Everything You Need to Know About the Japan Rail Pass

EN5DYN A Shinkansen bullet train passes below Mt. Fuji in Japan.
EN5DYN A Shinkansen bullet train passes below Mt. Fuji in Japan. | © Sean Pavone / Alamy Stock Photo
Rebecca Hallett

Freelance writer and editor

Whether you’re gazing at Mount Fuji on your Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto, or squeezing onto a jam-packed subway train, experiencing Japan’s world-leading railway system is a quintessential part of any trip here. But if you want to save money on trains in Japan, you’ll need to do your research about the many types of Japan Rail Pass on offer. Purchasing one of these passes can lead to big savings, especially if you plan on exploring a lot of the country. Culture Trip has collected all the information you’ll need into this one article, so you can choose easily and get on with enjoying your trip.

Travelling to Japan in 2021?

The rescheduled Tokyo Olympics mean that more people than ever will be visiting Japan in 2021. With so many tourists descending on the capital for the Games, it won’t be long before those that do will want to get out and explore less crowded parts of the country – and for that, a Japan Rail Pass could come in very handy.

Japan’s railway system is run by dozens of different companies, but most of the cross-country services are operated by the Japan Rail (JR) Group. With a JR Pass, you can travel on almost any train on their network for free, from northern Hokkaido down to the balmy volcanic landscapes of Kyushu.

How to get a Japan Rail Pass

There are two ways to get a JR Pass: buy from outside Japan, or on your trip.

You can buy your pass in advance online through several sites: simply select the one you’d like, fill in your details, and place your order. You’ll then receive a JR Pass Exchange Order, which you’ll need to bring with you on your trip.

Once in Japan, just take your Exchange Order and passport to any major station, where you can collect the physical pass from a JR ticket office, JR Tokai Tours counter, Nippon Travel Agency, or some other locations. You should receive a map or list of exchange points with your Exchange Order.

When you’re given the pass, you write down the date on which you’ll start using it. This doesn’t have to be the day you’re collecting the pass – it can be any time in the next month – but you can’t change the start date once you’ve selected it, so choose carefully. Depending on which one you bought, the national JR Pass is valid for 7, 14 or 21 calendar days.

If you’d rather buy a pass once you’re in Japan, instead of in advance, you’ll need to bring your passport to one of the exchange points and fill out the application in person. Usually, this costs around five to 10 percent more than buying before your trip.

Where can you buy a Japan Rail Pass?

It’s very easy to buy your JR Pass in advance, and you have plenty of options. The simplest is buying online from a travel agency such as JTB. Third-party online agencies, including jrpass.com, Japan Experience’s Japan Rail Pass, Viator, GetYourGuide and Klook also sell tickets through their websites, as does rail ticketing platform Trainline.

Japan Rail is aiming to launch a dedicated JR Pass purchase site in June 2020, though the rescheduling of the Olympics may mean this is pushed back. The major advantage of buying your pass through this site will be the ability to reserve seats online for travel anywhere in the country, which you can’t do elsewhere. The downside, though, is that the pass will be more expensive if bought through the official site (roughly the same price as buying the pass in Japan).

How much does a Japan Rail Pass cost?

The national Japan Rail Pass price may seem high, but if you’re planning on taking a couple of trips on the bullet train, it’ll pay for itself soon enough. You can buy a pass to cover 7, 14 or 21 calendar days’ travel, with the longer passes better value. For children under 12, all passes are 50 percent off.

Seven-day Japan Rail Pass

If purchased ahead of your trip, the seven-day national JR Pass costs ¥29,650 ($280/£215) per person for ordinary class, or ¥39,600 ($375/£290) for access to the Green Car (the first-class car). If buying in Japan, the ordinary and Green Car passes cost ¥33,610 ($320/£245) and ¥44,810 ($425/£325) for adults.

14-day Japan Rail Pass

Bought in advance, the 14-day national JR Pass is ¥47,250 ($450/£345) for standard class, ¥64,120 ($610/£465) for the Green Car. Once you’re in Japan, those prices rise to ¥52,960 ($500/£385) and ¥72,310 ($685/£525) respectively.

21-day Japan Rail Pass

If buying before you arrive in Japan, the 21-day national JR pass costs ¥60,450 ($575/£440) for ordinary class, rising to ¥83,390 ($790/£605) for the Green Car. If you’d rather buy the pass in Japan, ordinary class will be ¥66,200 ($630/£480), Green Car ¥91,670 ($870/£665).

