Itinerary – Train Cruising On The Cheap

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.

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JR East Train Suite Shiki-shima. Photo by Rsa (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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.

Jose’s Itinerary

Day 1:
*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.

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Shiroishi Castle. Photo by neuropower (PD)

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.

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Aomori Bay at night. Photo by Angaurtis (CC BY-SA 3.0)

*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.

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Hirosaki Castle. Photo by Si-take. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Day 2:
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.

*Tsugaru #3, Depart Hirosaki 14:52, Arrive Shin-Aomori 15:22
*Hayabusa #26, Depart Shin-Aomori 15:52, Arrive Morioka 16:44
*Hayabusa #108, Depart Morioka 17:07, Arrive Ichinoseki 17:47

Check into a hotel in Ichinoseki, have dinner and spend the evening.

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Autumn leaves at Naruko Gorge. Photo by Hiroaki Kaneko (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Day 3:
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

Trip Costs

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Seat reservations are mandatory on Hayabusa services. Photo by sukhoi37 (CC BY 3.0)

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!

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Exterior of Aomori Station with several business hotels. Photo by ぺ有家音 (PD)

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.

All information is offered pursuant to the blog disclaimer.

Links to Creative Commons licenses: CC BY 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0

 

Destination of the Week: Enoshima

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The entrance to Enoshima island is prefaced with this stone marker. © Photo by Jose Ramos, October 2008

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.

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Looking from the end of the causeway towards the main pedestrian path. ©Photo by Jose Ramos, October 2008

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.

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This photo from the Samuel Cocking Garden shows the portions of the original garden’s foundation that were discovered during construction. © Photo by Jose Ramos, October 2008

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.

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Enoshima Sea Candle seen from the Samuel Cocking Garden. © Photo by Jose Ramos, October 2008

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.

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Primary Entrance to Enoshima Escar. © Photo by Jose Ramos, October 2008

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.

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View of the walkway and road leading from Enoshima to Fujisawa City on the mainland, taken from Enoshima Sea Candle. ©Photo by Jose Ramos, October 2008

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.

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A small photo of some guy who runs this blog, from Enoshima Sea Candle. ©Photo by Jose Ramos, October 2008

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.

Overnight by Train in Japan: The Options – March 2016 Update

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.

Thunderbird 7 – Depart Osaka 8:10, Shin-Osaka 8:14, Kyoto 8:41, Arrive Kanazawa 11:02

In Kanazawa you have a layover of almost one hour, perfect for grabbing a quick bite to eat or two. The next several trains require quick connections.

Hakutaka 562 – Depart Kanazawa 11:56, Arrive Joetsu-Myoko 12:58
Shirayuki 5 – Depart Joetsu-Myoko 13:07, Arrive Nagaoka 14:14
Max Toki 321 – Depart Nagaoka 14:27, Arrive Niigata 14:50
Inaho 7 – Depart Niigata 15:01, Arrive Akita 18:41

There is a layover of 50 minutes in Akita.

Tsugaru 5 – Depart Akita 19:32, Arrive Aomori 22:16

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.

 

Hokkaido Shinkansen – New train line, new rail pass

H5 series Shinkansen on a test run. By Sukhoi37, CC BY-SA 4.0
H5 series Shinkansen on a test run. By Sukhoi37, CC BY-SA 4.0

Happy New Year, and welcome to the first post on myjapantips.com in 2016!

In a few months, Japan’s iconic bullet train system will be extended to the northern island of Hokkaido for the very first time. The shinkansen has been running there for the past few months on test runs, but it officially opens to the public on March 26.

Plans for a bullet train line in Hokkaido were laid out over four decades ago, with proposals for several routes on Hokkaido itself. The 33 1/2 mile Seikan Tunnel linked Hokkaido to the Japanese mainland in 1988, and with the 17-year construction project came provisions to eventually add the bullet train.

The new bullet train line extends a distance of 92 1/2 miles from the northernmost terminal at Shin-Aomori, through the Seikan Tunnel to a bullet train station outside of Hakodate, called Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto. From here, a shuttle train called the “Hakodate Liner” makes the 11 mile trip south to Hakodate station in the center of the city.

It will also be possible to hook up to the Hokuto limited express service for the journey north to Sapporo. You can enjoy the scenic trip up to Sapporo on the limited express, as the bullet train probably won’t reach Sapporo for another 15 years or so.

