The Ultimate Guide To Travelling Japan By Rail
Make the most of the bullet train, the best way to see regional Japan.
Go on a journey of endless discovery in Japan.
Japan is a magical place. From the once-in-a-lifetime indulgence of an onsen, to the sensory overload that happens over dinner at a robot restaurant, no two experiences are the same. It’d be easy to spend an entire trip exploring the food scene in Osaka or shopping in Tokyo but to do that would be to miss out on everything else The Land of the Rising Sun has to offer. The best way to see the rest of Japan? By shinkansen, or bullet train.
The Japanese train system is arguably the best in the world. The shinkansen was launched in 1964 to coincide with the Tokyo Olympics. Since then, they have become even faster and more convenient. Spend too long browsing the selection of ‘ekiben’ – the delightful and delicious bento boxes available at most train stations – and there’s a 99% chance you’ll miss your train. That is the efficiency of the system. (You’ll come to love it.)
If you’re going to explore everything Japan has to offer, you’re going to need a Japan Rail (JR) Pass. The easiest and most cost-effective way to get one is to order an exchange order online or in-store at a travel agent before leaving home (though previously not available in Japan, you can now pick one up at selected locations but you’ll pay more). When you purchase an exchange order, you will receive a voucher to exchange at the JR office – found in airports or major JR train stations – for your actual pass. You can reserve a seat for free, too — a good idea if you’re travelling during holiday season or peak hours,
Now that you’ve got the train travel sorted, it’s just a matter of deciding where to go.
In the north-east corner of Honshu, Japan’s main island, you’ll find the Tohoku region. Reaching the largest city – Sendai, which is famous for its samurai history – takes one-and-a-half hours from Tokyo by shinkansen.
There’s plenty of culture and history to explore, but make time for a boat cruise around Matsushima Bay. The archipelago of around 260 tiny, tree-covered islands makes up one of the country’s most picturesque vistas. If you’re up for a party, explore Kokubuncho, Sendai’s central nightlife hub, and plan excursions to both the Nikka Whisky distillery and Kirin Beer Brewery.
Outside Sendai, the northernmost provinces of Akita and Aomori are home to many beautiful onsen ryokans, so be sure to get your traditional hot spring bath house experience on.
After an exhilarating visit to one of Japan’s major cities, there’s no better place to unwind and rejuvenate than the Setouchi region, accessible via rail from Osaka.
Basing yourself in the city of Setouchi, or nearby Okayama, will grant you the easiest access to much of what’s on offer in this absurdly pretty part of Japan.
Think: hiking Setonaikai National Park, exploring Shodoshima Island’s rice fields and nature parks, and snapping your humblebrag moment – namely, Yayoi Kusama’s “Pumpkin” sculpture – during a day trip to Naoshima Island. Of course, if you’d rather recline on a hotel balcony and take in pristine views of the sea and its assorted islands, no one could blame you.
Covering the mid-west coast of Honshu, take the two-and-a-half-hour train from Tokyo to Kanazawa and head directly to Hakuichi for soft-serve ice-cream wrapped in a whole sheet of real gold leaf. Yes, you read that right. Once you’ve ticked the bougie box, slip on your walking shoes and hit the streets. Kanazawa is home to the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kenrokuen Garden and the immaculately preserved Higashi Chaya District, filled with teahouses and boutique shops.
Take the hour-long train ride to Sabae Station in Fukui and spend the day in Nishiyama Park. It’s postcard-perfect year round but is especially beautiful in spring, when cherry blossoms and azaleas are in full bloom. Stop in at the Nishiyama Zoo and say hi to the red pandas while you’re there.
It will take two-and-a-half hours by shinkansen from Osaka to reach the transport hub of Hakata (Fukuoka), in the southernmost island of Japan, Kyushu. More if you’re heading beyond, toward places like Nagasaki and Kumamoto. But go the distance and you won’t regret it.
Beppu is the place to go for an onsen; it’s home to more than 2,200 hot springs. For a particularly kitschy experience, head to the Hells of Beppu, where steaming pools have themes like “blood pond hell” and “monster mountain hell” (though FYI these pools are for looking at, not soaking in). If you’ve got nothing but time – plus a sense of adventure – take a ferry or a short flight from Kagoshima to Yakushima, a densely-forested island which inspired Miyazaki’s 1997 film Princess Mononoke. Camp for a few days and enjoy the serenity.
Japan may not be the first place you think of for beach holidays, but between August and November, surfers should head to Miyazaki Prefecture for the swell. Lazing on Aoshima Beach makes for a fun time too.
Japan is a must-visit land of endless discovery. Find out more here.
(Lead image: Yayoi Kusama, ‘Yellow Pumpkin’, Naoshima Island/Jean-Marie Hullot)