The Visual Guide to Train Tickets and Rail Passes in Japan

Getting around Japan by rail takes planning Photo by JNTO
A visit to Tokyo may be central to any Japan itinerary, but getting to other Japanese cities, especially on the famous bullet trains, can seem daunting from the outset—there are several regional train lines and many types of trains, a variety of tourist rail passes for sale, seat reservations to consider, and a lot of local lingo to keep track of. But this process can be straightforward if you approach it with a little planning and the right tools. We can simplify it for you.
Is the JR Rail Pass Right for you? Photo by Miya.m - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
You can either buy tickets for every journey or you can buy a pass—one that covers the whole country or a cheaper pass that only covers a smaller region. For the intrepid traveler who intends to visit a few cities over a wide area, the national Japan Rail (JR) Pass, which is only available to foreign tourists, can be a good value. It covers the whole country’s rail system (made up of six separate regional lines) and allows for seamless travel between regions. The pass can be used on Shinkansen (or bullet train) as well as limited express, express, rapid, or local trains, with a few minor exceptions. 

If you plan to spend a lot of time in one area or move at a slower pace within a region, a cheaper regional pass may be a better deal for your style of sightseeing. A JR East Pass covers JR trains within Tokyo and points north including Nagano, Niigata, Sendai, and Akita. A JR West Pass covers cities like Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, Hiroshima, and Kobe. The JR Hokkaido Pass is useful for visiting the far northern island of Hokkaido, where you'll find the cities of Sapporo and Otaru. Finally, the JR Kyushu Pass services cities like Fukuoka and Nagasaki in the south.

Price Your Options Photo by JNTO
Consider how long you'll be in Japan and what you'd like to see. There are 7-, 14-, and 21-day options for the JR Pass. Let’s say you want to visit five cities, starting in Tokyo and venturing to Kyoto, Kinosaki-onsen, Osaka, Hiroshima, and then back to Tokyo. 

The pass is restricted to people visiting Japan for sightseeing only and this is strictly enforced, so to buy one, you must be a foreign tourist with a “temporary visitor” visa. Regardless of how you go about purchasing the JR Pass, staff will verify your visa before issuing the rail pass to you. That's why you have to plan ahead to get one.
Price Your Options for Japan Trains Photo by
This next step is only for planning, not purchasing. To determine whether the Japan Rail Pass would be a value for your trip, search for your train itinerary and add up the costs of what you would pay for individual tickets. Rather than visiting each regional rail website separately to find schedules and fares, the HyperDia website provides a centralized resource for planning. You can find timetables, route and train options (Shinkansen vs. regular-speed), and estimate your costs up front so you can compare them to the price of a Japan Rail Pass, which posts its own rates at Don't buy tickets yet—you're still gathering information.
Understand Bullet Train Restrictions Photo by
The Japan Rail Pass has one important restriction: bullet trains. The bullet trains named Nozomi and Mizuho (operating on the lines between Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Hakata, and Kagoshima-Chuo) are not included in the pass. However, this does not mean you cannot visit those cities or points in between. There are other bullet trains on the same route that the Japan Rail Pass does cover. The search engines should name your bullet train—if you plan to use a pass, just steer away from Nozomi and Mizuho (in the case of the screen grab above, you'd know you can book the Hikari, the second result).
Two Ways to Purchase a JR Pass Photo by By 663highland - Own work, CC BY 2.5
Once you’ve got your train itinerary sketched out and you’ve decided the JR Pass will save you money versus buying individual tickets or a regional pass, you've got two options when it comes to purchasing. One of them will require your attention before you leave home, so it's the next step.

Photo: Kyoto Station
Buy an Japan Rail Pass Exchange Order Before You Go Photo by Nicole Serratore
The traditional process involves buying an exchange order (pictured) from a Japanese travel agency before you travel to Japan. You can buy from JTB online in the United States and have the order mailed to you; there’s also a pick-up option in New York, Los Angeles, and Honolulu. You then take that exchange order to Japan and exchange it for the actual pass at a JR Pass office—not a standard ticket counter—at major airports like Narita, Haneda, and Kansai or major train stations in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka.
Or Buy Your Rail Pass in Japan Photo by By 663highland - Own work, CC BY 2.5
Your other option is to purchase a pass after you arrive in Japan. A pilot program running March 8, 2017 through March 31, 2018 allows for the purchase of a JR Pass at major transportation sites within the country. This option costs about 13 percent more than purchasing from home, but the convenience may be worth it to you. There are counters at Narita and Haneda airports in Tokyo and Kansai Airport (pictured) in Osaka, as well as at major rail stations in Osaka and Tokyo.

