Tohoku 5-Day Trip with the JR EAST Rail Pass

Originally JR Rail Passes were only available for those on a short-term tourist visa. Since April 2021, these passes have been made available for anyone with a foreign passport regardless of visa type, which means it includes foreign residents (PR included) living in Japan! 

What is a JR Rail Pass

JR rail pass is an all-you-can-ride pass for a given consecutive set of time like 3 days, 5 days, or 7 days. It covers all modes of transportation operated by the various JR (Japan Rail) companies, which means Shinkansen, regular railway lines, and even busses. The different regional JR companies operate separately, for example JR East covers Kanto area (greater Tokyo), Tohoku area (northern honshu); and JR West covers Osaka/Kyoto/Kobe/Nara and so on. 



The JR East Pass (5 days) - I saved 60% on my transport cost

This is the pass that I chose for my trip to Tohoku. It covered my journey which went through 3 prefectures: Iwate, Akita, and Aomori. Just the Shinkansen alone between Tokyo and ShinAomori station was ¥17,450. The JR East Pass is only ¥20,000 which allows you to ride as many times as you want within those 5 days, that means doing 1 round-trip to Aomori is already worth getting this pass.

I took a total of 5 Shinkansen rides, 5 regular JR train rides, 1 round-trip long distance bus ride and the cost would've been over ¥50,000 if I didn't get the rail pass. So I was able to save ¥30,000+ (60%) on my trip by using this pass! 


(Above: Iwate Prefecture)


(Above: Akita Prefecture)

How to buy the pass

Here is an official list of ticketing offices where you can purchase the JR East rail pass: 

In my case I used the Tokyo Station office near Marunouchi North exit. There's a tourist information center with super nice English speaking staff who can also help you reserve your seats in advance. Since Shinkansen trains are mostly all reserved seats, even with the pass you can't just hop on. You need to reserve a seat. You can either ask the ticketing office, or go to a ticketing machine to do it.

Here is a step-by-step English with photos guide on how to reserve seats using your JR East railway pass at a ticketing machine:

When planning, I tend to start with the Shinkansen schedule to decide when I want to arrive and depart a city, then I check the local JR train schedule on google maps. Since regular JR trains don't require seat reservations, I can ride whenever I want.

Here is the JR East Shinkansen schedule in PDF. The departure times might differ from the PDF but not by more than 10mins. The arrival time is always the same or slightly earlier than scheduled.

I wrote a really detailed blog post about how to purchase these passes as a foreign tourists as well as tips on how to navigate the stations and trains with young kids (think where to find elevators, seating for storing luggage, changing stations) you can read about it here:

Here are a few common questions answered: 

  • You can buy the pass and activate it on the same day (or you can pick an activation date later. Activation date = the day you start the 5 day period)
  • You can reserve a seat with the ticketing machines at the JR office for your Shinkansen ride up to 2mins before the departure time
  • If you miss your train, nothing will happen. Just go to the ticketing machine and re-reserve a new seat for the next train
  • For Shinkansen trains that have non-reserved carriages or for regular JR railways trains you can just use your 5-day pass to enter the station gates and don’t need to reserve a seat

(Above: JR East Shinkansen trains have wi-fi on board)

(Above: JR East Shinkansen trains have sockets below each seat)

Making the most use of the JR East pass

1. The Stay

Not every traveler is the same, and it really depends on what kind of experience you value the most. I had a mixture of stays out of convenience as well as luxury experience stays. 

If you have locations that require very early start to the day, I would recommend to be based right next to the main train station. For example in Aomori City, I planned to take a 7:45am JR East Tohoku bus to Sukayu Onsen area. I was staying at the Toyoko Inn (business hotel, around ¥5,000/night) which was right across the bus stops. 

If you'd like a special experience, I'd recommend looking for Onsens that are still easily accessible from a major train station. Easily accessible from a major train station means you don't need to rent a car and also you don't waste time just trying to get to your accommodation. 

  • Tsunagi Onsen (20min from Morioka, Iwate): I stayed with Hotel Shion which is a onsen hotel that has 5 different baths (4 public 1 private). It had a free shuttle bus from Morioka Station which is a major station with Shinkansen and JR rail passing through. 
  • Owani Onsen (2 stops from Hirosaki Station): I stayed with Hoshino Resort Kai Tsugaru which also has a free shuttle bus from Owani Onsen station. They have an apple onsen bath as well as tons of free cultural experiences. 

