japan rail pass

National Japan Rail Pass

One of the best decisions you can make for your trip to Japan is to purchase a Japan Rail Pass. With this physical ticket, you can make the most of the extensive and reliable network of trains that connect every corner of Japan. Here’s everything you need to know about the Japan Rail Pass, from what it is and where it works to how you can get the most from it.

What is the Japan Rail Pass?

Japan is known around the world for its extremely efficient rail network that extends right across the country. No matter where you want to travel across its four largest islands, you’re likely to find a train connection that can get you there. As such, it’s one of the best ways for international visitors to get around Japan.

There are a number of factors that contribute to the quality of Japan’s rail network.

One is that the network is made up of a combination of different types of train in Japan, such as local, regional and high-speed trains, the last of which is the famous bullet train or shinkansen. Another factor is the extreme dedication it has for punctuality, with the average delay for shinkansen trains just a matter of seconds. It also doesn’t hurt that stations are quite easy to navigate, with English signs and information available throughout.

But really, one of the most important reasons why train travel is so good for tourists is the Japan Rail Pass

With this one pass, foreign visitors gain unlimited travel all over Japan using trains operated by the Japan Railways (JR) Group. Composed of JR Central, JR East, JR West, JR Kyushu, JR Hokkaido & JR Shikoku, this group of six companies provide a whole range of regional and intercity train services, including shinkansen services.

Using a JR Pass, you can freely travel as much as you like around Japan and potentially save lots of money in the process.

Who Can Use the Japan Rail Pass?

When looking into buying a Japan Rail Pass for your trip to Japan, it’s important that you understand who is eligible to use the pass. This is because the pass is not available for everyone and has strict requirements regarding nationality and visa status.

The Japan Rail Pass is only available for non-Japanese nationals on short tourism visits and Japanese nationals who live outside Japan and meet certain conditions. This means the Japan Rail Pass passenger must enter the country on a single entry temporary sightseeing visitor visa of 15 or 90 days duration.

It is not eligible for passengers who hold any other entry status or visa type regardless of duration, such as:

  • Long term visas which allow to stay in Japan more than 90 days
  • Student visa
  • Permanent residency visa
  • Tokubetsu Eijuken holders (Special permanent residency visa)
  • Entertainer visa
  • Working holiday visa
  • Military entry status

Any other visas which are not a temporary visitor visa with the purpose of sightseeing.

How the Japan Rail Pass Works

Because the Japan Rail Pass doesn’t work quite like an ordinary train ticket, the process of using it in the real world isn’t always clear. To ensure that there aren’t any problems for you when using the JR Pass, here’s a step-by-step guide to using your Japan Rail Pass.

  1. Purchase Your Pass: The best way to buy your pass is from an authorised vendor  before leaving for Japan. That’s because, while it’s possible to buy the pass when you get to Japan, it’s cheaper when bought from outside the country. Passes can only be purchased up to 6 months in advance of the date you plan to use it, so don’t get too eager and purchase too early.
  2. Exchange Order: Once you’ve purchased your pass, JRPass.com will send a slip of paper called an “Exchange Order” to you in the mail wherever you are in the world. It’s very important that you keep this Exchange Order somewhere safe.
  3. Travel to Japan: The day is finally here and it’s time to travel to Japan for your trip. Don’t forget to pack your Exchange Order and bring it with you.
  4. Go to an Exchange Office in Japan: Having arrived in Japan, visit a Japan Rail Pass Exchange Office before trying to travel anywhere with your pass, bringing your Exchange Order and passport with you. There are exchange offices in all major airports as well as most big cities. You can see a full list of exchange offices here.
  5. Get Your Japan Rail Pass: Once at the office, you’ll hand both your order and passport over and fill out a form identifying your “Activation Day”, i.e. the date you would like to start using your Japan Rail Pass. Note that this date cannot be changed afterwards and must be within one month of receiving the pass.
  6. Travel with your JR Pass: On the activation day you chose, look for the JR symbol at the station. Once at the turnstiles, show the attendant your pass and they’ll allow you to enter.

What Does the Japan Rail Pass Cover?

To avoid any confusion or problems when travelling by train with a Japan Rail Pass, it’s useful to know what it does and doesn’t cover. That’s because the JR Pass does not cover all train travel in Japan; it covers unlimited travel on most high-speed, limited express, express, rapid and local JR train services.