Is a Japan Rail Pass worth the money?

A JR Pass can save you a lot of money if you plan on visiting several parts of the country. For a whistle-stop tour of Japan’s most famous sights in a week, you might travel from Tokyo to Osaka, then from Osaka to Kyoto (or Tokyo to Kyoto then on to Osaka), before heading down to Hiroshima, then back up to the capital for your flight home. The cheapest possible Shinkansen tickets for that itinerary add up to over ¥43,000, about ¥13,000 more than a week-long JR Pass. That’s before you even consider transport within the cities, a side trip to Miyajima or airport transfers.

If you’re on a very tight budget, though, you may be better off looking into buses, slower trains and other discount tickets, rather than buying a Japan Rail Pass. Some places are also inaccessible by JR trains alone, such as the picturesque villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama. The pass is also unlikely to be cost-effective if you’re staying in one place for a while, as most cities’ urban transport networks are run by non-JR railways.

If you’re planning on focusing on one area of the country, it’s well worth considering a regional Japan Rail pass instead, which may end up being a better deal than the national one. They sometimes cover additional transport too, with buses to Shirakawa-go and Gokayama included on some JR regional passes. These are covered in more detail below.

What about first class?

Almost all bullet trains, and many other services, have two carriage types: ordinary and Green Car. Seats in standard class are large and comfortable, and can often be swung around to face the ones opposite – handy if travelling in a group. However, there’s usually not much space for large luggage, and carriages with non-reserved seats in particular get very crowded in busy seasons. All seats in the Green Car are reserved, so you won’t be stuck without somewhere to sit, and there’s much more luggage storage and larger, more comfortable seats.

Ultimately, it comes down to personal choice – the ordinary pass offers more flexibility, as you won’t need to get seat reservations for every Shinkansen trip, but the Green Car is more spacious, comfortable and quiet. Of course, the Green Car Japan Rail Pass cost is higher than for standard class tickets of the same duration.

JR Pass eligibility

If you’re visiting Japan on a Temporary Visitor visa – ie staying for under 90 days, and for sightseeing purposes – you can buy a Japan Rail Pass. This applies to both foreign nationals, and Japanese nationals living overseas (either with permanent residence in another country, or married to a foreign national).

JR regional passes: which pass do you need?

For many travellers, a regional JR Pass will be a more cost-effective option than a national one. These Japan train passes cover specific parts of the JR Group’s rail network, rather than the whole thing, and occasionally have extra benefits such as local discounts. Several of them also allow you to use the pass on non-consecutive days, which can come in very handy if you want to break up your travels with a couple of longer stays in one place.

WBAR62 JAN 21, 2014 Aomori, Japan : Train conductor officer walk cross tracks on Tsugaru railway in winter snow at Goshogawara station.

Japan Rail Pass map

Japan Rail East

JR East Nagano-Niigata Area Pass – This pass, part of Japan Rail East, covers the central swathe of Honshu, Japan’s main island, and is valid for any five calendar days within a 14-day period. It includes Tokyo and popular nearby day-trip destinations such as Yokohama, Kamakura and Nikko, plus destinations in the Japan Alps area including Matsumoto, Nagano and Karuizawa. It also covers the west-coast city of Niigata, from where you can take a ferry to Sado Island.

JR East Tohoku Area Pass – The northern half of Honshu island (Tohoku) plus Tokyo and the surrounding area (including Nikko, Yokohama, Kamakura and Karuizawa) are covered by this pass, which is valid for any five calendar days within a 14-day period. You can head north to historic Aizu-Wakamatsu, Hiraizumi and Kakunodate, stopping off at cities including Fukushima, Sendai, Akita, Morioka, Hachinohe and Aomori, and explore the dramatic landscapes of the Sanriku coast.

JR East-South Hokkaido Area Pass – As well as the area covered by the Tohoku Area Pass (see above), this pass enables you to travel up to the northern island of Hokkaido and explore its southwest region (including the port of Hakodate, Niseko ski resort, the hot-spring town of Noboribetsu, and Sapporo city). It applies for any six days within a 14-day period.

Hokuriku Arch Pass – Covering seven consecutive days, this pass allows you to explore the areas around Tokyo, the Japan Alps, the Hokuriku region and Kansai. It’s especially useful if you’re flying into Tokyo and out of Kansai airport (or vice versa), allowing you to see many of the major sights between the two, such as bustling Osaka city, historic Nara, vast Lake Biwa, the wild Noto Peninsula and genteel Karuizawa.

