The Japan Rail Pass (also known as the JR Pass) is the #1 most popular travel option for foreign visitors to Japan.
It’s a joint offering from the six companies comprising the Japan Railways Group (JR Group). It is the most economical means of travelling throughout Japan by rail, and includes most of the famous shinkansen - or bullet trains.
Travelling by shinkansen isn’t necessarily cheap but it can be fantastic value if you purchase the Japan Rail Pass.
In this Ultimate Guide I'll answer all the most frequently asked questions about the JR Pass, give you a free "Essential Japan Rail Pass" checklist and my recommendations on where to purchase.
Download my "Essential Japan Rail Pass" checklist:
Japan Rail Pass Ultimate Guide 2022 Edition
by Rob Dyer
Japan Rail Pass - Quick Summary
Passes are best bought in advance outside of Japan. Buying passes outside Japan will always be the cheapest option.
The options are passes running for 7, 14 and 21 consecutive days. What’s more, the savings get proportionally greater if you can buy a longer pass. Simply choose the duration that best fits with your plans.
Passes can be purchased around the world from a number of authorised local travel agents. A complete list of authorised agents can be found on the official JR Pass website: www.japanrailpass.net.
They will cost more to buy inside Japan, than buying in advance outside of the country.
You’re actually buying something called an Exchange Order which you must exchange for the tickets themselves when you are in Japan. This can be done at JR Travel Service Centres located in most major JR train stations.
Conveniently, Centers are located in the major airports including Narita and Haneda (Tokyo) and Kansai (Osaka).
As JR Passes are primarily used by foreign tourists travelling in Japan, all information and services are in English (and multiple other languages as well). Key staff at counters where you exchange your vouchers for the passes will speak English.
There are some restrictions on use; for example, the pass cannot be used for travel on Nozomi or Mizuho trains (the two fastest services) on the Tokaido, Sanyo and Kyushu shinkansen lines.
Foreign visitors can save money by minimising their trip cost through the use of the Japan Rail Pass. This article will help guide you to make a choice of which length of Japan Rail Pass is suitable for you, based on the length of your stay, itinerary and use.
The Japan Rail Pass makes it possible to travel an unlimited amount of times on the entire JR rail network, including many high speed bullet train lines.
How does the pass work?
Order your JR Pass
Receive the Exchange Order
Active your JR Pass in Japan
Enjoy unlimited travel
What does the Japan Rail Pass cover?
The Japan Rail Pass is valid on:
The Japan Rail Pass is an excellent way to travel throughout Japan and without having to worry about extra costs incurred while using the local JR lines. It's worth it if you are planning on travelling throughout Japan using public transport and staying at least a week or two.
The pass is available in two versions, the Ordinary (standard) car pass and Green car pass. Each type can be purchased for 7 days, 14 days or 21 days.
SEE ALSO: Using Public Transport in Japan
What specific services are covered by the Japan Rail Pass?
The pass covers railways, buses and one ferry. Here’s the complete list:
4. Trains and services requiring additional basic fares and charges
SOURCE: based on information found on the official Japan Rail Pass website.
JR Pass Route Map
A Nationwide JR Route Map is available for free download as a PDF file from the official website here: Nationwide JR Route Map. The same map is reproduced on the inside of the current pass design.
You can use the Hyperdia online timetable site to determine whether or not the journey you wish to make is covered by the pass.
Download my "Essential Japan Rail Pass" checklist:
Who can buy the Japan Rail Pass?
In summary, anyone entering Japan on a 15 or 90 day tourist visa can buy the JR Pass. Only tourists and those on holiday in Japan are eligible. If you are a business traveller, you will not be allowed to use it on your travels. Japanese nationals can also use them if they can provide the eligibility documentation JR requires. See the official website for more eligibility information.
You can’t game the system either as you are required to show your tourist visa or stamp in your passport at the JR Exchange Office when seeking to exchange your order voucher for a pass. Therefore, at the airport on arrival if you use an automated gate, it is important that you get a member of staff to stamp your passport.
Passes can only be purchased by foreigners in Japan who have a passport issued by a country other than Japan and are granted temporary visitor status and Japanese nationals residing abroad who meet certain conditions.
How much does a Japan Rail Pass cost?
The cost of the Japan Rail Pass is determined by how many days you are planning on staying and the version of the pass that you choose.
A price guide for both Ordinary (Standard Class) and Green Car (First Class) passes from an authorised agent outside Japan are shown in the tables below. The exact price you pay will vary - depending on where you choose to purchase and the exchange rate at the time of purchase. Although the base price is set in Japan, authorised agents outside of Japan will often include extras (such as Japan travel guides, express delivery, etc.) to differentiate their service from others, and this affects the price charged.
The prices shown below are based on the Japan-set prices using the exchange rate at the time of publication. The exchange rate as of December 2021 is approximately US$1 = JP¥110.
