When you’re looking for discount rail tickets for your travels around Japan, the first thing you’ll encounter is the JR Pass, which costs a packet but gives you shinkansen (bullet train) and other rapid transport access around the country. But this is not always the most economical option—there are a whole range of other JR passes available, divided up to serve the western and eastern parts of Japan. Here, we focus on the JR West Pass (or passes, rather—there are almost ten in total), giving you a quick breakdown of costs, rules and possible spots you can use your pass to visit.
Kansai Area Pass
If you are planning to tour the Kansai region (mainly Osaka, Nara, Kyoto, Himeji and Kobe), this extremely popular pass is a good choice. It gives you unlimited use of JR trains (some bullet trains included) for 1, 2, 3 or 4 days – that’s plenty of time to hit up Dotonbori for some takoyaki and okonomiyaki in Osaka (and maybe have a play at Universal Studios Japan too), check out Chinatown in the port city of Kobe, the recently restored grand old castle in Himeji, feed the bowing deer in Nara, and stroll through the old streets and many shrines of Kyoto. You get the idea. Price-wise, you’re looking at between $21 and $61 (roughly 2,200 to 6,300 yen) for an adult pass, depending on the length of use, and about half of that for kiddies.
For those wanting to get a little further afield, the Kansai WIDE Area Pass does all of the above and also opens up access to Okayama and surrounds. You can also use it to check out Kinosaki-onsen (where you can soak away your troubles in the famous hot springs), Shirahama, Toyooka, Kurashiki, Tsuruga, Takamatsu (explore the Sanuki Mountains), Shingu and the Kumano region (think sacred pilgrimage routes and tasty sesame tofu). This pass only comes in a five-day option, and costs about $82 (8,500 yen) for an adult ticket.
Sanyo-San’in Area Pass
This is a really good-value pass that gives you seven days of access to Kansai, Okayama, Kurashiki, Takamatsu, Hiroshima, Miyajima (sea shrine!), Tottori, Matsue and Hakata (all the way down in Fukuoka). This includes rides on the ultra-fancy shinkansen and the Miyajima Ferry. At $184 (just under 20,000 yen), it’s a steal.
Hiroshima is a must-see for its Peace Memorial (of which the bombed dome in the photo below is an iconic part), while Miyajima is renowned for its unique take on “holy water”) and Tottori has sand dunes (as well as decent snowboarding options in the winter months) with camel rides, as well as the shallot-like root they are forever punting, rakkyo. Grab some after an obligatory camel ride in this quirky little prefecture. And of course, Fukuoka is a laid-back coastal city that will give you a taste of Japan’s southern climes, as well as a ferry across to South Korea, if you so desire.
A new addition to the collection of JR West passes, the Setouchi Area Pass is like a mini version of the Sanyo-San’in Area Pass, allowing five days of travel around Osaka, Okayama, Hiroshima and Fukuoka (basically cutting out the Tottori, Matsue and surrounding bits, as well as the broader Kansai area). It gives you access to art island Naoshima, as well as Matsuyama and the Dogo Onsen area of Shikoku. At $165 (17,000 yen or so), it’s only worthwhile if your travel is very specifically focused on these areas; if not, rather go for something broader.
You can also get the Kansai-Hiroshima Area Pass, Kansai-Hokuriku Area Pass, Hokuriku Area Pass, San’in-Okayama Area Pass, and Hiroshima-Yamaguchi Area Pass—one of these might suit your travel plans better, so it’s worth investigating prior to arrival.
There are quite a few other types of passes too, including ones geared for travel in the central part of Japan. Two prime examples are the Takayama-Hokuriku Pass that takes you from Osaka to the Japanese alps and a number of places in between, and the convenient Osaka-Tokyo Hokuriku Arch Pass that makes multiple trips between Osaka and Tokyo a cheapo breeze. There are also passes for the Kyushu and Shikoku areas—not to mention Eastern Japan and Hokkaido.
Whichever pass you end up choosing, it is almost guaranteed to work out cheaper than buying single tickets for all of your journeys. Often a pass is even less than one round-trip, so we highly recommend taking advantage here. In most cases, they include airport transfer trains as well, so you can use them from the get-go. Unlike the JR Pass, you can buy regional passes after arriving in Japan, but it usually works out a bit cheaper to buy them beforehand.
Note that Japanese passport-holders can’t buy these cheapo passes—they’re for foreign tourists on short-stay visas. Also note that travel needs to be on consecutive days.