As I have mentioned in previous posts (here and here), Japan Railways (JR) is planning to make a cosmetic change to the appearance to the national Japan Rail Pass.
Given that the coronavirus pandemic is still an issue, JR is still planning to implement the Rail Pass changes on June 1, 2020 as of the time of this post.
The newly upgraded Japan Rail Pass will turn the pass into a magnetic ticket. You will be able to use the ticket to pass through automatic ticket gates at JR stations as opposed to using the manned gates. Furthermore, you will be able to use ticket reservation machines at JR stations to make a free seat reservation or pick up existing reservations.
It appears from images just recently posted on the Japan Rail Pass website that access to the machines will be a two-step process. All of the new Japan Rail Pass tickets will be printed with a QR code on them. To access, you will select the Japan Rail Pass option on the home screen and hold up your ticket’s QR code to the machine’s QR scanner. (If there is no QR scanner then you will type in the ticket number on your rail pass using the touch screen.) After that, you will enter your passport number to confirm that you are the owner of the ticket.
Entering your passport number into the machine might cause concern for a few, though I believe the option will still exist of going to a manned counter to make seat reservations if needed.
Regardless, you will have to go to a manned counter once in order to receive the actual rail pass. You will be asked to show your passport to the clerk to confirm your eligibility, and you will also be required to turn in your exchange voucher or show proof of payment.
As mentioned before, the Japan Rail Pass will be sold directly by JR on a dedicated website. The prices will be in Japanese Yen and will be slightly higher than the prices for exchange vouchers. However, one perk of purchasing your pass through JR directly is that you will have access to JR’s reservation system to make free seat reservations beforehand if you wish, within the validity of your pass.
The exchange voucher system will be in place until at least 2023. Exchange vouchers are sold by authorized travel agencies and retailers in your local country (in person and online) and in your local currency, plus any markups/shipping fees that may be added by the seller. It appears to have been clarified – contrary to earlier posts – that even if you use an exchange voucher, you will still receive a Japan Rail Pass ticket with a QR code, you can still use a ticket machine to make seat reservations and pick up reservations after receiving your pass, and you can still use the automatic ticket gates. However, you cannot make advance train reservations before your trip and must wait until you arrive in Japan to make the reservations.
It might make sense, then, to purchase directly through JR if there is a specific train or two you would like to reserve in advance, or if you are traveling when it might be busy and a seat reservation might be hard to obtain at the last minute. Otherwise, purchasing an exchange voucher the old way may save you some money.
Remember that in some instances you may not need a reserved seat ticket… if you are able to access non-reserved seating then you can simply walk into a non-reserved car and find any open seat. Your Japan Rail Pass will be enough for the journey.
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.
Happy New Year, and thanks for continuing to support one of my favorite side projects, my Japan travel and tips blog. May the year 2020 be a successful one for all of you reading.
My 2020 plans… may or may not include a trip to Japan. It’s too early to say, but I’ll try to keep you posted without giving too much away. If it doesn’t happen this year, it’s very likely to happen in 2021.
Meanwhile, this post is a quick self-promotion: As some of you remember, back in 2017 (the last time I visited Japan) I was fortunate enough to be a correspondent on one of NHK World-Japan’s English-language travel programs J-Trip Plan. In a short segment I offered tips and tricks on how to navigate Japan’s busy trains.
All J-Trip Plan episodes stay up for one year; the episode I was featured in originally aired in January 2018, which meant that the video expired in January 2019. Then, in February 2019, the episode that I took part in was renewed as part of NHK World-Japan’s focus on Miyazaki Prefecture for the month. The bulk of the episode features Nick Szasz, a Japan-based reporter, touring the mystical town of Takachiho with its rivers and gorges. One of the highlights of Takachiho is the Amano Iwato Shrine, which is located near the cave where it is said the sun goddess Amaterasu hid away after becoming so outraged by the cruel pranks of her brother.
To see Takachiho and my segment about taking trains in Japan, here’s the link to the NHK World Video-on-Demand page for J-Trip Plan, which is hosted by Thane Camus and Amy Ota. I highly recommend seeing all of the available videos for J-Trip Plan to help you plan for your next trip to the country… and for that matter, all of NHK’s videos on demand. You can easily make a day out of their informative programs covering everything from Japanese travel, food, documentaries, politics, sports and everything in between.
Anyway, the J-Trip Plan episode that I am in is called A Mystical Land of Myths and Getting Around Japan, so scroll down until you see that episode title with a picture of a large waterfall. The episode expires on February 11, 2020, so you will have until then to see it before it goes away again.
Enjoy the episode, and once again, may 2020 bring you happiness, health and fortune… and perhaps your first visit to a wonderful country, if you haven’t been to Japan already!
Update 12/27/19: An official English translation of JR’s press release is now out, specifying that in addition to the new features coming with the Japan Rail Pass, it will also be possible for Rail Pass holders to reserve seats at the ticket machines. Yet another win for tourists!
Hello everyone! I hope you are having fun and staying warm this holiday season.
Unfortunately real life has gotten in the way of some additional posts and updates… however, there IS an update that is worth sharing this morning, and it could be a real game changer if you are considering a visit to Japan.
Takeshi over at JPRail.composted on his Facebook page earlier today about an announcement made by Japan Railways. According to his post, the Japan Rail Pass will soon be sold online, directly by Japan Railways. In recent years, they have permitted online sales of the national pass by third-party travel agents at slightly increased prices. Now, in addition to the above methods, Japan Railways will handle online sales directly.
But what may come as a true “upgrade” to the Rail Pass to make it very useful is the fact that Rail Pass holders would be permitted to make online seat reservations for trips where reservations are available. Presumably, this will include shinkansen (bullet train) and limited express journeys operated by JR.
