Tokyo and Kansai (home to Osaka, Kyoto, etc) are two destinations on many a Japan itinerary (for good reason!).

You can zip between the two on the Tokaidō Shinkansen in a few hours. Or you can take a slower, meandering route via Nagano, Kanazawa, and the Japan Sea coast — using the Hokuriku Arch Pass. Read on to learn more about what you can do with the Hokuriku Arch Pass, including a sample itinerary.

What is the Hokuriku Arch Pass?

The Hokuriku Arch Pass is a joint rail pass from JR East and JR West. It covers unlimited rail travel — like the classic, country-wide Japan Rail Pass — but only on select rail lines. Fortunately, those select rail lines chart a pretty good route, one that takes you to both major destinations and less-visited, but super interesting ones. And you still get to ride the Shinkansen!

Hokuriku Arch Pass at a glance:

Validity period Eligibility Price Booking link
7 consecutive days Foreign passport holders on a temporary visa ¥30,000 Reserve online

*Passes for children 6–11 are half-price

Note: Previously the Hokuriku Arch Pass has two different prices — one for passes purchased in Japan and a cheaper price for passes purchased outside of Japan. Now, there is just one price, regardless of where you buy the pass.

Hokuriku is the name for a region of Honshū (Japan’s main island) on the Japan Sea Coast, comprising the prefectures of Fukui, Ishikawa, Toyama, and (sometimes) Niigata. The region is known for traditional culture, dramatic winters, and top tier seafood.

What is included in the Hokuriku Arch Pass?

Hokuriku Shinkansen route.

The Hokuriku Arch Pass gives you unlimited travel on the following trains:

These are all the trains you need to travel between Tokyo and Kansai via Kanazawa and between the major cities in Kansai, plus get to or from the airport at either end.

What is NOT included in the Hokuriku Arch Pass?

As with all rail passes, it’s just as important to know what is not covered by the pass. Of special note, the following is not included in the Hokuriku Arch Pass:

  • Travel on the Tōkaidō Shinkansen — the most direct route between Tokyo and Osaka/Kyoto. The only rail pass to cover the Tōkaidō Shinkansen is the classic, national Japan Rail Pass.
  • Municipal transport other than on JR lines. The pass does not cover rides on the subway in Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, or Kōbe (none of the JR passes do).
  • Buses. This rail pass does not cover travel on any buses — JR, local or otherwise.
  • Travel on the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route. While the Hokuriku Arch Pass covers travel to Toyama and Nagano — the two convenient access points for the route on the Hokuriku Shinkansen — it does not cover travel along the actual route.

Note: The Hokuriku Arch Pass is one of many (many!) regional rail passes that are available as alternatives to the classic Japan Rail Pass — the one that covers travel around the whole country. The regional rail passes are cheaper than the national pass, so the Cheapo trick here is to see if you can save a little money with a regional pass.

JR Hokuriku Arch Pass
You’ll need to show this at the staffed ticket gate every time you enter or exit a station. | Photo by Carey Finn

Where can I go with the Hokuriku Arch Pass?

Cherry blossom Higashiyama teahouse old house street Kanazawa Japan
Kanazawa is one of Japan’s prettiest cities. | Photo by iStock.com/TkKurikawa

A lot of really great places! There’s Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, and Kobe, plus some places you might not be as familiar with. Some stops worth considering include:

  • Karuizawa — a mountain resort with cafes, shopping, and hot springs
  • Nagano — mountain vistas, Zenkōji Temple, and soba noodles
  • Itoigawa — a coastal city in Niigata prefecture with fascinating geology
  • Kurobe Gorge — stunning alpine scenary in Toyama prefeccture, reached via the Kurobe Gorge Railway (extra cost)
  • Kanazawa — famous garden Kenrokuen, art museums, a historic geisha district, and traditional crafts
  • Noto Peninsula — terraced rice fields, salt farms, and a famous morning market
  • Kaga Onsen — hot springs at the foot of Mt Hakusan
  • Fukui — landmark Zen temple Eiheiji, plus the dinosaur museum

Scroll down to the bottom of this article for a sample itinerary, tried and tested by yours truly.

Toyama Prefecture's Kurobe Gorge Railway and the trolley train that crosses the Yamahiko Bridge and the autumn leaves
The Kurobe Gorge Railway in Toyama Prefecture. | Photo by iStock.com/Yasunori Nakajo

Where can I buy a Hokuriku Arch Pass?