Here are some additional details on the new services to Hakodate, which will extend as far south as Tokyo itself.

Up until the start of services on March 26, 2016: Train travelers from Tokyo heading north to Hokkaido have to change in Aomori for conventional express trains that run under the Seikan Tunnel to Hakodate. The fastest journey from Tokyo to Hakodate is 5 hours 22 minutes. From Tokyo to Sapporo (with an additional change of trains) the fastest journey time is just over 9 hours.

When the bullet train opens on March 26, 2016: Travel times from Tokyo to Hakodate will be cut by almost an hour, to 4 1/2 hours on the fastest services. With just one transfer at Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto to an express, Tokyo to Sapporo journey times will be reduced to 7 hours, 44 minutes on the fastest services.

You may ask… if the bullet train is supposed to be fast, why can’t trains reach Hakodate faster? That’s because when the bullet train opens through the Seikan Tunnel, it will be sharing space with freight train traffic. Freight by rail is big in Japan, and more so to and from the island of Hokkaido with around 50 freight train trips through the tunnel every day. For the time being, bullet trains will have to reduce their speed from around 160 mph on the approach to the tunnel all the way down to 87 mph. Any faster than this, and the shock-waves of air generated by the train in the tunnel will cause the freight cars to fly off the tracks. There are some plans being discussed to offer faster trips, such as maintaining a 160 mph speed through the tunnel and then automatically slowing down when passing freight trains, or scheduling one return trip per day when freight trains are not using the tunnel. Such plans, though, are years off.

There will be ten daily round-trips on the Hokkaido Shinkansen from Tokyo to Hokkaido, and one each from the cities of Sendai, Morioka and Aomori. Services will use the E5 and new H5 shinkansen trains. All cars require a seat reservation: there are eight standard class cars, one green car (first class) and one GranClass car (premium first class).

The Japan Rail Pass will be valid on all of the new bullet train extensions. The exception is GranClass, which Rail Pass users will not be able to use unless supplement charges are paid. Green Car Rail Pass holders can still use the regular Green Car on these services, though.

JR East and JR Hokkaido are offering a new rail pass for foreign tourists who plan to only travel between Tokyo and Hokkaido, and it costs slightly less than a 7 day Japan Rail Pass. It’s called the JR East-South Hokkaido Rail Pass, and it costs 26,000 yen if purchased overseas (27,000 yen if purchased inside the country).

To be used on any six days within a 14 day period, the new pass covers all JR lines in Tokyo, and north of Tokyo through the Tohoku region and into Hokkaido, as far as Sapporo. You can use the shinkansen from Tokyo to Hakodate, as well as portions of several other JR East bullet train lines. A large number of conventional JR routes can also be used, and seat reservations on bullet trains and limited express trains can be made for free. You can use the Narita Express, the Tokyo Monorail to Haneda Airport, the Sendai Airport rail link, the JR rail line to Sapporo’s airport, and also access Nikko and the Izu peninsula. It’s a fantastic deal, considering that the pass is flexible, and does not need to be used on consecutive days…. you CAN use it on consecutive days if you wish, but it is not required. The pass is only good for standard class… it cannot be used for the Green Car or for GranClass.

Hakodate city was named Japan’s most attractive city of 2015 in a recent survey. Attractions from the famous morning market and the night view at the top of Mount Hakodate to a ride on one of the city’s old streetcars will be easier to access with the opening of the bullet train into Hokkaido in March. While you’re at it, why not continue your rail journey towards Sapporo, known for its annual snow festival, craft beers, and museums dedicated to the preservation of the Ainu culture.

As usual, your questions and comments are welcome. I am glad to offer advice whenever I am able, subject to the blog disclaimer.

A Thank You Note from Australia

This is a few months overdue, so with apologies for the delay I’d like to share a thank you that I received from a traveler in Australia.

I love Japan and the Japanese culture, and that is why one of my hobbies is to operate this blog, post some suggestions and travel updates, and do the best that I can to answer anyone’s questions about Japan travel. (on that note, please read the disclaimer!)

In the spring, Peter from Australia visited Japan and requested that I put together a whirlwind rail tour for him that would take him around the country in the limited amount of time that he had. Or in his words, not heavy on sightseeing.

I was able to do just that, and for the most part Peter used the itinerary to travel around the country.