Tokyo Wide Pass – This pass applies for three consecutive days, covering Tokyo and the surrounding Kanto region, and including a few non-JR lines. It can be excellent value if you’re planning on multiple day or overnight trips, for example to Nikko, the Fuji Five Lakes area, or Karuizawa.

Use Japan Rail East to travel from Tokyo to Fukushima

Just an hour and a half from Tokyo by bullet train, Fukushima City is a small, friendly place to spend a night or two. The city has an excellent food scene, with enban gyoza – a plate-sized disk of crispy fried dumplings – one of the most popular local dishes. It’s also well-known for its delicious fresh fruit, and depending on the time of year you can try picking peaches, cherries, Nashi pears, or other fruits.

It’s also one of the best places in Japan to visit in cherry blossom season, when Hanamiyama, literally “flower-viewing mountain”, bursts into frothy pink bloom. The lively atmosphere spills over from spring into summer, culminating in August’s Waraji festival, when a 12-metre waraji straw sandal is carried through the streets accompanied by music and dancing.

Around the outskirts of the city are three atmospheric hot spring resorts: Takayu, Tsuchiyu and Iizaka. All of them make a perfect place to rest your sore muscles after a day of hiking in the Azuma Mountains, or just shopping at the independent vintage and craft stores along Bunka-dori.

A one-way Shinkansen ticket from Tokyo to Fukushima City starts around ¥8600. This trip is covered by the JR East Tohoku Area Pass and the JR East-South Hokkaido Area Pass.

Japan Rail West

Hokuriku Area Pass – Covering a period of four consecutive days, this Japan Rail West pass is useful for exploring the stretch of coast around Toyama, Kanazawa and Tsuruga. It also entitles you to discounts on the scenic Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route, and on buses to the villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama, the hot-spring resorts around Kaga Onsen, and the temple of Eiheiji near Fukui.

JR Kansai-Hokuriku Area Pass – An extended version of the Hokuriku Area Pass (see above), this pass lasts for seven consecutive days and also covers the transport hub of Joetsumyoko and the whole Kansai area. This includes not only Kyoto and Osaka, but the castle town of Himeji, scenic fishing villages of the Tango Peninsula, the canal town of Kurashiki, historic capital of Nara, and much more.

JR Kansai Area Pass – Available in versions lasting one, two, three or four consecutive days, this pass is a cost-effective way to explore the area around Kyoto and Osaka. As well as Kyoto’s subway system and Keihan lines, it covers day-trip destinations such as Lake Biwa, Himeji and the international port city of Kobe.

JR Kansai Wide Area Pass – Lasting for five consecutive days, this pass covers the same area as the Kansai Area Pass, plus some destinations further afield. As well as historic Kurashiki and Okayama, travel onto Takamatsu (in the north of Shikoku island) is included, as is the scenic Tango Peninsula and the Kii Peninsula, with its ancient pilgrimage routes.

JR Kansai-Hiroshima Area Pass – This pass covers the same area as the Kansai Wide Area Pass, but extends further west to Onomichi, Hiroshima and Miyajima (including the JR ferry to Miyajima). It is valid for five consecutive days.

JR San’yo-San’in Area Pass – With the exception of the Tango Peninsula and the Kii Peninsula beyond Wakayama, this pass covers the same ground as the Kansai-Hiroshima Area Pass. It also extends further west, taking in Matsue and Hagi on the north coast, and stretching down to Hakata in the friendly, foodie city of Fukuoka on Kyushu island. It’s valid for seven consecutive days.

JR San’yo-San’in Northern Kyushu Pass – This pass covers the same area as the San’yo-San’in Area Pass, and also lasts seven consecutive days. However, it also covers the JR rail network in northern Kyushu, where you can visit the hot springs of Beppu, volcanic Mount Aso, the historic port city of Nagasaki, and the castle town of Kumamoto.

JR San’in-Okayama Area Pass – This pass covers the Okayama area and the San’in coast, to the west of Osaka and Kobe, for four consecutive days. Extending from Hagi to Hamasaka along the north coast, and down to Kurashiki and Okayama on the south, it’s a good-value option for exploring the area’s castles, hot springs and coastal scenery.

