Japan Rail Passes are available to anyone visiting Japan on a short-term tourist visa. They provide a fantastic discount on regular rail travel, but if you don’t have experience with Japan’s rail transport system, it’s difficult to know a) if you need one, and b) which pass you should get. To add to the confusion, the various regional companies that constitute JR (JR East, JR West, JR Central, JR Hokkaido, JR Shikoku and JR Kyushu) all have their own passes! Each is priced differently and has different conditions.
Japan Rail (JR) Pass Online Reservation: The main JR rail pass is excellent value, and if you’re travelling to more than one major city within seven days (or three/four cities within 14 days), it’s very likely you’ll be saving money if you buy the main JR Pass for the whole of Japan. You can order it online here.
However, if you’re not sure, we put some of the confusion to rest, and try to explain the exact conditions of the main JR Pass and those of the two biggest regional companies: JR East and JR West.
The Japan Rail Pass (opens up the whole country)
The Japan Rail Pass is the mother of all passes, allowing you free use of all JR trains from Kagoshima in the south of Japan right up to the northern tip of Hokkaido. You can ride everything from the shinkansen (often called the bullet train) to local JR commuter trains, JR buses and even JR ferries.
Note: JR Pass holders cannot use the Nozomi and Mizuho bullet trains, aka the fastest ones. The other bullet trains are perfectly good, but expect slightly longer travel times. For example, getting from Tokyo to Osaka may take 30 minutes longer on the Hikari.
The duration of each pass is the number of days from when it is first activated—including that day. There is no option to split up travel—so once you activate it, the clock starts.
Where can I buy it?
Up until March 2017, the Japan Rail Pass could not be purchased in Japan—you had to buy it either online or through an authorized travel agent before arriving. The pass is now available for purchase in Japan, but only on a trial basis until the end of March 2018. Since it’s quite a bit more expensive if you buy it after arriving (think ¥4,000), it’s only on sale at a limited number of stations, and you may have to use Japanese, it’s a much better idea to buy your JR Pass before coming to Japan.
Note: You are only eligible for a pass if you’re entering Japan with a “temporary visitor” visa, with a stay not exceeding 90 days.
Do I need it?
If you are planning two inter-city return trips to somewhere like Kyoto in the southwest or Sendai in the north, or one really long trip to Hokkaido or Kyushu, then this pass is probably worth getting. The regular price for a return ticket on the shinkansen between Tokyo and Hiroshima is ¥38,160, which is basically the same as the cost of the 7-day Green Car (First Class) pass!
However, if you plan to spend all of your trip in and around Tokyo, then you almost certainly don’t need a JR Pass. You might want a regional pass, though (see below), or a single-use shinkansen ticket.
If you use the pass a lot, it’s definitely the cheapest (comfortable) way of getting around. However, if you are planning just one or two small trips and don’t care for the romance or comfort of train travel, then you should check out the prices and destinations of Japan’s low-cost airlines (more on non-rail travel later).
While you may get a better view of the country than from the middle aisle of an airplane, the shinkansen does not provide the kind of views you would get from a regular train—large parts of the network are either underground or have sound barriers beside the tracks—though you’ll still get plenty of glimpses of everyday Japan.
Shink tip: Many of the trains have power points available so that you can charge your phone and use your laptop. On the Tokaido Shinkansen, for example, outlets can be found at each window seat and at the front row of each car.
Which pass should I get?
Since the JR Pass encompasses countrywide JR travel, you only need to choose based on the number of days you’ll be traveling extensively in Japan (7, 14 or 21 days), and whether you want ordinary or first-class (Green Car) passes. They’re all a good deal compared to regular tickets (we mentioned earlier that a return trip between Tokyo and Hiroshima will cost you almost the same as a 7-day Green Car pass), but you should choose carefully, because you won’t be able to change the ticket after you arrive.
