The most up-to-date version of this article (from March 2016) can be found here.
Greetings everyone. I figured that I would spend this post – in the shadow of the Japanese Yen checking in at a whopping 81 to the US Dollar (which must be the ___th time in the last few months that a 15-year record low has been established) – to talk about traveling Overnight by train in the land of the rising sun.
Have I travelled overnight by train in Japan? No. Have I read a lot about it on many different websites? Yes. Can I share what I’ve learned with you? Yes. Can I share one suggestion that may make your overnight travel a little bit easier? Yes. Will I do something like this on my next trip to Japan? I might.
Overnight trains were once a staple of the country. Many stories have been told – real and fiction – about traveling life on these trains. Regular services peaked in the 1970’s, but then came the bullet trains – then cheap overnight highway buses – then aging train equipment – that sapped most life out of these so-called “Blue Trains” (nicknamed for their color).
These days, only ten main overnight train services remain in the entire country, compared to the plethora of overnight highway buses that are now the routine.
From Tokyo, five trains are available. Three run to northern Japan from Ueno Station: The Akebono, which runs north to Akita and Aomori (and sadly appears to be the next blue train to be axed in the near future), the Hokutosei, which runs north to Sapporo in Hokkaido, and the Cassiopeia, a deluxe sleeper train that also runs to Sapporo. Going west from Tokyo are two trains coupled together: the Sunrise Seto and Sunrise Izumo. Both arrive at Himeji and Okayama during the early morning hours. At Okayama, the Izumo goes to Kurashiki and terminates at the city of Izumo, home to Japan’s oldest Shinto shrine, while the Seto crosses to the island of Shikoku, terminating at the port town of Takamatsu.
From Osaka and Kyoto in the Kansai region, two trains run to northern Japan: The Nihonkai, which runs to Aomori, and the deluxe Twilight Express. The Twilight Express makes the run from Osaka to Sapporo in about 21 hours, making it Japan’s longest journey on a single passenger train.
There are also three trains that are not technically classified as sleeper trains, but still operate overnight: The Hamanasu, from Aomori to Sapporo; the Kitaguni, from Osaka and Kyoto to Niigata; and the Dream Nichirin, running from Fukuoka along the eastern coast of Kyushu to Miyazaki.
Most of these overnight train services offer bunk beds and private rooms, some of which have a private sink, toilet and/or shower. A few trains have public showers that can be used for a small fee. The Twilight Express and Cassiopeia also have diner cars and lounge cars. Other trains have carpet space – where you pay for the privilege of sleeping on the floor – and comfortable seats that can be found on many of Japan’s other high-end train services.
The fare structure for the sleeper trains consists of the BASIC FARE (the normal fare that you would have to pay to get from origin to destination over the local railway), the LIMITED EXPRESS FARE (which is also from Point A to Point B), and the ROOM/LODGING FARE which is a fixed fare no matter where you start or end your journey. (For example, if you were to take the Tokyo-Sapporo “Hokutosei” and board it in Sendai for a trip to Sapporo, the Basic and Limited Express fares would be less than from Tokyo, but the lodging fare would remain the same.)
The Japan Rail Pass covers the basic fare on all JR Railways. If you take an overnight train and stay in a bunk or a room, your responsibility would be for the Limited Express Fare and the Lodging Fare. If you stay in a seat or sleep on the floor, your journey is covered and you do not have to pay additional charges. In addition, you will have to pay for travel on non-JR operated Railways… for overnight trains this affects the Cassiopeia and Hokutosei from Tokyo to Sapporo. This payment for non-JR railways arose from 2003… when JR East extended its Shinkansen services north from Morioka to Hachinohe, it ceased operations of local trains over that same route and turned the right of way over to private railway companies, even though overnight sleeper trains continued to use it. This will continue in December of this year, when the bullet train is extended further north to Aomori and the Hachinohe-Aomori segment of the local JR line is transferred over.
So how much does an overnight trip on a train in Japan cost? Here are a few examples, courtesy of Island of Hodo, a Japanese website dedicated to overnight trains in Japan (with an English section that hasn’t been updated in a LONG time).
Nihonkai from Kyoto to Aomori (northern tip of Japan)
21,740 yen for a B-type Bunk (Basic Fare 12,290 + LEX Fare 3,150 + Lodging Fare 6,300) (Japan Rail Pass: 9450 yen)
Shared bunk accomodation. Each bunk has a privacy curtain. Shared sink and toilet nearby.
Sunrise Seto/Izumo from Tokyo to Okayama
13,850 yen for Nobinobi Carpet Seating (Basic Fare 10,190 + LEX Fare 3,660) (Japan Rail Pass: No charge)
Carpet accomodations where you sleep on the floor. Shared sink and toilet nearby.
