Paul Fournier
By Paul

Japan Rail Pass Guide: Which To Choose, From East to West

Japan has many different types of rail passes available that give you unlimited train travel in certain areas. This has both its advantages and disadvantages…

Because there are so many passes to choose from across the different Japanese railway companies, it can be confusing and difficult to decide if you need a pass, and assuming you do, which one you should go for.

To help you get a rail pass that fits your specific needs, I’ve written a comprehensive guide to the main Japan Rail Pass, and all the regional rail passes, so you can decide which is best for your travel itinerary.

About the JR Pass

The Japan Rail Pass, or JR Pass, is the mother of all rail passes, giving you free use of all trains on the JR network throughout Japan. With a JR Pass, you won’t need to buy any other tickets, unless you take local trains that are not on the JR network.

You can buy JR Passes for 7, 14 or 21 days in two types – ordinary and Green Car. Green Car passes let you access first class cars with seats that are more spacious and comfortable.

How to Buy a JR Pass

The JR Pass can only be used by foreign tourists, and must be purchased outside of Japan. You can purchase it online via sites like Klook, or a travel agent outside Japan. You’ll receive a voucher which you’ll need to exchange for the actual JR Pass upon arriving in Japan, within 3 months of purchasing.

Once you’re in Japan, you can redeem your voucher at major JR stations throughout the country, including the JR stations at Narita airport and Kansai airport. Just hand your voucher and passport to the ticket counter staff.

How to Use a JR Pass

To use your JR Pass, simply present your rail pass to the staff at the manned gates in the train stations. You can’t use the automatic ticket gates with your JR Pass. Keep your passport with you, as you may occasionally be asked to show it along with your pass.

Most of the time, you won’t need to make seat reservations to use the JR Pass. The majority of trains carry both reserved and non-reserved seating cars, and many trains don’t get booked out except for peak travel periods.

However, if you would like to make seat reservations for peace of mind, you can do so at any JR ticket office for free. If you’re planning to make long-distance train trips in bigger groups or during busy times, it may be wise to reserve your seats just to be sure.

Do I Need a JR Pass?

The JR Pass can be very cost-efficient for long-distance train travel across Japan, and also saves you time as you don’t need to spend time queuing for tickets at the station. If you’re planning an itinerary that takes you to many cities spread out over the country, buying a JR Pass is highly recommended.

However, there are a few other points to take into consideration:

  • The JR Pass will not pay off if you’re only planning on staying within one city, and not traveling far on train.
  • The JR Pass is not valid on Nozomi shinkansen trains, which are the fastest class of trains on the Tokaido Shinkansen that links cities like Tokyo and Kyoto.
  • If the areas you’re traveling between are more concentrated in a specific region instead of being spread out, a regional pass like the ones I introduce in the rest of the article gives you more value for money.

JR Passes for all of Japan

These JR Passes give you unlimited use of all trains on the JR network throughout Japan for the time frame stated. For access to first-class Green Cars on the trains, choose the Green Car option.

JR West Passes

There are many types of rail passes under the JR West network, which collectively cover a rather big area ranging from the Kansai region, including Osaka, Kyoto and Nara, all the way west to Hiroshima and Yamaguchi.

Below, I’ve compiled a brief introduction to the best JR West passes, the destinations they cover, along with links where you can purchase them.

Kansai Area Pass

This is the most popular pass under JR West, which gives you unlimited train rides major destinations in the Kansai region such as Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe, Nara, Himeji, and Wakayama. It also includes access to the Kansai Airport Haruka Express train, and can be picked up at Kansai Airport in Osaka.

The Kansai Area Pass comes in variations valid for 1, 2, 3, or 4 consecutive days. You can purchase a pass from Klook at the links below.

Kansai WIDE Area Pass

The Kansai WIDE Area Pass covers a slightly bigger area compared to the Kansai Area Pass. Destinations covered include Kansai Airport, Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, Nara, Himeji, and other areas outside Kansai such as Okayama, Takamatsu, Tottori, Kurashiki, Kinosaki Onsen, and more.

The pass also gives you access to unlimited rides on the Sanyo Shinkansen trains between Shin-Osaka and Okayama, and is valid for 5 consecutive days. You can purchase it on Klook here.

Kansai-Hiroshima Area Pass

This pass covers destinations within Kansai such as Kansai Airport, Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, Nara, Himeji, as well as places on the route to Hiroshima such as Okayama, Kurashiki, Onomichi, Miyajima, Iwakuni and more.

The Kansai – Hiroshima Area Pass also gives you unlimited access to the Sanyo Shinkansen between Shin-Osaka and Hiroshima, as well as the JR West Miyajima ferry. It’s valid for a period of 5 consecutive days, and you can purchase it on Klook here.

Kansai-Hokuriku Area Pass

The Kansai-Hokuriku Area Pass covers destinations within Kansai such as Kansai Airport, Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, Nara, Himeji, and also the route to the Hokuriku Area, which includes cities like Toyama, Ishikawa, and Fukui.

