Beginners Guide to the Japan Rail Pass

One of the most amazing things about Japan is the public transportation. The train system connects all major cities throughout the entire country and buses run to almost every rural village.

Although having the freedom to be able to go anywhere with public transportation is nice, there is one downside: the cost. Tokyo has one of the most expensive public transportation in the world and other cities in Japan have similar transportation costs. 

Don’t cancel your travel plans to Japan just yet, because Japan is an awesome place to travel to and there are more affordable ways to get around!

You might have heard about the Japan Rail JR pass.

It’s a pass only offered to visitors of Japan and with it, you get unlimited rides on transportation by the Japan Rail group. This covers trains, buses, ferries, and most importantly, the bullet train (Shinkansen). 

However, the JR pass doesn’t come cheap either, and buying one can either save you over 100s of dollars or end up losing you money. 

Here, we’ll explain everything you need to know about the JR pass. We’ll show you what it is, where to buy it, and walk you through the entire process from how to purchase one, all the way to reserving and riding your first Shinkansen ride. 

This is a long guide that you may need to reference it many times throughout your trip so make sure to pin it for later!

What is the JR Pass?

As mentioned before, the JR Pass is a pass offered by the Japan Rail group that offers unlimited rides on their trains, buses, ferries, and the Shinkansen. Transportation is expensive in Japan and this pass gives tourists a chance to potentially save a lot of money. 

The pass is available for 7 days, 14 days, or 21 days and there are two ticket types: Ordinary and Green. They also have a children’s price for ages 6-11 and children below 6 can ride for free. Here is a price chart for easy comparison.

As you can see, the JR pass does not come cheap and it’s not in the price range you’d expect from most countries. 

The advantages of the JR pass lies in the Shinkansen. Let’s look at an example to see how cost effective the JR pass is despite the high price range.

Example: Round Trip From Tokyo to Osaka

Let’s compare the cost of a round-trip ticket on the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Osaka. 

A one way ticket from Tokyo to Osaka would cost around 14,500 yen. Buying a round-trip would add up to 29,000 yen. 

If you buy a 7-day Ordinary JR Pass, this would cost 650 yen more than buying the individual tickets. But if you add up the local JR train costs during those 7 days, not to mention the train from the airport, this can easily add up to more than 4,000 yen, which would make the 7-day Ordinary JR Pass the cheaper alternative. 

During those 7 days, you could even make day trips to Kyoto, Nara, or Hakone, to make the JR Pass even more worth its money.

This is why the JR Pass is so popular among travelers to Japan. 

Is the Green JR Pass Worth It?

E5 Shinkansen Green Class Interior

The next thing you may be wondering is what the Green JR Pass is about. 

The Green JR Pass allows you to ride in the Green section of the Shinkansen, aka the first-class section.

Here are some of the perks you get to enjoy by riding in the Green car. 

  • Wider seats
  • More legroom
  • Bigger windows
  • Less crowded
  • Hot/cold drink served

For some, these may be enough incentives to make the upgrade, but for most, they’d be satisfied with just the Ordinary pass (especially since it’s already much more comfortable than economy plane seats). 

However, you might want to consider upgrading during the peak seasons. 

  • New Years Eve
  • Golden Week (early May)
  • Obon (mid-August)
  • Sakura season (March-April)
  • Fall foliage Season (October-November)

During major holidays in Japan, the Shinkansen tickets get sold out months before and the Non-Reserved Seat section can fill up to 200% over max capacity!

Where Can You Use the JR Pass?

The JR pass can be used pretty much on any train that has a JR logo. This covers local trains, express trains, and the shinkansen lines. 

JR logo JRgroup

There are many different lines that the Japan Rails group operates. These are some of the most used ones.

  • The Shinkansen trains (except Nozomi and Mizuho)
  • Narita Express (connects Narita Airport to Tokyo)
  • Tokyo Monorail (connects Haneda Airport to Tokyo)
  • Yamanote line (Tokyo)
  • Chuo line (Tokyo)
  • Limited Express Haruka (connects Kansai Airport to Osaka)
  • Osaka Loop Line (Osaka)
  • Thunderbird Line (connects Osaka and Kyoto to Kanazawa)

Where You Can't Use the JR Pass

There are only two JR trains where you can’t use the JR Pass: The Nozomi and Mizuho Shinkansen lines. These are the “express” shinkansen lines that only stop at the major stations and take you to your destination slightly faster. 

When you’re looking on the platform, be careful not to mistakenly ride the Nozomi or Mizuho trains or you will be asked to pay the full price

There are many subways and other train lines that operate besides the JR lines. These are the logo of some of those lines that you cannot ride with the JR Pass.

Tokyo Metro logo (full)
PrefSymbol-Tokyo
Osaka Metro Chuo line symbol
Meitetsu logo

You may have to use some of these lines in major cities like Tokyo, Osaka, or Nagoya. For that reason, we recommend keeping around a PASMO or a SUICA transportation card so you can save the time and hassle of buying individual tickets for these lines. 

Do I Need a JR Pass?

Not all trips are made equal and although the JR Pass offers great value, it may not be worth it for some. Here are some common scenarios where it’s better NOT to buy the JR pass. 

