Since 1981, the Japan Rail Pass has provided overseas visitors with budget-friendly access to unlimited rides on the country’s local and regional lines, as well as the famed shinkansen bullet trains, which can reach an operational speed of 200 miles per hour, at prices unchanged in decades. Indeed, visitors to Japan in 2023 pay the same unadjusted amount for a two-week rail pass as they did in 1989.
But all good things must come to an end, and the train operator, Japan Railways Group, announced in April that steep increases to the rail pass — as high as 76 percent, depending on pass duration and class — are coming in October.
Here’s what you need to know about the upcoming changes.
An enduring draw of visiting Japan is the chance to experience high-speed rail travel aboard the country’s extensive network of sleek and immaculately maintained, but notoriously expensive, shinkansen.
Inspired by similar systems such as the Eurail Pass, the Japan Rail Pass, available exclusively to overseas travelers in seven-, 14- and 21-day increments in both Ordinary and premium Green Car classes, allows for flat-rate access to shinkansen and JR-operated regional and local lines at a fraction of what it would cost to buy individual tickets.
Indeed, one common rule of thumb for the seven-day pass is that it essentially pays for itself after a single Tokyo-Kyoto round trip. For motivated travelers, a pass can mean savings in the thousands of dollars.
In April, the JR Group, which operates the expansive network of shinkansen as well as local and regional lines, announced that prices for an ordinary class, seven-day rail pass will jump to 50,000 yen (about $342) from 29,650 yen (about $203), while Green Car class seven-day passes will increase to 70,000 yen from 39,600 yen. The 14- and 21-day passes will see similar increases in the 65 percent to 71 percent range.
In an email, a spokesman for the JR Group noted that despite improvements to its services — including extending shinkansen lines and increasing the coverage area, updating reservation systems and adding automatic ticket gates — it has not increased prices since the company’s establishment. “As a result, the actual benefits greatly exceed the product price,” he wrote. Now, he added, “we have decided to revise the price to an appropriate level.”
The changes, however, are not all bad news for travelers.
A notable limit on the rail pass was its exclusion of Nozomi and Mizuho trains on the Tokaido and Sanyo shinkansen lines, which combine to offer service between Tokyo and Fukuoka; functionally identical to other shinkansen, these trains are more convenient with faster, direct routes between major stations.
Come October, for a supplemental fee, rail pass holders will now have access to a Nozomi-Mizuho add-on, providing additional travel options for visitors and easing the recent severe crowding on the popular Tokaido shinkansen most frequently used by tourists between Tokyo and Osaka.
Tip: When riding the Tokaido shinkansen through Shizuoka Prefecture, Mount Fuji is visible from the “E” window seat, weather permitting.
While you were gone
Those who have not visited Japan since its long pandemic border closure might be surprised at the significant updates to the rail pass system itself.
Previously, the pass was issued as a large card, to be shown to station gate attendants. Seat reservations on shinkansen or other lines required a visit to an agent at a station’s ticketing counter. There, after an occasionally interminable wait, you would specify your desired departure time, hand over your rail pass to be stamped by a counter agent and be issued your tickets.
Since 2021, however, the pass has been issued as a regular ticket that can be used directly at automatic station gates. Ticketing for reserved seating has also changed dramatically, with reservations now possible online and at intuitive, multilingual station kiosks.
There are changes as well to how oversize luggage is handled. Travelers whose luggage has combined linear dimensions over 160 centimeters — a typical 30-inch suitcase — must make an additional free reservation when selecting their seat, with the luggage to be stowed in the oversize-baggage area at the rear of the train car, or in oversize-baggage compartments between cars. (Items like strollers and sports gear are exempt from the requirement.)
Tip: Should your desired bullet train departure be displayed as sold out, fear not; rail pass holders can ride in nonreserved cars — typically the first three or six cars of a train.
Despite the coming increase in prices, all three rail pass increments can remain a great value for visitors, and even provide a richer travel experience by encouraging visitors to travel further afield.
A perhaps underappreciated application of the rail pass is using it for multiple long-distance day trips, rather than for a continuous circuit with overnight stops, like the Golden Route through Kyoto, Osaka, Nagoya, Kobe and Hiroshima, before looping back to Tokyo.
A savvy move involves staying at one of the convenient and well-priced station-side hotels in smaller bullet-train stops for the duration of the rail pass and then using it as a base for day trips. Simply catch an early train to one’s day-trip destination and the last train back — no luggage or crowded check-ins to fuss with each day.
From centrally located Nagoya, for example, with very walkable station-adjacent hotels providing lobby-to-platform access in five minutes flat, there is easy shinkansen access to the major highlights of Osaka (54 minutes), Kyoto (34 minutes), Kobe (97 minutes), Hiroshima (2 hours 48 minutes) and Tokyo (1 hour 41 minutes). .
Or consider making Takasaki, northwest of Tokyo and the birthplace of Japan’s famous red Daruma dolls, your base. Shinkansen departures from Takasaki Station provide easy routes to less-visited coastal areas that nonetheless make for excellent day outings.
Along the west coast, well regarded for its seafood and rice cultivation, you can sample the white shrimp tempura of Toyama (1 hour 45 minutes on the Hakutaka shinkansen), or visit Senbei Kingdom in Niigata Prefecture (75 minutes on the Toki shinkansen), a charming interactive museum and factory dedicated to the region’s rice cracker industry.
Tip: A stone’s throw from Nagoya Station’s shinkansen tracks, the Sotetsu Fresa Inn Nagoya-Shinkansenguchi offers comfortable rooms and a wealth of amenities from 6,100 yen a night.
Don’t forget the ‘Joyful’ perks
Beyond access to trains, a rail pass can also be used by visitors for the round-trip ferry operated by Japan Rail to the island of Miyajima in Hiroshima, home of the popular and newly renovated Itsukushima Jinja Otorii or shrine gate, which seems to float in the waters off the island at high tide.
For more curious experiences, one can also ride Kodama No. 849 — a shinkansen decked out entirely in a Hello Kitty motif. Operating daily from Shin-Osaka Station, the train travels as far south as Hakata in Fukuoka Prefecture.
Or, give the Joyful Trains of northern Japan a try. Intended to encourage tourism to more remote parts of the country, these J are regional and shinkansen sightseeing trains decked out in unusual designs, such as the Oykot train running between Nagano and Niigata Prefectures, whose shoji window screens, fusuma sliding doors and retro décor evoke a nostalgic visit to grandma’s home in the countryside.
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