Buying & Using the Japan Rail Pass
The Japan Rail Pass (often called the JR Pass around town) is the most cost-efficient way to complete long-distance train travel. Because the discounts are so great, it’s only open to purchase by foreigners. The pass allows for unlimited use of JR trains for one, two or three weeks.
I had read extensively about it in my guidebooks and traveler forums that it was the easiest and best way for people planning trips from Tokyo.
Because the pass is only available for short-term foreign visitors, it can only be purchased outside Japan. Once the vouchers arrive from overseas (ours came via FedEx from a travel agency in France), they can be redeemed at kiosks around the city or at the airports for the physical pass. Tourists must show their passport during the exchange process, which we found easy to do at Narita Airport after our arrival flight.
What it covers
The pass is valid on nearly all nationwide trains operated by Japan Railways, including the monorail from Haneda Airport, some ferries and buses. We used it to/from the Narita airport on the bullet train, roundtrip to the town of Hakone and planned for a longer jaunt to Kyoto. It can also be used on trips to Osaka and Hiroshima.
Childrens tickets are also discounted as well as the “green pass” that is the “first class” cards.
The purchase of the pass allows for free seat reservations on the majority of trains as well.
I opted to spend the extra few dollars to get access to the English-language assistance by phone or email while away, something I would recommend for travelers who want to buy some more peace of mind. We ultimately never ended up using it because the maps and schedules were clear and most JR employees spoke great English and were more than happy to help assist in purchasing tickets and finding the tracks.
1. JR Rail pass holders are not permitted to use automatic ticket gates. Passes must be presented to staff at the manned gates. In some instances, this is even faster than having to go through the turnstyle, especially if you have luggage.
2. I found some of the train stations completely overwhelming in size. There’s no shame in flashing your pass to JR employees and asking for help locating the track you’ll be departing from.
3. There’s a discrepancy with the booking system that does not allow Narita Express passengers to book their train tickets from the airport before you have the pass in hand. JR employees assure travelers that there are usually ample seats available and you can purchase the seat on the Narita Express upon arrival. On my trip, I had no problems doing so.