The Japan Rail Pass or JR Pass is designed primarily for tourists to Japan who wish to travel by train. If you plan on travelling throughout Japan then the pass gives you free Japanese train travel for the duration of your trip. Despite the cost of the pass, this is generally more cost effective than buying individual tickets. The JR Rail Pass provides free seat reservations (which in Japan incur a separate cost) and it saves you time, as there’s no need to wait to buy tickets for individual trips). For us, it was a foregone conclusion that we would buy a JR Pass and our 21 day JR Pass saved us US$900 EACH on the trains we took in exploring Japan.
What's in This Article?
- 6 Really Important Things to Know About the JR Pass
- An Overview of the Japan Rail Network
- What is the JR Pass
- What does the JR pass cover
- Types of JR Passes
- How Much Does the Japan Rail Pass Cost?
- Who can buy the JR Pass?
- Who is The JR Pass not available for
- How to Buy the JR Pass
- How to swap your exchange coupon for your JR Pass
- Where to exchange your coupon for your JR Pass
- When is the JR Pass valid from?
- Where can you use the JR Pass?
- Benefits of the JR Pass
- How to use the JR Pass
- How to use the Japan Rail Pass to Travel on Japanese Trains
- How to Make Seat Reservations on Japanese Trains
- Getting onto a platform at a Japanese Train Station
- Finding the right platform on Japanese train stations
- Finding the right car on a Japanese platform
- Getting a seat on a non-reserved seat carriage
- Tips for Travelling On Japanese Trains with the JR Pass
- What’s Not Included in the JR Pass Japan
- Japanese Trains FAQs
- Is it worth getting a JR Pass?
An Overview of the Japan Rail Network
The Japanese Train Network is made up of a series of regional companies running train services. (For example, JR Hokkaido runs trains in the Hokkaido area). The regional rail networks are JR Kyushu, JR Shikoku, JR West, JR Centre, JR East and JR Hokkaido.
There are also some private lines that are not part of the Japan Rail Network, such as the Matsumoto to Kamikochi train to hike Kamikochi National Park. You can find which lines these are by checking on Hyperdia, which details all the routes and trains running on them.
Different types of trains run on the rails – from the fastest Nozomi Shinkansen (bullet) trains to limited express trains and slower local trains.
Japanese Trains are fast, efficient and ALWAYS run on time. They are comfortable and the Japanese rail network is an excellent and easy way to see either specific Japanese regions or the whole country.
What is the JR Pass
The JR Pass is a special train pass for Japanese Trains for tourists. It allows you to use unlimited trains of certain types without additional cost after paying the Japan Rail Pass price. Think of it as the European Interrail ticket for Japan.
What does the JR pass cover
The Japan Rail Pass gives you unlimited train travel in Japan for the duration of your pass. The JR Pass becomes your ticket to ride on Japanese trains, you do not need to swap it or book tickets. There are some exceptions with trains and lines you can use that are not covered on the JR Pass, which we will cover below.
There are different types of JR Passes which we’ll cover in this article. There is a JR Pass for 7 days, a Japan Rail Pass for 14 days and a JR Pass for 21 days). You can get a JR Pass only for certain regions or a rail pass for the entire country.
The JR Pass also includes free seat reservations on trains as well as the ticket to ride on the train itself.
There are exclusions to the JR Pass – you cannot use the JR Pass on some of the fastest Shinkansen trains. We have covered the exclusions later in this article. Trains are a fabulous way to travel around Japan, but they are not the only way, we cannot recommend strongly enough that it’s important to plan WHERE you want to go and then plan how you will get there.
Types of JR Passes
JR Pass 7 days, 14 days or 21 days
The main type of JR Pass that tourists to Japan buy are the 7 day JR Pass, or the 14 day JR Pass or the 21 day JR Pass. These cover the whole Japanese train network (again, note the exceptions) these whole network JR passes are valid for the period of consecutive days purchased. They start on the day that the pass is FIRST USED and they end at midnight (or the last train that you take) on the last day of use. So, if the train arrives at 1 am the following day, but you got on it on the last day of your JR Pass validity then your journey is covered.
