Posted by: jrhorse | March 8, 2012

Overnight by Train in Japan: The Options – March 2012 Update

The most up-to-date version of this article (from March 2016) can be found here.

Well, we’re just a short time away from the point where the national Japan Railway timetables will go under their annual revisions. With that in mind, it’s time to revisit the Overnight by Train in Japan post that I wrote in October 2010 and share some more opinions and suggestions when it comes to using the national Japan Rail Pass for overnight travel.

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).

My original article listed the overnight trains that were remaining in the country… but as of the upcoming March 2012 timetable revision, Japan will be losing two more trains in regular service: The Nihonkai, which runs from Osaka and Kyoto along the northern coast to Aomori, and the Kitaguni which runs from Osaka and Kyoto to Niigata. These trains will be scaled back to seasonal service, meaning that it will only run during high peak travel periods, such as Golden Week or the summer months.

This will leave Japan with the following overnight trains in regular service:

From Tokyo, the Akebono, which runs north to Akita and Aomori, 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 there will now be only one overnight train, the Twilight Express, running from Osaka to Sapporo. At 21 hours it is Japan’s longest train journey.

Another express train, the Hamanasu, continues to run between Aomori and Sapporo during the overnight hours.

More details about the accomodations and fares available on the overnight trains can be found in my original post. As reservations are required for many of these services, you may find yourself out of luck when you want to book one of them. After all, you can’t make reservations for any of these overnight trains until you arrive in Japan and can make the reservation at the “Midori-no-Madoguchi” – the JR ticket reservation counters.

I once again propose an alternative travel option for these overnight journeys, and it will work if you have a Japan Rail Pass. The idea? Split up your long overnight journey into an evening segment and a morning segment, stopping at an intermediate city to rest… preferably at a cheap business hotel near the station where you get off. You’ll get your own bed, your own toilet, and your own shower. And you probably won’t have to pay the higher room charges you might encounter at good hotels in your origin or destination city. Do this split journey a few times and the savings in your wallet might add up… not to mention you’ll be visiting a Japanese city you’d never think to visit in the first place. Who knows, you might even get to try something – food for example – that’s unique to that particular region or city. And remember, as long as your rail pass covers the day of travel AND the following day, your rail fare will be fully covered.

For these examples I will once again use the reputable Toyoko Inn hotel chain, which is continuing to open new hotels all the time in Japan. They have 24-hour reception, online booking in English, and check-in times are between 16:00 and 24:00, so you can arrive during the late hours. Keep in mind, Toyoko Inn reservations are cancelled and a cancellation charge is applied if you do not arrive by your scheduled time and do not contact the hotel.

Okay, let’s start brainstorming and see what we can do 🙂

TOKYO to 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 (3,980 yen single; 3,490 yen p/p double occupancy)… or perhaps we could exit at Toyohashi at 11:01 and stay at the Toyoko Inn there (4,980 yen single; 3,490 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? (6,730 yen single; 4,240 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 to TAKAMATSU (and Shikoku)

The port city of Takamatsu is one of the major cities on the Japanese island of Shikoku. Previously only accessible by ferry, Shikoku was connected to the Japanese mainland in 1988 with a series of bridges known collectively as the Great Seto Bridge. Two more bridges connecting Honshu and Shikoku would open in the late 1990’s, but the Seto Ohashi bridge is the only one able to accomodate both vehicular and railroad traffic.

JR’s “Sunrise Seto” overnight train connects Tokyo and Shikoku on a daily basis, running via Okayama over the Great Seto Bridge to Takamatsu. If you find it hard to secure an accomodation on this train and pay the hefty surcharge for a room or a bunk, why not split up the trip? Here is the overnight suggestion: Leave Tokyo at 6:30 PM on a Hikari service to Shin-Osaka. Upon arrival, transfer to the Kodama departing at 9:33 PM. The Kodama will take you to Himeji, Aioi and Okayama, all of which have Toyoko Inn hotels. The one in Himeji charges 5230 yen for a single and 3990 yen p/p double occupancy. The Aioi Toyoko Inn charges 5230 yen for a single and 3740 yen p/p double occupancy. There are three Toyoko Inns in Okayama, two of which are in close proximity to the station: The Nishi-guchi Hiroba (5230 yen single, 3740 yen p/p double occupancy) and the Higashi-guchi (5230 yen single, 3365 yen p/p double occupancy).

