What Is The Japan Rail Pass & Why Is It Awesome?

What Is The Japan Rail Pass & Why Is It Awesome?

For those looking to explore as much of Japan as possible, the country’s efficient and extensive rail network can’t be beat. Traveling around Japan by train is the perfect way for visitors to quickly and comfortably see the different sides of the country. However, the cost of lots of train travel really starts to add up in a country like Japan.

The good news is that there is a way to take as many trains as you like while in Japan without blowing up your budget. Rather than purchase tickets for each and every journey, a Japan Rail Pass allows passengers to travel as much as they like within the duration of their pass.

The Japan rail pas pamphlet and a mobile site of the JR Pass.
Travel freedom at it’s finest!

Introducing the Japan Rail Pass

With 7-day, 14-day and 21-day passes available to tourists, JR Passes can not only save people money but also give them the freedom to take train trips whenever the mood strikes. This one pass gives passengers access to train services all over Japan, ranging from local and regional trains to the country’s iconic shinkansen.

The Japan Rail Pass can be the key to unlocking everything Japan has to offer for tourists and may well be the second-best decision you make, after deciding to come in the first place.

A Shinkansen or a "bullet train."
A Shinkansen or a “bullet train.”

What Does the Japan Rail Pass Include?

To really appreciate the value of traveling with the Japan Rail Pass, it’s important that you understand what it covers. The last thing you want, now or later, is confusion about what is included by the pass.

It’s crucial straight away to make it clear that the JR Pass does not cover all train travel in Japan. Instead, the pass allows passengers unlimited travel on most high-speed, limited express, express, rapid, and local train services operated by the Japan Railways (JR) Group. This means that for the duration of your rail pass, you can travel as much as you want on eligible train services around Japan, including Japan’s famous bullet trains known as shinkansen

Unfortunately, there are a few rare exceptions to the rail pass that are worth being aware of. The most important are the Nozomi and Mizuho shinkansen services, which run on the Tokaido, Sanyo and Kyushu shinkansen lines. While this may seem inconvenient, there are other shinkansen services on these routes that are covered under the JR Pass, so it shouldn’t really affect your travels.

Hiroshima-Miyajima ferry in Hiroshima Bay
Hiroshima-Miyajima ferry in Hiroshima Bay!

On the other hand, there’s also a nice assortment of public transport services included in the JR Pass beyond the many regular JR train services. Many of these inclusions are specifically useful for tourists, such as the Narita Express between Narita Airport and Tokyo, the Tokyo Monorail between Haneda Airport and Tokyo, the Hiroshima-Miyajima ferry in Hiroshima Bay, and the extremely useful Yamanote loop line around Tokyo.

Who Can Use the Pass?

Because the Japan Rail Pass is such a useful and convenient option for traveling by train, it comes with quite strict restrictions on who can use it. The rail pass was designed to be mainly used by international tourists and the eligibility requirements reflect that. Only non-Japanese nationals on short tourism visits or Japanese nationals who meet specific conditions are able to purchase and use this rail pass.

While you can read up on the detailed eligibility requirements, the main one for tourists is that they enter the country on a single-entry temporary sightseeing visitor visa of 15 or 90 days duration.

The JR Ticket Office in the airport.
The place to get your pass!

Planning Your Rail Pass Trip

Now that you understand what the Japan Rail Pass covers and whether you can use it, it’s time to see whether it’s right for your trip. Every trip to Japan is different, so you need to check whether the rail pass makes sense for what you have planned.

One essential tool for deciding to get a rail pass is the JR Pass Fare Calculator. This invaluable resource allows you to input your travel plans, see whether a rail pass would work out cheaper than buying individual tickets and if so how much it could save you. We’re not talking about small savings potentially either; the cost of a round trip ticket between Tokyo and Kyoto is only marginally cheaper than a 7-day Japan Rail Pass.

man seeing mt. fuji out a shinkansen window.
This could be you!