But like with everything in life, there are exceptions, as well as a few bonus inclusions:

Inclusions

Beyond the variety of JR train services on the classic network listed above, there are some specific train services that are included, such as:

  • The Narita Express between Narita Airport and Tokyo;
  • The Tokyo Monorail between Haneda Airport and Tokyo; and
  • Local trains in cities like Tokyo operated by JR Group like the especially useful Yamanote loop line.

Exclusions

While the JR Pass covers trains in the JR network, there are a few notable exceptions.

The most important are the Nozomi and Mizuho shinkansen services, which run on the Tokaido, Sanyo and Kyushu shinkansen lines. Luckily, there are other shinkansen services on these routes that are covered under the JR Pass, so this shouldn’t be too much of a problem.

Of course, private railways operated outside of the JR Group and city metros are also excluded from this rail pass.

Buses and Ferries

Beyond trains, the JR Pass is also able to be used on various other forms of transport operated by the JR Group.

This includes the network of local buses operated by Japan Rail, which bear the JR logo on the bus and their bus stops. While you can check the full guide to JR buses, some local JR buses cover cities like Sapporo, Hiroshima and Fukuoka. Do note that JR highway buses are no longer included.

One other unusual inclusion in the JR Pass is the Hiroshima-Miyajima ferry that takes people to the popular attractions on the island of Miyajima in Hiroshima Bay.

 

How Does the Japan Rail Pass Save Money?

A big part of asking whether a rail pass is right for you is understanding how it can potentially save you money. This is true for any kind of rail pass anywhere in the world.

To fully understand the value of a Japan Rail Pass, it’s worth comparing the cost of the pass with that of individual tickets. General and high-speed train fares in Japan are particularly expensive in comparison to other countries in the world. This means that when you add up the cost of a long list of single trip tickets and compare it with the cost of the JR Pass you’re going to see some enormous cost savings.

For perspective, the cost of a 7-day Japan Rail Pass is roughly the same as a round trip ticket between Tokyo and Kyoto. And yet, by paying a little more for the JR Pass you have seven days of train travel all over Japan, and not just that one round trip.

To check that math or see how much you can potentially save on your Japan itinerary, use our free Japan Rail fare calculator.

 

How to Plan Your Rail Pass Journey

Once you’ve purchased your Japan Rail Pass and understood what’s included, it’s time to figure out how you’re going to use it to make your dream trip a reality.

If you’re still at the brainstorming stage of planning, it will probably help to first take a look at the Japan Rail Pass Map. This map allows you to see the train routes available with your JR Pass in great detail. Not only does it show the Shinkansen and regional JR lines that are valid with your pass, but also separately highlights private railways, trams and ropeways not included. That way, you can see how much of your journey is covered/not covered.

Once you’re ready to start scheduling your train travel, you’ll want to use a timetable and route tool like Hyperdia. This app and website allows you to enter your route and find the different departures available. To best use Hyperdia for your Japan Rail Pass, it’s recommended that you de-select both “Nozomi/Mizuho” and “Private Railways” under “More Options”. De-selecting these options will then show you routes covered only by your JR Pass.

 

What Pass Options are There?

Because everyone travels differently, there are several options that allow you to tailor your Japan Rail Pass to your travel requirements.

The first option regards the duration of your pass, with 7, 14 and 21 day durations available, allowing you to choose the right length pass for your trip. There are also different passes for adults and children, providing a greatly discounted rate for children ages 6 to 11. (Note: Children ages 0 to 5 travel free if they don’t need a seat.)

One other way you can customise your Japan Rail experience is to upgrade your pass to Green Class. With a JR Green Pass you are treated to the Japan Rail version of 1st Class travel, which includes wider seats in the quieter, more luxurious first class carriages, along with other conveniences.

 

How Do Seat Reservations Work?

One of the many benefits of travelling with a Japan Rail Pass is that it simplifies the process of making seat reservations when you travel by train. That’s because you get free seat reservations with your JR Pass, allowing you to secure a seat on a shinkansen, limited express or express train covered by the pass.

But there’s much more to understanding seat reservations in Japan beyond their cost. This includes when seat reservations are required, when they’re recommended and how you go about making them.

Green Car Seat Reservations

Those looking to treat themselves to the comfort and luxury of Green Class need to know that all green car seats require advanced reservation. Seat reservations with a Green Class JR Pass are still free, but must be made in advance.