Green Car (First Class)
Example cost of train journeys without the Pass
It's helpful in deciding if you need the Japan Rail Pass or not, if you take a look at the cost of a typical train journey. For example, here's the breakdown of the cost of a round trip from Tokyo to Kyoto and Hiroshima and back:
Tokyo > Kyoto > Hiroshima > Tokyo 13,650 yen + 11,100 yen + 18,710 yen = 43,460 yen or around $383 (as of December 2021).
What is a Green car?
Green cars are essentially first class cars (I’m not sure where the naming convention comes from). As you’d expect, opting to travel via Green car brings with it a few extra benefits including: larger seat, greater foot space, and enhanced onboard service. There are fewer seats in Green cars compared with standard class so there are fewer passengers too.
Green cars are available on most shinkansen and limited express trains, as well as on a few local trains. Green car Pass holders can also use Ordinary cars if they wish, they're not restricted to travelling only in Green cars.
If you are a wheelchair user then note that not all Green cars are accessible. You can read more about accessible travel in Japan using trains and the JR Pass in our guide: 12 Best Tips For Accessible Travel in Japan.
The 3 ways to buy your Japan Rail Pass
The most common way of buying a Japan Rail Pass is through an authorised website. Some of these are dedicated to the Japan Rail Pass, others (such as Klook) offer a broad range of tickets and experiences. You will receive a voucher that needs to be exchanged for an actual pass once you are inside Japan and within three months of purchase.
JR started selling passes online in 2020, but their prices are around 13% more expensive. You may just prefer the peace of mind of booking through the official Japan Rail Pass Reservation website, and the site does enable you to make seat reservations online.
You can also collect your pass using just your passport and not a voucher that needs to be exchanged.
It’s worth noting that Japanese expats living abroad cannot buy passes through the JR Reservation website (even though they are eligible for the Japan Rail Pass).
2. Travel agent outside Japan
Accredited travel agents outside of Japan are authorised to sell the Japan Rail Pass.
What you’re actually buying is a voucher which will be sent to you. After receiving the voucher, and once you are inside Japan you have three months to exchange it for your actual Japan Rail Pass. It's advisable to place an order well in advance as you may experience delays in delivery.
3. Major stations inside Japan
The Japan Rail Pass can be purchased at a range of major train stations and airports including Narita, Haneda and Kansai airports.
A complete list of the sales offices (including service hours) can be found on the official Japan Rail Pass website here: https://japanrailpass.net/en/exchange.html. Note: you will pay approximately 13% more per pass if buying inside Japan.
Selecting a start date for the Pass
When you exchange your voucher for the actual pass, you can select any start date provided it is within one month from the day you exchange. Note: once the actual pass is issued, the start date cannot be changed.
If you purchase passes through the official JR website you will need to select the start date of the passes at the time of purchase, and again, the start date cannot be changed later.
Where can I activate my Japan Rail Pass?
For Japan Rail Passes purchased in advance outside of Japan, you need to activate them at an exchange office after arriving in Japan. Exchange offices can be found in several major train stations and airports.
The official JR Pass website has a complete list of exchange offices here: https://japanrailpass.net/en/exchange.html
How to make seat reservations
Seat reservations are free with the Japan Rail Pass. After exchanging your voucher for the actual pass, you can make seat reservations for JR trains for free at ticket machines or ticket offices across Japan. Note: reservations cannot be made on board trains.
Seat reservations are optional in Ordinary class cars, but all seating in Green cars is reserved so you will need to reserve in advance.
Most non-shinkansen and local train services do not offer seat reservations. You can read more details on seat reservations on the JRailPass.com website here.
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For stress-free travel and help with activating your Japan Rail Pass
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New rules concerning oversized luggage were introduced in 2020. Oversized luggage is defined as the total measurement of the three sides (length, width and height) is over 160cm and within 250cm.
If your luggage is oversized, on some shinkansen you must make an advance reservation for both the seat and baggage area.
NOTE: Luggage where the three sides measure over 250cm is not allowed to be brought onto shinkansen at all. (If you have luggage over 250cm and are travelling by shinkansen consider using a luggage forwarding service instead.)
If you bring oversized baggage on board shinkansen without making an advance reservation, you will be charged a carry on fee of 1,000 JPY (inc. tax) and be required to store your baggage in a space designated by the train crew.
Full details on the luggage restrictions are available to download in a free PDF on the official Japan Rail Pass website here: Japan Rail Pass - Oversized Baggage (Instant Download PDF).
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Accessible travel using the Rail Pass
For tips on accessible travel in Japan using the Japan Rail Pass and trains in general, please read our dedicated guide: 12 Best Tips For Accessible Travel in Japan.
Why use a Japan Rail Pass?
