If you’re travelling around Japan this spring to see cherry blossoms, you’ll find that having a Japan Rail (JR) pass can save you a lot of money. But before you get yourself one, let’s answer some of the common questions first. If you’ve been here before, scroll to point 10 for the updates on the price increase.
1. What is a JR pass?
A JR pass is a personal transportation pass you can use in Japan. In general, it is for trains like the Shinkansen and local buses operated by Japan Railways (JR). This means you cannot use this pass on the train lines operated by other transport companies, such as the Yurikamome train that goes to Odaiba in Tokyo.
However, JR has the most elaborate and well-established transport network in Japan. You can get to most places by train or bus operated by JR.
2. Who can use a JR pass?
The condition to use a JR pass is that you must be a non-Japanese national visiting for tourism purposes. If you are going to Japan for work or military-related reasons, you cannot use a JR pass. Only those with a “Temporary Visitor” status—most tourists will receive this—which allows you to stay in Japan for less than three months, are eligible to apply for a JR pass.
3. Which JR pass should I get?
Two main passes are available: Whole Japan Rail Pass and Regional Pass. As the name suggests, the Whole Japan Rail Pass gives you unlimited access to almost all JR transport throughout Japan. This pass is available in validity periods of seven days, 14 days and 21 days.
On the other hand, the Regional Pass only provides unlimited access in the specified areas of Japan. Depending on the pass, it is valid for different durations, from as short as one day.
The relatively more popular Regional Passes include the Hokuriku Arch Pass for travelling around Tokyo, Kanazawa and Osaka; the Kansai Pass for travelling around Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe and Nara; and the Kyushu Pass for travelling around Fukuoka, Nagasaki, Kumamoto, Miyazaki and Kagoshima.
To determine which JR pass to get, you need to look at which parts of Japan you visit and for how long.
4. Where can I purchase a JR pass?
You can purchase a JR pass at the JR ticket offices in Japan’s airports and major train stations. But it is more cost-effective and efficient to book your passes online through authorised agents like Klook. After making your purchase online, you will receive a Mail Exchange Order, which will be mailed to you within seven days of purchase (Singapore delivery), or an Electronic Exchange Order, which will be issued instantly—in the case of Klook, to your account.
Get your JR pass on Klook
5. Where and how do I exchange for the JR pass?
For those with the Mail Exchange Order, you will have to visit a JR ticket office to exchange for your JR pass. For the Electronic Exchange Order, apart from the JR ticket office, you can exchange for your JR pass at the Green Ticket Vending Machine at major train stations.
When exchanging for your JR pass, you must bring your Exchange Order and your passport, which should have a “Temporary Visitor” stamp, for validation. The information on the Exchange Order should match that of your passport. Otherwise, the Exchange Order may be deemed invalid.
An important point to note is that the Exchange Order expires in 90 days from the date of issue. In other words, if you are going to Japan in December, you should purchase your JR pass online from September.
6. How do I activate my JR pass? Can I activate it later?
When exchanging for your JR pass, you can choose the start date of your pass. The start date can be any day within 30 days of your exchange. The pass validity period follows calendar days, starting at midnight and ending at 11:59pm. This means that even if you activated your one-day pass at 3pm today, it will only be valid until tonight 11:59pm, instead of 2:59pm tomorrow.
7. What are the different cars and seats available on trains?
Your JR pass will give you access to the Ordinary Car, akin to the economy class, on a Shinkansen or limited express train. However, with a premium, you can upgrade to the Green Car, akin to the business class. You can expect bigger seats, footrests, and better service in the Green Car.
Some JR trains offer reserved seating, which guarantees a seat and saves you a lot of trouble when travelling during peak periods. Your JR pass may come with a limit on the number of reserved seatings you can make. After deciding on your route and timing, you can reserve a seat at the JR Ticket Office or at the Green Ticket Vending Machine using your JR pass.
8. How do I use the JR pass?
After exchanging for your JR pass, you are issued a ticket, which you can use to go through the automatic gates. The reserved seat ticket may look like your JR pass ticket. But you still must use your JR pass to go through the automatic gates.
9. Is the JR pass worth it?
If you are travelling from city to city in Japan using the Shinkansen, it is definitely worth it if you get it before October 2023. Most JR passes are cheaper than purchasing two Shinkansen tickets with reserved seats, though that could change once the new pricings take effect.
10. What is this price increase about?
Previously touted as the most economical way to explore the country, Japan’s railway operator intends to significantly raise the prices of nationwide passes that cover train rides into major cities from October 2023 onwards. The exact date is to be announced. Regional passes will not be affected at the moment.
To put it into perspective, a single adult pass that covers all JR lines for seven days originally costs 29650 yen (~S$300) ($294.50 if you buy it on Klook). It will be increased to 50,000 yen (~S$496) – a 40.7 per cent increase.
When that happens, the pass could only be an economical option if one is planning to visit multiple cities in Japan. If you’re going to one or two major cities, the JR pass may not provide as much value as before.
Buy JR pass on Klook
Want to check the best routes and travel fares in Japan? Download the Japan Travel by Navitime app on the App Store or Google Play. You can also filter routes based on your JR pass type.
Get your JR pass on Klook
Check airfare here: Skyscanner | Trip.com | Expedia
Book accommodations and activities here: Agoda | Booking.com | Klook | KKday | HotelsCombined
General info here: Tripadvisor
Affordable data plans here
And while you are at it, be sure to get your travel insurance!