View of a Shinkansen train at Osaka station.
Japan

Everything you need to know about rail travel in Japan

The answer to the question “What is the best way to get around Japan” is most definitely “train”.  

Rail travel in Japan is not only the most efficient way of domestic travel, it is a super-cool experience by itself. If you picture Japanese rail travel as sitting in the sleek and futuristic-looking Shinkansen, whizzing by at a neck-breaking speed through the beautiful Japanese landscape, with the majestic snow-capped Mt. Fuji somewhere behind the windows, you’re pretty right.

But there’s much more to know and learn about rail travel in Japan. Read on – you’ll get to learn everything.

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What is the Japan Rail Pass?

First, let’s mention the fact that there are several rail companies in Japan – the Japan Railways (JR) and various private companies, operating their trains usually on their own rail tracks. The JR is the exclusive operator of Shinkansen.

Japan Rail Pass is the most cost-effective solution for long-distance rail travel in Japan, meant only for foreign tourists to the country. It pays off the best when using Shinkansen for long-distance trips.  The pass allows unlimited travel on all JR-operated trains, except for the fastest category of Shinkansen (called Nozomi and Mizuho). It comes in a 7, 14 or 21 days validity.

You can order an Ordinary pass (that would be the equivalent of 2nd class) or a Green pass that entitles you to travel in the Green car, an equivalent of the 1st class.

What are the prices of Japan Rail Pass?

The current prices of Japan Rail Pass are as follows:

Type of pass Ordinary (equivalent of 2nd class) Green car (equivalent of 1st class)
7-day 29,650 YEN (approx. 245 EUR / 275 USD) 39,600 YEN (approx. 330 EUR / 365 USD)
14-day 47,250 YEN (approx. 390 EUR / 435 USD) 64,120 YEN (approx. 530 EUR / 590 USD)
21-day 60,450 YEN (approx. 500 EUR / 560 USD) 83,390 YEN (approx. 690 EUR / 770 USD)

Note: the prices quoted are for the adults. Children aged 6 – 11 have a 50 % discount.

While these prices might seem high, they are in fact the cheapest means of long-distance travel in Japan.

The price of a 7-day ordinary car pass is about the same as the price of a return ticket between Tokyo and Kyoto. Even if you were visiting only these two cities, it’s still worth it to get the Japan Rail Pass, as it also covers Narita Express from Tokyo Narita airport to Tokyo and Limited Express Haruka running from Osaka Kansai airport to Osaka and Kyoto.

The more long-distance trips you do, the more you’re getting worth of the Japan Rail Pass. By the way, did you know Mt. Fuji is visible from the Shinkansen during Tokyo-Kyoto trip?

The more you explore in this amazing country – for example, if you follow our 10-day Japan itinerary, the more you’re getting worth of your Japan Rail Pass.

Where to buy the Japan rail pass?

The simplest answer to this is: either online or from specialized travel agents, before traveling to Japan.

The first step is to purchase a voucher (also called an exchange order) before your trip to Japan. If you prefer to buy it online, there are several authorized agencies selling it. The voucher will then be delivered to you by a courier (delivery fee applies).
Unfortunately, the voucher can’t currently be sent by email and printed. We don’t have a personal experience with this option (we bought it from an authorized travel agent), however, Japan Experience has good reviews.

If you prefer to purchase the JR Pass from authorized travel agents, you may find their list using this link. In this case, you get the voucher directly from them.

Either way, you end up with a voucher that you’ll have to exchange for the actual Japan Rail Pass after arriving to Japan, at any ticket office of Japan Railways.

Don’t get the voucher way too early – it will need to be exchanged for the pass within 3 months from its purchase.

Note: It is temporarily possible – until March 2021 – to buy the Japan Rail Pass also at selected JR stations across Japan, at an increased price. We would however recommend getting the voucher for the Japan Rail Pass before traveling to Japan and then exchanging it for the pass once you’ve arrived in Japan.

How does Japan Rail Pass work?

The Japan Rail Pass is personalized, so you’ll need your passport (bearing a stamp “Temporary Visitor” that you get as a tourist in Japan) to exchange the voucher for the pass. We recommend doing this right after your arrival to Japan at Tokyo or Osaka airport.

The Rail Pass needs to be activated as well – that means you need to decide when you’ll use it for the first time and then setting that day as the first day of its validity (it might be the very same day you arrive in Japan or some later day, depending on your itinerary).

