The Japan Rail Pass is the best known rail pass for travel in Japan. However, there are also regional rail passes — like these from JR East — that may turn out to be more economical if your travel plans are focused on a specific area. Here we give you the lowdown on JR East passes — what you can do with them and more.

Overview of JR East passes

JR East passes are designed for travel in the central, eastern, and northeastern parts of Japan — i.e. Kantō, Nagano, Niigata, Tōhoku, and Hokkaidō. There is no general JR East Pass. Instead, you have four regional options for JR East passes: the JR East Tōhoku Pass; the JR East Nagano & Niigata Pass; the JR East–South Hokkaidō Pass; and the JR Tōhoku–South Hokkaidō Pass.

JR East passes at a glance:

Pass Regions covered Key destinations Eligibility Validity period Price Booking link
Nagano & Niigata Area Pass Kantō, Nagano & Niigata Tokyo, Karuizawa, Nagano, Myōkō Kōgen, Matsumoto, Kusatsu Onsen, Gala Yuzawa & Niigata Foreign passport holders 5 consecutive days ¥18,000 Reserve online
Tōhoku Area Pass Kantō & Tōhoku Tokyo, Karuizawa, Gala Yuzawa, Sendai, Matsushima, Yamagata, Akita, Hirosaki & Aomori Foreign passport holders 5 consecutive days ¥20,000 Reserve online
East–South Hokkaidō Pass Kantō, Tōhoku & Hokkaidō Tokyo, Karuizawa, Gala Yuzawa, Sendai, Matsushimma, Yamagata, Akita, Hirosaki, Aomori, Hakodate & Sapporo Foreign passport holders with a temporary (tourist) visa 6 consecutive days ¥27,000 Reserve online
Tōhoku–South Hokkaidō Pass Tōhoku & Hokkaidō Sendai, Matsushima, Yamagata, Akita, Hirosaki, Aomori, Hakodate & Sapporo Foreign passport holders with a temporary (tourist) visa 6 consecutive days ¥24,000 Reserve online

*Passes for children 6–11 are half-price

Good news: Starting April 2021, the Nagano & Niigata Area Pass and the Tōhoku Area pass can be purchased by any foreign passport holders — not just travelers on short-term tourist visas.

What is included in JR East passes?

All JR East passes that include the Kantō region (which is all of them except the Tōhoku–South Hokkaidō Pass) cover unlimited travel on the following trains:

  • Izu-bound Izu Kyūkō trains that travel down the Izu Peninsula all the way to Shimoda, including the limited express Odoriko train (but not the new Saphir Odoriko).
  • Nikkō and Kinugawa Onsen-bound trains, including limited express Nikkō, SPACIA Nikkō, Kinugawa and SPACIA Kinugawa trains that run on Tōbu lines (so long as you depart from or arrive at a JR station).
  • Kawaguchiko-bound trains as far as Ōtsuki (a surcharge is required to continue on the Fujikyū Railway tracks to Kawaguchiko for Fuji Five Lakes and Mt Fuji).
  • Narita Express (N’EX) limited express trains to/from Narita Airport.
  • The Tokyo Monorail to/from Haneda Airport.

With the Nagano & Niigata Area Pass, you get Shinkansen travel in Niigata and Nagano; with the Tōhoku Area Pass you get some Shinkansen travel in Niigata and Nagano plus travel on the entire length of the Tōhoku Shinkansen; while the East–South Hokkaidō Pass and the Tōhoku–South Hokkaidō Pass includes travel on the Hokkaidō Shinkansen to Hakodate (the end of the line).

See the sections below on individual passes for more details on what trains you can ride and where they take you.

Pro tip: If you have a lot of luggage, or even one huge bag, consider sending it on ahead with a luggage delivery service. New Shinkansen luggage rules from May 2020 dictate that luggage with dimensions of over 160cm but under 250cm will require special reservations (at no extra cost), and bags over 250cm won’t be allowed onboard the bullet train at all.

nikko bridge
Nikkō, one of the most popular excursions from Tokyo | Photo by iStock.com/SeanPavonePhoto

What is NOT included in JR East passes?