Here’s Peter’s thank you note, which he allowed me to share:

I can’t thank Jose enough for helping me plan my rail trip around Japan in March 2015. I wanted to use a 14 day Japan Rail Pass to see as much of Japan as possible without too much on the ground sight-seeing. The programme Jose gave me was perfect. I was able to give the programme to the Japan Rail booking office in Tokyo and reserve seats for most of the trip. The trip included travel on bullet trains and on limited express trains. Everything went like clockwork. I joined the Toyoko Club which gave me discount bookings at their chain of business hotels which are generally located within a few minutes walk from each major railway station. Normally I arrived at my destination early afternoon, checked my bags into the hotel and then visited the recommended sites and enjoyed great food at the lower end restaurants. The next day I would catch a train mid morning and so on. I only stayed at one place for two nights to catch up on laundry etc. In 14 days I got an overview of Honshu, Kyushu and Shikoku. I’ve saved Hokkaido for another trip.
Thanks again Jose for making my trip so memorable.
Kind regards
Peter Coghlan
Perth, Western Australia

He also sent me a thank you gift … I’ll share a photo of it soon on my Facebook page, facebook.com/myjapantips … be sure to look out for it!

Japan Itinerary: The *Four* Castles

February 2017 update: Please note that Kumamoto Castle was damaged in the April 2016 earthquakes, and so access to the castle is currently limited. I hope to provide a new itinerary for visiting castles in a future post.

The castle is one of Japan’s most iconic symbols, and one of the most enduring… or, to a certain degree, the least enduring. Built as fortresses to guard important sites while taking the landscape into consideration, many of Japan’s castles fell victim to feuds and wars, whether it be from the time of shogun and samurai, or World War II. While there were as many as 5,000 castles in Japan at one point by some estimates, there are now just over 100 in complete or partial form.

As Japan has lists of three most famous views, gardens, and other locations, there seem to be several different lists out there that rank Japan’s top three castles.

Accordingly, I’ve put together itineraries that take travelers to the four castles in Japan that were ranked at the top of TripAdvisor Japan’s annual survey of castles, based on the public reviews given on that site. Those castles are, in ranked order:

Kumamoto Castle. Photo by 663highland (CC BY 2.5)
Kumamoto Castle. Photo by 663highland (CC BY 2.5)

1) Kumamoto Castle
Despite it being a reconstruction, this is one of the most beloved castle sites in all of Japan, and in the last few years has been consistently ranked as the best among Travelocity reviewers. The original fortifications were laid down almost 450 years ago, but the castle was burned down during the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877. A few of the other buildings that are part of the castle keep are original, and the area has been designated as an important cultural property.
Admission to the castle costs 500 yen and it’s open daily from 8:30 AM to 6 PM (until 5 PM during the winter months). Kumamoto Tram’s A Line stops right in front of it – it’s a 15 minute trip from JR Kumamoto Station. The flat fare for the tram is 150 yen, payable when you exit. A one day tram pass is 500 yen, and a two day pass is 800 yen.

Matsumoto Castle. Photo by MOILIP (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Matsumoto Castle. Photo by MOILIP (CC BY-SA 3.0)

2) Matsumoto Castle
This castle is one of Japan’s originals, dating back to 1504. The keep’s exterior is all black, giving the castle the nickname “karasujo” or crow castle. It has survived since then, being saved from demolition during the start of the Meiji period, and has undergone several restorations, most recently in the 1950’s. At one point, the castle resembled the leaning tower of Pisa when part of the keep slouched to one side. Matsumoto Castle is in Nagano prefecture, with the Japanese Alps as the backdrop, and is an easy train or bus trip from Tokyo or Nagano.
Admission to the castle is 610 yen and it’s open daily except during the new year’s holiday from 8:30 AM to 5 PM. During the Golden Week and Obon holidays, it’s open longer. City buses run from Matsumoto’s train station to the castle, including the tourist bus known as the “flying sneaker” (200 yen per trip or 500 yen for a day pass). The North bus will take you to the castle, and note that the day pass includes discounted admission to the castle. One other option is Matsumoto City’s free bicycle rentals, available at various spots around town including the train station and castle.

