Japan Rail (JR) East Pass
Japan’s ‘Shinkansen’ network – often referred to as the ‘Bullet Train’ by international visitors – spans the country and connects the cities and regions of Japan with a highspeed rail network that is the envy of the world.
The shinkansen is hugely convenient but also expensive, particularly for longer journeys making the Japan Rail (JR) Pass economical and convenient for many visitors planning longer visits including multiple destinations. For visitors whose travel plans don’t extend across the country, a regional JR Pass makes more sense and in the case of visitors coming to the Nagano, the JR East Pass for Nagano and Niigata offers great value.
The pass is valid for use on the Hokuriku Shinkansen – covering Tokyo to Kanazawa including Nagano – and Joetsu Shinkansen – covering Tokyo to Niigata – and other services including the Narita Express and Tokyo Monorail to and from the airports.
SERVICES COVERED BY THE PASS
While this pass is comparable to the full Japan Rail (JR) Pass, the first thing to note is a key difference in the periods that the pass covers. The JR East Pass / Nagano & Niigata covers 5 days of unlimited use within a 14-day period (from date of first use). This is an important distinction compared to the full JR Pass (which covers unlimited use for periods of 7, 14, and 21-day periods).
Use of any service – whether it’s for an hour or a whole day – counts as one of the five days, so make sure to plan ahead to maximise the use of the pass. The pass covers all JR East lines in the region – including the Hokuriku Shinkansen and Joetsu Shinkansen – Tokyo Monorail and other services.
TYPES OF PASSES & PRICES
There is only one, standard JR East Pass available covering 5 days of use within a 14-day period. The price of the pass is JPY18,330 for adults (aged 12 and over) / JPY9,160 for children (aged 6-11). Purchasing the pass online, before you enter Japan will save you 5% on the retail price. Please note, from April 2021 onward foreigners residing in Japan will also be eligible for the pass – see below for details – and the price will fall to a standard JPY18,000 for adults (aged 12 and over) / JPY9,00 for children (aged 6-11) whether you purchase outside or inside Japan.
ELIGIBILITY FOR A JR PASS
As of April 2021, all foreign passport-holders on temporary visas in Japan (or intending to enter on a tempoary visa) are eligible for this pass. This includes foreign residents of Japan on any type of temporary visa. Until that time, the old eligibility requirement applies, limiting use of the pass to person travelling to/in Japan on a foreigner passport and temporary visitor visa.
PURCHASING A JR PASS
Passes can be purchased via the official JR East Pass website or via a JR-affiliated overseas sales office including overseas agencies and ticket offices in Japan including any JR East Travel Service Centre. Once you have completed payment, you will receive an exchange order. This is a proof of payment and looks almost like a flight ticket with your personal details, type of pass, and validity (three months from the date of issue).
It is important to note that the exchange order is not your actual pass and will need to be exchanged for your pass once in Japan. So whatever you do, do not lose the exchange order and prioritise exchanging it for your pass when you arrive. For persons already in Japan – including foreign residents of Japan who are eligible to buy the pass from April 2021 onward – the pass can be purchased online or at any JR East Travel Service Centre.
EXCHANGING & ACTIVATING YOUR PASS
Prior to using your pass, you must actually get your hands on it by exchanging the order/proof of purchase you received online. This can be done a numerous JR Pass Exchange Offices found at any major train station or airport, including Narita Airport and Haneda Airport.
If you have time to do so before leaving the airport, you can use the pass immediately. Tokyo Station is another popular place to exchange/obtain your pass at either of these offices:
JR East Travel Service Center (Marunouchi North Exit): 7:30 to 20:00
JR Central Ticket Office (Yaesu North Exit): 7:30 to 20:00
Travelers already in Nagano can exchange/activate their pass at the Travel Service Center/View Plaza inside Nagano Station. To exchange/activate your pass you will need your exchange order and passport. Make sure you allow adequate time to exchange and activate your pass if you are intending to use it on the same day or do so a day or two before you plan to start using it (you can always nominate a later activation date).
Once you have your activated pass you are free to ride however you can’t insert your pass into the ticket gates. Simply walk through the side booth (permanently attended by station staff) and show your pass. You will be waved through and you can make your way to the platform.
SHOULD I GET A JR EAST OR FULL JR PASS?
To answer this question, it is important to note that foreign residents of Japan are not eligible for the full JR Pass at this time and therefore only have the option of purchasing the JR East Pass (from April 2021 onward). For international visitors traveling to Japan, the answre to this question depends on how long you will be in Japan and what you plan to do while here. If for example, you will be in Tokyo less than a week and not planning to travel outside of the city, then a JR Pass really isn’t worth it.
If you are traveling across Japan, including multiple cities and regions, then have a good look at the full JR Pass – it’s likely to offer better value and convenience. But if you are only planning to visit Nagano, Niigata and nearby destinations such as Kanazawa or Nikko, then the JR East Pass might just be for you.
Nagano and Niigata are home to numerous ski resorts, which can easily be combined using the pass on non-consecutive days to move between the resorts. International visitors coming to the region in winter for skiing and snowboarding should at least consider this pass.