None of the passes include travel on the Tokaidō Shinkasen — the one that connects Tokyo with Kansai (for Kyoto, Osaka, etc). The only rail pass that covers travel on the Tokaidō Shinkasen is the countrywide Japan Rail Pass.

The Nagano & Niigata Area Pass and the Tōhoku Area Pass cover travel on JR buses that service key destinations — like the 20 minute bus ride required to get to Kusatsu Onsen from the nearest train station. The East–South Hokkaidō Pass and the Tōhoku–South Hokkaidō Pass do not cover bus travel — even though they cover travel to the train stations from where such buses depart.

None of the passes cover municipal travel, except for the handful of JR trains in central Tokyo (like the JR Yamanote and Chūō-Sōbu lines). That means you cannot use any JR East pass to travel on the subway in Tokyo, Sendai, or Sapporo.

None of these passes include travel on ferries.

JR East Nagano & Niigata Area Pass

Mount Myoko in Niigata Prefecture
Mt Myōkō, an active volcano in Niigata | Photo by Gregory Lane

The JR East Nagano & Niigata Area Pass is especially good for travelers who want to get out into the mountains — whether for hiking or skiing, or just for the views and that cool, fresh air. The pass covers travel on JR (and select private) trains within the Kantō area, including transport to/from, Nikkō, Izu, and Narita and Haneda airports.

In addition, this pass gives you travel on the following:

  • Hokuriku Shinkansen trains as far as Jōetsu Myōkō via Karuizawa and Nagano (among other stops).
  • Jōetsu Shinkansen trains to Niigata via Echigo-Yuzawa and Gala Yuzawa (among other stops).
  • Tōhoku Shinkansen trains as far as Nasu Shiobara.
  • All regular JR trains within the scope of the pass.
  • JR buses for Kusatsu Onsen and Shiobara Onsen.

Some fine print: trains only stop at Gala Yuzawa when the ski resort is open; pass holders cannot ride the fastest trains on the Tōhoku Shinkansen, Haybusa and Komachi.

The pass is good for five consecutive days of travel and costs ¥18,000. Any foreign passport holders are eligible — even foreign residents. You can buy it online here.

onsen towns near tokyo
Kusatsu Onsen, in Gunma prefecture, is a famous destination for hot springs. | Photo by Lily Crossley-Baxter

Where to travel with the Nagano & Niigata Area Pass

You’ll want to make full use of this pass and travel deep into Nagano and/or Niigata prefectures. (If not, you might want to consider the cheaper Tokyo Wide Pass instead).

Some of the highlights of this region include:

  • Karuizawa, a mountain resort and popular summer getaway, known for boutiques, cafes, gourmet shops, and pretty natural vistas.
  • Nagano (the city) has fascinating temple Zenkōji and is a jumping off point for visiting the snow monkeys in Jigokudani and Nozawa Onsen; note that both Jigokudani and Nozawa Onsen require a bus ride not included in the pass.
  • Myōkō Kōgen, a top Niigata skiing destination, with several resorts; access is by private rail (approx. 40 min; extra cost) from either Nagano or Jōetsu Myōkō Shinakansen stations.
  • Matsumoto has a famous castle, art museums, and a chill Alpine vibe; travel from here to Hakuba (for skiing or hiking) or Kamikōchi (for summer hiking and spectacular scenery; requires train/bus travel not covered by the pass).
  • Kusatsu Onsen, one of Japan’s most famous onsen towns, with famously sulphur-rich water.
  • Tōkamachi, in rural Niigata, for exploring the Echigo-Tsumari Art Field and the region’s photogenic terraced rice fields (requires local transport not covered by the pass).
  • Gala Yuzawa, the ski resort that famously has its own Shinkansen station, for the ultimate ski-in/ski-out experience.
  • Niigata, a city on the Japan Sea from where ferries (not covered by the pass) depart for trips to wild, remote Sado Island.
  • As you can see, several of these highlights require extra bus travel not covered by the pass, which is annoying. That said, the fact that you can get to almost anywhere in these mountainous/rural parts by public transportation is pretty impressive. It’s just that some of that public transport is in the form of buses or rail lines operated by local companies (not JR).

