Rail travel in Japan: Everything you need to know about trains and the JR Pass

There are many ways of getting around in Japan. Its road and public transport networks, and even airports, are quite easy to access and understand.

Some of the ways are faster, some are slower, some are more expensive, and some are cheaper.

The best, though, in our opinion, is train – that’s how we were getting from one place to the other during our trip.

But let me tell you more about rail travel in Japan and other ways of getting around this incredible country so that you can decide what’s best for you.

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How to get around Japan

So, let me just tell you about the best possible options of getting around in Japan, from one city to another.


flying away from japan
On the way home from Japan

Most of the cities in Japan have domestic airports, which means that they are easy, fast, and actually quite cheap to reach. If you’d like to check a lot of cities during the limited time you have in Japan, you can consider this way of getting around.

On the other hand, it’s not exactly possible to enjoy the majesty of the Japanese landscape from an airplane.

Renting a car

As usual, renting a car gives you the most freedom. It’s just so much easier to explore all the nooks and crannies of a country when you can stop almost wherever you wish.

Roads in Japan are in a great condition and are fixed promptly if something appears.

There are some tricky things that you have to consider if you decide to rent a car in Japan.

  • The signs are generally translated to English but the weather warnings and road closures might not be.
  • The biggest problems would arise in the mountains, though, especially if you have no experience driving in snowy conditions. The roads might be slippery and the mountain passes might be closed as early as November and as late as April because of snow.
  • Another thing to consider that the navigation might not be all that precise in the mountainous areas. Otherwise, though, the GPS works ok.
  • The parking and driving in big cities might be quite interesting as well.
  • And the last thing, driving a car, if you want to cross long distances, will most probably take longer than a train.

If you do decide to rent a car, it’s actually not as expensive as I expected. Generally, it can cost even as low as 60$ a day. Most of the major car rental companies are available in Japan, just make sure to check the one that you enjoy the most.

One thing you should know, though, is that you will most probably need to translate your driver’s licence.

A bus

on a public bus in japan
A bus in the Hakone area

There are lots of busses connecting Honshū, Shikoku and Kyūshū islands. If you’re on a tight budget, this might be the best option. There are even overnight buses which would help you save on accommodation.

With a bus, you might even be able to see some incredible views! On the flip side, though, it’s a lot slower than the other options available.

Some companies that run buses are: eight regional bus companies of JR Bus (but not with the JR Pass) and Willer.


standing by shinkansen in a train station in japan

The best option, in our opinion, is a train, though.

Rail travel in Japan is not only the most efficient way of domestic travel, but it is also a super-cool experience by itself. If you picture Japanese rail travel as sitting in the sleek and futuristic-looking Shinkansen, whizzing by at a neck-breaking speed through the beautiful Japanese landscape, with the majestic snow-capped Mt. Fuji somewhere behind the windows, you’re pretty right.

There are quite a few train companies operating, but the most popular and efficient is definitely the JR Railways. They have a special pass for tourists – the JR Pass – which allows for a fast and cost efficient exploration of the country.

What is the Japan Rail Pass?

First, let’s mention the fact that there are several rail companies in Japan – the Japan Railways (JR) and various private companies, operating their trains usually on their own rail tracks. The JR is the exclusive operator of Shinkansen.

Japan Rail Pass is the most cost-effective solution for long-distance rail travel in Japan, meant only for foreign tourists to the country. It pays off the best when using Shinkansen for long-distance trips.  The pass allows unlimited travel on all JR-operated trains, except for the fastest category of Shinkansen (called Nozomi and Mizuho). It comes in a 7, 14 or 21 days validity.

You can order an Ordinary pass (that would be the equivalent of 2nd class) or a Green pass that entitles you to travel in the Green car, an equivalent of the 1st class.

What is a Shinkansen?

View of an information screen inside Hiroshima station.
Lost in translation? Not really! The digital screens alternate between Japanese and English information, while all the signs are also bilingual – Japanese and English.

If one was looking for a synonym for reliability, punctuality, and comfort, then Shinkansen might be the right word.

The futuristically looking bullet train whose average delay is expressed in seconds rather than minutes is a tribute to the Japanese love of modern technologies, sense of precision and attention to detail. It has been safely carrying people in Japan for already 55 years, and even nowadays it still looks as futuristic as ever.

Running at speeds up to 300 km/h (even a bit higher at certain segments), the journey times are quite short – the Nozomi Shinkansen (the fastest category of Shinkansen) does the 514 km trip between Tokyo and Kyoto in 2 hours and 15 minutes.

I admit we were a bit worried about moving around in Japan before our trip. What if the signs will be only in Japanese?

View of an information sign on a platform in Hiroshima station.
You know exactly where your car will stop – rail travel in Japan is really easy, super-efficient, fast and fun.

Fortunately, there’s no need to worry. All the Japanese train stations have bilingual signs – in Japanese and English. Also, most of the staff at the stations used on our itinerary spoke (at least some) English. And everything is posted so clearly and precisely that you always know exactly where to go.

You can find out which platform and track your train would be departing from already from the hyperdia.com website but of course, all this information is found on large screens inside the station as well.

For Shinkansen, which runs on dedicated tracks, all the platforms have precise information about where every car will stop – very handy indeed. So you know from your reservation that you’re seated in car number four – you know exactly where to wait on the platform. The door will be right there where it shows, not a meter to the left or right – right there!

The Shinkansen have conductors – not really for checking the tickets, but rather for seeing to the fact that everything goes safely and smoothly. He bows as enters the car, wearing his uniform with white gloves, passes through the car and then turns around to face the passengers and bows once more before leaving.

