Guide to JR Pass and Riding the Shinkansen train

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Guide to Jr Pass and Riding the Shinkansen

Firstly, I want to say that I was pleasantly surprised finding out about this Travel Hack- The JR Pass. It is a great way to get around Japan. It is useful if you plan to do it a lot. I would not say its worth it for everyone. If you are flying one way to Tokyo and planning to stay in the city for a while, let’s assume for a business trip, it might not be good for you. But if you are staying for 7-8 days and visiting more than one city like me, the JR Pass is absolutely worth it.

During the trip, my friends and I visited Tokyo, Nagoya, and Kyoto. In our planning, we made a calculation that It will be much cheaper to buy the JR pass for 7 days which was $269, than purchasing the tickets separately.

We spent 8 days in Japan. We activated the JR Pass on the second day because otherwise our last day trip from Kyoto to Narita airport would not have been covered and the pass would not have been worth it since its an expensive trip with the Shinkansen (Bullet Train). In that case, we paid only for the first-day transfer from Narita Airport to Tokyo Ueno Station, which was about 2470 Yen or $22.

Guide to JR PASS and Shinkansen Lines
A selfie one the way to Nagoya with the famous Bullet Train- The Shinkansen

Keypoints

  • Covers JR Lines and some Shinkansen lines

  • Does NOT cover City Subway, Bus and all other means of transportation

  • Reserve seats for free

  • Unlimited JR Network Travel

  • TO and FROM Airport trains

Getting the Pass

ORDER Pass —> GET Voucher —> Exchange Voucher upon Arrival

Acquiring the magic voucher

Whether you have heard for the JR pass from a local or a friend who traveled to Japan, make sure you do your own extensive research on it before you arrive in Japan. The reason- you have to ORDER the pass before you come in Japan. That way Japan makes sure that this exclusive offer is available only for tourists and not for citizens of the island country.

You can get the JR PASS here.

Once you order the pass, a voucher will be shipped to your home address before you leave for Japan. This is very important as it takes time (usually about 7 days, there is an express mail service too) and the only way to actually acquire the voucher for the JR pass. Once you arrive in Japan, you can exchange it for the actual official JR Pass which will allow you to travel around the country on the JR system.

Guide to JR PASS and Shinkansen Lines
The JR Pass Vouchers came in the mail with a User Guide

At Narita Airport you can exchange the voucher at the lower level where you enter the train station. There is a ticket desk there, they will issue your pass, just follow the JR signs or ask information which is located right in front of you when you exit the arrivals gates.

Guide to JR PASS and Shinkansen Lines
This is the Service Center at Narita Airport. Here you can exchange your vouchers and a JR PASS will be issued to you.

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Using the JR PASS

Once you acquire the JR pass, its time to take full advantage of it and start getting around Japan. Your pass will be put on a little booklet that contains information about you and the JR network. The pass looks like a train ticket, but it is attached to the cover of your booklet. You are not allowed to remove it from the it.

Guide to JR PASS and Shinkansen Lines
This is the JR Pass in all its glory. A little booklet that opens a lot of doors.

Getting to the gates

When going to a train station and find your way to the train, before you actually get to the tracks you have to scan your ticket on the automated machines. However, you can’t do that with the JR PASS. Luckily, they have thought of a solution. There is an information/ officer booth on the side of the gates, you can go there and show your pass to the officer, he will let you in. Follow the same procedure when you are leaving the train station since there is automated gate system at the exit too.

Make sure you look at the information boards and orient yourself well, which track you should go to. Then double check if the approaching train is going to your desired location on the track board and on the train little information screen. This is the same for subway too. Pay special attention to which way the line is going now. The system is very dynamic so sometimes there are changes last minute.

NOTE: Please double check the names of the stations that you are going to. I thought the train was going towards Asakusa, when I actually wanted to go to Akasuka. Two totally different locations.

Guide to JR PASS and Shinkansen Lines
Guide to JR PASS and Shinkansen Lines

Reserving seats

Some lines require you to reserve a spot like the NEX (Narita Express) and some others not, but a reservation is always encouraged.

Unfortunately, this is not such a streamlined process like other things in Japan. You cannot reserve your seat online. You can only do it in a JR ticket office at a JR station. If you are traveling from Kyoto to Tokyo and vice versa, I don’t think reserving a seat is such a big deal, because Shinkansen runs every 30 minutes and you can almost always find a place.

Usually, Non- Reserved Seat cars are 1-5, so if you don’t have a reservation, find a seat in those cars. JR pass does not allow you to ride the Green Cars (First Class) only the regular cars. The First class is nice but I only think its worth upgrading for a longer than 3h ride.

Guide to JR PASS and Shinkansen Lines
When you reserve your seats, you will get a normal looking ticket that will specify your seat time of departure and arrival and other useful information.

What Does the JR Pass Cover

JR Lines network

It is separated into regions, for example, JR East, JR West. Make sure you check the map for the area and see if your chosen travel route uses JR lines, covered by your pass.

Guide to JR PASS and Shinkansen Lines
Guide to JR PASS and Shinkansen Lines
Narita Express is a cool looking train, and it is covered by the JR pass. REQUIRES reservation
Guide to JR PASS and Shinkansen Lines
Narita express is a great way to get to and from Narita airport. If going directly from Kyoto to the airport. You will change trains at Shinagawa station.

