An Exploration Guide To Japan’s Rail Pass (JR Pass)

If you’re planning a trip to Japan, you’ll need a way to travel from city to city. With a landmass roughly 1,500 miles long, it’ll take time to see everything.

Fortunately, though, Japan has one of the most efficient and timely rail systems in the world and, best of all, you can purchase a rail pass that grants access to nearly all of the island nation.

Japan Rail Passes (JR Passes) are more cost-effective than purchasing single tickets for each ride. They’re convenient for foreign tourists and last up to 3 weeks, depending on which ticket you purchase. You can buy regional or national rail passes, as well as standard and first-class options. Longer durations and better seats will cost extra, though.

Japan rail pass and Tokyo Station

In this ultimate guide, we’ll explain everything you need to know about JR passes, how to buy them, how to use them, and how they’ll help ease your travel through the Land of the Rising Sun.

With this information, we hope you can more easily see all of the amazing cultural, historical, and natural wonders Japan has to offer.

Tokyos Skyline at Sunset

An Overview of the Japan Rail Pass

Currently, foreign nationals can purchase JR passes that last for either 1, 2, or 3 weeks. They also come with either ordinary or “green car” status. Green cars are first-class rail cars and, therefore, cost a little more. You can find a breakdown of the price rate in the chart below:

Duration of UseOrdinary ClassGreen Car
7 consecutive days$279.00$373.00
14 consecutive days$445.00$604.00
21 consecutive days$570.00$786.00
prices subject to change

Additionally, children aged from 6 to 11 received a 50% discount on all tickets. Children under 6 can ride for free by sitting on your lap. Although over several hours this would be rather uncomfortable.

Validity of JR Passes

National JR passes are valid on all Japan Rail trains, including local/rapid/express services, limited express services, and shinkansen rail lines. For those who are unfamiliar with the shinkansen, it is Japan’s highspeed rail service, commonly referred to as a bullet train.

Shinkansen passing Mount Fuji

These services include:

  • The Tokyo Monorail service that connects Haneda Airport to the Minato, Ōta, and Shinagawa wards
  • The Japan Railway Ferry to Miyajima
  • Local JR bus services from/to:
  •  
    • Hagi – Yamaguchi
    • Takao – Ryoanji – Kyoto
    • Kenrokuen – Kanazawa
    • Towada Lake
    • Hiroshima tourist loop
    • Sapporo tourist loop
    • Kusatsu Onsen
  • A few isolated rail lines not operated by Japan Rail that would be inaccessible if not linked with JR lines, including:
    • The Aoimori Railway that links Hachinohe, Noheji, and Aomori to the Shimokita Peninsula via the JR Ominato Line
    • The Ishikawa Railway that links Kanazawa and Tsubata to the Noto Peninsula via the JR Nanao Line
    • The Ainokaze Toyama Railways that likes Takaoka and Toyama to the JR Johana and Himi lines.

These services allow you to complete a transfer without paying an additional service charge.

Services Not Included with the JR Pass

As comprehensive as the JR pass might sound, you won’t be able to use it on every train in Japan. If you wish to use any of the following services, you’ll have to purchase additional tickets:

  • Mizuho trains via the Kyushu/Sanyo Shinkansen

If you plan to ride a high-speed Mizuho Shinkansen train to or from Kyushu or Sanyo, you won’t be able to use the JR pass. These trains require separate bookings, which can be expensive. However, Mizuho trains are infrequent so you will probably be better off taking a Sakura train.

The Sakura service arrives more frequently and is only marginally slower than the Mizuho train.

  • Nozomi trains via the Sanyo/Tokaido Shinkansen

As with the Mizuho train service, you won’t be able to ride the Nozomi train from Sanyo/Tokaido without booking a separate ticket.

The Nozomi train is the fastest service between the two cities but it stops less frequently than the slower Hikari service, which JR pass holders can ride for free as part of the JR Pass.

  • Non-JR train services

Although JR is Japan’s national rail service, several other private rail companies function throughout the country. For example, you’ll find trains operated by two or three other private companies in all major cities, including Tokyo, Osaka, and Hiroshima.

