As I wrote in a previous post, changes are coming to the Japan Rail Pass this year. Originally announced in December, it will soon be easier to use the Rail Pass in Japan when it comes to purchasing, seat reservations, ticket collection and entering/exiting the JR system.
The JR Group put out another news release in Japanese on Monday, February 17, which details more information about the changes that will be coming. I’ve done my best to try to decipher the details from the press release. The most important part to take away is that the prices of the Japan Rail Pass under the new system will be increasing.
The new Japan Rail Pass
*The official launch date for the “new and improved” Japan Rail Pass will be June 1, 2020.
A new official website will be launched, www.japanrailpass-reservation.net … you can’t access it now as of this writing (February 2020) but it will be activated by Japan Railways prior to the launch date.
*Under the new system, you can purchase Japan Rail Passes online through the website. Once purchased, you will have up to one month to receive the pass. (Under the exchange order system you have three months to swap an exchange order for the pass)
*The prices for the Japan Rail Pass under the new system will be increasing. For the last few years, Japan Railways has trialed purchases of the Japan Rail Pass inside Japan at higher rates compared to purchasing an exchange order overseas and then exchanging it for the pass.
For example, a 7-day Standard Adult Rail Pass purchased in advance (via exchange order) currently costs 29,650 yen. If you wait to purchase it in Japan, it costs 33,610 yen.
The cost for Japan Rail Pass under the new system will be increased to the prices currently charged if purchasing a pass inside Japan. So, for example, if you purchase a 7-day Standard Adult Rail Pass in advance under the new system, it will cost 33,610 yen (up almost 4,000 yen from the previous cost).
*Once you have purchased a Japan Rail Pass through the new website, you can use the same website to make advanced seat reservations for trains. Reservations can be made between 4:00 and 23:30 Japan Time every day, which are the times that the regular JR reservation system is available.
*As stated previously, you must make one trip to a manned counter (such as a ticket office, or one of the travel service centers for foreigners) to pick up your Japan Rail Pass. At that point, your passport will be checked for eligibility… if your passport does not show you are a “Temporary Visitor” then you cannot receive the pass.
After your visit to the manned counter and receive your pass, you will be able to use ticket vending machines for reservations/pickup, and you will be able to use automatic ticket gates to enter and exit the JR system.
*The new system will only be available to foreign nationals. If you are a Japanese national, you must continue to use the exchange voucher system. It looks like the exchange voucher system will be available for at least three more years (until December 2023). If you still use the exchange voucher system, then many of the new features of the Japan Rail Pass might not be available for you to use.
The upgrades to the Japan Rail Pass, while sorely needed after so many years, will now come at an increased cost. The new web site for purchases and reservations appears to be tied directly into Japan Railways’ reservation systems, thus the reason why the “buy the pass inside Japan” price will apply. While still providing great value, you now need to plot out your JR journeys even more than before to see if a national rail pass is justified.
For example, the old rule of thumb was that a 7-Day Standard Adult Rail Pass could cover your trip from Tokyo to Kyoto or Osaka and back. (A 28,800 yen round-trip reserved ticket between Tokyo and Osaka for a 29,650 yen Rail Pass.) This will no longer necessarily be the case if you choose to order a rail pass through the new system.
One could argue that even with the new prices, a round-trip on the Narita Express between Narita Airport and Tokyo will be enough. However, remember that many international flights will be switching their Tokyo flights from Narita Airport to Haneda Airport at the end of March 2020, thanks to the addition of new arrival/departure routes and landing slots.
If you think that a trip to Japan is just Tokyo and Kyoto/Osaka, you’re wrong. Why limit yourself to Tokyo and Kansai when you can see much more?
For example, from the Kansai area, you could:
*Make an easy day trip to Himeji, home to one of Japan’s oldest surviving castles.
*Head to the picturesque traditional landscapes in Okayama or Kurashiki.
*Visit the Peace Park and museum in Hiroshima.
*Double back and spend a day in Nagoya, Japan’s third-largest city, which many tourists may skip over on the trip between Tokyo and Kansai.
*Cross the Seto-Ohashi Bridge into Shikoku and climb the 785 steps to the main shrine of Konpira-san in Kotohira, or visit the much-adored Ritsurin Garden in Takamatsu.
Do one of these day trips using the Shinkansen in and out of Kansai and your 7 Day Standard Pass will be more than justified. Just remember… your Rail Pass still won’t be valid on the fastest bullet train services, the Nozomi or the Mizuho.
Note that the price increases for the Green Car rail passes are steeper than the Standard passes: a 7-day Adult Green Car pass will cost 44,810 yen, an increase of over 5,200 yen. If you are looking for the 14-day Japan Rail Pass, a Green Car pass will cost an additional 8,200 yen (compared to a 5,700 yen increase for Standard). A 21-day Green Car pass for adults will increase by 8,280 yen (compared to 5,750 yen for Standard).
I’ll try to update this article when I learn more information, or when Japan Railways provides more details in English. In the meantime, if you are planning to visit Japan in the second half of 2020 or later (if I were you, preferably after the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics) then be sure to do your homework to see if the new Japan Rail Pass is for you.
This article was written in February 2020 and is accurate at the time of publication, subject to the site-wide disclaimer.
As my next trip to Japan is approaching sooner than I think, I have an update concerning shinkansen ticketing using IC cards.
