Budget travel by train: the Japan Rail Pass

Budget travel by train: the Japan Rail Pass

Flat rate travel through Japan; jump on any train at any time and head off to your next location. No planning in advance, no lining up, no booking, no searching for station names on over-sized kanji-cluttered boards. Stop-over at Nagoya on your way to Osaka? Done. Just came back from Hokkaido and want to see Kyushuu too? No problem.

Many locals can only dream of the possibilities. Exclusively for foreign visitors to Japan the Japan Rail Pass allows budget-friendly and stress-free travel throughout Japan.

In case you come to Japan as a visitor but are planning to eventually find a job there, this ticket can be a good option for you to get to various career fairs and interviews without breaking the bank.

Until March 31st, 2019, spontaneous travelers can buy the JR Pass directly in Japan! For more information read on below.

What is the JR Pass?

The JR pass is a ticket that allows access to all JR trains at a flat rate price. During the validity you can ride any covered train line as often as you want. (乗り放題、のりほうだい the Japanese would call it).

The JR group runs most of the previously government-owned Japanese National Railway, so it is a really extensive network, that you can use for both short and long-distance travel.

JR areas

Approximate JR Areas by Vladsinger, CC

The Conditions

There are a few requirements you have to meet, before you can get your hands on a JR Pass.

1. You are a foreigner who is visiting Japan from abroad for sightseeing purposes as “temporary visitor”.
So at immigration, when asked tell the officer that you came for “sight-seeing” and they will put a “temporary visitor” stamp into your passport. This stamp is necessary to exchange your Exchange Order with the actual JR Pass.
If you go through an automated gate you won’t get a stamp, so line up somewhere where staff is present or ask a clerk directly for the stamp.

2. You have to pick up your ticket within three months after the Exchange Order was issued, otherwise, it will become void. When you pick up your JR Pass you have to decide from which date you want to use the pass. You can choose any day within one month of pick-up. Be aware that once the date is set, it cannot be changed.

The ticket is valid for only one person and not transferable so you cannot share a ticket with a friend. Train staff can request that you provide proof of identity (e.g. your passport) anytime throughout your trip.

3. The ticket is valid a set number of consecutive days. That means two things.
The JR Pass ticket doesn’t count 7 days of you using the pass, it simply expires on the 7th day after the first use.
Second, these days are calendar days and are not calculated as 24h periods. So, even if you start using your ticket at 10pm, once it’s midnight you will only have 6 days left

4. Not directly related to the ticket itself, but traveling on JR lines you can carry luggage but a few rules apply. Carry no more than two pieces of large luggage with a maximum total weight of 60kg. If you manage to carry more around with you, you have my deepest respects, but maybe consider packing light at the beginning of your trip, so you have space for souvenirs.

The Cost

The JR Pass might seem expensive, but if you consider that an one-way-ticket to Osaka already costs more than ¥13,080 it puts things into perspective. With a ride from the airport to Tokyo and one city trip, the one-week JR Pass will already start saving you money.

Validity Ordinary Green Car
7 consecutive days ¥29,110 ¥38,880
14 consecutive days ¥46,390 ¥62,950
21 consecutive days ¥59,350 ¥81,870

You can also save time and energy by avoiding the lines and the counter and not having to worry about which ticket to buy, especially when you find yourself at a station that is exclusively Japanese.

With the JR Pass you can also get discounts at partner hotels of JR. Before you book though, double check online, because you might still be able to get cheaper offers elsewhere.

Ordinary vs. Green Car

Green car is JR’s version of a first-class area. You can recognize them by a four-leaf clover. These cars are more spacious, with wider, reclining seats, reading lights and promising a more quiet environment. You can find them on bullet trains (shinkansen) and limited express trains (tokkyu).

The one down-side to the Green Car JR pass is that all seats are reserved. so you can’t just jump on the next train whenever you please, but you have to go to a ticket counter and get a seat-reservation for the train you want to take. This won’t cost you extra, as it is already covered in the Green car JR pass ticket, but it will take some time.

That said, Japan’s ordinary trains are perfectly comfortable and with plenty of travel comfort, storage for your suitcases and overwhelmingly considerate, quiet Japanese travelers. I really never had issues of being on a noisy shinkansen or express train.

If you ride ordinary class, seats are usually unreserved. So you can just go through the gate and pick any empty seat you please.

Seats in Green Car.

Where is the JR Pass valid?

The pass is valid on all JR local lines, express and limited express trains.
You can even ride most shinkansen, with the exception of the Nozomi (Tokyo-Osaka, and Osaka, Osaka-Hakata, Fukuoka) and Mizuho lines (Osaka-Kagoshima). Other shinkansen cover the same routes with a few more stops, so all this limitation costs you is a few more minutes extra travel time.

You can also use it for most local JR buses run by JR in Hokkaido, Tohoku, Kanto, Tokai, West Japan, Chugoku, Shikoku, Kyushu and on the Tokyo Monorail. Please be aware that exceptions apply.

You can also use the JR Pass on the JR Miyajima ferry (Hiroshima).

If unsure during your travels at any point, check online or approach the staff at train stations. You are probably not the first confused tourist that came to them for help.

How to get JR Pass

Order the pass stress free from home before your trip. Don’t forget to do so, because JR typically does not sell this ticket within Japan.

You can buy your pass from agencies in your home country or online. On the Japan Rail Pass website you can find a complete list of official agencies. After ordering you will receive an Exchange Order (voucher) which you can exchange for your Japan Rail Pass after your arrival.

Depending on where you live delivery can take a bit, so try to order early on.

For spontaneous travelers, there is good news. If you travel to Japan before March 31, 2019, then you will have a chance to get the ticket in Japan. JR is having a trial period during which it makes the ticket available at major stations only.

So, for a last-minute vacation, or an intense job-hunting spree, city-hopping between career events and job interviews, this is a great opportunity! If you buy the JR Pass at the counter in Japan it will be a little more expensive but otherwise identical.

How to use the pass

You will see that most people in Japan use the automated ticket gates at train stations.
With a JR pass, you will be using the manned gate. A staff will check your ticket and wave you through.

The first time you use your JR pass the train staff will stamp in it.
From then on passing through the gates should not take more than a few seconds in most cases. Still, the staff may ask for identification so keep your passport ready.

Also, make sure that you don’t rip the ticket off your Japan Rail Pass, they are only valid as a set.

Additional Resources

Regional Passes

You would rather explore one region of Japan in detail, instead of rushing through the whole country? Then a regional pass may be the better choice for you.

All 6 JR networks offer their own regional passes. Conditions and duration differ, so check out the individual sites. You can buy tickets for up to one week, and some regions even offer flex tickets, where you can freely pick non-consecutive days to use the pass within a certain validity window.

Useful Links

Further information on the Japan Rail Pass official site.
Calculate your savings with Japan Guide’s Japan Rail pass calculator.
Look up connections and prices for your routes on Jorudan.

Enjoy your travels in Japan!

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After traveling around for a while, I found my home in Tokyo. Now working in Shinjuku and discovering something new about Japan every day.