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Japan: what you need to know about the JR train pass

by Elisa Flitter Fever
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Did you hear about the JR Pass Japan, but wondering about the details? Then you have reached the right article. In Japan travel is easy and fast with the great train network. I loved it! Here are the 10 things you need to know about traveling by train through Japan with the JR Pass. From my own personal experience.

Shinkansen train Japan
Shinkansen high speed train in Japan

Why travel by train

Maybe you wonder at first why you would travel by train through Japan at all? A few reasons:

  • Japan has very fast trains (e.g. Osaka-Tokyo in over 2 hours)
  • Sitting in the train is less tiring than driving yourself in a rental car (on the left side of the road)
  • Traveling by train in Japan is an experience and comfortable
  • It is more sustainable to travel by train than by car or plane
  • In the train you can app, surf, play games, read a book, write, do nothing, etc.
  • With the JR Pass Japan you can travel by train for 7-21 days economically, especially solo
  • Japan has an extensive train network that can take you to many places
  • Useful for people without a driver’s license, fear of driving on the left, in the mountains, etc.
  • In Japan the trains really run on time; even if it’s is delayed by a few seconds, extensive apologies are offered to the passengers by the staff

JR Pass

Here are the 10 good-to-knows for traveling by train through Japan, ideally by JR Pass.

1. As JR Pass holder seat reservation is for free, yet not mandatory. Reserved cabins tend to be less crowded than the non-reserved cabins. On the other hand, if there are long rows at the service office and little time left before the train leaves, better catch the train without reservation than to miss the train. Often I made the reservation the day before, so no rush.

2. There are Ordinary cars and Green cars. Green cars are 1st class, with larger seats, more foot space and enhanced board service, but in my humble opinion this is not necessary. Ordinary is perfectly fine, also for tall people.

3. JR Passes are available for 7, 14 or 21 days. A 14-days pass costs about EUR 340 (ordinary cars), a price Japanese residents can only dream about. With this calculator you can check whether or not a JR Pass is a smart choice for your trip. However I think that even if in your case the calculation says it is not 100% worth it, having the JR Pass in general is convenient I think.

Update: the prices of the JR Pass will increase significantly from October 1, 2023, between 69 and 77 percent! In short, if you still want to travel with the JR Pass Japan this year, it would be wise to purchase it before October.

11 May 2023
Tokio Station train to Nagano
Tokio Station train to Nagano
Marked tracks on platform train station Japan
Marked tracks on platform to line up for train

4. Purchase the JR Pass 3 months up to a few weeks in advance online. The paper voucher will be send to your address, as long as it’s outside Japan.

5. Upon arrival in Japan, go to an appropriate JR service office (for example Narita for Tokyo) to exchange the voucher for the real pass and your first seat reservation.

6. When you enter and exit the platform, show your JR Pass – and if you made seat reservation also your ticket. As of June 2020, no need to pass via the staffed gate; the automatic gates also recognizes JR Pass tickets.

Red and white regional train Japan
Regional train at Yudanaka Station (Nagano Prefecture)
Japanese Regional train interior
Regional train interior

7. The bullet trains in Japan are called Shinkansen. You recognize them by a green logo on the signs and a sharp, pointy nose. Each Shinkansen train has a name. The Hayabusa is the fastest with 320 km p/h (200 mph).

8. Japan Travel by NAVITIME is a handy app for planning your train journeys in Japan. Google Maps itself provides excellent information in terms of train times and costs, but you cannot filter on train rides that are (not) covered by the JR Pass. You can book train rides at the counters or ticket machines.

9. The JR Pass cannot be used on the following trains: Nozomi, Mizuho, Liner, Sleeper, Limited express (surcharge), private railway. There are a few different companies that have trains in Japan.

Update: For an additional fee, as a JR Pass holder you can now also travel on the Nozomi and Mizuho shinkansen bullet trains on the Tokaido, Sanyo and Kyushu lines. The fee varies between JPY 4,180 and JPY 6,500. These surcharge tickets are available from the JR ticket offices and ticket machines from 1 month in advance until the day of departure.

Oct 2023
Shinkansen interior Japanese high speed train steats
Traveling can be exhausting, you kow!
Matsumoto Station
Express train at Matsumoto Station

10. Lost your JR Pass on the way in Japan? That is really a pity because they do not give out the pass twice based on one voucher and you cannot buy a new pass in Japan. Oops! This will mean you will have to purchase individual train tickets, which obviously will cost you extra money. So better keep it safe like your life depends on it.

I love it and would highly recommend traveling by JR Pass in Japan. However, see for yourself and your situation what suits best. The above would have saved me a lot of time searching for the right information, hope you find it useful.

How to get the JR Pass

I bought my JR Pass at Japan Experience. From them you can not only purchase a JR Pass, but also other items such as a Japanese SIM card or Pocket WiFi and Pasmo or Suica card. Everything is sent to your home very quickly (usually 1-2 working days), great!

The JR Pass for 7, 14 or 21 days can easily be purchased online via GetYourGuide too. It is clearly described how the order process works.

JR ticket office at Matsumoto Station
JR ticket office at Matsumoto Station
Gekkoji to Otsuki train ticket Japan
Gekkoji to Otsuki train ticket

Going to Japan? I wrote many other, detailed articles about it full of tips! Check all my Japan articles in the Japan Blog Archives.

Do you have any further questions on the JR Pass or traveling by train throughout Japan? Please do not hesitate to comment below and I will reply a.s.a.p.

Update: a few years ago (before COVID-19) a trial was done where you could also purchase a JR Pass after arriving in Japan. So without having to receive a voucher in advance, at a foreign address. This can be useful, for example, when you are backpacking through Asia. I just got word from traveler Manon that she managed to purchase a JR Pass at Narita Airport, without having bought/received a voucher in advance abroad. Apparently the trial has been continued. Costs of this method are unknown to me.

March 17, 2023

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Last Updated on 03/17/2024 by Elisa Flitter Fever

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Ann-Sofie 05/23/2019 - 09:28

Bedankt voor alle informatie.
Nu vroeg ik me af, ik ben al even op reis en ga volgende week naar Japan. Hierdoor kan ik dus de voucher niet naar huis laten opsturen, is er een andere manier om deze pass te verkrijgen?

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Flitter Fever 06/10/2019 - 21:34

Beste Ann-Sophie, het spijt me dat ik uw bericht nu pas zie en beantwoord daar ik op reis was. Als je in het bestelproces voor Ticket Pick Up kiest, dan zou je ook een lokaal ophaalpunt moeten kunnen kiezen. Of je laat het versturen naar een plek (bijv. hotel) waar je binnenkort een tijdje blijft voordat je naar Japan gaat, maar dat brengt natuurlijk wel enig risico met zich mee. https://www.govoyagin.com/activities/japan-tokyo-jr-pass-unlimited-rail-travel-across-japan/9775?acode=flitterfever Heel veel succes en plezier in Japan, laat me even weten hoe het gegaan is! Groet, Elisa van Flitter Fever

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Nathan 01/25/2023 - 13:22

Hoi Elisa, kun je op de treinstations uit de voeten met engels? Om een kaartje te halen? Alvast bedankt, groet, Nathan

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Elisa Flitter Fever 01/26/2023 - 19:01

Mijn ervaring is: ja, absoluut. Op wat meer afgelegen gebieden in Hokkaido of zo zou het een keer kunnen tegenvallen, maar dan heb je altijd Google Translate nog toch? 😉 Vooraf offline downloaden, zelf nooit nodig gehad, maar “voor het geval dat”.

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