Exploring Japan by rail is an unforgettable experience. The
scenery is beautiful, the technical attractions, bridges, and
tunnels are amazing, and people are kind. Trains are fast,
clean, and punctual. Travelling is not just simply fun, Japan
is heaven on earth for a railfan.
There are many discounted tickets for ‘rail and walk’
tourists, combining tickets to ‘get there’ and to ‘get around’.
But there are two rail passes that are available nationwide
and they are essential for people who want to see the
whole country: the Seishun18kippu (juhachi-kippu) and
the Japan Rail Pass. Both were introduced decades ago to
boost domestic tourism, which they do very well. Without
these tickets I would not have made as many domestic
sightseeing trips as I did. And I know many others who have done the same.
The 18kippu is a very reasonably priced (¥11,500)
railway coupon that is only sold for use during school
holidays: from mid-December to mid-January, from March
to mid-April, and from mid-July to mid-September. Although
designed for students, anyone can buy it. The ticket allows
unlimited travel on the network of railway operators in the JR
group of companies for 5 (not necessarily consecutive) days
and/or 5 persons. However, it is only valid on slower (local
and rapid) trains. So it cannot be used on shinkansen, and
limited-express trains. It has some related tickets too, like
the Hokkaido and Higashinihon Pass designed for exploring
Hokkaido using similar rules to the 18kippu, but allowing
travel on an express night train through the Seikan Tunnel,
but not on other limited expresses.
Conversely, the Japan Rail Pass offers almost complete
freedom. Holders can use almost all trains on lines of
operators in the JR group for 1, 2, or 3 weeks at prices of
¥28,300, ¥45,100, or ¥57,700 yen, respectively. There are
special prices for first class (Green Car) and for kids, and
most of the JR companies issue regional versions valid for
their area with similar but slightly different rules. However,
there is one strict rule for all Japan Rail Passes—they are
only for tourists with tourist visas (and a few others in very
Having lived in Japan for 7 years, I used to be a
permanent resident, and was ineligible for a Japan Rail
Pass. So I used the 18kippu instead, which took more time,
but I did not mind it at all. As a student, I was rich in time
but short of money, so the 18kippu was perfect. I am a fan
of rural railways where few express trains run, so I did not
mind that my ticket was not valid for express service. To get
to the most distant rural rail lines required long trips by local
trains. But I have to confess that once when travelling for
20 hours straight on local trains, I dreamed about the day,
when I could return to Japan as a ‘temporary visitor’ and
would be eligible for The Pass. I promised myself that if I
ever had the chance I would use it all day and all night to
enjoy the luxury of Japanese express trains. It took 3 years
to get back to Japan to make my dream come true, but it finally happened!
But first, a few words about my many, long 18kippu trips.
As a beginner, I made 1-day round trips near Tokyo and
Osaka. Near Tokyo, visiting the Boso peninsula with some
swimming in the sea, making a trip around Mt Fuji, or visiting
the cute railway museum in Yokokawa after hiking down
from Karuizawa through the Usui Pass, were all interesting
journeys. The Ikawa–Oigawa Line can be reached in a day,
and is a must for any railfan. Even riding the famous Tadami Line from Niigata to Fukushima Prefecture is a perfect 1-day trip, and if one takes the first train, there is the chance for
a short stopover at Doai Station in the middle of a 15-km
tunnel, with 400 steps to climb to see the sunshine or winter
snow country. When using 18kippu, it is essential to wake
up very early to catch the first train and to return by the last
train, so one can travel even 1000 km in a day.
As an intermediate 18kippu user, after I had travelled
all the lines that could be reached within 1 day, I took theMoonlight rapid trains. These trains depart a few minutes
before midnight and passengers wake up 500 km away next
morning. These are rapid trains, so the 18kippu is valid but
seat reservations are compulsory. Reservations are available
30 days before departure, but many are fully booked 20
minutes after the start of the reservation period, so I had to
plan trips carefully and queue at the midorino madoguchi reservation office on time to book a seat.
I mostly used the Moonlight Nagara from Tokyo to Ogaki
(a few stops after Nagoya) and back, and the Moonlight Echigo between Shinjuku and Niigata. These trains ran daily during my time in Japan, but from 2009 they became seasonal, designed basically for 18kippu users. (I feel sad about this cutback, because I rode the Moonlight Nagara many times on a basic ticket when the 18kippu was not available. I loved this train’s atmosphere, especially because it was uncrowded out of season.)