JR Hiroshima-Yamaguchi Area Pass – Lasting for five consecutive days, the JR Hiroshima-Yamaguchi Area Pass ranges from Hakata (Fukuoka) on Kyushu, to Hiroshima and Miyajima (JR ferry included), and the laidback city of Yamaguchi. It extends east to coastal Onomichi, the departure point for the scenic, island-hopping Shimanami Kaido cycle route to Shikoku.

JR Okayama-Hiroshima-Yamaguchi Area Pass – This pass, which is valid for five consecutive days, covers the same area as the Hiroshima-Yamaguchi Area Pass, and extends further east to the Okayama area. It also covers the rail crossing onto Shikoku, ending at the port city of Takamatsu.

JR Setouchi Area Pass – Covering sections of the JR West, Kyushu and Shikoku, this pass is a convenient way to explore the varied and beautiful Seto Inland Sea region. Lasting for five consecutive days, it includes trains from Hakata (Fukuoka) in the west to Kyoto and Kansai Airport in the east, and extends along the north coast of Shikoku. It also includes ferries to some of the islands of the Inland Sea – such as Shodoshima, known for its olives and soy sauce – and buses along the Shimanami Kaido.

Use Japan Rail West to travel from Osaka to Kyoto

Though only 15 minutes apart by Shinkansen, Osaka and Kyoto could hardly feel more different. Osaka is known for being modern and international, its dialect loud and exuberant, and its locals keen on having a good time and eating plenty of delicious food. Follow their lead and you’ll find yourself bar-hopping between izakaya (Japanese-style bars) in the evening, eating something different at each spot.

In stark contrast, Kyoto is viewed as being elegant and even a little aloof, defined by its ancient temples, shrines and geisha districts. Though it has a modern city centre, and its large student population keeps things lively, the definitive experiences in Kyoto are focused on its historic areas and cultural treasures. You can stroll along the Philosopher’s Path by a willow-lined canal, marvel at perfectly tended temple gardens of moss or stone, and experience a traditional tea ceremony or elevated kaiseki cuisine (a traditional multi-course Japanese meal).

A one-way Shinkansen ticket from Kyoto to Osaka starts around ¥1400. This trip is covered by the Takayama-Hokuriku Area Tourist Pass, JR Kansai Area Pass, JR Kansai Wide Area Pass, JR San’yo-San’in Area Pass, JR San’yo-San’in Northern Kyushu Pass, JR Kansai-Hiroshima Area Pass, JR Setouchi Area Pass, Hokuriku Arch Pass, JR Kansai-Hokuriku Area Pass.

Use Japan Rail West to travel from Kyoto to Hiroshima

An easy day or overnight trip from the ancient capital of Kyoto, Hiroshima is worth a spot on any Japan itinerary. This modern, welcoming city is lent character by warrens of alleyways, picturesque trams and a beautiful coastal setting, and is the jumping-off point for excursions to sacred Miyajima with its famous ‘floating’ shrine gate. Hiroshima is also well-regarded for its food, especially okonomiyaki, a delicious layered concoction of fried noodles, egg, shredded cabbage and savoury pancake, cooked with your choice of extra fillings and topped with a tangy sauce.

Of course, Hiroshima is also known for the devastation it suffered on 6 August, 1945, when a US plane dropped an atom bomb over the city, killing an estimated 140,000 people and razing Hiroshima to the ground. The tragic event is now unflinchingly remembered at the Peace Memorial Museum, and in the calm and hopeful Peace Memorial Park, where a flame has been burning since 1964 – it will only be extinguished once all nuclear weapons on earth have been destroyed.

A one-way Shinkansen ticket from Kyoto to Hiroshima starts at around ¥10,800. This trip is covered by the JR Kansai Hiroshima Area Pass, JR San’yo-San’in Area Pass, JR San’yo-San’in Northern Kyushu Pass, JR Hiroshima-Yamaguchi Area Pass, JR Okayama-Hiroshima-Yamaguchi Area Pass and JR Setouchi Area Pass.

Japan Rail Central

Takayama Hokuriku Area Tourist Pass – Lasting for five consecutive days, this pass covers JR Central and East lines, which connect the cities of Nagoya and Toyama, before continuing down past Lake Biwa to Kyoto and Osaka. Also included in the pass are buses from Kanazawa, Takayama and Toyama to the picturesque villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama, which aren’t accessible by train.