While you’re still in the JR ticket office, we also recommend making the seat reservations for all your train journeys by Shinkansen. While most Shinkansen trains have cars with both reserved and non-reserved seats, having a seat reservation offers you a peace of mind that you’ll have a seat available (or seats together if you’re a larger group), and it is completely for free.

Once you’ve got your Japan Rail Pass and made the seat reservations, all you need to do is use one of the manned gates at the railway stations (JR pass doesn’t work with electronic gates) to proceed to the platform and board the train.

Always carry your passport when travelling on rail pass – the staff at the manned gates might check it.

So hop on the fancy Shinkansen and enjoy the ride! Simple as that!

View of a passenger posing in front of a Shinkansen in Osaka station.
Hop on the Shinkansen and enjoy the ride!

Where can I use the Japan Rail Pass?

The Japan Rail Pass can be used – as the name suggests – for JR trains. If you use trains operated by other companies, you’ll need to get tickets for those.

Let’s have a closer look at what’s covered by Japan Rail Pass:

  • All JR trains. You get the best of your money’s worth when using Shinkansen services. Please note that Japan Rail Pass is NOT valid for the fastest category of Shinkansen trains, called Nozomi and Mizuho. You’ll need to use other Shinkansen services, called Sakura, Hikari (we recommend using these two) or Kodama (the slowest category of Shinkansen that has the most stops). For comparison, the journey between Tokyo and Kyoto takes around 2 hrs 15 min on Nozomi, 2 hrs 40 min on Hikari and 3 hrs 40 min on Kodama.
  • Tokyo Monorail (convenient connection to Tokyo Haneda airport). If you’re arriving to Narita airport, we recommend taking Narita Express – a JR train.
  • JR Miyajima ferry – a convenient means of reaching the beautiful Miyajima island.
  • Loop bus Hiroshima Meipuru-pu – convenient for reaching the most important sights in Hiroshima

Our tip: You can check out the excellent website hyperdia.com as the online source for timetables (and fares) for all rail travel in Japan. Great thing about this website is that it even shows the platform and track numbers that your train will be departing from and arriving to.

What is a Shinkansen?

If one was looking for a synonym for reliability, punctuality, and comfort, then Shinkansen might be the right word.

The futuristically looking bullet train whose average delay is expressed in seconds rather than minutes is a tribute to the Japanese love of modern technologies, sense of precision and attention to detail. It has been safely carrying people in Japan for already 55 years, and even nowadays it still looks as futuristic as ever.

Running at speeds up to 300 km/h (even a bit higher at certain segments), the journey times are quite short – the Nozomi Shinkansen (fastest category of Shinkansen) does the 514 km trip between Tokyo and Kyoto in 2 hours and 15 minutes.

I admit we were a bit worried about moving around in Japan before our trip. What if the signs will be only in Japanese?

View of an information screen inside Hiroshima station.
Lost in translation? Not really! The digital screens alternate between Japanese and English information, while all the signs are also bilingual – Japanese and English.

Fortunately, there’s no need to worry. All the Japanese train stations have bilingual signs – in Japanese and English. Also, most of the staff at the stations used on our itinerary spoke (at least some) English. And everything is posted so clearly and precisely that you always know exactly where to go.

You can find out which platform and track your train would be departing from already from the hyperdia.com website but of course, all this information is found on large screens inside the station as well.

For Shinkansen, which runs on dedicated tracks, all the platforms have precise information where every car will stop – very handy indeed. So you know from your reservation that you’re seated in car number four – you know exactly where to wait on the platform. The door will be right there where it shows, not a meter to the left or right – right there!

View of an information sign on a platform in Hiroshima station.
You know exactly where your car will stop – rail travel in Japan is really easy, super-efficient, fast and fun.

The Shinkansen have conductors – not really for checking the tickets, but rather for seeing to the fact that everything goes safe and smooth. He bows as enters the car, wearing his uniform with white gloves, passes through the car and then turns around to face the passengers and bows once more before leaving.

Funnily, on our very first ride on Shinkansen, our train was about 35 seconds late (!) on arrival to Hiroshima. The poor conductor was apprehensively looking at his wristwatch, knowing this ain’t the way Shinkansen is supposed to run 😊 True, with the scandalous delay of 35 seconds, our service was worsening the whole year’s statistics, given that the average delay is about 24 seconds.

Dontcha love the Japanese sense of precision? 😊

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Japanese Shinkansen and a sign in a train station

Michal is the writer and photographer of the Wanderlust Designers.

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