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Discover Tohoku with the New JR East Pass

Non-native residents of Japan can now travel through all of Tohoku and beyond, for a discounted price previously only available to inbound tourists.

By 6 min read

One of the drawbacks of being an expat living in Japan is that you miss out on all the sweet deals offered to visitors who enter the country on a tourist visa. For example, a traveler can purchase a Japan Rail (JR) Pass and see half of the country for the price a resident would pay for a single ticket on the shinkansen (bullet train).

Thankfully, that’s all about to change.

Starting April 1 (this is no joke!), the East Japan Railway Company (JR East) will offer foreigners living in Japan five-day unlimited trips on shinkansen, express and local trains across multiple prefectures in the eastern Japan area.

Where can you travel with the JR East Pass in the Tohoku area?

Better plan accordingly if you want to see everything!

Tohoku is Japan’s rugged northern getaway. Known for its tall mountains, crystal clear rivers and vast wilderness, locals have been vacationing in the region since the feudal age when samurai and pilgrims journeyed there for healing hot spring respites and inspiring seasonal beauty.

With the JR East Pass (Tohoku area), you can fully explore the region’s six distinct prefectures: Akita, Aomori, Fukushima, Iwate, Miyagi and Yamagata. The pass includes destinations in neighboring prefectures, such as snowy Echigo-Yuzawa in Niigata and traditional Karuizawa in Nagano. The pass also includes popular stops in Tochigi and Ibaraki, as well as covering convenient train lines in Tokyo, Kanagawa and Chiba.

Need more incentive? Here are just some of the excellent destinations available.

Akita

Superb views in Akita’s Kanpuzan near the Oga Peninsula.

Akita is an ideal pick for anyone seeking unique Japanese cultural experiences. Akita City is home to the 200-year-old Akita Kanto Festival, where revelers balance long bamboo poles with more than 40 lanterns on their chins and foreheads.

To the north lies Oga City, where in winter, locals dress as fiery demons to welcome the new year and usher in good health, a rich harvest and good fortune (and for some parents, it also scares naughty children into good behavior!) during the Namahage Sedo festival.

Aomori

Oirase Gorge near Aomori’s Towada City.

The mystical Shirakami-Sanchi mountain range spreads from Akita to Aomori Prefecture. These deep green beech forests and teal blue lakes were registered in December 1993 as Japan’s very first World Heritage Site. The area’s forest ecosystem is abundant and considered a paradise for the many creatures living here.

You’ll find the solemn Hirosaki Castle and some 2,600 cherry blossom trees at the center of Aomori. During spring, the trees bloom in spectacular shades of pink along the moat banks surrounding the castle.

Apple lovers will be happy to hear that Aomori produces half of Japan’s supply of crunchy fruit. Be sure to try the hometown delicacy kininaru ringo, a whole Aomori apple pickled in syrup, wrapped in pie crust and baked whole.

Fukushima

Aizu-Wakamatsu Castle is one of Japan’s most beloved castles.

The last holdout of loyal samurai, Fukushima’s Aizu-Wakamatsu is a castle town brimming with deep-rooted history and picturesque landscapes. See the pristine Tsurugajo Castle and Ouchijuku, a traditional village filled with thatch-roofed houses seemingly frozen in time.

Iwate

Morioka City

Iwate’s capital, Morioka, is surrounded by towering panoramic mountains, and rivers weave in and out of the city. Several festivals, such as the Chagu Chagu Umakko Festival in June (a four-hour long, 13-kilometer march featuring about 100 horses and their riders— the name comes from chagu chagu, the sound of the bells that are attached to the horses) and the Morioka Sansa Odori Festival in August are highlights. And the city is home to special noodles: Morioka  reimen, jajamen and wanko (bowl) soba that you won’t typically find anywhere else in Japan.

Near the city of Ichinoseki, you’ll find the scenic Geibi Gorge. Trekking in the tree-lined canyon, you’ll encounter waterfalls and can cross traditional wooden bridges over the Iwai River.

