Make the most of your trip to Japan with a JR Pass
The Japan Rail (JR) Pass is a deal offered exclusively to foreign visitors traveling in Japan on a tourist visa. For one flat fee, you can pretty much take unlimited rides on the JR network throughout Japan.
A regular seven-day adult pass costs 29,110 yen, while those looking for a little more luxury can buy a Green Car pass from 38,880 yen. The 14-day regular adult pass is 46,390 yen, while the regular 21-day pass costs 59,350 yen.
Kids' passes are reduced by 50 percent for children aged between six and 11.
What is covered?
The Japan Rail Pass gives you access to JR train lines countrywide, with very few exceptions. With your pass, you can take unlimited rides on most shinkansen (bullet trains), as well as on rapid, express and local JR trains.
Outside urban centers such as Tokyo and Osaka, the pass is best used to cover distance, as it does not include municipal subways and private suburban lines. With over 20,000 kilometers of tracks, the JR network connects you to attractions across Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu, the four main islands of Japan.
The pass allows you to ride many local buses operated by JR as well, including the tourist loop bus in Hiroshima, city buses around Sapporo, and the local bus to Kusatsu Onsen. You can even ride the JR Miyajima ferry, which operates from Miyajimaguchi, Hatsukaichi, Hiroshima and Miyajima. The famous journey includes an awe-inspiring view of the iconic Otorii (Grand Torii Gate) of Itsukushima Shrine from the sea. The red gate is one of Japan's most iconic sites, as it appears to float on water at high tide.
The Japan Rail Pass makes plenty of famous attractions accessible, allows for easy and convenient travel across the country, and can save you money on your travels.
What isn't covered?
There are some important exceptions you should know before deciding to buy a pass or not. For instance, the JR pass does not include rides on the Nozomi (the fastest service on the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen route), and Mizuho trains (fastest on the Sanyo-Kyushu Shinkansen route). If you're traveling on these lines, be careful which trains you board, as passengers who ride the Nozomi and Mizuho with a JR Pass can't pay the difference in price, but have to pay the full fare instead. There are alternatives to these trains that are covered by the pass, and in fact, the slightly slower shinkansen services only tend to add 30 minutes or so to a trip.
In cities like Tokyo, the pass doesn't give you access to the subway and metro lines, so you might find it a little inconvenient if you will spend most of your time in one major urban area. Many of the major attractions have JR stations nearby, but if you find a quicker or more convenient route on the subway, you will have to pay extra. Some suburban "liner" express trains on the JR network aren't included either, and passengers need a special ticket to board them.
How do I get a JR Pass?
If you want to get your hands on a JR Pass, you've got a few options.
The best option is to book your pass either through a travel agent overseas or through an online distributor. If you're organized enough to sort it out a few weeks in advance, you'll receive your voucher in the mail alongside a detailed map of the railway network.
You can buy a JR pass in person at major airports and select major stations in Japan until March 31st, 2019. If this trial is successful, JR will continue to offer this option. However, do keep in mind, the pass is more expensive when you buy it in Japan, so it's worth buying one before you arrive.
After purchasing the voucher, you have three months to exchange it for a pass at select JR stations throughout Japan. Many travelers choose this day as their start date, but you can opt to activate your pass up to a month in the future after you pick it up. Just remember that once the pass is issued, the start date can't be changed, so choose wisely.
How do I use it?
When your pass is activated, you can start using the trains. The JR Pass itself is your ticket, except when you reserve a seat, in which case you are issued a seat ticket.
You can make reservations on most shinkansen and other long-distance travel (like limited express trains) for no extra cost with your JR Pass. Making seat reservations are a good idea, especially, if you're traveling during peak times and seasons, or riding the first or last trains of the day.
Seat reservations on the Tohoku and Hokkaido Shinkansen are mandatory. Seat selection is generally not available on local and urban trains, but some quick web research will help you to confirm.
Remember that JR Pass holders can't use the automatic gates at stations, and must instead present their pass to the staff at staffed gates. You might also be asked for your passport, so keep it handy.
Travel tip: if traveling in the direction of Kyoto and Osaka from Tokyo on the shinkansen, reserve a window seat on the right for a view of Mt. Fuji.
So, should I buy it?
The JR Pass can be a great way to save money even if you're planning to take just one long-distance trip.
If you're hoping to cover a lot of ground, want to use the shinkansen for day trips, or even if you'd prefer to avoid air travel, toll roads/highways, and long-distance buses, the JR Pass might be a good investment. However, if you choose to spend most of your time exploring Tokyo or Osaka, it may be wise to look into subway passes, or area rail passes.
The potential disadvantage to owning a JR Pass might be trying to squeeze too much into your itinerary to maximize your discount or, the opposite, buying a pass and not using it to its full potential. Both of these scenarios can be avoided with a little planning.
The seven-day JR Pass (29,000 yen) is nearly paid off with a round-trip journey between Tokyo and Kyoto (27,000 yen). As the former capital of Japan, Kyoto has many historic and exquisitely beautiful site. The city is home to Fushimi Inari Taisha, a Shinto shrine at the top of Mt. Inari, famous for thousands of torii gates that lead up the forested path.
From Kyoto, head to Osaka (1,100 yen round-trip), where you'll find modern attractions like Universal Studios and historical sites like Osaka Castle . If you want to see some splendid landscapes and nature, head to Kanazawa (13,500 yen round-trip from Kyoto) and check out Kenrokuen, Japan's most celebrated landscape garden.
With the 14-day pass (46,000 yen), you'll have more time to enjoy these locations and the chance to explore a bit further. Head to Hiroshima (22,500 yen round-trip from Kyoto) and visit Miyajima, the iconic island famous for its “floating” torii.
From Hiroshima, continue down to Kyushu, Japan's southernmost major island. Explore the charming port city of Nagasaki (13,500 yen one-way from Hiroshima) and visit the infamous Gunkanjima (Battleship Island) . Head to Kagoshima next (13,500 yen one-way) for a glimpse of Sakurajima, one of Japan's most active volcanoes.
The 21-day pass (59,000 yen) allows you to choose between exploring Japan in more depth or covering more ground. If you arrive in the winter, Japan's famed snow in Nagano (16,000 yen round-trip from Tokyo), Hokkaido (53,000 yen from Tokyo) or many other locations across the country is a not-to-be-missed experience.
JR Pass alternatives
If you're planning to stay relatively local, there are regional and private passes that may be better value for you than the full JR Pass. In Tokyo, you can get the Tokyo Subway Ticket which allows for one day of unlimited travel along the Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway lines for only 800 yen—with two-day and three-day tickets available at 1,200 yen and 1,500 yen respectively—giving you the freedom to zip around the city hassle-free.
If you're traveling outside of Tokyo but not all over Japan, perhaps consider a regional JR Pass.
Regional JR passes offer unlimited rides in specific areas. If you plan to travel extensively through Western Japan (Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima, etc.), consider a JR West Pass. If you'd like to focus your travel on the eastern parts (Tokyo, Nagano, Niigata, and Tohoku), look into a JR East Pass.
All information is correct as of March 2019.