Seeing Japan from the slow train – part 1: planning

My work schedule was shifted around a few days ago and, thanks to a Japanese national holiday, I suddenly found myself with 4 consecutive days off. To someone with an ever- watchful travel bug, there was no question of simply hanging around in Tokyo for 4 days, and in the back of my head I had plenty of ideas of what I wanted to do with them. My first choice was to take advantage of already being in Asia and take a direct and relatively short flight to Beijing, Hong Kong, or Taipei, but the short notice left me with astronomical airfares, even for domestic destinations (Sapporo was my next choice). With air travel out of the question thoughts quickly turned to where to go by train.

The obvious answer to this situation is a bullet train to Kyoto, particularly as that very train stops at my local station. In this case, however, I opted for the “why simple when it can be complicated” model and started adding a few constraints. To start with I have some visitors coming in a few weeks and we are planning on going to Kyoto, and while I am certain that I could go many times and see something new each time, it didn’t seem like the best way to use this opportunity. Also, bullet train fares are expensive, but there are several options to reduce the cost. Since I am here on a work visa I am ineligible for the best reduced cost option (the Japan Rail Pass – only available to people here on short-term tourist visas), but there are some options for discounts through various travel agencies. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to find anything overly helpful down that route on a last-minute booking, so I started digging a little more and found the “Seishun 18” pass that I was eligible for and provided 5 flexible days of travel on all JR local trains in Japan.

When I was living in Germany in the mid 1990’s, a similar pass was rolled out there called the “Schones Wochenende” ticket that allowed unlimited use of the local trains during the weekends. I had made use of it several times, and with a large dose of nostalgia kicking in I decided it was time to see Japan from the slow train. I checked a couple of randomly chosen locations to see if it was possible to get there on local trains only, and when in both cases the answer was yes I set off to buy the pass.

Whatever was to follow, I couldn’t say that I had not been warned. That was the thought in my mind as I left the JR ticket off with my pass in hand. My request for the pass clearly didn’t compute to the very helpful ticket agent; why would anyone, particularly a non-Japanese person, not take the fastest route possible? It was not a case of her trying to sell me a more expensive ticket, simply that the system here is that if you are going from A to B you take the fastest available train. Her role in the discussion was to help me make the best choice; we just had different opinions of what best was. She went out of her way to paint horror stories of long, slow journeys in crowded cars with hard seats and getting off at a station with no hotel only to find out that the next local train didn’t come until the next day…. But I insisted and, having thoroughly warned me of the foolish path I was headed down, she sold me the pass.

I really didn’t have a destination in mind when I bought the pass and was planning on letting the route determine itself with stops based on what looked interesting along the way, as I had done several times in Germany, but based on the ticket agent’s comments I did opt to buy a timetable that had local trains listed in it and check hotel availability before I left.

With the pass in hand and my bag packed for a 2-3 night tour, I finally sat down the night before departure with a map of Japan, some useful websites (Hyperdia for train connections and Japanican for accommodations), and a Lonely Planet Japan guidebook to sort out a route that was heavy on scenery, hit some of my interests, had a place to spend the night, and left some room for improvisation.

By the time I went to bed I had an intended route with hotel bookings that took me from my home station of Shinagawa across the snowy mountains to the Sea of Japan at Kashiwazaki, then up into the Japan Alps to Takayama before turning back toward Shinagawa with options to stop off along the way on the Takayama – Shinagawa leg if anything looked particularly interesting. Per Hyperdia it came out to be 1078 km, 12 transfers, and 22 hours and 35 minutes of travel time, using 3 of the 5 travel days on the pass if I elected not to stop off on the return. The regular fare would have been 18,070 Yen vs 11,500 for the Seishun 18 pass, and I would still have 1 or 2 days left on the pass that would be valid until 10. April.

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3 Responses to Seeing Japan from the slow train – part 1: planning

  1. Jar Of Salt says:

    Did you get to go around Kyoto? Such a breathtaking destination 🙂

  2. Jar Of Salt says:

    So lucky. Just in time for the sakura season — enjoy!

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