For ideas on where to go and what to do with your JR Pass, check out this 7-day DIY rail itinerary that takes you from Tokyo to Niigata and then down to Kansai, and this Northern Explorer option that sees you going deep into the heart of Tohoku and Hokkaido.
JR East passes
NOTE: Overseas sales of the general JR East Pass ended on March 31, 2016, and domestic sales on June 30, 2016. You now have a few regional options instead: the JR East-Tohoku Pass; the JR East-Nagano Niigata Pass; and the JR East-South Hokkaido Pass. Here’s how they compare:
|Type||Major Destinations||Validity Period||Classification||Price (purchased online or overseas)||Price (purchased in Japan)|
|Tohoku Pass||Unlimited travel on JR East trains within the Tohoku area. Recommended for travelers between Tokyo and Aomori, Nikko, Sendai, Akita, Fukushima. Pass valid on the shinkansen, Narita Express and Tokyo Monorail. Pass can be used in Izu and Nikko on certain non-JR trains as well.||Flexible 5-day pass used within 14 days of issuance.||Adult(12+)||¥19,000||¥20,000||Reserve online|
|Nagano & Niigata Pass||Recommended for travelers between Tokyo and Nagano, Niigata, Karuizawa and Gala Yuzawa resort. Pass can be used on shinkansen, Narita Express and Tokyo Monorail.||Flexible 5-day pass used within 14 days of issuance.||Adult(12+)||¥19,000||¥19,000||Reserve online|
|East-South Hokkaido Pass||Recommended for travelers between Tokyo and Hakodate and Sapporo (Hokkaido), as well Aomori, Nikko, Karuizawa and Sendai.||Flexible 6-day pass used within 14 days of issuance.||Adult(12+)||¥26,000||¥27,000||Reserve online|
Where can I buy these passes?
Unlike the JR Pass, you don’t have to buy JR East passes before arriving in Japan (but you can if you want to—and it will be cheaper if you do). 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, Shinagawa, Shibuya, Ikebukuro and Ueno Stations. You should also be able to purchase a JR East pass through an authorized travel agent in the same way as the JR Pass, or online. It has the same eligibility requirements as the JR Pass though, so if you buy it in Japan you’ll need your passport, as well as your return air tickets, to prove that you’re a tourist.
Do I need a JR East Pass?
While you may have thought Japan runs roughly in a north-south axis, according to JR and indeed all Japanese people, it’s basically divided into east and west. These JR East passes are ideal for inter-city travel from Tokyo and eastwards towards major destinations like Niigata, Nagano, Sendai, Aomori, Nikko, Izu, GALA Yuzawa Snow Resort and more—even all the way up (east) to Hakodate in Hokkaido. If you’re likely to be based the whole time in Tokyo, or one of the larger metropolises such as Sendai, you probably won’t need this pass.
Which one should I get?
The pass you choose will be dictated by where you want to go—consult the destinations and boundaries for each pass before you make a decision. The Tohoku Pass is recommended for travel between Tokyo, Sendai, Aomori and Nikko, while the Niigata and Nagano Pass is recommended for—you guessed it—Niigata and Nagano, along with the mountain resort town of Karuizawa.
JR Tokyo Wide Pass (formerly the Kanto Area Pass)
Official Website: http://www.jreast.co.jp/e/tokyowidepass/
The Kanto area includes Tokyo and the prefectures that surround it. With the JR Tokyo Wide Pass, which must be used on three consecutive days, you can travel to notable spots such as Nikko, ski resort GALA Yuzawa, Izu and even Mount Fuji. It also takes you deep into Nagano Prefecture—as far as Sakudaira Station (but strangely not as far as Nagano Station) on the Nagano Shinkansen and Jomo Kogen on the Joetsu Shinkansen. The handiest destination, though, is the resort town of Karuizawa. A regular one-way ticket to Karuizawa from Tokyo costs around ¥6,000, so using the pass for a return trip to Karuizawa for the weekend is good value.