With this pass you can get unlimited rides on the Sanyo Shinkansen between Shin-Osaka and Okayama, as well as the Hokuriku Shinkansen between Kanazawa and Joetsumyoko. The pass is valid for 7 days, and can be purchased on Klook here.

Hokuriku Area Pass

The Hokuriku Area Pass gives you unlimited access to selected JR trains and bus lines in the Hokuriku region, which includes cities by the Sea of Japan coastline like Fukui, Ishikawa and Toyama. It’s a good choice if you’re heading to destinations like Kanazawa, Kaga Onsen, Shirakawago, in the area.

The pass is valid for 4 days, and can be purchased on Klook here.

Hokuriku Arch Pass

This pass connects Tokyo and Osaka, but via a route going through cities in the Hokuriku region like Fukui, Kanazawa, Toyama, and Nagano. This is a pass worth considering if you’re thinking of visiting major capitals like Tokyo and Osaka, but also smaller cities in the Hokuriku region.

The Hokuriku Arch Pass is valid for 7 days, and can be purchased on Klook here.

San’in-Okayama Area Pass

This pass covers train travel within the Okayama and San’in areas, which includes destinations such as Tottori, Shimane and Hagi.

Although shinkansen travel is not covered by this pass, you can also use it for the Loop Kirinjishi Bus and Gurutto Matsue Lake Line bus. This pass is valid for 4 days, and you can purchase it on Klook here.

Sanyo-San’in Area Pass

In addition to the Kansai area, the Sanyo-San’in Area Pass also covers the Sanyo area, which includes cities like Okayama, Hiroshima, Yamaguchi, and the San’in area, which includes places like Tottori and Shimane.

You also have access to unlimited rides on the Sanyo Shinkansen between Shin-Osaka and Hakata, as well as the JR West Miyajima ferry. The pass is valid for 7 days, and can be purchased on Klook here.

Sanyo-San’in Northern Kyushu Pass

Released by JR West in partnership with JR Kyushu, this pass combines access to the Kansai, Sanyo and San’in regions of the previous Sanyo-San’in Area Pass, with access to the Northern area of Kyushu island.

With this pass, you can take unlimited rides on the Sanyo Shinkansen between Shin-Osaka and Hakata, and the Kyushu Shinkansen between Hakata and Kumamoto. This pass is valid for 7 days, and can be purchased on Klook here.

Hiroshima-Yamaguchi Area Pass

The Hiroshima-Yamaguchi Area Pass covers the train routes from the Hiroshima area to Yamaguchi and Hakata. The pass can be used on the Sanyo Shinkansen from Mihara to Hakata, as well as the JR West Miyajima ferry.

This pass is valid for 5 days, and you can purchase it from Klook here.

Okayama-Hiroshima-Yamaguchi Area Pass

This pass expands on the coverage of the previous pass, covering the train routes from Okayama city to Hiroshima, Yamaguchi and Hakata. With this pass, you can take the Sanyo Shinkansen to Okayama to Hakata, and board the JR West Miyajima ferry as well.

This pass is valid for 5 days, and you can purchase it from Klook here.

Setouchi Area Pass

The Setouchi Area Pass is a slightly more unique pass, providing unlimited travel on JR trains, trams, buses and ferries in the area around the Seto Inland Sea. On land, it covers the areas from Kansai such as Osaka, Kyoto and Nara all the way to Hakata.

With this pass, you have access to the Sanyo Shinkansen between Shin-Osaka and Hakata. You can also use the pass on a number of ferries – to Miyajima, Shin-Okayama to Shodoshima, Hinase to Shodoshima, Takamatsu to Tonosho, and Hiroshima to Matsuyama.

This pass is valid for 4 days, and is available for purchase on Klook here.

JR East Passes

If you are going to be traveling primarily in the central, eastern and northeastern parts of Japan, in areas such as Tokyo, Niigata, Nagano, Tohoku, or Hokkaido, consider getting one of these passes under the JR East network.

There are four regional passes under JR East, so I’ve compiled a brief introduction to them here so you can see if they are a more cost-efficient choice than the main JR Pass for your itinerary.

Tohoku Area Pass

The Tohoku Area Pass gives you unlimited rides on JR East trains in Tohoku, and is a good choice if you’re traveling between areas like Tokyo and Aomori, Nikko, Sendai, Akita, or Fukushima.

The pass is also valid on the Narita Express, Tokyo Monorail, and shinkansen trains except the Tokaido shinkansen operated by JR Central. It’s valid for a period of any 5 days in a 14-day period, and can be purchased on Klook here.

Tohoku-South Hokkaido Rail Pass

This pass gives you unlimited use of JR East trains in the Tohoku region and southern Hokkaido, covering areas such as Fukushima, Miyagi, Yamagata, Akita, Iwate, Aomori, Sendai, Hakodate and Sapporo in Hokkaido.

