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How to use Japan Rail Pass, and what is it exactly?

Discover the Japan Rail Pass: what it is and how to use it for unlimited travel on Japan’s trains. Make the most of your visit with this guide.

Are you planning a trip to Japan? If so, you have to consider buying a Japan Rail Pass, as it is a great way to explore the country and take advantage of the extensive rail network that connects most of the major cities and towns. In this article, we’ll explain what a Japan Rail Pass is, how much it costs and how best to use it while traveling in Japan, along with helpful tips on when it’s worth investing in one.

We are going to answer the main questions, or at least the ones we asked ourselves when planning our first trip to Japan, in the form of questions and answers, so you can understand how to use and take advantage of a Japan Rail Pass while in Japan.

What is the Japan Rail Pass?

The Japan Rail Pass is a single ticket, or as its name says: a pass, discounted that allows travelers to use the entire railway network of the Japan Railways Group (JR Group) for a fixed price. Even if it says “all”, it has exceptions that we will see later.

There are passes with different validity times, so it will depend on your stay in Japan and where you will move. Thanks to the fact that it covers mostly a large part of the country, this makes it an ideal way to travel around Japan on a (usually tight) budget.

Are you traveling to Japan?
Don't forget to get your Japan Rail Pass!

Who can use it?

The pass can exclusively be used by:

  • Foreign temporary visitors
  • Japanese whose permanent residence is outside of Japan for the past 10 years

Whether if you are Japanese or a foreigner residing in Japan, you cannot purchase the pass.

It must be considered that the price of the Japan Rail Pass provides a great advantage in terms of price and flexibility. Shinkansen trains are enormously efficient, and that excellent service comes at a cost, the Japanese pay the price. As a traveler, don’t miss out on this great advantage!

What services can be used with the JR Pass?

The services included in the Japan Rail pass are:

  • Trains operated by JR: Shinkansen bullet trains (except Nozomi and Mizuho trains), limited express, express, rapid and local trains. On the Shinkansen, you can find trains as unique as the Hello Kitty Shinkansen, which is fully included in the Japan Rail Pass.
  • Monorail to and from Haneda Airport
  • Narita Express: to use it, you must make a seat reservation. The Narita Express is an excellent option to move to various parts of the city upon arrival at the airport.
  • Haruka: train from Osaka Kansai airport that goes through Osaka, Kyoto and arrives at Maibara. If you’re lucky, you might get the Haruka Hello Kitty version.
  • JR Ferry to Mijayima: Only this ferry is included, but the Ferry to Miyajima is a beautiful experience, as is the visit to this deer-filled island.
  • Local buses operated by JR: Please note, not all buses operated by JR are included, especially those that use expressways.

In addition, the service of reserving seats on trains where there are reserved seat cars is included in the pass.

What if I want to take the Nozomi or Mizuho train?

I have to tell the truth: it can be quite inconvenient that it is precisely those trains that are not included in the pass. This is because they are the fastest and most frequent ones.

In addition to that, when looking at the train schedules, you have to be aware of what type of Shinkansen it is to take care not to plan your day based on a train schedule, which turns out to be a Nozomi, for example, oh No!

And here comes the question, can I really not take these trains?

The answer is no, actually, you have to look at it this way: if you want to take a Shinkansen Nozomi or a Mizuho you will have to pay the price of the ticket as if you did not have a pass, and you were going to buy a ticket before to get on the train. Complete price. Pain.

That is why it is better to avoid these two trains, even if they are the ones that pass the most.

Can the Japan Rail Pass be used on the Tokyo Metro?

As a general rule, no.

But, since we call everything subway, you have to check when it is a local train, for example in the Tokyo public transportation system, which in short we say is the Tokyo subway, but in reality not everything is a subway, we can find the local JR train lines (among which is the Yamanote).

So, in case it is a JR local train, it will almost always be covered by the Japan Rail Pass.

Tren Yamanote
Yamanote train

What are the available Japan Rail Passes?

There are passes of 7, 14 and 21 days.

Consider that the validity of the pass is based on the calendar day and not considering the starting hour. In other words, if your pass is for 7 days, and you requested that its validity begin on Monday and you start using it at 1 in the afternoon, your pass will be valid until Sunday at 12 at night.

That is, no matter what time on the first day you start using it, it will be valid until the seventh day regardless of the hour.

The start and end day will be marked on the pass, as illustrated by the photo above, and the end day is the last day you can use it.

So to maximize the use of the pass, start using it early on the first day.

Tren Shinkansen

How to buy the Japan Rail Pass?

There are many places where you can buy the Japan Rail Pass online. You must buy it well in advance so that it arrives at your home before the trip.

When you buy the pass you can even contract a pocket Wi-Fi, which has nothing to do with the pass, but it is a good way to take advantage of shipping. Being always connected is one of the recommendations for visiting Tokyo for the first time.

