Travelling around Japan is super easy. The trains are great, clean, fast, punctual and reliable. The cities are well connected and the network is well developed. But it’s also not super cheap and can be quite confusing with different providers, connections, changes and different pricing systems. So here are my tips for travelling with a rail pass in Japan and whether a JR Railpass is worthwhile for your trip to Japan.
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Have I used the JR Railpass myself?
Yes, twice on my two visits to Japan. And I used it very intensively and extensively on many routes.
I also travelled quite a bit by WillerExpress bus, which can be a lot cheaper, but is also more complicated and slower. (But you should definitely experience a Japanese service station. They’re amazing!)
I think having a railpass is incredibly worthwhile, saving time and money. And there are different regions you can purchase if you don’t want to travel far or save money.
Where can I buy the JR Railpass?
There are various providers where you can buy your Railpass ticket for Japan directly online. The official provider is of course Japan Railways Group (JR). And many websites are directly named like the product, but are only intermediaries.
In the past, you had to have the ticket sent directly to your home before travelling, but fortunately this is now a thing of the past. Now you can get your pass while you’re travelling or have it sent directly to your hotel. (You don’t have to worry about short delivery times if your trip is imminent. That was the case for me back then).
For example, you can order your ticket via GetYourGuide*, a German company.
They offer you the option of a 7, 14 or 21-day pass. And as far as I can see, you can cancel the ticket up to 24 hours before the end of the 3 months from the date of purchase if you haven’t used it after all. You will be refunded up to 80% of the cost.
Which regions are covered?
You can either buy a JR Railpass for the whole of Japan or for certain regions.
- Whole Japan*
- JR Kyushu Railpass*
- JR West Kansai Pass* as well as Wide Area*
- JR Hokkaido Pass*
- JR East Tohoku Rail Pass*
- JR East Nagano / Niigata Area Pass*
Do I have to activate the JR Railpass?
Yes, the pass itself is valid for your specified period or a specific period from the date of purchase.
When you purchase online, you will only receive the Exchange Order, which you must first redeem for the actual ticket at a JR office. You can find a list of Exchange Offices here.
However, you must activate the Japan Rail Pass ticket at a major JR station in Japan before travelling for the first time. There are special counters for this.
You may have to queue for quite a while if you are travelling at busy times. Therefore, I advise you to activate your ticket on the first day of your visit to Japan or the day before your planned trip.
When you redeem your ticket, you can choose your desired activation/start date. However, it must be within 30 days.
Very important: Bring your passport!
How long is the JR Railpass valid for?
The pass must be redeemed within 3 months of purchase in Japan or it expires automatically.
Depending on which ticket you buy, it covers the whole of Japan or just certain regions. You can also specify the duration of your trip.
Once activated, however, the consecutive days are valid, not your actual travelling days. So you should plan your journey close together if you want to get the most out of your Japan train ticket.
Can the ticket be exchanged?
Once purchased, the duration of the journey cannot be adjusted. You will need to buy an additional pass or cancel the ticket and buy a new one.
Once the JR Railpass has been validated or exchanged, the date of travel can no longer be changed.
The ticket cannot be transferred to another person and is linked to your passport. In general, you must always have your passport with you in Japan anyway.
Who can have a JR Pass?
Only tourists can purchase the Railpass for Japan. This means that you need a temporary visitor visa or have entered Japan as part of the visa-free travel programme. Working holiday visas do not count.
Working Holiday Visa and JR Railpass
It was a bit complicated for me with the first entry because I had the rail pass but couldn’t use it with the working holiday visa.
So I had to argue for ages at the airport with Customs that they wouldn’t stamp my visa.
Then I travelled for 2 weeks as a tourist (visa-free entry) and then flew with Peach Air for 20 euros from Osaka to Korea for a short holiday and then re-entered Japan with the working holiday visa.
Where is the JR Pass valid?
Of course, it depends on what you have booked.
In general, however, you can only use JR trains (express, fast and local), buses and ferry services. Within Tokyo, this is often tricky because there are so many different providers. So always check in advance which routes and stations you can use with your pass.
There are always information stands and friendly staff at the stations. It helps if you can show your favourite stop or attraction in Kanji (e.g. as a screenshot).
Night trains can be used, but sleeping compartments cost extra.
You can also use Shinkansen trains, including NOZOMI and MIZUHO, if you buy the special ticket for them.
Furthermore, Tokyo Monorail, the Yamanote Line (Tokyo Metro), Aoimori Railway between Aomori and Hachinohe, Ainokaze Toyama Railway between Toyama and Takaoka, Narita Express from Narita Airport to Tokyo and IR Ishikawa Railway between Kanazawa and Tsuba are also included.
But it’s better to check in advance, as things can always change in the meantime. Your Railpass also contains the small print and a map.
Normal JR buses (not express buses!) that you can take are operated by:
- JR Hokkaido Bus
- JR Tohoku Bus
- JR Kanto Bus
- JR Tokai Bus
- West Japan JR Bus
- JR Chugoku bus
- JR Shikoku Bus
- JR Kyushu Bus
You can also use the ferries from JR-West Miyajima. This takes you from Hiroshima to Miyajima, for example. I found that really worthwhile and I liked the day trip.
Do I still need to book journeys?
In general, you can board trains with the Railpass. But for some routes you need to reserve a seat in advance, which you can do online free of charge. Even if you spontaneously decide not to travel, nothing happens. You just have to book again.
Especially if you are travelling during rush hour or peak season, you should definitely reserve a seat, otherwise you could end up empty-handed when everything is full. This is especially the case during the cherry blossom season and Golden Week (27 April to 6 May), from 11-20 August and from 28 December to 6 January.
You can make reservations up to one month in advance.
Seat reservations must always be made in advance. And you can’t just sit somewhere else.
You can make your seat reservation online or on a ticket at the JR station. At the station, you can do this at the JR Ticket Office, a travel centre or travel agency.
However, you will need to state your exact destination and travelling time. You can of course also ask for advice, but sometimes this is difficult with English.
The reservation looks like this: Nagoya – Kyoto / 14:19 – 15:11 / Hikari 513, Car 11, Seat 5-B
If you want to travel in your own compartment or night compartment, you have to pay extra.
JR Railpass discounts
Since October 2023, there are also discounts that you can get with your JR Railpass. However, you can only use them during the activation period. For example:
- Nikko Natural History Museum 100 yen admission discount for adults
- Wakayama Farm 20% entrance fee
- Tokyowanferry 140 yen discount for adults
- Nokogiriyama Ropeway 50 yen discount on an ice cream
- Free postcard at Aomori Art Museum
What is the Green Japan Rail Pass?
This is the first class comfort version.
You get more benefits and it is much more relaxed to travel with a Green Japan Rail Pass, especially during the peak season in spring and autumn. This is because you sit in first class, which is never completely full.
The seating area is more spacious, seat backs recline up to 40°, there are warm towels for relaxation and free drinks on certain routes.
If you’re ready, you can book your JR Railpass Ticket here*.