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.

 

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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!

Tokyo to Kyoto for $21… and other cheap ways to transit Japan

Thanks to everyone for reading this hobby blog of mine for the last few years. For some reason or another, everyone keeps reading and commenting on my post about traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto for 2,300 yen (under September 2014 exchange rates, about $21)… So because so many people are interested, here is a list of some ways that you can travel around Japan on the cheap!

– Bring a few friends to Japan and travel with the Seishun 18 Ticket 

If you bring a few friends, or know a few friends willing to travel around with you, the Seishun 18 Ticket – a travel ticket offered at certain times of the year – could be your best friend. Literally translated “Youth 18” and initially targeted to those traveling on school breaks, the Seishun 18 is actually offered to everyone. The ticket has gone up in price slightly this year because of the national tax rate hike, but it’s still a value at 11,850 yen per ticket. The ticket is valid for unlimited travel on LOCAL trains all around the Japan Railways network – this means, you cannot use the bullet trains, you cannot use premium “limited express” services that run on conventional railways (with one exception), and you cannot use most overnight trains. You can also use the ticket for the JR Ferry that runs to the island of Miyajima (typically a 180 yen trip).

It’s important to note that the ticket can only be purchased and used during school holidays. There are three periods of the year when the ticket is offered:

Spring: Purchase between February 20 and March 31 for use between March 1 and April 10
Summer: Purchase between July 1 and August 31 for use between July 20 and September 10
Winter: Purchase between December 1 and December 31 for use between December 10 and January 10

There are five “spaces” that are stamped by manned station staff every time the pass is used, with one space representing one person traveling in a single day (midnight to midnight). By maximizing the spaces used, you can save a considerable amount of money. If you are a solo traveler and chose to make five long trips in five days (which don’t have to be consecutive), each trip would cost only 2,370 yen! If you have four friends and make a long trip over the course of a day – such as Tokyo to Kyoto – each person pays only 2,370 yen! There are many combinations possible as far as usage – a group of four, for example, can travel a long distance in one day on the pass for 2,960 yen.

It’s important to do some research to see if the Seishun 18 is best for you. Long-distance journeys such as Tokyo to Kyoto or Osaka will pay off, but if you’re only doing a short trip from, say, Tokyo to Yokohama, it’s not worth it.

A few other notes: You are permitted unlimited stopovers on each day, and the price of the Seishun 18 is the same for children and adults – there are no discounts for kids.

– Buy a local ticket that allows stopovers

On any day of the year, buying a long-distance local ticket can save on per-day travel costs because under Japan Railways rules, the longer you travel from point-to-point, the longer you have to make the journey.

The rules are: Within a major Japanese city or for all journeys 100km or less, you have one day to make the trip, and in many cases stopovers are not allowed. From 101 to 200km, you have two days. From 201 to 400km, you have 3 days. For each additional 200km traveled you get one additional day.

To find out the distance of your trip, look it up on timetable search engines such as Hyperdia, being sure to clear the checkmarks on everything except “local train” and “Japan Railways” otherwise you will see a few bullet trains and airplanes!

A few examples:

Tokyo to Nagoya is 366km over the Tokaido Line at a cost of 6,260 yen. You can take the trip over a course of 3 days, so if you decide to stop and spend a night at two cities along the way you will be paying about 2,086 yen per day, and if you spend one night along the way it’s 3,130 yen per day.

Tokyo to Kyoto is 513km over the Tokaido Line at a cost of 8,210 yen. You can take the trip over 4 days! So, traveling over the course of 2 days splits the cost to 4,105 yen…. 3 days is 2,736 yen…. 4 days is 2,052 yen per day!

With this plan, you can direct the money saved on travel into reasonably-priced hotel accommodations along the way – many of which will be considerably cheaper compared to staying in larger cities. This will also allow you to enjoy more of Japan, including some areas that many foreign tourists will pass over.

You are allowed unlimited stopovers along the route that you are taking – it’s important not to stray from the route that you paid and are ticketed for, otherwise there may be a difference in fare. You’ll also want to know that since these are regular fares, there are discounts for children!

Also, major cities in Japan are designated into certain “zones”, and travel in between two major cities is sometimes designated as traveling from one zone to the other. For example, a trip from Tokyo to Osaka would be defined as the Tokyo ZONE to the Osaka ZONE. Stopovers are NOT allowed in zones of your origin or destination, but are permitted anywhere in between. Kyoto is close to Osaka, but since Kyoto has it’s own ZONE you could technically stop over in Kyoto on the trip from Tokyo to Osaka without any extra charge, as long as it’s within the days permitted to travel and, as mentioned earlier, you don’t stray away from the path ticketed. Once you stop anywhere in Osaka and get out of the system, the ticket is considered USED.

