Using the Japan Rail Pass to Explore Japan

When we were planning our month long trip to Japan back in March 2017, working out the train and transport system was our first priority. Train travel is the most efficient way of getting around Japan, as there are hundreds of regular train and Subway lines. But if you want to travel between cities in Japan, you might need the Japan Rail Pass. This pass gets you on the super fast and exciting Shinkansen Bullet Train, and will take you from city to city in record time.

We used the Shinkansen Bullet Train five times, traveling between Yokohama, Osaka, Hiroshima, Nagoya, Nagano and Tokyo. This guide for the Japan Rail Pass is perfect for anyone who is unsure about whether they need the fastest, most convenient and cheapest way to travel from city to city within Japan.

The most important piece of advice I can give to someone visiting Japan for the first time, is trying not to become overwhelmed by the amount of people. We arrived at Yokohama Station highly jet-lagged, having not slept for over 24 hours, and were thrown straight into the deep end. I remember it vividly: us standing to the side, watching hundreds of men and women in business suits rushing past us. I wish I had filmed this moment, but we were so exhausted, it was the last thing on my mind.

If only we knew at the time just how simple the Japanese train system actually is. It might look horribly intense and terrifying at first. But once you get the hang of things, and you’re not dragging heavy suitcases on over twenty hours of travel exhaustion – it is actually quite simple. So here is our guide on using the Japan Rail Pass, and other tips for train travel throughout Japan.

Using the Japan Rail Pass to Travel Around Japan

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What is the Japan Rail Pass?

The Japan Rail Pass is made for visitors to Japan, who will be in the country for less than 90 days. If you are planning to travel to multiple cities across the country, the Japan Rail Pass is perfect for you. Instead of purchasing individual Shinkansen Bullet Train tickets (more on the Shinkansen later in this post), the Japan Rail Pass gets you onto as many Bullet Trains as you like.

Not only can you use the Japan Rail Pass to travel between cities on the Shinkansen, you can also use it for any JR train lines throughout the country. Simply look out for signs directing you to the JR trains in any of Japan’s train stations, show your JR pass at the window and you won’t have to pay any extra to board those trains.

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Tips and Information about the Japan Rail Pass

Purchase your Japan Rail Pass before arriving in Japan

The Japan Rail Pass is only available online, to non-Japanese visitors. That means, if you live in Japan or are staying in the country for longer than 90 days, you will not be able to purchase the pass.

The JR Pass isn’t available once you arrive in Japan, so be sure to plan ahead, purchase before you arrive and have it delivered to your home.

Choose a Japan Rail Pass to suit your length of stay

Choose the Japan Rail Pass that suits you, based on the length of time you’ll be staying in Japan. For example, Russell and I purchased a 21 day pass, which cost us 59,350 yen each (everyone in your group will need their own pass).

We stayed in Japan for an entire month, so this gave us plenty of time to activate the pass and get the most use of out it during the time we spent in Japan.

You can also purchase a seven day pass for 29,110 yen or a fourteen day pass for 46,390 yen.

The Japan Rail Pass isn’t for everyone

Before purchasing your Japan Rail Pass, you should first decide whether or not you actually need one. If you are spending your entire visit to Japan in Tokyo, you won’t need a JR Pass. You can simply use the regular train or Subway systems to get around Tokyo. The same applies for any other city in Japan.

However, if you are going to be visiting multiple cities, you will more than likely need a JR Pass. We spent time in six different cities across Japan: Yokohama, Osaka, Hiroshima, Nagoya, Nagano and then Tokyo.

This meant we were able to travel from one side of the country to the other, and even ventured to Japan’s countryside to spend a couple of days in the snow.

Use JR train lines as often as you can

As I mentioned earlier, your Japan Rail Pass gets you on more than just the Shinkansen. There are JR train lines in most stations across Japan, so be sure to utilise these as often as possible. All you need to do is show your JR Pass at the window alongside the JR gates, and you’ll be let straight through without having to pay any extra.

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The Japan Rail Pass lets you travel across Japan at a super discounted rate

If we were to purchase individual Shinkansen tickets for each journey throughout our time in Japan, it would have cost far more than the price of our Japan Rail Pass. Not only this, but we also caught a lot of regular JR trains in each city that we visited, meaning we saved even more money. If the JR Pass works out to be cheaper for you, we highly recommend purchasing it.

