JR East Passes: The Lowdown and Travel Ideas

Carey Finn
JR East Pass
The JR East Passes give you access to the shinkansen as well as other types of JR trains. | Photo by Kentaro Iemoto used under CC

While the JR Pass might be the most well known of rail passes for travel in Japan, there are a number of alternatives popping up that are more practical and economical if you are going to be concentrating your touring on a specific area rather than zooming up and down the whole country. In this article, we take a look at what is loosely referred to as the JR East Pass (well, all three of them), giving you the lowdown on what routes and rates you have to work with.

JR East-South Hokkaido Pass

This is a brand-new discount pass to celebrate the launch of the Hokkaido Shinkansen between Aomori and Hakodate (that happened in March 2016). Unlike the JR West Passes, which have to be used for consecutive travel, the JR East-South Hokkaido Pass gives you six days of train access within a 14-day period. The cost is USD$253 (roughly 26,000 yen) for one adult (and about half that for children), and you get unlimited rides on JR trains in the eastern part of Honshu (the mainland) and the southern part of Hokkaido (in case that wasn’t clear from the name). This includes shinkansen (bullet trains) between Tokyo and Sapporo.

A traditional Japanese castle ... made of ice! The Sapporo Snow Festival is made accessible by the JR East-South Hokkaido Pass.
A traditional Japanese castle … made of ice! The Sapporo Snow Festival is accessible using the JR East-South Hokkaido Pass and a few extra tickets to get further north from Hakodate. | Photo by RageZ used under CC

You can use this pass to get from Tokyo (right from Haneda Airport, in fact) to Sendai, Fukushima, Matsushima (home to interesting little islands and one of Japan’s three most famous views, the reflection of pine trees in the sea), Nikko (a fantastic “power spot” all-year round, but particularly beautiful during autumn when the leaves change color), snowboarding hot spot Gala Yuzawa, Karuizawa and of course—Hokkaido. The vibey port city of Hakodate is just south of highlights like the lake district of Onuma, and the bustling metropolis of Sapporo. The Snow Festival awaits!

Nikko is gorgeous any time of year.
Nikko is gorgeous any time of year. | Photo by Kentaro Ohno used under CC

JR East-Tohoku Pass

If you’re wanting to explore the Tohoku region (the area from Tokyo up to the edge of Honshu) in depth, this is your best bet. USD$185 (about 19,000 yen) gets you five flexi-days of access to JR lines in the region, including some of the bullet trains (but not the Tokaido shinkansen). There are some limitations on the trains you can take, but overall the pass works well.

It’s substantially cheaper than the East-South Hokkaido Pass, but allows you to travel to many of the same places, including Nikko (and Izu), Gala Yuzawa, Fukushima, and Sendai. You can also have a leisurely meander around Yamagata, Shinjo, Morioka, Akita (think forests and igloo festivals) and Aomori—the jumping-off point to Hokkaido (and a great place for apples—notably the Fuji varietal—and castles).

One of the islands at Matsushima.
One of the islands at Matsushima. | Photo by kazuletokyoite used under CC

JR East Nagano-Niigata Pass

Option three is perfect for cheapos wanting to spend the bulk of their time in Nagano and Niigata (you snow-loving types, we know who you are). This pass is also USD$185 for adults, and offers five flexi-days of unlimited rides on a good number of trains between Tokyo and Niigata/Nagano, including the Joetsu and Hokuriku Shinkansen (but excluding the Tokaido Shinkansen). The Tokyo Monorail (useful for getting from Haneda into Tokyo proper) and Narita Express are also covered, so you can roll right off the plane and activate your pass.

If you want to experience the craft beer, hikes or ski slopes of Nagano (known for its hosting of the 1988 Winter Olympics) or submerse yourself in the mellow country atmosphere of Niigata (also the gateway to Sado Island), this is an affordable way to do just that.

A sleepy station in Niigata.
A sleepy station in Niigata. | Photo by M. Murakami used under CC

All of the JR East passes tend to work out much cheaper than it would be to use single tickets for your trips. Unlike the JR Pass, you can buy regional passes after arriving in Japan, but you usually save a few yen if you sort them out in advance.

Note that unfortunately Japanese passport holders or foreigners with a long-term Japanese visa (more than 3 months) can’t buy these JR passes—they’re reserved for foreign tourists on short-stay visas. 

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