Japanese Railways – Where To Start?

The JR system is huge, and it can be hard to know where or how to start your journey. This map and the journey planner at http://www.hyperdia.com/en are a good place to start.

When I first arrived in Japan, I just stood at Ueno station in Tokyo for a couple of hours. My mind was boggling at the extent of the rail network, and I was overwhelmed by choice. To help people in the same position, I have listed some of my most memorable journeys and places in Japan:

Tsugaru Limited Express

An E751 series EMU on a Tsugaru srevice at Akita station.

An E751 series EMU on a Tsugaru srevice at Akita station.

Tsugaru trains run cross country between Aomori and Akita 4 times daily using E751 and 485 series EMUs. The journey takes around 2 hours and 45 minutes and runs through beautiful wooded mountains and farmland, showing the sparsely populated north west corner of Honshu.

Tohoku Shinkansen

The double deck "Max" Shinkansen (E4) are used on lines running north of Tokyo.

The double deck “Max” Shinkansen (E4) are used on lines running north of Tokyo.

Take an E5 (Hayabusa or Hayate) Shinkansen from Tokyo to Shin-Aomori at speeds of up to 320 km/h. The 713 km journey to the top of Honshu takes just 3 hours and 20 minutes, including 8 intermediate stops, giving an amazing average speed of 210 km/h (including stops).

I also reccomend taking a ride on an E4 series (Max) Shinkansen (usually used on shorter distance services). Who doesn’t want to travel at 240 km/h on a double deck train which looks like an angry duck with shoulder pads!

Sunrise Express

A 285 Series EMU at Takamatsu after arriving on the overnight Sunrise Express.

A 285 Series EMU at Takamatsu after arriving on the overnight Sunrise Express.

The Sunrise Express is all sleeping class train, using double deck 285 series EMUs. It runs between Tokyo and Takamatsu (on Shikoku) and Izumo-shi (north of Okayama). Two 285 series sets leave Tokyo coupled together, and are split at Okayama to continue their journey. The reverse occurs on the northbound working.

A single sleeping berth on a 285 Series EMU

A single sleeping berth on a 285 Series EMU

Sleeping class ranges from private cabins to floor space in a communal sleeping car. If you have a JR pass, there is a sleeping car surcharge, which varies depending on the class of travel. A basic private cabin from Tokyo to Takamatsu will attract a surcharge of ¥9450 (around A$105) for a JR pass holder.

The journey is smooth and comfortable. Showers are available (for a fee), but make sure you have dinner before you get on board. There is no dining car, and the vending machines only sell drinks (I found that out the hard way).

The Great Seto Bridge

The view from the Great Seto Bridge, out across the inland sea

The view from the Great Seto Bridge, out across the inland sea

The Great Seto Bridge links the islands of Honshu and Shikoku. The “Great Seto Bridge” is actually a string of 11 consecutive double deck bridges and viaducts, with a combined length of 13 km. The top deck of the bridges is a highway, with a two track railway on the lower deck. From the bridge, there are beautiful views of the Seto inland sea.

The double deck "green car" on a Marine Liner service at Takamatsu.

The double deck “green car” on a Marine Liner service at Takamatsu.

To cross the bridge, the best service to catch is a Marine Liner service between Okayama and Takamatsu. Additionally, the Tokyo – Takamatsu Sunrise Express Seto crosses the bridge at about 6:30am; in the summer, this is a daylight crossing.

Shikoku

The pointy end of a JR Shikoku 8000 series EMU.  Oddly, these trains have a flat cab at the other end.

The pointy end of a JR Shikoku 8000 series EMU. Oddly, these trains have a flat cab at the other end.

The island of Shikoku is located between the Pacific Ocean and The Inland sea, and seems to have developed a railway ecosystem all of its own. From the Takamatsu Electric Railroad, to the 8000 series EMU (streamlined at one end but flat cab at the other), it’s well worth allocating a couple of days to explore the island and its trains.

Hiroshima’s trams and local trains

One of the many varieties of tram in Hiroshima.

One of the many varieties of tram in Hiroshima.