The Shinkansen Bullet Train

If you decide to purchase the Japan Rail Pass, you’ll be able to travel around the country on the super fast Shinkansen Bullet Train. The Shinkansen reaches speeds of up to 320 kilometres per hour, which will definitely get you to your destination in record time.

One of the most important things to note about Japan, is that everything is incredibly punctual. Meaning if your Shinkansen is leaving the station at 11:23am, be there and ready to go because it will not wait for you.

The Shinkansen travels between most major cities across Japan. The first one we rode was from Yokohama to Osaka; then from Osaka to Hiroshima; Hiroshima to Nagoya; Nagoya to Nagano and finally from Nagano to Tokyo.

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Tips and Information about the Shinkansen Bullet Train

You can reserve seats on any Shinkansen Bullet Train

You can reserve a seat on any Shinkansen Bullet Train throughout Japan. Simply head to the train station early enough before the time you wish to leave, and most of the time it’s easy enough to reserve a seat. That being said, if the reserved seats are in fact sold out, there are a couple of other options.

You can either reserve a seat for the next train, then hang around the station for an extra hour or so. Or you can choose a non-reserved seat. This just means you’ll be in a first come, first served situation. Head straight to the platform that your train will be leaving from, then either place your suitcase or a personal item on the line outside of each train car; or stand in line and wait.

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This will guarantee you board the train first, and will therefore find a seat quite easily, even without a reserved ticket.

Bullet Trains have luggage compartments 

This is something we weren’t sure about the first time we boarded a Shinkansen. Russell and I used the Bullet Train to travel between cities across Japan, so we had all of our luggage each time we did this. So we were hoping there would be plenty of room to store all of our luggage on the train, without having to keep it in front of our feet for the duration of our trip.

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When we boarded our first Shinkansen, we were surprised to see that there was ample space above our heads (similar to the overhead bins on a plane) for suitcases, handbags and backpacks. However, if your suitcase is too large to fit in the overhead storage, don’t worry. At the back of each car throughout the train, there is an extra area where you can store your suitcases, which is pretty handy for people like me who have a bad overpacking problem, and shop way too much.

They also have bathrooms and rubbish bins

Most Shinkansen Bullet Trains have bathrooms on board. They are located between most carriages, and are super modern, clean and easy to use. If you choose to buy some snacks before boarding the train, there are also bins located next to the bathrooms on most Bullet Trains. Use these to dispose of your rubbish before departing the train, just incase you don’t come across a bin right away (more on this soon).

Some Shinkansen Bullet Trains have a snack service, too

This isn’t available on every train, but some Bullet Trains have snack carts. Someone will walk up and down the aisles with food, which you can buy right then and there. Think Hogwarts Express style. You can pretend that you’re a wizard for the day.

From what I can remember, we only had this option on one of the trains we caught, though. If you are catching an early train or want some food to eat throughout the journey, purchase some snacks from one of the many vending machines or convenience stores located in the train station.

General tips for Transport and Navigation in Japan

Purchase a Suica or Pasmo Card

When you arrive in Japan, you will need to purchase a Suica or Pasmo card. The train system is the best way to get around Japan, and you will use these cards to do so. There’s a 500 yen deposit fee when purchasing the card, which you can get back if you return the card at the end of your stay in Japan.

To start using your Suica or Pasmo card, simply load any amount of money onto the card that you like. We started with loading 2,000 yen onto our Suica card, because we weren’t too sure how it worked or how expensive fares were. This lasted us a couple of days, until we had to reload again.

We used a Suica card for the duration of our trip, and didn’t have any issues. The Suica and Pasmo cards are essentially the same thing, they are just sold by different companies.

Note: We decided to keep our Suica card as a souvenir, so we didn’t get our 500 yen deposit back. If you do want the deposit returned, ask at one of the information windows in any train station at the end of your trip. That being said, unless you’re desperate for that 500 yen, I suggest keeping your Suica or Pasmo card as a little memento from your time in Japan!