    Since this pass covers a relatively small area (compared to the other JR East passes) you have a choice: do all your travels as a loop or base yourself somewhere — Tokyo is a possibility but you could also do somewhere cheaper like Ōmiya or Takasaki — and do day or overnight excursions.

    Japan castles
    Matsumoto’s famous castle is extremely photogenic | Photo by iStock.com/MasterLu

    Seasonal destinations for the Nagano & Niigata Area Pass

    Season Prefecture Attraction Selling point
    Spring Niigata Flowers and local food There’s no shortage of spring blooms in Niigata thanks to parks like the Ikutopia Food and Flower Complex which spans over 13 gardens of different kinds of flowers that change with every passing season. You can also visit Furusato Mura which is an attraction that highlights all of the prefecture’s homegrown products.
    Summer Nagano Karuizawa Used by many Tokyo locals as an escape from the sweltering heat, Karuizawa offers a refreshing escape. There are tons of local eateries, a massive outlet mall, and a premiere onsen. Karuizawa also has a few museums that span from contemporary to traditional Japanese art.
    Fall Tochigi Nikkō Home to a national park, waterfalls, a lake and even world heritage sights like Tōshōgū shrine, Nikkō has great options for all sorts of travelers. Most especially known for autumn foliage, this area isn’t too far from Tokyo making it an easy day trip from the city.
    Winter Nagano Snow monkeys and Mt. Norikura Nagano shines during the winter season and for good reason. From the ever so popular hot spring bathing snow monkeys to the towering snow walls at Mt. Norikura there’s are tons of activities to make the most out of the winter season.

    JR East Tōhoku Area Pass

    Pine-covered islets of Matsushima Bay
    Matsushima Bay, considered to be one of Japan’s top three views | Photo by iStock.com/gyro

    The JR East Tōhoku Area Pass is designed for doing a deep dive of Tōhoku, that often overlooked northern section of Honshū (Japan’s main island). Tōhoku, which is made up of Fukushima, Miyagi, Iwate, Yamagata, Akita, and Aomori prefectures, is known for its dramatic scenery, colorful traditional festivals, and onsen.

    In addition to Kantō area trains to Izu, Nikkō, and Narita and Haneda airports, JR East Tōhoku Area Pass holders can ride the following:

    • Hokuriku Shinkansen trains as far as Sakudaira, via the resort town of Karuizawa.
    • Jōetsu Shinkansen trains as far as Gala Yuzawa, via the hot spring town of Echigo Yuzawa.
    • Tōhoku Shinkansen trains to Shin-Aomori, via Nasu Shiobara, Sendai, and Morioka (among other stops).
    • Akita Shinkansen trains for Akita.
    • Yamagata Shinkansen trains for Yonezawa and Yamagata.
    • Sendai Airport Line trains to/from Sendai Airport.
    • All regular JR trains within the scope of the pass.
    • JR buses for Kusatsu Onsen, Shiobara Onsen, Mt Hakoda, Sukayu Onsen, Oirase Gorge, and Lake Towada.
    • The pass is good for five consecutive days of travel and costs ¥20,000. Foreign passport holders on any visa (residents included!) can purchase the pass, which you can do online here.

      Hirosaki castle park cherry blossoms at night
      Hirosaki Castle Park has spectacular cherry blossoms | Photo by iStock.com/masafarnorth

      Where to travel with the Tōhoku Area Pass

      With the Tōhoku Area Pass, you can travel to some of the same spots as the Nagano & Niigata Area Pass, including: Karuizawa, Echigo Yuzawa, Gala Yuzawa, Kusatsu Onsen, and Nasu Shiobara. However, you’ve also got all of Tōhoku to explore.

