In this series, we take you step by step through how we plan some of our most complicated travel adventures, so you can recreate them yourself with ease. Here, Japanese-railway enthusiast John Walton shares advice on how to stretch your yen as far as possible on a train trip through Japan.
Whether you’re a train fanatic (like me) or not, exploring Japan by rail is a pleasure.
In sheer variety of rail experiences, Japan leads the way. The country’s network has ultramodern trains, vintage trains, steam trains and every kind of train in between, from routes that take you on slow-travel rural journeys to the fastest Shinkansen bullet trains rocketing between the country’s biggest cities.
It’s likely that anyone traveling to Japan will end up on a train at some point. Yet if you want to create a thorough train itinerary to see the best of the country, some advanced planning is necessary. Where to start? Which trains to take? Where to go? How much time to spend? Japan Rail Pass or not?
I’ve spent more than a decade visiting Japan, often multiple times a year, and traveling by train across this beautiful and fascinating country is one of my favorite things to do in the world.
Here’s how to build your own Japan rail trip.
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Step 1: Define your must-do list
Figure out how much time you have and which destinations are on your must-visit list, and build a route from there.
As with any trip, what you can do will be determined by how much time you have, as well as the time of year. Japan is at its most delightful in spring and autumn, with summers very hot and humid anywhere south of Hokkaidō. I’d recommend avoiding the national holiday periods like Golden Week in early May and Obon in the summertime, when tickets and accommodation are scarce and many attractions close down. If you want to do a lot of things that appeal to Japanese kids (amusement parks, anime or manga attractions, and so on), try to visit outside school holidays.
Picking the “where” of your trip is entirely up to you and your interests. I usually recommend to friends that they think about a theme. Japan’s 12 remaining original historic castles, say, or temples, shrines and Zen gardens. You might focus on dazzling big-city life, quiet rural trains that wind their way through the mountains or a specific bit of especially charming Japanese popular culture (like Pokémon, Studio Ghibli or Evangelion).
Plotting out your stops on a map will help you with route-building.
Shinkansen bullet trains whisk across Japan, connecting major cities © Sakarin Sawasdinaka/500px
Step 2: Figure out where you want to start and finish
Where you fly in and out of may influence your route.
For most international travelers, the easiest option will be flying into Tokyo. Most of the time that means Haneda Airport (HND), which is closer to the city center, though many airlines still use Narita Airport (NRT), about an hour east of the city. Haneda is usually better, although given that Narita is connected directly to Tokyo Station (and several others) by train, it’s a good option if you want to get out of the capital and on the rails straight away.
Other major international airports like Osaka Kansai (KIX), Nagoya’s Chubu Centrair (NGO), Sapporo’s New Chitose (CTS) and Fukuoka (FUK) are also great options if you’re heading to their respective regions. An open-jaw itinerary – where you start in one city and leave from another – is a great way to maximize your time in Japan and particularly suited to those who want to slow down and explore by train.
Still, chances are you’ll be starting and ending your trip in Tokyo. I usually try to build a few days at the beginning and end of my trips here to plan and do a few of the many amazing things that the capital has to offer.
Step 3: Find the right pass for your journey
Figuring out your precise travel times could save you money.
Most travelers to Japan who want to do more than a simple return from Tokyo to Kyoto will get great value out of the national Japan Rail Pass, specifically designed for travelers. There are three versions of the national pass, which you can use over consecutive days: the seven-day pass costs $226 ($32 per day), the 14-day pass $360 ($26 per day) and the 21-day pass $460 ($22 per day). When you consider that a one-way Shinkansen ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto is more than $100, these passes are a no-brainer for anything beyond a simple round-trip train ticket.
Regional passes are another option, but these can get complicated. I usually recommend them only for people on longer trips or who want to cover specific areas of Japan:
- On the westernmost island Kyūshū, JR offers passes in three- ($128), five- ($140) and seven-day ($151) versions. There are even finer distinctions available, with additional sets of passes devoted to northern Kyūshū, southern Kyūshū and the Fukuoka area.
- JR-East to the north of Tokyo offers the five-day Tohoku Area Pass for $151 and the five-day Nagano-Niigata Area Pass for $136.
- JR-West, covering the main island of Honshū west of Kyoto, offers a staggering and frankly confusing range of 10 passes for specific areas.
Numerous rail-pass options offer a great way to stretch your budget on your trip to Japan © tmpr / Shutterstock
Step 4: Choose how much train time versus non-train time you want
Separate passes for different legs can make things easier.
Though the value of a rail pass increases the more you use it, it will still constitute a big chunk of your travel budget. (I usually estimate that the pass will be about one-third of the cost of my entire trip.) Even as an avid rail fan whose idea of a great time includes whizzing around the country on a Shinkansen at 200 miles (320km) per hour, relaxing on a fancy Limited Express, enjoying the cultural experience of a Joyful Train trip or trundling through the countryside on tiny rural trains, I tend not to want to do more than one week of rail travel at a time without setting down in one place for a few days.
