Beginner's Guide to Japan Rail
Beyond its obvious natural beauty, world renowned cuisine, and rich cultural heritage, Japan is home to one of the most efficient rail and public transportation systems in the world, linking virtually all parts of the country. One of the greatest travel perks available to visitors to Japan is the Japan Rail Pass, a simple and affordable (relative to buying individual tickets) way to travel throughout the country. Here is a quick guide summarizing the pass: where to buy it, how to use it, and who is eligible.
Do I Need a Japan Rail Pass?
Many people initially find the Japan Rail Pass to be expensive, however, after perusing train routes and other travel methods throughout Japan, it is almost always the most economical option. Before making the decision to purchase a pass, map out all the places you definitely want to go. If you are staying in one city or simply going from Kyoto to Tokyo one-way once, you will not need a Japan Rail Pass.
Use Hyperdia to check prices of individual train routes. Add them up and weigh it against the current prices for Japan Rail Passes here. Currently a roundtrip ticket between Tokyo & Kyoto is approx 16,000 Yen or around $155 at current exchange rates while a one week rail pass is about $270. Adding any other additional destinations plus inner city travel, and the pass quickly pays for itself.
It is also important to note that buying a seat reservation without a Japan Rail Pass incurs an additional charge to the base ticket fare. Japan Rail passes offer free seat reservations, so if you are the type that likes to have a specified seat, do consider purchasing the pass to save money.
One of following is required by Japan in order to receive a Rail Pass.
1. You must be a foreign visitor entering Japan with "Temporary Visitor" status. This status must be stamped in your passport to collect your pass.
2. You are a Japanese citizen living abroad for over 10 years, with physical proof of your residency. See the Japan Rail website for more detailed information on what types of proof they accept.
Types of Passes
There are two types of passes available: Green (First Class) and Ordinary. Each type of pass is available in 7-Day, 14-Day, or 21-Day forms. In my opinion the difference in classes is not enough to justify the additional expense, so I recommend purchasing the Ordinary pass, but do make your own educated decision.
See current prices for the various passes here.
In general, the Japan Rail Pass works on the following transport types and routes.
All JR Shinkansen Bullet Trains (EXCEPT any seat on Nozomi or Mizuho type trains)
All JR Limited Express and Ordinary Express Trains
Local & Rapid Trains
Local Train Lines within major cities (ie: Tokyo's Yamanote / Chuo Lines, Hiroshima's Sanyo Line, etc)
Local Lines of the JR Bus
JR West Miyajima Ferry. See my Day Trip to Hiroshima & Miyajima for additional details.
For a comprehensive list of valid methods of transportation, please visit the Japan Rail website.
Purchasing Your Pass
You should buy your Japan Rail Pass Exchange Order before arriving in Japan at any designated sales office or agent. Notably JTB offices around the world sell passes as does their online portal (they will then mail you the Exchange Order). Do note that the Exchange Order is NOT the Rail Pass, but rather a paid voucher that you exchange for the physical pass upon arriving in Japan. The Exchange Order can only be purchased within 3 months of planned travel to Japan or it will be void.
Picking Up Your Pass
Upon arrival in Japan head to the nearest Japan Rail office to swap your Exchange Order for a physical pass. All major rail stations and airports have an office, see here for a full list. Make sure to bring your Exchange Order & Passport (to show proof of temporary visitor status).
You will be asked to fill out a small form and to provide the date you would like your pass to start. You can start your pass at a later date, it doesn't have to be the same date that you make the exchange. For example, if you swap your Exchange Order on March 18, you can still choose to start your 7-Day pass on March 20 to be valid for March 20-26 inclusive of both the start and end dates.
Using the Pass
With the Japan Rail Pass, you will never need to pass through the automated ticketing booths, but rather will pass to the left or right and will simply show your pass to the station staff there. On your first day of travel, a staffer will stamp your pass to essentially activate it, otherwise you will simply be waved through. You will have to show your pass to enter and leave a station.
Most trains in Japan have reserved and non reserved cars. They are labeled on the sides of the train cars and are often indicated in the overhead signage. With the Japan Rail Pass you can board and sit in any unreserved car or you can opt to make seat reservations (for free!) for smoother travel.
To reserve a seat, simply head to a JR office or to a staff member at any staffed entry and request to reserve a seat on any specified trains. They will give you a small green card with the seat assignment and train information printed on it. If you have your routes planned in advance, you can make multiple seat reservations at once for future dates as well. **If all seat reservations are full, you can still board trains in the unreserved cabins and take any seat available.**
As mentioned above, the best website to search train routes and schedules for English speakers is Hyperdia. Often routes will even tell you which platforms trains depart from and arrive at, which helps avoid confusion while in the station. Make sure to un-check the "Nozomi & Mizuho" trains when searching routes as you cannot ride these trains with the Japan Rail Pass.