Speaking as a both a tourist and a travel agent, there are not many transport passes around that offer better value for money than the JR Rail Pass. There is no better way to get around Japan. Speeding along at 300km/h on a brand new shinkansen will be one of the highlights of your time in Japan. This guide will help you with purchasing and using your pass.
Purchasing Your Pass
Which pass should I buy?
The JR Rail Pass has a number of different options and picking the right one can be a bit of a nightmare.
Duration – passes are available for 3 different durations: 7 days, 14 days and 21 days. Just pick the one that suits the duration of your trip best.
Bear in mind that your pass covers your trip to/from the airport as well as one circle line on the Tokyo metro, but these trips are much cheaper than the longer journeys. For some people it may make more financial sense to purchase a cheaper, shorter duration pass and then pay separately for the airport train line and Tokyo metro. We recommend saving your pass for longer, more expensive journeys.
Class – there are two classes available: Ordinary Class (Standard) or Green Class (1st Class). Much like an aircraft the main difference is comfort. We used the Ordinary Class and cannot see how the extra money for the Green Class could be worth it – Ordinary Class was fantastic! Plenty of leg room, aisle service for food and air-conditioning.
Location – JR offer location-specific passes which can reduce the price of your pass. There are a wide range of location options, including different ‘regions’ which include multiple locations. For most people, the standard JR Pass is what you are after though, as this will cover trains to pretty much everywhere in Japan.
Where should I buy my pass?
The most important detail is that you must purchase your pass outside of Japan. You can purchase the pass from travel agents or online.
You will be provided with a voucher for your rail pass, which you will need to exchange for your actual pass at a JR office once you arrive in Japan. Your pass will be valid for 3 months. This simply means that it needs to be exchanged within 3 months from the purchase date.
How much should it cost?
One of the many perks about the JR Rail Pass is it’s universal cost. Regardless of where you are buying it the cost should be exactly the same. Passes for ordinary class range from AUD$391 to AUD$797, depending on the duration of the pass. However, you may be charged additional booking and/or delivery fees by the website or travel agent.
A great website to explore the different passes is Rail Plus – their JR Rail Pass section will give you all the information you need to know.
Using Your Pass
Exchanging your voucher
Exchanging your voucher for your JR Rail Pass is a piece of cake. Simply find any JR Rail office (located in every major railway station and airport), hand over the voucher and you will be issued with your awesome looking JR Rail Pass!
Finding train schedules
You can simply walk in to a JR Office and ask the super helpful staff about scheduling. Just tell them the cities you would like to travel to and from, the date and time you would like to travel. The staff will walk you through your options and provide plenty of information. We found that staff in the main cities spoke excellent English and were able to answer all of our questions.
You can also check schedules online using the Hyperdia website. One of the cool features of Hyperdia is that it allows you to filter your search to only include JR Rail Pass trains. Drop down the ‘More Options’ tab just below the date search to select JR Trains. It also pays to un-select the Nozomi/Mizuho/Hayabusa tab as these are not included in your pass.
Reserving your seats
Simply visit your nearest JR Office and tell them the journey for which you would like to reserve seats. There are no fees for reserving seats. If the particular train you are looking for is full the staff will help you find another.
Which trains are included?
The JR Rail Pass includes pretty much every train you will need. It also includes buses, ferries and even a cable car or two. There are a few exceptions however: the Nozomi train (Osaka to Tokyo) is not included, but there are plenty of other options that cover this route. The Mizuho train (Osaka to Kagoshima) is also not included but once again, there are plenty of other options.
Is it worth it?
Absolutely! The JR Rail Pass will pay for itself within the first few long distance journeys. When combined with the ease of using the pass, it really is a no-brainer. You will be hard-pressed to find a cheaper, quicker or easier way to get around Japan. Enjoy!