IC cards go by many monikers in Japan (Suica and PASMO in Tokyo, Toica in central Japan, Icoca in western Japan, etc), but no matter the name, the IC card is an indispensable piece of hardware that make traveling on trains easy. No need to figure out how much a train or a bus costs between point A and point B… just tap your IC card when getting on and getting off, and the correct fare will be deducted from the stored balance on the card. Cards can easily be topped up at train stations and convenience stores, and can be used to pay for items at shops and a growing number of vending machines.
As reported on this blog in February 2016, JR Central and JR West, operators of the Tokaido and San’yo Shinkansen – arguably the two most important bullet train lines in the country – were said to be making plans to introduce some sort of mobile ticketing system for their bullet trains that would be tied to IC cards.
These plans have now been confirmed in a Japanese-language press release from both companies. Starting September 30, 2017, a new service called SMART EX will begin operation, allowing passengers to purchase bullet train tickets on the Tokaido and San’yo Shinkansen using a major credit card and then “store” the details onto a linked IC card. The IC card would then be used to enter through the ticket barriers.
Earlier indications were that the new system would be foreigner-friendly. Following the recent JR press release, the travel site Japan-Guide.com has reported that a dedicated, bilingual website will be created. Passengers would need to create an account, register a credit card, and register a valid IC card.
Of course, if you don’t have an IC card in your possession, you will need to obtain one in Japan before you register for the service. When you use SMART EX to make a shinkansen reservation, you will get a small discount of 200 yen off of the normal fare.
The following brands of IC cards can be used with the new service: Kitaca, Pasmo, Suica, Manaca, Toica, Pitapa, Icoca, Hayakaken, Nimoca and Sugoca.
The following credit cards can be used to purchase tickets: Visa, Mastercard, American Express, Diner’s Club and JCB. J-West credit cards, exclusive to Japan, are also eligible.
The service can only be used to make seat reservations for Tokaido Shinkansen and San’yo Shinkansen services, as well as through services between the two lines. Tokaido Shinkansen trains run from Tokyo to Nagoya, Kyoto and Osaka, while the San’yo Shinkansen runs from Osaka to Kobe, Okayama, Hiroshima, Kita-Kyushu (Kokura station) and Fukuoka (Hakata station).
You cannot make reservations for Kyushu Shinkansen trains (those that run from Fukuoka to Kumamoto or Kagoshima), and you can’t reserve any bullet train services operated by JR East… in fact, JR East already has a website where you can make train reservations.
If you don’t have a Japan Rail Pass, the SMART EX can be a good way to make bullet train reservations without having to stop at a ticket machine or a ticket counter beforehand. The downside is that you need an IC card in your possession before you can register for the service.
If the reports are true and there indeed is an English option for SMART EX, I may give it a shot on my next trip and report my results!
I am thankful for the feedback that I have received from my previous post about Train Cruising on the Cheap. Now I will admit that the experience of the cruising train is an important selling point in the cost of the trip. As much as I yearn to try a train like the Shiki-shima, or any of the other cruising trains in existence or in the process of coming out, let’s face it… with both the high cost and the lottery systems in place due to the overflow of interest, it’s highly unlikely that I will get the coveted chance to take such a train in the future.
Today I’ll look at how we can turn another cruise train itinerary into something that’s more manageable for tourists. Here is the JR West version of the Shiki-shima: The Twilight Express Mizukaze. This is the newest incarnation of the former Twilight Express overnight train that ran a few times a week from Osaka and Kyoto up to Sapporo. This overnight service, and the rest of the ones to and from Sapporo that existed, ended operations by March 2015 before the Seikan rail tunnel connecting Honshu and Hokkaido was re-purposed for the new Hokkaido Shinkansen operations.
I’ll admit that the Twilight Express was a train that I was looking forward to traveling on, and it’s a shame that it had to go away. The new Twilight Express Mizukaze will begin services in June 2017, and like the Shiki-shima train it has a small capacity – no more than 34 passengers per service.
There are five routes that the cruising train will operate on: Four courses are 2 day, 1 night in duration, and one course is 3 days, 2 nights in duration. The trips from to/from the Kansai region, covering two main paths: The San’yo Main Line, along the southern coast of west Japan, and the San’in Line, along the northern coast.
I’ll take on the longest course, the 3 day and 2 night journey that loops around both coasts of Western Japan operating in the fall, and see what I can come up with. We will start the journey at Osaka Station and end at Kyoto Station.
First, let’s see what the itinerary is if you took the cruising train.
Twilight Express Mizukaze Itinerary – 3 day, 2 night course
Day 1: Depart Kyoto Station or Osaka Station – Okayama Station – Overnight on the train (train changes from San’yo to San’in Line at Shimonoseki) Day 2: Shinji Station/Matsue Station – Overnight on the train Day 3: Higashihama Station – End at Kyoto Station or Shin-Osaka Station
Cost: Starting at 670,000 yen single occupancy or 520,000 yen per person double occupancy. (About USD $6,000 and $4,600, respectively, at present exchange rates)
If you understand some Japanese, the full itinerary in Japanese can be found at this link on the Nippon Travel Agency website.
Day 1: 9:00 – Osaka Station
You might as well spend the first part of your day wandering Osaka Station as the morning rush tapers off. It went through an overwhelming renovation and refreshing that completed in 2011 with new shopping and entertainment options, and a dramatic sloping roof above the train tracks and concourse that in a way attempts to rival Kyoto Station, or more likely a modern airport terminal. I last visited the Osaka Station complex in 2008, right as they were starting the reconstruction. On my next trip I’d like to make it a point to visit the new surroundings to see how things turned out.
