What is the Japan Rail Pass and how does it work?

So, you’ve decided you want to go to Japan on holiday and discover there are are lots of places across the country you want to visit. The Japan Rail Pass is perfect for travelling between Japan’s major cities like Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Hiroshima but is also ideal for visiting lesser known places like Takayama, Kurashiki or Niigata.

The Japan Rail Pass, also sometimes called the JR Pass, is exclusively for foreign visitors in Japan and is growing ever more popular. It’s a joint offering by the six companies that make up the Japan Railways Group (JR Group) and is valid for travel across most of the lines operated by Japan Railways Group. That includes many of the Shinkansen bullet trains!

It offers unlimited use of JR trains for one, two, or three weeks consecutively, at a cost that Japanese residents would never be able to get. A 7-day JR pass costs the equivalent of a Tokyo-Kyoto return on the Shinkansen bullet trains, so you’ll undoubtedly save money!

Which Shinkansen bullet trains can I travel on with my JR Pass?

Japan Rail Pass holders can reserve a seat free of charge at any station on the Hikari, Sakura, Kodama, and Tsubame bullet trains. The pass is not valid for travel on the Nozomi or Mizuho, which are the fastest Shinkansen trains.

When travelling along the Tokaido/Sanyo Shinkansen lines, make sure you hop on board a Hikari train rather than a Nozomi train. The Hikari stops just a few more times than the Nozomi and runs a little less frequently, but it’s not too much slower overall.

And, when travelling on the Sanyo/Kyushu Shinkansen lines, be sure to board a Sakura bullet train, which are actually more frequent than the Mizuho bullet trains anyway!

To sit in a ‘Green Car’, you must make sure you have a Green-type Japan Rail Pass, which is effectively first class, and available on some Sakura and Tsubame trains and occasionally on Hikari and Kodama trains. If you have a Green-type Japan Rail Pass you can are free to choose between and ordinary carriage and a Green carriage.

What other trains can I use with the JR Pass?

The JR Pass also allows you access to the following types of trains on Japan Railway Group’s nationwide network:

  • Limited express trains: You’ll only see these trains at major stations, as they only stop at the busiest stations. While they don’t travel at quite the speeds as the bullet trains, they’re the fastest normal trains. Also often referred to as Tokkyū.
  • Express trains: The express trains, or kyūkō, stop at more stations than the tokkyū trains.
  • Rapid trains: Rapid trains, or kaisoku, stop at nearly every station and run slower than express trains.
  • Local trains: Local trains, or futsū, stop at every single station so are much slower than the other options but sometimes are the only option.

The JR Pass is also valid on:

  • The Tokyo Monorail to and from Haneda Airport
  • The JR-West ferry to and from Miyajima
  • The Hiroshima sightseeing bus
  • Local JR buses, but not highway buses, which include:
    • 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
  • And, some non-JR lines to access isolated JR lines:
    • The Aoimori Railway between Aomori, Noheji and Hachinohe to get access to the JR Ominato Line for the Shimokita Peninsula.
    • The IR Ishikawa Railway Line between Kanazawa and Tsubata to get access to the JR Nanao Line for the Noto Peninsula.
    • The Ainokaze Toyama Railway Line between Toyama and Takaoka to get access to the JR Himi Line and JR Johana Line.

How do I get my Japan Rail pass?

You should buy your JR pass online before you travel. There is a trial to purchase rail passes once you arrive in Japan, but that is a more expensive option. Buy one online here.

Once you’ve purchased it you will be sent a voucher rather than the pass itself. Take the voucher with you to Japan and you can then exchange it at the airport or a major JR station like Tokyo Station. Simply state when you want your pass to start and travel can commence! You can choose any date within the next month.

How do I use my Japan rail pass?

Using your JR pass is very straightforward. Every train station in Japan has a separate entrance and exit for rail pass holders. You’ll easily spot these special gates as they are always positioned to the side of the electronic ticket gates and are manned.

Simply flash your JR pass to the person on duty (and be prepared to show your passport, although that’s not normally required) and walk through to the train platforms. Be sure to make train seat reservations for the busier Shinkansen trains!

How do I make a seat reservation for a train in Japan?

Seat reservations are easy to make and free to do! Simply head to any train station ticket office and show your Japan Rail Pass and ask to reserve a seat on the train you want. Book a couple of days in advance if you can to ensure you get a seat on the train you want.

Failing that, you could try your luck on getting a seat on an unreserved carriage. The queuing system, as you’d expect, is very orderly and if you turn up 30 minutes or so before the scheduled departure you should be able to get first in line for one of the unreserved carriages, and get a seat!

There are peak travel times to avoid or to be wary of, namely over the Christmas period, during Golden Week in April/May, and during Obon Festival, which lasts for a couple of days in the middle of August.

Which JR pass should I choose?

There are 3 options: 7 days, 14 days, or 21 days. This allows consecutive daily travel on the Japan Rail Group network.

There is also the option between ordinary (i.e. standard class) and green (i.e. first class), which offers more leg room and is generally quieter but only available on the Shinkansen and limited express trains. However, ordinary class on the Shinkansen trains is generally quite spacious, as seats are organised in banks of three and two and always face the direction of travel!

Make sure you opt for a sensible start date on your pass to make the most of it. If you’re spending your first few days in Tokyo or Osaka, it makes sense to choose a start date that would begin when you leave your first city.