Travel tip: the JR rail pass for business travellers

By Christian Thurston, September 5 2013
Travel tip: the JR rail pass for business travellers

Japan is a popular destination for Australian business travellers. But after you’ve worked out how low to bow and mastered the correct protocol for exchanging business cards, you’ll often find the most challenging task is getting from A to B on time.

Everyone knows how important punctuality is in Japanese business culture, so there’s little margin for error on a tight itinerary.

The SUICA and PASMO railway cards provide a great way to get around, but the Japan Rail Pass is another incredibly popular option.

This lets you travel anywhere in the country on the public Japan Rail network, making it an ideal choice for business travellers who need to visit multiple cities such as Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto.

But even if you’re just staying put in Tokyo, a JR Pass lets you scoot around the city’s extensive Yamanote Loop plus other JR lines. 

Buying a JR pass

Japan Rail Passes are available for all temporary visitors to Japan – including business and leisure travellers – who are staying for less than 90 days.

You can buy a 7, 14 or 21-day JR pass covering various regions of Japan, for Ordinary (Economy) or Green (Business) classes.

The pass has to be bought before you get to Japan, and the usage period begins when you first use the card. It’s then active for all remaining consecutive days.

7-day passes start from A$299 for Ordinary and A$399 for Green, with 14-day passes at A$476 and A$646; an Ordinary 21-day pass will set you back A$609, or $841 for Green class.

(These prices can vary as they’re highly susceptible to fluctuations in the exchange rate.)

Authorised travel agents in Australia will sell you an Exchange Order, which is a physical voucher that you swap in Japan for the JR Pass.

Keep the receipt for tax purposes and check that all of your details on the Exchange Order exactly match your passport – otherwise you can run into trouble in Japan, as JR officials are not fond of overlooking typos!

Exchange order notes are valid for thee months from the date of issue.

When you arrive in to Japan, head to to a JR Pass exchange office to swap your order for the actual pass and nominate the date you want it to become active.

Once you’ve swapped the exchange order for a rail pass you have up to one month to activate it and start booking tickets.

Japan Rail Pass vs individual rail tickets?

When is is cheaper to buy tickets as you need them compared to purchasing a JR Pass?

The rule of thumb is that a 7 day JR Pass costs about the same as a Tokyo-Kyoto return trip using individual tickets.

And yes, the JR Pass covers bullet train or shinkansen services, except for the Nozomi and Mizuho trains.

So if you plan on doing any more than that within a 7 day window then you’ll save money with the JR Pass.  

Even if buying individual tickets is somewhat cheaper, the convenience of your JR Pass can be much more important than saving a few dollars.

Regional JR Passes

You can buy a JR Pass covering one of several regions.

The JR East pass covers everything east of Tokyo, but as it doesn’t include Hokkaido it’s best if you’re heading to Aomori, Tokyo and Kanazawa – an unlikely combination for most business travellers.

The JR West pass will get you pretty much everywhere the east pass doesn’t go, although it still doesn’t cover Hokkaido. This is ideal if you need to visit three of either Osaka, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Fukuoka, Nagasaki, Kobe, Nara, Shikoku or Kyushu.

The Kansai Wide Area pass is a variant of the JR West Pass and provides great value for business travellers if you need to travel between Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, Kansai Airport and Nara.

There are other passes for different regions include JR Hokkaido, JR Shikoku and JR Kyushu, but they’re more suited to the leisure traveller.

Reserving seats

Both Green and Ordinary carriages on JR trains have reserved seats, but the Ordinary carriage also has unreserved seats.

To take an unreserved seat just show your rail pass when boarding.

To reserve a seat, go to the Green Window  – or Midori no Madoguchi – at the railway station’s booking office and make your reservations there.

There’s no fee for reserving seats, although you may be charged for altering an existing reservation.

You should plan ahead and reserve seats during peak holiday times, particularly:

  • New Year period: 29th December – 5th January
  • Golden Week: 29th April – 5th May
  • Obon: 13th – 15th August 

Click here for a full list of public holidays in Japan

It’s also smart to reserve seats during rush hours of 7am to 9.30am and 5pm to 8pm.

Christian Thurston works with JTB Australia, a travel agency that specialises in travel to and within Japan.

Get the latest updates for business traveller and frequent flyers: follow @AusBT on Twitter.


When Christian Thurston isn't travelling (75 countries and counting) you'll find him playing poker, watching cricket or working in the web department at JTB.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

17 Jun 2013

Total posts 5

If you are travelling between Fukuoka/Hakata and Osaka, it is best to reserve your seat on the 'Rail Star'. As this train has no First Class, the reserved seats are a larger and more comfortable 2 - 2 instead of the 2 - 3 that you get in ordinary seats.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

05 Sep 2013

Total posts 26

Osaka to Fukuoka is serviced by N700 Shinkansen that has both Green car (business class and standerd class. These services are Nozomi (not available to rail pass holders) and Sakura witch is the 'slower' service but in actual fact is only 10-15min longer travel time.


20 May 2011

Total posts 13

" But even if you’re just staying put in Tokyo, a JR Pass lets you scoot around the city’s extensive Yamanote Loop plus other JR lines. "

Incorrect information there. It's far cheaper to buy the tickets at the station as required.   Dont purchase a Japan Rail Pass if you are only staying in the Tokyo area. It would be a waste of $$ and Yen.  Even if you don't know the exact fare, just purchase the cheapest ticket and then pay the difference at the special machine at the station when you get off.  

I have been to Japan on numerous occasions since 1988,and even lived there for almost 5 years.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

22 Aug 2013

Total posts 8

Every time we are in Japan, we book all seats for major trips soon after arrival. If we are early (or late) we then change the booking. We have never been charged a fee. It is useful to plan your journeys using where you can look up any train journey and find the times suitable for you. It is also useful to print a list of your trips to give to the person at the booking office. Most Japanese can read English but often have trouble understanding it - particularly my Aussie accent!

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

05 Sep 2013

Total posts 26

Outside of the peak times mentioned here there really is no need to book in advance, just turn up and get you ticket and reserve a seet if you are doing so.  Shinkansen routes have trains leaving many times an hour so you will never be waiting long.

Hi Guest, join in the discussion on Travel tip: the JR rail pass for business travellers