There are some major developments ahead in 2020 for the Japan Rail Pass, often called the JR Pass. While the pass has always been popular, the huge increase in tourists to Japan over the last few years has highlighted some of the less convenient aspects of the current pass. The changes that have been announced will make use of the JR Pass easier for both the train companies and visitors.
How buying the JR Pass works now
Under the current system, the Japan Rail Pass is sold by designated sales offices located around the world, or it can be purchased direct at certain railway stations in Japan. If you buy from a designated sales office, which may be a physical office or a website, what you actually receive is an exchange order to be exchanged for an actual Japan Rail Pass once you arrive in Japan. The exchange order is mailed to you, meaning that visitors need to allow sufficient time before departing for Japan to ensure the exchange order arrived.
It’s a very manual process and sometimes there are long queues, particularly at airport train stations where arriving passengers often want to do the exchange. Reserving seats is a similarly manual process most of the time, requiring a JR Pass holder to go to the ticket office to make seat reservations, although JR East allows JR Pass holders to do online seat reservations for JR East trains.
How buying the JR Pass will work in the future
The JR Group is launching an online service to enable overseas visitors to buy a Japan Rail Pass and to make seat reservations prior to coming to Japan. Being able to reserve seats prior to arrival will appeal to many visitors, particularly those travelling at busy periods. After buying the pass online, visitors will collect their pass at a designated ticket counter at a JR station.
The launch date for this new service is now expected to be 1 June 2020. I have seen a couple of sources suggest it might be April. The languages available on the website will be English, simplified and traditional Chinese, and Korean.
The other significant improvement is that the JR Pass can be used with automatic ticket gates. At the moment, because it’s a paper document, you need to go through the staffed gates which can sometimes be very busy with people making inquiries, doing fare adjustments, or dealing with damaged tickets. Using the automated gates will speed up travel for JR Pass holders.
The new style JR Pass will also allow holders to reserve seats at ticket machines in Japan. This is great news for people who like to be a bit flexible with their plans and make reservations as they go.
While the announcements so far have been fairly general, I’ll keep updating this as I hear more. There is currently a holding web page for the reservation system.
Remember also that whether you buy the JR Pass from an agent or from the new website, it’s always a good idea to check that it’s worthwhile.
Do you have any questions about travelling around Japan? Please feel free to contact me.
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