The JR release suggests that one could purchase a pass and make seat reservations through JR, pick up the rail pass at a manned counter, and then pick up reserved seat tickets at either the counter or at a ticket vending machine. Pass holders could then use automatic ticket gates to go through the wickets.
These changes are planned to be implemented in the Spring of 2020. If these changes are implemented as announced, it will mark a giant leap in the usefulness of the Japan Rail Pass. In particular, there will be two new features that will save tourists a whole lot of time.
First, the ability to reserve seats online and pick up reserved seat tickets at a ticket vending machine. I presume the option to pick up the tickets at the manned counter will still be available, but this will save some time as you do not have to get into a long line and then attempt to communicate your travel intentions to the clerk.
Second, the ability to use automatic ticket gates. Currently, all Rail Pass holders have to present their paper rail passes to a manned station agent at the ticket barriers in order to cross in and out. It remains to be seen how the automatic gates would be used in conjunction with rail pass users. Will the rail passes be upgraded to an IC-type card that holders can then tap in and out? Will the reserved seat tickets themselves permit access to the train in the place of basic fare tickets? Will there be measures in place so that only the passenger authorized to do so can cross through the automatic gates? The exact details of how the system would work are yet to be revealed by Japan Railways.
I will certainly pass along any more details once I hear about them, but this news about the Japan Rail Pass, and the measures that will be implemented, is a wonderful Christmas gift for those looking to visit Japan in the future.
Welcome to the third in a series of blog posts called Welcome to Japan. In the first project since updating the layout of my blog, I am introducing a series that will explain the available transit options after arriving at some of Japan’s major airports.
My previous posts, scattered over the last few months, have focused on the two airports of Tokyo: Narita and Haneda. Heading off to the west, the next major airport, and one of the newer airports on Japan’s travel scene, is the international airport in Nagoya. Opened in 2005 in advance of that year’s world expo, I’ve been a big fan of this airport. I landed there to kick off my third trip in 2013, and spent a night in a hotel near the airport during my most recent vacation in 2017. Officially, the airport is known as Chubu Centrair International Airport, though the terms Centrair Airport and Nagoya Airport can also be used.
Centrair replaced an older airport located further inland in the city of Komaki, which used to be a hub for many domestic and international flights in and out of central Japan. There was a demand for more planes to serve the area, not only because of the Expo but because of requests from airlines and nearby businesses (including Toyota) to offer late flights without the restrictions imposed at Komaki where there was a nighttime curfew. Flights at Komaki eventually began to shift away, first to Kansai International Airport, and then to the new Centrair Airport. Now known as Nagoya Airfield, the airport is now the home for low cost airline Fuji Dream Airlines.
While I’ll give you all of the transit options out of Centrair (as I’ve done with the previous articles) I will also be a little partisan and tell you that you should make it a point to visit this airport when you are in Japan, either as an arriving/departing passenger or just for a visit.
Centrair Airport is built on a man-made island just off of the mainland in the city of Tokoname, meaning that flights can freely take off and land around the clock without worrying the neighbors. Tokoname is a great off-the-beaten-path destination if you have a layover, as it is known in Japan for its production of fine ceramics.
The airport has just one terminal building, split into two sections. The northern section of the terminal handles domestic flights, and the southern part of the terminal handles international flights. Since everything is contained in one building, changing between flights is extremely hassle-free. There’s no need to take a shuttle bus or anything else of the sort… all you need to do is follow the signs and walk. Later in 2019, a second terminal will open geared toward low-cost airlines, which will be connected by moving walkway to the Access Plaza (more details below).
If Nagoya is your destination, you will exit onto the Arrivals Lobby on the second floor. If you have some time, you might want to head upstairs and take a look at Sky Town on the fourth floor. In the wide concourse, you’ll see two distinct flavors: One side has a completely old Japanese feel to it, while the other contains a European flair with western restaurants and stores. These correspond to the two sections of the airport I just described (one for domestic flights and one for international flights).
If you’re like many travelers on the other hand, you’ll just want to head out towards your hotel or first destination. From the Arrivals Lobby, follow the signs and head up the ramp towards the Access Plaza. The Access Plaza is a large and functional space from which you’ll choose your method of transportation. You will also find a Family Mart convenience store there as well.
It’s important to note that Japan Railway (JR) does not operate trains to and from Centrair Airport. There is only one railway operator, the Meitetsu Railway. They offer very convenient and comfortable train services to Nagoya and surrounding areas, which I will get to in a moment.
Are you picking up a Japan Rail Pass? The Central Japan Travel Center, located in the Arrivals Lobby, offers voucher exchanges for the Japan Rail Pass daily between the hours of 9:00 and 20:30. You also have the option of making the exchange when you get to Nagoya Station, at several staffed JR locations.
These points are brought up since the Japan Rail Pass will not cover the Meitetsu Railway, or any other transit option for that matter, to and from Centrair Airport. Not to worry though… Meitetsu’s trains are super convenient, and the recommended trains to use for travelers are the all-reserved trains called μ-SKY, or myu-SKY.
The μ-SKY services generally leave twice every hour from Centrair, reaching Nagoya Station in as little as 28 minutes. The one-way fare for adults is 1,230 yen (870 yen regular fare + 360 yen μ-ticket). You can easily purchase both of these fares using the vending machines. There are also some trains with only a small number of reserved seats, and other trains that are regular commuter services. These trains are generally slower and take longer to reach Nagoya compared to the μ-SKY.
μ-SKY services generally continue on to Inuyama (home to one of Japan’s original surviving castles) and the city of Kani, home to many automotive part manufacturers.
