How to travel through Japan in a cost-effective & highly efficient way [JR pass]

Article updated on May 20, 2020
Text & photos: Marcella van Alphen

Hurrying past the ticket gate with our bulky luggage and waving our JR passes to the Japan Railway staff, we enter the platform at the futuristic Kyoto station to catch our first train of the seven we need to ride today! We are on a mission to reach the Toyota factory in Toyota City at 11 a.m. sharp from Kyoto, to then continue to the port of the Alps, Takayama. With a tight program, missing only one would mess up the whole schedule… Of all the train rides we had to take in Japan, this day is the trickiest one, with many connections, including one on a train company not covered by the JR pass. A perfect test-case for the famous train pass available to visitors to Japan!

Our slight fear of having a hard time finding the right platforms on time appears to be useless. The Japanese train system is watertight, reliable and highly efficient with trains running exactly according to schedule, all destinations and platforms written in Latin alphabet, and announcements made both in Japanese and English.

Despite the fact it is rush hours, impeccably and uniformly dressed Japanese men in black pants and a white shirt wearing black leather shoes, wait respectfully in the designed areas on the platform to board the Shinkansen to Nagano.

The train system is so well developed in Japan, that one can get almost anywhere by train. Some guidebooks are even written around train stations. Still, several companies operate the various lines, and the JR pass is not always valid, making some trips a bit more complicated and a bit more expensive. To reach the Toyota factory, we must catch a regional train – not covered by the JR pass. In this specific case, we have merely four minutes to buy the tickets and catch the train. This is the only section of our trip when signs and announcements are only in Japanese. The punctuality of Japanese trains allows us to succeed and exit at the correct station.

In the evening, after an illuminating visit of the Toyota factory, we are comfortably seated in the air-conditioned bullet train riding at 300 kilometres an hour (about 200 miles an hour) towards the Alps. We have only one more connection to make, and a rather easy one. We are reflecting back on our crazy train day. “Hotto kohi?” The soft voice of the young female train attendant pushing a fully loaded trolley with drinks and sweets briefly interrupts us. With a hot coffee in our hands a couple of minutes later, we are discussing in the quietness of the cabin. The advantages of the JR pass are many:

  • saving time: no queuing for tickets (we were handed all the tickets we needed for these 14 days when we exchanged our passes at the first station), nor to exit the stations (just flashing the pass),
  • cost-effective: train transport is pricey in Japan. Of course, savings depend on the trip planned. In our case, the same trip from Fukuoka on Kyushu Island to Sapporo on Hokkaido covering more than 3,000 kilometres (about 2,000 miles) by train was 60% cheaper with the 14-day JR pass,
  • having the nice surprise of enjoying free transport around in Tokyo on the JR Yamanote and Chuo – Sobu lines.

The constraint of the JR pass is that it must be bought outside of Japan, prior to the trip (see travel tips as this may be changing soon). We would recommend you to carefully plan your journey as it makes it stress free to just exchange your voucher for all your trains tickets and booked seats upon arrival. You will need dates, times, train numbers, departure and arrival cities. The easiest way to design your trip is by using the Hyperdia website providing destinations, departure and arrival times, trains and track numbers, and ensuring that the selected trains are compatible with the JR pass.

Being used to the European train companies where a train on time and a helpful and kind staff feel like rarities, it is fantastic to experience such a fast, efficient and punctual system, especially in a very mountainous country where earthquakes happen on a daily basis.

Travel tips:

  • The Japan Railway pass (JR pass) is only available for non-Japanese residents and can only be bought outside Japan for an amount of consecutive days (7, 14, 21). For the 2020 Olympic Games, a system is being experimented allowing travellers to buy the JR pass at an increased cost at selected locations in Japan.
  • Outside of Japan, one can buy an exchange voucher for the JR pass in a travel agency. An online platform will be available starting on June 1, 2020.
  • Be careful, as there are 2 Shinkansen trains that cannot be ridden with the JR pass: the Mizuho and Nozomi trains. The hyperdia website offers the option to search for trains, excluding these.
  • Once in Japan, exchange the voucher for the actual JR pass, stating the first day of usage (that can be in the future). Especially if travelling during the summer (including the very busy Obon weekend), it is a lot more relaxing to secure all train rides and book seats in advance. When exchanging the voucher, simply fill out a form with dates, times, train numbers, departure and arrival cities. You will be leaving with all your train tickets and seat numbers.
  • Prior to traveling, it is possible to change tickets at any JR office, free of charge.
  • On the first traveling day, the JR pass has to be activated: just show it to a JR staff member at your first station.
  • When entering or leaving the platform area, flash your ticket and JR pass to the JR staff, and hop on or exit.

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Smiling lady filling out a JRpass form for the train in Japan on a wooden desk in a station.

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Or click on the images below for a selection:

Japan food series. People buying bento lunch boxes. Rocky peak of Mount Asahi-dake with blue skies, a person with backpack hiking a ridgeline, snow and colourful tents in the mountain. White airplane wing above the clouds in blue skies, text about what to pack for Japan.Many orange Torii Gates with a stone path leading through and a lantarn hanging from the top, Fushimi Inari-taisha Kyoto, Japan. Japanese floats and people dressed up for their summer festivals. People playing the drums. Red circle with white text over three photos commemorating atomic bom victims in Japan. Old Japanese woman with white apron cooking a large bowl of soup in the early morning, Japan. Japanese food series: kaiseki. Haute cuisine small bites artfully prepared. Golden temple with reflections in the water, a Japanese temple with wooden roof, orange shrines and a Japanese garden with a pond and green moss.

10 thoughts on “How to travel through Japan in a cost-effective & highly efficient way [JR pass]

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