      Some highlights of the region include:

      • Matsushima, a bay studded with hundreds of tiny, pine-fringed islands and one of Japan’s “top three views.”
      • Yamadera, a mountain temple atop 1000 stone steps.
      • Zao Onsen, for hiking in the summer and skiing — past “snow monsters” (trees draped in snow and frozen into otherworldly shapes) — in the winter, plus year-round onsen; requires a bus ride not covered by the pass.
      • Nyūtō Onsen, for rustic hot springs under the stars in Akita prefecture (requires a bus ride not covered by the pass).
      • Hirosaki, a historic castle town known for its cherry blossoms (which bloom in late April) and its summer Neputa festival.
      • Hachinohe, a port city on the Pacific coast and the jumping off point for visiting Tanesashi Beach and exploring the northern reaches of the Michinoku Coastal Trail.
      • Mt Hakkōda, one of Aomori’s most popular hiking destinations, especially beautiful in fall.
      • Oirase Gorge, where you can follow a walking trail along the path of a meandering stream through the forest.
      • Aomori, Honshū’s northernmost city, with art and archeological museums and super fresh seafood.

      For more Tōhoku travel inspiration, check out our article on exploring Tōhoku’s Pacific coast and our guide to Towada-Hachimantai National Park.

      Oirase Gorge in Aomori prefecture
      Oirase Gorge in Aomori prefecture | Photo by iStock.com/nattya3714

      Seasonal destinations for the Tōhoku Area Pass

      Season Prefecture Attraction Selling point
      Spring Miyagi Cherry blossoms in Sendai Explore the many parks in the prefectural capital as you take in the view of hoards of cherry blossom trees. Inside Nishi Park is a teahouse called Genko Chaya with over 100 years of history. There, you can snack on Zunda mochi or sweet edamame rice cakes while cherry blossom viewing.
      Summer Yamagata Hiking Enjoy any of the trails among the popular hiking routes within the prefecture. End your visit with a trip to Zao onsen town, a famous onsen town known for its breathtaking outdoor baths.
      Fall Fukushima Iizaka Kenka Matsuri Literally meaning translated to fighting festival, the Iizaka Kenka Matsuri is a popular festival within Japan that goes back three millenium. Watch as portable shrines circulate around the town to the sound of taiko drums.
      Winter Aomori Snow carrot picking at Fukaura town Yes, you read that right. According to the locals snow carrots are much sweeter compared to their “regular” counterparts. While this prefecture is known more for its apple picking in fall, why not try your hand at carrot picking instead?

      JR East–South Hokkaidō Pass

      Boardwalk leading to Noboribetsu Onsen hell pools
      Hokkaidō’s Noboribetsu Onsen has some fantastic volcanic scenery in addition to hot springs for bathing | Photo by iStock.com/blanscape

      The JR East–South Hokkaidō Pass is the only rail pass — other than the countrywide JR Pass — to include travel from Tokyo on the Hokkaidō Shinkansen, which travels via tunnel under the strait that separates Honshū with Japan’s northernmost major island, Hokkaidō. The pass doesn’t cover all of Hokkaidō — just the southern region, from Hakodate to Sapporo. Plus all of Tōhoku.

      JR East–South Hokkaidō Pass holders get unlimited rides on the following trains (in addition to Kantō area ones that serve Nikkō, Izu, and Narita and Haneda airports):

      • Hokuriku Shinkansen trains as far as Sakudaira, via the resort town of Karuizawa.
      • Jōetsu Shinkansen trains as far as Gala Yuzawa, via the hot spring town of Echigo Yuzawa.
      • Hokkaidō Shinkansen trains to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto (Hakodate), via Nasu Shiobara, Sendai, Morioka, and Shin-Aomori (among other stops).
      • Akita Shinkansen trains for Akita.
      • Yamagata Shinkansen trains for Yonezawa and Yamagata.
      • Sendai Airport Line trains to/from Sendai Airport.
      • Limited express Hokuto trains between Hakodate and Sapporo, via Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto and Noboribetsu (among other stops).
      • Rapid Niseko Liner trains between Sapporo and Kutchan (for Niseko) via Otaru.
      • Airport special rapid trains between Sapporo and New Chitose Airport.
      • All regular JR trains within the scope of the pass.

