While the Japan Rail Pass might be the best known rail pass for travel in Japan, there are a number of alternatives popping up that are more practical and economical if you plan on concentrating your travels to 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 cool discount pass was created 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 ¥26,900 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.

Where to travel

Matsushima Bay with pine trees
Matsushima Bay covered with pine trees and rocks. One of the Three Views of Japan. | Photo by iStock.com/CHENG FENG CHIANG

You can use this pass to get from Tokyo (right from Haneda Airport, in fact) to Sendai, Fukushima, Matsushima (home to interesting little islands as well as 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!

Ice sculpture of a building at the Sapporo Snow Festival
Snow Festival in Sapporo, Hokkaido | Photo by iStock.com/mu_mu_

JR East Pass: Tohoku Area

If you’re wanting to explore the Tohoku region (the area from Tokyo up to the edge of Honshu) in depth, this pass is your best bet. ¥19,350 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.

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The famous red Shinkyo bridge surrounded by yellow autumn foliage
Nikko’s famous red Shinkyo bridge surrounded by yellow autumn foliage. | Photo by iStock.com/Realshiro|Fotografie

Where to travel

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).

Visit the Nebuta Festival in Aomori with the JR East Pass
The famous Nebuta festival in Aomori | Photo by Gregory Lane

JR East Pass: Nagano, Niigata Area

Nozawa Onsen ski path in Nagano
Nozawa Onsen Snow Resort in Nagano | Photo by iStock.com/Umarin Nakamura

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 ¥17,310 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.

Gamo rice terrace, Matsudai, Niigata
Gamo rice terrace in the Matsudai district of Niigata. | Photo by iStock.com/suzuden

Where to travel

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.

Sado island boats are paddled by woman in traditional clothes and colorful typical protective hat.
Tub-shaped wooden boats near Ogi, on Sado Island, Sea of Japan. | Photo by iStock.com/helovi

Verdict

All of the JR East passes tend to work out much cheaper than it would be to use single tickets for your trips. Like 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.



Good news: Starting April 2021, the Tohoku pass and the Niigata-Nagano pass are available to all travelers with a passort issued by a country other than Japan. In the past, these passes were available only to foreign tourists with short-stay visas (3 months or less).

While we do our best to make sure it is up to date, information is subject to change at any time. This post was orginally published on November 4, 2016. Last update: January 20, 2021.

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