The pass also gives you access to shinkansen trains, and is valid for any 5 days in a 14-day period. You can purchase the Tohoku-South Hokkaido Rail Pass on Klook here.

Nagano Niigata Area Pass

The Nagano Niigata Area Pass covers JR trains and local JR buses in the Kanto area, Nagano and Niigana prefectures, and the Shonai region. It’s worth considering if you’re traveling between Tokyo and Nagano, Niigata, Karuizawa, or Gala Yuzawa resort.

The pass can be used on the shinkansen trains, Narita Express and Tokyo Monorail, and is valid for any 5 days in a 14-day period. You can purchase the pass on Klook here.

South Hokkaido Rail Pass

The coverage area for the South Hokkaido Rail Pass is similar to that of the Tohoku Area Pass, but extends past Aomori into the southern part of Hokkaido. It’s a good choice for taking the shinkansen from Tokyo to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto, where you can take another train all the way to Sapporo.

The pass gives you access to all the JR East and some JR Hokkaido trains including the shinkansen, except Tokaido Shinkansen, and can also be used on the Tokyo Monorail. It’s valid for any 6 days in a 14-day period, and can be purchased on Klook here.

JR Central Passes

The JR Central network is built around the Tokaido line, connecting Tokyo and Osaka. Other popular destinations accessible via this network include Kyoto, Nara, Nagoya, Mt. Fuji, Shizuoka, Takayama, Kanazawa, Matsumoto, Toyama, Wakayama, and Shirahama.

If your itinerary is centered around the central region of Japan, a rail pass by JR Central could be useful. Read on for brief introduction of the four different JR Central passes available to see if they fit your needs.

Mt. Fuji Shizuoka Area Tourist Pass Mini

The Mt. Fuji Shizuoka Area Tourist Pass Mini gives you access to selected JR trains, buses and ferry lines, in the Shizuoka prefecture and around Mount Fuji.

The pass does not cover access to/from any major cities such as Tokyo and Nagoya, however it is worth considering if you plan to visit the Mount Fuji area along with destinations in the Shizuoka area. The pass is valid for 3 days and can be purchased on Klook here.

Takayama-Hokuriku Area Tourist Pass

This pass gives you unlimited travel on JR trains between Nagoya, Takayama and Toyama, and Osaka and Kanazawa, and also buses to the Shirakawago world heritage site.

The Takayama-Hokuriku Area Tourist Pass is valid for 5 days, and can be purchased on Klook here.

Alpine-Takayama-Matsumoto Area Tourist Pass

This pass gives you unlimited use of JR trains between Nagoya and Toyama, between Nagoya and Shinano-Omachi, and also access to the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route.

The pass is valid for 5 days, and can be used from April 15 – November 10. You can purchase it on Klook here.

Ise-Kumano-Wakayama Area Tourist Pass

The Ise-Kumano-Wakayama Area Tourist Pass gives you unlimited access to JR trains between Nagoya, Osaka, Ise city, and the Kumano region which includes the Wakayama and Mie prefectures. The pass also includes rides on buses in the Kumano region.

This pass is valid for 5 days, and can be purchased on Klook here.

JR Hokkaido Passes

These rail passes by JR Hokkaido will allow you to take unlimited rides on JR trains, excluding the Hokkaido Shinkansen, as well as most JR buses in the island of Hokkaido. You can choose between passes valid for 3, 5, or 7 consecutive days, or a flexible pass valid for any 4 days in a 10-day period.

JR Kyushu Passes

Kyushu island is known as the “Land of Fire”, as it’s home to some of the most active volcanoes in Japan. With the Kyushu Rail Pass, you can get unlimited rides on Kyushu’s JR trains, except the Sanyo Shinkansen.

The Kyushu Rail Pass is available in several versions depending on the length of travel, and area of coverage:

  • All Kyushu, 3 days
  • All Kyushu, 5 days
  • Northern Kyushu, 3 days
  • Northern Kyushu, 5 days
  • Southern Kyushu, 3 days

You can purchase all versions of the Kyushu Rail Pass on Klook here.

JR Shikoku Passes

The All Shikoku Rail Pass gives you unlimited train travel on JR trains covering the island of Shikoku, Japan’s fourth largest island. You can also use it on selected trains and trams, as well as ferries to and buses on Shodoshima Island.

You can choose between passes valid for 3, 5 or 7 days, available for purchase on Klook at the links below:

Conclusion

As you can see, there is a large variety of rail passes in Japan, so no matter what your itinerary is, there is most likely a rail pass that will save you money.

In general, the main JR Pass only pays off if you’re planning a lot of intercity travel across the country. Otherwise, you may be better off getting one of the regional passes. Before you choose a rail pass, you should have a good idea of your itinerary first in order to get one that fits your needs.

Hope this guide helps you find the right rail pass for your travels in Japan!

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