Alpine-Takayama-Matsumoto Area Tourist Pass – This pass, which lasts for five consecutive days, is a great option if you want to try out the dramatic Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route through the mountains to Toyama (only passable April to November). It also covers JR West and Central lines in the area, forming a loop from Toyama down to Takayama, Gifu and Nagoya, then up via the scenic Kiso Valley to the castle town of Matsumoto, and on to Shinano-Omachi, where the Alpine Route begins.

Ise-Kumano-Wakayama Area Tourist Area Pass – Connecting Nagoya, Nara and Osaka with the Kii Peninsula, this pass (valid for five consecutive days) is useful if you plan on walking some of the ancient Kumano Kodo pilgrimage routes, or visiting Japan’s most sacred Shinto shrine in Ise. As well as some JR West and Central likes, the pass includes transport on some non-JR lines and buses in the area.

Mt. Fuji-Shizuoka Area Tourist Pass Mini – This pass allows three consecutive days’ travel around the Izu Peninsula, the area around Mount Fuji, and down to Shizuoka and Lake Hamanako. As well as JR lines, the pass covers some bus, ferry and private railway routes.

Use Japan Rail Central to travel from Osaka to Takayama

If you’re keen to see famous gardens, historic geisha districts and intriguing temples, Kyoto may seem the obvious choice. But just a couple of hours further north, Kanazawa offers all of this (plus some excellent museums and galleries) with far fewer crowds. Head to Nagamachi to explore the austere residences of the samurai class, or visit Higashi Chayagai, Nishi Chayagai and Kazuemachi in the hopes of glimpsing an elegant maiko (apprentice geisha) – the city’s geisha districts are second only to Kyoto in fame.

Another advantage of Kanazawa is its proximity to the scenic villages of Shirakawa-go, only accessible by bus. Here you can see (and even stay in) traditional gassho-zukuri farmhouses, their thatched roofs dramatically steepled to protect them from the deep winter snow.

East of Shirakawa-go is Takayama, the atmospheric streets of its old town area lined with preserved wooden houses, and its eastern hills dotted with shrines and temples. Visit in spring or autumn to see the Takayama Festival, where locals in historic dress parade gilded floats through the streets.

A one-way ticket from Osaka to Takayama (changing from Shinkansen to limited express at Nagoya station) starts around ¥10,000. Alternatively, a one-way limited express to Kanazawa starts around ¥7300, with a bus from Kanazawa to Shirakawa-go then Shirakawa-go to Takayama coming to ¥4600 (¥3600 without the stop). The latter trip is covered by the Takayama Hokuriku Area Pass.

Japan Rail Hokkaido

JR Hokkaido Rail Pass – There are several versions of this pass available, to last for three, five or seven consecutive days, or to cover any four days within a 10-day period. It covers the whole JR network on Hokkaido, which currently doesn’t include any Shinkansen lines. The pass is only cost-effective if you’ll be covering a lot of ground (eg Hakodate to Sapporo then a round trip to Asahikawa would make the three-day pass worthwhile), and as Japan’s second-largest island, train travel can take a long time in Hokkaido.

JR Tohoku-South Hokkaido Rail Pass – Covering any five days within a 14-day period, this pass is similar to the JR East-South Hokkaido Rail Pass. However, it does not extend as far south as the Tokyo area, starting instead at Shin-Shirakawa on the Tohoku Shinkansen line and ending at Sapporo station. It’s a good option for exploring the region if you don’t need a link to Tokyo, covering all JR lines, the non-JR Aoimori Railway between Morioka and Aomori, and BRT buses along the Sanriku Coast.

Use Japan Rail Hokkaido to travel from Sendai to Sapporo

These two friendly northern cities are both known for their good food, welcoming atmosphere and vibrant festivals. In Sendai, the city bursts into colour every August as thousands of elaborate paper streamers are hung around the city for the Tanabata Matsuri celebrations, and fireworks reflect in the waters of the Hirose River. In Sapporo, the big festival is in February, when everyone makes the most of the freezing temperatures by wrapping up warm, buying a cup of amazake (a sweet rice drink, served hot) and marvelling at the huge snow and ice sculptures displayed throughout the city.

As the capital of Hokkaido, Japan’s largest prefecture, Sapporo maintains a lively, cosmopolitan atmosphere well beyond festival season. There’s excellent shopping in the downtown area, plus several beautiful parks and fascinating museums, and of course plenty of winter activities. It’s also well-known for its beer and its warming, hearty cuisine, most famously jingisukan – mutton cooked on a convex metal grill which is said to resemble Genghis Khan’s helmet, hence the name. You’ll also find plenty of dishes making use of Hokkaido’s dairy production (a rarity in Japan); even ramen is usually served with butter here.

