If you’ve thought about going to Japan or you’ve been before, chances are you’ve heard of the JR Pass. This seemingly magical pass is recommended to every traveller who wants to see more of Japan than just Tokyo.
But here’s the thing. We kind of wasted ours the last time we went to Japan. For reasons that I’ll get on to soon enough, we didn’t get the most out of it and for much of the trip I didn’t think about it very much.
Cut to 2 years later, another Japan visit done and I’m singing its praises. So here we go, 5 things I learned about the JR Pass.
1 – The JR Pass Works in Week-long Blocks of Time.
The reason why the JR Pass didn’t work so well for us last time, is that we had already booked our hotels before we’d done any research on the JR Pass.
We were doing the typical “Golden Route” of Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, but the way the timings worked out, it meant the journey from Tokyo and the journey back to it, were 8 days apart.
The JR Pass works in blocks of 7-days, you can either get a 7 day, 14 day or 21 day pass. But nothing in-between. This meant for our first trip there wasn’t much value to be gained.
For our second trip we planned with this in mind, squeezing all of the essential Shinkansen trips in to exactly 7 days. This meant we saved a lot more money than we would have done otherwise.
2 – You Can Use It For More Than The Shinkansen
The JR Pass will get you on the Shinkansens (bullet trains) that cross the country. But it is the “JR pass” and not the “bullet train pass”. There are lots of other JR trains in different cities. Osaka has a loop line that circles the down-town area. And Tokyo has the Yamanote line that similarly does a circle around central Tokyo.
But that’s not all. Did you know you can use the JR Pass to take a ferry to Miyajima island? Or sightseeing buses in Hiroshima?
If you’re taking a day trip to Miyajima from Hiroshima you can use the JR Pass to get a train to the port and then a 10-minute ferry to Miyajima island. And in Hiroshima itself, there are 3 sightseeing loop buses. These are extremely useful as they cover major points of interest like the Peace Museum, Hiroshima Castle and Hiroshima train station.
My advice would be to make use of tourist information offices when you reach a new city (the one at Hiroshima station was extremely useful). Or do a quick search online to see what the JR Pass can do where you are.
3 – It’s Possible to Walk on a Shinkansen Without a Ticket
This is one I can’t believe I didn’t know before our second Japan trip. I’d heard about reserving seats and unreserved seats, but I suppose I never really put that together with the JR Pass in my head.
Here’s how it works. When getting a Shinkansen you can either reserve a seat or choose to go on one of the unreserved carriages. To reserve a seat you head to a JR ticket office, show them your pass and tell them where you’re heading. They’ll tell you what times are available and get you a ticket booked. This guarantees you a seat for your journey.
If you don’t want or need to reserve a seat, there are carriages just for unreserved seating. The best part about doing this is that you don’t need a separate ticket. Simply show your JR Pass at the ticket gates and go to the platform. When the train arrives, hop on and sit wherever there’s a free seat. If a ticket inspector comes, just show them your JR Pass. And that’s it!
It’s so easy, I can’t believe I didn’t know that we could travel in this way. There’s something really cool about waving a pass and just going wherever you like to get across an entire country (pretty much).
The only downside is there is the possibility that there won’t be a seat for you. We witnessed several people having to stand for the majority of the journey between Hiroshima and Osaka. You also need to be careful which Shinkansen you get on, which brings us to number 4…
4 – Look Out For Which Shinkansen You’re Getting!
While it is incredible to just walk on to a Shinkansen without pre-booking, you HAVE to make sure you get the right one. This is something that didn’t really occur to me on our first trip, partly because we booked our ticket and followed the directions to our Shinkansen.
You see, there are different types of Shinkansen and each of these are given a name. You can get two or three types sharing the same route and platform, making it important you pay attention to the signs, departure boards and announcements.
Some of these Shinkansen are NOT usable with the JR Pass. Unfortunately these are also the quickest of the Shinkansens. A quick guide is below.
Available with JR Pass: HIKARI, SAKURA, KODAMA, or TSUBAME
Not Available with JR Pass: MIZUHO, NOZOMI
5 – This is How You Activate The Pass
After ordering your JR Pass you will get a paper confirmation called the JR Pass Voucher. This is as much a proof of purchase than anything and IS NOT the JR Pass itself. Before you can go hopping on to trains, you need to exchange this piece of paper at a JR Exchange office.
Once again, Japanese customer service makes the whole process very smooth. When we approached the Exchange office, a woman was stood just outside it, advising us to fill out the short forms that were available. In the chance that there isn’t someone about to help, look out for the small forms. There should be boxes full of them and a table to one side where you can fill them in.
Once done, approach the counter (assuming you’ve waited in line first) with your JR Pass Voucher, passport and recently filled in form. Tell them the day you would like the voucher to start. This doesn’t have to be the day you are exchanging the pass, so remember point 1 and have a plan.
The whole process takes a few minutes, if that and in return you will have a folded piece of card that looks something like this.
If you’re arriving at Narita airport, head towards the trains and you will pass the JR East Office on the way. For a list of other Exchange offices you can use, there’s a complete list you can check here.
6 – It Can Get You From Narita Airport
One more thing for my list of “I can’t believe I didn’t know this”. If you are activating the JR Pass the day that you arrive at Narita airport, you can actually use it for the Narita Express that goes to Tokyo.
The Narita Express is far more convenient than the regular trains that we used one our first trip. As the Express part of the name should already suggest, this is a direct train to the city. There’s no exchanges between the airport and Tokyo and very few stops, making it a relatively quick journey. And when it’s bundled into the cost of your JR Pass, you’d be silly not to.