Japan Rail Passes (JR Passes) are available to anyone visiting Japan on a short-term tourist visa. They provide a fantastic discount on bullet train (Shinkansen) and regular train 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 JR Pass works with which Shinkansen. 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. Read this guide for a better idea of which JR Pass to choose.
Pro tip: If you want to keep it simple, order the main Japan Rail (JR) Pass online before your trip. This pass is excellent value, and if you’re traveling 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.
The Japan Rail Pass (this one gives you access to the entire country)
The Japan Rail Pass is the mother of all travel passes, allowing you unlimited 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 super-cool Shinkansen (that’s 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 bullet train.
JR Pass prices
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 your JR Pass, the clock starts.
Where can I buy the JR Pass?
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. JR Passes are currently available for purchase in Japan on a trial basis until the end of March, 2020. However, since it’s quite a bit more expensive if you buy a JR Pass after arriving (think an extra ¥4,000 for the 7-day national version), it’s only on sale at a limited number of stations, and you may have to use Japanese during the transaction, it’s a much better idea to buy your JR Pass before coming to Japan.
Note: You are only eligible for a JR Pass if you’re entering Japan with a “temporary visitor” visa, with a stay not exceeding 90 days.
Do I need a JR Pass?
If you are planning two or more inter-city return trips from Tokyo to somewhere like Kyoto in the southwest or Sendai in the north, or one really long trip to Hokkaido or Kyushu, then the main JR Pass is worth getting. The regular price for a return ticket on the Shinkansen between Tokyo and Hiroshima alone is roughly ¥38,000, which is basically the same as the cost of the 7-day Green Car (First-class) JR Pass!
However, if you plan to spend all of your trip in and around Tokyo (or Kansai, for that matter), then you almost certainly don’t need a national JR Pass. You might want a regional JR Pass, though (see below), or a single-use Shinkansen ticket. You could also look at the prices of Japan’s low-cost airlines (more on non-rail travel later).
While the Shinkansen may provide a better view of the country than you would get from the middle aisle of an airplane, it’s worth noting that large parts of the bullet train network are either underground or have sound barriers beside the tracks—so you might spend most of the journey dozing. You’ll still get plenty of glimpses of everyday Japan, though, and it’s possible to see Mount Fuji as you hurtle between Tokyo and Kyoto or Osaka (they’ll announce it, so just listen out).
Pro tip: Many of the bullet trains have power points available in front of or next to your seat, so that you can charge your phone and use your laptop. You can also connect to free wifi on an increasing number of Shinkansen. Read more about wifi in Japan.
Which JR Pass should I get?
Since the main JR Pass encompasses countrywide JR travel, you only need to choose based on the number of days you’ll be traveling around 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 bullet train tickets (we mentioned 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 duration of the pass after you arrive.
Pro tip: 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
If your travels are going to be concentrated in the central, eastern and northeastern parts of Japan, i.e. Nagano, Tokyo, Niigata, Tohoku and Hokkaido, one of the JR East Passes may work out to be more economical for you than the main JR Pass.
There is no general JR East Pass. Instead, you have four regional options for JR East Passes: the JR East Tohoku Pass; the JR East Nagano-Niigata Pass; the JR Tohoku South Hokkaido Pass; and the JR East South Hokkaido Pass. Here’s how they compare:
|Type of JR East Pass||Major Destinations||Validity Period||Classification||Price (purchased online or overseas)||Price (purchased in Japan)|
|Tohoku Area 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 Area 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+)||¥17,000||¥18,000||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|
|Tohoku-South Hokkaido Pass||Recommended for travelers between Sendai, Hakodate and Sapporo (Hokkaido), as well Aomori, Iwate, Fukushima and Akita.||Flexible 5-day pass used within 14 days of issuance.||Adult(12+)||¥19,000||¥20,000||Reserve online|
Where can I buy these passes?
You don’t have to buy JR East passes before arriving in Japan, but you can if you want to—and it is often 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, as well as other major JR stations. You can also purchase a JR East pass through authorized travel agents in the same way as the JR Pass, or online.
Note: JR East passes have the same eligibility requirements as the main JR Pass, so you’ll need to show that you’re a tourist on a (maximum) 90-day visitor visa to buy and activate your pass.
