A new train pass is launching in Japan this winter — but travelers will have to act fast

A post-pandemic surge in international travelers, coupled with weak exchange rates, may have indirectly ended one of Japan’s most beloved travel deals: the Japan Rail Pass.

Prices for the JR Pass, as it’s known, increased roughly 65%-75%, in October 2023.

But there are still rail deals to be found — especially for those going beyond the usual hot spots of Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka.

The East Japan Railway Company, better known as JR East, announced a new Kyun Pass in December.

It allows visitors to board trains to Aomori, Japan’s apple capital in the north; the ski slopes in Nagano in the northwest; and Matsumoto in the west, where one of Japan’s oldest castles still stands.

Named after the Japanese word for being overcome with emotion, the Kyun Pass is a one-day all-you-can-ride pass that covers everywhere where JR East operates, including Japan’s Kanto region — which includes Tokyo and Yokohama —and its Shinetsu region, which refers to Niigata and Nagano prefectures, two of the country’s most popular destinations for winter sports.

Kyun Passes go on sale on Jan. 14 to Feb. 29 at Eki-Net, JR East’s reservation website. Passes are valid from Feb. 14 to March 14. However, there are two important caveats. The first is that travelers must wait at least two weeks to use the pass after purchasing it, and it can only be used on weekdays, including Feb. 23, the Emperor’s birthday and a public holiday.

There are, however, no limits as to how many tickets travelers can buy, according to the JR East’s website.

Kyun Pass prices

The cost for the one-day, all-you-can-ride Kyun Pass is a flat 10,000 yen ($70). That means travelers exploring more of JR East’s territory will benefit from the pass more than those staying in the Tokyo metro area.

Here’s a comparison of roundtrip bullet train tickets, with and without the Kyun Pass.

What the Kyun Pass covers

The Japan Railways Group, or JR Group, is the largest operator of passenger rail service in Japan, operating the country’s bullet trains, or shinkansen, plus numerous regional rail and local rail lines, and even some buses.

The company comprises six independent passenger railway companies that cover six regions: JR Central, JR East, JR Hokkaido, JR Kyushu, JR Shikoku and JR West.

JR East is the largest of the six companies. Its blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Kyun Pass will permit travel on the following lines:

  • All local and rapid JR East lines
  • Tohoku shinkansen (which runs from Tokyo to Shin Aomori, in Aomori prefecture)
  • Yamagata shinkansen (Tokyo to Shinjo, in Yamagata prefecture)
  • Akita shinkansen (Tokyo to Akita, in Akita prefecture)
  • Joetsu shinkansen (Tokyo to Niigata, in Niigata prefecture)
  • Hokuriku shinkansen (only the section from Tokyo to Itoigawa, in Niigata prefecture)
  • JR BRT (bus rapid transit) to and from Kesennuma

Additionally, the Kyun Pass can be used on five non-JR operated lines:

  • Aoimori Railway (from Shin-Aomori to Metoki, in Aomori prefecture)
  • Iwate Ginga Railway (from Morioka in Iwate prefecture to Metoki in Aomori prefecture)
  • Sanriku Railway (from Sakari to Kuji, in Iwate prefecture)
  • Hokuetsu Kyuko Line (from Mukaimachi to Naoetsu, in Niigata prefecture)
  • Echigo Tokimeki Railway (from Arai to Naoetsu, in Niigata prefecture)

Kyun Passes allow buyers to reserve seats on two train rides. Some bullet trains and non-local lines require a seat reservation, while others highly recommend it. Train reservations can be made at JR East’s Eki-Net website, at a train station ticket machine or at a ticket office.

Bullet trains and many limited express trains, called tokkyu, have two types of seating: ordinary class, and the more spacious green class. The Kyun Pass only offers ordinary seating, but users can pay to upgrade to green class.

As an added bonus, the Kyun Pass can be used for same-day discounts at New Days convenience stores, a hallmark of many JR rail stations, plus select rental car agencies and restaurants.