Understanding and Travelling on Japan's Transit System

Understanding and using public transport in a different country can be a stressful, expensive experience. Throw in the added complications of a language barrier, foreign money and ticketing system, and millions of commuters using the sprawling, multilevel stations every single day, then travelling on Japan’s train system can seem like a daunting nightmare for even the most experienced travellers.

Japan's Rail System

Firstly, it is important to understand how the transportation system in Japan works. Japan has one of the worlds largest, fastest and busiest mass transit systems, with close to 30,000 kms of train tracks, millions of daily commuters, and punctuality record that rivals down to a few seconds of delay. With this kind of system, you would be hard pressed to find a better way to navigate around Japan.

Shinkansens, or 'Bullet Trains', are high-speed trains that connect Japan's major cities, reaching up to speeds of 300 kilometres, or 185 miles, an hour, gliding smoothly through mountains and across the countryside. They are a comfortable, efficient and punctual way to travel across Japan.

 Shinkansen Train in Japan(80683)

In each major city, there are multiple train networks, all organised under the Japan Railways Group (JR). These systems include metro and subway loops, that connect all areas of the city. Using these networking train systems is the easiest and fastest way to see a city. However, buying individual train tickets can be daunting, as it is mostly in Japanese, and purchasing a new ticket  for every single train trip can become an annoying hassle.

Understanding the JR Pass

The Japan Rail Pass, or JR Pass, is a rail pass offered only to foreign tourists and visitors as an inexpensive way to travel and use the rail system. It allows users unlimited travel on almost all of Japan's transit systems. It is simple, inexpensive and very easy to use.

The JR Pass can be purchased for unlimited use on JR trains for either 7, 14 or 21 consecutive days. This will obviously depend on your length of stay in Japan, and your transportation plans. The Pass is also broken into two types, either the Ordinary or Green Car Pass. The Green Car JR Pass is more expensive, but offers holderes access to first class carriages, where there is more spacious seating. The prices for the JR Pass are as follows:

7 Consecutive Days: Ordinary Car - 28,300 YEN / Green Car - 37,8oo YEN

14 Consecutive Days: Ordinary Car - 45,100 YEN / Green Car - 61,200 YEN

21 Consecutive Days: Ordinary Car - 57,700 YEN / Green Car - 79,600 YEN

Please Note: For children aged between 6-11, the rates are 50% off.

The JR Pass allows the holder access to unlimited travel on most of the JR transit systems including Shinkansens, buses and express, rapid and local JR trains. Furthermore, the Pass includes the Tokyo Monorail to and from the Haneda Airport, as well as the JR Ferry to Miyajima.

 There is no need for individual tickets, and while everyone else has to go through the ticket gates, JR Pass holders simply show their pass to the manned gate off to the side.

The JR Pass also allows for free seat reservation, and discounts at JR affiliated hotels.

JR Pass Restrictions

While the JR Pass does cover most transportation in Japan, it is important to keep in mind what it cannot be used on, and other restrictions it has:

  • The JR Pass cannot be purchased in Japan. You must buy the pass before you arrive in Japan.
  • The JR Pass is not valid on the Nozomi or Mizuho Shinkansens.  These two Shinkansens are the fastest Shinkansens. However, the Hikari and Sakura Shinkasens travel along the same train lines, and while they are slightly slower, they are still exceptionally fast (a trip from Osaka to Tokyo on a Hikari Shinkasen is only twenty minutes slower than the Nozomi) and are covered by the JR Pass.
  • The JR Pass doesn't fully cover the full fee of night trains. In most cases you will have to pay for the berth fee and express supplement. Be mindful of this.
  • The JR Pass doesn't cover about a dozen JR which travel on non-JR tracks.
  • When you buy a JR Pass, it has to be activated inside Japan within three months of purchasing it.
  • The JR Pass can only be used by 'temporary visitors' to Japan, and they must have their passport with them at all times for verification. Furthermore, the pass can be used by Japanese nationals with permanent residence outside of Japan or who have a spouse that lives outside of Japan, but solid proof of residence abroad is required.

The JR Pass isn't worthwhile if you are just going to use urban transport around the city, but if you are planning to travel on the Shinkansens to visit the major cities and travel around Japan, the JR Pass is the way to go. Individual Single or Round Trip tickets on Shinkansens are expensive, usually around 10,000-15,000 YEN one way, so you could definitely justify buying an unlimited JR Pass to use instead.