Ask conductors at Train Stations for help

Most train conductors will be very helpful when it comes to directing you to the correct train or platform, regardless of the communication barrier. We relied heavily on Google Maps to direct us around Japan, which worked well most of the time.

But if you are unsure, simply find a conductor and point to the station or location in which you are heading, and they will do their best to give you directions.

Make sure to leave via the correct exit

As I mentioned earlier, Google Maps will be a lifesaver when it comes to train travel in Japan. The information is very helpful, and will give you step by step directions for getting from one destination to another. Another great thing about Google Maps, is it will also give you the exit that you need once getting off the train.

Be sure to pay attention to the yellow signs – see the photo below as an example – as they will tell you if you’re heading the right way or not. The signs are very clearly marked (with west exit, north exit etc) so it will be easy to find your way once you know the exit you need.

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Note: If you are arriving at one of Japan’s larger train stations such as Tokyo Station or Shinjuku Station, leaving through the wrong exit could cause you a very frustrating detour (if you’re in a hurry). So when you are putting your destination into Google Maps, be specific. If you want to visit the Tokyo Metropolitan Govern Building for its incredible free view of Tokyo, don’t just type Shinjuku. Type in Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building and you’ll get accurate directions.

Don’t be intimidated when traveling by trains

It will probably seem confusing and a bit scary when catching a train in Japan for the first time. Like I mentioned earlier, on our very first day in Japan, we had to catch a train to Yokohama Station. It was around seven o’clock in the morning, we were running on no sleep and were thrust into peak hour in the busiest city in the world.

At first, it was super intimidating. But one of the best things about Japan, is their extremely friendly and helpful locals. So if you are ever stuck, ask for help. Honestly though, you won’t need to worry too much. Every train in Japan has an English translation of all the information you need. Use Google Maps to navigate your way around each city, and simply head to the platform that Google Maps is telling you to!

You’ll catch on in no time – I promise.

There are vending machines everywhere

If you’ve been hanging out for a bottle of water, an icy cold soft drink or even a hot coffee, the Japan’s vending machines will be your best friend. They are literally everywhere, and especially in train stations. Whether you’re stepping off the train or heading out of the station, I guarantee you will come across at least five vending machines before you even leave the station.

Bins can be hard to come across

This was something that surprised us a little bit. Rubbish bins are rare all across Japan. You will maybe find them outside of the occasional vending machines, but other than that, you’ll need your hiking boots to track one down.

Depending on the train station, you might find one on the platform when boarding or leaving the train, but not all the time. So keep that in mind, and dispose of any rubbish you have when you do come across a bin.

Note: This is based on the fact that Australia has public rubbish bins everywhere. So the fact that bins are scarce, might not be such an odd thing about Japan, but it was definitely something that we had to get used to.

Take your time when catching trains

I mentioned this earlier, but everything in Japan runs precisely on time. Trains are no exception, and although they run on time, they also come very frequently. So don’t rush for your train. Always be sure you know which one you need, that you’re standing on the correct side of the platform and your train is heading in the right direction before boarding.

If you miss the train, don’t worry, there will be another one a few minutes later. The same applies with the Shinkansen Bullet Train. Even if you have a reserved seat, if you miss the Shinkansen, there will be one an hour or so later – so don’t stress!

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Purchasing a Japan Rail Pass to use the Shinkansen Bullet Train as well as regular trains, Subway and JR train lines, is the easiest way to navigate around Japan. We were surprised at just how easy the whole process was, from purchasing our JR Pass online before we arrived in Japan; to sitting down on our very first Shinkansen.

With the friendly and helpful Japanese locals ready to help out whenever you need it, there is absolutely no reason to stress.

Here is a brief recap of the important tips we have covered in this post:

  • Use Google Maps, and make sure you leave via the correct exit
  • The Japan Rail Pass can be used on regular trains throughout Japan, not only Shinkansen Bullet Trains. Keep an eye out for JR Lines in most of Japan’s train stations.
  • Take your time when catching trains, because they run very frequently
  • Japanese vending machines are perfect for snacks to eat on the Shinkansen, or while you’re waiting for the train
  • Purchase a Suica or Pasmo card to travel around Japan using the regular train lines

Have you visited Japan before, and did you purchase the Japan Rail Pass? If you think of any tips that I have missed, leave them in the comments below!