1. Staying in One Region of Japan

You’re traveling to Japan but staying within one region of Japan. Whether it’s the Tokyo and Yokohama area or the Osaka and Kyoto area, getting a Suica card and using local trains and buses will be a much more cost effective alternative to buying the JR pass.

2. Flying into Tokyo and Leaving From Osaka or Vice Versa

Many people take the route where they fly into one big city and leave from another one. In this case, you’d only need to buy a one-way Shinkansen ticket, which won’t be enough to pay out for the JR pass. 

3. Traveling to Okinawa or Sapporo

Another scenario where the JR pass wouldn’t be worth buying is if you want to make a trip to the end regions of Japan, such as Okinawa or Sapporo. 

If you are going to Okinawa, the best way to get there is by flight from any major city in Japan. There is a JR ferry that reaches Okinawa from Kyushu but it takes an extremely long time. 

In the same way, if you are traveling to Sapporo or Niseko ski resort, we also recommend you take a flight instead of using the JR trains since it would be much faster. 

4. Long Term Japan Travel

If you plan on doing some long term travel in Japan, then we don’t think the JR pass would be worth it (at least for the whole duration). Since you have the time, it would be much more cost efficient to travel either by bus or plane, which are both cheaper alternatives to the shinkansen.

If you do feel that you need the JR pass but you already came to Japan, you can still make the purchase. When you buy it, have it send the tickets to your Japan accommodation and you can activate it as long as you are there with the tourist visa.

How to Buy the JR Pass

In order to buy the JR pass, the only condition is that you are not a resident of Japan. This means that you are traveling to Japan with a tourist visa and they confirm this when you pick up your pass. 

If you meet these requirements, you can purchase the JR pass through any vendor. 

Once you make the purchase, they will mail you the exchange tickets in a couple of weeks. The tickets are not use-able yet and you have to activate it once you arrive in Japan. Once you arrive in Japan, you can exchange these tickets for the actual JR pass. 

Activating Your JR Pass

When you buy the JR pass online, you’re given an exchange voucher, which you can exchange for the JR pass in Japan. They will also need to check your passport to confirm that you are not a resident of Japan. 

Keep in mind that when they are confirming your passport, they don’t allow you to pick up the JR pass for somebody else. 

Once your information is confirmed, you can then select the date that you wish to activate your pass. This date can be up to 3 months after you purchase the pass. 

You can activate it at the JR ticketing office in most Shinkansen stations.

Using the JR Pass on the Local Train

Ticket Gate of JR Tsuchiura station, Jan. 2019

You can ride the local trains by showing your JR Pass to the staff member at the ticket office. 

The electronic gates can only be used with a normal train ticket or a transportation pass such as the SUICA or PASMO. 

Keep in mind that at some exits, there are only electric gates and you have to enter and exit through an exit with a ticketing window. 

Riding the Shinkansen

About the Shinkansen

There are 5 different Japan Rail Companies and 8 lines that make up the entire Shinkansen network. 

These lines connect all the way from Hakodate, Hokkaido down to Kagoshima, Kyushu and various major cities in between. 

Shinkansen map 20110312 en

For every Shinkansen line, there are 3 different types of speed: local, semi-express, and express. Every train has a different name depending on the line and the speed. 

With the JR Pass, you can ride on every Shinkansen except the Nozomi and Mizuho express trains running through the Tokaido, Sanyo, and Kyushu line.

The Shinkansen runs as early as 6am and the last train ends around 10pm. You can see the timetable on the Shinkansen website

Making a Seat Reservation

If you have the JR pass, you can only make the reservation in person at the Midori no Madoguchi (みどりの窓口) located in various JR stations.

At the office, you can show them your JR pass and let them know where you would like to go and they will help you find the right train. 

Make sure to specify your seat too if you want the nice window seat during your trip!

Riding Without a Reservation

If you forgot to make a reservation and want to catch the next train coming soon, you can still ride without a reservation. 

At the ticketing gate, you can just show them your JR Pass like you would to ride a local train and you will be able to ride in the Non-Reserved section of the Shinkansen. 

In the Non-Reserved section, the seats are first come first serve and you can sit on any seat that you like. If there are no more seats, then you have no choice but to stand. 

Reserving a seat on the Shinkansen usually costs extra but with the JR Pass, you can do it for free so we highly recommend doing so to avoid standing for several hours!

Extra Notes

Whether you decide to purchase the JR Pass or not, we highly recommend that everyone carry around a PASMO or SUICA card as well. 

This is the standard transportation card in Japan which you can use for any train and not just the JR lines. You fill up as you go and you can avoid the pain of buying individual tickets for every train ride. 

The Metro Pass

Tokyo subway map.PNG
Public Domain, Link

Similar to the JR Pass, there is also a Metro Pass that allows unlimited rides on the Tokyo Metro lines and the Toei Subway lines. 

There are more Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway lines than JR in Tokyo and it can be a great addition if you are exploring around Tokyo. 

It’s sold in 24 hour, 48 hour, and 72 hour time frames and comes at a much cheaper price than the JR Pass.