Note: The Tokyo Wide Pass cannot be used on JR buses or on the Tokaido Shinkansen.
|Tokyo Wide Pass (3 consecutive days)||Adult (12+)||¥10,000|
Where can I buy a JR Tokyo Wide Pass?
You can buy this pass at major stations on the Yamanote Line (Shinjuku, Shibuya, Ikebukuro, Ueno, Tokyo, Shinagawa), as well as Yokohama and both international airports. Unlike the other passes, this is also available to foreign residents in Japan—all you need is a non-Japanese passport.
Do I need one?
Don’t get the JR Tokyo Wide Pass if you’re just traveling around the Tokyo/Yokohama area—buying regular tickets or using a rechargeable IC card is cheaper. However, you’ll get your money back on any trip on the shinkansen within the Kanto region or on trips slightly further afield—such as to Yamanashi, Nagano, Tochigi and Gunma. And unlike most other passes, this one can be purchased by not just short-term tourists, but by any holder of a foreign passport.
JR West passes
The JR West Pass is divided into a few different passes (±10, to be exact). If you’re just interested in visiting the major cities and tourist destinations of Osaka, Kyoto, Nara and Kobe, you’re best off with the Kansai Area Pass. However, if you’re looking to travel within Kansai and then dip out to other major destinations, consider some of the other passes (like the Kansai-Hiroshima Area Pass), or even purchasing two passes (like the Kansai WIDE Area Pass + the San’in-Okayama Area Pass). Here’s an overview of eight key JR West passes.
|Type||Major Destinations||Validity Period||Classification||Price (purchased online or overseas)||Price (purchased in Japan)|
|Kansai Area Pass (Most popular)||Covers the Kansai area, including travel from Kansai Airport to Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe, Nara, Himeji, Wakayama, Shiga, Tsuruga, Iga-Ueno and within those areas. (Does NOT include shinkansen or Limited Express trains [other than “Haruka“])||1 day||Adult (12+)||¥2,200||¥2,300||Reserve online|
|Child (6-11)||¥1,100||¥1,150||Reserve online|
|2 day||Adult (12+)||¥4,300||¥4,500||Reserve online|
|Child (6-11)||¥2,150||¥2,250||Reserve online|
|3 day||Adult (12+)||¥5,300||¥5,500||Reserve online|
|Child (6-11)||¥2,650||¥2,750||Reserve online|
|4 day||Adult (12+)||¥6,300||¥6,500||Reserve online|
|Child (6-11)||¥3,150||¥3,250||Reserve online|
|Kansai WIDE Area Pass||Covers all of the Kansai region, like Kansai Airport, Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, Nara, Himeji + other areas of interest outside of Kansai including Okayama, Kurashiki, Shirahama, Kinosaki Onsen, Takamatsu and the Shingu area. (Includes some shinkansen travel)||5 day||Adult (12+)||¥9,000||¥9,500||Reserve online|
|Child (6-11)||¥4,500||¥4,750||Reserve online|
|Kansai-Hiroshima Area Pass||Covers travel in Kansai area + route from Kansai Airport to Hiroshima, Okayama and Takamatsu. Includes the JR-West Miyajima Ferry from Kansai Airport to Hiroshima, Okayama and Takamatsu. (Includes some shinkansen travel)||5 day||Adult (12+)||¥13,500||¥14,500||Reserve online|
|Child (6-11)||¥6,750||¥7,250||Reserve online|
|Hiroshima-Yamaguchi Area Pass||Covers the route from Hakata to Yamaguchi and Hiroshima. Includes travel on the JR-West Miyajima Ferry. (Includes some shinkansen travel)||5 day||Adult (12+)||¥11,000||¥12,000||Reserve online|
|Child (6-11)||¥5,500||¥6,000||Reserve online|
|Sanyo-San’in Area Pass||In addition to the Kansai area, it covers the route between Shin-Osaka and Hakata. Includes the JR-West Miyajima Ferry from Kansai Airport to Sanyo, San’in and Takamatsu. (Includes some shinkansen travel)||7 day||Adult (12+)||¥19,000||¥20,000||Reserve online|
|Child (6-11)||¥9,500||¥10,000||Reserve online|
|San’in-Okayama Area Pass||Covers routes within the San’in and Okayama areas. (Does NOT include shinkansen travel)||4 day||Adult (12+)||¥4,500||¥5,000||Reserve online|
|Child (6-11)||¥2,250||¥2,500||Reserve online|
|Kansai-Hokuriku Area Pass||Covers the routes between Kansai Airport to the Hokuriku area, as well as travel within the Kansai area. (Includes some shinkansen travel)||7 day||Adult (12+)||¥15,000||¥16,000||Reserve online|
|Child (6-11)||¥7,500||¥8,000||Reserve online|
|Hokuriku Area Pass||Covers travel within the Hokuriku area. (Includes some shinkansen travel)||4 day||Adult (12+)||¥5,000||¥5,500||Reserve online|
|Child (6-11)||¥2,500||¥2,750||Reserve online|
Where can I buy a pass?
