Review: Using the JR Tokyo Wide Train Pass in Japan
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TO THE POINT: The JR Tokyo Wide Pass makes exploring the city and its surrounding areas fun, easy and affordable. The pros: you can travel as much as you want within a certain range over the course of a three-day period. The cons: only one line (The Narita Express) had Wi-Fi and you’re not always guaranteed a seat unless you reserve ahead of time.
Fellow TPG contributor Katie Genter and I recently spent a few days in Tokyo, planning to spend New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day in the city but branch out and explore the surrounding area for the rest of our trip. After doing some research, we found the perfect option to help us do just that — the JR Tokyo Wide Pass — which allows you to take unlimited rides on JR East trains within a geographic region for three consecutive days. The pass costs ¥10,000 (~$87) for adults ages 12 and older and ¥5,000 (~$44) for children ages 6-11. Only “foreign tourists” — defined as travelers holding anything other than a Japanese passport — can purchase these, so you’ll need to show your passport at the time of purchase and may also have to display it again when you want to use it.
The geographic region you’re allowed to travel in over the three-day period is wide enough to allow for day trips from Tokyo, but not quite large enough to explore much of Japan. That said, there’s still plenty to see and do, and we decided to use ours to see the UNESCO World Heritage sites in Nikko, go skiing at Gala Yuzawa Ski Resort and ride the Narita Express to the airport on the day we departed. Considering the cost to buy round-trip train tickets to either Nikko or Gala Yuzawa Ski Resort would have cost more than the pass, the price of the three-day pass for both of us was easily justified. If you need a pass for a longer period of time or a wider range of travel, there are a variety of other JR train passes available as well.
While some of the other Japanese train passes require advance purchase, the JR Tokyo Wide Pass can be easily obtained upon arrival — we visited the JR ticket office at Narita (NRT) to buy ours. While it was unclear before we arrived whether or not you could do this, we were able to book passes that started in a few days — in other words, we purchased the passes December 30 and were able to use them January 2-4.
Note that access to the Narita Express — the express train between NRT and downtown Tokyo — is included with this pass. Depending on what you plan to do the rest of your arrival day and the two days after, you might want to use the pass starting the day you arrive. However, since many flights from the US don’t get in until later in the day, it might not be worth using your arrival day as the first day of the pass.
The first time you use the pass, you’ll need to get it validated. At the mostly-automated ticket gates in each train station we visited, there’s always going to be a manned ticket window. You’ll have to use this line to get the pass validated on your first use, then again each time you enter or exit a station while using your pass for rides. In many stations, there were actually two of these ticket booths, so be sure to keep it handy — though once you’re through the gates, you can put it away. Since all ticket checking (with the exception of the Narita Express) was done at these gates upon entry, you won’t need to show the pass to a conductor once you’re on board.
With this pass, you’re also able to reserve seats in advance on Shinkansen (high-speed bullet trains) by going to a service center. When we saw the long line at the Tokyo station before our first ride, we figured we’d just try our luck in the non-reserved cars — we lucked out big time and ended up with a three-person row to ourselves!
On the flip side, we almost weren’t able to fit on the third train we took. We were one of the last few to squeeze onto the train and had to stand uncomfortably, packed together for the duration of the ride. Others weren’t as lucky and had to wait more than an hour to catch the next train from the less-served station. If you’re traveling during a busy season, we’d recommend trying to get reserved seats — unfortunately, though, the reserved seats will likely sell out on busy days.
For these Shinkansen trains, the non-reserved cars will be noted on the station’s departures board. If you haven’t gotten a seat reservation, you’ll want to check which cars aren’t reserved and the length of the train so you can figure out where to board.
Once you get to the track level, look for the markings on the ground to see where each car boards — at busy times, there will be lines of people waiting in these marked areas. If you don’t have a seat reservation and are traveling during a busy time, you’re going to want to line up sooner rather than later.
Cabin and Seats
Seats on all Shinkansen trains are arranged in a 2-3 layout in the standard cabin and 2-2 if you pay to upgrade to the first-class Green Car. Almost all seats were forward-facing, with the rare exception of a few pairs of seats that were arranged to face each other, which were in high-demand from families and friends traveling together.