Shinkansen Lines but not ALL OF THEM

We used the HIKARI Shinkansen line to travel Tokyo- Nagoya- Kyoto. This line is covered by the JR pass, and it is the fastest of all lines servicing this route. The line stops at Yokohama, Atami, Shizuoka, Nagoya and then straight to Kyoto. Another good line that runs almost on the same route is KODAMA, which is also covered by the JR Pass. Always double check if the train you chose is covered by your pass.

Guide to JR PASS and Shinkansen Lines
The Hikari train we took from Tokyo- Kyoto

The Shinkansen train are very convenient. Seats are really comfortable, there is drinks and food carts where you can purchase food, but I highly recommend stopping at a department store. The food section is unbelievably amazing. There are power outlets on each seat. Overall a great smooth, spotless ride.

The only downside I can think of is the lack of Wi-fi on the trains we used.

Guide to JR PASS and Shinkansen Lines
The normal class on Shinkansen train is very comfortable
Guide to JR PASS and Shinkansen Lines
State of the art multipurpose room with funny signs

It is effortless to find our way from city to city with Google or Apple Maps, but those apps just show you the name of the line and not if it is a JR or non- JR line. There is an excellent app that can help you find your route.  It will also let you prioritize JR pass routes. The app is called Japan Travel.

Guide to JR PASS and Shinkansen Lines
State of the art multipurpose room with funny signs
Guide to JR PASS and Shinkansen Lines
The normal class on Shinkansen train is very comfortable

Make sure you check your current location’s JR Map to see if the desired line on your route is covered by the JR pass.

JR Miyajima Ferry

Ride the ferry and enjoying the beautiful Itsukushima Shrine near Hiroshima that peacefully sits in the water. Note that the Hakata- Pusan ferry to Korea is not covered by the pass.

Tokyo Monorail

This monorail connects Haneda International Airport to Hamamatsucho Station and its a very convenient way of finding your way into Tokyo from the airport. It looks like a version of the Subway lines.

Local JR Buses

Those are very limited (i have not used one) so make sure you see the JR logo on the bus.

What Does the JR Pass NOT Cover

Private Rail Lines

Some of the train lines are privately owned hence you cannot use your JR pass for them. One good example is Kintetsu Trains. You will have to buy regular train tickets to use those lines.

Tokyo Metro 🚇/ Subway

The Tokyo Metro/ Subway system is fantastic! They have numerous lines, and it first seems complicated and overwhelming but it actually is straightforward to use, and we didn’t get lost at all!

The Metro network is not part of the JR pass, unfortunately, but it’s absolutely the best way to get around in Tokyo. You can get virtually anywhere, and it is also very affordable to use. We used a PASMO card, very similar to the London’s Oyster card.

First, you have to buy the plastic card and leave a 500 Yen deposit, which you can get back at the airport for example, when you return the card. Then you add money to the card. Every time you go to a subway station to proceed to the tracks you have to touch your card, so the system registers where you are. On the way out, you touch it once more to adjust your fare. Much the same way as you travel with JR pass. It is very convenient, and I would highly recommend it.

Tokyo Metro/ Subway
Tokyo metro is air conditioned! Something that you see very rare, makes the ride very comfortable.

The Pasmo card can be used as a credit card too. You can pay with it in other transport systems like local buses and monorails also.

Kyoto Metro/ Kyoto Municipal lines

All of the points about the Tokyo metro system would apply the same way to the Kyoto Metro and Municipal lines. You can use your PASMO card everywhere.

Guide to JR PASS and Shinkansen Lines
Thi is the local train that we took on our way back from Kifune Shrine in Kyoto.
Guide to JR PASS and Shinkansen Lines
We used the local Kyoto Keihan line to get to Fushimi Inari Taisha.

Certain Shinkansen Trains

When we were making our way to Kyoto, we noticed that we have a lot of Shinkansen train options to chose from. However, NOZOMI and MIZUHO are Shinkansen trains are not covered by the mighty JR pass. They are the fastest of all Shinkansen (bullet train). Be careful when you board a Shinkansen train because very often they share the same tracks as the lines covered by the JR pass. They have different colors on the line names on the screens, make sure you check and ask someone which train exactly you are boarding to avoid confusion.

Guide to JR PASS and Shinkansen Lines
Nozomi Shinkansen train. This is a faster train than the Hikari line and is not included in the JR pass.

Private Airport Connections

A good example is the KENSEI line from Narita Airport to Ueno Station in Tokyo. This is the fastest service from the airport to the city. To ride the train, it will cost you 2470 YEN, about $22.

Summary

Is it worth to get the JR PASS

For us, totally! The JR pass is a very powerful tool in your wallet for traveling around Japan. Once again, if you are doing one way to Tokyo, or even roundtrip, but you are only visiting one city, the pass might not be worth it for you. Furthermore, try to calculate your individual fares and compare them to the price of the JR pass. Also, make sure you think about that at least 10 days before your departure date since you have to order and receive the voucher at your home address then exchange it once in Japan.

Have you used the pass? 

If you have different experience than ours or more information, please share your comments bellow so we can help more travelers find their way in this beautiful country without breaking the bank.

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Hi there! I’m Atanas — I’ve been traveling around the world since I was 15, so about 12 years, but just recently got into writing. My mission is to inspire more people to take on the journey of their lives and spread the word that traveling the world can be easy, fun and not cost a fortune!

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4 thoughts on “Guide to JR Pass and Riding the Shinkansen train”

  1. Stefan Stoynov

    So glad we got to ride the Shinkanse! The price was well-worth the experience and definitely the best way to get around to the other cities.

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