Rapidly becoming one of the most popular routes among visitors to Japan, a Tokyo to Osaka trip offers the chance to see the country from two quite different perspectives. The gritty, unreserved, business-savvy gourmand cousin of Tokyo, Osaka is a fun prefecture to explore, as well as a gateway to Kyoto, Nara and the rest of the Kansai region. While Osaka can be reached in just 2-3 hours if you take the Tokaido Shinkansen direct from Tokyo, there is an alternative, slightly cheaper way of getting between the two points; one that sees you meandering by rail along Japan’s “golden route”, using the Hokuriku Arch Pass.

Train-shaped benches at Unazuki Onsen
Photo by Carey Finn

What exactly is this Hokuriku Arch Pass you speak of?

The Hokuriku Arch Pass is a regional rail pass that allows unlimited travel, for seven consecutive days, on certain Japan Rail (JR) and private train lines between Tokyo and Osaka, including the super-cool Hokuriku Shinkansen (bullet train) between Tokyo and Kanazawa, the Thunderbird Limited Express between Kanazawa and Osaka, as well as the Tokyo Monorail and also Narita Express airport line (in Chiba/Tokyo), the Haruka Express airport line (in Kansai), and several other train lines.

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Japan Rail Pass
The JR Pass is a 1 week pass that allows unlimited travel on Japan Rail lines throughout the country. This ticket is extraordinarily good value for long distance and inter-city travel. *Restrictions: Can only be purchased by temporary visitor visa holders not already in Japan. ...

Priced at ¥24,500, the pass allows easy exploration of both Tokyo and Osaka, as well as a number of awesome, under-visited places along the unofficial arch that runs up from Tokyo to the Sea of Japan and down to Osaka.

JR Pass exchange order
You’ll need to take this envelope to a JR station ticket office for conversion to the actual pass. | Photo by Carey Finn

Note: The Hokuriku Arch Pass is one of many different regional rail passes that are available as alternatives to the main Japan Rail Pass—that’s the one with national coverage. The regional passes are mostly a little cheaper than the nationwide pass. All of these rail passes are aimed at short-term visitors to Japan, and come with the same restrictions, i.e. you’ll need a tourist visa of no more than 90 days in your passport. You can order a rail pass online before you arrive (cheaper, recommended), or buy one at certain JR stations after touching down (pricier, not recommended). If you want to read up on the various rail passes, see our guide to selecting the best one for your trip.

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?

All the places! Well, maybe not all the places, but many. The Hokuriku Arch Pass allows you to tootle around both Tokyo and Osaka, as well as out to Kyoto, Kobe and Nara, using JR train lines. In addition, you have access to all of the stops on the Hokuriku Shinkansen route, which includes the mountain resort town of Karuizawa, Nagano and its ski slopes, Joetsumyoko and Itoigawa in Niigata Prefecture, and Toyama. There’s also the hot spring destination of Wakuraonsen, a little way off the Shinkansen line.

Where the Hokuriku Shinkansen ends, the Thunderbird Limited Express line begins, opening up access to Kyoto’s leading rival Kanazawa, Fukui and more. You can find a sample itinerary, tried and tested by yours truly, below.

Pro tip: You can see the full coverage area on the Hokuriku Arch Pass order page—just scroll down to see the detaild route map.

Osaka green bear
Osaka! Osaka! Random green bear! | Photo by Carey Finn

Where can I buy a Hokuriku Arch Pass?

The easiest way to get your mitts on a Hokuriku Arch Pass is by ordering one online and having it delivered to your home or hotel. You’ll be sent an exchange order, which you simply take to the “midori no madoguchi” 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, but this will cost you ¥1,000 more. If you’re booking through a travel agent, you should be able to order the pass through them, too.

Hokuriku Shinkansen
Photo by Carey Finn

Sample slow route: 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 one of these Hokuriku Arch Pass things, here’s an overview of my random ramblings along the golden route from Tokyo to Osaka and back in April this year. I left booking my accommodation a little late (and by little, I mean a week before the trip), with the result that I could only go as far as Itoigawa the first day, and then had to trek all the way from there to Osaka the next—a journey that took upwards of four hours.

After spending two nights in Osaka, I was able to backtrack to Tokyo, stopping off in Kanazawa, taking a day trip out to Kurobe Gorge in Toyama, and spending a night in Karuizawa along the way. The order of the locations below is perhaps more logical than the shape my last-minute trip took.

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Wild Bird Forest in Karuizawa
Wild birds be here. | Photo by Carey Finn

Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture

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).