Himeji Castle after restoration. Photo by Niko Kitsakis (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Himeji Castle after restoration. Photo by Niko Kitsakis (CC BY-SA 4.0)

3) Himeji Castle
Instantly recognizable as the most visited castle complex in Japan, Himeji has fallen in the Travelocity rankings over the last several years as the complex underwent a multi-year restoration project. Just recently completed, Himeji looks as beautiful as it did when it was first built, and is seeking to claw its way up to the top of the rankings. With origins dating back to the 1300’s, Himeji’s main castles were built in the late 1500’s and early 1600’s, and have survived everything from rebellions to World War II to devastating earthquakes. It was one of the first in the country to be on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites. I visited Himeji during my first trip in 2004, a few years before the renovations began.
Admission to the castle costs 1,000 yen and it’s open daily except December 29 and 30 from 9 AM to 5 PM (in the summer months, until 6 PM). Entry ends one hour before closing.
From Himeji’s main train stations (JR and Sanyo Railway) Himeji Castle is a 5 minute bus ride (100 yen) or taxi ride (~700 yen), or a 25 minute walk (which is what yours truly ended up doing).

Matsuyama Castle. Photo by Jyo81 (CC BY 3.0)
Matsuyama Castle. Photo by Jyo81 (CC BY 3.0)

4) Matsuyama Castle
Located on the island of Shikoku in an area known for its hot springs, Matsuyama Castle is another of Japan’s original castles. It was built on a small mountain – Mount Katsuyama – and the location affords a great view of the city and the Seto Sea. It has largely survived intact; the castle tower was originally destroyed by lightning and rebuilt in the 1800’s, while certain sections were rebuilt as a result of World War II bombing damage.
Due to its high location, the castle is easily accessed by chairlift or ropeway. The castle is open almost every day of the year from 9 AM to around 5 PM and the admission fee is 510 yen. If you want to save yourself the steep climb on foot, the chairlift/ropeway is 510 yen for the round trip.
The nearest tram stop to the bottom of the mountain is Okaido, which houses a shopping arcade. It’s 10 minutes from JR Matsuyama station, and 11 minutes from Dogo Onsen hot spring. One trip costs 190 yen, and a day pass costs 400 yen.

Matsuyama Castle is not to be confused with another castle of the same name located near Okayama.

As with itineraries that I have shared in the past:
– There are two itineraries given for each mode of transit. One starts and ends in Tokyo for those coming into the country at Narita or Haneda Airport. The other starts and ends in Osaka for those utilizing Kansai Airport instead.
– All itineraries are offered subject to the Jose’s Japan Tips DISCLAIMER.

In the case of these journeys, I have opted to just provide rail itinerary suggestions.

From Tokyo By Rail

Day 1:
In the morning, depart from Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station on the Azusa Limited Express to Matsumoto (2 1/2-3 hours, 6,900 yen, no charge with Japan Rail Pass)
Alternatively, depart from Tokyo or Ueno station on the Hokuriku Shinkansen and change in Nagano to the “Shinano” Limited Express service (2 1/2-3 hours, 10,130 yen, no charge with the Japan Rail Pass)
VISIT MATSUMOTO CASTLE
Once your visit is complete, depart for Kyoto using two trains: The “Shinano” limited express from Matsumoto to Nagoya, and the Tokaido Shinkansen from Nagoya to Kyoto. Connecting to the “Nozomi” in Nagoya, the entire trip takes 3 hours and costs 10,170 yen. With a Japan Rail Pass, you will have to take the “Hikari”, increasing the trip time by 30-45 minutes.
Spend the night in Kyoto. Alternatively, continue 15 minutes along the line to Shin-Osaka to stay in that area.
*NOTE: There are no on-board food or drink sales on the “Shinano”

Day 2:
In the morning, depart for Himeji on the Shinkansen. From Kyoto the trip takes 45 minutes by direct Nozomi (5,590 yen) and up to 60 minutes using other services. For Japan Rail Pass holders, there are three Hikari services from Kyoto to Himeji departing between 7 AM and 8:30 AM, after which there is one direct service per hour. Otherwise you’ll need to change trains in Shin-Osaka.
VISIT HIMEJI CASTLE
In the afternoon, depart for Matsuyama using the bullet train and limited express across the Seto Sea to Shikoku. You’ll need to take the bullet train a short distance from Himeji to Okayama, then board the “Shiokaze” limited express from Okayama to Matsuyama. The trip takes approximately 3 1/2 hours (9,570 yen). You can use the “Nozomi” or the “Sakura” depending on whether or not you have a rail pass, or your preference – both trains will offer ample connections to the Shiokaze.