Estación Shin Osaka

Can you buy the Japan Rail Pass in Japan?

This was something that a few years ago was impossible. But today you can.

Of course, you should consider that the cost tends to increase significantly, since you are buying it in Japan.

Letrero intercambio Japan Rail Pass

What to do when you arrive in Japan?

Firstly, you have to keep in mind that what is going to arrive at your house is not the Japan Rail Pass itself, what you will receive will be a voucher to exchange when you arrive in Japan.

You have the possibility to redeem the voucher right when you arrive in the country, since in many airports you can find the Japan Railways modules. This option is the one that you must take, if you want to start using the pass right when you arrive in Japan, for example, if you are going to take the Narita Express and want to take advantage of the fact that it is included.

The other possibility is that you exchange it at a train station.

To make the exchange, in addition to the voucher, you have to show your passport.

Can it be exchanged but to start using it later?

Yes you can, at the time of the exchange you have to indicate it to the person at the booth, they will confirm with you the days in which it will be valid and once you confirm that everything is fine, they will proceed to issue the Japan Rail pass which you should not lose.

Asientos Shinkansen

What happens if I lose my Japan Rail Pass?

At the booth, they warn you that you should not lose it, since there is no way to have a spare. This means that you will have to take care of it like gold during your trip through Japan.

How to reserve seats for the Shinkansen and use Japan Rail Pass?

With the Japan Rail Pass, you have a seat reservation included, this allows you to have peace of mind, especially in cases where the train is full, you have your seat secured.

This can be done both at the ticket booth, called Midori no Madoguchi (みどりの窓口), and if, like us, you don’t speak Japanese, or maybe you’re a bit embarrassed, or for whatever reason, you don’t feel like interacting with a human, you have the possibility to use the ticket sales machines in which you can also make your seat reservations.

The symbol to look for is:

Ventanilla para reservar boletos de Shinkansen

The booths are called Midori no Madoguchi (みどりの窓口). But the icon can be seen on the vending machines too.

To achieve this, you will need to have the Japan Rail Pass on hand, which you will need to scan at the machine, and you will also have to enter your passport number.

After that, you have to indicate the itinerary and time you want to take. The machine will show you several options and once you choose the one that suits you best, comes the selection of seats.

For this, you can either tell the system to have them choose seats for you, or you can view the seat map and choose. I actually like the second option better.

If you bring large suitcases, you have to reserve a seat

This regulation is quite recent, the thing is that if you bring a large suitcase (that is, larger than the cabin format), which you cannot put on top of the seat, you must necessarily reserve a seat so that you have space for your suitcase.

On the Shinkansen, there will be designated spaces for those traveling with huge suitcases, and you have to reserve them.

One more reason to travel with small suitcases.

Maquina para reservar boletos de Shinkansen

Is it necessary to reserve seats?

Apart from the case of large suitcases, the answer is: not necessarily.

The fact of reserving a seat is so that you have the peace of mind of having a place to sit during your rail journey.

Asientos del Shinkansen

Can I get on the train just like that?

Yes, but you have to find where. On Shinkansen and other trains, where you can reserve seats, you can also find cars with free or “non-reserved” seats. When you get to the platform, you will see the indication that will tell you which are the wagons with unreserved seats.

Locate these seats and line up, since in this case, by not having to reserve the seat, now applies the first come, first served.

This is one of the great advantages of the Japan Rail Pass: its flexibility.

Trenes con asientos no reservados
They tell us which cars are available for non-reserved seats

Should I buy the Japan Rail pass?

As with everything: it will depend on your travel plans.

For example, a trip from Tokyo to Kyoto on the Shinkansen, or to Osaka, and back, already makes the 7-day pass worth it.

So, whether to buy a Japan Rail Pass will depend on your itinerary and budget. If you plan to visit multiple cities and mainly use JR transportation, buying a pass will certainly save you money compared to buying individual tickets each time.

However, if you are only staying in one city or don’t intend to travel much by train, then it may not be worth it for you.

Letreros en estación Shin Osaka

In conclusion, the Japan Rail Pass is a great way to explore Japan in a convenient and cost-effective way. Overall, it’s an invaluable asset that anyone planning to travel in Japan should take advantage of (if it suits your travel plan).

This is why it is important to understand what a Japan Rail Pass is and how to use it, so you can understand if it’s convenient for your itinerary.

If you use efficiently, the JR Pass, it will give you access to some of the most beautiful sights and experiences in Japan while giving you more flexibility than other travel options.

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Olga Grijalva

Olga is a traveler and travel content creator with 17 years of experience. Her goal is to share useful information to help you plan your adventures. She has visited more than 40 countries and is excited to share her experience with you.