I am in the midst of planning my Japan vacation this November where I will be heading to Hokkaido with my lovely girlfriend. Unlike other destinations in Japan, Hokkaido is all the way to the North-Eastern end of Japan and given the distance from Tokyo (where I will be arriving), I had a slight dilemma on how to get around Japan and to Hokkaido. Having gone through the hoops (on your behalf) , I will be sharing my experience with Japan Rail for your benefit. I hope this guide will help with your booking process and streamline it for you.
For those who have read my post on planning an itinerary (if not, you might want to have a look at it as I summarised a few points on how to plan itineraries and also my review of Visit a City which offers its visitors free itinerary templates that can be customised), I did something similar with this upcoming trip. I know I will be arriving in Tokyo and leaving via Tokyo. I have approximately 8 full days in Japan. Looking at google map, I can either go northwards towards Hokkaido from Tokyo overland or fly into some airport in Hokkaido.
I researched and found out that it is possible to get to the southern tip of Hokkaido via bullet train (Shinkansen). However, the bullet train tracks end at a certain station after which the train networks in Hokkaido revert back to normal train tracks. A helpful site I found confirmed the route and also the basic details such as price and travelling time.
According to that site, the average travelling time from Tokyo to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto is approximately 4 hours. The average travelling time from Tokyo to Sapporo is approximately 7.5 hours. Yes! The time spent travelling the last bit from Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto to Sapporo takes almost as long as the journey from Tokyo:
Flying from Tokyo to Chitose Airport will take about 1.5 hours by plane and another hour by car to get from the Airport to Sapporo.
This made the decision easier for me.
In terms of logistics, it did not make sense for me to head directly to Sapporo from Tokyo or Sapporo back to Tokyo by train as it will take up almost an entire day. I can either take the bullet train to Hakodate via Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto and make my way towards Sapporo and fly back to Tokyo (or the inverse). Of course, if you had complete freedom in terms of booking, one option is to fly out of Sapporo back to your home country. However, as I was paying using miles, I am confined to travelling via Tokyo this time.
I decided to take the train route first with the hope that it will slowly immerse us into Japan and let us have a look at the Japanese countryside. This sounds more enjoyable than rushing off to board the next plane to Chitose just having got out of one.
The Shinkansen tickets are expensive. Very expensive. Unlike the train networks in Europe, it is not apparent that there are earlier bird discounts to these tickets. My checks indicated that it will cost me 23,010 yen a single way from Tokyo to Hakodate:
Japan Rail Pass – Substantial Savings or Discounts
However, substantial savings can be had if you are a non-Japanese tourist (I believe this also applies in some cases to Japanese who are not residents in Japan, please check)
Japan Rail offers certain passes for foreigners. The most comprehensive pass is the Nationwide JR Pass which is good if:
“you want to travel the whole of Japan
you are traveling for 7, 14 or 21 days
you need nationwide shinkansen bullet train travel
you want to use all non-bullet JR trains” (Taken from the JR website)
The passes are priced based on the length of the pass and are best for travellers who intend to use the train network frequently. So for my case, the National JR pass costs 29,110 yen (just slightly more than the 23,010 yen price tag above) but will allow me to travel by train from Hakodate to Noboribetsu (worth 6,890 yen) and then on to Sapporo (worth 4,480) and then a day trip to Otaru (worth 1,280 yen return) (TOTAL VALUE: 35,860 yen – A 6,000+ yen or SGD 74 or USD 54 savings!).
If you intend to just travel from point A to B and no more, you may want to consider just buying a single way ticket instead.
I thought of just ordering two passes for myself and my girlfriend. But I decided to check in on the forum managed by JR to not only check on the feasibility of my itinerary but also whether the pass is worth while for me.
Lo and behold, helpful forumers pointed out that there is a cheaper pass available. Moral of the story – Be sure to drop by the forum to see if there are existing posts for your intended itinerary or to seek advice from the forumers.
Apparently, there are more than just one JR Pass. There are different passes specifically for different regions of Japan. This makes sense if you are not travelling the whole of Japan. So for mine, I should instead be getting the JR East-South Hokkaido Rail Pass for 6 days at 26,000 yen instead of the National Japan Rail Pass for 7 days at 29,110 yen (Cost savings of another 3,000 yen or SGD 37 or 27 USD per pax!).
You can find the regional passes here.
If you click the link, you will be directed to a page with the different regions. Each region may have sub-links for specific passes (e.g. my JR East-South Hokkaido Rail Pass is filed away under the “Pass East”):
Regarding the train schedules, I discovered that you can get a sense of the schedules from http://www.hyperdia.com/en/ . This site was recommended by JR and allows you to key in both your intended starting point and your destination to check on the train schedules.
Normally, when searching using hyperdia for JR Pass applicable trains, you have to:
Fill up the boxes ‘from’ (departure station) and ‘to’ (destination station)
Click on the icon ‘More Options’ to change the parameters of the search:
Uncheck the boxes ‘NOZOMI’, ‘Airplane’ and ‘Airport Shuttle Bus’:
This will help filter out non JR Pass trains.
However, if you are travelling from Tokyo to Shin-Aomori or Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto (Hokkaido) with the Japan Rail Pass, you must check the NOZOMI/MIZUHO/HAYABUSA box (as you can use the Hayabusa train).
Note: Please remember to do this if you are headed for Hokkaido or else you will be like me trying to figure out why it would take almost 24 hours to get to Hakodate by train.
While it may have seem complex to me when I started researching into this (there is no one site you can refer to that has all the answers), it is actually quite doable on your own.
If you found the above information helpful, please support by following this blog by clinking the link below and share this post with your friends. Cheers!