The Shinkansen, Japan’s high-speed bullet train, is not just a mode of transportation but also an experience in itself. Some tourists consider it a cool symbol of Japan’s top-notch technology, and want to board it for experience’s sake. However, the Shinkansen doesn’t come cheap, so people on a budget tend to forgo it for more practical options. Still, there are ways to experience the Shinkansen slightly more cheaply, and here are some options and tips.
If you’re just after the experience:
Maybe you’re a train aficionado. Or maybe you just really, really want to ride the Shinkansen so badly but you don’t have enough money to fork over for a ride to someplace significantly beyond Tokyo. If you just want to say, “I got to ride the Shinkansen!” even if it’s just for a few minutes (and yes, some people have actually done that!), you can board the Shinkansen from Ueno or Tokyo (Tokyo’s Shinkansen hubs) and get off a few stations later. Getting off at Saitama Prefecture’s Omiya (which also isn’t all that far from Tokyo) is feasible, too.
Frankly speaking, we think this isn’t really practical, as you can just go from Ueno to Tokyo (and vice-versa) for less than 200 yen, whereas you have to pay 1,020 yen (for an unreserved seat—it’s about 2,720 yen for a reserved seat) for a 5-minute Shinkansen ride (about 20 minutes if you’re getting off at Omiya), but it’s technically the cheapest way to experience the Shinkansen. While price is not too expensive (relative to the cost of a typical Shinkansen ride, at least), the major downside is that you don’t get to experience the Shinkansen fully. The Shinkansen is not yet at its fullest speed then, after all. But hey, at least you get to see the inside of the Shinkansen, and you can marvel at the cleanliness and spaciousness. If you’re lucky, you might even see a station attendant pushing a cart full of snacks and souvenirs, and maybe even catch a few regional specialties.
Pick less expensive destinations.
Forget about going from Tokyo to, say, Kyoto or Hiroshima via Shinkansen and just focus on closer destinations that are less costly to get to. This is still sort of related to the previous point about taking the Shinkansen for the experience, except it’s less extreme than just being on the Shinkansen for 5-10 minutes. You could get to these destinations for much less, just by using regular JR trains or a limited express (or maybe even a bus), after all. Nevertheless, you won’t have to spend an insane amount of money if you take the Shinkansen to get to these places. Some examples of places you can visit from Tokyo via Shinkansen for less than 10,000 yen one-way are Takasaki in Gunma Prefecture, Nagano (which is a popular winter destination), Karuizawa in Nagano Prefecture (a popular summer getaway, which you can read about here), Odawara in Kanagawa Prefecture (a small town with a beautiful castle), Utsunomiya in Tochigi Prefecture (which is known for its gyoza), and Atami in Shizuoka Prefecture (a hot springs town). Hyperdia is your friend when it comes to looking up how to get from one destination to another, and for how much!
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Japan Rail Pass, Discount Vouchers and Puratto Kodama Economy Plan
If you’re a tourist and you really insist on long-distance travel via the Shinkansen, you really should get a Japan Rail Pass. Take note that this is only sold in travel agencies outside Japan! It allows for unlimited travel on all JR trains (except for the Nozomi and Mizuho Shinkansen, the two fastest among the Shinkansen) for a fixed price for a certain length of time, the cheapest being 29,110 yen for a week. While you can’t use it for the fastest Shinkansen, you can use it to board the Hikari, which only takes slightly longer than Nozomi and Mizuho.
If not a resident of Japan i.e. on a tourist visa (or accompanying someone from overseas) you can purchase a special discount ticket for a round trip to Kyoto on JTB’s JAPANiCAN site for 22,600yen. Unlike the Puratto pass below, this one includes the super fast Nozomi so is probably the best value option after the JR rail pass.
Also, the Puratto Kodama Economy Plan allows travel via the Kodama Shinkansen—the slowest Shinkansen—from Tokyo to Kyoto for 10,100 – 12,900 yen one-way. The price varies per season, and the plan can only be purchased from JR Tokai Tours at least a day in advance.
JR has its own travel agency, Byuu, which offers, aside from the usual package tours that last for a few days, some day trips and overnight packages that include a Shinkansen ride—and, for overnight trips, a stay at a ryokan or hotel. These tours can go for as low as 11,000 yen, inclusive of the ride, accommodation, and meals! Sounds too good to be true, right? But it isn’t! Our fellow writer, Grigoris, wrote about his experience availing of a Byuu package on our sister site, Japan Cheapo. If that doesn’t get you interested in trying it for yourself, we don’t know what will!
And finally here’s some more ideas for Tokyo -> Kyoto travel.
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