On the next morning, take the “Marine Liner” rapid train service to reach Takamatsu, or if you are heading to another destination on Shikoku then take one of the Limited Express trains in that direction. The first two Marine Liner trains for Takamatsu at 5:28 and 6:01, arriving Takamatsu at 6:32 and 6:56 respectively – before the 7:27 arrival of the Sunrise Seto. For a more comparable arrival time compared with the overnight train, the 6:37 Marine Liner departure from Okayama arrives in Takamatsu at 7:34. Marine Liner trains depart on a regular basis to Takamatsu so you can rest a little more on the overnight leg if you wanted to.

From Himeji, a “Sakura” train departs from Himeji at 7:20, arriving in Okayama at 7:41 – this allows you to connect to the 7:55 Marine Liner, arriving Takamatsu at 8:50. From Aioi, you can take the 7:20 “Kodama” arriving in Okayama at 7:37.  If you wake up early enough, you also have the option of taking a local train service from Himeji or Aioi into Okayama, but you’ll want to check websites such as Hyperdia for potential connections.

TOKYO to FUKUOKA (and Kyushu)

Using the above stopovers, you can also go further west into the Chugoku region of Honshu, and end up on the southern island of Kyushu. Using Okayama as a stopover point, you can catch the “Hikari” or “Sakura” to bring you to stops such as Hiroshima, Fukuoka (Hakata station), Kumamoto and Kagoshima. From Okayama the first departure to Hiroshima is a Kodama leaving at 6:10 and arriving at 7:11. The first “Sakura” service leaves Himeji at 6:54 and Okayama at 7:16, arriving Hiroshima at 7:56, Fukuoka at 9:13, Kumamoto at 9:50 and Kagoshima-Chuo at 10:49. From Aioi you can take a local train to Okayama to take this first Sakura service if it’s available, or you can leave on a Kodama at 7:20 and go one stop to Okayama to connect with the following “Sakura” service, or you can go the opposite direction to Himeji on a 6:20 Kodama service to pick up the 6:54 “Sakura” departure listed above.

TOKYO to SAPPORO (and Hokkaido)

No doubt this is a great – and extremely popular – overnight route of choice. This is a route that can be done for no extra yen, thanks to the overnight Hamanasu service that runs from Aomori, at the tip of Honshu, to Sapporo. To get to the Hamanasu, you’ll need to take a late bullet train north from Tokyo: the 6:56 PM “Hayate” to the end of the line at Shin-Aomori station. Once there, a local train will shuttle you to the main Aomori train station where you can immediately connect to the “Hamanasu” train (connection time only three minutes). You will be in Sapporo just after 6 AM the next morning.

If you want to overnight in your own room with a bed and shower – or if you can’t get Hamanasu tickets – there’s a Toyoko Inn next to Aomori station where you can stay the night (5480 yen single, 3740 yen p/p double occupancy). The first train from Aomori to Hokkaido leaves at 8:24 in the morning – with a connection in Hakodate to another train, you’ll be in Sapporo by 2 PM.

If you leave earlier from Tokyo on the other hand, you can spend the evening in Hakodate, Hokkaido: The 3:56 PM “Hayate” from Tokyo gets you in to Shin-Aomori by 7:28 PM, from which you can connect to a limited express train arriving in Hakodate at 9:41 PM. Stay at the Toyoko Inn there (4980 yen single, 3240 yen p/p double occupancy), and then depart on the first Sapporo-bound train leaving at 7:04 AM, arriving in Sapporo at 10:18 AM. As of this writing, taking the 3:56 PM “Hayate” service from Tokyo will allow you to ride the latest bullet train, the E5.

OSAKA to SAPPORO

This journey is long – but easily done with the bullet train services, thereby saving you thousands of yen that the Twilight Express would normally charge. You could stay at the Toyoko Inn in Hakodate or Aomori (listed above), or any other stop along the route of the bullet train if the price is right.

