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Japan Rail Pass, Reserved Seats, Airport-JR Train Navigation

Webmaster Note: These tips are my opinions, based on more than 20 trips back to Japan since mission days. Suggestions are always welcome using a 'comments' entry.

Japan Rail Pass
> Eligibility and Value
> Buy Voucher
before entering Japan, exchange after
> Boarding Trains with JR Pass
Reserved Seats
> Obtaining and Using Shitei Ken
Airport JR Train Navigation
> Narita, Kansai, Nagoya

Japan Rail Pass Eligibility Japan's rail system is one of the world's finest. "JR" refers to Japan Railways Group, the former JNR nationwide government-owned railways--now six separate regional privatized companies. Travelers on "temporary visitor" entry status to Japan should definitely consider purchasing a Japan Rail Pass, one of the best bargains for foreign visitors. This means visitors entering Japan on visas for stays longer than 90 days (e.g., employees, missionaries, students, and English teachers) are, unfortunately, not eligible. For more details see JR Rail Pass home page.

Japan Rail Pass Value A JR Rail Pass allows you virtually unlimited reserved seat travel on all of the JR Group rail and bus lines, including all Shinkansen (Bullet Trains) except only "Nozomi," the fastest Shinkansen on the Tokyo-Osaka-Hakata route. JR Rail Passes are available in 7, 14, or 21 day varieties. To demonstrate the pass' value (Feb 2013 prices):

  • 1 round trip reserved seat Hikari Shinkansen ticket (Tokyo-Shin Kobe) purchased individually = 28,540 yen
  • Or 1 round trip reserved seat Shinkansen ticket (Tokyo-Hachinohe) purchased individually = 30,700 yen


  • 7 days of reserved seats (using the Japan Rail Pass), anywhere, including Shinkansen (except Nozomi) = 28,300 yen

If your travel will be restricted to only one region, you may want to consider buying a regional JR rail pass. For example, travel on JR in the Tokyo area and northeast to Touhoku all falls within the JR East region. JR East Passes are available in 5 and 10 day and flexible 4-day varieties, and unlike the all-Japan passes, may be purchased after arrival in Japan.

What about a Green Car Pass? You should also consider choosing the "green car" (first class) pass over the ordinary rail pass. For a relatively small additional cost, you then can travel in the green car available on all but local trains. The 7-day green car pass is 37,800 yen, compared to 28,300 yen for the ordinary pass described above. Green cars are generally more quiet, have wider seats, and include complementary oshibori (moist towels) and beverages on most JR East Shinkansen routes.

You Must Buy all-Japan JR Rail Pass Exchange Order before entering Japan [as noted above, if your travel will be limited to Tokyo and Tohoku, JR East Pass may be your best bet, and (only) they may be purchased after arriving in Japan; all other types of passes require a purchase-before-you-go voucher/exchange order). Obtain exchange order (example below) from any Japan Travel Bureau Office, such as San Francisco's--telephone: 415-986-4764. They'll fax you an application. You fax or send back the application, and they send you the Exchange Order. There is also JTB's online Exchange Order service.

Exchanging Order for Pass after arriving in Japan Maps showing voucher exchange locations are found in the brochure that comes with your exchange order. The most convenient locations are at rail stations at airports, such as the Travel Service Center in the B1 level (basement) of Narita airport--then you can ride JR trains into Tokyo for "free." If you want your 7, 14, or 21 day Rail Pass to become effective sometime later during your trip, you may still exchange it upon your arrival and specify a later starting date--or, wait to exchange it in another city.

To exchange, you fill out a simple form available there with name, passport number, etc., and present it, your passport, and your exchange order voucher (that you obtained overseas before you came). The JR personnel usually take at least ten minutes or so to prepare your Pass. At the same office, you can (and should) obtain the reserved seat tickets for the
Narita Express and any other reserved seats you know you'll need. This is usually a different "window" or "counter" than the pass exchange, but sometimes, depending on the number of people working and waiting, the same clerk may help you. At least one clerk in that office will understand English well enough to help. (Voucher example shown below)

Boarding Trains with JR Pass
It's all you need--Just Flash It!
Once you've exchanged the voucher you receive the actual pass (example shown at right-actual size is about 4 x 5 inches).
With pass in hand, you simply show the pass to the JR personnel at the
kaisatsuguchi (turnstile or ticket gate), both on entering and exiting the track areas. The JR personnel usually wave you through, recognizing you're a foreigner, and only rarely look close enough to verify pass validity dates.

<<Shinkansen and big city turnstiles are mostly automatic, using magnetically coded tickets. Pass users must therefore proceed to the manually staffed ticket gate, usually at the far left or far right end of the row of turnstiles.

Obtaining Shitei Ken (Reserved Seat Tickets)
Most trains (other than local, commuter-type trains) have both reserved and non-reserved seats. Your Japan Rail Pass entitles you to a reserved seat. Reserved seat tickets may be obtained by requesting for them in conjunction with showing your Pass at any JR station Travel Service Center or reserved seat ticket window, called "Midori-no-madoguchi," or at a travel agency in Japan.

Seat reservations can be made up to one month in advance--best is probably at least two or three days in advance--and may be difficult to obtain for travel during traditionally heavy travel periods. (29 December - 5 January, 29 April - 5 May, 13-15 August). Many Pass users wait to obtain reserved seats until they arrive at the station.

If you have an extensive itinerary you should (1) Review train schedules and decide which trains you want to ride, (2) Write the relevant information on paper as listed below, and (3) submit the request sheet with your Pass at the reserved ticket office/window. The format shown below is similar to the Japanese request sheet and should help facilitate your requests and minimize language barriers.