Ordinary Seat Reservations

Seat reservations are not mandatory when travelling in ordinary carriages onboard express, limited express and shinkansen trains.

However, it’s often advised that you do make a seat reservation when travelling during peak seasons like Golden Week (7 April – 6 May), Obon Season (11-20 August) or the New Year (28 December – 6 January). It’s also worth making a seat reservation if you wish to guarantee a seat on a specific service or are in a large group that wishes to sit together.

As for local and rapid trains, they simply don’t have the option to reserve a seat.

Making Seat Reservations in Japan

So, here’s the bad news about making seat reservations for trains in Japan; it’s not possible over the phone or over the internet.

You actually need to go in-person to a train station and visit either a Midori no Madoguchi ticket office, Travel Service Centre or JR-associated Travel Agency. Once there with JR Pass in-hand, a staff member will help you make your reservation.

One way to simplify the process of making seat reservations is to book an Airport Meet and Greet service where you will be greeted on arrival in Japan by a local who will help you make your seat reservations.

As for when to make your seat reservations, they are able to be made from one month in advance right up until the moment of departure. However, for peak season, it’s best to make them at least 3 or 4 days in advance to ensure you don’t miss out.

 

What Can You Do With Your Luggage?

 

Luggage Allowance

Since you’re very likely to bring luggage with you on your trip, it’s important to understand luggage restrictions for train travel in Japan. That’s because there are very specific rules regarding bringing bags and suitcases with you on your rail journey.

Shinkansen carriages are not designed with ample room for luggage storage, even though there is usually no cost for bringing your luggage with you onboard. General luggage allowance is two items that would usually be considered hand luggage on a flight. These items can typically fit in the overhead racks of the train.

The problem comes when you have more than two bags or when one of them is particularly oversized. Each of these two items of luggage should have length, height, and depth dimensions that add up to a maximum of 250 cm and not weigh any more than 30kg. Such items of luggage do not include small personal effects such as handbags, umbrellas, or coats.

These oversized items need to go behind the seats in the last row of the carriage. Generally, it’s expected that passengers with the oversized luggage take the seats in the last row to sit with their bags. In many cases, passengers won’t be required to make a reservation in advance for these seats.

Special Oversized Luggage Rules

However, new rules have also been introduced for oversized luggage since May 20, 2020 for services on the Tokaido, Sanyo and Kyushu Shinkansen. The rules state that luggage whose dimensions add up to more than 160cm is considered oversized luggage for these services. Passengers with oversized luggage on these services must make an advanced seat reservation in the last row of the carriage to use the storage there.

Luggage Lockers and Forwarding Services

So, what are you to do if you have too much luggage or oversized luggage and want to travel stress-free with your Japan Rail Pass? Well, you have a few options actually.

The first option is to make use of airport luggage storage counters or coin lockers in stations to temporarily store your luggage. Here you can store items of luggage you may not need with you, rather than bringing them on the train. Luggage storage counters rates are typically per item and day, while coin lockers are done by size of the locker and day. Coin lockers have a usual limit of three days though.

Another option for managing your belongings is to make use of a luggage forwarding service. Generally known as Takuhaibin, these services are able to independently transport your luggage for you door-to-door, with next-day arrival the standard timeframe.Deliveries can be made to hotels, homes, service centres and even airports, allowing you to travel about a bit more lightly.

 

Is There Food on Board the Trains?

There’s little chance of you going starving as you travel by train in Japan. For starters, it’s quite common for passengers to purchase food and drinks before boarding. There are even special Japanese packed lunches that are sold in train stations called ekiben, providing you the opportunity to explore more traditional Japanese food while on the train.

As for getting food while onboard a train, you generally have the choice between vending machines and the refreshment trolley. Both serve up a variety of drinks and snacks, while the refreshment trolley also offers ekiben as well. Trains in Japan do not have a restaurant car like in Europe.

 

Do Trains Have Amenities like Wi-Fi and Power Sockets?

To help you enjoy your journey, you’ll find power sockets with the standard Japanese configuration for nearly all shinkansen and a majority of limited expresses. As for staying connected, free onboard Wi-Fi is increasingly available, with it already available on the Tokaido, Sanyo and Tohoku lines. If having internet is really important to you, you can hire a Pocket Wi-Fi device to ensure you have WiFi access no matter where you are.

Other services available from JR Pass.com include: