Your Essential Guide to Japan Rail Passes
Visiting Japan? A Japan Rail Pass offers unlimited travel on trains in Japan. And yes – the pass includes travel on the famous Shinkansen bullet train services! If you’re going to do a lot of traveling around Japan then a rail pass could save you money!
A Japan Rail Pass can be bought by anyone who visits Japan on a temporary visitor visa.
Types of Japan Rail Passes
There are various types of Japan train pass. Most visitors will be interested in the Japan Railways (JR) passes that cover the whole of Japan. These are valid for 7, 14 or 21 days. There are both child and adult versions of the pass. The pass is valid for ordinary cars – a more expensive version of the rail pass is available for green cars (first class travel).
All the train passes allow unlimited travel on JR train services throughout Japan. This includes the Shinkansen (bullet train) services. Note however that the passes are not valid on the Nozomi super express services between Tokyo and the Kansai region of Japan (Kyoto and Osaka).
Passes are valid on Limited Express services, although on some you will need to purchase a seat reservation (which are free for JR pass holders).
Note that there are also some cheaper regional passes. The JR West passes can be bought for the Kansai and Sanyo regions. There’s also a JR Hokkaido Pass that covers the island of Hokkaido. And there’s a Kyushu pass that covers train travel on the island of Kyushu.
With all rail passes it’s worth doing some simple match to check if buying a rail pass is worthwhile. If you’re just going to stay around the Tokyo area then a rail pass is probably not worthwhile. But if you’re intending to travel on the Shinkansen services a lot then you’ll find that the pass quickly pays for itself. Bullet train tickets are expensive – for some journeys they’re priced much the same as domestic airline services, so the pass could offer a significant cost saving.
Using a Japan Rail Pass
The Japan Rail Pass is a paper based document, so don’t try using it in the automatic ticket barriers! Simply show your rail pass to the ticket inspector in the ticket office to enter or leave a station.
Remember to carry your passport with you when using your rail pass in case any ticket inspector queries your entitlement to the pass.
There are some oddities of traveling with the rail pass. If a train travels over a private railway track then you’re supposed to pay a supplement. You won’t always get asked for this. One route I had problems with in Tokyo was the Rinkai line from Osaki to Odaiba – JR passes aren’t valid on this line apparently, so I had to buy a ticket.
Needless to say Japan Rail Passes aren’t normally valid on the privately owned railway lines in Japan (of which there are many).
Buying a Japan Rail Pass
Japan Rail Passes can be bought online from a number of travel agents and speciality stores. Because a rail pass is expensive make sure you’re buying an official pass from a genuine rail pass reseller. Always pay with a credit card so you have some sort of comeback should there be problems.
The critical thing about buying a Japan Rail pass is that you cannot buy one in Japan! So if you want the rail pass for your trip to Japan then make sure you buy it before you travel!
You can’t actually buy the pass itself online. What you’re given is a Japan Rail Pass Exchange Order. This is basically a document that you take with you to Japan and exchange it for the actual rail pass itself. The Japan Rail Pass can be bought in various locations throughout Japan. Most visitors to Japan will want to use the Pass Exchange Office in Narita airport’s terminals. These offices are quite well sign posted from the arrivals halls.
When getting your rail pass you can specify when you want the pass to be valid from. If you specify your arrival day then you can use the pass immediately. The pass is valid on the Narita Express that has regular Limited Express rail services from Narita Airport to Tokyo, Shinagawa, Shibuya Shinjuku and other destinations in the Tokyo region. Remember that you still need to request a seat reservation on the Narita Express – these are free for Japan Rail pass holders.
If your hotel is not served by the Narita Express then you can still use the rail pass on JR services in central Tokyo – the Yamanote Line runs in a circle and serves most locations in central Tokyo. If you’re intending to travel further afield then the JR pass is of course valid on the Shinkansen services that run from Tokyo station to Nagoya, Kyoto and Osaka.
One big tip – don’t lose your Japan Rail Pass when you’re in Japan! And don’t forget to pack your Japan Rail Pass Exchange Order so you can exchange it for your pass once you’re in Japan!
Suggested Japan Rail Travel Ideas
Once you’ve got your rail pass then where can you go with it?
Assuming you’re based in Tokyo then there are a number of good days out. Nikko is a famous World Heritage Site and one of the best days out of Tokyo. Use the JR rail pass to travel from Tokyo or Ueno to Utsunomiya. There are frequent services to this station. At Utsunomiya you can then take the local Nikko line train to Nikko. The world famous temples and shrines are up a long and steep hill to the hills above the town. Get a bus or taxi to save your legs!
Of course Kyoto and Osaka are also worthy day trips from Tokyo. There is a lot to see and do in both of these cities, so if you can stay 2-3 days in each then so much the better.
If you want to see Mount Fuji then catch a Shinkansen train to Shizuoka – Fuji is on the right hand side of the carriage if you’re travelling towards Shizuoka. Most Japanese people get quite excited when the train passes Fuji-san, so you’re not in any danger of missing it!
Other Shinkansen lines worth travelling on are the lines to Nagano and Niigata. Nagano is a good day trip from Tokyo. The walk through the town to the Zenkoji temple is well worth it.
If you need to find out Japan train times and ticket costs then visit the rather excellent Hyperdia site. Have fun using your Japan Rail Pass!