At around 10 AM or so, depart west via the JR Tokaido Line, which is referred to as the JR Kobe Line in these parts. The fastest of the local services out of Osaka is the Special Rapid, or Shin-Kaisoku (新快速) service; we’ll take this as the first of three regular services to Okayama.
JR Kobe Line Special Rapid, depart Osaka 10:00, Arrive Himeji 11:06 (Weekends/Holidays arrives 11:03)
JR San’yo Line Local, Depart Himeji 11:07, Arrive Aioi 11:26
JR San’yo Line Local, Depart Aioi 11:28, Arrive Okayama 12:38
Fare: 3,020 yen
Spend an afternoon in Okayama – first having lunch at one of the various restaurants in the station, and then by exploring some of the city’s most popular symbols, including Korakuen Garden – one of Japan’s three gardens that we’ve touched base on before – and a reconstruction of Okayama castle.
Later in the day, we’ll hop on the bullet train to continue our westward journey.
Shinkansen Sakura #565, Depart Okayama 16:56, Arrive Hiroshima 17:36
Fare: 6,020 yen reserved standard class, 8,250 yen reserved green car (first class)
Hiroshima is a city that is remembered by so many people as the first city in the world to be targeted by a nuclear weapon. After that horrendous event, Hiroshima has been at the forefront of promoting peace and extending friendship to everyone who visits.
First, pick up a day pass for the Hiroshima Tram, also known as the Hiroden, for 600 yen. Then, take line #2 or line #6 from Hiroshima Station to the Genbaku Dome-mae Station, which is a 15 minute trip. Spend a few quiet moments in front of the Atomic Bomb Dome, the preserved remnants of a structure located very close to the epicenter of the blast and stands as a reminder of the events of that summer morning in August of 1945.
Next, go back to the Tram and take line #2 or line #6 to Hatchobori station. Here you can access the large downtown arcade for dinner, shopping and entertainment. Nearby is an area called Okonomimura, which is a perfect place to try out Hiroshima’s staple food called Okonomiyaki. This food mixes meats and vegetables within layers of batter and cabbage, topped off with a sweet sauce after it’s cooked. Some places will also top the “pancake” of sorts off with mayonnaise and bonito flakes.
The Twilight Express Mizukaze spends this evening traveling down the southern coast and then back up the northern coast. Since local trains are quite sparse on this part of the route, we will go part of the way to Shin-Yamaguchi and spend the night there.
Shinkansen Sakura #573, Depart Hiroshima 21:37, Arrive Shin-Yamaguchi 22:07
Fare: 5,270 yen reserved standard class, 7,500 yen reserved green car (first class)
Spend the night near Shin-Yamaguchi station.
In the morning we will depart for the coastal city of Matsue using the “Super Oki” limited express. Note that this trip is long (over 3 1/2 hours) and the train does not have food or wagon sales on board, so be sure to stock up on some snacks, drinks, and perhaps a bento box before leaving Shin-Yamaguchi.
Super Oki #2, Depart Shin-Yamaguchi 8:52, Arrive Matsue 12:34
Fare: 7,650 yen reserved standard class seat (no Green Car on the train)
Matsue will be the home for our second night on this trip. Have a lunch if you went starving on the train, then head out to some of Matsue’s attractions. Some of the attractions include Matsue Castle, one of the small number of surviving castles in Japan, a preserved samurai residence, and the old home of Lafcadio Hearn, an Irish-Greek immigrant to Japan in the 19th Century. Hearn was fascinated about Japanese culture and was one of the first international visitors to write about it. He is well known for his stories about Japanese ghosts and legends, which the people of Matsue pass down today.
Sightseeing buses conveniently travel around the city’s attractions. A one day pass costs just 500 yen. Note, however, that the last departure of these buses is at 17:00 (16:00 during the fall and winter). For meals, consider Izumo Soba (named for Izumo, Matsue’s nearby neighbor), Zenzai (red bean soup with rice cakes) or the local Wagashi (confectionary).
Eat breakfast in Matsue, then continue to Osaka or Kyoto to finish your trip.
If you would like to follow the route of the Twilight Express Mizukaze a little more closely on the way to the finish line, you’ll need to turn it into a day trip.
Limited Express Super Matsukaze #6, Depart Matsue 9:24, Arrive Tottori 10:58
(11 minute layover)
San’in Line Local, Depart Tottori 11:09, Arrive Hamasaka 11:52
(15 minute layover)
San’in Line Rapid, Depart Hamasaka 12:07, Arrive Kinosaki-Onsen 13:05
(Kinosaki Onsen is a historic hot spring town with a unique charm, and so I recommend a lunch stop here)
Limited Express Kounotori #20, Depart Kinosaki-Onsen 15:30, Arrive Osaka 18:20, Arrive Shin-Osaka 18:28
Fare to Osaka: 10,860 yen, including reserved seating on the limited express trains
If going to Kyoto, exit the Kounotori at Fukuchiyama (16:40) and transfer to the Kinosaki #18, Departing 16:44 and arriving Kyoto 18:08. There is also a direct train from Kinosaki Onsen, Kinosaki #20, leaving 16:12 and arriving Kyoto 18:49.