The passes can be purchased either overseas before your arrival, online (also before arrival) or in Japan (the first two are recommended because you get an “early bird” discount). If purchasing in Japan, you’ll need to prove that you are a short-term visitor by presenting your passport and air tickets. Choose carefully, as you can only purchase each pass once—so you can’t come back for more later!
Do I need a JR West Pass?
Since there are so many pass options for the west of Japan, it really depends on where you’re going, for how long, and how much moving around you plan on doing there. One bit of insight though: the Kansai Pass (the most popular) is a bit different to other regional passes—since the cities and attractions in Kansai tend to be a bit more spread out than in Kanto, the pass actually makes more sense for daily travel than major inter-city travel.
Which one should I get?
For the Kansai Pass, you’ll need to decide how many days you’ll be moving around, since it offers 1, 2, 3 or 4 days. It’s good value for getting between the various towns and cities in Kansai.
If you travel from Shin-Osaka to Hakata (in Kyushu) on a regular shinkansen, it will cost you about ¥31,000 return—that’s 1/3 of the price more than the Sanyo-San’in Area Pass for 7 days, which includes that route plus travel within the Kansai area—a no-brainer!
Seeing as the Japanese railway system is so on point, we’re sure you’ll be using its services at some time or another during your stay. However, that doesn’t mean you don’t have other travel options. For route information between Tokyo and major destinations that includes air or bus travel, check out our “fast vs. cheap” transportation articles—starting with Tokyo to Kyoto, Osaka, Sapporo and Hiroshima.
What you need to remember about the JR Pass(es)
That was a whole lot of info to sift through, huh? Here’s a quick recap of the main tips:
- DON’T buy a Japan Rail Pass if you’re just traveling around the Tokyo/Yokohama area. It’s cheaper to buy individual tickets or charge money onto a Pasmo/Suica card.
- DO buy a pass if you’re planning extensive intercity travel. It’s best to plan your travels first, and then pick a pass accordingly.
- The Kansai Pass is good for even daily travel, since many attractions in the Kansai area are pretty spread out.
- If you plan on taking the shinkansen anywhere, it’s almost always a good idea to buy a rail pass. As we mentioned, the regular price for a return ticket on the shinkansen between Tokyo and Hiroshima is ¥38,160, which is basically the same as the cost of the JR 7-day Green Car Pass! However, if you’re only making one long-distance trip, a one-way shinkansen ticket may work out to be cheaper. Use our shinkansen fare calculator to help you figure out the best option for your travel plans. You can book single-use shinkansen tickets in advance.
- Be sure to check the official sites for the exact maps/routes that the pass covers, and which trains you can use (most passes have exceptions, like being valid on only certain shinkansen [usually the slightly slower ones], or not being valid on limited express trains, etc.).
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