Day 3:
Get up early to enjoy the historic hot springs and VISIT MATSUYAMA CASTLE.
In the afternoon, return to Okayama at your leisure using any of the “Shiokaze” services (2 3/4 hours, 6,830 yen) and spend the night in Okayama.

Day 4:
Depart for Hakata station in Fukuoka at your leisure and spend two nights in Fukuoka. Use the “Nozomi” or “Mizuho” unless you have a Rail Pass, in which case you’d use the “Hikari” or “Sakura” (1 3/4-2 hours). Before leaving Okayama, you could visit Okayama Korakuen Garden, one of the top three Japanese gardens.

Day 5:
Take a day trip from Fukuoka to Kumamoto by Shinkansen, using the “Sakura” or “Tsubame” (40-50 minutes, 5,130 yen each way).
VISIT KUMAMOTO CASTLE

Day 6:
Take the Shinkansen and return all the way to Tokyo at your leisure. By Nozomi it takes 5 hours and costs 22,950 yen with no change in trains necessary. With a Japan Rail Pass, the “Sakura” and “Hikari” will bring you to Tokyo in six hours, and you will need to change trains once.

For this itinerary, a 7 day Japan Rail Pass (29,110 yen) will save you a considerable amount of money compared to regular tickets. If you have an extra day left, why not stop at one or two other Japanese cities on the way back to Tokyo? Perhaps an overnight stopover?

From Osaka by Rail

Day 1:
In the morning, depart for Himeji on the Shinkansen. From Shin-Osaka the trip takes 30 minutes (3,740 yen). Remember if you have a Japan Rail Pass, you can’t use the “Nozomi”.
VISIT HIMEJI CASTLE
In the afternoon, depart for Matsuyama using the bullet train and limited express across the Seto Sea to Shikoku. You’ll need to take the bullet train a short distance from Himeji to Okayama, then board the “Shiokaze” limited express from Okayama to Matsuyama. The trip takes approximately 3 1/2 hours (9,570 yen). You can use the “Nozomi” or the “Sakura” depending on whether or not you have a rail pass, or your preference – both trains will offer ample connections to the Shiokaze.

Day 2:
Get up early to enjoy the historic hot springs and VISIT MATSUYAMA CASTLE.
In the afternoon, return to Okayama at your leisure using any of the “Shiokaze” services (2 3/4 hours, 6,830 yen) and spend the night in Okayama.

Day 3:
Depart for Hakata station in Fukuoka at your leisure and spend two nights in Fukuoka. Use the “Nozomi” or “Mizuho” unless you have a Rail Pass, in which case you’d use the “Hikari” or “Sakura” (1 3/4-2 hours). Before leaving Okayama, you could visit Okayama Korakuen Garden, one of the top three Japanese gardens.

Day 4:
Take a day trip from Fukuoka to Kumamoto by Shinkansen, using the “Sakura” or “Tsubame” (40-50 minutes, 5,130 yen each way).
VISIT KUMAMOTO CASTLE

Day 5:
In the morning, make your way from Fukuoka all the way to Matsumoto, taking the Shinkansen to Nagoya then the “Shinano” limited express to Matsumoto. Using the Nozomi, the trip takes 5 1/2 hours (21,400 yen). With a Japan Rail Pass you’ll need to take the “Sakura” and “Hikari” to Nagoya, changing trains once along the way. This increases the journey time to around 6 1/2 hours.
If you don’t want to spend time on trains for that long, you can optionally leave from Fukuoka on the evening of Day 4 and spend your evening in an intermediate city such as Kyoto or Nagoya. See my post on sample stopovers.
Spend the evening in Matsumoto.
*NOTE: There are no on-board food or drink sales on the “Shinano”

Day 6:
VISIT MATSUMOTO CASTLE in the morning. In the afternoon, return to Osaka by “Shinano” and the Shinkansen (190 minutes and 10,810 yen by “Nozomi”, slightly longer if switching to the “Hikari” for Japan Rail Pass holders).
*NOTE: There are no on-board food or drink sales on the “Shinano”

For this itinerary, once again a 7 day Japan Rail Pass (29,110 yen) is the way to go.

Long-distance Stopovers with the Japan Rail Pass

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!