While some visitors to Japan will not need a Japan Rail Pass, it can be an excellent travel tool for those looking to maximise the use of their time, while saving money over multiple train tickets and journeys.
Perhaps the best thing about the Pass is that it offers unlimited shinkansen journeys. Think about that for a moment. You can travel as much as you want on services. The more you use the pass, the more you are saving.
To get the most out of the rail pass, you need to consider your length of stay, itinerary, and budget of travel. The pass can save you money if you are willing to invest a bit of time in planning your itinerary around its uses.
If you need some ideas for itineraries, the JRailPass.com website has a number of suggested itineraries from 3 to 14 days.
Is the Japan Rail Pass worth buying?
It all depends on your rail travel plans and itinerary. The Japan Rail Pass is convenient, but its use requires a certain amount of planning.
The most important thing to consider about purchasing a Japan Rail Pass is the length of your stay in Japan and how many places you plan to visit using the train (especially JR trains), how you are planning on travelling throughout the country, and how the rail pass can make that easier, faster and cheaper.
If you’re not sure that the Japan Rail Pass will be worth buying for your travel plans then you should total up the cost of buying individual train tickets for each of your journeys (or regional rail passes) and then compare that with the cost of the Japan Rail Pass.
Just remember, the pass offers unlimited travel, so you might well want to add in extra trips than you originally planned as the more you travel on a Japan Rail Pass the better value you get out of them.
You can use a site like Hyperdia.com to calculate the total cost of individual tickets.
One approach to maximising the value of your pass is to book accommodation in a location at the centre of a region you want to explore. Hotels typically allow storage of large suitcases (sometimes for a small fee). You can then use the pass to make day or short overnight trips to surrounding areas taking only a day or overnight bag with you.
Can the Japan Rail Pass be used on the Tokyo Metro?
One of the questions most tourists have is whether or not the pass can be used on the Tokyo Metro system. The answer is no. It can only be used on Japan Railway (JR) lines during your travels in Japan.
The Tokyo Metro is very convenient and easy to use, but if you plan on using this system, you will need to pay for each trip separately. A good option for travel on the Tokyo Metro is to buy a pre-paid travel card such as the Suica Card. And if you stay in Tokyo and only do some short day trips around Tokyo for sightseeing, using the Japan Rail Pass won’t be cost effective.
What regional rail passes make good alternatives to the Japan Rail Pass?
Since the Japan Rail Pass operates on consecutive days only, it is best suited to itineraries that are built around moving frequently within 7, 14 or 21 day periods. It also offers the best value for the longest distances travelled.
If you are visiting only one region then you might want to consider one of the many regional rail passes. These are offered by different railway companies. Some regional passes cover areas (e.g the Kansai Area Pass, Hokuriku Area Pass), others cover entire islands (Hokkaido Rail Pass, Kyushu Rail Pass).
Also, depending on your travel plans, the Japan Rail Pass and regional rail passes can also be used in conjunction with each other.
For example, if your itinerary included periods of frequent rail travel and then none for a while and then resumed but only in one area, then it might be better to buy a 7, 14 or 21 day Japan Rail Pass for the period of intense travel and later pick up a regional pass just to cover an area that you plan to spend an amount of time in.
I will be publishing an in-depth guide to regional rail passes in Japan. So subscribe and be the first to get notified once that goes live.
Download my "Essential Japan Rail Pass" checklist:
Is it possible to change dates of the Pass?
Yes. Should you decide that you want to change the dates or the area where your pass is valid or should you lose your pass, then it is possible to exchange it for an official receipt. You would need to get a refund of the pass you have purchased and then purchase a new pass. This can only be done before the starting date of periods of use.
How many times can I use the Japan Rail Pass?
The Japan Rail Pass can be used for unlimited rides for the duration of your pass (7, 14 or 21 consecutive days). The valid period is based on full calendar days (midnight to midnight) rather than 24 hour periods. For example, if you start using a 7-day pass at midday on day 1, it will expire at midnight at the end of day 7, and not at midday of day 8.
Japan Rail Pass FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions
Can you buy a Japan Rail Pass in Japan?
Yes, you can buy the Japan Rail pass at a ticket office in Japan, but it is more expensive to buy it inside the country than outside of the country in advance.
Location of the ticket offices in Japan can be found on official JR website here: https://japanrailpass.net/en/exchange.html
Where can I activate The Japan Rail Pass?
To activate your Japan Rail Pass, you must exchange your voucher at an exchange office after arriving in Japan. There are offices in airports and at majorJR train stations; opening times will vary. Fill out the form with your details and present your passport and your "Temporary Visitor" stamp/sticker.
The official Japan Rail Pass website includes a list of all of the exchange offices: https://japanrailpass.net/en/exchange.html.
How can I get a refund on the Japan Rail Pass?