A one-way ticket from Sendai to Sapporo starts around ¥22,500 (including Shinkansen seat reservation, which is required on this route; change to limited express in Hakodate). This trip is covered by the JR Tohoku-South Hokkaido Rail Pass and the JR East-South Hokkaido Area Pass.

Japan Rail Kyushu

JR All Kyushu Area Pass – Lasting for three or five consecutive days, this pass connects Shimonoseki on Honshu to Kyushu, covering the entire JR train network on the island, except the Sanyo Shinkansen line (from Osaka to Fukuoka). It’s a cost-effective way to explore the island, and also covers the ports of Sasebo and Nagasaki, departure points for boats to the beautiful but little-visited Goto Islands, and Kagoshima, with its ferry link to lush, green Yakushima.

JR Northern Kyushu Area Pass – This pass applies to the northern half of the area covered by the JR All Kyushu Area Pass, stretching as far south as Nagasaki, Misumi (near Kumamoto) and Oita. It comes in versions lasting three or five consecutive days.

JR Southern Kyushu Area Pass – Only available for three consecutive days, this pass applies to the southern half of the area covered by the JR All Kyushu Area Pass, from Kumamoto down past Miyazaki and Kagoshima.

Use Japan Rail Kyushu to travel from Nagasaki to Kumamoto

On the west coast of Kyushu, Nagasaki has long played an important role linking Japan to the rest of the world. During the country’s 250-year period of isolation, the man-made island of Dejima was the only place where European merchants could trade with Japan. Combined with its prominent Chinatown and famous Oura Church, the Dutch quarter from this era lends the city an international air. The Hypocenter Park and Peace Memorial commemorate the events of 9 August, 1945, when Nagasaki became the second city to suffer an atomic bombing.

A couple of hours away by limited express and bullet trains is the friendly city of Kumamoto. Among its many historic attractions, it boasts one of Japan’s biggest and most complete castles, whose extensive grounds are a popular blossom-viewing spot when the cherry trees bloom each spring. Kumamoto also has an impressive natural location between the coast and Kyushu’s volcanic interior, home to brooding Mount Aso and the hot springs of Kurokawa Onsen.

A one-way ticket from Nagasaki to Kumamoto (changing to Shinkansen at Shin-Tosu station) starts around ¥7100. This trip is covered by the JR All Kyushu Area Pass, JR Northern Kyushu Area Pass and JR San’yo-San’in Northern Kyushu Pass.

Japan Rail Shikoku

All Shikoku Rail Pass – Available in versions lasting for three, four, five or seven consecutive days, the All Shikoku Rail Pass covers all JR lines on Shikoku, plus the rail link to Kojima on Honshu, the ferry to Shodoshima, and various non-JR and bus services. If you’re planning on heading to more than one or two places on Shikoku, the pass will likely be very good value.

Use Japan Rail Kyushu to travel from Kojima to Matsuyama

The city of Kurashiki sits at the southern edge of Okayama prefecture, connected to Shikoku by the picturesque Seto Ohashi (Great Seto Bridge). Though it’s most famous for its historic canal area, the coastal Kojima district is also worth a visit. Here you’ll find Jeans Street, the centre of Japan’s denim production, where you can visit 30 shops and some museums – and, if you’re feeling fancy, you can pop into Momotaro to buy some of the world’s most expensive jeans.

Around two and a half hours from Kojima by limited express is Matsuyama, the largest city on Shikoku island. Atop a hill in the centre is Matsuyama-jo, a castle dating back to Japan’s feudal era, its elevated position offering excellent views over the city. Northeast of the hill is Dogo Onsen, one of Japan’s most celebrated hot spring resorts. The famous baths are an essential stop – and, very unusually, they’re all tattoo-friendly – but the historic buildings make a visit worthwhile even if you don’t bathe. Nearby is Ishite-ji, a fascinating temple (number 51 on the 88-temple Shikoku Pilgrimage) with a three-storey pagoda and cave complex.

A one-way ticket from Kojima to Matsuyama starts around ¥5900, with Dogo Onsen an additional ¥160. This trip is covered by the All Shikoku Rail Pass.