Sunrise Seto from Tokyo to Takamatsu
27,510 yen for an A-Class Single Deluxe Private Room (Basic Fare 11,010 + LEX Fare 3,150 + Lodging Fare 13,350) (Japan Rail Pass: 16,500 yen)
A private room for one person on the upper level of the train. Keypad lock entry for the room. Bed with nearby lighting controls, audio channels and alarm clock. Shared toilet in same car. Shower in same car shared with other A-Class passengers.
Twilight Express from Osaka to Sapporo
89,620 yen for an A-Class Private Suite for two adults (Basic Fare 16,170 [x 2] + LEX Fare 3,150 [x 2] + Lodging Fare 50,980) (Japan Rail Pass: 57,280 yen for 2 passengers)
This is the most expensive overnight fare. Choice of one of two A-Class Private Suites on the 21-hour Twilight Express, one of which is at one end of the train. On the northbound trip to Sapporo, when the suites are toward the back of the train, the five windows command an unparalleled view of the train line and surrounding scenery. Double bed with table and seats located next to the windows. On-board television, with a private sink, toilet and shower.
Kitaguni from Niigata to Kyoto
15,440 yen for Green Car seating (Basic Fare 9,030 + Express Fare 1,260 + Green Car Fare 5,150) (Japan Rail Pass: 5,150 yen; Green Car Japan Rail Pass: No Charge)
Reclining Green seats that are typical on other major train services in Japan, comparable to first class seating. This train also has hard-back unreserved seats which can be used for Free with the Japan Rail Pass, and bunk accomodations which will incur a charge.
Hamanasu from Aomori to Sapporo
9,750 yen for “Dream Car” reserved seating (Basic Fare 9,750 + Express Fare 1,260 + Seat Fare 510) (Japan Rail Pass: No charge)
These trains have comfortable reserved seating with a mini-lounge. Shared toilets nearby.
As you can see, charges vary on all ends of the spectrum. And most of them might be out of the range of the average tourist. Don’t get me wrong though… if you have the money to spend, then experiencing a journey by overnight train can be memorable.
So what do you do with a Japan Rail Pass? Well as you’ve seen with at least one example, it is still possible to travel over SOME routes at little to no cost. For example, if you really wanted to go overnight from Tokyo to Sapporo, you could take a bullet train up north to to Aomori, then pick up the Hamanasu train to Sapporo. This journey is fully covered under the rail pass and you’d get to Sapporo at 6 AM the following morning. Or you could pony up some extra yen to take any of the overnight sleeper trains that run to the northern Japan region.
But what if you wanted a good place to rest, with access to your own private toilet, and even your own shower if you wanted to? And what if you could do it while reducing your lodging costs while visiting Japan? I have an untested answer, but I’m sure at least ONE person has done this in Japan – Japanese or non-Japanese – and I’m pretty sure this will work if you consider the logic. Especially if you have a JAPAN RAIL PASS.
In fact, I’ve already explained this idea in an earlier post… Ah, here it is. But I’ll explain this in a little more detail here.
The idea is to simply split your journey up into two parts. Take a train (yes, bullet trains work here) to an intermediate station along the way to where you are going. Get out at that station, find a hotel to stay at, and rest there for a while. When you wake up in the morning – rested and perhaps showered – hop back on the train again towards your destination.
This, in most cases, will reduce your lodging costs. You’ll more than likely find cheap accomodations in an intermediate, out of the way city, compared to larger, major cities such as Tokyo. And your rail fare? No sweat… as long as your rail pass does not expire for two days (the day of departure and the next), your trip is fully covered. So for those who plan to use their Rail Passes to the fullest, this is something you might want to think about. Plus, you’ll have the added benefit of spending *some* time in a Japanese city you probably didn’t think about checking out in the first place. And with some extra yen you could forward some luggage to your destination with a luggage delivery service such as Yamato, making the journey easier.
You’ll have to do the homework – find out what trains cater to your travel schedule for the destination you want to travel to – and find out what hotels are near some cities and train stations along the way. You’ll especially want to find out, for cheaper hotels, whether there is a curfew or the reception is open 24 hours.
A business hotel chain that is opening hotels all the time in Japan – many near train stations – is Toyoko Inn. I can’t officially endorse them because I haven’t stayed in a Toyoko Inn before, although I am tempted to do so one day… but Toyoko Inns seem to have a very good reputation and they have online booking services in English. They have 24-hour reception, and from what I have researched, check-in times for Toyoko Inns are between 16:00 and 24:00, so you can arrive during the late hours. A cancellation charge is applied if you do not arrive by your scheduled time and do not contact the hotel.
So using my idea and using Toyoko Inns as an example, let’s see what we can do for some overnight trips.
