Super Cheap Japan: Top 5 Rail Passes for Budget Explorers

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With Japan increasingly popular with international tourists due to its excellent exchange rate and a great selection of low-cost carriers providing economic travel options, there has never been a better time to pick up a rail pass and head out to explore the archipelago. While travelers used to be limited to the main Japan Rail Pass and a few regional ones, there is now a large selection of passes offered by various train companies as they battle it out for foreign traveler’s budgets.

While researching my new book, Super Cheap Japan, I used these passes to find out the best and cheapest ways to get around the top destinations, as well as the flexibility they allow to visit some key, off-the-beaten-track spots.

1. Enjoy scenic train rides on a budget with the Kyushu Rail Pass

SL Hitoyoghi at Isshochi station.Photo by Tanuki

SL Hitoyoghi at Isshochi station.

Kyushu has some pretty amazing tourist trains, and they are certainly luxury experiences. From Fukuoka to Yufuin, the Yufuin no Mori (Forest of Yufuin) express train has elevated seating for a better view over the beautiful valleys plus a bar lounge car in which to chill out and watch it all go by. Those into Japanese animation or with kids will want to ride on the Aso Boy, a fun-filled train with a bath full of wooden balls for kids to play in and a Japanese-style room where you can settle in with some books. Old-school train enthusiasts will also be interested in the SL Hitoyoshi, a steam train running from Kumamoto into the central mountains. These kinds of experiences would surely be impossible for most visitors, but using a rail pass allows budget travelers to experience them.

The Kyushu Rail Pass, and the more limited northern- and southern-only varieties, are worth getting if you are just down in Kyushu and want to speed around the island. The three- to five-day passes start from just ¥7,000 and allow travel on most of the special trains. Great if you’ve been to Japan a few times already and want to try some new, novel experiences.

2. Get away from the crowds with the Shikoku Rail Pass

Shikoku Anpan Man train interiorPhoto by Matthew Baxter

Shikoku Anpan Man train interior

Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands, is rarely visited by foreign tourists. Here, you’ll go days without seeing any other foreigners and the lack of development compared to other prefectures creates what feels like a more authentic holiday experience. The local cuisine is of real interest. In the south, Kochi is famous for its Sanuki udon (wheat flour noodles with kelp-based soup) and its katsuo no tataki (skipjack tuna), while Tokushima, in the north, offers namesake ramen with thin noodles in a rich, pork and soy sauce-based broth.

The JR Shikoku Rail Pass offers unlimited travel in the prefecture, from a two-day pass at ¥7,400 to a five-day pass that costs ¥10,000. Alongside the train travel, it also comes with discounts on buses and ferries, as well a free ride on the Iyotetsu Takashimaya department store Ferris wheel near Matsuyama Castle.

3. Take the Shinkansen up to Hokkaido with the JR East-South Hokkaido Rail Pass

Tohoku local trainPhoto by Matthew Baxter

Tohoku local train

This new pass is quite a bargain. It allows the unlimited use of the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo in Honshu, all the way up to Hakodate in Hokkaido. You can also use limited express and local trains to Sapporo, as well as reach the best spots in Tohoku like Nikko, Yamagata and Karuizawa. Traveling around this region can get pricey, as bus networks are not as well connected and distances can be quite wide compared to other areas of Japan. You’ll definitely be covering lots of ground in these areas, so this pass is a good way to save.

You can use the pass for six days in a two-week period, so there is no need to feel like you’re in a rush. One minus of the seven-day Japan Rail Pass is that people may feel like they are rushing between cities, so this flexibility is a real plus. In the summer it would mean that you could go hiking in Tohoku and Izu Peninsula, while in the winter you could see the snow festival in Sapporo and do a spot of skiing in Niseko or Zao Onsen. Plus, you can take a train under the ocean along the impressive Seikan Zuidou, the 53.85-kilometer tunnel connecting Honshu and Hokkaido.

4. Explore the unknown with the Chugoku region

OkayamaPhoto by Matthew Baxter

Okayama

Like in any large city, residents of Osaka sometimes need to get out of the mass of concrete and skyscrapers and escape to the countryside. One of the areas that they can head off to is the Chugoku region, to the west of Kyoto and Osaka. The area is full of small, traditional towns and some great onsen (natural hot springs). It also has some rather unique spots, such as Japan’s largest sand dunes in Tottori and one of the country’s Top 3 shrines at Izumo.

The San’in-Okayama Area Pass is one I tried last year. At only ¥4,500 for four-days of unlimited travel, in a zone from Okayama in the south and up to Tottori and Matsue in the north, it truly is a super deal. I caught a highway bus from Tokyo, then started from Okayama before doing a circular course around Chugoku. A great way to escape the crowds.  

5. Seishun 18, for the real hardcore budget traveler

Local Train ChugokuPhoto by Matthew Baxter

Local Train Chigoku

Are you willing to travel across Japan using just the slow, local trains? Not bothered by taking several trains to reach Kyoto from Tokyo? This will be the pass for you. While this one is not so popular, it allows unlimited use of these JR trains for only ¥11,850 for five days, so it’s one of the cheapest. It’s also a nice way to travel with the locals, stopping off at random spots of interest and a nice chance to venture into non-touristy spots.

For budget travelers coming to Japan, check out my digital book Super Cheap Japan: Budget Travel in Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, Hiroshima and Surrounding Areas. It includes:

  • Budget food: eat for only a few dollars with comprehensive listings of low-cost restaurants, takeouts, supermarkets and more
  • Budget shopping: 100 yen ($1) shops, free sample hotspots, tax-free shopping, discount passes and coupons
  • Color maps for budget travelers, making it super easy to get around
  • Highlights and itineraries based on discount train or bus passes, so you can keep your wallet happy while still having an amazing holiday
  • Hidden treasures: walking and cycling routes to cut down on train fares, cheap side trips and free alternatives to crowded, overpriced spots
  • Cheap accommodation: the best and cheapest capsule hotels, net cafes, overnight spas, hostels, campsites and more

It’s the perfect companion for any budget traveler to Japan. Great for backpackers, budget travelers, families on a tight budget, students and those who are new to Japan. Get the most out of this amazing country, without burning a hole in your wallet! Supports Kindle, iBooks, Nook and most other readers and devices.

Do you have any fun experiences using a rail pass or useful tips to share? Let us know in the comments!

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​Matthew Baxter. Writer ​specializing in budget travel and author of "Super Cheap Japan."

Super Cheap Japan

The ultimate budget travel guide to Japan, full of up-to-date information for an economical holiday. Go shopping for $4 clothes in Tokyo, enjoy inexpensive hikes in Nikko or visit Kyoto's beautiful shrines and gardens on the cheap; all with this hand digital book.

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