How to use JR Pass
Of all the places I’ve ever visited, Japan was the one country that felt most foreign to me….which is funny, because in retrospect it doesn’t actually feel foreign at all once you’re there.
Anywho…as a Miami girl who’s never been privy to great public transportation, I genuinely had thoughts like, “how the hell do you even get around in Japan?” Luckily, it’s super easy. Especially with the JR Pass in hand.
First things first, what’s a JR Pass?
The JR Pass (aka the Japan Rail Pass) gives you unlimited access to the JR trains, busses and most Shinkansen (Sakura, Kodama, Hikari and Mizuho bullet trains) throughout Japan. Its primary benefit is for long distance travel, since you can use the pass to get from Tokyo to places like Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, Kobe, Himeji, etc. To sweeten the deal, you can also use the pass for JR trains within Tokyo and Kyoto, as well as the Narita Express from the airport into Tokyo. The JR Pass is exclusively available to tourists and can only be purchased outside of Japan, so you’ll need to order yours in advance.
For how long is the JR Pass valid?
You can buy the pass for 7, 14 or 21 consecutive days — the beauty of the pass, also, is that you don’t have to activate it right away. For example, if you’re spending a few days in one place and don’t plan to use the pass much until your first big travel day to another city, you can choose a date in the future to start your pass. Super easy.
How do I get my hands on this magical pass?
Click the links below to buy a discounted JR Pass:
So, uhm, how do I activate the JR Pass?
When you purchase your JR Pass, you’ll get what’s called an “exchange order” in the mail. When you arrive to Japan, you’ll take your exchange order + passport to any JR exchange office to basically have your pass verified and activated. At this point, you’ll choose your start date and the pass will officially be your baby.
OTM tip: If you’re activating the pass at the airport, the lady or gent behind the counter can also issue your Narita Express tickets for the next available train FO’ FREE. Can I get an amen?
Great, so how do I get my train tickets?
For local JR trains within big cities (shout out to my personal fave, the Yamanote Line!! Love you, girl!), you have to enter and exit through a manned gate and flash your pass. Easy peasy, no tickets necessary. But, for the super fast bullet trains that connect big cities, you’ll want to grab a ticket in advance. To get your ticket with an assigned seat, simply go to a JR ticket office at any train station, tell them which train you want to take and they’ll print out your tix, no questions asked. You’re also welcome to wing it, and ride in one of the unreserved cabins…..but those suck and we don’t recommend. To find the daily train schedules, visit a website called Hyperdia.
Personal trick: screenshot the train you want to take so that you can show the ticket agent, just in case he/she doesn’t speak english. Here we are, bridging the language barrier gap in 1 easy step!
Is there anything you can’t use the JR Pass for?
Sadly, yes. The JR Pass does NOT include access to any non-JR subway or metro lines, and it also doesn’t cover any of the major transportation to/from Hakone — for that, you’ll need a Hakone Free Pass. In pretty much every city, we supplemented our JR Pass with multi-day unlimited use subway tickets. These run for about $5 per day, and it’s nice to have the freedom to use whichever method of transportation is fastest and most convenient.
Is the JR Pass worth it?
Depends. For us, 100% yes — we took a ton of day trips, traveled to a bunch of different cities and took full advantage of the local JR trains in places like Tokyo and Kyoto. That said, if you’re only visiting a couple of cities and there’s only one long distance train in your future, the cost might outweigh the benefit.
Think of it this way: if you’re planning to go from Tokyo to Kyoto and back, that’s already $270 worth of bullet train tickets in one shot. If you’re making that trip, the pass is tooootttally worth it.
The JR Pass was a total ally. We loved breezing through the manned gates and flashing our JR Passes as if they were FBI badges, rather than having to stop and buy a ticket for shorter rides. It’s also nice to have if you’re someone who often gets lost, because you won’t have to pay for a new ticket once you figure out where the hell you are.
If you have any specific questions about the JR Pass, don’t be a stranger. Here to help!
Love and Travels,