I’m sure you have heard about this thing called the Japan Rail Pass. Not sure where to get it or how to use it? Let me tell you all about it…
Shinkansen (新幹線). If you have read a little bit about the public transport system Japan (日本) has to offer, this word has probably crossed your screen at least once.
Basically, they are what is described as a bullet-train. The name comes from their pointy look and also refers to their speed, as they have a top speed of 320 km/h or 200 miles per hour.
There are a few such connections that allow convenient transfer between big cities in a relatively small amount of time. One example would be the Tokaido (東海道) Shinkansen-Line, which is the busiest of the country. It connects Osaka with Tokyo, with a travel time of about 2,5 to 3 hours, depending on which type of Shinkansen.
There are three types of Shinkansen:
The slowest type, stops at all stations along the way.
Hikari & Sakura (ひかり&さくら)
Express. These two stop at some main stations only.
Nozomi & Mizuho (のぞみ&みずほ)
Super-Express, stops at very large cities only (e.g. Tokyo, Nagoya, Kyoto, etc.)
Nozomi is probably the one you will encounter the most.
I recommend useful resources like HyperDia to see when the first two types are available (you can exclude Nozomi & Hikari from the search).
All of these are operated by the Japan Railways (JR) Group which also issues the pass.
Although different in speed the three types share similarities in key points:
The space between the seats is pretty spacious, also the train is very silent.
Multilingual signs, toilets and some trains also have vending machines or payphones. Free WiFi is gradually being introduced with some Shinkansen already offering it. There is a small snack cart going through the cars every now and then, where you can buy things like soft drinks, coffee and snacks.
Most if not all trains arrive and depart at the exact second it was scheduled for.
In all of the Shinkansen’s history, there have been no fatal accidents to this date.
The Japan Rail Pass
Now everything comes with a price. These things all sound phenomenal but what is the cost of all this?
I won’t lie to you, it’s pretty expensive.
A Shinkansen ride from Tokyo to Kyoto will cost you about 13,000 Yen (100€/$118) one way.
But luckily, there is this neat little thing called the Japan Rail Pass.
Available in three different time frames (7, 14 or 21 days), the Japan Rail Pass makes travelling throughout the country not only cheaper but also easier.
Every foreigner (also Japanese nationals that apply to special criteria) with the status of ‘Temporary Visitor’ (more on that in my article about the Immigration process) is eligible to get the Pass.
This means that you cannot get it with a different type of visa such as Working Holiday or a Student Visa, unfortunately.
There are also two different types available, one for 2. Class (Ordinary) and one for 1. Class (Green Cars).
Let me give you an overview of the prices:
1. Class (Green Car)
Fees as of April 2018. They can change in the future.
Children are in this case categorized from 6-11 years old. Toddlers under the age of 6 can board any and all of JR’s trains for free.
Again, you can use resources like HyperDia to see Shinkansen prices and calculate whether a JR Pass would be worth it for your itinerary.
Getting your Japan Rail Pass
First, you need to get yourself a voucher for the Japan Rail Pass. The cheaper option is to order it online and get it shipped to you before you leave for Japan.
While ordering, make sure to use the complete and exact name that also stands in your passport, otherwise you might have trouble receiving your pass.
After you get your voucher, you can activate it for the Japan Rail Pass within 3 months after purchasing the voucher. That’s why you need to decide when to activate it to prevent it from expiring.
Meaning if you buy your voucher on the 16th of July for example, you need to have turned it in by the 15th of October.
However there is also a time-limited option to buy the pass inside of Japan. On March 8 2017, the JR Group introduced a trial period that lasts until March 31 2019.
In this period, you can get the pass at any major JR train station in Tokyo, Osaka, Sapporo (札幌), etc. and at a few airports like Haneda Airport (羽田), Narita Airport (成田空港) or Kansai International airport (関西国際空港).
Keep in mind, this is only a trial period to see how it goes. It has not been announced yet if this will be available permanently.
Also, the prices are little higher than the first option:
|Class:||1. Class (Green Car)||2. Class|
|7 days||44,000 Yen||22,000 Yen||33,000 Yen||16,500 Yen|
|14 days||71,000 Yen||35,500 Yen||52,000 Yen||26,000 Yen|
|21 days||90,000 Yen||45,000 Yen||65,000 Yen||32,500 Yen|
Fees are subject to change.
Because of this, I recommend getting it before you leave for Japan. That’s what I did, although I didn’t know about this option back then.
It’s just cheaper and less of a hassle to do it that way.
If you feel like you rather get it in person or don’t have enough time left before your trip, this is your chance to get it (if your trip is before the 31st of March 2019).