Some trains continue on to Gifu. An easy transfer at one of Meitetsu’s major interchanges such as Nagoya or Jingu-mae (named for its location near Atsuta Shrine) will get you to the rest of Meitetsu’s network. Nagoya Station, though, is where you’ll get off to transfer to most of the other rail lines including the Tokaido Shinkansen, local JR trains, and the private Kintetsu railway.
Highway Buses are also available from Centrair Airport. Meitetsu Bus operates hourly buses from the airport to downtown Nagoya. The ride takes about one hour to reach Nagoya’s Sakae district, and stops at some major hotels including the Nagoya Tokyu Hotel and the Hilton Nagoya before arriving at the Meitetsu Bus Center near Nagoya Station. The one-way fare is 1,200 yen.
If you are arriving late at night or departing early in the morning, Nagoya Bus offers a limited service between the West exit of Nagoya Station and the airport for 1,500 yen. As of this writing, two buses depart from the airport daily at 0:40 and 7:00, and one bus leaves Nagoya Station at 4:10. The travel time is 55 minutes.
If you can time it right, the Meihan Kintetsu highway bus can be a very convenient method of reaching Japan’s ancient capital of Kyoto without having to take the μ-SKY and the bullet train. There are two daily round-trip services, costing 4,000 yen. Online reservations for the direct Kyoto buses can be made in English. There’s also the option of taking a bus to the city of Yokkaichi in Mie prefecture and transferring there to a bus bound for Kyoto, costing 3,000 yen. These options take 2 hours 40 minutes and 3 hours 15 minutes, respectively. By comparison, the μ-SKY and bullet train to Kyoto take around 80 minutes with transfer for 6,830 yen.
As mentioned in previous articles, taxis can be a good point-to-point option, especially if you are in a group. However, it is not recommended to take a taxi to and from Centrair Airport unless absolutely necessary, especially because there are no flat rate fares from the airport; all rides are by the meter. An approximate fare from Centrair Airport to Nagoya Station, including tolls, is 16,000-17,000 yen.
There is a charted van service that can take you to your destination in central Nagoya for approximately 14,000 yen. The van can seat up to seven passengers, so if you have seven in your party the cost is only 2,000 yen each.
If these fares sound high (and they are), you’re probably better off taking public transit to central Nagoya, then taking a taxi to your destination.
One exception: If you are heading into the mountains of Nagano Prefecture, there is a ride-share van service that operates several times per day. The one-way fare to Matsumoto, for example, is 8,900 yen, and door-to-door service is offered in some locations. It takes around 4 hours to travel between the airport and the areas served.
High Speed Boat
If you happen to be heading to the Nanki region, a large peninsula to the west that contains attractions such as Ise Shrine and Toba, and where Wakayama prefecture is located, a shortcut to avoid connecting through Nagoya city is to take a high speed boat across the bay. The Tsu Airport Line boat operates to the port of Tsu city, taking just 45 minutes at a cost of 2,470 yen each way. Boats operate once an hour, but during off-peak travel periods (i.e. winter) the boats depart every two hours. Once arriving at the port, you can reach the main train station in Tsu using a city bus (220 yen) or by taxi (approx. 1,700 yen) from which you can access the Kintetsu Railway network towards Osaka, Ise, Toba and Kashikojima.
There is also a twice-daily express bus service between the Tsu port and the cities of Ise and Toba. A set ticket including a one-way trip on the ferry and express bus costs 3,200-3,500 yen depending on the destination.
It is a bit of a walk to reach the boat pier in Centrair; take the elevated walkaway from the Access Plaza. The walkway goes over the highway and past the hotels that are stationed nearby.
There are a few hotels stationed around the airport property that are perfect for a rest before catching an early morning departure, or after landing from a late flight. The Centrair Hotel is directly connected to the Access Plaza, while the Comfort Hotel, Toyoko Inn and the new Sheraton Four Points Hotel (now part of the Marriott portfolio) can be accessed on the bridge that heads toward the boat pier. A capsule hotel, TUBE Sq, is located on the first floor of the Airport property near the Welcome Garden.
Other things to do at Centrair Airport
With a plethora of dining and shopping options, it’s easy to enjoy a few hours just for fun, or before/after a flight. While you’re out and about, don’t forget to see the Sky Deck, the outdoor observation area that stretches across most of the apron. You can enjoy watching planes arriving and departing from the Centrair airport runway.
If you need any travel necessities at the last minute, head on over to places such as the Amano drugstore (third floor), or Muji (fourth floor). At Amano I bought an inexpensive, reusable 1000ml plastic bag that is perfect for when I need to take small liquids through the security checkpoint.
If you want to try out a traditional Japanese bathhouse that overlooks the airport tarmac (but a little pricey compared to other bath houses), check out Fu no Yu on the fourth floor.
If you’re lucky, there might be a fair going on as well. When I visited Centrair in 2017, the airport had a Hello Kitty fair AND a Hokkaido Food Fair going on at the same time. I was lucky to try out some soft serve ice cream made out of Hokkaido milk, which was so delicious!
I love Nagoya’s Centrair Airport. A modern airport, no matter if it’s your first trip or you’re a seasoned veteran. As someone who can personally vouch for its conveniences, you will not be disappointed. It’s a great place to start a trip to Japan, near a city that many might not think about.
Here are a few more brief notes in closing:
The Centrair Airport website goes into much more detail about the things I have written about in this post. On the website you can see a list of airlines and destinations that Centrair Airport serves. While many of Centrair’s international destinations are focused on Asia, there are a few long-haul passenger services to take note as of this writing:
Delta Air Lines flies to Nagoya from Detroit and Honolulu in the United States.
