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 a few of the most popular JR West passes, giving you a super-quick breakdown of costs, rules and possible routes.
Note: There are +- 10 JR West passes in total, as well as a bunch of other regional rail passes. It’s a good idea to investigate all options before booking. Also, keep in mind that while these train passes can now be purchased at major JR stations in Japan, it is cheaper to order them online from abroad, before your trip.
The JR West Pass to remember: 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 West trains (most bullet trains excluded) and buses 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 ¥2,200 to ¥6,300 for an adult pass, depending on the length of use, and about half of that for kiddies. More info.
Kansai WIDE Area Pass
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, Kurashiki, Tsuruga, Takamatsu (explore the Sanuki Mountains), Shingu and the Kumano region (think sacred pilgrimage routes and tasty sesame tofu).
The Kansai WIDE Area pass only comes in a five-day option, and costs ¥9,000 for an adult ticket. It includes bullet trains between Shin-Osaka and Okayama. More info.
Sanyo-San’in Northern Kyushu 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). It includes rides on the ultra-fancy Shinkansen and the Miyajima Ferry. At ¥22,000 or half that for kids, it’s a steal. More info.
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 giant sand dunes (as well as decent snowboarding options in the winter months), 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 fairly 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 the art island of Naoshima, as well as Shodoshima, Matsuyama and the Dogo Onsen area of Shikoku. At ¥17,000, it’s only worthwhile if your travel is very specifically focused on these areas; if not, it’s recommended to rather go for something broader.
Other JR West passes
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 having a look and plotting your intended routes against what each pass covers. Read more about these passes.
There are quite a few other types of regional rail passes too. 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 7-day Osaka-Tokyo Hokuriku Arch Pass that makes multiple trips between Osaka and Tokyo a cheapo breeze. There are also dedicated 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.
Note: Japanese passport-holders can’t buy JR West passes—they’re intended for foreign tourists on short-stay visas. Also note that travel needs to be on consecutive days.
This post was first published in November, 2016. Last updated in March, 2019. While we strive to make sure all details are correct, they may vary.