Funnily, on our very first ride on Shinkansen, our train was about 35 seconds late (!) on arrival in Hiroshima. The poor conductor was apprehensively looking at his wristwatch, knowing this ain’t the way Shinkansen is supposed to run 😊 True, with the scandalous delay of 35 seconds, our service was worsening the whole year’s statistics, given that the average delay is about 24 seconds.

What are the prices of Japan Rail Pass?

The current prices of Japan Rail Pass are as follows:

Type of pass Ordinary (equivalent of 2nd class) Green car (equivalent of 1st class)
7-day 29,650 YEN 39,600 YEN
14-day 47,250 YEN 64,120 YEN
21-day 60,450 YEN 83,390 YEN
Note: the prices quoted are for adults. Children aged 6 – 11 have a 50 % discount.

While these prices might seem high, they are in fact the cheapest means of long-distance travel in Japan.

Type of pass Ordinary Green car
7-day 50 000 YEN 70 000 YEN
14-day 80 000 YEN 110 000 YEN
21-day 100 000 YEN 140 000 YEN
Note: the prices quoted are for adults. Children aged 6 – 11 have a 50 % discount.

The price of a 7-day ordinary car pass is about the same as the price of a return ticket between Tokyo and Kyoto. Even if you were visiting only these two cities, it’s still worth it to get the Japan Rail Pass, as it also covers Narita Express from Tokyo Narita airport to Tokyo and Limited Express Haruka running from Osaka Kansai airport to Osaka and Kyoto.

Related: Tokyo 2 day itinerary
mount fuji in Japan as seen from shinkansen
The more long-distance trips you do, the more you’re getting the worth of the Japan Rail Pass. By the way, did you know Mt. Fuji is visible from the Shinkansen during the Tokyo-Kyoto trip?

The more places you explore in this amazing country – for example, if you follow our 10-day Japan itinerary, the more you’re getting worth of your Japan Rail Pass.

Where to buy the Japan rail pass?

The simplest answer to this is: either online or from specialized travel agents, before travelling to Japan.

The first step is to purchase a voucher (also called an exchange order) before your trip to Japan. If you prefer to buy it online, there are several authorized agencies selling it. The voucher will then be delivered to you by a courier (delivery fee applies).
Unfortunately, the voucher can’t currently be sent by email and printed. We don’t have a personal experience with this option (we bought it from an authorized travel agent in Riga), however, Japan Experience and JR Pass have relatively good reviews.

If you prefer to purchase the JR Pass from authorized travel agents, you may find their list using this link. In this case, you get the voucher directly from them.

Either way, you end up with a voucher that you’ll have to exchange for the actual Japan Rail Pass after arriving in Japan, at any ticket office of Japan Railways.

How does Japan Rail Pass work?

The Japan Rail Pass is personalized, so you’ll need your passport (bearing the stamp “Temporary Visitor” that you get as a tourist in Japan) to exchange the voucher for the pass. We recommend doing this right after your arrival in Japan at Tokyo or Osaka airport.

The Rail Pass needs to be activated as well – that means you need to decide when you’ll use it for the first time and then set that day as the first day of its validity (it might be the very same day you arrive in Japan or some later day, depending on your itinerary).

While you’re still in the JR ticket office, we also recommend making seat reservations for all your train journeys by Shinkansen. While most Shinkansen trains have cars with both reserved and non-reserved seats, having a seat reservation offers you peace of mind that you’ll have a seat available (or seats together if you’re a larger group), and it is completely free.

Once you’ve got your Japan Rail Pass and made the seat reservations, all you need to do is use one of the manned gates at the railway stations (JR pass doesn’t work with electronic gates) to proceed to the platform and board the train.

So hop on the fancy Shinkansen and enjoy the ride! Simple as that!

View of a passenger posing in front of a Shinkansen in Osaka station.
Hop on the Shinkansen and enjoy the ride!

Where can I use the Japan Rail Pass?

The Japan Rail Pass can be used – as the name suggests – for JR trains. If you use trains operated by other companies, you’ll need to get tickets for those.

Let’s have a closer look at what’s covered by Japan Rail Pass:

  • All JR trains. You get the best of your money’s worth when using Shinkansen services. Please note that Japan Rail Pass is NOT valid for the fastest category of Shinkansen trains, called Nozomi and Mizuho. You’ll need to use other Shinkansen services, called Sakura, Hikari (we recommend using these two) or Kodama (the slowest category of Shinkansen that has the most stops). For comparison, the journey between Tokyo and Kyoto takes around 2 hrs 15 min on Nozomi, 2 hrs 40 min on Hikari and 3 hrs 40 min on Kodama. Update: from October, if you purchase an upgrade with your JR Pass, you’ll be allowed to use the Nozomi and Mizuho, as well.
  • Tokyo Monorail (convenient connection to Tokyo Haneda airport). If you’re arriving at Narita airport, we recommend taking Narita Express – a JR train.
  • JR Miyajima ferry – a convenient means of reaching the beautiful Miyajima island.
  • Loop bus Hiroshima Meipuru-pu – convenient for reaching the most important sights in Hiroshima

Update: after the prices will be raised, it is said that Nozomi and Mizuho trains, which were not covered by the current JR pass, will be available for an extra fee to all of the JR pass holders.

Related: Kyoto 2 day itinerary

Dontcha love the Japanese sense of precision? 😊

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Japanese Shinkansen and a sign in a train station

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