Lufthansa has flights to Nagoya from Frankfurt, Germany.
Finnair flies from Helsinki, Finland.
Ethiad Airways flies from Abu Dhabi, UAE to Nagoya via Beijing.
A few of my Japan Travel Videos on YouTube from 2017 include scenes in and around Centrair Airport. Visit the page for my videos and check out videos #7 and #8.
Finally, all information and links were accurate as of February 2019, and subject to the disclaimer. Photos used in the article are either public domain or courtesy of creative commons licenses.
Amidst the unusually cool weather for a late August day in Upstate New York, I tackled the issue of the national Japan Rail Pass. Many online sites have articles that claim that the Japan Rail Pass is the best deal for train travel in Japan, and you have to get your hands on one.
The first part of that statement is true. The second? Not necessarily.
The Japan Rail Pass provides unlimited travel on Japan Railways lines, including all shinkansen trains (except Nozomi and Mizuho) for 7, 14 or 21 consecutive days in either ordinary class or green class (first class). You can also make free seat reservations on all services that offer them, which include bullet trains and many limited express services, such as the Narita Express and Haruka trains to/from Narita Airport and Kansai Airport, respectively.
To obtain a Japan Rail Pass, you purchase a voucher in your home country from a travel agency, and exchange the voucher for the actual pass when you arrive in Japan. This year JR has started trial sales for the pass in Japan with no voucher exchange necessary, but at higher prices.
The most important question – or perhaps the only question – that you have to ask yourself is: Will getting a pass be cheaper than buying regular tickets?
To answer this question, put together a list of cities that you would like to visit in Japan. Then, figure out the fares between the two cities. Several online sites will tell you the amount. Two sites I recommend are HyperDia and the JR East site (the latter only lets you search bullet train fares by individual line).
One example: If you’re in Japan for a week, and will only travel between Tokyo and Kyoto, a 7-Day Rail Pass (29,110 yen for ordinary class) might not work out, as the regular round-trip fare between these two cities is cheaper (27,820 yen). If, on the other hand, you add another side trip, then the rail pass might pay off.
If your trip includes visits to, say, Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Fukuoka or Hokkaido – which just gained access to the bullet train network recently – then you most certainly can look into a national rail pass. There are also a plethora of regional and local passes that are available… if you’re just meandering around Tokyo for example, consider one of several day passes, including the Tokunai Pass for unlimited JR travel in one day for 750 yen, or the 24-hour Tokyo Metro open ticket for 600 yen. You could also use a stored fare card such as a Suica or PASMO card.
Be sure to do your homework to see if a Rail Pass is something you really need!
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.
Greetings all! This is the first of what could be a series of posts that will highlight the newest trend in Japanese train travel, and how you can experience the same journeys at a lower cost.
The various regional companies of the Japan Railways, or JR, have begun branching out over the years to offer new, high-end, luxurious, train trips. These new trains have taken on the nickname of “Cruising Trains”. Like a cruise on the open seas, these new train cruises aim to offer some of the finest experiences in train travel, allowing travelers to see wonderful parts of the country at a relaxed pace. They are successors to most overnight train services – the so-called “Blue Trains” – that used to run all across Japan for decades before their popularity declined thanks to the advent of bullet trains, regional airports and low cost air carriers.
One such trains that has been making headlines over the last few weeks is the cruise train called the Shiki-shima, operated by JR East.
The design of the train and amenities are impeccable. There are observation cars with lounges, suite rooms, and a first class dining car showcasing the best of Eastern Japan. As part of the planned itineraries, there is a mix of dining and sleeping on the train, with dining and sleeping in high-end accommodations at certain points of interest. The launching pad for the train trips is at Ueno Station in Tokyo, the traditional starting point for Japan’s train journeys to the north – though these days bullet trains, and more recently the opening of the Ueno-Tokyo through line, make Tokyo Station slightly more ideal.
There are two downsides to attempting a trip on the Shiki-Shima. First, the cost: expect to pay anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000 for a journey that takes no longer than 4 days. For the most recent offered itinerary – 3 days and 2 nights this winter – fares started at $6,500 single occupancy and $4,400 per person double occupancy for a… “standard” suite in US dollars at present exchange rates.
The second downside is whether or not you are able to secure a trip in the first place. Despite the exorbitant cost, travelers want to take trains like these. JR East is overwhelmed with trip applications that they conduct a lottery to see who will receive the privilege of taking a trip. Occasionally, travel agencies will secure a small number of trips on trains like these and sell them, tacking a large commission on top of the original price.
Don’t let this get you down though… you can still plan your own trip using Japan’s renowned transit systems, which include bullet trains and nice-looking limited express and tourist trains, with a more respectable budget.
To demonstrate, I’ve taken apart one of the itineraries that will be offered on the Shiki-Shima and will show you how to make a similar journey using regularly scheduled train services.
Original Shiki-shima Itinerary
What follows is the original itinerary for the most recent journey to sell out: the 3-day, 2-night Winter cruise on the Shiki-shima train, per the information on the JR East website.
Day 1: Ueno – (lunch on the train) – Shiroishi (sightseeing) – (Dinner outside the train) – Board the Shiki-shima at Matsushima and spend the night on the train.
Day 2: (Breakfast on the train) – Aomori – Hirosaki (sightseeing) – (lunch outside the train) – return to the train at Aomori (dinner inside the train) – Ichinoseki (sightseeing) – spend the night on the train.
Day 3: Naruko-Onsen station – (breakfast on the train) – Sightseeing in Naruko-Onsen – (lunch on the train) – Arrive at Ueno Station.