      This pass is best for travelers who want to do Tōhoku and Hokkaidō. If you just want to do Hokkaidō, it might make more sense to fly there and then get a Hokkaidō rail pass instead. Or the countrywide Japan Rail Pass, if you want to take the Shinkansen to Hokkaidō instead of flying.

      Note that unlike the Nagano & Niigata Area Pass and the Tōhoku Area Pass, the JR East–South Hokkaidō Pass does not cover JR buses. So if you want to visit some of the spots accessible only by bus (or car) — like Mt Hakoda, Sukayu Onsen, Oirase Gorge, and Lake Towada in Aomori — you’ll need to pay the extra fares out of pocket.

      The JR East–South Hokkaidō Pass is good for six consecutive days of travel and costs ¥27,000. This one can only be purchased by foreign passport holders entering Japan on a temporary visa (sorry residents!). Purchase the pass online for the best price.

      sapporo view over odori park
      Sapporo has fantastic food and nightlife | Photo by iStock.com/SeanPavonePhoto

      Where to travel with the East–South Hokkaidō Pass

      With the East–South Hokkaidō Pass you get access to the Kantō area destinations (Nikkō and Izu), all the Tōhoku ones, plus destinations in southern and parts of central Hokkaidō. With only six days to work with you are going to have to be very selective!

      Some Hokkaidō highlights you can visit with this pass:

    • Hakodate, Hokkaidō’s southernmost city, has history, a morning seafood market, and famous nightviews from Mt Hakodate.
    • Noboribetsu Onsen, for soaking in sulphur-rich waters and sightseeing at the source (steaming pools); requires a short bus ride not covered by the pass.
    • Sapporo, Japan’s northernmost mega-city, has great food (especially ramen!) and nightlife, plus lots of festivals and events.
    • Otaru, a picturesque town (and popular excursion) laid out along a canal.
    • Niseko probably needs no introduction: this is Japan’s most famous ski and snow sports destination, but it’s also great for green season activities and hot springs; requires local transport not covered by the pass.
    • Snowboarders at Niseko
      Niseko is famous worldwide for its excellent powder snow | Photo by iStock.com/7maru

      Seasonal destinations for the East–South Hokkaidō Pass

      Season Prefecture Attraction Selling point
      Spring Hokkaidō Hakodate Park Catch cherry blossoms blooming well into May around parks scattered across the city. Popular parks for cherry blossom viewing are Goryokaku Park and Hakodate Park.
      Summer Aomori Inakadate Village Watch changing large scale rice paddy or tanbo art at Inakadate village move with the gentle summer breeze. The best part is that it’s free to see.
      Fall Akita Goshikiko Festival Celebrate the beginning of autumn at the Goshikiko festival where spectators from all over join in on games like apple bobbing and bingo. Did we mention that festival participants are given the chance to explore Yamase dam which is otherwise off limits?
      Winter Iwate Morioka Yuki Akari Festival Otherwise known as the “snow lights festival” watch the locals build mini igloos called kamakura and light them up with candles. Other attractions around Morioka city include hand made snow sculptures and candles.

      JR Tōhoku–South Hokkaidō Pass

      Scallops grilling at Hakodate's morning fish market
      Scallops grilling at Hakodate’s morning fish market | Photo by iStock.com/Srisupak_L

      The JR Tōhoku–South Hokkaidō Pass covers everything that the JR East–South Hokkaidō Pass does except Kantō. It does not cover travel from Tokyo or from Narita and Haneda airports. With this pass, you can board the Tōhoku or Hokkaidō Shinkansen from Shin-Shirakawa Station in Fukushima prefecture.