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 many Japanese people, it’s basically divided into east and west (which makes sense, if you look at a map). The JR East passes are ideal for inter-city travel from Tokyo to 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. But if you’re likely to be in Tokyo the whole time, or in one of the larger metropolises such as Sendai, you probably won’t need one of these regional rail passes.
Which one should I get?
The JR East Pass you choose will be dictated by where you want to go—investigate 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 & 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)
If you’re going to be based in Tokyo, with a couple of day trips or an overnight adventure to one of the nearby prefectures, this may be the best rail pass for you.
The JR Tokyo Wide Pass allows low-cost 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.
Perhaps 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 alone is good value.
Note: The Tokyo Wide Pass cannot be used on JR buses or on the Tokaido Shinkansen (the bullet train running between Tokyo and Shin-Osaka).
|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 JR stations, including hubs on the Yamanote Line (Shinjuku, Shibuya, Ikebukuro, Ueno, Tokyo, Shinagawa), as well as Yokohama and both Narita and Haneda Airport.
Note: Unlike the other Japan Rail Passes, this one is available to foreign residents in Japan—all you need is a non-Japanese passport.
Do I need a JR Tokyo Wide Pass?
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 generally 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.
Pro tip: Read our guide to the JR Tokyo Wide Pass to see if it suits your travel needs, and discover what you can do with it.
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 a 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 of JR West Pass||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||¥10,000||Reserve online|
|Child (6-11)||¥4,500||¥5,000||Reserve online|
|Kansai-Hiroshima Area Pass||Covers travel in Kansai area + route from Kansai Airport to Okayama, Hiroshima and Takamatsu. Includes the JR-West Miyajima Ferry. (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 Northern Kyushu Area Pass||In addition to the Kansai area, it covers the route between Shin-Osaka and Hakata. Includes the JR-West Miyajima Ferry. (Includes some Shinkansen travel)||7 day||Adult (12+)||¥22,000||¥23,000||Reserve online|
|Child (6-11)||¥11,000||¥11,500||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 and the Hokuriku area (Toyama, Ishikawa and Fukui), 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.) Not to be confused with the broader Hokuriku Arch Pass.||4 day||Adult (12+)||¥5,000||¥5,500||Reserve online|
|Child (6-11)||¥2,500||¥2,750||Reserve online|
Where can I buy the JR West Passes?
These 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 on in the trip!
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 Area 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 broad Tokyo area), the pass actually makes more sense for daily travel than major inter-city travel.
Which one should I get?
For the Kansai Area 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!
The Hokuriku Arch Pass
Another rail pass to consider is the Hokuriku Arch Pass, which is most useful for those traveling between Tokyo and Osaka, with the time and inclination to stop off and explore the beauty and culture of places like Kanazawa, Itoigawa and Nagano along the way. It’s made for somewhat slower travel. Read more about the Hokuriku Arch Pass.
Summary: What you need to remember when choosing a JR Pass
Here’s a quick recap of the main tips:
- DON’T buy any 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 JR Pass if you’re planning a fair bit of intercity travel. It’s best to plan your travels first, and then pick a pass accordingly.
- If you’re exploring Osaka, Kyoto and surrounds, a Kansai Area Pass is good for even daily travel, since many attractions 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 around ¥38,000, which is basically the same as the cost of the 7-day JR 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 websites for the exact routes that each pass covers, and which trains you can use (most passes have a few exceptions, like being valid only on certain Shinkansen [usually the slightly slower ones], or not being valid on certain limited express trains, etc.).
Video guide to choosing a JR Pass
How to activate your JR Pass
Whichever pass you choose, the procedure for activating it will be the same. You will receive an exchange order for your rail pass, which you need to take, together with your passport, in person, to a JR ticket office or JR travel center (found at all major JR train stations and airports in Japan). There, you will be given the actual pass. You will be asked when you would like to activate it from—this can be the same day, so you can start your travels immediately.
You can make seat reservations for Shinkansen and limited express trains at the same time—provided it’s not super crowded, e.g. cherry blossom season, you should be able to make reservations for all of your journeys at once.
To use your JR Pass, simply show it at the staffed ticket gates and wait to be waved through. Be sure to keep it with you at all times.
Alternatives to Japan Rail Passes: Using non-rail transport
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.
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