This article is taken from a recent Wikipedia write-up… Up until 2008 it was possible to travel overnight by train between Tokyo and Kyoto/Osaka using the “Ginga” express sleeper train. Thanks to the amount of people using bullet trains, buses and planes these days, the number of people using sleeper trains has dwindled to the point that some services (such as the Ginga) have been eliminated. But, there IS still a way.
Instead of taking one train on a straight path, this course utilizes two trains via northern Japan.
This requires a large sum of money, and consequently, may be of interest to Japan Rail Pass holders. There are two ways to travel between Tokyo and Kyoto/Osaka, and each method requires taking two trains. I will use Kyoto in the following explanations; all of these services listed below continue on to Osaka (about 30 minutes further out).
The first method from Tokyo is to leave from Tokyo Station or Ueno Station on the final Joetsu Shinkansen departure towards Niigata, changing at Nagaoka (長岡) station for the Kitaguni (きたぐに) express train to Kyoto. The Kitaguni has unreserved standard class seating, reserved green car seating, and couchettes; all seating is non-smoking.
If you use the Shinkansen and an unreserved seat on the Kitaguni, the rail pass fully covers the trip, which takes about nine hours in each direction. Ordinary pass holders who wish to upgrade to the green seat on the Kitaguni can pay ¥5150; Green Car pass holders can use the Green Cars at no charge. Using a couchette on the Kitaguni will incur a surcharge, regardless of rail pass type.
As of November 2009, Max Toki (とき) #353 departs Tokyo Station at 21:40 and arrives in Nagaoka at 23:26. This connects to the Kitaguni, leaving Nagaoka at 23:53 and arriving in Kyoto at 6:16. The return Kitaguni leaves Kyoto just past midnight (0:02) and arrives in Nagaoka at 7:14. The bullet train connection is on Toki #304, which leaves Nagaoka at 7:23 and arrives in Tokyo at 9:12.
The second method from Tokyo is to travel from Ueno Station north to Kanazawa using either the Hokuriku (北陸) sleeper train or the Noto (能登) express train. Upon arrival at Kanazawa station in the morning, change to the Thunderbird (サンダーバード) limited express to Kyoto. The Noto express from Ueno is cheaper, with reserved, non-reserved and green car seats available; all seats are non-smoking and one car is designated for female passengers. The more expensive Hokuriku, one of Japan’s few-remaining “Blue Car” sleeper trains, contains couchettes and private rooms with vending machines and an on-board shower that can be used by purchasing a “Shower Card” from the conductor. Once on board the ‘Thunderbird’ train you will be able to purchase food and drinks from the on-board wagon cart.
With the rail pass, this journey is FREE if you take the Noto and Thunderbird. Ordinary Pass holders can upgrade to the more comfortable Green Car on the Noto for ¥5150; Green Car Pass holders can use the Green Cars at no charge. If using the Hokutosei with either version of the pass, then you must pay the Hokutosei limited express and room fare: ¥9100 for a couchette/solo compartment or ¥16200 for a Single Deluxe compartment.
As of November 2009, the Hokutosei leaves Ueno at 23:03, reaching Kanazawa at 6:26, while the Noto leaves Ueno at 23:33 and arrives in Kanazawa at 6:29. Both trains connect to Thunderbird #6, leaving Kanazawa at 7:02 and arriving in Kyoto at 9:11, for a travel time of about 10 hours and 9 1/2 hours, respectively.
On the return trip from Kyoto to Tokyo, Thunderbird #45, leaving Kyoto at 19:54 and arriving in Kanazawa at 22:07, provides quick connections to the Noto (leaving 22:15, arriving Ueno at 6:05) and the Hokutosei (leaving 22:18, arriving Ueno at 6:19) for a travel time of about 10 hours and 10 1/2 hours, respectively.
My suggestion, if you were to use overnight services both ways: From Tokyo, take the Hokuriku or Noto and the Thunderbird. From Kyoto/Osaka, take the Kitaguni and the Joetsu Shinkansen. With both of these courses you can spend more time at your origin before your departure, and you would arrive at your destination just as the morning rush hour is drawing to a close.
Taking an overnight service compared to the bullet train is actually more expensive: while a one-way trip from Tokyo to Osaka on the bullet train costs 14,000 yen, the overnight trips using the model courses listed above start at around 17-18,000 yen each. So depending on your itinerary, taking an overnight train may be of good value when using the rail pass… especially because you can save money by using the train instead of staying at a hotel. Even if you DO decide to use the Hokutosei for the benefits of an on-board shower and some more privacy, and you do have to pay the extra surcharge as a result, you’ll be paying less than what other travelers would pay, since your Rail Pass covers the entire BASIC train fare.
Also keep in mind, however, that if you do choose a more simpler method of travel, the Rail Pass is valid on all BUSES between Tokyo and Kyoto/Osaka.
(These tips are offered pursuant to the DISCLAIMER – click “DISCLAIMER” at the top of the page)