These passes are often called the JR National Pass or the JR Whole Country Pass.
How are days calculated with JR Passes?
The JR Pass runs for consecutive days from the day you activate your JR Pass until midnight on the final day. If, however, you board your train before midnight on the final day, then your JR Pass is valid until the end of your journey.
JR Ordinary Pass
The JR Pass that you buy for 7, 14 or 21 days is a standard or ordinary JR Pass. It allows you to travel in the standard carriages on trains that are included within the JR Ordinary Pass. The JR Ordinary Pass also lets you make seat reservations in ordinary carriages for free.
JR Green Pass
The Green JR Pass is valid for the same length of time but allows you access to superior-class or business class carriages. Free seat reservations are included in your JR Pass for green carriages. JR Green carriages are the equivalent of first-class train travel and include some additional benefits that we’ll discuss below.
JR Green Car vs JR Ordinary Pass Comparison
Ordinary cars on Japanese trains are extremely spacious and comfortable, but if you’d like a little more comfort then you might want to opt for the Green Car option.
Green Car Japanese carriages provide more spacious seats and a premium service than ordinary cars. With a Green Car JR Pass, you can travel on all Shinkansen in these first-class carriages. Seat reservations are required but are included in your JR Green Car Pass.
JR Green Car Benefits
- Larger seat than an ordinary car
- 40-inch recline
- More luggage space
Additional Green Car benefits on specific lines include hot and cold drinks and hot towels. Some Green cars have smoking areas.
If you are travelling in Japan during specific busy times (May, August and September), then it may be a good idea to purchase a Green Car JR Pass – you’ll get more room when the trains are very busy and there are fewer travellers in green cars.
Usually, Green Cars are located at the front of the train, or closest to the platform stairs and entrances for increased convenience. You’ll find their location noted on the platform floor. (As with all carriages).
How Much Does the Japan Rail Pass Cost?
The JR Pass online price is pretty standard. You rarely find discounted offers, although when we purchased our JR Passes near the ferry port in Busan, South Korea we got a 5% discount for paying cash.
We used the Joyride agency, located in the Post Office building as we’d visited the agency at the ferry port itself and the quoted us a significantly higher price. Additionally, Joyride gave us a discount for cash.
Authorised JR Pass vendors will allow you to purchase your JR Pass in your local currency, but for clarity, we have detailed the prices in Japanese Yen in the comparison table below.
Children under the age of 6 travel for free if they are travelling with a pass holder. However, if you wish your child to have their own seat, you will need to purchase a JR Pass for them.
There is a specific list of authorized JR Pass vendors, both online and in bricks and mortar agencies. You can find it here. If you want to buy your JR Pass online we recommend JRailPass – and you can buy your JR Pass here. Additional costs will include shipping to your home address. Discounts may be given at bricks and mortar agencies for cash purchases.
Until March 2020 it is possible to buy JR Passes inside Japan. JR Rail Pass Japan purchases come at a 50% premium. JR Pass prices are detailed below.
JR Pass Costs in February 2019:
|JR Rail Price Pass||Adult||Child (6-11)|
|JR Pass 7 day price||¥29,110||¥14,550|
|JR Pass 14 day price||¥46,390||¥23,190|
|JR Pass 21 day price||¥59,350||¥29,670|
|JR Green Pass Price||Adult||Child (6-11)|
|JR Green Pass 7 Days||¥38,880||¥19,440|
|JR Green Pass 14 Days||¥62,950||¥31,470|
|JR Green Pass 21 Days||¥81,870||¥40,930|
Who can buy the JR Pass?
The rules for buying JR Passes are clear. You can only buy the JR TrainPass if you are visiting Japan on a tourist visa. As you enter Japan your passport will be stamped with a “Temporary Visitor” sticker/stamp. A Temporary visitor status means that you are staying for less than 3 months and as a tourist. You may need to show this to receive your JR Pass.
Who is The JR Pass not available for
- Visitors for non-tourisms purposes – like working holidays, research or work. If you are not Japanese but hold a long term Japanese visa as a student, instructor or if you’re on a working holiday then you are not eligible for the JR Pass.
