Are you planning a trip to the Land of the Rising Sun and wondering what the deal is with Japanese rail passes? I know how you feel because I also had many questions before my first visit to Japan.
I used the Japan Rail Pass on my last two visits but am very unlikely to do so on my planned 2024 trip.
Find out why in this Japanese Rail Passes guide, which explains how they work and where to buy them.
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Trains in Japan
The country’s leading railway company is Japan Railways, or JR for short, comprising these six companies:
- JR East (main island)
- JR West (main island)
- JR Central (main island)
- JR Hokkaido (northern island)
- JR Kyushu (southwestern island)
- JR Shikoku (southeastern island)
Japan Railways operates trains across the width and breadth of Japan, from the high-speed shinkansen bullet trains to scenic local trains. If you are travelling by train in Japan, the vast majority of your journeys will be on JR trains.
In addition to JR, there are a handful of private rail companies. These can be useful and there are some journeys where they will be your only option.
Private railway lines that are popular with tourists include the Fujikyuko Line, serving Kawaguchiko Station at Mt Fuji, the Hakone Tozan Line and the Keio Line that heads out to Mount Takao.
Japanese Rail Passes
The most popular Japanese train pass is the countrywide Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass). It is available for those with a tourist visa (Japanese residents cannot buy a pass).
The JR Pass gives you free, unlimited access to all JR trains, with the exception of the Nozomi and Mizuho shinkansen, for 7, 14 or 21 days.
It also includes some partner railways, buses and ferries, including the Tokyo Monorail to Haneda Airport, the Narita Express (NEX) and JR Lines in Tokyo. I found it useful for the tourist buses in Kanazawa and Hiroshima, as well as the ferry to Miyajima.
JR Passes are not valid for travel on private railways.
You can use this interactive map to see where your rail pass could bring you.
It comes in two flavours: an ordinary pass for travel in standard cars, or a green pass, which allows you to travel in green (first-class) cars.
In my view, unless you are travelling around Japan during a particularly busy period – the Golden Week at the beginning of May, for example – a green JR Pass is not worth the premium. I have never experienced problems with getting a seat on the service of choice.
Although the green cars offer wider seats and more legroom, the carriages in the normal cars are clean, comfortable and very spacious. There is room for luggage in the overhead rack or even in front of you (the legroom is that generous!).
Prices of Japanese Rail Passes (October 2023)
|DURATION||ORDINARY PASS||GREEN PASS|
|7-day||50,000 JPY (£283)||70,000 JPY (£396)|
|14-day||80,000 JPY (£452)||110,000 (£622)|
|21-day||100,000 JPY (£565)||140,000 (£791)|
Popular Regional Passes
- Kansai WIDE Area Pass: 5-day pass; 12,000 JPY (£66)
- Kansai-Hiroshima Area Pass: 5-day pass; 17,000 JPY (£93)
Is a Japanese Rail Pass Good Value?
For many years, the Japan Rail Pass has been one of the world’s best travel bargains. This changed in October 2023 when Japan Rail hiked the prices of its most popular passes by almost 70%.
This countrywide rail pass may remain a good deal for those travelling long distances over a short space of time. However, the JR Pass is likely to be more expensive than point-to-point tickets for the majority of people.
But if you prioritise convenience and flexibility over cost, it is still worth considering.
The quickest and easiest way to check if a JR Pass will be worth it is to plot your route on the JR Fare Calculator.
Depending on your itinerary, a regional pass may be a better bet. The bad news is that they are confusing at first glance and you’ll need to spend time figuring out what they include and how they will fit into your Japan itinerary.
READ THIS NEXT: Is the Japan Rail Pass Worth it?
How to Buy Your JR Pass
You need to buy your Japan Rail Pass before you enter the country.
Via an online agency
Although passes are sold by JR designated sales offices outside Japan, it is easier to purchase them online (I’ve tried it both ways). I have used and recommend JRPass.com but they are also available through Klook.
It’s a very simple process.