Fare: 10,540 yen, including reserved seating on the limited express trains
Note that there is no food or wagon service on any of these services so you may wish to get a drink or quick snack during your layovers in Tottori or Hamasaka, and lunch in Kinosaki Onsen.
There are faster ways to reach Osaka and Kyoto by connecting to the bullet train, if you want to spend some more time in Matsue. Here is an example of a noontime departure, though you’ll find Yakumo services leaving around once every hour.
From Shin-Osaka, you can connect to the next Tokyo-bound Kodama service to Kyoto, or you can take a commuter service to Kyoto on what’s known as the JR Kyoto Line.
Fare to Osaka: 10,600 yen reserved standard class, 15,320 yen reserved Green Car
There is no food or wagon service on the Yakumo. You can pick up food and drinks during your layover in Okayama. The bullet train will have a wagon service.
For this itinerary, a 7-day Japan Rail Pass (29,110 yen ordinary, 38,880 yen Green Car) will easily cover all of the trains noted here. By using an ordinary pass you’ll save around 3,000 yen compared to local tickets.
If you decide to forego Kinosaki Onsen and fast track back to Osaka or Kyoto on Day 3 (using Option 2), there’s an even better deal: the 7-Day JR West San’yo-San’in Pass at 20,000 yen (1,000 yen discount if purchased from overseas). Not only does it cover reserved seats, but it will also allow you to use the premium Nozomi and Mizuho services on the San’yo Shinkansen (the regular Japan Rail Pass does NOT allow this).
If you decide to use the San’yo-San’in Pass, then you can be a little bit more flexible when going to Okayama to Hiroshima and Hiroshima to Shin-Yamaguchi on Day 1, and from Okayama to Shin-Osaka on Day 3. An updated itinerary could be as follows:
Day 1, Okayama to Hiroshima
Nozomi #37, Depart Okayama 16:51, Arrive Hiroshima 17:26
Day 1, Hiroshima to Shin-Yamaguchi
Nozomi #57, Depart Hiroshima 22:05, Arrive Shin-Yamaguchi 22:35
The JR West pass does NOT cover the Shinkansen past Shin-Osaka, so to reach Kyoto you’ll have to change to a commuter service on the JR Kyoto Line at Kyoto Station.
If you want to float in the middle of the road as far as accommodations are concerned, you can certainly look into cheap business hotels. For a random weekday in June 2017, a business hotel in Shin-Yamaguchi went for around 3,800 yen per person double occupancy, while a Matsue accommodation went for 5,500 yen per person double occupancy. Matsue also has some traditional Japanese inns (or ryokan) at higher prices if you are so inclined.
For meals, my conservative estimate would be around 5,000 yen per person a day, counting all meals. Bento box meals and convenience store meals will certainly reduce this cost.
When the cost of a train pass, maximum conservative food budget and accommodation charges are added over a period of 3 days, the estimated cost per person comes out to around around 54,000 yen ($488) if using Option 1 on Day 3, or 44,300 yen ($400) if using Option 2 … well under the 520,000 yen charged per person double occupancy on the Twilight Express Mizukaze. Costs to visit attractions, and costs for souvenirs, are not included. Add an additional 600 yen for the Hiroshima Tram One-Day Pass.
It helps to make seat reservations on the shinkansen and limited express trains before you start your trip. Be sure to take care of this in Osaka or Kyoto.
Once again, it’s my hope that as you consider this, you will make your own travel plan for Japan… whether it be around these areas or other parts of this wonderful country… at a budget that suits you. Please feel free to share your thoughts, or perhaps any other itineraries that you may come up with.
All itineraries are posted pursuant to the disclaimer.
JR East will begin selling an upgraded version of the Kanto Area pass for foreigners next month called the Tokyo Wide Pass. The cost of the pass will be 10,000 yen (adults) for three consecutive days of travel, up from the 8,300 yen cost of the old Kanto Area pass.
Sales of the new Tokyo Wide pass will commence on November 19, and can be used with a start date of December 19 or later. The Kanto Area pass will no longer be sold after December 18.
The coverage area of the Tokyo Wide pass covers includes the entire coverage area of the former Kanto Area pass, with these additions:
– Joetsu Shinkansen and Joetsu Main Line to Echigo-Yuzawa, and to Gala Yuzawa during the winter season
– Rinkai Line (Tokyo Waterfront Railway) for its entire length
If you plan to go to the Yuzawa region to hit the ski slopes or sample different varieties of sake – the latter of which I did in 2013 – the new Tokyo Wide Pass is a good investment considering a round-trip reserved ticket costs over 13,000 yen. The pass will also cover other JR services like the former Kanto pass, including trips to Nikko, Lake Kawaguchi near Mount Fuji, and the Izu Peninsula.
For travelers who want to explore a lot of Japan during their visit, the Japan Rail Pass is indispensable, offering tremendous value for using Japan Railways services all around the country. If you only plan on traveling in between the major cities of Tokyo and Kyoto or Osaka, or traveling shorter distances, the pass might not be for you. On the other hand, if traveling to many of Japan’s cities on a single trip, the Japan Rail Pass should seriously be considered.
You’ll need to know some of the basic rules for the Japan Rail Pass, which are outlined on the Japan Rail Pass web site and are also discussed on other pages on this blog.