If you fancy a swim, take a dip at Jodogahama Beach in Miyako City. This popular location has clear, cool water and a white pebble shore. Just off the coast, you’ll spot scenic sharp, rocky islands.

Miyagi

Funaoka Castle Park in Miyagi.

Eccentric Sendai is home to fantastic shopping, delicious food and the popular Sendai Tanabata Festival, where spectacular streamers pack the roads and markets. On a clear day, you can spot Mount Zao from the cherry tree-lined Shiroishi River. Visit Naruko Onsen in the northeast to bathe in your pick from over 400 different mineral-rich hot springs.

Yamagata

Yamadera Temple atop Mount Hoju.

The striking Yamadera Temple (also referred to as Risshaku-ji) sits atop the majestic Mount Hoju. This spot is where Japan’s most famous poet, Basho, wrote his celebrated haiku.  However, if it’s excitement and powdered snow you’re after, the slopes of Zao Onsen are a secluded but travel-worthy stop on your Tohoku journey.

JR East Pass for the Nagano and Niigata areas

The beautiful and remote Kamikochi.

The Tohoku area JR East Pass also allows you access to numerous spots outside of the Tohoku region such as the Chubu region’s Niigata and Nagano prefectures as well as Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba, Saitama, Gunma, Tochigi and Ibaraki prefectures.

Niigata and Nagano, in particular, have far too much to see and do to fit in your Tohoku itinerary. You could spend a couple of days in Kamikochi, Nagano’s own Yosemite Valley, before even making it to the border of Tohoku.

GaijinPot recommends travelers more interested in visiting just Niigata and Nagano prefectures to pick up the JR East Pass (Nagano, Niigata area) which—just like the Tohoku area pass—is also offered to non-Japanese passport holders at a discounted price.

How do you purchase the passes?

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Inside the Resort Shirakami along Akita’s scenic coastal Gono line.

For more information and to purchase one of the two special JR East passes—the one for the Tohoku area in general and the one limited to the Nagano and Niigata areas—visit the KKday website. There you will find all the information you need in order to use your pass—available in Chinese, English, Korean and Vietnamese.

You can also purchase the pass in person by visiting a designated JR station window (available stations here) and presenting your passport or purchase from reserved-seat ticket vending machines with passport readers at some JR East stations. The dates are preset for after April 1 and may only be purchased after that date.

How much does the pass cost?

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You’ll travel swiftly and quietly on the JR East Tohoku-Hokkaido shinkansen.

Currently (and until March 31, 2021), JR East passes can only be purchased by foreign travelers with a “Temporary Visitor” stamp in their passports. The rules will change from April 1, 2021, and allow all foreign passport holders—regardless of their visa status—to purchase the JR East Pass.

The JR East Pass (Tohoku area) will cost ¥10,000 for children between the ages of 6 and 11, and ¥20,000 for those 12-years-old and older.

The JR East Pass (Nagano, Niigata area) will cost ¥9,000 for children between the ages of 6 and 11, and ¥18,000 for those 12-years-old and older.

Area Validity User Price Condition
The JR East Pass (Tohoku area) Consecutive 5-day pass Adults ¥20,000 For non-Japanese passport holders only.
Children ¥10,000
The JR East Pass (Nagano, Niigata area) Adults ¥18,000
Children ¥9,000

The pass can be redeemed within three months from the date of issue and is usable for five consecutive days from your selected start date. You must select the starting date within one month when exchanging the pass at the designated exchange location.

If you’re traveling with a Japanese national, you must purchase their ticket separately at the ticket office. You may reserve seats for the shinkansen and limited express trains in advance at the ticket office.

JR East takes your safety seriously and takes strict precautions against the spread of the coronavirus. As such, all train staff wear face masks and wash their hands thoroughly. The train cars are ventilated thoroughly and car interiors cleaned and disinfected after use by passengers. Disinfectant sprays are available to use inside all train stations and clear, plastic barriers are installed at all ticket windows to help minimize the risk of transmission. You can find more information on safety measures here.

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