You cannot use a JR pass to ride on private lines, making it difficult to use the subway in major cities without purchasing additonal tickets.

Osaka Station
  • JR trains that operate on non-JR tracks

In some locations, you may find a JR train service operating on private rail lines. Although the trains are owned by Japan Rail, you cannot use these services for free. You must book additional tickets to ride along these lines. Fortunately, there are only a handful of these services so you’re unlikely to run into one.  

  • Overnight accommodations

If you’re planning to take a night train, you’ll have to book a berth ahead of time. Your JR pass will not cover the cost of accommodation and you should contact the rail service before arrival to guarantee your space.  

The Sunrise Express One of Japans few remaining overnight trains
  • Liner train services

If you find yourself in the suburbs, you may come across the “home liner” service. This service is targeted at local suburbanites traveling between cities. You’re unlikely to wind up on one of these trains but, if you do, your JR pass will not cover the expense.

That being said, a few services, including the Marine Liner and Seaside Liner services are covered by your pass.

Overnight Bus in Tokyo
  • Highway bus services

Although the JR pass works with many local bus services, it does not cover intracity highway buses. There was a short time prior to 2013 when it was accepted but the regulations have since changed.

Additional Benefits Included With a Japan Rail Pass

Along with easy access to Japan’s national rail service, JR passes also come with a few other benefits:

Free reservations – You can book seats on all applicable trains and buses ahead of time at no additional cost.

Discount deals at all affiliate hotels – JR works in tandem with several hotel chains located throughout Japan, including the Associa Hotel, Mets Hotel, Granvia Hotel, and Metropolitan Hotel chains.

You can typically find these hotels located either inside JR stations or just across the street from a JR station. They provide convenient accommodation for travelers at a reasonable rate.

How to Purchase and Exchange a Japan Rail Pass

Japan Rail makes it easy for foreign nationals to purchase and pick up their rail passes. You can buy a pass using one of the following three methods:

Purchase a Pass Online

You can purchase a JR pass online through the official Japan Rail website or go through a third-party online seller. Although the official JR website guarantees that you’re not being scammed, you’ll pay roughly 10-15% more by purchasing directly from the company.

The benefits of purchasing through JR, though, are that you can pick your seats on checkout with only your passport.

For cheaper tickets, you can find authorized resellers but you likely won’t be able to pick your own seats. If you’re traveling with friends or family, your seats may not be together, so if you are worried about your seating arrangement, a third-party reseller might not be the best option for your itinerary.

Purchase a Pass Through a Travel Agent

If you are planning your vacation through a travel agent, speak with your agent about booking a JR pass. Most overseas travel agents are authorized to sell JR passes, allowing you to circumvent online resellers.

Audley Travel Specializing in Japan Official Website

Additionally, your travel agent may be able to include a pass as part of a package deal, helping to lower the overall price of your trip.

Purchase a Pass at a JR Station in Japan

If you are already in Japan and want to purchase a JR pass, you can do so at select JR stations throughout the country. Not all stations offer the pass, though, so it’s best to visit a major terminal or one of the airport terminals, such as Kansai (Osaka), Narita, or Haneda (Tokyo) Airports.

Limits on Who Can Use a JR Pass

Japan Rail only offers JR passes to short-term tourists. This means that Japanese residents—whether foreign or naturalized—can not use a JR pass to travel throughout the country.

However, if you are a Japanese citizen, you can purchase a JR pass as long as you can prove that you’ve lived overseas for 10 or more consecutive years.

Where to Exchange a JR Pass Voucher

Upon purchase, you will receive a digital voucher that can be redeemed for a physical JR pass at most major JR stations throughout the country.

Additionally, if you have a voucher on arrival, you can redeem it at the JR counters in Kansai, Haneda, or Narita Airports. You will have to provide your passport with the voucher to prove your identity. There are no processing fees.

