Japan’s public transport system is one of the world’s most established. It’s so convenient to get around that you can get to most places without driving. In fact, if you’re travelling over long distances, it is more cost-effective and time-saving for you to travel on the railway network than on other modes of transport. But the cost of single-trip tickets can add up quickly to a large chunk of your travel expenses. 

Enter Japan Rail Pass 

Japan Rail Pass lets you travel around Japan for a fixed fee.  

Eligibility 

Japan Rail Pass is only available to foreign tourists who enter Japan as a temporary visitor (up to 90 days). 

Validity 

Although the Japan Rail Pass allows you to travel throughout Japan, there are limitations to the services you can access.  

The pass is valid on 

  • JR Trains 
    Almost all trains operated by Japan Railways, including Shinkansen, limited express, express, rapid and local trains. 
  • Tokyo Monorail to/from Haneda Airport 
  • JR Ferry to Miyajima 
  • Some non-JR trains to access isolated JR lines 
    Some JR lines are detached from the main rail network. The pass allows you to take a small number of non-JR trains to access those JR lines. The only limitation is that you may only board and alight at stations with JR-line transfers, such as: 
    • Aoimori Railway between Aomori, Noheji and Hachinohe to access the JR Ominato Line to the Shimokita Peninsula
    • IR Ishikawa Railway between Kanazawa and Tsubata to access the JR Nanao Line to the Noto Peninsula
    • Ainokaze Toyama Railway between Toyama and Takaoka to access the JR Himi Line and JR Johana Line. 
  • Local JR buses (NOT highway buses) 
    There aren’t many local bus services operated by JR. Here are some of the more popular routes: 
Japan Rail network map

Click the above image to see the JR network map.

The pass is NOT valid on 

  • Nozomi trains along the Tokaido/Sanyo Shinkansen 
    Nozomi trains skip the most stops and are the most frequent along the Tokaido/Sanyo Shinkansen. You’ll have to pay the full fare if you wish to take this service even with the JR Pass. Alternatively, you can take the Hikari service, which runs parallel to Nozomi but stops at a few more stations and has less frequent trains as compares to Nozomi. 
  • Mizuho trains along the Sanyo/Kyushu Shinkansen 
    Mizuho trains skip the most stops and are the most frequent along the Sanyo/Kyushu Shinkansen. You’ll have to pay the full fare if you wish to take this service even with the JR Pass. Alternatively, you can take the Sakura service, which travels parallel to Mizuho and has more frequent trains.
  • Non-JR railway tracks 
    You’ll have to pay the fare for the sections of the tracks that the JR trains travel on that are not operated by JR. 
  • Special compartments and berth 
    Special compartments, such as private cabins and sleeper cars, are subjected to additional fees. 
  • Subway services 
    Major cities in Japan have subways that are not covered by JR Pass. 
  • Trains requiring Liner Tickets 
    These include liner services that are operated by JR, but you’re unlikely to encounter them, since they are aimed at serving suburban commuters. To add to the confusion, there are some services with the word “liner” attached to them but does not require a liner ticket and is covered by the JR Pass. 
  • Highway buses 
    This applies even if the service is operated by JR. 

The validity period of the pass is counted by calendar days. The pass expires at midnight on the last day of the validity period, regardless of the time it was first used on the first day.  

If you’re still on a train after your pass expires at midnight, your pass remains valid until the end of the journey, i.e. until you exit the station, even if transfers have to be made. However, the pass will no longer cover the express surcharge if you transfer to a Shinkansen, limited express or express train after your pass expires. 

Other features 

Japan Rail Pass holders can make free seat reservations and redeem discounts on JR-affiliated hotels

Ordinary or green? 

Green cars have roomier seats, more leg space, more luggage space and onboard service. 

Purchasing a Japan Rail Pass 

Where to buy a Japan Rail Pass? 

You can easily buy a JR Pass online or over the counter. Make sure you are buying from authorised merchants or travel agents only.

Prices can vary by a large margin from merchant to merchant, so do spend some time finding the best deal. You may end up saving about US$100. 

Can I buy a JR Pass in Japan? 

Yes, but note that it’ll be more expensive. Scroll down this page to see a list of JR Pass sales offices in Japan.  

The Japan sales offices will also cease operations from April 1, 2021. From then on, you may only purchase it from your home country. 

Does the pass expire? 

Yes. After making a purchase from an authorised agent, you will receive an exchange order. You have three months to exchange the exchange order for an actual JR Pass when you arrive in Japan. 

There’s no need to start using the actual JR Pass on the day you receive it. You may schedule for a start day that is no more than one month after the exchange. But once the pass is issued, the start date cannot be changed. 

Where can I exchange my exchange order for a JR Pass? 

You can only exchange it in Japan at designated major JR stations, including those at Narita Airport and Kansai Airport. Here’s a list of places that you can redeem your JR Pass. Go to the ticket counter and produce your exchange order and passport (photocopy not accepted) to receive your JR Pass. 

How to use the Japan Rail Pass? 

  1. Before you can obtain and use your Japan Rail, purchase it from an authorised JR Pass sales office or agents at your home country. Check out the official list of sales offices here. You may also purchase it in Japan until March 31, 2021. You will receive your exchange order. 
  2. When you’re in Japan, go to a designated major JR station to exchange your exchange order for your JR Pass. 
  3. When you wish to pass through the ticket gates, present your rail pass to the staff at the manned gate. Be ready to show your passport to verify your identity. Your ticket does not allow you to pass through the automated gates. 
  4. You may make seat reservations for free by presenting your JR pass to any JR ticket office. 

Other things to note 

Is the pass transferable? 

No. Your name will be printed on the ticket and random checks will be conducted to verify your identity. The name on the ticket must match the name on your passport. 

Can I upgrade to Green with an Ordinary pass? 

Yes, but additional charges apply. 

What if I lose my exchange order or JR Pass? 

Neither can be replaced. You’ll have to buy a new one. 

Should I make seat reservations? 

There are a small number of trains that only have reserved seating and hence require reservations. They include 

On other trains, reservations are optional, although it is highly recommended during peak travel periods. Some popular services may even be fully booked days in advance, so to ensure smooth travel, reservations are highly recommended. After all, seat reservations are free, so why not? 

Is a Japan Rail Pass worth it? 

It’s definitely not worth it if you’re going to make a single trip or if you’re travelling within a small region since there are region-specific JR passes. 

But if you’re going to travel to multiple prefectures, especially if they are far from each other, getting a JR Pass will be a sound investment. Furthermore, you can most likely make spontaneous side trips without having to incur additional costs. 

You can check out the trip fares for each of your journey with Hyperdia, add them all up and see if it exceeds the price of the JR Pass you’re thinking of getting.