Your Travel Guide to the Revised JR East Rail Passes
On 1 October this year, the new prices for the JR East rail passes were announced. Their validity periods and areas where the rail passes can be used remain the same, but the new prices would inevitably affect the way railway travellers get around Eastern Japan by rail.
Price updates with effect from 1 October 2023.
I have personally used the JR East rail passes before prior to the recent revision, and when I first heard about it, I knew that I had to change my approach to railway travel around Eastern Japan. To make full use of the rail passes, I must include more train trips into my itinerary to make up for the rail passes’ updated prices, but thankfully, it is still a highly doable task. In fact, with the new approach, I will visit even more amazing spots around the region and enjoy a more fulfilling railway adventure!
For this article, I will share sample itineraries for the two passes mentioned as well as the JR TOKYO Wide Pass, and offer some highlights for recommended spots in the itineraries. Are you ready? Then let’s go!
① JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)
Hirosaki Park (Aomori Prefecture)
Hirosaki Castle in spring. (Image credit: photoAC)
Although I have travelled around Tohoku several times, I have not been to Hirosaki before, and one of the spots I would love to visit first would be Hirosaki Park (弘前公園 Hirosaki-kōen). The park features Hirosaki Castle (弘前城 Hirosaki-jō) as its main landmark, which is the only castle in Tohoku with an original castle keep. The park features up to 2,600 cherry blossom trees, making it a visual spectacle, especially during spring.
Resort Shirakami (Aomori Prefecture ⇒ Akita Prefecture)
The Resort Shirakami. (Image credit: JR East)
Most people would use the JR EAST PASS to travel on shinkansen lines, but do you know that you can also use it to take Joyful Trains? They are special trains that run in different parts of Eastern Japan, and each has a unique theme that will showcase to passengers the joys of railway travel. One of them is the Resort Shirakami, which travels along the Gonō Line (五能線 Gonō-sen) which is regarded as one of the most scenic train routes in Japan for its stunning views of the Sea of Japan.
For more information on my previous ride on the Resort Shirakami, you can check out my previous article.
Kakunodate Samurai Residence Street & Dakigaeri Gorge (Akita Prefecture)
Kakunodate Samurai Residence Street in spring. (Image credit: photoAC)
For Day 3, I would explore Akita further by travelling to another famous spot that I have not had the chance to visit yet: Kakunodate Samurai Residence Street (角館武家屋敷通り Kakunodate Bukeyashiki Dо̄ri). Known as Tohoku’s “Little Kyoto” (小京都 Shо̄-Kyо̄to), the street is widely known as a cherry blossom viewing spot as it is lined with weeping cherry blossoms (しだれ桜 shidare-zakura).
Dakigaeri Gorge in autumn. (Image credit: photoAC)
Planning to visit Kakunodate in autumn? Then you will be in for a surprise! The street is also beautiful during autumn, when it is flanked with warm-coloured foliage, and furthermore, you can also make a short trip to Dakigaeri Gorge (抱返り渓谷 Dakigaeri Keikoku), which features stunning warm colours against the deep-blue hues of the Tama River (玉川 Tama-gawa) below.
If you want to learn more about Kakunodate Samurai Residence Street and Dakigaeri Gorge, you can check out our previous article here.
Sendai & Matsushima Bay (Miyagi Prefecture)
Pageant of Starlight at Sendai in winter. (Image credit: photoAC)
Next, I will visit Sendai (仙台市 Sendai-shi) in Miyagi Prefecture. As the largest city in Tohoku, it offers something special for all types of visitors, from larger-than-life events such as the Pageant of Starlight (光のパージェント Hikari-no-Pējento) during winter and Sendai Tanabata Festival (仙台七夕祭り Sendai Tanabata-matsuri) in the summer, to idyllic parks and historical shrines.
Matsushima Bay in the summer. (Image credit: photoAC)
If time permits, I will also visit Matsushima Bay (松島湾 Matsushima-wan), which is only a short train ride away from Sendai. It is one of the Three Great Views of Japan (日本三景Nihon Sankei), and is a must-visit for all travellers to Tohoku. You can check out the article here on how to fully explore the bay, and which spots to check out when you are there.