How to Choose a Future Starting Date

If you don’t intend to use your JR pass as soon as you redeem your voucher, you can change the start date to any time within the next month.

You cannot extend the start date past one month, though, so be sure to only redeem your voucher if you intend to use it soon.

Additionally, you cannot change the start date after it’s already been set. If you opt to buy a voucher through the official JR website, you will also have to select the start date on checkout.

For this reason, it can often be better to wait until you arrive in Japan to purchase a pass.

How to Redeem a JR Pass for Tickets

With a JR pass in hand, you essentially already have your tickets. All you have to do is reserve a seat for your preferred time. You can make a reservation at your nearest JR station or online for select train services. Simply inquire at the JR ticket booth about which time you want to book and present your JR pass to complete the process.

Japan Rail Ticket Office Yokohama

Reservations are completely free as long as you are booking with one of the services already included in the JR package. If you are booking with a different service, you’ll have to provide payment at the time of the reservation.

With a JR pass, you can also use the automatic ticket gates located in most JR stations. This is a new feature that many travelers prior to 2020 complained about. Before, travelers had to pass through the physically manned gate to have their tickets verified.

Using Ticket Machines to Make a Reservation

While in Japan, you’ll notice that most locals use automated ticket machines to book their reservations at the train station. You can also use this option to book your seats.

Ticket machines for JR lines

To do so, click the option “Reserve seat with discounted ticket” on the machine and then insert your rail pass to process the payment. From there, simply input your travel details and collect your tickets.

Services that Require a Reservation

If you’re traveling locally in an urban area, you likely won’t need a reservation. Most city trains lack a booking option since the trains only travel within a set limit.

If you are traveling between cities, you can also find non-reserved seats which you can use without booking in advance. That being said, though, there are a few services that require a prior booking:

  • The Narita Airport Express linking downtown Tokyo to the airport
  • Tohoku/Hokkaido Shinkansen trains, including the Hayate and Hayabusa train services
  • Akita Shinkansen trains, including the Komachi train service
  • Hokuriku Shinkansen trains, including the Kagayaki train service.
  • Night trains on the Sunrise Seto/Izumo lines

Although most trains don’t require a reservation, it’s wise to book ahead of time if you plan to travel during particularly busy times. During the holiday seasons, it’s common for trains to sell out far in advance.

Downtown Osaka

To avoid any unwanted stress, we recommend booking seats ahead of time if you’re traveling between major cities. Booking ahead of time will also guarantee you and your group can sit together.

Missing a Reservation

Japanese trains are known for their prompt service and timely schedules. As they say, “the trains run on time”. Additionally, Japan Rails prides itself on providing seats to whoever needs them.

Therefore, if you know you’re going to miss your reservation, it’s best to call ahead and cancel your booking.

information board of Shinkansen bullet High-speed trains at Morioka station

Failing to call ahead of time could cause delays and inconvenience other travelers who could have booked your now unused seat. You can always book another seat on a later train using your JR pass.

Are Japan Rail Passes Worth the Cost?

If you compare the cost of a JR pass to any other form of transportation, they’re roughly the cost of a regional plane ticket. This might make you wonder if it’s really worth it. Basically, it all depends on your travel plans.

If you plan to travel for at least a week across the country, a JR pass will definitely pay off. Traveling from Hiroshima in the south to Sapporo in the north would cost roughly $380 for a single journey. That alone would equal more than the price of an ordinary 1-week JR pass.

Additionally, JR passes make bookings far easier than if you were to do it on your own. You don’t have to worry about paying for reservations and you can reap the benefits of discounted hotel deals.

If you want to make a spontaneous trip to another city, you can do so without worry.

How Long Should You Travel for a JR Pass to be Worth it?

While most travelers won’t journey from Hiroshima to Sapporo, it’s not uncommon for tourists to visit Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo in a single trip.

The cost of a single shinkansen from Kyoto to Tokyo alone would cover the cost of a JR pass. Then, you could use the pass to get around the Tokyo subway system.