You can travel from Osaka to Sapporo at a pace that is relatively comparable to the Twilight Express if you leave from Shin-Osaka at 12:40 PM (or Kyoto at 12:56 PM) on a “Hikari” service. This will arrive in Tokyo at 3:40 PM, giving you 16 minutes to connect to the “Hayate” train service as described above. If you want an extra cushion you can leave 30 minutes earlier, giving you about 45 minutes to mull about Tokyo station.

Here’s an interesting itinerary suggestion: What if you wanted to follow the route of the Twilight Express as closely as possible and enjoy all that a view of the Sea of Japan has to offer? Let’s see what I can figure out here (and prove in the process how much of a geek I really am).

Alas, it will sadly take you up to a day and a half to do this course, and therefore you’ll need to sacrifice time… but on the other hand this first itinerary comes at little to NO cost.

Thunderbird #3, depart Osaka 7:41 AM (Shin-Osaka 7:45, Kyoto 8:11), arrive Kanazawa 10:25 AM
Hokuetsu #3, depart Kanazawa 10:34 AM, arrive Niigata 2:19 PM
72-minute layover
Inaho #7, depart Niigata 3:31 PM, arrive Akita 7:15 PM
Tsugaru #7, depart Akita 7:26 PM, arrive Aomori 10:08 PM

Upon arriving in Aomori you have the option of taking the “Hamanasu” to Sapporo, departing 10:42 PM and arriving 6:07 AM, or you can stay overnight in Aomori and leave for Hokkaido the next day at 8:24 AM, arriving in Sapporo by 2 PM.

If you want a shorter journey but an earlier arrival in Sapporo then you’ll have to sacrifice a good part of the journey along the coast – in this case you will want to break off the route on the spur that goes to Echigo-Yuzawa, connecting there to the bullet train. Note that since a section of this journey is NOT over JR tracks, you will need to pay an extra surcharge of between 2,080 and 3,580 per person depending on the class of travel.

Thunderbird #9, depart Osaka 9:12 AM (Shin-Osaka 9:16, Kyoto 9:40), arrive Kanazawa 12:01 PM
Hakutaka #13, depart Kanazawa 12:07 PM, arrive Echigo-Yuzawa 2:51 PM (extra surcharge required)
Toki #328 (bullet train), depart Echigo-Yuzawa 2:59 PM, arrive Omiya 3:54 PM
27-minute layover
Hayate #33 (bullet train), depart Omiya 4:22 PM, arrive Shin-Aomori 7:28 PM
Super Hokuto #33, depart Shin-Aomori 7:38 PM, arrive Hakodate 9:41 PM

Here you can stay in Hakodate and then continue on to Sapporo as described above, arriving at 10:18 AM.

Want a third leisurely way to travel? Take a detour through the mountains of Central Japan using the “Wide View Shinano”, which runs one daily service out of Kansai in the morning, and pay NO train surcharges:

Wide View Shinano #9, depart Osaka 8:58 AM (Shin-Osaka 9:02, Kyoto 9:25, Nagoya 11:00), arrive Nagano 1:53 PM
33-minute layover
Asama #530 (bullet train), depart Nagano 2:26 PM, arrive Omiya 3:46 PM
36-minute layover
Hayate #33 (bullet train), depart Omiya 4:22 PM, arrive Shin-Aomori 7:28 PM
Super Hokuto #33, depart Shin-Aomori 7:38 PM, arrive Hakodate 9:41 PM

Here you can stay in Hakodate and then continue on to Sapporo as described above, arriving at 10:18 AM.

For the above itinerary you can cut some time by taking the bullet train from Shin-Osaka or Kyoto to Nagoya to connect to the Wide View Shinano – Hikari #462 leaves Shin-Osaka at 9:40 AM and Kyoto at 9:56 AM, arriving in Nagoya at 10:33 AM.

Wishful thinking? Of course! If you don’t have time, use the first option of taking an afternoon bullet train departure and going via Tokyo. If you have time on your hands and want to see more of Japan at a leisurely pace, then one of the above options is for you.

Thanks for reading – now do your homework, and whatever you decide, ENJOY JAPAN!

And always remember one thing…. everything that I write is pursuant to the good ol’ DISCLAIMER which you can read by clicking on the link at the top of the page.

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