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Japan Rail Pass – Everything You Need to Know

What is the Japan Rail (JR) Pass?

The JR Pass is a nation-wide train pass offered by the six regional companies comprising the Japan Rail (JR) Group. Limited only to foreign tourists, it allows unlimited travel on the extensive JR Rail network through Japan. While it is often cited as an economical means for travelling in Japan, this really depends on your length of trip and destinations you plan to go.

We know there is an overwhelming amount of information on the JR Pass online. In this article, we will help to demystify things you should know before purchasing the JR Pass, and introduce a simple tool to calculate if buying the JR Pass is worth it for your trip.

JR Pass Categories and Prices

The JR Pass comes in two types of tickets: standard carriages and first class (green) carriages. Similar to airline tickets, first class seats are wider, have more leg space, and can recline up to 40°. Don’t expect unlimited meals and alcoholic beverages though – the amenities are limited to a radio set, travel magazine, and if you’re lucky, maybe a beverage on certain lines.

The pass is valid for travel up to 7-day, 14-day, and 21-day continuous periods. The following price table is an estimate price in AUD from JTB Travel, and prices may vary depending on provider. Prices are valid as of 22nd June 2018.

Duration Adult Standard Child* Standard Adult 1st Class Child 1st Class
7 days $345 $173 $461 $230
14 days $549 $275 $745 $373
21 days $703 $352 $969 $485

*For children aged 6-11 years old.

Children 5 years old and below can ride free, but do not have a reserved seat. This means they may occupy an empty seat if available, but if the carriage is full they need to be seated with an adult. Some travellers may choose to purchase a child seat anyway to ensure they are comfortably seated during the trip.

JR Pass Ticket Inclusions and Exclusions

Inclusions: The JR Pass is valid for the following – 

  • Japanese Rail trains (JR network map);

  • Shinkansen bullet train network (Shinkansen network map);

  • Airport connections from Tokyo via the Narita Express and Tokyo Monorail (from Haneda Airport);

  • Within Tokyo itself, there are 5 JR lines that operate, which should not be confused with the Tokyo Subway. Do note that while the JR Yamanote line covers most of the major attractions, it does not cover the major stations of Asakusa, Odaiba, and Tsukiji Market;

  • JR Bus network, including JR Hokkaido Bus, JR Bus Tohoku, JR Bus Kanto, JR Tokai Bus, West Japan JR Bus, JR Chugoku Bus, JR Shikoku Bus, and JR Kyushu Bus;

  • JR Miyajima Ferry (from Hiroshima).

Exclusions: The JR Pass is not valid for the following –

  • Nozomi‘ and ‘Mizuho‘ Shinkansen trains – while both are the fastest options along their respective lines, JR Pass holders can still board any other trains (Hikari, Sakura etc.) for these routes;

  • JR trains on non-JR tracks (see list)

  • JR liner trains 

  • Night trains – JR Pass holders are entitled to the regular ‘nobi nobi seats‘ on night trains, but will have to fork out an extra fee for private options. Do note that the nobi nobi seats sell out fast and you should try to reserve a seat once you have activated your JR Pass in Japan;

  • Any Highway buses, including those run by JR Group.

Where Can You Purchase JR Pass Tickets in Australia?

Until recently, the Japan Rail Pass had to bought before travelling to Japan. Now for a limited period until March 31, 2019, you can make a last-minute purchase of the JR Pass in Japan itself at a 10-20% premium.

It is still recommended to buy the Japan Rail Pass beforehand, as it is sold by many authorized retailers in Australia. You can easily purchase it online and at the desk of a number of recognized agents such as STA TravelJTB, HIS and JapanRailPass. You can find the full list of authorized travel agents nearest to you here

When ordering online, keep in mind this is not an e-voucher and delivery takes a few days by post. If your flight is departing soon, most travel agents can issue it immediately if you head down to their office. Call in advance to check.

How do I use the Japan Rail Pass?

  1. Purchase the JR Pass in Australia before your trip. What you will be receiving from your tour agent is a voucher for the pass, and not the actual pass itself. 

  2. Redeem the voucher for the JR Pass at any JR exchange and sales offices when you are in Japan. If you’re flying into Tokyo, both Narita and Haneda Airports have multiple offices between them (see below table). You can’t miss them – the exchange offices are all situated right outside the ticket gate of their respective stations.

  3. Select your activation date. You can choose to activate your JR Pass on the same day you exchange the voucher for it, or at a later date. This is particularly useful if you will be taking the subway in cities like Tokyo or Osaka and prefer to activate your pass later.