Another vital resource you’ll want to consult when considering a rail pass is the JR Pass Map. This fantastic interactive map lets you see the entire JR railway network across the country, allowing you to visually see where the JR Pass can take you. But the map doesn’t just highlight JR lines and the shinkansen routes, it also helps you identify networks like private railways, trams and ropeways that won’t be covered.

How to Order a JR Pass

Since a Japan Rail Pass works differently to regular train tickets, the process for getting it is slightly different. In fact, it’s best if it actually begins before you even leave for Japan. While it is possible to buy a JR Pass in Japan, it’s actually cheaper if you buy it through an authorised vendor before you leave.

Train station master in Japan.
Making sure everything on your trip runs as smooth as the trains in Japan!

Once your pass is purchased, you will receive a slip of paper in the mail called an “Exchange Order”. Keep this order somewhere safe, as you will need to bring it with you to Japan to get your pass. Upon arriving in Japan, visit an Exchange Office found at major airports or in large cities, with your Exchange Order and passport. Following some paperwork at the office you will receive your official Japan Rail Pass with its activation day declared on it. The activation day is the day that you tell the office you would like to begin using your pass. From that day onwards, you’ll be able to travel on the pass, showing it to attendants at the turnstiles within stations bearing the JR symbol.

Traveling in Japan with a Japan Rail Pass can be an excellent move if it lines up with your travel plans. Rail passes can not only save you money, but also provide you with the chance to freely explore this wonderful destination to your heart’s content.

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10 Japanese Culture Facts That Will Blow Your Mind

10 Japanese Culture Facts That Will Blow Your Mind

Japan has such a unique culture. Even after over a century of opening the country up to the rest of the world, there are still some aspects of Japanese culture that are still intriguing to the rest of the world. Culture holds a strong significance in Japan’s identity, and that’s what makes the country so great.

Whether you’ve travelled to this island nation or not, there are always a few culture facts you’ve missed out. Here are 10 Japanese culture facts that will blow your mind! 

1. Gambling is illegal

Sorry, gamblers, but gambling is illegal here in Japan! Or at least most forms of gambling are. There are a few exceptions to this law and that includes betting on horse racing and specific motorsports. Public sports, lottery and football betting are possible, but they are under a different set of special laws. 

But there’s a bright side: pachinko. This game is similar to gambling, but it’s not officially gambling. Pachinko is a type of pinball-like slot machine. You buy the balls, slot them into the machine, and the balls you win can be exchanged for tokens and prizes. Those can be exchanged for money.  Pachinko itself has a very shady feel in popular media that makes it equated to playing the slot machines and other things that feed addicition.

However, since 2018, casino operators have been bidding for legal licenses to operate in some of Japan’s resorts. So, gambling could be expanding in Japan in the near future.

2. People are paid to push others into trains

Credit: Marcus Shenn on Flickr Creative Commons

This is one Japanese culture fact that I had the (dis)pleasure of experiencing. During rush hours, the train platforms (電車ホーム)get jam-packed with commuters. More than half of Tokyo’s population uses public transportation, and this city is the most populated in the world! Trains operate more than 100% overcapacity.

So instead of increasing the frequency of trains, the city hires people to push other people into the trains! You’re packed like sardines in a can.

3. Slurping is polite

I’ve been taught that making any noise when eating is rude. In Japan, it’s the opposite when it comes to slurping your noodles. In fact, you’re actually encouraged. When you slurp your noodles in Japan, it’s a sign that you’re enjoying your dish. This is seen as a way to compliment the cook. 

Back in the day, Japanese people slurp their noodles so that they can eat their noodles while it’s still hot. You can still savour the flavours without wasting any time. Over time, it’s become a crucial dining etiquette in Japanese culture.

4. Eating alone is common

In a lot of countries, eating alone inside or outside might get you some strange looks. In Japan, it’s completely normal. It’s common to eat alone. In fact, it’s so common that a number of restaurants in Japan offer single-seating areas like at the counter or just a table for one. I think I’ve benefited from this Japanese culture fact. Now, I don’t mind eating alone. I actually enjoy it!

