How to Take the Lonely Plan-it Journey: The Ultimate Guide to Planning a Train Trip Around Japan

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Our series will take you through the steps of setting up an awesome trip using trains! John Walton, a railway lover, is here to share his tips on how to save money while exploring Japan with the train. If you’re into trains like him or not, taking a journey around Japan by rail can be loads of fun.

Japan has the widest range of trains you can find in the world. They have modern trains, old-fashioned ones, and even steam engines! You can take slow trips through rural areas or ride the amazing Shinkansen bullet trains that go really fast between the big cities.

If you are planning a trip to Japan, it is almost certain that you will be using trains. To have the best experience in the country, however, you need to plan carefully. Before you set off, ask yourself these questions: what trains do I need? Where should I go? How much time do I have? Do I need a Japan Rail Pass or not?

I’ve been visiting Japan for more than ten years now and one of my absolute favorite things to do there is travel by train – it’s so beautiful and interesting!

Do you want to take a trip on Japan’s railways? Here’s your guide on how to plan it out!

Create the Perfect Trip

Figure out how much time you have and which places you really want to visit, then figure out a route to reach those spots.

When planning a trip to Japan, how long you are staying and the season of your visit will determine what activities you can do. Spring and autumn are the best times to enjoy Japan as its weather is perfect, but avoid visiting during holidays such as Golden Week in May or Obon between June and August because it will be crowded, tickets hard to get and some attractions might be closed. If you want to experience activities popular with Japanese children, like amusement parks and anime/manga attractions, remember to plan around school holidays.

When deciding on a place for your trip, it’s all about what you like and what interests you. Maybe pick something with a theme, like Japan’s twelve old castles, temples, shrines and gardens that have been around for many years. Or you can go for the bright lights of the city, take a peaceful train ride through the mountains, or explore pop culture in Japan such as Pokémon, Studio Ghibli films or Evangelion.

By mapping out where you want to go, you can plan and build a route. Japan has bullet trains that travel quickly between big cities.

Exploring Japan

The airport you choose to fly from and arrive back at will affect which route you take.

Most people flying to Tokyo will fly into Haneda (HND) Airport if they can. It is close to the city center, which makes it more convenient. However, Narita (NRT) Airport is also available and it is connected to Tokyo Station directly by train. This can be a good option too if you want to quickly leave the capital and start your trip via rails.

There are lots of airports in Japan that you can choose to fly into. Osaka Kansai (KIX), Nagoya’s Chubu Centrair (NGO), Sapporo’s New Chitose (CTS) and Fukuoka (FUK) are some great options if you want to visit their respective cities. If you want to explore the sights using trains, it would be a great idea to plan an open-jaw journey – which means flying into one city, but leaving from another.

Most of the time, when you are going on a trip, you’ll start and finish in Tokyo. I suggest having some extra days at the beginning and end for planning activities to do in the city’s amazing attractions.

Explore Japan with Convenient Rail Passes and Discounted Tickets!

Calculating exactly how long your trips will take can help you save some money.

If you’re planning a trip to Japan and want to do more than just a return journey from Tokyo to Kyoto, then getting a Japan Rail Pass should definitely be worth it. There are three ticket options depending on how many days the pass should last – 7 days ($226 or $32 per day), 14 days ($360 or $26 per day) and 21 days ($460 or $22 per day). This is a great deal since one single, one-way train ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto normally costs over $100.

Regional passes can be a little confusing, so I usually only suggest them for people visiting Japan for longer stays or if they want to explore certain areas. For example, over on Kyūshū Island there are 3-day ($128), 5-day ($140) and 7-day ($151) passes available. Additionally, you can also buy passes that are just for northern Kyūshū, southern Kyūshū and the Fukuoka area.

If you’re going to travel in Japan, there are two great passes you can use from some of the biggest companies that offer railways. JR-East, in Northern Tokyo, has two different passes for 5 days – Tohoku Area Pass for $151 and a Nagano-Niigata Area Pass for $136. JR-West covers more of Central Honshū and includes 10 different area passes so you can save money on your travels!

Make the Most of Your Trip

It can be helpful to get a different ticket for each leg of the journey.

Rail passes can be expensive, especially if you intend to use them a lot. Usually these passes amount to one-third of the cost of an entire trip. However, even though I’m passionate about travelling by train – using super fast ones like Shinkansen or really cool ones like Limited Express or Joyful Train – I find that after a week of hopping from city to city it’s nice to stay in one place for a few days.