One way to maximize your sightseeing time is to travel overnight. This has become harder to do by train in recent years. Once, Japan was full of overnight trains crisscrossing the country. These days, though, this mode of travel is becoming scarce as rail equipment ages and fierce competition between domestic trains, buses and airlines increase. This article will discuss a few concepts on how you could potentially use the Japan Rail Pass for overnight train travel while saving money in the process.
Only a few overnight train services remain in Japan. Others only run during peak travel periods like Golden Week, New Year’s and the summer months. Regardless, overnight trains in Japan are extremely popular and tend to get booked quickly. Since you cannot reserve train tickets in Japan until you are in the country – with few exceptions (like JR East’s English online reservation system) -your best bet is to try and book the tickets the moment you land in Japan.
Two of the overnight trains that run on a daily basis are the Sunrise Seto and Sunrise Izumo. These trains run coupled together from Tokyo to Okayama in western Japan, where they separate: The Seto runs south to the island of Shikoku, ending in the port city of Takamatsu, while the Izumo runs to the city of Izumo on the northern coast. These trains have compartments and rooms – if you want to secure one of these, you will have to pay the room accommodation and limited express surcharges. While the limited express surcharge varies based on your starting and ending point, the room accommodation is a fixed charge. The Japan Rail Pass will only cover the basic train fare between the two cities. A “solo” compartment will run 9,720 yen, while the high-end “single deluxe” runs for 16,970 yen – and these fares are just for one person. These trains do offer an option for carpeted floor spaces, on the other hand, which are treated as reserved seats – there are no extra surcharges for these spaces with a Japan Rail Pass…. but you have to sleep on the carpeted floor.
If you can secure room on one of these trains, not only is it a great option for travel to the northern coast or to Shikoku, but by changing in Okayama to the bullet train it is a great way to continue westward towards Hiroshima, Fukuoka and Kyushu.
The other service is called the Cassiopeia, which runs a few times a week between Tokyo and Sapporo, in Hokkaido. The prices are comparable or higher than the Sunrise Izumo/Seto, with a diner and no carpeted floor seats. The future of this service, though, is in doubt, with the pending opening of the Hokkaido Shinkansen in March 2016. A third overnight service only connects northern Honshu island with Hokkaido – the Hamanasu. The Hamanasu does offer comfortable reserved seats, which makes it a free option for Rail Pass holders, but again, the train’s future is uncertain.
With few options for overnight trains, the alternative is to simply split up your night journey into two legs, stopping somewhere along the way to sleep. As long as your Rail Pass covers both days of travel, there are so many benefits to splitting up your journey:
– You can get your own hotel room with a bed, bathroom and shower
– A hotel room located far from major cities could be less expensive
– You can experience a slice of life in a new part of Japan, and might be able to enjoy attractions or cuisines unique to that area
– There are no extra transportation costs, since your transportation is already covered under the Japan Rail Pass
By keeping these in mind, a whole new set of options can open up to you by simply doing some research.
A popular option to look out for is the business hotel – small hotels with minimal space, but all the amenities you’d need for a night’s stay. These business hotels tend to be inexpensive no matter where you book. Even in big cities such as Tokyo, they can be among the most economical options.
I will now offer a few suggestions for some long distance journeys. If you would like to explore such options for your next trip to Japan, I hope this information will be a starting point!
Tokyo to Kyoto/Osaka
This is one of the most heavily-trafficked travel routes in Japan, without question. There are so many things skipped in between, though, and with some research you can discover some new areas.
Nagoya: This is a major city, but so often skipped by many travelers on their way from Tokyo to Kyoto (including, I must admit, myself!) and the next time I visit for a while I will make Nagoya one of my priorities. Nagoya has Japan’s largest international trade port (thanks in part to Toyota’s headquarters nearby), the world’s largest train station by floor area, a reconstructed castle, a zoo, and a plethora of unique eats like miso katsu – pork or chicken cutlet served in a red miso sauce. (yum!)
Nagoya is centrally located on the Tokaido Shinkansen, the main train artery linking Tokyo with Kyoto, Osaka, and points beyond. It has been an ideal stop, and will continue to be for a while. But earlier this year, another city with its own history took center stage:
Kanazawa: This coastal city, known for having one of the top three gardens in all of Japan, was connected to Tokyo’s shinkansen network in March 2015. The city has done a lot to cater to visitors, including a rebuild of its main train station – complete with its own shinto-like Torii gate at its entrance. You can spend the night in town and go bright and early the next morning to the Kenrokuen garden before the tour groups arrive, then continue on your way.
The Hokuriku Shinkansen links Tokyo to Kanazawa in as little as 2 1/2 hours. Then from Kanazawa, you can travel by the Thunderbird Limited Express service directly to Kyoto (~2 1/4 hours) and Osaka (~2 3/4 hours). From Shin-Osaka you can connect to the bullet train for destinations to the west.
Matsumoto: A third possible option is to cut through the center of the country along the Chuo Line and visit the city of Matsumoto, known as the home of one of Japan’s original castles. Matsumoto is 2 1/2-3 hours from Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station by the Azusa limited express service. After staying in Matsumoto and potentially visiting the castle, take the Shinano limited express to Nagoya (~2 1/4 hours); you can either pick up the bullet train for destinations to the west, OR, just go around Nagoya for a while!