Beware flying squirrels sign in Karuizawa
Watch out for those giant flying squirrels at night. | Photo by Carey Finn

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 first prize is renting a car, and your next best bet is using a combination of buses (which are easy to navigate, in English) and rental bicycles.

Hoshino Onsen sign
Photo by Carey Finn

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.

Pond in Hoshino Onsen, Karuizawa
Photo by Carey Finn

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: 65-80 minutes on the Hokuriku Shinkansen
Cost without a rail pass: ¥5,910 one way

itoigawa statue
Photo by Carey Finn

Itoigawa, Niigata Prefecture

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.

Itoigawa seaside
Photo by Carey Finn

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.

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

You can go and actually see the Itoigawa-Shizuoka Tectonic Line with your amazed little eyeballs: 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 Faultline
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.

Fossa Magna Sign
Photo by Carey Finn

To access Fossa Magna, you take a train 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.

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

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.

Cherry blossom in Itoigawa
Photo by Carey Finn

On the road back to the station, you’ll pass the Watanabe Sake Brewery building (look out for it on signs around Fossa Magna):

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

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 fields
The sake is made from rice grown right across the road. | 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 2-3 nights in Itoigawa, and, 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: 60-70 minutes on the Hokuriku Shinkansen
Cost without a rail pass: ¥6,780 one way

Oyama Shrine Kanazawa
Oyama Shrine, Kanazawa. | Photo by Carey Finn

Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture

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.

Kanazawa backstreet
Photo by Carey Finn

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. When it comes to food, Kanazawa may be a contender for Osaka’s title of the nation’s kitchen—this place is where you go to fill out a little lot.

Kanazawa seafood meal
Photo by Carey Finn

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 Jinja Shrine, the Kanazawa Castle area, the Omicho Market, all the museums and … just do it all, actually.

Kenrokuen Garden Kanazawa
Photo by Carey Finn

Gold leaf everything is Kanazawa’s thing, you’ll find, but in addition to scoffing a gold-encrusted soft serve, keep an eye out for this salt soda:

Salt cider in Kanazawa
Photo by Carey Finn

It’s not difficult to find affordable accommodation in Kanazawa, but if you are looking around, consider booking into a joint called Vacational Rental Sunny Heights. It’s about 20 minutes from Kanazawa Station by bus, but those run regularly, and it’s just down the drag from Kenrokuen 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 sorts.

Oyama Shrine Kanazawa gold frogs on leaf sculpture
Oyama Shrine again. It’s full of cool things to look at! | Photo by Carey Finn

Time from Itoigawa: 50 minutes on the Hokuriku Shinkansen
Cost without a rail pass: ¥5,380 one way

Empty Kurobe Gorge Railway Carriage
Photo by Carey Finn

Kurobe Gorge, Toyama Prefecture

If you feel like taking a day trip from Kanazawa, I cannot recommend this one enough. I would use all caps, but I think our editors might object—instead, let me throw some adjectives at you: profoundly beautiful rail experience.

Kurobe Gorge Railway train crossing bridge
Photo by Carey Finn

Kurobe Gorge is a V-shaped gorge (the number one in this category in Japan, apparently) 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 happily also takes tourists into the mountains.

Kurobe Dam
Photo by Carey Finn

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, with a full round-trip costing just under ¥4,000 for an adult. Pro tip: Don’t bother with upgrades.

View over Kurobe Gorge from Kurobe Gorge Railway
Photo by Carey Finn

To get to the starting point of the Kurobe Gorge Railway, you need to take a train from Shin-Kurobe Station, which is just across the road from Kurobe-Unazukionsen Station (that one is where you get off the Hokuriku Shinkansen). A round-trip is ¥1,100 and you’re looking at 25-30 minutes to Unazukionsen Station.

train ticket to Unazuki Onsen
Photo by Carey Finn

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 Unazukionsen 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 Unazukionsen 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

You can walk across a pedestrian bridge to watch the train trundle along, and walk through a not-at-all-scary tunnel to see Kurobe Dam itself.

Tunnel leading to Kurobe Dam
Photo by Carey Finn

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

Time from Kanazawa: 75 minutes to Unazukionsen Station, where the Kurobe Gorge Railway begins (the Hokuriku Arch Pass covers you only part of the way)
Cost without a rail pass: ¥4,650 one way

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

Osaka Prefecture

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: 2.5-3 hours on the Thunderbird Limited Express
Cost without a rail pass: ¥7,650 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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