Osaka Castle with Osaka’s Skyline

If you only plan to travel within a single city, though, we don’t recommend purchasing a JR pass. You simply won’t rack up enough miles in the time you’re in the city to make it worth the price. This is especially true if you pay an additional service fee to a travel agent or booking site.

Frequently Asked Questions About the Japan Rail Pass

JR passes can be a lot to wrap your head around all at once. We’ve compiled a list of some of the most commonly asked questions to help you better understand how and when to use them.

Are JR passes useful for inner-city subway travel?

If you only plan to travel within a single city, it’s not really worth buying a JR pass. Japanese city subway systems are often broken up among both private and national rail lines. Even with a JR pass, you’ll still have to pay for additional tickets to use the private subway lines.

Tokyo Station Grand Entrance Hall

That being said, though, if you’re traveling between cities, your JR pass will prove handy in Tokyo and Osaka. Both of these cities have large stretches of subway owned and operated by JR.

For example, you’ll be able to access much of Tokyo using the JR Yamanote Line or much of Osaka using the Loop Line. Outside of these cities, though, it won’t be of much good.

Are there any upgrades that make the Nozomi and Mizuho Shinkansen lines available?

There are currently no available upgrades that include the Mizuho or Nozomi Shinkansen services. You will have to pay for an additional ticket to use these high-speed rail services.

 The N700A Series Nozomi bullet train for the Tokaido Shinkansen

If you board one of these trains without booking, you will be asked to purchase a ticket or be required to leave the rain at the next stop.

What’s the difference between ordinary and green car trains?

Green cars are the first-class option on all JR trains. Compared to standard “ordinary” seats, green car seating is larger, with more spacious foot room, and better onboard services.

Green car seating

Additionally, green cars are typically less crowded and typically won’t have young children who may scream or cry.

Standard seating Shinkansen

Standard seating is usually large enough for most Western travelers but, if you want added luxury, you can’t go wrong with green car seating.

Can I upgrade to a Green Car ticket if I purchased an Ordinary JR pass?

Yes, you can upgrade to a green car ticket even if you purchased an ordinary JR pass. You will, however, have to pay the additional cost of the upgrade, per ticket.

If you’re booking green car seats on a shinkansen or limited express service, this can become quite expensive, so it’s generally better to purchase a green car pass if you plan to use these services.  

JR Rail Information Desk

Can I share my JR pass with my friends or family members?

JR passes are strictly non-transferable. You must provide your passport as proof of identity on pick-up and anytime you book a ticket. Japan Rail considers their passes personal and if you are caught using someone else’s pass, it will be canceled or revoked.

I’m confused by the validity dates. Are they calendar days or 24-hour periods?

Japan Rail considers a valid day as one full calendar day. For example, if you set your start date as the day you land in Japan but don’t arrive until late in the evening, you’ll waste that day because it will technically start at the beginning of the day, not when you arrive.

The Shinkansen passing Mount Fuji

If you are already on board a train when your pass technically runs out, you may still use the service until the end of your trip. After disembarking, though, your pass will no longer be valid, even if you need to make a transfer.

Summary

Traveling through Japan is the opportunity of a lifetime. With so many historic and cultural sites to see, it can feel overwhelming and nearly impossible to do it all. Fortunately, the Japan Rail pass makes it easier to get from city to city without costing an arm and a leg.

You can purchase your pass online, through an agent, or at a major JR station in Japan. The passes cover much of the country but they do have a few limitations so be sure to follow the rules and use them only when applicable.

Purchase Japan Rail Passes Official Site

MT Lee
My fascination with Japan began several years back at a roadside bonsai stand while on vacation. I became more interested in the where and why's more than the trees themselves. My love of Bonsai led me to further research my interest in the gardens where they originated from and the places and people that surrounded those little trees. My curiosity was well rewarded upon visiting Saitama where the National Bonsai Museum was located and Omiya Village the bonsai mecca for lovers of this ancient art form. Exploring many towns and villages and even making my way to Japan's furthest southern prefecture of Okinawa. I hope to share my love of this wonderful and exotic place with all those who want to know more about Japan.