Tsuruga Castle (Fukushima Prefecture)
Tsuruga Castle in Aizu-Wakamatsu during spring. (Image credit: photoAC)
For the final day, I will use the pass to visit Aizu-Wakamatsu (会津若松 Aizu-Wakamatsu), a former castle town in the western part of Fukushima Prefecture. The town is home to Tsuruga Castle (鶴ヶ城 Tsuruga-jō), an impressive historical monument that bears the honour of being the only castle in Japan that features red roof tiles. On top of that, the city has plenty of sake brewery tours and local delicacies (tip: do not miss Aizu-katsudon, a must-have while in the city!).
My recommended itinerary for the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area).
If I use the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) to visit all the places mentioned above from Tokyo, I will save more than ¥32,000 in train fares, making it a very worthy companion for my railway adventure!
② JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area)
Niigata City (Niigata Prefecture)
Bandai Bridge in Niigata City. (Image credit: photoAC)
Next, we move to the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area), and for my first day, I will use it to travel on the Jōetsu Shinkansen from Tokyo to Niigata (新潟市 Niigata-shi). As the capital of Niigata Prefecture, the city surprised me with spectacular panoramic views and gastronomical delights, and is a place that I have come to love after visiting it.
Want to know more about my time in the city? Then check out the article here to find out more.
KAIRI & Mount Haguro (Niigata Prefecture ⇔ Yamagata Prefecture)
The KAIRI travelling along the Sasagawa Nagare coastline. (Image credit: JR East)
Since the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) also allows me to enjoy Joyful Trains, why not ride one? At Niigata Station, visitors can board the KAIRI, a Joyful Train that allows passengers to feast their eyes on the beautiful views of the Sasagawa Nagare coastline, and their taste buds on the delectable cuisine of the Shonai Region (庄内地方 Shōnai-chihō).
The Five-Story Pagoda at Mount Haguro. (Image credit: photoAC)
One of the train stations that the KAIRI stops at is Tsuruoka Station (鶴岡駅 Tsuruoka-eki), which serves as a gateway to Mount Haguro (羽黒山 Haguro-yama), one of the three sacred mountains that make up Dewa Sanzan (出羽三山 Three Mountains of Dewa).
The mountain is a popular destination for visitors to the Shonai Region, and features historical landmarks such as the Five-Story Pagoda (五重塔 Gojūnotō) and Jiji-sugi (爺スギ Grandpa Cedar Tree), which is said to be over 1,000 years old. If you want to learn more about my visit to Mount Haguro, you can check out my article here.
Note: the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) does not cover the bus ride from Tsuruoka Station to the entrance of Mount Haguro. Pass holders must pay for the bus fare separately.
Kusatsu Onsen (Gunma Prefecture)
Yubatake in Kusatsu Onsen. (Image credit: photoAC)
One of the main pleasures of travelling to Japan is to enjoy hot springs (温泉 onsen), and Eastern Japan has its generous share of hot spring towns. One of them is Kusatsu Onsen (草津温泉), a hot spring town that is particularly popular among Tokyoites for its accessibility from Tokyo.
The town is renowned for its highly acidic hot spring water which is said to have medicinal benefits, and a highlight in the town is Yubatake (湯畑), which is Kusatsu Onsen’s main outlet for its hot spring water.
Ueda (Nagano Prefecture)
Ueda Castle in spring. (Image credit: photoAC)
After a relaxing night at a hot spring town, how about a full day exploring a historical samurai town? For the next day, my trip would take me to Nagano Prefecture where I will visit Ueda (上田市 Ueda-shi), a town that is famous for being the homeland for the Sanada Clan, one of Japan’s most famous samurai clans. The town features Ueda Castle, which is visually stunning during the four different seasons, and the Ueda Sanada Festival, a lively spectacle that takes place in late April every year.
Resort View Furusato & Matsumoto (Nagano Prefecture)
The Resort View Furusato. (Image credit: JR East)
For my final day with the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area), I will include one more ride on a Joyful Train, and my pick would be the Resort View Furusato. The train offers passengers gorgeous views of Nagano’s countryside, including a brief stop at Obasute Station (姨捨駅 Obasute-eki) where passengers can enjoy a breathtaking view of the Zenkoji Plain, a visit to Hotaka Shrine (穂高神社 Hotaka-jinja).