With this itinerary in mind, let’s see what a trip would look like by taking the regular services… that is, anything regularly scheduled, including bullet trains. While the cruising train starts and ends at Ueno Station, I’ll include a few other options for consideration.
*Shinkansen Yamabiko/Tsubasa #131, Depart Tokyo 9:24, Omiya 9:48, Arrive Fukushima 10:46
Every day, this Yamabiko service makes a fast run from Tokyo to Fukushima in only 82 minutes, stopping only at Omiya. The Yamabiko continues to Sendai, and the Tsubasa continues to Yamagata and Shinjo.
If leaving from Ueno, you can board the Nasuno #255 departing Ueno 9:22 and arriving Omiya at 9:41 to connect to the above service.
Spend an hour in the Fukushima station surroundings… perhaps have a quick meal while you are there. Then, travel to Shiroishi by regular JR train:
*JR Tohoku Line Local, Depart Fukushima 11:47, Arrive Shiroishi 12:22
Spend the afternoon in Shiroishi. Enjoy the restored Shiroishi Castle, or sample one of the staples of Shiroishi’s cuisine… Umen noodles, which are cooked without oil.
In the late afternoon, depart for Aomori.
*JR Tohoku Line Local, Depart Shiroishi 16:19, Arrive Sendai 17:09
(Alternate: Go a bit further east to Shiroishi-Zao station, take Shinkansen Yamabiko #143, Depart Shiroishi-Zao 16:50, Arrive Sendai 17:04)
*Shinkansen Hayabusa #27, Depart Sendai 17:54, Arrive Shin-Aomori 19:37
*Take a shuttle train to Aomori, arriving 19:57
Check into a hotel in Aomori and spend the evening. For dinner you could have something quick in Sendai, or perhaps buy a bento box in Sendai Station to have on the Hayabusa service. You could also have a late dinner in Aomori.
After breakfast in Aomori, take a limited express train to Hirosaki:
*Tsugaru #2, Depart Aomori 9:05, Arrive Hirosaki 9:36
Spend the day in Hirosaki, visiting the Hirosaki Castle with its preserved samurai buildings nearby. After sightseeing and lunch, depart for Ichinoseki.
Check into a hotel in Ichinoseki, have dinner and spend the evening.
After breakfast in Ichinoseki, depart for the scenic Naruko Gorge. The gorge offers spectacular views, and is especially popular in the fall and winter months.
*Hayabusa #104, Depart Ichinoseki 8:48, Arrive Furukawa 9:05
*JR Rikku East Line Local, Depart Furukawa 9:19, Arrive Naruko-Onsen 10:02
After sightseeing and lunch in Naruko, return to Tokyo to complete your trip.
*JR Rikku East Line Local, Depart Naruko-Onsen 14:10, Arrive Furukawa 14:57
*Shinkansen Yamabiko #50, Depart Furukawa 15:09, Arrive Omiya 16:58, Ueno 17:18, Tokyo 17:24
For the three-day itinerary above, an excellent option if you do not have the national Japan Rail Pass is the JR East Tohoku Area Pass for 19,000 yen. With this pass you can travel anywhere in JR East territory from Tokyo to Tohoku (northern Honshu). You get five flexible days of travel over a 14 day period and can make free seat reservations in standard class on all the bullet trains mentioned above. Note that when you use the Hayabusa bullet train seat reservations are compulsory.
With the two other days remaining, why not explore other areas included in the pass? Perhaps check out Matsuyama (part of the Shiki-Shima tour but excluded from my itinerary), or make a quick bullet train run to Echigo-Yuzawa to cheaply sample many regional types of sake and possibly bring a bottle home with you!
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, business hotels in Aomori were spotted two blocks east of Aomori Station for as low as 2,300 yen per person double occupancy. Near Ichinoseki Station they were spotted at 4,700 yen per person double occupancy.
For meals, my conservative estimate would be around 4,000 yen per person a day, counting all meals. Bento box meals and convenience store meals will certainly reduce this cost.
When the cost of the JR East Tohoku 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 38,000 yen ($335)… well under the 500,000 yen charged per person double occupancy on the Shiki-shima. Costs to visit attractions, and costs for souvenirs, are not included.
It helps to make seat reservations on the shinkansen and limited express trains; as mentioned above, Hayabusa reservations are compulsory. Make your seat reservations for the Hayabusa, Yamabiko, Tsubasa and Tsugaru at a JR train station in Tokyo, preferably at one of the JR East Travel Service Centers (Tokyo, Shinjuku or Ikebukuro Stations), before you start your trip.
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.
One of the more pleasurable trips on my journeys to Japan has been the one to Enoshima. An easy day trip from Tokyo, Enoshima is a mountainous island that is connected to the mainland by a beach-lined causeway. It can get busy during summer months… but whatever time you decide to go, a trip to Enoshima is rewarded with seaside charm and beautiful views of the surrounding area… even of Mount Fuji on a clear day.
About Enoshima: Technically a part of the city of Fujisawa, I passed through Enoshima on my first trip to Japan in 2004. Having spent most of my day in and around Kamakura (more on that in a bit), I was unable to visit Kamakura due to prior commitments. I made it a point on my second trip in 2008 to devote some time to this charming place.
Enoshima is best discovered on foot. Once you get close enough to the island, just take the walkway along the road. It’s a few minutes walk, but it’s better than taking a cab or vehicle… especially when the weather is nice and you can smell the salt breeze that brings memories of the South Shore of Long Island (well, that’s what it did for me at least), and especially during summer months when there can be traffic. Besides, there are not too many roads on Enoshima, and most of the island’s attractions and gems require that you go on your own feet.