      The pass still gives you six consecutive days of travel for only slightly less: ¥24,000). And like the JR East–South Hokkaidō Pass, only foreign passport holders on a temporary visa are eligible.

      We’re not really sure who this pass is for. There is no way to get between Tokyo or Narita Airport and Fukushima for less than ¥3,000 short of hitchhiking (not even local trains!).

      You could stack this pass with either the Tokyo Wide Pass or the JR East Nagano & Niigata Area Pass as the coverage almost meets: Nasu Shiobara Station (the farthest you can travel on the Tokyo Wide Pass and the Nagano & Niigata Area Pass) and Shin-Shirakawa Station are only one stop apart on the Tōhoku Shinkansen. Travel between the two on the Tōhoku Shinkansen takes 10 minutes and costs ¥2,710; on the regular Tōhoku Main Line, travel takes 30 minutes and costs ¥510.

      yamadera yamagata tohoku japan
      Yamadera, the “Mountain Temple” in Yamagata prefecture | Photo by iStock.com/thanyarat07

      Are JR East passes a good deal?

      Like the country-wide JR Pass, JR East passes generally pay off if you make one round-trip from Tokyo to one of the more far-flung destinations covered by the pass. For example: the round-trip fare between Tokyo and Sendai is ¥22,820, which is more than the cost of the Tōhoku Area Pass (¥20,000). And round-trip to Aomori (Shin-Aomori Station) is ¥34,940!

      Thinking of going all the way to Hokkaidō? Even just a one-way train ticket from Tokyo to Sapporo is ¥27,500, which already covers the cost of the JR East–South Hokkaidō Pass. Of course you can usually fly for less, and it’s good to keep in mind that — even on the Shinkansen — the journey from Tokyo to Hokkaidō by train takes a good half-day.

      See the fare chart below to get a sense of what individual Shinkansen tickets would cost. You can also make use of our nifty Shinkansen fare calculator.

      Sample Shinkansen fares from Tokyo:

      Destination Fare Travel Time
      Karuizawa ¥5,820 1 hr
      Nagano ¥8,140 80 min
      Jōetsu Myōkō ¥9,240 2 hrs
      Gala Yuzawa ¥7,020 90 min
      Sendai ¥11,410 2 hrs
      Yamagata ¥11,250 2 hrs 40 min
      Akita ¥17,820 3 hrs 50 min
      Aomori ¥17,470 3 hrs 10 min
      Hakodate ¥23,230 4 hrs
      JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)
      The JR East passes look something like this | Photo by iStock.com/CHENG FENG CHIANG

      Buying a JR East pass

      You don’t have to buy JR East passes before arriving in Japan, but you can if you want to. Unlike the country-wide pass, the price is the same no matter where you purchase the pass.

      Passes can be purchased at both Haneda and Narita Airport on arrival, or from major JR East stations. In Tokyo, you can pick one up at Tokyo, Shinjuku, Shibuya, Shinagawa, Ueno, or Ikebukuro stations. You can also purchase a JR East pass through authorized travel agents in the same way as the country-wide JR Pass, or online.

      Note:  From April 2021, you can scan your passport at certain Reserved Seat Ticket vending machines at major JR East stations to buy your pass directly. Stations include Tokyo, Shinjuku, Shibuya, Shinagawa, Ueno, Ikebukuro, Hamamatsuchō, Yokohama, and Narita Airport, among others. You will also be able to make seat reservations on these machines, saving you the extra step of going into the ticket office. As an added bonus, you can also go straight through the automatic ticket gates, instead of being restricted to the manned gate.

      While we do our best to make sure it is up to date, information is subject to change at any time. This post was orginally published on November 4, 2016. Updated by Heidi Sarol and Rebecca Millner in June 2022.

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