The JR Pass is a nationwide rail pass allowing you unlimited travel on trains operated by Japan Rail (with a few exceptions, see below) for a fixed number of days. It’s amazingly good value if you’re planning to cover a reasonable distance – basically any itinerary exceeding a Tokyo-Kyoto round-trip will work out cheaper using the JR Pass, potentially saving you hundreds of dollars.
If you’re visiting for the World Cup and planning to attend matches in a couple of different regions, the JR Pass will probably serve you well. Likewise if you want to get some sightseeing done while you’re in the country and visit e.g. Kyoto or Hiroshima in between matches in Tokyo or Osaka, the JR Pass is surely the way to go.
How to Buy the JR Pass
There are two ways to buy the JR Pass – advance booking online, or in person once you’re in Japan. Doing it in advance saves you 40 to 60 dollars, you just need to make sure you do it in good time as you have to recieve a physical voucher (called an ‘exchange order’) in the mail to be exchanged for the pass once you reach Japan. Don’t order a pass the day before you fly! The passes are sold by various online sales agents, usually with free shipping (depending where you are), and usually good for delivery within 48 hours – but really it’s best to allow a week at least to be safe. Note that traditional bricks & mortar travel agents in your country may sell them too, but likely with a steeper markup.
If you fail to sort it out in time, or you didn’t realise you wanted one before you got there, you can just take your passport along to a designated sales point* and buy one over the counter for a slightly higher price:
7-day passes are 29,000 purchased online or 33,000 purchased in Japan
14-day passes are 46,000 purchased online or 52,000 purchased in Japan
21-day passes are 59,000 purchased online or 65,000 purchased in Japan
So, if you’re organised and like saving 40 to 60 dollars, online is still the way to go – I’ve used the JR Pass many times and have bought them both ways. I have an affiliate partnership with Japan Rail Pass, so if you click on one of my links to their site (like this one) or one of the banners on this page and make a purchase, you save 40 dollars and I also get a bit of commission (at no extra cost to you) – it’s a win-win, so if you’ve found my site useful or interesting please consider it! I use them whenever I purchase a JR Pass online, they’ve provided great service and fast delivery every time. Click the banner to make an order or browse their site:
(*over the counter sales points are the following stations: Sapporo, Sendai, Niigata, Tokyo Station, Shinjuku, Yokohama, Nagoya, Osaka, Hiroshima, Takamatsu, Hakata (Fukuoka), New Chitose Airport (Sapporo), Tokyo’s Narita & Haneda airports, and Kansai International Airport)
Should You Buy the JR Pass?
If you’re just attending matches in one region e.g. Tokyo or Osaka/Kobe and staying only in that region, then probably not – pick up one of the local IC cards instead. The exception might be if you plan on a whole bunch of side-trips.
If you’re attending matches in two regions then it depends. If you base yourself in e.g. Tokyo and just fly to e.g. Fukuoka or Sapporo for a match before flying back, then obviously you don’t need a rail pass.
On the other hand if you fly in & out of Tokyo, with a round-trip to Osaka or Kamaishi for a match, the JR Pass will save you money while also covering potential side-trips to Hiroshima, Kyoto etc; whereas if you fly in to Tokyo and out from Osaka (with a single bullet train trip between them), the JR Pass won’t save you money unless you also include a visit to Hiroshima.
Basically, if you’re doing anything much more than Tokyo – Kyoto return (26,800 yen), a JR Pass is going to be good value; 29,000 yen for the 1-week pass, and obviously the more you use it the better value it becomes. To work out if the pass saves you money, look at where you intend to go and calculate the total price for individual train tickets (which you can do on Hyperdia, see here for an explanation on how to use it).
Finally, and in my opinion definitely the best idea if you have the time & budget for it, you can build your match attendance plans into a broader sightseeing itinerary and use the JR Pass to see as much of Japan as you can while you’re there.
For example if you’re going to one of the matches in Sapporo, starting from Tokyo you could fly to Sapporo for the game, activating your JR Pass when you leave Sapporo and using it travel around Hokkaido and/or travel down through the Tohoku region back to Tokyo (possibly catching a match in Kamaishi on the way through).
