Wondering whether this is clickbait? It’s not. Here, for realsies, we show you how to ride JR trains around (and around and around) Tokyo and neighboring prefectures for the sum total of 140 yen. Yes—you can do some seriously extensive sightseeing for the cost of a can of coffee. And, before you get all jittery, no, it’s not illegal. Known as 大回り乗車 (that’s oomawari jousha), this activity is popular among Japanese train fans, and Tokyo train staff are generally onboard with it as long as you respect a few simple rules.
How it works
The concept isn’t complicated. It doesn’t involve wheedling your way through the ticket gate, hurling yourself over said ticket gate, or selling a kidney (or any other organ, for that matter). You simply head over to a JR ticket vending machine in Tokyo, put in 140 yen, scoop up your ticket and you’re good to go. If you have an ICOCA, Suica or Pasmo card (see pic below), all you need to do is make sure you have at least 133 yen on it—cards get discounted rates. In this article, we focus on JR lines, but you can find a note on other train lines towards the end.
Note: 140 yen is usually the lowest-cost ticket available, but you might need to pay 160 or 170 yen depending on where you start and end. Some cheapos live in obscure places, yo. For information on dedicated, longer-distance JR rail passes, this guide is useful.
Once you have your card or ticket ready, the Kanto region is your oyster. You can travel on JR lines all day without buying another ticket; you just can’t exit at any of the stations you pass through (though you can get off and wander around a station itself), and you need to end your journey at a different station to your starting point. Just make sure that station is within the 140-yen range from your boarding point.
Why would I do this?
Uh, because it’s fun? The idea is that you get to enjoy scenery all over Tokyo, Chiba, Saitama and further afield, without paying more than the cost of traveling 500m-1km within Tokyo. You can snap pics through the train window without trekking around the countryside. You can also enjoy ekiben, special lunchboxes made to reflect the famous foods of a particular area (and only sold at stations in that area), as they are often found in little shops on the station-side of the ticket gates. There are inner-station eateries and convenience stores too, many of which can be found on the platforms.
Rules and restrictions
You can’t exit along the way
This is the most important rule to keep in mind. If you decide you want to leave a particular station and explore the surrounding sights, you’ll have to pay in before going through the gate. You can, however, change JR lines by going through intermediate gates (cards are preferable to tickets, here) in the station—as long as you don’t leave the station itself.
No commuter passes allowed
If you have a commuter pass, you’ll need to leave that at home and get a 140-yen ticket for your oomawari adventure.
Day trips only
Your ticket will be valid for one day only, so be sure to get to your end point before the last train stops running that night. The extended operating times of trains on New Year’s Day mean that you might be able to get more mileage out of your ticket; word is that one particularly hardcore rider clocked up 1035km in one go by being strategic like that.
Something about suburban areas only
It seems to be a bit of a grey area in practice, but JR, as far as we can gather, officially limit this oomawari thing to the suburban areas of big cities, whatever that means. This route map (in Japanese) shows you what you have access to on paper (travel further afield at your own risk). You’ll see Osaka, Fukuoka, Niigata and Sendai below the Tokyo map—so keep this minimum fare, maximum sightseeing idea in mind when you visit those areas.
You’ve made me nervous—what if I get stuck?
If the ticket gate, for reasons of time-out or who-knows-what beeps and blocks your exit at the end of your journey, just go to the station attendant and tell them that you’ve been doing oomawari jousha. You can say: “Oomawari jousha shite kimashita.” It’s a good idea to have your route jotted down or marked on a map, so that you can show them where you’ve been. To be safe, we recommend being super Japanese about it, and planning the route before you embark on your trip. The station attendant will probably smile and let you through, but if there is any hassle, just pay up the fare that he/she requests and go on your way without causing a kerfuffle. Then let us know about it in the comments, so we can caution future cheapo travelers!
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Two sample routes
To get you started, here are two fun routes you can try. They both get you out of the city to see some of the Kanto hinterlands. Start early, and expect to get back pretty late. Take express trains wherever possible. Remember, if you run out of time you’ll need to pay in!
Beginner level: Tokyo to Chiba
At Tokyo Station, get onto the Keiyo Line and nip up to Soga. You’re now in Chiba Prefecture! At this station, get off and transfer to the Uchibo Line for Awa-Kamogawa. When you get there, find the Sotobo Line and ride it to Ooami Station. From there, you’ll be taking the Togane Line to Naruto Station, and then the Sobu Main Line to Kinshicho. Then it’s a hop, skip and a jump on the Sobu Line Rapid to Akihabara, where maids, anime cars and more await.
Stepping it up a notch: Ikebukuro to Gunma (+2 prefectures)
At Ikebukuro Station, take the Saikyo Line to Akabane. There, transfer to the Takasaki Line and head up to Takasaki. Welcome to Gunma Prefecture! When you get there, you’ll be changing to the Ryoumou Line for Oyama. This will take you through Tochigi Prefecture, where you can expect some awesome scenery (think natural, rural vibes). At Oyama, change to the Mito Line and head to Tomobe (now you’re in Ibaraki Prefecture). From there, you’ll be taking the Joban Line to Ueno, and then the Yamanote Line to Otsuka (right next to Ikebukuro). 140 yen well spent.
* Hat tip to this article (in Japanese) for the route suggestions (and exit tips in case of stuckness).
What about other Tokyo train lines?
Oomawari jousha is a known, accepted thing on JR lines, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it on other train lines. The Japanese websites suggest checking in advance by asking a station attendant or something like that; we, er, officially suggest doing the same. Ahem. Disclaimer and all of that.
Note: If you’re more into looking at trains than riding them, this Tokyo trainspotting guide will be right up your alley.
Have you tried the 140-yen cheapo Tokyo train trip? Share your experience/route recommendation with us below.