There are some other special moonlight services during
the busiest days of the 18kippu periods too. Most operate
with special rolling stock, so not only did these trains take
me far away, but I could also feast my eyes on them along
with many other fellow railfans.
Combining night trains and youth hostels helped me explore the very remotest areas of Japan. My favourite bases
were in Miyako, Akita, and Hiroshima. Finally, I visited every
prefecture, and rode on almost every line operated by a
JR company from Wakkanai in Hokkaido to Kagoshima in Kyushu. I made many side trips on private lines too.
So there was not much new left when I returned to Japan
on a business trip and could use a Japan Rail Pass up and
down the archipelago. I decided to return to my old haunts
and enjoy how close they are by express. 18kippu users
measure distance not in kilometers, but in hours or even
days. We know that Tokyo to Osaka takes 9 hours, and a
whole day to Fukuoka. However, the same journeys using
a Pass are only 3 and 6 hours, respectively. (They could be
as little as 2.5 and 5 hours on the Nozomi shinkansen, but
the Pass is not valid for this fastest shinkansen. The Pass
holders I met did not understand the point of this restriction, especially because all direct trains are Nozomi between Tokyo and Hiroshima—which is a very typical ride for tourists—so Pass holders must change between two Hikari trains in Osaka.)
When using the Pass, I experienced something similar
to what Japan enjoyed after the opening of the shinkansen.
Rides that used to take a day could be done in few hours.
Akita was a long one-night trip plus a whole morning with18kippu. However, by the Pass it took only one morning.
I knew that with 18kippu, I could take the 21:00 train from
Osaka and be in Tokyo by Moonlight Nagara at 05:00 next
morning. On the shinkansen I could sleep in my own bed
in Tokyo (or even in Tsukuba) that night, even if I was still in
Osaka at 21:00. The country became smaller, tourist spots
became closer, and everything became faster.
The trips have changed too since I upgraded to the Pass.
As a 18kippu user I had to take 5 or 6-minute stopovers to
let express trains pass my local train. I liked these breaks,
because I could take pictures of these speeding trains.
However, as a Pass user, I saw myself overtaking waiting
local trains and could not take any photos.
As an 18kippu user, I saw the fast shinkansen from the
more or less parallel old line, but as a Pass holder, I saw
local trains running on conventional lines being overtaken,
and it brought back good memories of local trains and rural
I remember the many high school students in the local
trains, some of them sitting on the floor in their uniform,
boys and girls always separately. I remember the sleeping
university students around me, who were either on a school
excursion, or returning home to their families (or boyfriend
or girlfriend) during the school break, taking this cheapest
way of travelling instead of flying or riding the shinkansen.
I remember my fellow railfans, too, who also wanted to
do the ‘kanjo’, or travel on all lines in Japan. They were
professional 18kippu users, with mp3 players attached to the train window, expensive cameras with huge lenses, and reading the fat edition of the all-Japan timetable.
I remember how fast they ran when changing trains at Minakami to get the best seats for the scenic part of the old Joetsu Line. remember the cute and kind elderly ladies who rode only a few stations on local lines, from the middle of nowhere to the centre of nowhere. They wore many layers of clothes even during the hot summer. I remember the old guy who got on at Atami with a bottle of whisky in his hand that was finished by Shizuoka and who finally had to be pulled off the train at Hamamatsu. I remember the group of cute old ladies and gentlemen–all 18kippu users–in hats from Niigata who wanted to visit the shrines in Nara.
When I travelled by Japan Rail Pass on expresses, I
no longer saw my companions. I saw completely different
people, mostly businessmen, ‘salarymen’ in suits, rushing to
a meeting or back to their office. I saw wealthy old couples or
small groups of middle-aged ladies, dressed elegantly and
heading to an onsen hot spring. I saw Japan from another perspective.
I have to confess that I prefer travelling on rural lines. It
is more romantic, more hidden, more ‘mine’. The shinkansen
is a fantastic invention, but it is just mass transport, not like
rural lines, which are like family. The shinkansen is too fast
to enjoy rural Japan, the hills, the forests, the bridges, the
rice paddies, and the farmers working in them. So on the
last days of my Japan Rail Pass, I just travelled again on my
favourite rural lines from 5 and 10 years before. Not much
had changed; the cars and the atmosphere were the same.
However, there were fewer passengers than years ago–probably because it was not 18kippu season.
I hope that when I next get back to Japan, I will still
have a chance to see my friends, those cute, curvy rail lines among the mountains, and their passengers.