Please visit Takeshi’s JP Rail page which gives a lot of great information about this.

– Use the Japan Bus Pass for cheap trips on highway buses

The Willer Express Japan Bus Pass was introduced for foreign tourists in Japan a few years ago. At a cost of 10,000 yen for 3 days of bus travel and 15,000 yen for 5 days, you can make considerable savings over regular bus costs. There are many other bus operators in Japan, including those operated by branches of Japan railways, but the Willer web site allows reservations and bookings in English. Rather than go through a lot of the details, simply read my recent post about the Japan Bus Pass.

– Fly to Japan on a Star Alliance or oneworld airline and take advantage of domestic air passes for tourists

If you travel to Japan on a certain airline, you may qualify for an air pass for tourists. The Star Alliance Japan Airpass is valid for travel on All Nippon Airways (ANA) and can be used if you travel on Star Alliance airlines (including ANA, United, Air Canada, Air New Zealand, Lufthansa). The Oneworld Yokoso Japan pass is valid for travel on Japan Airlines (JAL) and can be used if you travel on oneworld airlines (including JAL, American, British Airways, Qantas).

For each pass, you can take between one and five trips by plane, with each trip costing just 10,000 yen plus tax. It’s a great and quick way to travel around several regions of Japan. You will always find flights from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport to Osaka’s Itami Airport as they continue to compete with the bullet train – but longer distance flights can pay off if you don’t have much time to spare – Tokyo to Fukuoka or Tokyo to Sapporo are great examples. Note though, that there ARE a number of blackout dates where these passes cannot be used.

If you do not qualify for these fares, i.e. by traveling on a different airline, both ANA and JAL offer regular tourist passes – up to 5 trips at a cost of 13-14,000 yen per trip. A minimum of two trips is required.

– Fly domestically on low cost airlines

Over the last few years, the low cost airline concept has boomed in Japan. A number of carriers are springing up offering tremendous fare discounts. Some of the top airlines that you can make reservations with in English include Skymark, Peach Aviation, Jetstar and Vanilla Air.

As these are low cost carriers, services and amenities are reduced compared to carriers JAL and ANA, and the airlines sometimes serve airports that are not close to the center of the city… but the airfares are sometimes hard to beat.

A random fare search for a weekday in November yielded these one-day fares:

Skymark: Tokyo Haneda to Sapporo for 8,500 yen
Peach Aviation: Tokyo Narita to Osaka Kansai for 3,390 yen … ?!?!
Jetstar Japan: Nagoya Centrair to Sapporo for 6,590 yen
Vanilla Air: Tokyo Narita to Okinawa for 8,200 yen

– Use a Japan Rail Pass

If you’ve got a limited amount of time and intend to visit a lot of places around the country, a Japan Rail Pass is still a great way to go around. You get unlimited travel on Japan Railways, and unlimited seat reservations on nearly ALL bullet trains and limited express services for 7, 14 or 21 consecutive days. Prices start at 29,110 yen for seven consecutive days of travel, or about 4,160 yen per day. The 14-day pass starts at around 3,300 yen per day, and if you do the 21-day pass it’s about 2,800 yen per day. Green class (first class) passes are higher.

– Use a Japan Rail Pass and stay on the cheap

Utilizing a Japan Rail Pass when traveling between major cities, you can make an intermediate stop at a small city along the way and potentially save with hotel rates that are cheaper than in major cities. For example, if you travel from Tokyo to Osaka by bullet train, you could opt to begin your travel in the evening and stop at one of the intermediate bullet train stations such as Hamamatsu. In Hamamatsu there are hotels where you could spend as little as 4,800 single occupancy or 6,800 yen double occupancy, complete with your own bed, bathroom and shower – then just move on the following morning to Kyoto and Osaka. (The quote is from the Toyoko Inn, a national chain of business hotels)

– RESEARCH!

The best way to save on your trip is with research. I’ve presented you with a few options, but these just scratch the surface. There are so many deals out there that one can take advantage of in Japan. The key is to price what you want to do (transit, food, lodging), and do price comparisons to see what is best for you.

Of course, if you ever need advice about your next trip to Japan, leave a message and I’ll be happy to reply when I can.