- Japanese Nationals*
* Japanese Nationals who meet certain criteria and can provide documentation to support it can purchase JR Passes (these include having overseas residential registration, having a certificate of overseas residence or a permanent residence card from Canada, Brazil or the USA.
How to Buy the JR Pass
What you actually buy with a JR Pass is what’s called an “Exchange Coupon”. This exchange coupon is a physical piece of paper (there are no electronic vouchers available) that must either be physically handed to you mailed to you. It can also be mailed or couriered to your hotel in Japan.
When you arrive in Japan and want to start using your JR Pass you must attend a JR Travel Service Centre Office and swap your exchange coupon for your actual JR Pass. Your pass will be validated and the clock will start ticking on its validity at that point in time. We have included full details on how to activate your JR Pass later in this article.
You can buy the JR Pass, either online or via an authorized agent in certain countries. If you buy it online you must have an address for the coupon to be mailed to. You cannot just receive an electronic voucher or details via email.
Where to buy the JR Pass outside Japan
While it is possible to buy some JR Passes at certain locations in Japan (at a premium price), most Japan Rail Passes must be bought from an authorized JR Sales Agent before you get to Japan. You must allow time to receive the exchange coupon and travel to Japan with the exchange coupon. The exchange coupon must be exchanged for a JR Pass within 3 months of purchase.
There are two types of authorized sales agents for JR Passes. Those who have an actual sales office in countries outside Japan and those who sell online.
Where to buy the JR Pass outside Japan in Person
The JR Group maintain a list of the official JR Pass vendors in countries around the world. You can find this list of approved JR Pass vendors here.
This is the Japan Rail Pass official site, although it does not allow you to buy directly from them it does include the list of approved vendors where you can buy the Japan Rail pass online and in person.
If you are looking for where to buy Japan Rail Passes in person, please consult this list prior to making a purchase to ensure you are buying your pass coupon from an authorized vendor.
Where to buy the JR Pass Online outside Japan
The easiest way to get your pass is to buy a JR Pass online. Your pass will be couriered to an address of your choosing, within 2 business days. JRailPass is an approved and accredited Japan Rail Pass vendor – buy your tickets here now!
Where to buy JR Passes INSIDE Japan
You can buy Japan Rail Passes in Japan until March 31, 2020, at these JR Stations and Japanese airports. There is a price INCREASE of at least 50% on the prices of buying a JR Pass from outside Japan.
A 7 day Japan Rail Pass bought in Japan costs 44,000 YEN (USD$397), or USD$263 if bought online outside Japan. Book your JR Pass now and save!
JR Stations where you can buy the JR Pass in Japan
Airports where you can the JR Pass in Japan
- Haneda Airport – International Airport
- Kansai Airport.
- Narita Airport, Terminals 1-2-3
How to swap your exchange coupon for your JR Pass
In order to activate your Japan Rail Pass, you will have to exchange your voucher at a JR office. These offices can be found at the airport or in the main train stations. A full list of locations where you can activate your Japan Tourist Rail Pass can be found here. Please check the opening times of your exchange office before planning travel!
At the office, fill out the form at your disposal there and show the entry stamp that is on your passport. When exchanging your voucher you will have to decide on the date you want to start using your pass.
This date has to be within 30 days of the exchange. Once it is validated you will be able to use your pass starting on the date you have chosen for the consecutive number of days for which your pass is valid.
To swap your exchange coupon for a JR Pass follow these details
- Go in person to a JR Travel Office or exchange office (full list here). We used the travel centre at JR Shimonoseki as we arrived on the South Korea to Japan ferry and were able to walk easily from the ferry port to the JR Station.
- You must present the following documents
- Your JR exchange coupon
- Your Passport
- You need to say which day you want it to start. You can start your JR Pass immediately or any day within 30 days of the date you collect it. The date you chose will be noted onto your JR Pass.
- You provide all of this information on a form, and it is then written and printed onto your JR Pass. When you use your JR Pass you must also present your passport.
- None of this information can be changed once it is printed onto your JR Pass. We advise writing it all down PRIOR to arriving to activate your JR Pass to try and avoid errors.