Using Reserved Seat Tickets (Shitei ken)
An example shitei ken (reserved seat ticket) appears below. (Actual size is a little less than 2 inches by 3 inches)
Depending on the personnel behind the counter or perhaps the model of computer terminal they're using, some of the information may appear in
ro-maji or in English, but don't count on it, so learning the Kanji for names of cities becomes helpful.
Use the reserved seat ticket to determine your car and seat number, including where to stand on the train platform. You don't need the reserved seat ticket to get through the gate (just your Pass), but once the train is moving, a conductor will likely come around asking to inspect everyone's ticket. You usually only need to show the conductor the reserved seat ticket and not the Pass. (He can tell by price of '***' that you're a pass holder.)

Explanation of Items Listed on Reserved Seat Ticket

(Tsuruoka) (Akita)
Departure Station > Destination Station
(May 12) (10:55AM) (12:41PM)
Date (Departure Time) (Arrival Time)
(Inaho 1) (1 2 D)
Train Name & Number Car Row Seat
(zero yen because there's no charge)

Date and place of ticket issue (for JR use)

Airport-JR Train Navigation
There are three major international airports in Japan: Tokyo (Narita), Osaka (Kansai), and Nagoya.

In 2011, Tokyo's domestic airport, Haneda, began serving a limited number of international flights, but U.S. airlines are being restricted to flights that leave or arrive between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways have more convenient landing slots. Haneda is just a 20 minute monorail or cab ride from downtown Tokyo, so the discussion below focuses on the other three international airports that are located somewhat distant from the cities they serve.

Narita Airport (NRT) to Tokyo Station (and beyond)
There are two train lines (JR and Keisei) that go from Narita airport (basement stations) to the Tokyo area, which is 40+ miles distant. Of course, there are also limo and bus services available from Narita to Tokyo hotels and also long-distance bus routes, but this discussion assumes you are using JR trains to take advantage of the JR Rail Pass. JR prices without the pass are about 3,000 yen one way. (Keisei's Skyliner costs about 2,000 yen one way, but takes you to Keisei Ueno station, about 5 minutes walk from JR Ueno station.)

Narita Express (N'Ex) takes about one hour from Narita Airport to Tokyo station. Most N'Ex trains are nonstop, and all seats are reserved. During peak times, trains leave every 30 minutes, and hourly otherwise. After stopping at Tokyo station, a portion of the cars on the N'Ex train continue on to other Tokyo metropolitan area stops such as Shinjuku & Ikebukuro or Yokohama & Ofuna.

If your plans are to change trains at
Tokyo station for points beyond, it would be wise to plan ahead and obtain reserved seat tickets for the next leg(s) of your trip while you are still at the travel service center in the basement of the Narita airport. Pay attention to the transfer time allowed between trains in Tokyo. Natives could negotiate a transfer in less than ten minutes, but you should request at least 20 minutes--the Tokyo station is huge, crowded, and one can easily become turned around--ok, lost, there.

From the
Tokyo station you can board a JR train to take you virtually anywhere in the country. Tokyo station expanded over the years by adding tracks tunneled underneath the original station and on elevated platforms above the original station. Narita Express arrives in 2B basement of Tokyo station, and the Shinkansen departs clear on the opposite side of the eki from elevated tracks, so you're riding a few escalators and walking through a maze of people, past all the local train lines. It's a bustling place. Navigation is easy, though, if you just look for overhead signs that are color coded. Bullet trains going north and east (Touhoku, Jouetsu, and Nagano Shinkansen) are designated with a thick FOREST GREEN color, whereas the bullet trains going south, towards Osaka/Kyoto (Tokaikdo/Sanyo Shinkansen) are ROYAL BLUE.

Example of overhead navigation signs you'll see in the 2B basement level of Tokyo station upon arrival via the Narita Express. This sign is directing you upstairs to (from left to right) Tokyo area local lines, Shinkansen lines, and subway lines (circles at far right)

Once you've passed through the Shinkansen turnstile, consult the overhead displays and information signs as explained on the previous page to determine your track number and where on the platform you should stand. Train name, car number, etc. are printed on your reserved seat ticket to assist you. If you do become lost, you can always ask for assistance by showing someone your reserved seat ticket-Japanese people are usually very willing to assist helpless foreigners.

Kansai Airport (KIX)
There are also two train lines that serve the Osaka area's Kansai Airport, JR and Nankai. JR's express train between Kansai Airport and JR Shin-Osaka station is called Haruka, which departs every 30 minutes. All seats are reserved. The cost is about 2,500 yen each way--free, of course, if you've exchanged your JR Rail Pass voucher. The average travel time is about 50 minutes. Haruka continues on past Shin-Osaka to Kyoto, 25 minutes travel time, for an additional 1,000 yen. (Total ticket price of about 3,500 yen if you didn't exchange your Pass). The private (non-JR) Nankai line is more suited to locals in my opinion.

Kansai airport train station is about a six minute walk from airport terminal's third floor level. There you'll find a travel service center located adjacent to the turnstile area where you can exchange your JR Rail Pass voucher and/or obtain reserved seat tickets.

Nagoya Airport (NGO)
In 2005, a new airport opened that serves the Nagoya/Central Japan area. They call the new airport "Centrair." You can use Nagoya Railroad to get from Centrair to the JR Nagoya station in as fast as about 30 minutes, but some transfers may be required. The Airport Station is connected to the passenger terminal building by a leveled connection passage. JR Nagoya station has a travel service center and Pass Exchange office where a Japan Rail Pass voucher can be exchanged. JR Nagoya station is on the Toukaidou Shinkansen Line, and is a central location that provides easy access via bullet train to points both East and West.

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