If you decide that you do not want to use your pass or if it is not valid in the areas where you are travelling, then it can be returned for a refund as long as the pass has not been activated.
If you have an actual Japan Rail Pass (i.e. you have already exchanged the voucher for a pass), it can be turned in at any exchange office for a refund, but only if this is done before the start date of the pass.
If you still have the voucher (i.e. it hasn’t yet been exchanged for a pass), you need to contact the retailer you originally purchased it from for a refund. The terms and conditions will vary.
If there are any issued reserved-seat tickets, it is necessary to cancel all the issued reserved-seat tickets.
Is The Japan Rail Pass transferable (to another person)?
No - the pass is only valid for the person named on the pass. You cannot lend the Japan Rail Pass to another person, or use it if you have not activated it.
Is it cheaper to buy your Japan Rail Pass in Japan?
No - the opposite in fact. Buying the Japan Rail Pass in Japan will be more expensive than buying it in your home country before you travel. Passes can be purchased in many countries through officially authorised travel agents. Prices are controlled so do not vary by much between agents. However, you might want to shop around before buying one as agents often include free extras (like Japan guides) to entice you to buy through them.
A list of authorised global agents can be found here on JR official website.
Are all shinkansen bullet trains covered by The Japan Rail Pass?
Not quite. However, the vast majority of services (including the Hikari, Sakura, Kodama and Tsubame services) are covered. However, Nozomi and Mizuho trains running on the Tokaido, Sanyo and Kyushu shinkansen lines are not covered. All other bullet trains are included.
Full details of the shinkansen services covered by the pass can be found on the official Japan Rail Pass website (Instant Download PDF).
Is the Narita Express (N'EX) covered by the Japan Rail Pass?
Yes. The Narita Express, also known as N'EX, is a Limited Express train operated by JR East that runs between Narita Airport and central Tokyo. You can ride the Narita Express for free using the Pass, but seats must be reserved in advance.
Stops include many popular places to stay including: Narita (town), Chiba, Tokyo Station, Shinbashi, Hamamatshucho, Shinagawa, Shibuya, Shinjuku, Yokohama and Ikebukuro.
Can I use the Japan Rail Pass on local trains?
Yes, provided those local trains are part of the JR network. The pass isn’t limited exclusively to using shinkansen (‘bullet trains’). A Japan Rail Pass can be used on almost all JR (Japan Rail Group) trains.
How long is a Japan Rail Pass valid for?
The period of validity of a Japan Rail Pass is 7, 14 or 21 consecutive days. All three versions offer unlimited travel during their period of validity.
Is the Japan Rail Pass valid on non-JR railways?
Generally speaking the answer is no. However, the pass is valid on a small number of non-JR trains. Agreement has been reached with some train companies to provide access to remote JR lines that otherwise would be inaccessible.
A complete Nationwide JR Route Map is available to download from the JapanRailPass.net site here: https://japanrailpass.net/pdf/Nationwide_JR_Route_Map_web_1112.pdf
Some more specific questions about using the Pass
Before publishing this guide, I asked subscribers if they had any questions about using the pass. Most questions are covered above, but there were a few specific questions that weren't. So here they are:
Are you able to buy an additional regional pass if you have purchased a 3 week Pass and are staying longer? i.e. Any limit on passes within a 90 day tourist visa?
There is no limit on the number of passes (Japan Rail or regional) you can purchase within a 90 day tourist visa. This gives you great flexibility when planning your itinerary, especially given that further passes can be bought inside Japan once you are already here.
Are discounts on the price of passes available to seniors?
No, as the pass is already being heavily subsidised, no special discount for seniors is available.
Is there a pass suitable for slow travel?
No. You just need to plan your itinerary in advance and think about how you could utilise the Japan Rail Pass within that. For example, you might use more than one pass during your travels but not use them back to back. Think about how you might get the best value out of the three different durations (7, 14 and 21 days) and then order passes to complement your preferred travel style.
Alternatively, depending on your itinerary, consider using the Japan Rail Pass in combination with a number of regional rail passes, or only use regional rail passes.
Download my "Essential Japan Rail Pass" checklist:
I hope this Ultimate Guide has been useful and has helped you decide if you need to use the Japan Rail Pass or not. If it has been useful please share this with friends.
I've used the pass many times since first coming to Japan in 2000. The design may have changed a little but the value it offers only ever increases.
Relatively speaking, the price of the passes hasn't increased a great deal down the years, whereas the shinkansen network has, and continues to, expand. And as the pass offers unlimited journeys the value you can derive from it just gets better and better.
Don't forget to download your free "Essential Japan Rail Pass Checklist".
About the Author
A writer and publisher from England, Rob has been exploring Japan’s 6,800 islands since 2000. He specialises in travelling off the beaten track, whether on remote atolls or in the hidden streets of major cities. He’s the founder of TheRealJapan.com.
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