Related: Read our Japan Archives

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Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. That means, if you click on certain links within this post and make a purchase, I receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thanks for continuing to support Rhiannon Travels, and keeping it a free travel guide and resource for everyone to use!



  1. March 25, 2017 / 6:04 pm

    This is a really informative post. The train system in Tokyo can be so intimidating, but once you get the hang of it it’s easy – as long as you don’t take an express train if your stop is a local one – I did that a few times before I got the hang of it!

    • rhiannontravels
      March 27, 2017 / 2:40 pm

      The first day we arrived in Japan, it was intense! But it doesn’t take long to get the hang of 🙂
      Oh no! That would have been frustrating.
      We never did that, but we caught the train going in the wrong direction the day we visited Universal Studios! Oops!

  2. March 25, 2017 / 11:19 pm

    Great detail. I have had Japan on my list for far too long now. Definitely pinning for when I finally visit. Its always good to know the ins and outs of transportation from someone’s first hand experience. Hopefully early next year as I am finally getting to tick off Russia this year so Japan will have to wait until next year.

    • rhiannontravels
      March 27, 2017 / 2:38 pm

      Yay! Oh wow Russia, that’s so exciting! 😀
      I hope you get to visit Japan next year, and I hope my post helps a bit in your travel around the country! 🙂

  3. March 26, 2017 / 10:06 pm

    Bookmarking this for when we finally go to Japan ourselves! Thanks for the thorough roundup!

    • rhiannontravels
      March 27, 2017 / 2:37 pm

      No worries at all! I hope you get to visit Japan soon! It’s an amazing country 🙂

  4. March 27, 2017 / 12:11 am

    I always find traveling by train in any country a little intimidating! I traveled around Europe via train and some stations were much easier to understand than others. It’s definitely not fun being rushed for time in a foreign train station with very little signage! I’m glad your experience in Japan was a good one…it seems like they have a wonderful transport system.

    • rhiannontravels
      March 27, 2017 / 2:37 pm

      I can imagine Europe would be pretty intimidating to get around via trains! Japan definitely does have a wonderful transport system, everything is very easy to find, and using Google Maps has been a life saver! 🙂

  5. March 27, 2017 / 12:36 am

    I was surprised to arrive in Japan and find out just how hard it was to get around, especially as efficient as the culture is. I guess had I spoken the language, that wouldn’t be the case, but it was definitely one of the more challenging spots to visit as a foreigner! That said, we had an awesome time =)

    • rhiannontravels
      March 27, 2017 / 2:35 pm

      Sorry to hear you found it difficult! 🙁 What did you use to help you get around the country? Did you use trains?

  6. September 16, 2017 / 2:08 pm

    This is such a very detailed and informative guide. I think we need more transportation guides like this especially if we are about to go to a new place/ city/ country. I, myself, find transportation systems on other countries/ cities (for that matter) a little overwhelming especially on the first visit. LOL. I remember getting lost on subways, taking wrong turns and riding the wrong train on my first visit to SG. haha.

  7. September 16, 2017 / 5:34 pm

    Great guide, super comprehensive! So awesome, you went 6 different cities in Japan! I actually always used cash to buy single-trip tickets when I’m in Tokyo for a few days – too lazy to figure out the Suica/Pasmo cards, haha. Maybe I’ll try for my next trip!

  8. September 16, 2017 / 7:05 pm

    This is such a comprehensive guide! I can’t wait to visit Japan so will add this to my pinterest inspiration board so I can find it later. Thanks!

  9. September 18, 2017 / 12:09 am

    Wow this is super thorough and helpful! I loved the vending machines in Japan as well 🙂

  10. September 20, 2017 / 1:35 am

    I experience horrible travel anxiety when it comes to public transportation, especially in foreign countries. So, I love these types of posts! Thank you for sharing so many helpful details and photos. I’ll remember this post when I finally make it to Japan!

  11. Lana
    September 22, 2017 / 7:22 am

    I love to travel by train! Thanks for this interesting article, one day when I go to Japan, I will make a train tour 🙂

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