Purchasing Individual Tickets Instead of the JR Pass Photo by Toshinori baba (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Lots of people decide they don’t need a rail pass and that simple round-trip tickets will suffice. To purchase an individual train ticket on a Shinkansen bullet train or Limited Express trains (which stop in smaller cities that bullet trains may skip), head to a ticket office at the railway station. Based on your research, you should have your itinerary with the train name and times you're interested in booking. Many ticket agents speak English, but it can be reassuring to have the train details written down to show at the ticket counter. You can pay by cash or credit card.
Purchasing Individual Bullet Train Tickets Photo by JNTO
If you decide to purchase a Shinkansen or Limited Express train ticket separately (rather than use a JR Pass), you will end up with a couple of pieces of paper in hand. First, you'll pay for a Basic Fare Ticket, which merely covers service between your departure city and destination. On top of that, you have to pay for speed. The second piece of paper, a Super (Limited) Express Reserved or Non-Reserved Ticket, grants you access to a fast train. 

Photo: Kyoto
Individual bullet train tickets and carriage selection Photo by By Keith Pomakis - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5
Seat reservations for passengers with a JR Pass can be made in the JR Pass office or at a regular ticket window. They're optional, but they're smart, since they guarantee a seat. Book a reservation as soon as you know your plans: Non-bullet trains book up fast and same-day tickets for reserved seats may be sold out. 

No matter what kind of ticket you have, if you opt to ride in the second-class "ordinary car" (pictured) on Shinkansen or Limited Express trains, you have the choice of a reserved or non-reserved seat. Seating in the first-class "green car" on those trains, however, is entirely reserved, so if you buy tickets there you'll also need a separate reservation ticket reflecting your seat assignment.

There can also be lines at the reservation desks, so don’t leave purchases to the last minute. Also, be mindful of the busy Japanese holidays: Golden Week (which involves four national holidays starting at the end of April through the first week of May), Mountain Day (August 11), the Festival of Souls (celebrated mid-August), and New Year festivities (offices close before New Year’s Eve in December and remain closed through early January).
Reading a Seat Reservation Ticket Photo by Nicole Serratore
Technically, if you have a pass, you can show up at the station and get on any train as long as there's still space. (The few exceptions are outlined on the official map released by Japan Rail.) Travelers with the JR Pass won't have individual tickets but are likely to end up with a seat reservation card, which look like this. Seat reservation cards will make clear what train you are on—the example above is a Tokyo-to-Kyoto Hikari train, number 467. The reservation is for the green car, carriage #9, seat 8A. The departure time is 10:03 and the arrival time is 12:47.
Entering Station With a Pass Photo by By Lombroso - Own work, Public Domain
Once you have a rail pass and a seat reservation ticket, you can enter the station gates. With a Japan Rail Pass, you must always enter at the manned gate, not the electronic ones. In the photo above, you'd check in at the desk on the right where women in brown uniforms and hats are stationed. You'll need to show your pass to the attendant and you may be asked to show your passport, so have the visa page visible. You must exit each station at an attended gate as well. If you have a regular train ticket (instead of a JR Pass), you can enter and exit with everybody else.
Riding the Rails Photo by Tagosaku/Flickr
And with that, you've mastered Japan's complicated rail ticketing system! You can now settle into your seat on a clean and fast train and enjoy the beautiful scenery of Japan as it races by. Although there's some organizational legwork to do up front, once you have your JR Pass, the movement through the system becomes pretty intuitive. Need a deeper dive into the topic? You can always consult our best-selling Frommer's EasyGuide to Tokyo, Kyoto, and Western Honshu.