As you ascend the island, you will encounter several Shinto shrines, all part of the same shrine complex. Enoshima Shrine is dedicated to the kami Benten, which is derived from a Buddhist goddess.
Also of note is the Samuel Cocking Garden, home to a lovely botanical garden. It is named after the Englishman Samuel Cocking, who grew up in Australia and arrived in Japan soon after the country ended its over two-century long period of isolationism in the mid 1800’s. He created a botanical garden with a greenhouse, which was destroyed in the big Kanto earthquake of 1923. Parts of the original garden’s foundation were discovered in 2002. Today you can see a wide mix of plants and flora.
Also part of the complex is the relatively modern observation tower, known as Enoshima Sea Candle, with commanding views of the Pacific Ocean and Fujisawa City. As mentioned, you may be able to see Mount Fuji on a good day.
Finally, there are a couple of caves called the Iwaya Caves on the southern end of the island. Update: blog follower Okkie has provided some tips regarding the caves, saying that there are a lot of up and down steps to navigate, but you are given a candle to help light the way. You can see photos of the caves and of more destinations on Enoshima by visiting Okkie’s tumblr.
Did You Know: There are paid escalators on Enoshima Island? While you could spend some time and effort climbing steps to ascend the island, there are three sets of escalators that will make it extremely easy for you. Dubbed Enoshima Escar, this will shave some time from your trip and save 46 meters of climbing. The escalators only go UP, but I’m sure it’ll be a more pleasant journey walking DOWN at the end of your visit. It costs 360 yen for a ticket to cover all three sections; the Escar is also included in various combination tickets for visits to Enoshima Island.
Costs: At Enoshima Shrine there is a small charge to view the shrine’s large Benten statue, but otherwise the shrine grounds are free. At the Samuel Cocking Garden the admission charge is 200 yen for the garden and 300 yen for the observation tower. The Iwaya Caves cost 500 yen to enter.
There is also a 1,000 yen Enoshima One-Day Passport that includes the Escar, the garden, the observation tower and the caves.
How To Get There: There are several options available to visit Enoshima. By train, it’s possible to get close to Enoshima to then complete your journey to the island on foot.
The closest train station to Enoshima is Katase-Enoshima Station on the private Odakyu Railway. A few minutes walk inland is Enoshima Station on the charming Enoshima Electric Railway, or Enoden, which connects to Fujisawa and Kamakura. Near the Enoden stop is the Shonan Monorail, an elevated transit line that runs to Ofuna station on the Japan Railway (JR).
Odakyu trains leave from Shinjuku on the western end of the Tokyo metropolis. It takes 70-90 minutes to reach Katase-Enoshima, with one or two train transfers required, at a cost of 630 yen each way.
Odakyu offers two excursion tickets for Enoshima: The Enoshima 1-Day Freepass covers a round-trip to Enoshima, the Escar, the garden, the observation tower and the caves for 1,970 yen. This represents a savings of 650 yen compared to purchasing individual tickets. They also offer a cheaper Freepass that combines the Odakyu train with a pass that allows use of the Enoden to visit nearby Kamakura. However, the latter Freepass does NOT include admission to the attractions on Enoshima.
For an additional charge, you can ride in a comfortable limited express train called the Romancecar, which I’m sure I’ve mentioned often on this blog. With comfortable reserved seats, you can reach the end of the line at Katase-Enoshima without switching, and not have to worry about crowded commuter trains. These services cost an extra 620 yen each way. On weekdays there are four return trips to/from Shinjuku, and on weekends and holidays there are trains every 1-2 hours. Be sure to check the timetables carefully to examine your options before using the Romancecar.
Japan Railways (JR) run a little further away from the access point to Enoshima, but can be considered because you can more easily access JR trains from around Tokyo, and because your trip costs nothing if you already have some sort of JR Rail Pass.
You can take a JR train to a few stations. Here are the recommendations along with fares: * Fujisawa station allows you to connect with the Odakyu Railway to Katase-Enoshima Station, or with the private Enoden railway to Enoshima station. Katase-Enoshima is closer to Enoshima Island than the Enoden station.
Tokyo area to Fujisawa by JR: 970 yen (no charge with Rail Pass); Fujisawa to Katase-Enoshima by Odakyu: 160 yen. Approximate travel time from Tokyo Station 60-70 minutes. * Ofuna station allows a connection to the Shonan Monorail. From the terminal of the monorail it’s a longer walk to Enoshima.
Tokyo area to Ofuna by JR: 800 yen (no charge with Rail Pass); Ofuna to Shonan-Enoshima by Monorail: 310 yen. Approximate travel time from Tokyo Station 60-70 minutes. * Kamakura station allows a connection to the Enoden railway. From Enoshima Station it’s a longer walk to Enoshima island.
Tokyo area to Kamakura by JR: 920 yen (no charge with Rail Pass); Kamakura to Enoshima by Enoden: 260 yen. Approximate travel time from Tokyo Station 90 minutes.
JR also sells a one-day Kamakura-Enoshima Pass for 700 yen which includes unlimited trips on the Shonan Monorail and Enoden, and unlimited trips on the JR between Ofuna and Fujisawa.
Also, on weekends and holidays, there is a ferry that runs from the causeway to the Iwaya Caves. The ferry takes 10 minutes and costs 400 yen. It is another good way to save considerable travel time if you plan on spending a lot of time on the island.
What’s Nearby: I would highly recommend a trip on the Enoden to experience a leisurely trip through beautiful residential areas combined with a lovely stretch between stations that runs along the beach, which I experienced first hand. You can easily see surfers riding the waves along the line if it’s a good day!
If you have time, Kamakura is home to some important historical landmarks such as the large bronze statue of Buddha (daibutsu), Hasedera Temple and Hachiman-gu Shrine.