The voucher exchange is simple. At the same time, we reserved our seats for our first trip, down to Nagasaki, for our introduction to Atomic Japan.
(The first train to Kokura was a local train, you just show the JR Pass and you’re on). Kokura has the dubious claim to fame that it was the original target for the atomic bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki.
Where to exchange your coupon for your JR Pass
You must exchange your JR coupon for your JR Pass at a JR Travel Service Centre. Again, the full list is here. Note that they are not at all JR Stations, but you can also find some at airports too.
When is the JR Pass valid from?
Your JR Pass will be valid from the date you select. This can be any day, up to 30 days into the future from the date that you arrive at a JR Travel Service Centre to activate your JR Pass.
Where can you use the JR Pass?
The JR Pass is valid on most lines in Japan and on most trains, here are further details.
Which Trains Can You Use the JR Pass on
The JR Pass is valid on all the following trains
- JR Limited Express
- JR Express Trains
- JR Rapid Trains
- JR Local Trains
- JR Shinkansen Bullet Trains – but not the Nozomi and Mizuho Trains
There are 3 different types of Shinkansen trains in Japan. The fastest trains are the Nozomi or Mizuho trains, they also make the least stops. The next quickest Shinkansen trains are the Hikari and then the Kodama. The JR Pass is valid only on Hikari and Kodama Shinkansen trains. You can buy an upgrade JR Pass Shinkansen ticket to the Nozomi or Mizuho by presenting your JR Pass at a JR Trains Travel Service Centre.
Using the JR Pass on Tokyo’s Metropolitan lines and the Osaka Loop Line
You can also use the JR Pass on five of Tokyo’s metropolitan lines and the loop line in Osaka.
You can also use the JR Pass on various buses and ferries which are detailed below.
Use your JR Pass on JR buses
Your JR Pass also gives you free access to local JR bus services, although not on JR Express Buses. The bus services included with the JR Pass include.
- JR Hokkaido Bus
- JR Bus Tohoku
- JR Bus Kanto
- JR Tokai Bus
- JR Shikoku
- West Japan JR Bus
- Chugoku JR Bus
- JR Kyushu Bus
Use your JR Pass on the JR Ferry
Your JR Pass is valid on the JR West Ferry from Miyajimaguchi station to Miyajima, saving you the 820 Yen return fare. It is NOT valid on the JR Beetle ferry from Busan to Hakata, but you can read about Korea – Japan ferries here.
Use your JR Pass to get to and from Tokyo Airports
You can use your Japan Rail Pass to get from Haneda Airport to Hamamatsucho Station in Tokyo. You can also use your JR Pass to get from Narita Airport to Tokyo on the Narita Express.
It is possible to travel around Japan WITHOUT the JR Pass – and easily – the JR Pass doesn’t cover you on the fastest trains – Claire of Claire’s Footsteps has suggestions of an itinerary in Japan for a two-week trip.
How to use the JR Pass
Once you have activated your JR Pass you are ready to use Japanese Trains. If you have a predefined route to your travel, then you will likely have also made seat reservations when you activated your JR Pass. However, you do not have to use seat reservations and can simply arrive at a station, show your pass and get on a train.
Seat Reservations or non-reserved seats on Japanese Trains
Your JR Pass includes free seat reservations. In my view, if you know your route and where you want to go it’s worth the extra few minutes to reserve a seat. If you change your mind you can always cancel your seat reservation (as that’s free as well), and if you don’t have time to cancel your seat reservation there are also no penalties. There’s more on making seat reservations on Japanese trains later in this article.
Here are a few more details about how to make your Japanese train travel smoother.
How to use the Japan Rail Pass to Travel on Japanese Trains
- You do not need to book a ticket. The JR Pass is your ticket. It allows you to get on any of the trains detailed above.
- The JR Pass does not guarantee you a seat, you need to make a seat reservation for the guarantee of a seat. The JR Pass gives you seat reservations for free, but you have to make these in advance at a ticket office/window. This can be 5 minutes in advance, so long as there are seats available.