Hiroshima is a beautiful city, made infamous by it’s role in the conlusion of World War II. It has an interesting tram network, with modern trams mixing with pre WWII trams on its modest network. It also has some older EMUs providing a local train service. It’s well worth spending a day exploring the local trams and trains, then paying your respects at the A-Bomb dome; unforgettable by night.

Miyajima

One of Miyajima's many wild deer rests near the Torii gate

One of Miyajima’s many wild deer rests near the Torii gate

The island of Itsukushima (AKA Miyajima) is in Hiroshima Bay and well worth a trip to see the beautiful Shinto temple and Torii gate. Local trains on the Sanyo line depart regularly from Hiroshima to Miyajimaguchi station. There is also a tram service from Hirsohima station to Miyajimaguchi (route 2), but that takes much longer than the train. From Miyajimaguchi, there is a frequent ferry service to the island (if you have a JR pass which covers the region, you also get free travel on the JR ferry).

White Sonic

A White Sonic 885 series EMU at Hakata

A White Sonic 885 series EMU at Hakata

The White Sonic (885 Series EMU) runs between Oita, Kokura and Hakata on the island of Kyushu. The White Sonic looks like a mini bullet train, racing along at speeds of up to 130 km/h on narrow gauge track. The “green car” is the first car of the train and has leather seating, parquetry floor and a large window at the front of the front of the car, so you can see through to the driver’s cab.

Japan – Top to Bottom

With Japan’s excellent and fast rail network, it is possible to travel from the far north (Asahikawa on Hokkaido) to the far south (Kagoshima-Chūō on Kyushu) in one day. Whilst these are not the absolute furthst points on the JR network, it’s still an amazing trip. I haven’t actually done the whole trip myself, but it’s on my “to do” list.

The journey is 2790 km, and takes 17 hours and 40 minutes with 5 train changes; this gives an amazing average speed of over 155 km/h, including stopping time and connections! The portion of the journey from Tokyo to Shin-Osaka would not be covered by the JR pass as it is a Nozomi service. A sample itinerary is as follows:

  • Ltd Express Super Kamui 2: dep Asahikawa 05:20, arr Sapporo 06:43
  • Ltd Express Super Hokuto 2: dep Sapporo 07:00, arr Goryokaku 10:06
  • Ltd Express Super Hakucho 26: dep Goryokaku 10:21, arr Shin-Aomori 12:19
  • Shinkansen Hayate 24: dep Shin-Aomori 12:30, arr Tokyo 16:08
  • Shinkansen Nozomi 239: dep Tokyo 16:20, arr Shin-Osaka 18:53
  • Shinkansen Sakura 575: dep Shin-Osaka 18:59, arr Kagoshima-Chūō 23:00

It is also possible to make a continuous journey (no connection longer than 60 minutes) from the northernmost JR station (Wakkanai) to the southernmost JR station (Ibusuki). The journey is 3115 km, takes 28 hours and 20 minutes with 6 train changes, giving a respectable average speed of 110 km/h (including stopping time and connections). The entire journey is covered by a JR pass, however a surcharge would be required to upgrade to sleeping class on the Hamanasu train:

  • Ltd Express Super Soya 4: dep Wakkani 16:51, arr Sapporo 21:50
  • Hamanasu Express: dep Sapporo 22:00, arr Aomori 05:39
  • Ou Line: dep Aomori 06:24, arr Shin-Aomori 06:30
  • Shinkansen Hayate 22: dep Shin-Aomori 06:46, arr Tokyo 10:36
  • Shinkansen Hikari 469: dep Tokyo 11:03, arr Okayama 15:23
  • Shinkansen Sakura 575: dep Okayama 16:13, arr Kagoshima-Chūō 19:42
  •  Ibusuki Makurazaki Line: dep Kagoshima-Chūō 19:59, arr Ibusuki 21:14

These journeys make up a small part of what Japan has to offer, but give a good starting point if, like me, you’re overwhelmed by choice.

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3 responses to “Japanese Railways – Where To Start?

  1. Pingback: Shinkansen - Japan Travel Blog·

  2. Pingback: How To Save Money On A Trip To Japan | Travel Trailer Blog·

  3. Pingback: The adventure of taking a ferry from Aomori to Hokkaido | Discover Japan·

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