JR Pass validity

The national JR Pass covers the vast majority of JR services, and even some buses, ferries and non-JR trains. If you want to cover a lot of ground in Japan, bullet train travel is usually the quickest and most comfortable option, so a JR Pass is a great option.

The pass is not valid for travel on the very fastest kinds of Shinkansen (the Nozomi and Mizuho) between Tokyo and Kagoshima. Aside from that, you’ll need to be careful that your route doesn’t include any non-JR tracks, where you’ll need to pay a surcharge; this only applies in around 10 places in the country, though, and you should be informed when getting a seat reservation.

How to make the most of your Japan Rail Pass

The most important thing to consider when planning how to use your JR Pass effectively is when it makes sense to use your pass. If you’re in Japan for 10 days and buy a seven-day JR Pass, for instance, decide whether you want to use it to cover an airport transfer, and when in your trip you’re making the most expensive journeys (websites like Hyperdia are useful for checking transport prices). You may find that a regional Japan Rail Pass is better value, as several of them allow you to pick and choose which days you use them within a set period, rather than covering several consecutive days.

It’s also worth thinking about whether you want to reserve a seat for each long journey. Non-reserved seats offer maximum flexibility, as you can just catch whichever train is most convenient, but reservations are free with the JR Pass and guarantee you a spot. Reservations can also be useful on the Tokaido Shinkansen, with window seats on the right-hand side between Tokyo and Nagoya (left for the return journey) giving you the best chance of viewing Mount Fuji.

Some trains (and all Green Cars) require a seat reservation. The main services are the Narita Express (Tokyo to Narita Airport), Kagayaki trains on the Tohoku Shinkansen line, Komachi trains on the Akita Shinkansen line, Hayate and Hayabusa trains on the Tohoku and Hokkaido Shinkansen lines, and both Sunrise Seto and Sunrise Izumo trains.

If you book a seat on a particular train, the ticket will show you all the important information, usually entirely in Japanese. The largest text will show your departure station, then an arrow to your arrival station. Below that, left to right, the ticket will say the month and day of your train, the departure time and the arrival time. On the third line, again left to right, it’ll outline the train name and number, your carriage number, and your seat within the carriage. If you reserve a seat in a non-smoking car, there’ll be a no-smoking symbol on the right-hand side of the ticket.

Cityscape at the Ueno Station Business District, Tokyo, Japan

Japan Rail Pass FAQs

Can you buy a Japan Rail Pass in Japan?

Many JR passes are available to buy within Japan, but it’s cheaper (sometimes by as much as ten percent) to purchase them in advance of your trip. Whether buying the pass overseas or in Japan, you’ll still need to collect it at a ticket office or tour agency in person.

When should you buy a Japan Rail Pass?

To get the best price, order your Japan Rail Pass ahead of your trip. The Exchange Order is only valid for three months, so if you order your pass more than 90 days before your trip, they’ll delay sending your Exchange Order until about one month before your departure date.

Can you refund a Japan Rail Pass?

If you have not used your Exchange Order, you should be eligible for a refund. However, you’ll need to check the exact terms when you buy it, as different ticket agencies have different policies. Usually you’ll only receive a partial refund, about 80 to 90 percent of what you paid. If you’ve already used your Exchange Order to collect your pass, you’ll no longer be eligible for a refund.

Can you reserve seats online?

If you want to reserve a seat, it’s most straightforward to do so at a station. You can go to the JR ticket counter and speak to someone, or as of June 2020 you can scan your JR Pass at a ticket machine and book that way.

If you buy your pass from the official Japan Rail website, launched June 2020, you can reserve seats online there. If you buy your pass anywhere else, though, you’ll need to go to the regionally specific site for JR East (including Hokkaido), JR West, JR Central or JR Kyushu. The convoluted process, and the fact that you still need to pick up your seat reservations in person, mean it’s usually simpler to just book at the station.

Of course, for most routes seat reservations aren’t required, so if you’re in a rush to board or aren’t going far, you may decide to just skip it.

Can you use a JR Pass on airport transfers?

Some airport transfers are covered by Japan Rail passes, but not all of them. For instance, to reach Narita Airport, you can take the Narita Airport Express (NEX) using a JR Pass, but not limousine buses. As such, it’s best to check your planned route in advance.

Is there wifi on JR Pass trains?

Most bullet trains in Japan have on-board wifi, and by the end of 2020 or early 2021 this should have been expanded to cover all Shinkansen lines. Very few other services have on-board wifi, but you should be able to get online in most train stations.

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