- Japanese trains have carriages with seat reservations and carriages where there are no reservations (and thus its first come first served for seats). Some trains ONLY have reserved seats, notably, these are the Narita Express.
- If you do not make a seat reservation you can always get into a carriage that is non-reserved seats and either find a seat or stand if none are available.
How to Make Seat Reservations on Japanese Trains
Another benefit that your JR Pass gives you is that it provides free seat reservations. To make a seat reservation you will need to go to a JR ticket office and show your pass. If you have purchased a regional JR Pass you may have to pay a top-up fee for seat reservations.
You need to go to the JR Travel Services or Train Reservations offices at any major JR Station to make Reservations. It is a very good idea to have written down the train start station, end station and times and dates that you wish to travel.
JAPAN TRAINS TRAVEL TIP: If you know your route book all your seat reservations when you collect your JR Pass. If your travel plans change you can always pop in and change them later.
You cannot make seat reservations online with a JR Pass. Neither can you make a seat reservation at a ticket machine in a station. You cannot make any seat reservations until you have collected your JR Pass. Cancellation is also free.
When you make your seat reservation with your JR Pass you’ll be given a seat reservation ticket to use along with your JR Pass. Your carriage and seat number will be printed on the ticket.
Getting onto a platform at a Japanese Train Station
There are barriers in all Japanese train stations, which open when you insert your train ticket. This does not work with the JR Pass. To use a JR Pass to gain access to a platform you need to present your JR Pass (and your passport) to a guard each time. You do the same to exit platforms when you arrive at your destination as well.
Finding the right platform on Japanese train stations
Japanese train stations and the Japanese rail network are a fabulous experience in efficiency. They are, also, however, sometimes somewhat bewildering. All signage is in both Japanese and English and every interaction we had was courteous and helpful.
At the main entrance, there will be an electronic board with details of which trains are planned for which platform.
Finding the right car on a Japanese platform
When you arrive onto the correct platform you will find electronic boards to advise which cars (carriages) are for non-reserved ticket holders and which are cars for seat reservations.
If you have a seat reservation then you can check the platform floor where the car numbers will be indicated. The incoming train will stop at the exact place where the specific carriage stops. You will see the names of different trains (e.g. Hikari or Kodama) indicated here. Be sure you’re in the right place for the train you’re catching.
Getting a seat on a non-reserved seat carriage
There is a strict queueing system for non-reserved seats on Japanese trains. There are usually 2 separate queues for each carriage (one at each end). Check the signage on the platform floor to make sure that you are in the right place.
Tips for Travelling On Japanese Trains with the JR Pass
Keep your JR Pass Safe – if you lose it or its stolen you will need to buy a new one, there is no replacement service.
The easiest way to plan your train travel in Japan is to use the HYPERDIA app or website. This details all the trains (including their names) and details which have reserved seat carriages and non-reserved seat carriages. You will find the entire JR Rail timetable on Hyperdia.
If you are travelling during the busy season – like the Japanese Cherry Blossom season – then we highly recommend making reservations as soon as you activate your JR Pass. Train reservations are highly recommended during the following periods:
- New Year: December 28 – January 6
- Golden Week: end of April – early May
- Cherry Blossom Season – full details and our guide to Japanese Cherry Blossom Season here
- Obon Week – mid-August
What’s Not Included in the JR Pass Japan
It’s important when planning your Japanese travel to work out where you want to go and how you want to get there. Certain trains and routes are not included on the JR Pass, like for instance the final part of the train trip to Fujikawaguchiko – for Mount Fuji.
Japanese Trains FAQs
Can you book online with a JR Pass?
No. You do not need to make a booking, the JR Pass is your ticket. You do have to book any seat reservations, however. Seat reservations are free with the JR Pass, but all seat reservations must be done in person at a JR Trains travel service centre or ticket office.
Do you need seat reservations on Japanese Trains?
There are two types of carriages for ordinary class Japanese train travel. Those with seat reservations and those without seat reservations. (There are some trains that are reserved seats only – these are small in number, the most notable one is the Narita Express between Tokyo and Narita Airport). Aside from them, you can just travel on pretty much any of the allowed trains without seat reservations, as all trains have “no seat reservation” carriages. Depending on the time of year you are travelling this might not be a wise idea. Those carriages without seat reservations can get very full. Seat reservations are free with your JR Pass, and it’s easy to make a reservation at a JR ticket office.