If you don’t want to worry about major sights and just focus on a place to stay the night, here are some cities to look at:
From Tokyo to Kyoto/Osaka via Nagoya along the Tokaido Shinkansen: Odawara, Atami, Shizuoka, Hamamatsu, Toyohashi, Maibara. A few of the other stations are left out, but it’s important to note that along this important travel artery you’ve got a good chance to find accommodations at every station.
From Tokyo to Kyoto/Osaka via Kanazawa along the Hokuriku Shinkansen and Thunderbird route: Nagano, Itoigawa, Toyama.
Tokyo to Western Japan (including Shikoku and Kyushu)
If you can’t get on board the Sunrise Izumo or Sunrise Seto, travel more comfortably (and perhaps cheaply) with a stopover.
Okayama: The name may not stand out to the regular tourist, but Okayama is a major city and transportation hub in Japan. If traveling from Tokyo and laying over in this city, you can continue on in the morning to Shikoku, Izumo, or continue on towards the west using the bullet train. Not to mention, another one of Japan’s most famous gardens – Korakuen – is located here.
Himeji: located between Osaka and Okayama, Himeji is home to Japan’s most important castle. In existence since original construction began in the 1300s, it has survived the test of time. It is now especially worth a visit, as a five-year project has restored the castle’s exterior to its original splendor.
Once again, every station on the shinkansen (now the Sanyo Shinkansen) gives you a good chance of lodging options.
Tokyo to Northern Japan/Hokkaido
The Tohoku Shinkansen is the main train artery running north from Tokyo towards Hokkaido. By March of 2016, the Shinkansen will actually extend into Hokkaido’s southern city of Hakodate for the very first time. In the meantime, trains terminate in the northernmost city of Aomori. This city makes a good stopping point, as does Hakodate itself if you were looking at a long-distance journey to Sapporo – but again, look at all stations.
Now for some SAMPLE ITINERARIES: For these samples, I have researched the price of lodging on different, random weekdays in September 2015 that are not holidays. This falls within the approximate 3 month range where many hotels have already opened up their reservations. I have also researched the train timetables for that period from sites such as HyperDia and Ekikara. Your results may vary. Hotels listed are for sample purposes only, and prices are listed in US dollars. No endorsements are implied!
#1: Tokyo to Kyoto/Osaka, stop in Nagoya: Board the evening Hikari service leaving Tokyo at 7:03 PM, arriving in Nagoya at 9:09 PM. Spend the evening at the Nagoya Ekimae Montblanc Hotel for $49 single, $37 per person double occupancy. Board a morning Hikari train at 8:21 AM. Arrive in Kyoto at 9:14 AM and Shin-Osaka at 9:30 AM.
#2: Tokyo to Kyoto/Osaka, stop in Hamamatsu: Board the evening Hikari service leaving Tokyo at 7:03 PM, arriving in Hamamatsu at 8:32 PM. Spend the evening at the four star Okura Act City Hotel Hamamatsu for $55 per person single or double occupancy (30 day advance booking rate). Board a morning Kodama train at 7:49 AM. Arrive in Kyoto at 9:34 AM and Shin-Osaka at 9:50 AM.
#3: Tokyo to Kyoto/Osaka, stop in Kanazawa: Board the evening Kagayaki service leaving Tokyo at 6:24 PM, arriving in Kanazawa at 8:58 PM. Spend the evening at the APA Hotel Kanzawa-Ekimae (part of a chain of national business hotels) for $65 single, $42 per person double occupancy. Board a morning Thunderbird train at 8:05 AM. Arrive in Kyoto at 10:11 AM and Shin-Osaka at 10:35 AM. Or, visit Kanazawa’s Kenrokuen Garden in the morning and take a later Thunderbird towards Kyoto/Osaka.
#4: Tokyo to western Japan/Shikoku/Kyushu, stop in Okayama: Board the evening Hikari service leaving Tokyo at 5:03 PM, arriving in Okayama at 9:11 PM. Spend the evening at one of a few Toyoko Inn hotels (another large chain) located around Okayama station for $52 single, $30 per person double occupancy. In the morning, you can depart in multiple directions:
– The bullet train westbound can take you to Hiroshima, Fukuoka, Kumamoto and Kagoshima.
– The Marine Liner rapid train services, leaving twice per hour, will take you to Takamatsu in Shikoku. I highly recommend paying the small surcharge for a reserved seat (320-980 yen per person depending on the seat and the season).
– The Shiokaze and Nanpu limited express trains run to the hot spring town of Matsuyama and the coast city of Kochi, respectively.
– The Yakumo limited express train runs north to Izumo in 3 hours.
#5: Tokyo to Hakodate (southern Hokkaido), stop in Aomori: Board the afternoon Hayabusa service leaving Tokyo at 5:20 PM, arriving at Shin-Aomori at 8:40 PM. Change to the local shuttle train to Aomori, arriving at 8:55 PM. Spend the evening at the Toyoko Inn Aomori-eki Shomen-guchi for $46 single or $32 per person double occupancy. Leave in the morning on the first Hakucho service of the morning, departing Aomori at 8:25 AM and arriving in Hakodate at 10:26 AM.
