Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass)

An all in one solution for traveling around Japan?

02 October, 2011 by

One of the most frequently asked questions on the travel forums I frequent is whether to purchase a Japan Rail Pass (or JR Pass for short). This special pass covers all transport owned by the JR company throughout the country, including unlimited free rides on the usually pricey bullet trains.

Purchasing the JR Pass

The catch is that the Japan Rail Pass can only be purchased by foreigners who are arriving as a temporary visitor (holiday visa) and only from outside of Japan. You will need to apply for a Rail Pass Exchange Voucher ahead of time from your home country through a travel agent.

If you’re from Singapore you can get it conveniently online from the Nippon Travel Agency website and they will deliver it to you free the next day.

When you’ve reached Japan the Rail Pass Exchange Voucher can then be traded at JR Train Stations for your actual Rail Pass. You will be required to present your foreign passport and also fill up an exchange form. If you’re in a hurry, you can print out this online copy of the exchange form to fill out ahead of time.

Exchange vouchers.

Saving with the Rail Pass

On a day by day basis, the JR Pass works out to be quite hefty amount to pay for transport. Zipping around on a bullet train, it is often easy to forget how big a country Japan is and that these are distances normally covered by planes.

Still it always works out as savings if you’re going to be taking the shinkansen even for just one of the days covered by the pass. For reference, a one way trip on a shinkansen would cost you anywhere between 10,000 for nearby places to 20,000 yen or more when traveling further.

The price/day ratio gets more economical when purchasing the JR Pass for duration longer than 7-days. You have to ask yourself if you’d really be using the pass enough to make it worth your while. But it ought to be beneficial as long as you’re taking a two-way trip every 7 days.

Anything more than that results in large savings with the added benefit that pass can be used to cover local transport in places where JR has a foothold (which turns out to be most major cities).

Traveling by bullet train without a pass is costly.

JR Pass Types

The JR Pass is available in 7, 14 and 21 day varieties. Each gives the wielder unlimited rides on all JR Company related transport for the respective number of days. There are also two versions, the Ordinary JR Pass as well as a pricier Green version. The Green JR Pass allows for seats on the VIP sections of shinkansen (which usually includes some refreshments) but as you see below, costs a lot more. I wouldn’t recommend it.

7-Day Ordinary: 28,300 yen
14-Day Ordinary: 45,100 yen
21-Day Ordinary: 57,700 yen

7-Day Green: 37,800 yen (+9,500 yen)
14-Day Green: 61,200 yen (+16,100 yen)
21-Day Green: 79,600 yen (21,900 yen)

Regular seats in bullet trains aren’t that bad. They are already a visible upgrade from what you’d get on an economy class flight. If you find yourself spending most of your day on bullet trains or enough times to make Green seats worth it, then you’re clearly doing something wrong. The only time you’d want to get Green tickets is if you happen to bouncing around Japan on business and your company is footing the bill.

You can save yourself quite a bit and enjoy yourself much more by bringing your own food onboard (such as the wide variety of packed lunches available at train stations) on days that you actually use the JR Pass.

The ordinary seats aren't as bad as you'd think.

Train Types

Note that for shinkansen, this is limited to the normal Hikari, Sakura, Kodama or Tsubame trains only. As with purchasing regular shinkansen tickets, it will cost extra to upgrade to the (slightly faster) Nozomi, Mizuho and Hayabusa trains but there is usually no good reason to as they cover identical routes.

Most tracks alternate between Nozomi and Hikari trains so be sure not to miss your train or you’d have to wait an hour for the next. Hyperdia is the best place to check travel routes and timings.

It is best to get one of these before boarding a Shinkansen.

Reserving Seats

Normally, it would cost more to reserve a seat on a shinkansen when using regular tickets. But what many people fail to realize is that you can get reserved seats on bullet trains for free even with the ordinary JR Pass. Just head to the ticketing counter (they are split up by destination) ahead of the train timing to book your seat.

Placing your reservations early will ensure that you get the best seats. Like on a plane, always choose to get the front most seats in a cabin if you can. There are also different types of cabins that you can request for. You can ask for non-smoking cabins, as well as special “quiet cabins” on very early or late trains that will shut off the lights to let you sleep.

More information about the JR Pass at the Japan Rail Pass official website.

Planning your holiday? We recommend visiting Agoda for a full list of hotels with early bird specials.


Supermerlion's Webmaster and Editor-in-Chief. Singaporean Nikkeijin with over 12 years of experience in the media industry. Producer at a Japanese entertainment company. Former Web Developer, Graphic Designer, Multimedia Programmer, Manager and Consultant. Shoots with a Canon 5Dmk2 and Sony RX100-2.
  • Belthazar

    Yeah, I know I’m commenting on an old post, but there appears to be some confusion over which Shinkansen trains are which – specifically, you’ve got them exactly backwards. The Nozomi and Mizuho are the fastest, and you can’t use a JR Pass on those at all. Hikari and Sakura are in the middle, and the Kodama and Tsubame are the slowest, and all four are completely covered by the JR Pass, including seat reservation fees, so it doesn’t matter which you get.

    • Supermerlion

      Ah. Thanks for noticing that. Can’t believe made such a silly mistake. Most of the posts on the site tend to stay as just a scribble of notes for months on end then I fill up the details and move things around…sometimes we get parts confused like that. Hopefully will be more careful next time.

  • Hugh

    Cool post there Sho.

    I just so happened to get my JR exchange voucher yesterday for my trip 😛 I think i’ll fill in that online exchange form before i fly out and hand it in to speed things up a bit.

    When you reserved your ticket, did you just write out the type of seat, time etc on a piece of paper and hand it to the ticket office? Also how long in advance did you reserve your tickets?

    • Sho

      You can reserve seats all the way up to when the train arrives.

      If you really want the better seats, you can reserve the day before if you know where you’re headed to. If not, you can reserve the seats half or an hour in advance.

      Sometimes when in a hurry, I’d reserve them moments before the train arrives and would have to rush up to catch it 🙂

    • Hugh

      That’s cool you can reserve seats till half an hour or and hour before departure. I’ll probably reserve a few of the long journeys or ones during weekends on the shinkansen. Apart from that i will just jump on the normal unreserved seats.

      Did you guys find it easy enough to reserve seats though?

    • Sho

      Yup it isn’t difficult to reserve seats. Most of the JR counter staff at least in the bigger cities have worked with their fair share of foreigners enough to understand simple English.

      Sometimes there is a queue at the counter and you’d might have to wait 15 minutes or so, so while you could actually reserve right till the last moment, it’s probably not so good an idea haha.

  • goukaseishi

    Interesting post.

    I recommend the pass for long travels on the Shinkansen to Osaka, Kyoto etc. I travelled to Osaka, Kyoto, Nagoya and Koriyama using the Shinkansen so it was a good deal for me :).