I highly recommend the Odakyu website to research some of the other wonderful destinations in the area, such as the Enoshima Aquarium, and to plan your trip to the area.
With the opening of the Hokkaido Shinkansen this week, it’s time to once again update my blog concerning overnight train travel in Japan and share ideas when it comes to using the Japan Rail Pass for such journeys.
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).
When I wrote my first overnight by train article six years ago, there were still several overnight train options available, including the Cassiopeia and Hokutosei (Tokyo-Sapporo), Twilight Express and Nihonkai (Osaka-Kyoto-Sapporo). Those trains are now all discontinued from regular service with the opening of the Hokkaido Shinkansen to Hokkaido over the tracks formerly used by the sleeper trains.
There is now just one set of sleeper trains in regular service: The Sunrise Seto and Sunrise Izumo. These trains run every night, coupled together between Tokyo and Okayama, stopping at Himeji early in the morning. At Okayama the trains split, with the Sunrise Seto heading across the Seto Inland Sea to Takamatsu on the island of Shikoku, and the Sunrise Izumo heading north to the resort city of Izumo – home of a famous shrine of the same name.
These two trains have a carpeted floor space called a “Nobinobi Seat” where you sleep on the floor. These are a popular travel option… and with a Japan Rail Pass, you can use these carpeted spaces for free. The reason for that is because the carpeted space is technically classified as a “Reserved Seat” for booking purposes.
There are private bunks and rooms as well, if you want your own space, but if you want to use these spaces with a Japan Rail Pass you will have to pay for the room. These can be expensive, approximately 10,000-20,000 yen per room/compartment once additional surcharges are calculated. Each will fit one or two passengers.
For more details about these trains, I highly recommend the YouTube video created by John Daub describing life on the Sunrise Izumo. More of his videos from Japan can be found on his website, onlyinjapan.tv.
If you are worried about costs and just want to travel point-to-point overnight not worrying about sightseeing, you can use the Japan Rail Pass to your advantage by finding a stop along the route of travel where there are cheap accommodations, such as a business hotel, and then continue on to your destination in the morning. The advantage, besides the inexpensive cost, is that you have your own bed, shower and toilet. You can also enjoy just a little slice of what life is like in another part of Japan… 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.
We will now revisit all of the options for travel between major cities, as listed in the previous blog articles. We’ve used the reputable Toyoko Inn chain as an example to look at when it comes to inexpensive hotel accommodations, but now that web searches for hotels are pretty sophisticated, I’ll be using several resources including the booking site Agoda and look for accommodations for a random weekday evening in the spring.
TOKYO to KYOTO or OSAKA via Tokaido Shinkansen
Tokyo to Kansai is an essential trip for the tourist. The Tokaido Shinkansen easily connects these two areas in three hours or less… but if you want to cut back on lodging costs, you could stay at a lesser-known city along the way. Some stops along the route that you can consider include Hamamatsu, Toyohashi and Nagoya. In Hamamatsu, Agoda indicates solo accommodations starting at 3,500 yen, and double occupancy at 2,000 yen per person. Toyohashi has accommodations from 5,000 yen single and 3,750 yen p/p double, and the hotels at the bullet train station in Nagoya start from 4,000 yen single (there’s a guesthouse nearby at 2,500 yen) and 3,600 yen p/p double.
Hikari bullet trains, the fastest that can be used with the Japan Rail Pass, can easily get you to any of these cities with 1 or 2 departures every hour. The final trains leave from Tokyo station at 21:30 and 22:00, both terminating at Nagoya with stops at Hamamatsu and Toyohashi along the way.
In the morning, bullet trains from Hamamatsu and Toyohashi towards Kyoto and Osaka leave from 6:32 and 6:45 respectively. These are Kodama trains which stop at every single bullet train stop, and arrive in Kyoto and Osaka at 7:56 and 8:10 respectively. The Kodama trains do not have food or drink sales on board, so keep that in mind before boarding. You could also stop quickly at Nagoya for some food before continuing on the next Hikari or Kodama service.
From Nagoya, the first departure is a Hikari leaving at 6:35, followed by a Kodama leaving at 6:51. These trains reach Kyoto in around 45 minutes and one hour respectively.
TOKYO to KYOTO or OSAKA via Kanazawa
A second overnight option that has existed takes you through Kanazawa, home to one of Japan’s top Japanese gardens. Travel between Tokyo and Kanazawa has been easy since 2015, when the bullet train opened between these cities.
From Tokyo, Kagayaki and Hakutaka trains run the route to Kanazawa. The last Kagayaki trains from Tokyo leave at 19:56 and 21:04, arriving in Kanazawa at 22:30 and 23:35 respectively. Accommodations in Kanazawa sampled at 5,800 yen single and 3,900 yen p/p double.
Regular limited express trains called Thunderbird run from Kanazawa to Kyoto and Osaka via the northern side of Lake Biwa. In the morning, the first train leaves at 5:35 if you are eager enough. Kanazawa also has trains running to Maibara, from which you can transfer to the Tokaido Shinkansen. While you’re in Kanazawa, though, why not spend the early hours in Kenroku-en, the aforementioned Japanese garden? Visit early before the tourist crowds arrive, then continue on your way.
TOKYO to TAKAMATSU and the rest of 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.
The previously-mentioned Sunrise Seto overnight train provides a one-seat ride between the cities. But if this is not an option for you, for one reason or another?
Let’s look at one of the major stops on the Shinkansen, Okayama. All of the major bullet trains that run this far stop in Okayama. It is also the connection point for trains to Shikoku.
