Getting the Most Out of Your Japan Rail Pass
If you want to see a lot of the country when visiting Japan, the Japan Rail Pass is certainly something you should know about. It’s only available to foreign tourists and can represent considerable savings even without traveling every day. But to maximize your JR Pass, here are some tips for train travel in Japan and a sample itinerary to get you started.
What is the Japan Rail Pass?
More commonly known as the JR Pass, it is a multi-use ticket that can be purchased for 7, 14, or 21 consecutive days. For a one-time fee, it lets you travel on most JR trains and buses throughout the country. It covers everything from city buses to the world-famous Shinkansen bullet train – and even ferries.
Passes can be bought online from the official JR Pass website or from authorized JR Pass vendors. (They can be bought in Japan for a limited time – until March 31, 2024 – but only at select stations and for a higher price.)
Kids under 6 can ride all JR trains and buses for free. Children between 6 and 11 years old get a 50% discount, while those 12 and older pay full price.
4 travel tips for using the JR pass
Know your trains and train lines
On the Tokaido, Sanyo, and Kyushu Shinkansen lines, the JR Pass is only valid on Hikari, Sakura, Kodama, and Tsubame trains. It doesn’t cover Nozomi and Mizuho trains. This doesn’t necessarily limit where you can go, just when you can go. This leads to our next tip.
Plan and book ahead
While one of the best things about the JR Pass is flexibility – you can just show up at the station, hop on a train, and go – booking all your trains in advance ensures you get a seat, even during busy times. Plus, Shinkansen schedules clearly state whether a train is Nozomi, Hikari, Kodama, or another.
Booking ahead is especially important when traveling along busy commuter corridors such as Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka, and during peak travel seasons, which include:
Cherry blossom season (March – April, depending on region)
Golden Week (end of April – early May)
New Year (late December – early January)
Upgrade to the Green Pass
The Ordinary Car pass costs a little over ¥30,000 for a 7-day pass. The Green Car costs about ¥10,000 more and gets you a wider luxury seat, more legroom and luggage space, larger windows, and other perks and comforts. You’ll also wait in shorter queues and have a better chance of reserving a seat during busy times.
Use train station lockers
With Japan’s extensive high-speed rail network, it’s easy to visit 2 cities in a single day. And even 3 cities, if you’re up for it. But you’ll probably be taking your luggage with you.
Most train stations in Japan have coin lockers. And for a few bucks, they’re a great place to store your luggage while you explore whichever city, town, or whistlestop you find yourself in.
Sample 7-day itinerary for the JR Pass
If you choose the 7-day JR Pass, you’ll spend more time sightseeing if you stick with either going north or south from Tokyo. It takes about 8 hours to get to Sapporo in the north and 5 hours to go south to Hiroshima. Choosing a direction means you’ll spend more time sightseeing than on trains.
The itinerary below visits many of Japan’s most famous sites – and covers a lot of ground – in a single week. For a less rushed and more relaxed experience, consider the 14-day JR Pass.
Day 1: Tokyo – Kyoto
To get the most out of your JR Pass, activate it when leaving Tokyo and not before. It takes around 2 hours and 15 minutes to get to Kyoto. The first train departs at 6:00 am and they run regularly throughout the day until after 9:00 pm. Depart as early as possible, because there’s a lot to see in Japan’s former capital.
The Gion district, famous for its geishas and maikos, is a must-see destination for most visitors. Fushimi Inari Shrine with its 10,000 gates is one of the most visited places in Japan, while the Golden Pavillion, Kinkakuji, is Japan’s most iconic and beautiful temple. Kiyomizudera offers a stunning view of the city from halfway up Mt. Otowa.
All of the above can be done in a day, before having dinner in one of Pontocho’s many restaurants, then calling it a night to rest up for tomorrow.
Day 2: Kyoto – Osaka
The Shinkansen from Kyoto to Osaka takes less than 15 minutes. So if you didn’t cover all your ground or have more to see in Kyoto, there’s no need to rush. Or if you don’t feel like changing hotels, it can easily be a day trip from Kyoto.
Osaka Castle and the surrounding Nishinomaru Garden with its 600 cherry trees are especially worth visiting during hanami season. While the castle grounds offer a sense of Old Japan, Dotonbori and Kuromon Market give you a taste of Osaka culture and cuisine.
Day 3: Osaka – Himeji – Hiroshima
If you didn’t visit Osaka Castle on Day 2, Japan’s largest and most-visited castle is on the way to Hiroshima. Himeji Castle, also known as the White Heron Castle, was one of the first places in the country to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s just 30 minutes from Osaka and a short bus ride (or 30-minute walk) from the station. Continuing on to Hiroshima from Himeji takes just under an hour.
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, Museum, and Atomic Bomb Dome are the city’s most popular and must-see destinations. After a long day, head downtown to the Okonomimura district for a feast on the city’s signature dish – okonomiyaki.
Day 4: Miyajima (day trip from Hiroshima)
The ferry to Miyajima is a half-hour outside the city by local train and a popular day trip from Hiroshima. The small island is famous for its temples and Itsukushima Shrine – the distinctive red-orange torii gate that “floats” in the sea during high tide.
The ferry is just 10 minutes and is covered by the JR Pass.
Day 5: Hiroshima – Takeo Onsen
After a busy 4 days, it’s time to relax. Down south in Saga Prefecture, Takeo Onsen is a hot spring resort town with a 1,300-year history – and the oldest onsen currently in use. Many visitors soak in its silky smooth alkaline water to alleviate skin conditions, while others just go to relax. Spend the night in one of the town’s many ryokans and even get a room with a private onsen all to yourselves.
The Shinkansen from Hiroshima to Kurume is just under 90 minutes and followed by a 40-minute JR Limited Express train to Takeo Onsen.
Both legs of the trip are covered by the JR Pass.
Day 6: Takeo Onsen – Nagasaki
Japan’s newest bullet train commenced operations in September 2022 and runs from Takeo-Onsen Station to downtown Nagasaki – in under 25 minutes.
Nagasaki had Japan’s only major foreign trading port during its period of isolation, and the influence of this is evident in Nagasaki Shinchi Chinatown. Built in 1634, the Meganebashi Bridge is the oldest stone arch bridge in Japan, and if you missed the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, the tranquil Nagasaki Peace Park has 2 parks and a museum. And for another window into history, boat tours to the eerie-yet-fascinating Gunkanjima (Battleship Island) take about 3 hours from Nagasaki Port.
Be sure to try a bowl of champon, the city’s famous Chinese noodle dish, for lunch or dinner.
Day 7: Nagasaki – Izu Peninsula – Tokyo
For your final day, wake up early and pass back through Takeo Onsen en route to Fukuoka. From there, the Shinkansen back to Tokyo takes just under 6 hours. If you leave early enough, and the sky is clear, you can get off at Mishima Station and make your way to Izunokuni Panorama Park for one of the country’s best views of Mt. Fuji.
Conclusion on travelling by train in Japan
If you want to cover a lot of ground – and take in a lot of scenery – travelling by train is by far the best mode in Japan. They are fast, reliable, and affordable – and generally take you from city centre to city centre. And the JR Pass makes things even better. The 7-day itinerary above would cost over ¥60,000 when purchasing individual tickets, compared to around half of that with the JR Pass.