What is the JR Pass?
The Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass) is the holy grail for overseas travelers, making travelling across Japan seamless and affordable. The JR Pass is a prepaid booklet exclusively for foreign tourists. They allow unlimited* travel on JR trains within the region of the pass, for a set number of days. The most commonly used pass is the “JR Pass” available for either 7, 14, or 21 days. There are now more and more regional JR passes are being released, offering greater value for travel within set areas.
*Unlimited travel can be restricted to certain train types in specific regions
Where can I use the JR Pass?
Where the pass is valid depends on which JR pass you purchase. The most popular “JR Pass” offers travel on all JR lines across Japan, excluding the Nozomi and Mizuho shinkansen. This pass also overs certain bus routes, local train lines, and the JR ferry from Hiroshima to Miyajima. This pass is available in 7, 14, or 21 day passes, and can be for normal or green car (first class). Once activated the pass starts counting down and will expire in the number of days the pass is viable for.
There are now a great variety of region specific JR passes available, for example the All Shikoku pass, the Tohoku pass, and the Hokkaido pass. These passes are better value if your travel will be within a specific region of Japan. Also regional passes can be more flexible, allowing non-consecutive travel days.
Is it worth it?
The JR pass can often save money, even though the initial outlay may seem high. It is best to double check whether a pass would benefit your itinerary, try a fare calculator to check your plans.
The pass will definitely not be worthwhile if you plan to stay within one city, such as Tokyo or Osaka. The pass also may not may off if you do only one journey, such as from Osaka to Tokyo. If you will be travelling between more cities, for example Tokyo -> Kyoto -> Hiroshima, then the pass will pay for itself.
Do consider regional passes also, you can visit the specific JR websites for the area of Japan you will be travelling in. You can often find deals or incentives on the websites that can help you decide which pass will fit your itinerary.
How do I get a JR Pass?
Purchasing a JR pass can be done in a number of ways. You can purchase a pass from your home country, either online or through a travel agent. You will then recieve a voucher for the JR pass in the post, or collected from your travel agent, which you will need to exchange once you have entered Japan. You can order the pass up to three months before you intend to use it.
You can now also purchase the JR passes in Japan, although at a slightly increased price. Simply visit a JR office with your foreign passport. This is a trail period planned between March 8, 2017 until March 31, 2019. They are plans to extend this but please check before you travel after March 2019 so you won’t be disappointed.
How do exchange my JR Pass voucher?
Once you have the JR pass voucher you need to exchange it at a JR office. JR office are available in major airports, such as Narita and Haneda, and also at large train station, such as Tokyo station and Ueno station, click here for the full list.
Once in Japan take your voucher to a JR office, along with your passport. The staff will go through some questions and produce your individual pass booklet. This notes your name and passport number, so that the pass cannot be used by anyone else. You don’t have to start the pass right away, you can select a date in the future, within one month, for the pass to start. Once it is all sealed and signed you are ready to go! Do make sure you get a copy of the JR map that is free with your pass, it can really help you plan your upcoming journeys.
How do I use the JR Pass to travel?
There are two main ways to use the pass, either use it to pre-book tickets, or simply flash your pass to get through the ticket gate.
In terms of pre-booking tickets this can be done at any JR ticket office. Once your pass in exchanged you can pre-book tickets through the entire period of the passes validity. Simply go into a JR ticket office with your pass and passport and let the staff members know when and where you want to go. You will then be given physical tickets to use in conjunction with your JR Pass.
There are also two types of pre-booked tickets when using the shinkansen; reserved and non-reserved. On the shinkansen seats are numbered and there are non-reserved carriages, reserved carriages and green car carriages. If you have a regular pass you cannot use the green car carriage to travel. If you want to guarantee your seat (such as if you wanted to see Fuji when travelling from Tokyo to Kyoto or Osaka – seats D and E) then you can pre-book a reserved seat. Although there are often seats available in non-reserved carriages (first come first served seating) popular trains can get full, which would mean standing in aisles or between carriages.
If you aren’t bothered with pre-booking your ticket you can use the JR Pass to jump on and off JR trains. The pass cannot be used with automatic ticket gates, just visit the small booth on one end of the gates and show your pass to the member of staff, they will then let you through. From there you can get on any non-reserved shinkansen carriage, or use the local JR lines.
Don’t worry if your plans change or you miss your train, you can always re-book or change your ticket at the ticket office. There is no charge for missing your train.
The benefits of the JR pass don’t stop here, some regions also offer additional savings too! For example JR Tohoku are currently offering reduced car rental fees along with a JR pass. Always check the regional JR websites to see what else you could get.