What is A JR Pass?
The Japan Rail Pass, or JR Pass, is a ticket that grants tourists unlimited travel on Japan Rail trains. The JR Pass can only be used by non-Japanese visitors. Traveling around Japan by rail is extremely efficient and quick, with trains canvassing the entire country. Individual tickets can be very expensive, so a JR Pass makes a lot of sense if you’re planning to see multiple cities in Japan during your stay. For example, the 7 day JR Pass costs about the same price as the one time roundtrip ticket from Kyoto to Tokyo. If you’re making that trip on your Japan visit, you’re already on your way to saving yourself some money. With a JR Pass, you can enjoy unlimited travel on Japan Rail trains for one, two, or three weeks, depending on which pass you purchase. You can purchase a basic pass for standard car travel, or pay a little more for the first class green car experience.
A JR Pass will grant visitors access to all JR local trains, JR Shinkansen bullet trains, JR express/rapid trains, Tokyo Monorail to and from Haneda, JR Ferry to Miyajima, Haruka Express from Kansai Airport to Kyoto, and a few other trains in isolated areas. It should be noted that the JR Pass does not cover all trains in Japan, there are a few other companies that operate local and Shinkansen trains. During my 10 days in Japan, I only had to pay out of pocket to use these non-JR Pass options on three occasions.
**It is very important to note that a JR Pass can only be purchased outside of Japan. You cannot purchase a JR Pass once you’ve arrived to the country.
How Much Does a JR Pass Cost?
The total cost of the JR Pass will depend on two things, the length of your stay and the choice of standard vs first class (green car). Click here to see current pricing.
If you only plan on visiting a certain region in Japan, you can get a regional pass and save quite a bit of money. See regional passes here.
How Does A JR Pass Work?
Once you have your JR Pass, you’ll be able to ride any Japan Rail train. For local trains, you won’t be able to reserve a seat or get a ticket, so just show your pass to the attendant at the ticket gates and they’ll let you in. For shinkansen and reserved seating, you’ll need to get a ticket from a JR Ticket office. These tickets will not work in the automatic gates, so just show your pass to the attendant at the ticket gate to be granted access. You’ll need to do the same thing while on the train when train staff come by to check tickets.
Shinkansen vs Local Trains
For those who are unfamiliar, the Shinkansen are Japan’s bullet trains. These trains brisk travelers across the country at speeds over 150 mph! These trains have large seats in both the green and standard cars and make quick work of long journeys. This is how Julia and I were able to take day trips to Miyajima/Hiroshima and Nikko, as well as making it out to Tokyo from Kyoto in 2.5 hours.
Local trains are like any standard train you’ve ever taken. The seating is open, non-reserved, and generally less comfortable than the Shinkansen. The local trains make a lot more stops and move at much slower speeds. The make a great option for quick trips around town, and work very well in conjunction with the Shinkansen for longer trips. The great thing about the JR Pass, is that both local and Shinkansen are included.
*Not all Shinkansen allow for the JR Pass. Nozomi and Mizuho do not allow for use of the passes. If you’re visiting a ticket office to book your train, this wont be a problem as the attendant will book you on the correct train. This is only something you need to keep in mind if you plan on using the non-reserved seating.
Reserved Seats vs Non-Reserved Seats
Very few trains in Japan require a reserved seat. None of the local trains will require a reserved seat, and you’ll usually only see this as a requirement on long journeys. There is even some open seating available on longer Shinkansen trips. I still recommend that you get a reserved seat. Why? You won’t have to worry about a train being overcrowded or full, and you’ll be guaranteed a place to sit. This can be critical for travelers working on a tight itinerary. Seat reservations are free for JR Pass holders.
Where to Purchase A JR Pass
As I mentioned above, you have to purchase your JR Rail pass before arriving to Japan. I purchased mine from JTB USA, Inc. Los Angeles. I was able to pay for the passes online and have them overnighted to me for an additional $17.00. For a list of international JR Pass offices, click here. For sales offices in North America, click here.
How To Activate A JR Pass Voucher
When you purchase a JR Rail pass, all you’re going to receive is a voucher. You will bring that voucher to Japan and activate it at a JR ticket office. You can set any day within a 30 day window to begin the time allowed for your JR Pass ticket. When I visited Japan, I started my JR Pass the day I arrived since I wanted to use it for the Haruka Express from Kansai to Kyoto. I also had the 14 day pass for an 11 day trip, so I knew I’d be covered for the entire duration of my stay.
The process is pretty straightforward once you arrive at the ticket office. Just give the attendant your voucher, fill out the form, and select which date you’d like your JR Pass to start on. After that, you’re good to go. If you’re flying into Kansai, like I did, the office is right outside of the terminal. It makes the transition very easy after an 11 hour flight!
When And Where To Use JR Pass
To start, you need your JR Pass when entering a JR ticket office. Just go to the booking counter and let the attendant know where you would like to go. They’ll show you a list of available times, and then print out your reserved seat tickets. From there, you’ll pass through the ticket gate and show the gate attendant your pass. The next time you’ll need to show your pass is while riding the train, to verify that you are in the correct seat.
Green Car vs Standard Car
A green car on a Japanese Rail train is what we consider a first class train. These trains can be spotted by the four leaf clovers that adorn the cabs. Julia and I opted for green car JR passes while in Japan. Why? We were going at the start of cherry blossom season and had heard that quite a few of the trains could sell out days in advance. The nice thing about green cars, is that you’re almost always guaranteed to get a seat. When we were returning from Hiroshima to Kyoto, all of the Shinkansen were sold out until the following day. Our green car pass saved us here, as we were able to book the next train out no problem, were others had to figure out an alternative solutions. Trains in Japan are different than the rest of the world in that the standard cabs are equally clean and well taken care of. That goes for just about everything in Japan. This is a country that is serious about cleanliness, punctuality, and order. I loved it! The only other major difference between the green car and the standard is the seating arrangement. The standard cabs tend to have two rows of three seats, where the green cars have two rows of 2 seats. The green cars also have more leg room, are very quite, and have nice overhead bin space.
Why Buy A JR Pass?
During our 11 days in Japan, Julia and I used or JR Pass everyday, with 6 different trips on the Shinkansen. Had we not purchased the JR Pass, the cost of travel would have been three to four times higher than the pass. This would have radically altered our itinerary. Having the JR Pass allowed us to see 9 different cities and explore them on local trains. We couldn’t have done this trip without the JR Pass, and that is why I highly recommend them to anyone planning a visit to Japan.