The Japan Rail Pass: What You Need to Know - Japanspecialist

The Japan Rail Pass: What You Need to Know

21 Feb 2023

The Japan Rail Pass is a transport pass that lets you travel all over Japan. So, if you’re planning to visit more than one city, it will likely save you a lot of money!

When traveling around Japan, most people choose to travel by train. Japan is very well connected by rail, and the trains are world-renowned for being fast and reliable. In contrast, taxis can be very expensive, and renting a car is better for travelling outside of big cities.

But getting multiple long-distance trains during one trip can rack up quite the bill. That’s where the Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass) comes in. As we’ll see later, one round-trip from Tokyo to some of the most popular Japanese cities can cost as much as a full 7-day JR Pass!

Let’s take a look at how the Japan Rail Pass works and whether it’s right for you.

What Does the Japan Rail Pass Cover?

Simplified map of Japan showing where the Japan Rail Pass can be used

The JR Pass covers most of the JR (Japan Railways) lines around Japan. This includes everything from the slower “local” trains for shorter distances to the fast “express” trains that bypass small stations, and even the shinkansen (bullet trains).

This means that you can travel from Kyushu, the southern tip of Japan’s main island, right up to the northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido. Some non-JR lines are even covered too.

Some examples of what is covered by the JR Pass:

  • JR Line trains
  • Almost all shinkansen (see below for exceptions)
  • Tokyo Monorail to and from Haneda Airport
  • Narita Express to and from Narita Airport
  • Some local JR Buses (not highway buses)
  • JR ferry to Miyajima

What Does the Japan Rail Pass Not Cover?

Deserted bus stop at night in Japan

However, the JR Pass does not cover every element of public transport in Japan. Most notably, it doesn’t cover the metro or subway lines. However, in Tokyo there are a few JR lines that cross the city, such as the popular JR Yamanote Line, so you can still use the pass to get around without paying extra for subway fees.

You also cannot ride the Nozomi or Mizuho shinkansen, which are the fastest bullet trains on the Tokaido, Sanyo and Kyushu lines. Shinkansen lines have varying speed levels though, so you can still get a fast bullet train to those areas, just not the fastest, unless you are willing to pay for a separate ticket.

Here are a few notable exceptions that the Japan Rail Pass doesn’t cover:

  • Nozomi and Mizuho shinkansen
  • Subway and metro lines
  • Highway buses
  • JR trains that use non-JR tracks
  • Any transport in Okinawa

See here for more details.

That is not to say that you need to plan routes to avoid extra fees meticulously, but simply to be aware that you may need to pay a little extra here and there if you get on the subway. Just don’t jump straight onto the fastest shinkansen!

Is the Japan Rail Pass Cost Effective?

Woman in traditional kimono looking out over the beautiful golden Kinkakuji Temple in Kyoto, Japan

Now that you know how good the pass can be, is it worth the price?

Please have a look at our current Japan Rail Pass prices.

At first glance, it might seem like a lot, but when you consider how many days the pass covers and how it compares to buying individual tickets, you start to see the benefits!

A round-trip from Tokyo to Kyoto or Tokyo to Hiroshima is typically more expensive than an entire 7-day adult JR Pass. So, if you plan to visit more than one city on your trip to Japan, the JR Pass is certainly worth it.

If you want extra space and a touch of luxury, you can instead order the Green Class pass, which is the equivalent of First Class and gets you a seat on the “Green Car” of shinkansen and select trains.

Who is the Japan Rail Pass For?

Woman carrying luggage and holding map on a Fujiyoshida street with Mt. Fuji in the background

The JR Pass is good to have if you are planning to visit more than one city during your trip to Japan and to travel between those cities via train or shinkansen. But who can use it?

The pass is aimed at international travellers. That means anyone with a non-Japanese passport visiting Japan on a tourist visa. However, Japanese nationals and international residents (e.g. with a work visa) are not eligible.

Children up to 11 years old get passes for half price, and children under 6 can use JR Lines for free if they do not occupy a seat.

However, you might find the JR Pass is not for you if you only intend to stay in one city throughout your trip. The JR Pass is intended for inter-city travel and does not cover all local buses, train lines, and subways. So, if you are staying in Tokyo and its surroundings for the entirety of your Japan trip, you would be better off simply getting a Suica or Pasmo card that you can top up as you go.

How to Use the Japan Rail Pass

Ticket gates at a train station in central Tokyo

Remember a few important steps when buying and using your Japan Rail Pass.

When buying your JR Pass through Japanspecialist, make your order online and wait for your “exchange order” to arrive in the post via UPS. It is important to note that this is not your pass but a paper voucher that must be exchanged for the pass once in Japan. You will not receive a digital copy or replacements, so don’t lose it!

Once in Japan, go to a Japan Rail Pass exchange office to exchange your voucher and activate your Japan Rail Pass. Exchange offices can be found at major JR Stations and international airports, but see this list for specific locations.

Once you have the pass, you can use it at the automatic ticket gates or by showing it to the staff at the gates. Activating the pass starts the clock on your ticket’s validity, which is counted by days rather than 24-hour periods. If you activate your card at 3 pm on day one, it will stop working at midnight on day seven, not 3 pm on day eight.

If you are planning to use the shinkansen with the JR Pass, it’s best to reserve a seat in advance, especially for popular lines or at popular times like Golden Week and cherry blossom season. Seat reservations can be made for free with the JR Pass. For some lines, this can be done online, but you can also reserve at the dedicated shinkansen counters at shinkansen train stations.

Main Points to Note About the Japan Rail Pass

 Shinkansen bullet train coming into the platform at Tokyo Station

By this point, you probably have a good idea about whether the JR Pass is the right choice for you, but let’s recap some of the main points to keep in mind when booking and using your pass:

  • You can use the JR Pass straight away from Haneda or Narita airports, but once your pass is activated, the clock starts on your designated pass usage period.
  • The JR Pass does not cover all transport throughout Japan, but it does cover most trains from Kyushu to Hokkaido. See map here.
  • The JR Pass is most beneficial for multi-city trips.
  • Seat reservations can be made for free with the JR Pass.
  • Children can receive a pass for half price, and children under six can ride for free if they do not occupy a seat.
  • The JR Pass covers most shinkansen, but not the Nozomi and Mizuho trains, which are the most direct ones.

Essentially, if you are planning to visit multiple cities in Japan, the Japan Rail Pass is for you! If you want to know more, head to our JR Pass reservation page. But if you’re getting excited for your first bullet train ride, have a look at some of these awesome castles you can easily visit by shinkansen!


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