#6: Tokyo to Sapporo, stop in Hakodate: Board the afternoon Hayabusa service leaving Tokyo at 3:20 PM, arriving at Shin-Aomori at 6:43 PM. Change to the Hakucho departing Shin-Aomori at 6:53 PM, arriving in Hakodate at 8:56 PM. Spend the evening at the Comfort Hotel Hakodate (as in the Comfort Inn brand) for $46 single or $37 per person double occupancy. Leave in the morning on the Hoktuto service from Hakodate to Sapporo – the first two trains leave at 6:22 AM and 8:13 AM, arriving in Sapporo at 9:58 AM and 11:47 AM, respectively.
#7: Osaka to Sapporo: There used to be an overnight train service called the Twilight Express, which ran a few times a week and was comparable to the Cassiopeia. If I ever wanted to ride an overnight train in Japan, this was the one I was aiming for. Sadly those plans never materialized, and the Twilight Express has already been discontinued. Here’s one way to make the Osaka-Sapporo trip now. Leave Shin-Osaka at 11:40 AM on the Hikari service to Tokyo, arriving at 2:40 PM. At Tokyo Station you will have 40 minutes to mill about and do some quick shopping until leaving on the 3:20 PM Hayabusa service to Shin-Aomori. Then, the instructions are exactly as above, laying over in Hakodate en route to Sapporo.
By now I hope you are inspired to create your own overnight itineraries to maximize your Rail Pass, and your sightseeing and enjoyment of Japan. If you have any questions or comments, please ask!
It has been a month since the new extension of the bullet train opened from Nagano to the northern coast cities of Toyama and Kanazawa. This means that bullet trains now run from Tokyo directly to these cities and points in between, opening up a new world of possibilities for tourism. If you have a Japan Rail Pass, you will be covered for almost* any of the new bullet train services. Here’s a rundown of the new line and some suggestions for places to visit and itineraries.
The Hokuriku Shinkansen was known as the Nagano Shinkansen when its initial segment opened in October 1997, ahead of the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics. The new 228 km (141.7 mile) segment opened on March 13, 2015. You can read more about the Hokuriku Shinkansen service classifications by reading my blog post from last October.
Some of the stops along the route:
Iiyama – Located in the northernmost part of Nagano prefecture, Iiyama gets some of the heaviest snowfall in the country. The immediate area east of Iiyama station is clustered with various Buddhist temples, which is why some call it “Little Kyoto.” Generally, Hakutaka services from Tokyo run to Iiyama every 1-2 hours. Information: Shinshu-Iiyama Tourism Bureau
Joetsumyoko – This is an interchange station with the Echigo Railway, a private (so-called “third sector”) rail line that JR used to operate trains on until the opening of the bullet train. There is not much to speak of around here, but it should be noted that if you are coming from Kanazawa or Toyama and heading to the coastal city of Niigata, there are a few trains that operate daily between Joetsumyoko and Niigata that are meant to connect with the shinkansen services. This service is called the Shirayuki. The Shirayuki runs to Naoetsu from which it continues to Niigata on JR tracks along the Sea of Japan. Since the first few kilometers are on the Echigo Railway, you will have to pay a 450 yen supplement if you are using a Japan Rail Pass. If you are going from Tokyo to Niigata, use the direct Joetsu Shinkansen instead.
Itoigawa – This is the first bullet train stop on the coast as you come north from Tokyo. Itoigawa was named as Japan’s first “Geopark” by the UNESCO-funded Global Geoparks Network, and they proudly boast 24 different areas that you can visit in the region with various mixes of geology, culture and history. Most, but not all, Hakutaka services stop here. More information about the Geoparks can be found at their official website, and they have a wealth of information in English, including updates on which areas are open and closed.
The local JR Oito Line snakes down from Itoigawa towards the south, and you COULD take the scenic, local route all the way down to the castle city of Matsumoto cheaply in 3-4 hours, weather permitting. Nowadays, though, you can do it in about 90 minutes taking the bullet train to Nagano then the Shinano limited express service. Another stop on the Oito Line is Shinano-omachi – a local bus from here will take you to the start of the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route, which is open for transit from spring until autumn.
Kurobe-Unazuki Onsen – This station is the gateway to one of the most popular hot springs in the area, Unazuki Onsen. To get there, walk to nearby Shin Kurobe Station on the Toyama Chiho Railway (not covered by the Japan Rail Pass) and go to the Unazuki Onsen stop. One of the attractions of Unazuki Onsen is the Kurobe Gorge Railway. Originally built for workers building Kurobe Dam, it operates passenger sightseeing trains from late spring until autumn threading through some stunning mountain scenery.
Toyama – Our first major stop on the newly-opened bullet train route. The next time I visit Japan and I am able to take the new bullet train line out here, I want FISH… and that’s the main attraction. Toyama is referred to as “Nature’s Fish Tank” because nearby Toyama bay is extremely deep. Yellowtail sushi and sashimi slices from Toyama are said to be among the best in the country.
Many sushi shops in the area participate in the Toyamawan Sushi program, which offers a set course of 10 pieces of freshly-caught sushi for between 2,000 and 3,500 yen. There is also a unique bento box from Toyama that uses fatty trout, called Masunosushi. It is pressed trout over rice, wrapped in bamboo leaves and packed in a wooden box. I was given a used box from a friend in Japan as a gift to take home in my 2004 trip, and even when empty the lovely trout smell lingered for weeks. I would breathe it a few times a day.