You will be asked for an approximate arrival date in Japan. This is just so the agent can ensure that your pass will arrive on time. You will decide the exact start date of the pass when you arrive in Japan.
The vendor will provide you with a voucher (an exchange order), which you will exchange for the JR Pass once you reach the country.
JR Pass exchange orders are valid for 90 days from the date of issue. When you exchange your voucher for the JR Rail Pass you can indicate a starting date for up to 30 days in the future.
Both times, I exchanged my voucher at the JR Office at Narita Airport.
For a zero-stress way of exchanging your voucher for a JR Pass at the airport, consider the JRPass Meet & Greet Service. A Japanese travel specialist will meet you in person on arrival, activate your JR Pass and help with seat reservations.
Find out more here.
Via the Japan Rail website
A second way of buying your JR Pass is through the clunky Japan Rail website.
You will not receive an exchange order. Instead, you will be given a reference number and will collect your rail pass at a JR-designated ticket office.
The advantage of purchasing the pass through the official website is that you can make online seat reservations from the time of purchase and don’t have to wait until you are in the country.
Using the JR Pass
You can use your shiny new JR Pass from its starting date for the consecutive number of days of the pass’s validity. For example, if you activate your 7-day rail pass at 2 pm on 1st May, it will be valid until the end of 7th May (not 2pm on the 8th).
To gain access to the railway platform, pass through one of the manned gates and flash your pass at the attendant, date side up. You will need to repeat this when exiting your destination.
Where the JR station has an automated ticket gate, you can scan your ticker on the reader to gain entry.
Most intercity trains have carriages with reserved or non-reserved seats. Local trains do not have reserved seats.
Much of the time, you don’t need to make a seat reservation. Simply hop on one of the carriages with non-reserved seats.
Although carriages with non-reserved seats tend to be busier, I have never had difficulty finding a seat.
However, if you are travelling at a busy time of year, reserving a seat is a smart move.
Seat reservations are free for all JR pass holders.
Head to the ticket office (Midori-no-madoguchi), show your pass, and the clerk will issue a reservation ticket and annotate your JR Pass. It’s very easy but allow enough time as the counters in the ticket office are often busy.
Boarding the Train
Finding your train carriage is simple. Signs on the platform indicate where each carriage will stop, allowing you to queue at the correct spot.
If you are travelling on a shinkansen, screens on the platform will tell you which carriages have unreserved seating.
Unlike European countries, the Japanese form an orderly queue to board trains. Queue jumping and surging onto the train when it arrives is frowned upon.
Using the JR Pass to Get to the Airport
The JR Pass is valid on the Narita Express, Tokyo Monorail and the Limited Express Haruka.
The Narita Express departs from the terminus underneath terminal 2 and stops at Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, Shibuya, Shinagawa and finally Tokyo.
Seat reservation is compulsory. If you are activating your Japan Rail Pass at Narita Airport, the clerk there will take care of this for you.
The Tokyo Monorail will take you from Haneda Airport to Hamamatsucho station, where you can connect to the Yamanote line. All three terminals of Haneda Airport are served by the monorail.
Limited Express Haruka
The Limited Express Haruka connects Kansai Airport to Kyoto and Osaka. From the station at Kansai Airport’s Terminal 1, the Haruka stops at Tennoji Shin-Osaka Station before continuing to Kyoto Station.
A Japanese rail pass isn’t the bargain it used to be. However, if you prioritise convenience over cost or want to set your travel budget in advance, it is still worth considering.
It’s hard to put a price on the flexibility that this pass offers with the freedom to change your plans at will.
What is unchanged is the joy and ease of rail travel in Japan. Tucking into a bento box as you pass Mount Fuji at 300 kph is an experience like few others.
And where else do train attendants bow to passengers before exiting the carriage?
Bridget Coleman has been a passionate traveller for more than 30 years. She has visited 70+ countries, most as a solo traveller.
Articles on this site reflect her first-hand experiences.
To get in touch, email her at email@example.com or follow her on social media.