There is one direct Hikari service every hour from Tokyo to Okayama, taking four hours. The last of these services departs at 17:03, arriving Okayama at 21:11. There are a few more options after that, but you’ll need to change trains in Osaka. The last departure is the Hikari leaving at 19:33 – when you reach Shin-Osaka, change to the Kodama which will get you to Okayama at 23:47.
Accommodations around Okayama were found for 6,000 yen single and 4,000 yen p/p double.
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 5:27 and 6:01, arriving Takamatsu at 6:31 and 6:56 respectively. Marine Liner trains depart on a regular basis to Takamatsu so you can take your time in Okayama if you wish… perhaps visit another renowned Japanese garden, Koraku-en.
TOKYO to HIROSHIMA and FUKUOKA (and Kyushu)
If you wanted to travel from Tokyo directly to Fukuoka by train, it’s a six hour trip with a change in bullet trains required along the way. If you want to travel by night, Okayama is an excellent transfer point, as described above.
Another stop you can consider is Himeji, known for its iconic castle. The options described above to go from Tokyo to Okayama are also valid to reach Himeji.
Himeji’s rates were checked from 5,000 yen single and 3,000 yen p/p double… In my particular search a rate of 7,000 yen single at a 4-star luxury hotel was discovered – what a steal!
The first train from Himeji is a Hikari service, which leaves at 6:38 for Fukuoka (called Hakata station)… but another service right behind it, a Sakura service, leaves at 6:55 and will actually beat the Hikari service to Fukuoka by around a half-hour. This Sakura service is what you should consider using for trips to Hiroshima, Fukuoka, and other destinations in Kyushu such as Kumamoto (Arrive 9:47) and the end of the line at Kagoshima (Arrive 10:44).
Since trains leave Himeji 1 or 2 times per hour, you could consider sneaking out for an early trip to Himeji Castle before continuing on your way.
TOKYO to HAKODATE and SAPPORO (and Hokkaido)
This is where things have changed dramatically with the recent opening of the Hokkaido Shinkansen from the northern Tohoku region into Hokkaido.
Trips from Tokyo to Hakodate in southern Hokkaido now take an average of 4 1/2 hours. If you want to make this short journey into an overnight excursion, you can stop in Aomori, where hotels are 5,500 yen single or 4,000 yen p/p double. To reach Aomori, you’ll need to get off the shinkansen at Shin-Aomori then continue to Aomori on a shuttle train. In the morning, return to Shin-Aomori to pick up the shinkansen towards Hokkaido. In the morning, the first train to Hokkaido leaves Shin-Aomori at 6:32, but the shuttle train from Aomori leaves at 5:45, so you have a lot of time sitting in Shin-Aomori prior to the departure. The Aomori departure at 7:35, connecting to the Shinkansen departure at 7:57, is a little more reasonable.
Remember, when you get to the terminal stop in Hakodate, called Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto, you have to take another shuttle train which will get you to Hakodate city.
Tokyo to Sapporo, end to end, takes as little as 7 hours 45 minutes on the fastest train services. Here, you could make the argument of spending the night in Hakodate before continuing on your way to Sapporo… why not make a day of it in Hakodate? In Hakodate city, prices were seen for around 4,500 yen single or 3,600 yen p/p double.
If you’re pinched for time, the last two services from Tokyo to Hakodate leave at 17:20 and 19:20. Arrival times in Hakodate are at 22:29 and 24:05 respectively. From Hakodate to Sapporo, the first trains depart at 6:10 and 7:28, arriving Sapporo at 9:48 and 11:27 respectively.
OSAKA and KYOTO to HAKODATE and SAPPORO
This route used to be covered by several popular overnight trains, including the Twilight Express. All of the overnight train options have been discontinued, leaving us to make use of the existing shinkansen and limited express services. I’d recommend a stopover for an overnight trip in Hakodate, with Aomori coming a close second.
You can easily take the Hikari shinkansen from Osaka and Kyoto to Tokyo and continue northbound on the Hayabusa towards Hakodate. Leaving on the 13:40 Hikari from Osaka (13:56 from Kyoto) will get you to Tokyo at 16:40, giving you 40 minutes before the Hayabusa departure to Hakodate as described above.
Via northern coast
Another option, if you want to consider it, is a longer journey that routes you along the northern Japanese coast, following the sea of Japan. This is the route formerly covered by the Twilight Express service. If you’re a true train lover like I am and really want to contribute to green commutes, this is the trip for you. Part of this journey is now operated by the Hokuriku Shinkansen.
Overnight in Aomori as described earlier, then depart on the 7:35 train from Aomori to catch the 7:57 Hayate train to Hakodate. You can reach Hakodate by 9:30, or connect to the train to Sapporo with an arrival time of 12:41. You can also elect to take the 5:45 departure and wait it out at Shin-Aomori until the 6:32 departure, which will get you to Hokkaido sooner.
An alternative route after Akita is to take the Komachi shinkansen service from Akita (Departing 19:11) to Morioka (Arriving 20:49) and spend the night in Morioka. In the morning, take the 6:54 Hayate service to Hakodate. As with the first option, you can reach Hakodate by 9:30, or connect to the train to Sapporo with an arrival time of 12:41.
There are many other routes that you can choose from… including a scenic trip through the central Japanese alps! Many of the routes can be sorted out using English planning sites like HyperDia (www.hyperdia.com). I also like using the Japanese site ekikara.jp to look up the timetables, though some understanding of Japanese is needed.
Whatever you decide – however you decide to do it – enjoy traveling around Japan and enjoy the new slice of life experience that comes with a stay in a non-touristy city.
As always, all advice on my blog is offered pursuant to my Disclaimer.