ANYWAY, I want to try this box for real on my next visit 🙂
The aforementioned Toyama Chiho Railway terminates here, at the nearby Dentetsu-Toyama Station. This, plus a series of tram lines, are great ways to get around Toyama and visit the cultural areas. Taking the Toyama Chiho Railway to Tateyama will bring you to the opposite end of the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route mentioned earlier. More information: Toyama Prefectural Tourism Association
Shin-Takaoka – This next city has more of a traditional flair. The new station is on the south side of town as opposed to the regular Takaoka station, though the two stations are connected with a brief trip on the JR Johanna line. On the north side of town is Kanaya-machi, a street filled with lattice houses from when iron and copper makers set up shop in the 1600s. A short distance from the south of Takaoka station, and from around the same time period as Kanaya-machi, is Zuiryuji Temple. North of Takaoka and directly on the coast is where weekly ferry services to Vladivostok, Russia operate from.
Kanazawa – The terminating station on the Hokuriku Shinkansen (for now) is a marvel to behold on the outside, with a new main entrance resembling a shinto torii gate. It is a popular city, and the primary reason is Kenroku-en, a large Japanese garden that is regarded as one of the three best in the country. There are also various museums and shopping districts in the area. Kanazawa and Toyama are good starting points for trips to Takayama, and the nearby UNESCO World Heritage site of Shirakawa. More information: Kanazawa City Tourism Association
Of course, Stefan and the folks over at japan-guide.com have a more comprehensive breakdown of what you can find in these cities. They also revamped their website, so be sure to check them out.
After Kanazawa? You can ride the JR Thunderbird limited express to south and west, passing Fukui and skirting Lake Biwa until you reach Kyoto and Osaka. The Shirasagi limited express will bring you to Maibara and Nagoya. If you have already traveled by direct bullet train between Tokyo and Kansai, or you just want something more from your first trip, a little detour through Toyama and Kanazawa (or any of the other places) is a different and potentially rewarding experience.
For example, you could opt to travel from Tokyo to Kanazawa, spend the day there, head to Kyoto in the evening, and then return to Tokyo by direct bullet train. Or you could spend a night at any of these stations if you want to pace yourself a bit… in this way, for example, you could try visiting Kanazawa’s Kenroku-en in the early morning before the tour groups arrive. Whether or not you visit any attractions, you can potentially save some money on accommodations compared to big cities like Tokyo and Kyoto by stopping over at one of these cities. Remember that the Japan Rail Pass will cover pretty much everything for your travels, except for Nozomi trains and for any service with the GranClass premium cabin.
As a general rule, Tokyo to Kanazawa is 2 1/2 hours on the fastest shinkansen service, and Tokyo to Toyama is 2 hours. Kanazawa to Kyoto by Thunderbird limited express service is around 2 hours 15 minutes, with Osaka a further 30 minutes down the line.
I hope I have given you a few ideas. Have fun exploring the new train route and unlocking all of the new secrets along it!
Note: All flags in this article are taken from Wikimedia Commons. Since there is no original ownership they are in the public domain. As per usual, all advice is given pursuant to the Japan Tips DISCLAIMER.
Some news to come out of Japan tourism in the last few days is the availability of new rail passes to foreign tourists. Both are offered by JR Central and JR West, which operate the main bullet train lines in Japan.
The first pass is the Tokaido / Sanyo Shinkansen Tourist Pass. This pass permits unlimited travel on ANY bullet train service between Tokyo, Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, Okayama, Hiroshima and Fukuoka (Hakata) station for 5 consecutive days at a cost of 35,000 yen. I said ANY because this pass allows the use of the faster Nozomi and Mizuho trains that the Japan Rail Pass does not permit. The pass also includes travel on selected non-shinkansen routes, including unlimited use of local JR lines in Osaka City, access to the Okayama Tramway, access to a bus service to the foot of Mount Fuji, and free admission to certain museums like the JR Central Transit Museum, aka SCMAGLEV and Rail Park. You can also make up to four seat reservations with the pass on any bullet train service offering reserved seating.
The second pass is the Takayama / Hokuriku Area Tourist Pass, which permits unlimited travel on the “limited express” or premium train services between Osaka, Kyoto and Kanazawa, or Nagoya and Takayama, as well as bus service from Takayama to Kanazawa via Shirakawa-go, the world heritage site. Like the Tokaido / Sanyo tourist pass, it is also valid for 5 consecutive days. The Takayama / Hokuriku Area pass costs 10,500 yen. You can also a local bus in Takayama City, the “Sarubobo” bus service.
I think that the Takayama / Hokuriku pass is a good deal for 10,500 yen if you intend to travel specifically to Takayama or Shirakawa. The Tokaido / Sanyo pass, on the other hand, is NOT a good deal in my opinion. Consider that the 5 day Tokaido/Sanyo pass costs 35,000 yen and only offers up to 4 reserved seats in 5 days, while the national Japan Rail Pass costs a little over 29,000 yen in standard class for 7 days and you can make unlimited seat reservations in that time frame. With the costs of traveling around Osaka pretty marginal – and with plenty of subway lines to bring you around Osaka anyway – the Japan Rail Pass – even if it does not offer the ability to travel on the faster trains – is a cheaper and better offer. The only difference is if you want to use the Tokaido / Sanyo pass to gain access to the additional sightseeing areas or routes that are offered.
To book any of these passes you must contact a travel agency in your home country that offers the pass – just like you would with the national rail pass – and purchase an exchange order that is then traded in for the real pass in Japan. Also, the passes are only offered from October 1 until June 30, 2015.