The seats themselves have a generous 38.5 inches of pitch, providing plenty of legroom for even the tallest among us. They’re also 18.5 inches wide with 17 inches between the armrests. While the design varies from train to train, each row has its own retractable sun shade, pictured below.
The seats on all the trains we traveled on offered a substantial recline as well. On some trains, there were two buttons that were used to operate the reclining function: one released the seat-back while the other moved the seat bottom forward or backward. Other trains featured the airplane-standard single button. Each seat had a small tray table, with the bulkhead rows getting a longer table than the rest of the cabin.
All non-Shinkansen trains we rode on — like the one to/from Nikko and the metro trains in Tokyo — were standard-issue subway trains, with seats on either side and plenty of standing room. Noteworthy features we found on the Nikko line (which might also be on other lines) were heated seats, a retractable sun shade and an on-board bathroom. The heated seats were particularly welcome on the cold winter day we were visiting Nikko.
Over each seat on all trains are shelves for smaller luggage. Shinkansen trains also have open compartments for larger suitcases between some cars.
Every few cars in the Shinkansen trains had a set of bathrooms: one female bathroom, one urinal-only male bathroom, one mixed-gender seated toilet and a pair of shared sinks. For some reason, each of the sinks had a curtain that could be drawn for privacy, yet the men’s urinal bathroom didn’t have a lock on the door.
Food and Beverage
Many of the larger JR train stations we visited had small, quick-serve restaurants and convenience stores either inside or outside the ticket gates. There seemed to be no issue with buying snacks and drinks and taking them on the trains.
If you didn’t bring any along with you, there were a variety of food and beverage options available on Shinkansen trains from a cart attendants pushed through the aisle. Drinks were quite reasonable, too, only costing about $1 to $3 for water, tea, Coke, beer or Sake, while food options weren’t fresh but were also reasonably priced — snacks like potato sticks, chocolate pretzels, dried salmon and ice cream were all available for under $3. There’s no restaurant/cafe car like you might find on some European and American trains. Note that non-Shinkansen trains didn’t have any food or beverage options at all.
Don’t Forget About the Discounts
The JR Tokyo Wide Pass is an excellent option if you want to go on a ski day trip outside the city since you can take a Shinkansen train directly from Tokyo to the Gala Yuzawa Ski Resort. Once there, use your pass to get discounts on lift pass packages, equipment rentals (10% off) and ski lessons (10% off). Without the pass, you’d have to pay more than ¥7,000 (~$61) each way for train tickets to/from the ski resort, so it’s kind of a no-brainer to get it.
A Special Shout out to the Narita Express
The Narita Express is the fastest way to travel between Tokyo and the NRT airport, taking just 53 minutes instead of the hour and a half you spend on a standard metro train. This is about as fast as you could travel into the city by taxi, but the express train will cost you less.
Seats on the Narita Express are arranged in a 2-2 layout, are about 19 inches wide and have a substantial recline in case you want to take a nap along the way.
All seats here are reserved, but you don’t technically need a reservation to get on, as we found when we arrived at Tokyo Station just before a train was set to depart and were instructed to get on and take a seat. Unfortunately, since there’s no display showing which seats are reserved, we had to move a couple of times to make room for passengers who did have reserved seats. We considered standing, but since it’s a fast train traveling at least partially on existing subway lines, the ride can be very bumpy. This is the only JR train line where there was an on-board conductor checking tickets, and only those of people who were standing or seated in a non-reserved seat.
The Narita Express was also the only JR train we were on that had Wi-Fi. Speeds were solid enough for checking emails and browsing the web (5mbps download, 1mbps upload, 63ms ping). Even if you don’t connect to Wi-Fi, you can still see your flight information displayed on screens at the front of each car. At the front and back of each car, there was space for baggage storage with multiple built-in cable locks.
The JR Tokyo Wide Pass is an excellent option if you’re planning on taking more than one day trip from the city, and it can make sense even for just one round-trip ride within the included region. One thing that would make the experience even better would be to have Wi-Fi available on more trains than just the Narita Express. Other than that, though, the trains were surprisingly frequent on most lines and comfortable — if you’re able to get a seat.
Have you ever taken these trains or used the JR Tokyo Wide Pass? Tell us about your experience below.
All photos courtesy of the author.