My love for Japan is well documented, and I’ve traveled here more than I have any other country. It’s a truly timeless destination where ancient traditions, futuristic technology, and modern culture have all been thrown into the same melting pot.
Japan might seem small on a map, but don’t be fooled – it’s a very large country. And the mainland is absolutely jam packed with cultural icons. So I don’t blame you if you initially find it hard to decide which cities you’ll focus your attention on.
Thankfully though, you don’t need to settle on a single destination when visiting Japan, since their extensive railway network means you can explore the whole archipelago in a way that’s easy, fast, cheap, and comfortable.
There’s genuinely no better way to get around Japan than by rail, and thanks to the JR Pass for foreign visitors, you can do so quite economically. Read on for everything you need to know about the JR Passes and traveling around Japan.
A Detailed Guide on Japan Rail Passes
The Most Efficient Way to Get Around in Japan
Japan’s main train operator is Japan Railways, and its network covers nearly the entire country. Collectively, Japan’s railways offer residents and travelers roughly 15,000 miles of track to get around the country.
Why decide between Kyoto, Tokyo, and Osaka when you can easily visit all three with Japan Rail? From convenient local city trains to the ultra-fast bullet train known as shinkansen, JR Rail is the quickest and most economical way to see the country.
You can get from Tokyo to Kyoto in just over 2 hours. If you were flying, you would spend most of that time just waiting at the airport. And train stations in Japan are well set up for international travelers, with a lot of English signage.
If you’re planning a trip to Japan, I encourage you to really consider purchasing a Japan Railway (JR) Pass. This exclusive pass will allow you to see Japan by rail at greatly reduced rates for the duration of your stay.
Why You Should Buy a JR Pass
Purchasing a Japan Rail Pass is one of the best ways foreign tourists can save on travel costs around Japan. The pass allows unlimited use of JR trains and other selected transportation for the duration of your stay (pass options range from a few days to several weeks).
The pass is a a great option for travelers looking to explore the farthest corners of the country by long distance train, however even if you’re setting yourself up in a single city like Tokyo or Osaka, you’ll really benefit from the unlimited access to urban transportation.
JR Passes are easy to purchase, can be used 24/7, and can be personalized to suit the duration of your stay and the level of comfort you wish to experience on the trains. Offering to save you a considerable amount of money on transit, purchasing a JR Pass really is a no brainer.
Who’s Eligible for a JR Pass?
As we mentioned above, this is an exclusive pass; an offer this good isn’t available to everyone. Thankfully though, most foreign travelers visiting Japan can take advantage of the money saving JR Passes.
You’re generally allowed to purchase a JR Pass if you’re a foreign tourist who is planning to visit Japan as a temporary visitor for less than 90 days. Japanese citizens would love to take advantage of this offer, but they only qualify if they have been permanently living abroad for a substantial period of time.
If your trip means that you’re eligible for a JR Pass, you want to make sure you’ve purchased it well in advance. While it’s easy to purchase a JR Pass online, you want to allow enough time for your exchange order to be mailed to you if you request it to be sent that way.
This exchange order is the document you will exchange for your actual JR Pass when you arrive in the country. It’s the pass, and not the exchange order, that you will use for accessing the trains.
You can purchase a JR Pass up to 3 months before your trip, but a good idea is to look into purchasing your pass within 6-8 weeks, which will give you time to trade your exchange order for your actual JR Pass without your exchange order expiring.
How to Buy Your JR Pass
Purchasing your JR Pass is easy. They can readily be bought from several different airports and ticket offices throughout Japan, however, the real secret is to purchase your JR Pass online before you arrive.
Buying your JR Pass online means you get the best rate available, and you save precious time during your vacation. We’ve found that Klook offers travelers the best rate available for JR Passes, along with an easy to follow booking process.
Purchasing a JR Pass online is a simple 3-step process that involves inputting your details, receiving an exchange order, and trading your exchange order for a JR Pass.
You can find a thorough explanation of how to purchase a JR Pass online with Klook by clicking here, but these are the key points:
#1 Pick a Pass
The first step is to decide what JR Pass is best suited for your needs. You’ll then need to submit your required personal details to purchase your JR Pass.
It’s very important that you input your name exactly as it appears in your passport. The information that is reflected on your exchange order you will receive from Klook will need to match exactly, otherwise you risk getting to Japan and having your pass refused.
When trading your exchange order for your JR Pass, you will be required to show your passport along with proof you are a temporary visitor. Proof of your temporary visitor status usually comes in the form of a visa, stamp, or sticker placed in your passport.
#2 You Get Sent a Klook Voucher
Once you purchase a JR Pass online using Klook, you will receive a Klook Voucher. You will need to show this if you select the option of picking up your exchange order from a Klook office, though a much easier way to receive your exchange order is to have it mailed to you.
Mail delivery of your exchange order is available in most countries around the world and can usually be mailed to you with 7 business days (both mail delivery and shipping is free).
Countries that Klook currently mails exchange orders to include the United States, Australia, United Kingdom, Canada, India, and most major European countries.
To be safe, it is recommended you purchase your JR Pass well in advance of your trip (6-8 weeks recommended) to allow plenty of time for your exchange order to arrive.
#3 Trade Your Exchange Order for a JR Pass
Once you receive your exchange order, keep it in a safe place and make sure to bring it with you to Japan. You’ll be required to present the original to get your physical JR Pass; they won’t issue a pass if you don’t have your exchange order with you.