In the other direction, you could use the pass to go Tokyo-Osaka-Hiroshima-Fukuoka, potentially taking in matches in each of Tokyo, Kansai, and Kyushu.
Riding the Train
Getting your pass: when you arrive in Japan, if you pre-ordered take your exchange order to the JR Pass counter at the ticket office – you can do this at Narita, Haneda and Kansai airports if you want to activate it immediately to use for your airport transfer, or if you want to activate it later head to Shinjuku or Tokyo Station (or any of the others listed at the * above). They’ll check your passport for your tourist stamp/visa and give you your pass – this is a good time to make any seat reservations you already have in mind. If you didn’t pre-order just go to the JR Pass counter with your passport and pay by cash or credit card.
Once you have the pass in hand, you’re then free to pass through the ticket barriers at any JR station at will – you can’t go through the usual ticket gates, look for the manned gate at the side where the staff will visually check your ticket and let you through (in practice, if they’re busy they barely even check, just wave the pass at them and go through. On other occasions they may actually want to take it and have a proper look at it). The first time you do this with your new pass they’re supposed to stamp it to validate it; if they’re busy and not fully paying attention, make sure they stamp it for you! (it’s not such a big deal, but may save you a confusing scene later on)
The shinkansen platforms are accessed via a separate concourse which in turn is usually accessed through a second set of barriers within the JR concourse. At some stations (especially smaller ones) you may find this isn’t the case, but most of the time you’ll be going through two sets of ticket gates to reach the shinkansen platforms so allow plenty of time to navigate the stations. These concourses are packed full of convenience stores, bento shops, and souvenir shops – bento are basically lunch boxes, and the ekiben (a portmanteau of eki, station, and bento) are really good! If you need to eat on the go, do it like a Japanese salaryman and grab yourself an ekiben to enjoy on the train. The trains usually also have food trolleys coming up & down with drinks and snacks, nothing fancy but it does the job.
Seat reservations: most shinkansen and limited express trains have both reserved seat cars and non-reserved seat cars. The non-reserved cars enable you to just rock up and get on any train going to your destination, but if it’s busy there’ll be plenty of others doing the same and you may end up standing. Therefore if you know which train you’re planning to ride you might want to make a seat reservation, you can do this at any ticket counter (not just the JR Pass counters) and it’s free of charge. There are some shinkansen and limited express trains which have no non-reserved cars and thus require mandatory seat reservations, notably the Hayabusa & Komachi (which are the fastest service heading north from Tokyo to Hokkaido & Akita respectively after separating at Morioka).
Exceptions: with the JR Pass you can ride all JR trains, with just a few exceptions. The main ones to be aware of are that you can’t ride the Nozomi or Mizuho trains on the Shinkansen system. The Nozomi is the fastest service operating between Tokyo & Fukuoka, and the Mizuho is the fastest service between Osaka and Kagoshima (the trains don’t actually go faster, they just make fewer stops and so provide a faster service from A to B). This means the fastest service you can use between Tokyo & Osaka is the Hikari, which also operates between Osaka & Fukuoka, and the fastest service you can use between Osaka & Kagoshima is the Sakura. Between Osaka & Fukuoka the Hikari and Sakura overlap; the Sakura is faster over that part of the network (and only marginally slower than the Mizuho).
In addition to those two shinkansen services, the pass doesn’t cover private cabins on night trains (it does cover the non-private cabins, but there are hardly any night trains left anyway and you’re unlikely to ride them unless you’re a train enthusiast), and also there are some JR trains which run along short sections of private railway which require you to pay a supplement. This could potentially happen without you realising, and the conductor or station staff will ask for the supplement – don’t feel they’re ripping you off or anything, it’s just how it works and the supplement isn’t usually much. In any case most rugby fans probably won’t end up on these sections; the most likely would be the limited express trains from Tokyo to Shimoda (on the Izu Peninsula) and Kyoto to Amanohashidate, or if you go to Odaiba Island in Tokyo Bay on the JR Saikyo Line from Shinjuku/Shibuya the train runs on a private line (Rinkai Line) for the last few stops which’ll cost you a few dollars.
Any questions about the JR Pass? Give me a shout below and I’ll get back to you.
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