The easiest way to get a Hokuriku Arch Pass is by ordering one online. Then an an exchange order will be delivered straight to your home or hotel. Simply the exchange order take to the ticket office or travel center at any major JR train station and exchange for the pass itself.

When you do the exchange, you can indicate the date on which you’d like the pass to be activated. It can be the same day, or a future date. Once it’s activated, though, the clock starts running and your seven days are on!

You can also buy a Hokuriku Arch Pass after you arrive in Japan, at major JR stations. If you’re booking through a travel agent, you should be able to order the pass through them, too.

Important! Only foreign passport holders entering Japan on a temporary (e.g. “tourist”) visa are eligible for the Hokuriku Arch Pass.

Is the Hokuriku Arch Pass worth it?

If you travel to the full extent of the pass, you will save money (compared to the cost of buying individual tickets).

Usually, the cost of traveling from Tokyo to Tsuruga Station on the Hokuriku Shinkansen is ¥16,560. And the cost of traveling from Kanazawa to Kyoto on the JR limited express Thunderbird is ¥3,620. So that’s a total cost of ¥20,180 one way between Tokyo and Kyoto.

So if you’re planning a round trip between Tokyo and Kyoto, you’ll definitely see savings. But, if you’re only traveling in one direction, the value of the pass depends on the number of excursions and stops you make along the way. For example, if you travel from Tokyo to Kyoto, stopping off at Karuizawa, Nagano, Itoigawa, Kanazawa, and Fukui along the way, the total cost for all of those Shinkansen rides comes to over ¥30,000.

We’ve made some handy fare charts for you to consult. You might also want to make use of our nifty Shinkansen fare calculator.

Sample Hokuriku Shinkansen fares (reserved seats):

Departure point Destination Fare Travel time
Tokyo Karuizawa ¥6,220 65 min
Tokyo Nagano ¥8,540 80 min
Tokyo Itoigawa ¥11,400 2 hrs 10 min
Tokyo Kanazawa ¥14,580 2 hrs 50 min
Tokyo Fukui ¥16,010 30 min

Note that the fastest train on the Hokuriku Shinkansen, Kagayaki, does not stop at Karuizawa or Itoigawa.

Sample limited express Thunderbird fares:

Departure point Destination Fare Travel time
Tsuruga Kyoto ¥3,620 90 minutes
Tsuruga Osaka ¥4,900 2 hrs
Rice paddy in the summer.
Terraced rice fields on the Noto peninsula. | Photo by iStock.com/noritama777

The Hokuriku Arch Pass vs the Japan Rail Pass

Before commiting to the Hokuriku Arch Pass, perhaps you’d like to know how it compares to other rail passes? The classic, nation-wide rail pass costs ¥50,000 for 7 days of unlimited travel on all JR lines around the country. This means you can ride the Tōkaidō Shinkansen between Tokyo and Kansai, as well as all the trains covered by the Hokuriku Arch Pass (and then some). But it is quite a jump in price.

There are also some other regional passes to consider. For example, the 5-day Nagano & Niigata Area Pass from JR East (¥27,000) covers travel on the Hokuriku Shinkansen (as far as Jōetsu Myōkō Station) as well as trains that can take you on some worthwhile excursions from Tokyo. And the 7-day Kansai–Hokuriku Area Pass from JR West (¥19,000) covers the route between Kansai and Kanazawa, travel onwards to Kinosaki Onsen, the Hokuriku Shinkansen between Kanazawa and Jōetsu Myōkō Station, and also Kansai area trains. You could even consider stacking the passes, but that would only allow for travel in one direction.

Hokuriku Shinkansen
Our friend, the Hokuriku Shinkansen. | Photo by Carey Finn

A sample journey with the Hokuriku Arch Pass

Jade, tectonic plates, gorge-ous little trains, gold leaf, gardens, and a wild bird sanctuary

To give you an idea of where you can go and what you can do with the Hokuriku Arch Pass, here’s some notes from my travels with the pass (from back in April 2019).

Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture

Summer Karuizawa Shiraito Falls
Pretty Shiraito Falls in Karuizawa. | Photo by iStock.com/Norimoto

A favorite summer getaway for Tokyoites, Karuizawa is worth a visit if you’re interested in hot springs, overpriced artisanal lunches, high-end shopping, and cool mountain forests — including ones stuffed full of wild birds (and giant flying squirrels that may or may not swoop around after dark).