(Above: Hotel Shion, Tsunagi Onsen, 20mins from Morioka Station)


(Above: Hoshino Resort Kai Tsugaru, Owani Onsen, 5mins from JR Station)

2. Plan around experiences 

When it comes to experiences, there are a few themes you can think about:

  • Seasonal locations: eg spots famous for Autumn leaves, Cherry Blossoms 
  • Local crafts: Nebuta lanterns (Aomori), Kogin-Zashi embroidery (Aomori),  Kokeshi Dolls (Miyagi), Akabeko (Fukushima) 
  • Festivals: Hirosaki Castle Chrysanthemum and Autumn Foliage Festival (Nov), Nebuta Festival (Aomoro Prefecture, August), Tanabata Festival (Sendai, July), Akita Kanto Festival (Aug) 
  • Music: (Aomori) Tsugaru Shamisen

Information about the various festivals and experiences can be found easily on google! If you just pick a few, it will definitely make your trip to the region memorable. I love this idea because you're not only "sightseeing" with your eyes, but you'll also hear, taste, touch, smell, and the best kind: make something to bring home! 


(Above, left: Nebuta Museum Wa Rasse in Aomori City)
(Above, right: Irodori, Nebuta Lantern making experience in Kuroishi City, Aomori)


(Above: Hoshino Resort Kai Tsugaru at Owani Onsen Aomori. Apple tasting afternoon tea & Kogin Zashi embroidery. They also have shamisen performance followed by a session where you can learn to play.) 

3. Make use of coin lockers

With the JR Rail pass you can hop on and off the Shinkansen and be in different prefectures within an hours' time. That enables you to explore lots of places! One problem though is that most hotels don't let you check in until 3pm, and if you leave your luggage with them after check-out, that means you need to go all the way back to the hotel to pick it up. Even with an unlimited ride pass that's a pain and take a lot of time away from your trip.

The beauty of Japan is that they really do take care of their customer's needs. In major train stations you'll always find multiple coin lockers in various sizes to store your luggage. For JR specifically they have set sizes, and you can usually find Standard, Medium, and Large in all stations. Remember to have lots of ¥100 coins prepared! Most of these lockers will only take ¥100 coins. (On rare occasions they take IC cards, but of course those lockers are almost always occupied already)

Examples of how I used coin-lockers on my trip:
  • Morioka: I arrived by Shinkansen at 9:30am, my hotel is a 20min bus ride from the train station in an onsen area. Just dropping it off there would take away almost an hour. Instead I stored my bags at the station for ¥500, went exploring the city, picked up my bags at 3pm then headed to the hotel for check in.

(Above: Morioka Station, North exit towards IGR Line, 1/F right across from New Day, this special coin locker station has all of Iwate Prefecture specialties printed on them!)

  • Kakunodate: On the day I visited the city, I was checking out of my onsen resort near Morioka (1hr Shinkansen to Kakunodate), exploring Kakunodate for 3hrs, then taking the Shinkansen back to Morioka then switching trains up to Aomori City. I brought all my luggage with me and stored it at Kakunodate station which had S, M, L, XL size coin lockers. 
  • Hirosaki: After checking out in Aomori City around 7:30am, I was planning a day in Hirosaki and Kuroishi before heading south to Owani Onsen to check-into my onsen hotel there. I stored my luggage at Hirosaki Station first thing after arrival and only picked it up around 3pm when I was going to Owani Onsen.

(Above: Aomori Station east exit has this super cool Nebuta design lockers)

Here's a few more photos from Tohoku, the detailed guides for each prefecture will follow. 

(Above, left: Jigokunuma Pond in Sukayu Onsen Area, Aomori Prefecture)
(Above, right: Sukayu Onsen, the 1,000 person mixed gender bath)


(Above, left: Taisho Roman Tea House in Hirosaki City, Aomori)
(Above, right: Fujita Memorial Garden in Hirosaki City, Aomori)


(Above, left: Hirosaki Park, Hirosaki City, Aomori)
(Above, right: Tsugaru-han Neputa Village, Hirosaki City, Aomori)

(Above: JR Owani Onsen Station and their year-round free footbath) 

All of these photos are taken and edited by myself. You can find my tripod and camera info on my instagram highlights

I really hope this blog post was helpful, especially for those who are using just public transportation to visit Tohoku area. When I started this blog, I wanted to inspire others to travel, especially those who want to travel solo but have constraints such as scheduling, budget, no driver's license, and even solo-travel with a baby. It is absolutely possible with careful research and planning. You don't need to let these challenges shy you away from your dream trip. 

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