TOKYO – KYOTO
The essential trip that a foreigner must take when visiting Japan for the first time. Let’s use the Japan Rail Pass and leave Tokyo at 9:30 PM on one of the final Hikari train services of the day. This train stops at Hamamatsu at 10:48, where we could go off and rest at the Toyoko Inn there (6,000 yen single; 4,200 yen p/p double occupancy)… or perhaps we could exit at Toyohashi at 11:01 and stay at the Toyoko Inn there (6,090 yen single; 4,095 yen p/p double occupancy)… Say, why don’t we just go all the way to Nagoya and stay at the Toyoko Inn that is closest to the bullet train exit? (6,905 yen single; 3,940 yen p/p double occupancy) In the morning we can leave at our leisure… if we choose to take one of the first bullet trains of the day, we could get into Kyoto before the first trains of the day from Tokyo pull in! Leave Hamamatsu at 6:32 or Toyohashi at 6:45 and we can get to Kyoto at 7:58 in the morning… or we could leave Nagoya at 6:35 and reach Kyoto in just 45 minutes!
TOKYO – HIROSHIMA
A long journey to a city of important significance, for Japan and for the world. We could go overnight on the Sunrise Seto/Izumo train, changing in Okayama for a bullet train to Hiroshima. The Rail Pass covers this trip with no additional charges… but do we really want to sleep on the floor? Nah, not unless we stay in a ryokan and sleep in a futon… so, let’s leave at 7 PM on a Hikari service that will bring us into Himeji station at around 11 PM… yes, that Himeji, with the castle? After staying at the Toyoko Inn there (5,880 yen single; 3,990 yen p/p double occupancy), we could leave the next day as early as 6:36 in the morning, and reach Hiroshima as early as 7:38.
TOKYO – SAPPORO
We can already do this for free anyway, using the bullet train and the Hamanasu. But what if you need to shower, or what if a 6 AM arrival in Sapporo is too early? We can address that. Let’s pull up the timetables for the bullet train effective December 4, when the line is extended to Shin-Aomori… aha! Leave 6:56 PM on the Hayate and arrive in Shin-Aomori at 10:24. Ride the shuttle train one stop to Aomori station and park at the Toyoko Inn there (5,460 yen single; 3,780 yen p/p double occupancy). In the morning we leave from Aomori at 8:15, change in Hakodate to another train, and we’re in Sapporo by 2 PM in the afternoon. All we paid for the trip was 3,780 yen each for a party of two. No paying for expensive accomodations in Tokyo and no spending extra, precious yen for a plane ride to Sapporo the next day.
2 PM too late an arrival? Then let’s do an afternoon and evening trip to Hakodate instead: Leave Tokyo at 3:56 PM, and change in Shin-Aomori to a train that will take us to Hakodate, on the southern end of Hokkaido, at 9:41 PM. There’s a Toyoko Inn nearby (5,460 yen single; 3,990 yen p/p double occupancy), and when we get up the next morning, the first train to Sapporo goes out at 7 AM, reaching Sapporo at 10:18.
OSAKA – SAPPORO
Ah the longest railway journey, and a classic one too… but we don’t have extra thousands of yen for a room on this train, so we’ll use the rail pass and Toyoko Inn concept once again.
We leave Shin-Osaka, the bullet train station, at 3:13 in the afternoon and reach Tokyo at 6:10 PM. This gives us about 45 minutes in Tokyo to do whatever we wish before taking the 6:56 PM Hayate train to Shin-Aomori. The rest of the instructions are the same as in the first Tokyo-Sapporo itinerary above, which will get us into Sapporo by 2 PM, nearly 23 hours, a room, a bed and a shower later. Under the second plan we’d leave Shin-Osaka three hours earlier at 12:13 PM and reach Sapporo at10:18 AM the next day… which is only about an hour more than the Twilight Express takes for its complete journey.
Okay, the moral of the story is that I am officially, certifiably, a lunatic. But by now you get the idea. As you can see, be it short or long, the possibilities are endless. Once again, find out what you want to see, where you want to go, what your timetable is like. Of course, do comparisons between hotels to see if this is something that you’d be willing to do, or CAN do for that matter. And remember, the more you use the Japan Rail Pass in the time you have, the better value you will get out of it.
One more thing that I failed to mention: During high peak periods, such as the Golden Week and New Year’s holidays, and during summer months, extra overnight trains are added. Some of these trains cater to budget travelers in Japan who are using a Seishun 18 ticket… the most popular is a train called the Moonlight Nagara which runs between Tokyo and a city called Ogaki, halfway between Nagoya and Kyoto. Your rail pass is valid on this train, but then again, so are Seishun 18 tickets because the train is classified as a Rapid service. This service sells out very quickly and tends to get crowded as well. Just something to keep in mind 🙂
As always I welcome your questions or comments. Feel free to leave your thoughts here or you can e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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