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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