Matsumoto Castle in Matsumoto. (Image credit: photoAC).
One of the stops for the Resort View Furusato is Matsumoto Station (松本駅 Matsumoto-eki), and when it comes to the city, the first image that would come to mind for most visitors would be the iconic Matsumoto Castle (松本城 Matsumoto-jō). Matsumoto is one of my favourite cities to visit in Eastern Japan, and after riding the Resort View Furusato, a trip to the city would be the perfect ending for my railway journey.
My recommended itinerary for the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area).
To wrap up my entire train trip from Matsumoto, I can make a direct return to Tokyo by taking the Chūō Main Line from Matsumoto to Shinjuku. Based on my travel schedule above, I can stand to save up to ¥16,000 with the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area). How awesome is that!
③ JR Tokyo Wide Pass
Lake Kawaguchiko (Yamanashi Prefecture)
Lake Kawaguchiko seen from Kawaguchiko Tenjo-Yama Park. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)
For the first day with the JR Tokyo Wide Pass, I will make a day trip to one of the most popular destinations near Tokyo: Lake Kawaguchiko (河口湖 Kawaguchi-ko) in Yamanashi Prefecture. The lake is widely known for its view of the iconic Mount Fuji (富士山 Fuji-san), and it can also be accessed from Tokyo by taking a two-hour ride on the Fuji Excursion (covered by the JR Tokyo Wide Pass).
Check out my previous article to find out more about what to see and do around Lake Kawaguchiko.
Karuizawa (Nagano Prefecture)
Shiraito Falls in Karuizawa. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)
Do you know another famous tourist destination for those departing from Tokyo? It is Karuizawa (軽井沢) in Nagano Prefecture, a mountain resort town that is known for its chic cafes and resort hotels. Other spots that visitors ought to check out in Karuizawa are Shiraito Falls (白糸の滝 Shiraito-no-taki) and Kumobaike Pond (雲場池 Kumobaike) Kyu-Karuizawa Ginza Street (旧軽井沢銀座通り Kyū-karuizawa Ginza-dо̄ri), and the town is particularly worth visiting in autumn.
Nikko (Tochigi Prefecture)
Nikko Toshogu Shrine’s Yomeimon. (Image credit: photoAC)
We come to the third and final day with the JR Tokyo Wide Pass, and for this day, I will visit one of the most historically significant cities in Japan: Nikko (日光市 Nikkō-shi) in Tochigi Prefecture. The city is home to the Toshogu Shrine (日光東照宮 Nikkō Tōshōgu), a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a National Treasure, and visitors can also make side trips around the city to other famous spots such as Lake Chuzenji and Ryuzu Waterfall in Oku-Nikko.
My recommended itinerary for the JR Tokyo Wide Pass.
With the JR Tokyo Wide Pass, I can enjoy different experiences around the Tokyo region, including scenic views of Lake Kawaguchiko, a day trip to Karuizawa, and an exploration of the historical city of Nikko.
With the updated prices, you can still enjoy great savings with the various JR East rail passes. The unlimited train rides on the JR East lines in the valid areas allow pass holders to have joyous and fulfilling railway experiences around Eastern Japan, and with my recommended itineraries, I hope I have given some inspiration for your future railway trips!
JR East rail pass updates
The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and where you can use it. (Image credit: JR East)
The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) offers unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains like the Tohoku Shinkansen and Akita Shinkansen) in the valid area for 5 consecutive days, and the price costs ¥30,000.
The JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) and where you can use it. (Image credit: JR East)
The JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) is another JR East rail pass that offers unlimited rail travel on JR East lines in the valid area for 5 consecutive days, and the price costs ¥27,000.
The JR TOKYO Wide Pass and where you can use it. (Image credit: JR East)
And lastly, the JR TOKYO Wide Pass offers unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including the Fuji Excursion and Fujikyu Railway) in the valid area for 3 consecutive days with the updated price of ¥15,000.
The three passes above allow seat reservations for bullet trains, some limited express trains, and Joyful Trains online for free, up to 1 month in advance, here.
Header image credit: JR East, illustAC