Exchanging the voucher for the pass
It’s easy. After you land in Japan with your voucher in hand, head towards the first JR office you can find. There is at least one at either Haneda or Narita Airport and of course at every JR train station.
There, you turn in your voucher for the pass. Hand it over to the receptionist, together with your passport (this is why it’s important that you use the same exact name). They will check your data and visa.
Then, you will have to set a starting date for the pass. This is very important! You don’t have to activate it immediately. You can choose any date 1 month from the date you turn it in.
After that, you will receive your pass and a form that you will have to sign. The staff is very helpful and will explain how to use the pass exactly (their English is okay in my experience, but a few Japanese phrases can be helpful).
You will have to write your name and passport number on the back of the pass to make it valid for you. Tips on how to use it are written inside the pass as well.
Also on the back, there will the JR Pass “ticket” so to speak, attached to it. Check if your desired starting date is correctly entered.
And that’s it! I promise it’s not that hard. The staff handle hundreds of these cases daily so they know what they’re doing.
At these JR offices you can also get the IC-Card Suica for convenient train travel.
Where can I use the Pass?
The main usage for the Japan Rail Pass is for travel by train.
The most important part here is the usability on Shinkansen Routes, however you have to keep in mind the following:
Covered by the pass are only the first two types of Shinkansen that I described above, namely Kodama, Hikari and Sakura, but not the Super-Express ones Nozomi and Mizuho.
Please remember this as you will have to pay the fare if you board of these two trains even with the pass in hand.
It’s not a big deal as the time difference a Sakura Shinkansen needs from Tokyo to Osaka is only something like 20 or 30 minutes more, nothing major.
Besides the Shinkansen, you can also use other regional and local trains operated by the JR Group. They are easily recognized with their bright green color (for JR Central in Tokyo at least, they always have JR in the name of the line).
A good example here is the JR Yamanote Line, which is the busiest in all of Tokyo. The line is structured as a merry-go-round, it will always circulate between major stations such as Tokyo Station (東京駅), Shinjuku (新宿), Shibuya (渋谷) or Ikebukuro (池袋).
Departures are every 3 minutes, it’s just that convenient. Keep in mind that the trains are almost always packed with people though, as it commutes between the most important/biggest stations of Tokyo.
The Tokyo Monorail between Hamamatsucho Station (浜松町駅) and Haneda Airport is also covered by the pass.
There are some routes which are only partly covered by the pass.
For full information and maps please follow these two links:
The following JR Group operated bus lines (with the exception of some local lines) are covered by the pass:
JR Hokkaido Bus, JR Bus Tohoku, JR Bus Kanto, JR Tokai Bus, West Japan JR Bus, Chugoku JR Bus, JR Shikoku Bus, JR Kyushu Bus
The only ferry ride that is covered by the JR Pass is the JR West operated Miyajima ferry (from Hiroshima).
How to use the Pass?
On you go, with your shiny little JR Pass in hand, but how do you use it?
Again, very simple. Before riding a Shinkansen or any train in Japan, you will pass through a ticket gate.
With a normal ticket, you would slide it into one of the gates and pass through that way. However, with your JR pass you need to pass through the manned-gate that is directly besides the other ones (on the right on this picture).
Simply show your pass to the staff (the backside with the ticket) and you are good to go.
The first time you use your pass this way, it must be stamped by a staff member to ensure that it has been activated on that day.
That’s it. That’s the whole magic.
Things to keep in mind
- The JR Pass is at default only valid for non-reserved seats. This is important as the reserved and non-reserved sections of the Shinkansen are strictly separated.
You can however reserve a seat free of charge. If you feel worried that you might not get a seat or just want to be sure, make a seat reservation at the Ticket offices right before the ticket gates.
- Do not sit in the Green Cars if you only have the ordinary version of the pass. You will need to pay the surcharge.
- Always have your passport with you (this is general rule for all foreigners in Japan).
- The Pass is only valid for the one person whose name is written on the back. It cannot be shared.
- The duration of the pass cannot be extended or changed to a different time frame afterwards.
- If it gets lost or stolen, it cannot be refunded.
- Refunds are possible if they are issued before the pass is activated. You will need to contact the exact site you bought it from. 10% of the price will be charged as a handling fee while the rest is refunded.
The Japan Rail Pass is amazing. If you plan on doing some long-distance Shinkansen Travel, it will be worth it without a doubt. Combined with the convenience it offers, it has really developed to an essential tool that every tourist in Japan needs to know about.
If you have any questions regarding the pass or any information that I gave in this article, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment or shoot me a message on my social media.
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