How do you find train Timetables in Japan?
You need to bookmark the Hyperdia website and download the app. Using the JR Pass is impossible without the fabulous HYPERDIA.COM site – which not only makes it incredibly simple to work out where you’re going and when, but when you take a screenshot of what train tickets you want or what seats you want to reserve, handing over the screenshot to a JR agent just makes it incredibly easy.
What are Japanese Trains like?
Train travel in Japan is easy, comfortable, very, very fast. The trains are smooth, fast and incredibly efficient. On time departure, arrival and unfailingly polite staff who’s English was superb – none of this travel was difficult in any way whatsoever. (Although spending 90 minutes looking for a bag locker at Osaka and Shin-Osaka station did test the patience somewhat…)
And the trains are very pleasant, very organized. After the scrums in China (even just to buy a ticket!), this was a blissful, polite organization. Even to get on the train! It’s all marked out on the platform where to stand, and that’s where the trains stop!
It’s fun, too to what the platform staff- when they wave in and wave out a train, there’s a routine they go through, with almost a dance and a series of waves. It’s a simple technique that’s used for health and safety to ensure trains depart safely on time.
The trains vary, of course, there are seats like old armchairs, and there are two plus two seats, two plus three.
Two things strike you though. Other travellers are very, very polite. If they want to recline their seat (and there is always oodles of space even if they do), then they will get up out of their seat, walk to you and ask if it’s alright to recline their seat. No train rage, knee protectors needed here!
The second is that you’re always facing the direction of travel. It puzzled me for a while, then we saw a train being prepared for the next trip and between each trip, each carriage is cleaned, wiped, and using this cool little device on the seats…
The seats are flipped in the direction of travel!
Can I eat on Japanese Trains?
Yes. You can buy food at stations or stores and bring it with you. There are also some services which provide paid for food services on trains. Boxed meals that contain delicacies from the region in which you are travelling are a great way to further enjoy the culture of your journey.
Do I need a seat reservation on Japanese Trains?
Many services have dedicated carriages with seat reservations, others are just unreserved seats. Most local trains do not have reserved seats, but the Narita Express only has reserved seats.
If you are travelling on a Shinkansen during peak travel times (0700 – 0900 and 1800 – 2000) then you should make a seat reservation. Also if you are travelling during peak travel periods, like Golden Week, Cherry Blossom Season or Obon Week, then you should make a seat reservation.
Is it worth getting a JR Pass?
It’s not cheap. Our JR Pass for 21 days cost us 540,000 KRW (59,350 Yen, US$490.71, GBP 325.27), but it was worth EVERY penny. That’s each. We calculated that if we’d taken the trains that we did, it would have actually cost us 156,330 Yen, US$1,396, GBP856.5 – and of course if the cost had really been that, then we would have just not gone to half the places.
Our JR Pass also got us on a free ferry to Miyajima. It enabled us to go to Sapporo, Otaru, Hakodate and Noboritsu in Hokkaido on a “whim” – taking an overnight armchair sleeper.
Hakodate is one the top 10 places to go and check out the spring Cherry Blossoms in Japan – you can do that on your JR Pass! Our JR Pass meant that we could take a day to travel to and from the spa town of Kinosaki.
And we got to travel on some amazing trains.
There were local trains.
And while we couldn’t travel on the fastest bullet trains that Japan has, without paying an extra fee, we did meet, travel on and fall in love with the Hayabusa train. It’s a high-speed Shinkansen train.
While there are some trains that the JR Pass didn’t cover (specifically around Kyoto, from Matsumoto to Kamikochi and also the final leg of the trip to Mount Fuji) – we certainly got our money’s worth and enjoyed every smooth, pleasant kilometre that we travelled around the country.
We saw more of the country than we imagined and it was beyond our imagination – and without the JR Pass beyond our means! In fact, when we look at the map, we made a pretty good attempt to cover most of the country!