As a rule, if I’m spending two weeks in Japan, I’ll bracket a seven-day Japan Rail Pass between a few days in Tokyo on either side. If I’m spending three weeks, I might buy two separate seven-day passes, with some time relaxing in a cultural city like Kyoto, Nara or Kanazawa in the middle, or even stick with one rail pass plus a one-way return trip to Tokyo.
Plan ahead to find the most scenic routes © Getty Images/iStockphoto
Step 5: Plan your weekend travel early
Some of the most delightful trains run on weekends.
The first part of any rail trip to plan is the weekends, because that’s when the Joyful Train cultural excursion trains are running. Both the JR-East and JR Kyūshū regions have lots of Joyful Trains, which are made for sightseeing and will cover some incredible terrain.
I highly recommend JR-East’s SL (for “steam locomotive”) Gunma Yokokawa, which chugs from Takasaki to the Usui Tōge Railway Village at Yokokawa. JR Kyūshū’s new Two Stars 4047 in the Nagasaki area follows the beautiful seaside route of the old main line. I also love JR-East’s High Rail 1375, which travels along Japan’s highest railway line and also offers a nighttime stargazing trip.
As you plan, keep in mind that some Joyful Train routes have been diverted or suspended because of damage from storms (but not the three above).
Since automated ticket machines work best for those with some experience with Japanese trains, I’d book your trip at any JR Service Center or ticket counter (the midori no madoguchi, with a green symbol of a person relaxing on a seat).
Rail enthusiasts can plan their travel around certain lines’ train stock, just as the delightful vintage series 115 cars in Nagano Prefecture © TimeDepot.Twn / Shutterstock
Step 6: Plan the scenic trips and other highlights during the week
Hit popular attractions in the quieter mid-week period.
Once you’ve planned your weekend trip(s), think about how else you want to fill in your journey in between your starting point, weekend Joyful Trains and your endpoint. With fewer tourists, weekdays are a great time to visit popular attractions.
Plan to make a stop at an onsen in Japan © Getty Images
You’ll also find reduced midweek rates at traditional Japanese resort hotels, ryokan, minshuku and other accommodations. Soaking all the walking you’ll do out of your legs for a couple of days in a mountain hot-spring onsenis a wonderfully Japanese way to relax.
Weekdays are made for longer train trips into Japan’s beautiful countryside, including on the long-distance Limited Express trains (slower than the Shinkansen, yet faster than local trains) or the wonderfully charming rural local trains that crisscross Japan’s countryside.
Many have beautiful views; some of my favorites are JR Central’s Hida from Nagoya to Toyama through the Japanese Alps, and JR East’s Tsugaru from Aomori to Akita across the Tsugaru plain – a snowy must-do in winter.
I also love JR Hokkaido’s Okhotsk/Taisetsu from Sapporo/Asahikawa to Abashiri, which offers a peek into this remote island, and JR Shikoku’s Shiokaze from Okayama to Matsuyama, across the incredible Great Seto Bridge and beautiful countryside.
Local trains, too – whether operated by JR or by private railway lines – are beautiful, often trundling through areas of Japan without any other kind of rail service. Chances are you’ll be the only non-local in a small railcar where the other passengers are schoolchildren, grandmothers and folks going about their daily business.
JR Hokkaido’s Senmo Line between Abashiri and Kushiro runs through the Kushiro marshlands, where Japanese red-crowned cranes make their home. The Shinano Railway in Nagano Prefecture uses delightful vintage 115 series trains along the old Shinetsu Main Line.
JR East’s Yamada Line from Morioka to Miyako is a springing-off point for the gorgeous Sanriku Coast, while the Wakayama Electric Railway south of Osaka is famed for its stationmaster cats at Kishi. And you can’t go wrong on almost any local line in Kyūshū, particularly in the area around Nagasaki.
Grab a bento box at just about any train station for a delicious lunch on the go © Alamy Stock Photo
If I could do it all again…
I’d eat more ekiben, the local specialty bento-box lunches available at many stations and made to bring on board. Tiny rural stations may instead have a soba, ramen or udon noodle store or something similar in the waiting room – I’d definitely eat more of that, too.
Bring a few essential things with you: a two-pin US-style fast phone charger, a power bank (as not all trains have power points) and a reusable shopping bag for snacks and drinks. Definitely use the layers strategy when you pack, since Japanese trains run much warmer than many other countries’ in cool weather, and the air conditioning may not be as frosty as you’d expect elsewhere.
Take nothing bigger than a medium carry-on on the train, and use Japan’s excellent luggage delivery services like Kuroneko Yamato to deliver your suitcases between cities rather than toting them with you. This is especially important in peak hours or on non-express trains. Note that on some Shinkansen, you must make a baggage reservation if your luggage is more than 160 linear cm (length x width x height).