the capital itself. Originally comprised of over 150 buildings now only a few remain, but they are perfectly maintained and stunning to boot. The pagoda, Eastern Golden Hall, and Southern Octagonal Hall are all impressive.

Deer at Nandaimon, Nara
Nara’s most famous residents. | Photo by Lily Crossley-Baxter

After this, continue on to the Nara Deer Park and buy some senbei (traditional crackers) for the deer to eat. Be careful, the deer have been known to target sleeves and bags in search of food. But they will bow for you in return for a snack which is pretty cute, and there are plenty of deer selfie (dare we say, delfie) opportunities too. Head up towards Tōdaiji Temple and step through Nandaimon, the 800-year-old wooden entrance gate to the temple. Inside, you’ll find the largest wooden structure in the world: the Great Buddha Hall, and within that, the world’s largest bronze statue of the Buddha Vairocana.

Afterwards, continue behind the hall towards the Tamukeyama Hachimangū Shrine. This balcony-style Shinto shrine was established in the year 749 and has stunning views of Nara and the tips of Tōdaiji’s roof. There are plenty of smaller shrines and temples around, so wander to your heart’s content before heading back to the train station around mid-afternoon.

Onward journey: Nara to Osaka

From Nara, catch a direct train to Osaka. There are regular departures and the journey takes only takes 50 minutes if you catch the express. This journey is fully covered by the JR Pass.

tokyo to osaka dotombori
The famous Dotonbori area. | Photo by iStock.com/javarman3

Osaka is the perfect city for an evening adventure. Dotonbori is the entertainment district, with plenty to see, do, and — most importantly — eat. The river’s neon lights and the over-sized food signs are an eye-catching combination tempting you towards a myriad of treats. Whether your try the roadside ramen, freshly flipped takoyaki, or made-to-order okonomiyaki, you can’t go wrong. Then there’s kushikatsu, a local speciality featuring various food deep-fried and dipped in a special sauce. Make the most of you evening by feasting and strolling until you can feast and stroll no more.

Day 6: Hiroshima, Miyajima (stay overnight in Fukuoka)

Osaka to Fukuoka, stop in Hiroshima
2 hour, 35 minutes
Some sections not covered by the JR Pass

Catch the Shinkansen from Shin-Osaka and head towards Hiroshima — a city known worldwide for being destroyed by an atomic bomb in World War 2. Starting your day off here going to be emotionally difficult — but it’s a vital part of history. Note that some travel within Hiroshima is not covered by the JR Pass.

A Bomb Dome Hiroshima
The A-Bomb Dome. | Photo by Lily Crossley-Baxter

The Peace Memorial Museum has a range of displays documenting life before, the nightmare of, and after the atomic bomb dropped in 1945. The museum also provides a rounded and optimistic look at the future. Afterwards, you can take a walk through the Peace Park and see the A-bomb Dome. Allow the beauty of the park to slowly bring you back to a holiday mentality (for the most part).

Side trip: Miyajima Island (Itsukujima)

To really recapture holiday mode though, take a ferry across to Miyajima — a small island off the coast of Hiroshima known for its friendly deer and iconic torii gate. Make sure to catch the JR ferry from Miyamaguchi Station, the other ferries aren’t covered by the JR Pass.

Great Torii Miyajima
You probably recognize this. | Photo by Lily Crossley-Baxter

Once in Miyajima you can enjoy the incredible island and all it has to offer. Explore cute shopping streets, delicious treats, and mountain hikes, as well as the world-famous shrine of course. The Itsukushima Shrine has a floating torii gate, probably on the cover of your guidebook. You should be able to see it both at high (ish) and low tide, so you can walk up to it as well. Have a read of our full guide on all the things to do in Miyajima.

Catch the ferry back at around 6 p.m. (so you can hopefully see the sunset!) and hop on a train back to Hiroshima Station. Then grab your luggage and get snacks for the train ahead.

Onward journey: Hiroshima to Fukuoka (Hakata Station)

Catch the bullet train to Fukuoka (Hakata Station). Make sure you get the Sakura or Nozomi Shinkansen — not the Kodama Shinkansen which takes an extra 30 minutes.

Fukuoka food stalls
Dinner time! | Photo by Gregory Lane

Once you arrive in Fukuoka, drop your stuff off at your hostel. Then head out to the river and Nakasu Island where you’ll find the city’s famous night stalls. They’ll be open late selling the local specialty of Hakata ramen as well as drinks and chicken skewers. Enjoy your wanderings before turning in for the night.

Day 7: Day in Fukuoka, then return to Tokyo

Fukuoka to Tokyo
6 hours
Fully covered by the JR Pass

Fukuoka is a large city with lots to do. The biggest shopping center, Canal City, is a sight to behold — with lit canals, shops, restaurants, as well as daily shows and performances. It is also home to Ramen Stadium, offering ramen from not only Hakata, but all over Japan. Enjoy the seasonal flowers in Nokoshima Park or take a break in Ohori Park, visit Tōchō-ji, the first temple built by Kukai in Japan — the list is endless, and yours for the making.

Lake and gazebo at Ohori Park. | Photo by iStock.com/Sanga Park

Day trips from Fukuoka

As far as day trips are concerned, Yanagawa is an excellent one. The old castle town is renowned for its relaxing boat rides along the river to the sea of Ariake that will take you back to ancient Japan. With your boatman describing local points of interest (albeit in Japanese) you can imagine days gone by. You can even join a clam digging boat tour from spring to autumn, if reserved in advance. Known as the Venice of Japan, you can’t go wrong on a sunny day in a boat.

Yanagawa
Yanagawa | Photo by iStock.com/kanonsky

Alternatively, you could visit the joint most important shrine in Japan: the Dazaifu Tenmangū Shrine in the nearby town of Dazaifu. The shrine is dedicated to the spirit of Sugawara Michizane, a Heian-period politician and scholar who died there in 903. Famed for stunning plum trees and a heart-shaped pond, it’s a pretty good day out, especially with the Kysushu National Museum next door.

A further option for all the cat people out there is to visit Ainoshima Island, one of the famous cat islands of Japan. The island has cats, cats, and more cats, along with a few small sightseeing spots like the ancient Tumuli and the Hanagurise rock formation.

Return journey to Tokyo

Whatever you ended up doing with your day, you’ll need to catch the 6:59 p.m. Nozomi Shinkansen back to Tokyo. It’s the last train for the day, so don’t miss it.

While we do our best to ensure it’s correct, information is subject to change. Last updated in September 2023 by Maria Danuco.

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