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 Passes

PassRegions coveredKey destinationsValidity periodEligibilityPriceBooking link
JR East-South Hokkaido PassKanto, Tohoku, HokkaidōTokyo, Karuizawa, Gala Yuzawa, Sendai, Aomori, Hakodate & Sapporo6 consecutive daysForeign passport holders with a temporary (tourist) visa¥27,000Not available
JR East Pass: Tohoku AreaKanto, TohokuTokyo, Karuizawa, Gala Yuzawa, Sendai & Aomori5 consecutive daysForeign passport holders and foreign residents¥20,000 Book here
JR East Pass: Nagano, Niigata AreaKanto, Nagano, NiigataTokyo, Karuizawa, Nagano, Gala Yuzawa and Niigata5 consecutive daysForeign passport holders and foreign residents¥18,000Book here

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 ¥27,000 for one adult and for children ¥13,500 , 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 the southern area of Hokkaido until Hakodate.

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 Hakodate, 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, and Karuizawa.

Seasonal destinations for the JR East-South Hokkaido Pass

SeasonPrefectureAttractionSelling point
SpringHokkaidoHakodate ParkCatch cherry blossoms blooming well into May around parks scattered across the city. Popular parks for cherry blossom viewing are Goryokaku Park and Hakodate Park.
SummerAomoriInakadate VillageWatch changing large scale rice paddy or tanbo art at Inakadate village move with the gentle summer breeze. The best part is that it’s free to see.
FallAkitaGoshikiko FestivalCelebrate the beginning of autumn at the Goshikiko festival where spectators from all over join in on games like apple bobbing and bingo. Did we mention that festival participants are given the chance to explore Yamase dam which is otherwise off limits?
WinterIwateMorioka Yuki Akari FestivalOtherwise known as the “snow lights festival” watch the locals build mini igloos called kamakura and light them up with candles. Other attractions around Morioka city include hand made snow sculptures and candles.

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, JR East Pass (Tohoku area) is your best bet. ¥20,000 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 dense, lush forests), 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

Seasonal destinations for the JR East Pass: Tohoku Area

SeasonPrefectureAttractionSelling point
SpringMiyagiCherry blossoms in SendaiExplore the many parks in the prefectural capital as you take in the view of hoards of cherry blossom trees. Inside Nishi Park is a teahouse called Genko Chaya with over 100 years of history. There, you can snack on Zunda mochi or sweet edamame rice cakes while cherry blossom viewing.
SummerYamagataHikingEnjoy any of the trails among the popular hiking routes within the prefecture. End your visit with a trip to Zao onsen town, a famous onsen town known for its breathtaking outdoor baths.
FallFukushimaIizaka Kenka MatsuriLiterally meaning translated to fighting festival, the Iizaka Kenka Matsuri is a popular festival within Japan that goes back three millenium. Watch as portable shrines circulate around the town to the sound of taiko drums.
WinterAomoriSnow carrot picking at Fukaura townYes, you read that right. According to the locals snow carrots are much sweeter compared to their “regular” counterparts. While this prefecture is known more for its apple picking in fall, why not try your hand at carrot picking instead?

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). The JR East Pass (Nagano, Niigata area) is ¥18,000 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

Seasonal destinations for the JR East-South Hokkaido Pass

SeasonPrefectureAttractionSelling point
SpringNiigataFlowers and local foodThere’s no shortage of spring blooms in Niigata thanks to parks like the Ikutopia Food and Flower Complex which spans over 13 gardens of different kinds of flowers that change with every passing season. You can also visit Furusato Mura which is an attraction that highlights all of the prefecture’s homegrown products.
SummerNaganoKaruizawaUsed by many Tokyo locals as an escape from the sweltering heat, Karuizawa offers a refreshing escape. There are tons of local eateries, a massive outlet mall, and a premiere onsen. Karuizawa also has a few museums that span from contemporary to traditional Japanese art.
FallTochigiNikkoHome to a national park, waterfalls, a lake and even world heritage sights like Toshogu shrine, Nikko has great options for all sorts of travelers. Most especially known for autumn foliage, this area isn’t too far from Tokyo making it an easy day trip from the city.
WinterNaganoSnow monkeys and Mt. NorikuraNagano shines during the winter season and for good reason. From the ever so popular hot spring bathing snow monkeys to the towering snow walls at Mt. Norikura there’s are tons of activities to make the most out of the winter season.

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 passport 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. Updated by Heidi Sarol in May 2022.

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