Location: tokyo, Japan

There are three things that will kill your budget whilst traveling around Japan and that is accommodation, kitschy Japanese souvenirs and transportation. And of those three things, there is really only one that you can save a bit of money on since you can’t visit Japan and NOT buy any weird Japanese souvenirs (am I right?), and that is transportation: Enter your new best friend the Japan Rail Pass! The Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass) brings together the six separate Japanese rail companies to offer an affordable way to travel around Japan via rail, bus and even ferry. On our first trip to Japan together, Siu On and I looked at a few different transportation options (including flights and renting a car) to explore the areas we were hoping to visit, however we found that these options were either too expensive or not flexible enough for our itinerary. As a result, I focussed on using rail as our main means for travel but was confused by the complicated sounding process of the JR Pass, so here’s (hopefully) a simpler guide to using the JR Pass with the most important information all in one place. Conquer the Pass and soon enough you’ll be shinkansening (and I may have made that word up) your way around the land of the rising sun like a samurai!

JR Train

JR Pass restrictions

Before you purchase a pass, there are two very strict requirements you must ensure that you comply with in order to obtain a JR Pass:

  1. You must be a foreign tourist visiting Japan from abroad for the purpose of sight-seeing, under the entry status of “temporary visitor.”
  2. You are a Japanese national living outside of Japan who meets certain specific conditions. (Refer to the official Japan Rail Pass site for specific conditions if you fall within this restriction.)

For either category you will still need to provide proof upon presenting your Exchange Order at a Japan Rail Office (and yes they will check), before they give you your JR Pass. So make sure you get your ‘Temporary Visitor’ entry stamp in your passport when you arrival!

In addition to these pre-purchasing restrictions, the JR Pass is non refundable if you cancel your trip and the pass is also not transferable, so the pass holder must be the person listed on the pass and the names must match that on your passport (and again, they do check this).

What can I use the JR Pass on?

The JR Pass is valid for unlimited travel on all Japan Railway (JR) group trains including:

  • Hikari/Kodama and Sakura/Tsubame Shinkansen (these are the famous bullet-trains).
  • Other trains including limited express trains, express trains and rapid or local trains.
  • Some local lines of JR bus companies. (Pass validity for particular routes is subject to change, see a list of companies here.)
  • Tokyo Monorail connecting Haneda Airport to Hamamatsucho Station.
  • JR-West Miyajima Ferry.

The JR Pass does not cover travel on:

  • Nozomi and Mizuho Shinkansen (these are the super high speed bullet-trains).
  • Private Rail lines apart from the JR Line.
  • Some Local JR bus company lines.
  • Express bus routes operated by JR bus companies.
  • City subway lines.
  • City tram lines.

If you’re still not sure, check out their official JR Pass Scope of Validity for more detailed information.

A young boy on the Miyajima Ferry overlooking the Torii Gate

Should I get a JR Pass?

Whether or not you should obtain a JR Pass will depend on your individual travel itinerary and circumstances. When I was considering a pass, it did seem like a large amount of money especially after I had already booked the flights, so I did some homework to see if it would be cost effective for us:

  1. I put together a rough itinerary of the places that Siu On and I wanted to visit within the timeframe we had.
  2. I then jumped onto a really handy site called HyperDia, and plugged in all the travel legs and tallied up the cost of all the trips.
  3. I then checked the price of a JR Pass that would suit our itinerary.
  4. I compared the prices of both the JR Pass, and also the outright costs of booking the journey’s separately.

On this occasion, having the JR Pass was cheaper than buying separate tickets, but this may not always be the case, as on our second trip to Japan we found that the JR Pass didn’t offer us as much savings so we opted not to buy it when we travelled around Hokkaido.

In addition to this, if you are still not sure there is a really helpful JR Pass Forum where you can either search for answers to your question, or ask your question and have a answer within a day by a JR Pass expert. I obsessively trawled through the forum on this for months before I bought the Pass and it helped me save buckets of money in Japan and get a great itinerary together!

Commuters on a Tokyo train

How do I purchase a JR Pass?

The biggest mistake you can make is to assume that you can buy a JR Pass in Japan. BIG MISTAKE! You must purchase your JR Pass (which comes to you in the form of an Exchange Order) prior to your entry into Japan.

The JR Pass works in a similar fashion to the Eurail Pass where you choose the class s you would like to travel (either a Green Pass which is similar to first class or Ordinary Pass), and then choose one out of three different consecutive travel durations; 7 day, 14 day or 21 day pass. For example, let’s say you’re traveling budget and will be in Japan for two weeks but will only start your rail travel in your second week, therefore an Ordinary 7 day JR Pass will suit you. Instead of purchasing a 14 day JR Pass, you can purchase a 7 day JR Pass as the pass begins from the date that you activate it.

I bought my pass online through Explore Japan with a JR Pass, and found they delivered to Australia within a reasonable timeframe. However, you can also buy from authorized Agents in your home country if you don’t trust the internet, and you can view a list of Agents here.

A Japan Railway worker

How do I use a JR Pass?

Okay, so you’ve done the ground work and decided that a JR Pass is the most economical way for you to get around Japan, and you’ve even purchased the Pass – awesome! The next step is to bring it with you when you enter Japan, and head to a JR Office with your Exchange Order (which is the Pass that you have with you) and hand it over along with your Passport so that they can that check everything is correct. Once that is done the clerk will hand you the actual JP Pass, give you a nod, say ‘Arigato’, and off you go! However if you prefer pictures with your instructions, here are the official JR Pass instructions.

Downsides of using the JR Pass

There were only a few downsides that we found with using the pass; firstly, not all JR Stations have offices were you can exchange your pass. This can be a little inconvenient if you need to use the train and pay for it when you could have had that journey covered with your pass. Secondly, there was one instance where we had to pay a fee when the JR train we were riding on used a portion of a private (non JR Rail) train line… I still don’t really understand that one, but you will find out before you board the train as they will let you know that you will have to pay a portion of the journey upfront. And the last downside we found with using the pass was the murkiness around using buses as that information tends to change randomly; however, we found that just giving the bus driver a polite ‘sumimasen’ and showing your JR Pass with a very confused look on your face will usually deliver you either a ‘hai/iie’ (yes/no) answer.

And lastly, make sure you guard your JR Pass with your life! Don’t lose it, don’t damage it and don’t use someone else’s pass as your own. The Japanese like things to be done orderly and in a neat fashion, so save yourself the disapproving look and accompanying head shaking and look after your JR Pass because it will save you bucket loads of money!

Siu On and our Shinkansen

For me personally, rail travel is by far my favorite way to get around and especially through Japan. The trains are all very clean, new and comfortable with quiet areas, seats that swivel around, food areas and places to plug in your electronics – the shinkansens actually feel more like spacious airplanes than trains! You also get to view some of the incredibly beautiful Japanese countryside, and are usually dropped off in the center of town so that makes it an even more convenient way to travel. I really can’t recommend using the JR Pass and the train system in Japan enough!

Are you planning a trip to Japan? Check out my other posts on my time spent traveling through Japan to give you some inspiration and ideas.

All photographs by Jelena Stipanicev.