If I’m in Japan for two weeks, I like to spend a week with a Japan Rail Pass, then a few days in Tokyo, and again the same when I leave. If it’s three weeks, I might get two separate passes or keep one pass plus an extra ride back to Tokyo. Make sure to plan ahead so you can find the most beautiful routes!

“Train Adventures Await

On weekends, you can ride some really fun trains!

If you’re going on a train trip, the first thing to plan is your weekend activities. That’s when the Joyful Train Sightseeing Trains are running – in both JR-East and JR Kyūshū regions. These special trains take riders across amazing landscapes!

I definitely suggest taking a ride on the SL Gunma Yokokawa train, because it takes passengers from Takasaki to the Usui Tōge Railway Village in Yokokawa. Another great train I recommend is called Two Stars 4047, which travels along a gorgeous seaside route located in Nagasaki. Lastly, if you love stargazing, then High Rail 1375 might be right up your alley as it’s Japan’s highest railway line and offers nighttime stargazing trips.

Some of the Joyful Train routes are not working as usual because of storm damage. If you’re not used to Japanese trains yet, I suggest you buy your ticket from a JR Service Center or a ticket counter (the one with a green symbol on it, which is a person sitting and relaxing).

Train fanatics can plan their trips around certain railways where they can ride special trains, such as the vintage series 115 cars in Nagano Prefecture.

Explore the Best of Japan

If you are planning a trip, why not make it extra special by visiting some of the most popular attractions during the middle part of the week when there are fewer people around? This way, you’ll be able to have fun and enjoy your journey without all the crowds. For example, if you’re in Japan, a great idea would be to take a break and spend time at an ‘onsen’, where people can relax in hot baths.

If you pay midweek, you can get a special rate when you stay at a Japanese resort hotel, ryokan, minshuku or other overnight accommodation. A nice way to relax and take away stress in Japan is to spend two days soaking in the hot springs of mountains.

Weekdays are the best for taking trips on any of Japan’s train systems, like the Limited Express or local rural trains. You can see amazing sights from either one of these ride, such as Hida from Nagoya to Toyama through the Japanese Alps and Tsugaru from Aomori to Akita across a snowy plain. If you’re looking for some adventure in winter, this journey is a must-do!

I’m a fan of the Okhotsk/Taisetsu train from Sapporo or Asahikawa to Abashiri in Hokkaido, Japan. It’s a great way to experience the beauty of this remote island! I also really enjoy the Shiokaze train ride from Okayama to Matsuyama on Shikoku Island, crossing over an impressive bridge and traveling through some gorgeous countryside countryside.

Local trains in Japan, both from JR and private railway lines, are so interesting to ride. You might find yourself all alone in a small train carriage, surrounded by local schoolkids, grandmas, and people who are just going about their daily life.

The JR Hokkaido’s Senmo Line between Abashiri and Kushiro passes through the Japanese red-crowned cranes’ home, called the Kushiro marshlands. On the other hand, the Shinano Railway in Nagano Prefecture has some old and unique 115 series trains running on the old Shinetsu Main line.

The Yamada Line in Morioka has beautiful views of the sea, and there are cats as stationmaster at Kishi on the Wakayama Electric Railway near Osaka. Nagasaki area is also great for riding on local trains. You can find a bento box at any train station that you can eat during your journey!

Journey Ready

Whenever I’m at a train station, I make sure to buy Ekiben, which is a kind of local bento-box lunch. But in smaller rural stations, instead of Ekiben you can find stores selling noodles such as soba, ramen or udon – and I definitely won’t say no if there’s some to eat!

When you pack for the journey, make sure you have a few key items with you: a phone charger that works in the US (two pins), a power bank because not all trains have outlets and lastly, some kind of reusable bag to store snacks and drinks. It’s also important to use layers of clothing since most Japanese trains can be quite hot in cold weather and air conditioning generally isn’t as cool compared to other countries.

When taking the train in Japan, only take a medium sized bag with you. Try using a luggage delivery service like Kuroneko Yamato to send your suitcases between cities instead of carrying them around. This is especially important during peak times or on regular trains. Remember that, depending on the Shinkansen, you may need to book your baggage if it’s bigger than 160 cm (length x width x height).

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