Be sure to bring your actual passport as well, as you’ll need it to pick up your JR Pass from the JR ticket office, and they won’t accept photocopies. You can find a list of JR ticket offices by clicking here.
There are offices at most major airports, though they’re not open 24/7, and if you arrive on a late flight, you might have to come back another time.
How to Pick a Pass: JR Pass Transport Options
JR Passes are mainly used to access Japan Railways train lines, and having a pass allows you to ride nearly all trains that operate on its network. This means travelers can use major train lines like local trains, shinkansen, limited express, and express lines.
In addition to having unlimited use of the trains for the duration of your JR Pass, you can also access the JR Ferry to Miyajima, the Tokyo Monorail which links to Haneda Airport, and selected non JR trains that connect with more remote JR train lines.
Activating your JR Pass at the airport in Tokyo means you can start using your pass to access the monorail to reach Hamamatsucho station. If you don’t plan on traveling much outside Tokyo, you may only want to purchase a JR Pass that is valid solely for using Tokyo JR transportation.
Likewise, you will find JR Passes that offer up to 7-day validity for regions like West Japan, East Japan, Kansai, Hokkaido, Central Japan, and Shikoku specifically. If you’re are planning on exploring a lot of the country, you’ll need to buy a Whole Japan Rail Pass to access JR transportation throughout the country.
JR Pass holders can also take advantage of some non-highway local buses such the JR local bus to Kusatsu Onsen or Hiroshima’s JR tourist loop bus. That said though, you don’t have access to the Mizuho or Nozomi trains, so make sure you don’t board these by mistake.
Selecting a JR Pass Duration
In addition to having the flexibility to purchase a JR Pass that covers the destinations you’ll be visiting, you can also select a pass that is appropriate for the time you will be spending in the country.
JR Pass validity periods start at just a few days and go up to 21 days. The most popular options are usually the 7-day, 14-day, and 21-day passes. Purchasing a JR Pass will give you unlimited use of the JR trains in your selected region for the entire pass validity period.
The best part is that you can choose the date your validity period begins for your purchased JR Pass, within a month of obtaining it. Your pass validity begins on the date you set or start using your pass. This gives you a bit of flexibility if you’re are not planning on using trains during the beginning of your trip.
When you purchase a JR Pass for 7, 14, or 21 days you choose whether you want to travel by ordinary or green car (more about this below).
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Choosing Your Class / Reserving Seats
When selecting a JR Pass, you have the option of feeling ordinary or going green. You can think of these options in terms of the seating classes of an airline, where an ordinary car pass equates to economy and a green car equals first-class.
While riding the ordinary cars of JR trains will be adequate for most travelers, you may want to pamper yourself a bit by purchasing a green car JR Pass. You’ll enjoy more space for yourself and your luggage, along with comforts that include a foot rest and fewer people.
The green cars are available on long distance trains such as the Shinkansen and Tokkyu trains. Expect to pay up to 50% more for the green car service.
Having a JR Pass means you can reserve train seats for free. This can come in handy when travelling during peak tourist season, and if you’re traveling with friends and want to sit together. Simply reserve your seat at a JR ticket office by showing your pass. You can’t reserve seat at ticket machines.
Not all JR trains require you to reserve a seat, and many of the short distance local trains won’t actually allow you to. There are, however, certain trains where reserving a seat is mandatory, and having a JR Pass can save you money because this means it’s free.
Some of the trains that require you to reserve a seat include the Narita Express, Sunrise Seto, and Izumo Night trains. Travelers choosing to ride in green cars must also reserve their seats. It’s important to check whether a reservation is necessary.
Which Class Do You Want to Be In?
Using Your JR Pass
Having a JR Pass means you won’t have the hassle of keeping track of a bunch of different tickets, since the JR Pass will generally be your one single ticket for your travels through Japan.
The only other ticket you may need is when you decide to reserve a seat, in which case you will be required to show a seat reservation ticket upon boarding. This again is free of charge when you are a JR Pass holder.
When using your JR Pass to board trains, it’s important to know that you can’t pass through the automatic gates. You need to show your pass at a gate that is operated by a physical person.
You should always carry your passport in case they request to see it; sometimes it needs to be matched to the details listed on your JR Pass. This is to stop you sharing your pass with anyone else; it’s exclusively for you, and you only.
When it comes to determining the validity of your JR Pass, it is important note that the pass is not based on 24-hour periods, rather each day ends at midnight. Ie, if you start using your pass late in the evening on your first day, that first day validity period will end at midnight, not the evening of the following day.
If you start a journey on a JR train line and your JR Pass expires during that journey, you are generally allowed to complete that journey without penalty.
Actually Riding Japan’s Trains
Train passengers exiting the train have the right of way, so let people disembark before boarding the train. While on the train, avoid blocking the doors, and understand that talking on phones is generally prohibited on trains (it’s fine to browse the internet or send texts).
When you’re about to arrive at a station, the station will be announced in Japanese. It pays to know your station name in Japanese as not all trains will make the announcement in English. Trains that do offer an English announcement are generally the more popular tourist routes.
Other Benefits of a JR Pass
In addition to receiving the ability to reserve train seats free of charge, you are also entitled to discounts at Japan Rail affiliated hotels. Many of these hotels are situated near railway stations, making them convenient and more affordable due to your discount.
While you may be able to find similar discounted rates for these hotels online, this feature of the JR Pass can come in handy when you have no Wi-Fi/internet access.
Now that you know everything there is to know about the JR Pass and using them to get around the country, it’s time to buy it! Not ready to buy it yet? Bookmark Klook.com for when you’re ready.
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