I spent just one night there, at the really reasonable Hotel Grandvert Kyukaruizawa, which is warm, spacious, and about three minutes’ walk from Karuizawa Station. Karuizawa is pretty spread out, so you might consider renting a car; your next best bet is using a combination of buses (which are easy to navigate, in English) and rental bicycles.

I took a bus from the station to Hoshino Onsen, a popular little spot about 25 minutes away. It’s all trees, wooden walkways, craft coffees and curries, with a hot spring, interesting bits of history and architecture (stone churches and whatnot), and the aforementioned wild bird forest, which also features the flying squirrels. Both types of critters can be seen on a guided walk, which, to my knowledge, can be booked on the spot.

There is also a forest pond (called Kera Ike) that freezes into an ice skating rink in winter, and a neat little coffee shop on the water’s edge. I would aim to spend at least two nights in Karuizawa to give yourself enough time to explore the region, including Hoshino Onsen and the town itself, and pack comfortable walking shoes! There’s loads to explore.

Read more about Karuizawa.

Time from Tokyo to Karuizawa: 65 minutes on the Hokuriku Shinkansen
Cost without a rail pass: ¥6,220 one way

Itoigawa, Niigata Prefecture

Fossa Magna Geopark Sign
Bringing new meaning to the east side/west side debate. | Photo by Carey Finn

A place that really isn’t all that well known, even among Japanese travelers, Itoigawa is a lovely little city right on the Sea of Japan. Its beaches are said to hide bits of jade (hisui in Japanese), small reminders of the jadeite trade that once flourished in the area. That was several thousand years back. We recommend asking a local resident to talk you through Itoigawa’s fascinating history.

Another thing Itoigawa is known for is a fault line. Specifically, the one that splits Japan into west and east (giving a whole new meaning to that decades-old, finger-contorting feud). Itoigawa is basically one giant geopark, with Fossa Magna, the big ol’ crack, one of the key features.

You can go and actually see the Itoigawa-Shizuoka Tectonic Line with your own eyes: a small section has been exposed for this purpose. So you can stand with one foot on the Eurasian continental plate and one on the North American plate. Like that thing people do in Berlin, except with more intense stretching.

Fossa Magna Sign
Best You Are Here sign ever. | Photo by Carey Finn

The rock on the east side of the fault line is apparently a youthful 16 million years old, while the rock on the west side is a more mature 400 million years old.

To access Fossa Magna, you take a train on the JR Oito line from Itoigawa to Nechi Station (it’s about 10–15 minutes), and then walk about 10–15 minutes into the geopark, following the signs to Fossa Magna.

It’s a nice stroll, and you can continue on the path to see a pillow lava rock formation, as well as a neat little garden near the parking lot on the other end. You’ll see the start to a hiking course called the Salt Trail, which we’ll come back to sometime.

Fun fact: You can visit Itoigawa’s sister geopark in Hong Kong.

On the road back to the station, you’ll pass the Watanabe Sake Brewery (look out for it on signs around Fossa Magna). This is a local sake brewery that uses rice grown right across the road, and water from the west side of the fault line (the eastern water is apparently too hard to drink).

Sake brewery near Fossa Magna
Stop off here for crisp, clean local sake. | Photo by Carey Finn

A couple of things to note: trains are irregular (think a couple of hours in between each one), and the best way to get around Itoigawa is actually by car. There are heaps of hot springs hidden in the mountains, which driving opens up. Also, the area, including Fossa Magna, is not exactly replete with vending machines and convenience stores, so come prepared. Finally, be sure to check out the diorama inside Itoigawa Station — a must for train fans.

Diorama with trains at Itoigawa Station
Spot Totoro. | Photo by Carey Finn

I’d suggest spending two to three nights in Itoigawa. If it’s available for your dates, would highly recommend booking a room at Live Cafe Hisui no Umi. It’s a chance to experience a huge, traditional room in a Japanese house, with a host who goes out of her way to ensure you have a good stay. And it’s cheap!

Time from Karuizawa to Itoigawa: 70 minutes on the Hokuriku Shinkansen
Cost without a rail pass: ¥7,110 one way

Kurobe Gorge, Toyama Prefecture

Kurobe Gorge Railway train crossing bridge
Kuroba Gorge Railway. | Photo by Carey Finn

If you feel like taking a day trip from Itoigawa, I cannot recommend this one enough. It is a profoundly beautiful rail experience.