5. Entrance slippers are a sign to take off your shoes

Credit: Magalie L’Abbe on Flickr Creative Commons

In some countries, wearing your shoes into the house is acceptable. In Japan, it’s a big no-no. Never wear your outdoor shoes into homes, regardless of whose home you’re entering. In some public areas, you’re required to take off your shoes, too.

In that case, keep a lookout for slippers at the entrance. If you’re going to places like temples, shrines, restaurants and ryokans (旅館), there’s a chance you have to take them off. Leave your outdoor shoes at the entryway, which is usually the space before the step above to the grounds of the building. 

6. You are a year older based on the traditional Japanese age system

A Japanese culture fact that I found interesting is that everyone is a year older when they’re born. This is known as kazoedoshi (数え年), which means “counted years”. You age a year older on New Year’s Day. This traditional system was still commonly used until the 1950s, when the modern age system (manenrei, 満年齢) was adopted by more people.

The manenrei law was actually passed in 1902, but the traditional age system was so common for decades past that!

7. You can’t be fat

Credit: Adrian Clark on Flickr Creative Commons

Some say it’s a myth, but it’s actually a Japanese culture fact. Despite having overweight sumo wrestlers in Japan, it’s not encouraged for others to be fat. In 2008, there was a law that passed called the Metabo Law, which is aimed to reduce the obesity rate and other metabolic disorders in the country.

People between the ages of 40 and 74 have their waist sizes measured annually. But contrary to that, there’s no legal punishment for being overweight, just suggestions from their physical to seek medical attention about potential obesity.

If your measurements are not below 33.5 inches for men and 35.4 inches for women (between the ages of 40 and 74), then you’ll be referred on for “lifestyle intervention”. This is where you’ll get advice from professionals regarding nutritional diet and exercise. So you won’t be fined for being fat. You’ll just have to live a healthier lifestyle. 

Even though it’s a very restrictive and appearance based judgement, celebrities and others have combated fat shaming and promoted healthy body acceptance in recent years and progress is being made.

8. Eating, drinking and smoking while walking is rude

I admit I’m one to go against this culture fact every now and then. It’s quite normal to be sipping coffee while walking, or munching on a bag of nuts. In Japan, walking while eating or drinking is considered rude and discouraged.

It’s seen as low-class behavior. If you buy a drink from a vending machine or a snack from the konbini (コンビニ), you’re expected to stand nearby the machine or store and finish your food. 

It’s the same with smoking. Nowadays, there are designated smoking areas in public spaces, so if you’re in need of a puff, look out for markings on the floor for them.

9. Christmas is a romantic holiday

Tow people's feet with Christmas socks.

Christmas isn’t as huge in Japan as it is in other Western countries. In Japan, only 2% of the population are Christians. However, the Japanese do celebrate this holiday with decorations and events, but it’s more of a romantic holiday. 

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are reserved for couples to have a date night, fancy dinner and giving special gifts to each other. It’s kind of like Valentine’s Day.

10. Taking power naps on the job is encouraged

A man napping at this desk at work.
Credit: Ron Reiring on Flickr Creative Commons

I know for many that if they were to fall asleep at their jobs, they’d get fired. In Japan, it’s okay to take a power nap or two in between work. This is a Japanese culture fact that’s new to a lot of us, isn’t it? Naps are encouraged because the Japanese believe that this can improve your work performance and speed. It’s also a sign that you’ve been working hard!

Which Japanese culture fact is most surprising? 

So, which of these Japanese culture facts surprised you the most? Which ones are you most excited to witness or experience for yourself? Japanese culture defines Japan. It’s amazing to see a few of them from centuries or decades past still being practiced to this day. As you learn the language your understanding of Japanese culture will come naturally. Get a subscription for Nihongo Master and start your journey to Japanese fluency today!