  4. Reserve your seats. If you have your itinerary planned out, it is always recommended (and complimentary!) to reserve your seat particularly during peak hours and seasonal periods. You can reserve your seat up to 1 month in advance at any JR office. Note that if you had purchased a pass for first-class (green), all Green carriage seats require reservations.

Tokyo Airports JR Pass Offices

JR Station Pass Exchange Office Opening Times
Narita Airport T1 JR East Travel Service Center B1F 8:15-19:00
Narita Airport T1 Ticket Office B1F 6:30-8:15, 19:00-21:45
Narita Airport T1 Narita Airport Travel Center  9:00-20:00
Narita Airport T2-3 JR East Travel Service Center B1F 8:15-20:00
Narita Airport T2-3 Ticket Office B1F 6:30-8:15, 20:00-21:45
Haneda Airport, Tokyo Monorail  JR East Travel Service Center 2F 6:45-18:30

Is the JR Pass Worth It?

While the JR Pass is often associated with great value, with the number of transport options available in Japan (regional passes, city passes, and more) it can be a complex decision. A great rule of thumb is that a round-trip from Tokyo to Kyoto with airport connection to Narita/Haneda is about equivalent to the cost for a 7-day JR Pass. This means that if you add a day trip and factor in usage within Tokyo of JR Yamanote line, you will likely get your money’s worth.

JR Pass Price Comparison: 7 Days

Japan Guide has a great Japan Rail ticket calculator you can utilize to calculate the value of each 7/14/21-day pass with near-infinite trip combinations. For 14 days, a common ‘Best of Japan’ trip spanning Tokyo, Mt Fuji, Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, and Hiroshima will also get you good value for the pass.

JR Pass Price Comparison: 14 Days

Regional JR Pass Ticket Options

If you aren’t taking a whirlwind tour of Japan, it is often worthwhile to purchase one of the regional JR Passes instead. The biggest consideration here is that Tokyo and Osaka/Kyoto are in two different zones, so travellers planning to cover both or all three cities should stick to the nation-wide pass. If you’re planning to focus on a specific area, however, JR regional passes can offer great value.

Japan Prefectures and Regions
Prefectures and Regions of Japan

JR Pass Price Comparison

Only thing is, there are a mind-boggling number of regional passes to choose from. A good starting point is the table below, which compares the nationwide JR Pass to a curated list which covers all the major regions. If your trip is limited to a smaller area within the region (e.g. northern Kyushu, Japanese Alps, and more) or spans across two regions, there might be a pass for that too. A comprehensive list of regional passes can be purchased here.

Pass Price Region Notes
Japan Rail Pass (7D) A$345 Nationwide
JR Hokkaido (7D) A$287 Hokkaido Travellers going between Southern Hokkaido and Tohoku can consider other options
JR East Tohoku (5D*) A$226 Kanto and Tohoku *Five flexible days within a 14 day period
JR Kansai Wide (5D) A$109 Kansai Major stops include Okayama, Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe, Wakayama, and Tottori
JR Sanyo San’in (7D) A$228 Kansai and Chugoku Extends from Kansai as far west as Fukuoka, covering Miyajima and Hiroshima as well
JR Takayama-Hokuriku (5D) A$168 Kansai and Chubu Extends through Nagoya, Shirakawa-go, and Kanazawa to Kansai Airport in the west
JR Kyushu (5D) A$215 Kyushu Northern and Southern Kyushu-only options available at nearly half the cost
JR Shikoku (5D) A$131 Shikoku Includes selected non-JR trains, trams, and ferries

Estimated price in AUD from Japan Rail site, and prices may vary depending on exchange rate and provider. Prices are valid as of 22nd June 2018.

JR Pass: The Verdict

So is the Japan Rail Pass really worth it? Most of the time – yes! Either the nationwide JR Pass or regional passes can offer great value for your trip. As no two trips are the same, you’re always best off working out your savings on the calculator.

Generally, if you’re going round-trip from a single point of entry and departure (e.g. Tokyo) to other regions, the pass is usually worth it. Don’t forget that for the regional passes, there are a number of areas – Hokkaido, Tohoku, Nagano – that allow for the pass to be used on non-consecutive days.

Whichever you choose, train travel in Japan is world renowned for good reason: being efficient, comfortable, spotless, and most importantly punctual. Kick back on your reclined seat and enjoy your trip – you deserve it after all that planning.

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