Kurobe Gorge is a V-shaped gorge that you can experience from a tiny, open-sided orange train called the Kurobe Torokko Densha. The train was originally intended to (and still does, in fact) serve the Kurobe Hydropower Plant Dam and surrounds. But, it also happily takes tourists into the mountains.

How far you can go depends on the time of year: when I visited in late April, it was still running the winter route, meaning I was restricted to an 80-minute round trip, with a five-minute break in the middle. In the warmer months, you can travel much further on the line and explore trails, hot springs and stuff like that. The fare depends on the route. Don’t bother with upgrades.

train ticket to Unazuki Onsen
Train ticket to Unazuki Onsen. | Photo by Carey Finn

To get to the starting point of the Kurobe Gorge Railway, you need to first hop on the Hokuriku Shinkansen for Kurobe-Unazukionsen Station (15 minutes). Then walk across the road to Shin-Kurobe Station and pick up a Toyama Chihō Railway Main Line train for Unazukionsen Station. This ride, which takes 25–30 minutes, is not covered by the Hokuriku Arch Pass, so you’ll have to pay the ¥1,280 round-trip fare.

When you arrive at the station, you’ll see signs directing you to the ticket office of the Kurobe Gorge Railway — it’s about 200 meters away. Look out for a hot spring fountain downstairs (the steam is a surprise), and take some time to explore Unazuki Onsen itself, too.

Hot spring fountain outside Unazuki Onsen Station
Photo by Carey Finn

There are vegan burgers to be had (pop into the glass-blowing studio across from Unazuki Onsen Station for these), peppery black sodas, free foot baths, and a waffle from a place called Cafe Selene that I swear is an exact replica of the gorge itself.

kurobe gorge waffle
Virtually indistinguishable from the gorge | Photo by Carey Finn

Kurobe Gorge may honestly be the best day trip I have ever done — go see why, for yourself.

Time from Itoigawa: 5 minutes to Unazukionsen Station, where the Kurobe Gorge Railway begins
Cost without a rail pass: ¥6,560 round-trip fare between Itoigawa and Kurobe-Unazukionsen

Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture

Kanazawa backstreet
Photo by Carey Finn

Everyone raves about Kyoto, but, while it certainly is historical and charming and all that, it’s also terribly crowded and kind of … not always the best place to visit in Japan. Kanazawa, a couple of hours away in Ishikawa Prefecture, offers all of the awesomeness of Kyoto, minus the hordes and horrifying prices.

It’s a truly delightful place: friendly, full of English (and therefore easy to navigate) and places to charge your phone, with gardens, museums, samurai and geisha districts, and some of the freshest seafood in Japan.

We’ve covered most of the things to do in Kanazawa, so I won’t rehash them here, except to suggest you check out Kenrokuen Garden, Oyama Shrine, the Kanazawa Castle area, the Omicho Market, all the museums and … just do it all, actually.

Oyama Shrine Kanazawa gold frogs on leaf sculpture
Oyama Shrine is full of cool things to look at! | Photo by Carey Finn

It’s not difficult to find affordable accommodation in Kanazawa, but if you are looking around, consider booking Vacational Rental Sunny Heights. It’s about 20 minutes from Kanazawa Station by bus (which run regularly) and it’s just down the raod from Kenrokuen Garden and the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art. I found it to be spacious for the price, and it comes with an equipped kitchen, which is handy for self-catering.

Time from Itoigawa: 50 minutes on the Hokuriku Shinkansen
Cost without a rail pass: ¥5,680 one way

Osaka Prefecture

tokyo to osaka dotombori
The famous Dōtonbori area. | Photo by iStock.com/javarman3

You’ll find heaps to do in Osaka — most of which will involve delicious food of some sort. I’ve rambled on for long enough, so allow me to refer you to our dedicated Osaka area guide, as well as our Osaka accommodation guide to plot out where to go and where to stay. If you’re keen on some screams at Universal Studios Japan, you’ll probably want to take a quick look at our money-saving guide to Osaka’s most popular theme park, too.

Time from Kanazawa: 2 hours 40 minutes
Cost without a rail pass: ¥9,610 one way

Wherever you end up roaming on the Hokuriku Arch Pass or another type of JR pass, before you set out, you might find a few other resources useful too. These include what to expect on the Shinkansen, as well as how to sort yourself out with a prepaid SIM card or wifi router.

While we do our best to ensure it’s correct, information is subject to change. All prices and times are intended as estimates only.

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