Trains Are Not the Only Vehicles – Alternatives to the Japan Rail Pass

Selena Hoy

If you’re planning to travel around Japan, the rail pass is the go-to recommendation, and indeed it can be a really good deal. But there are other ways to get around, and some may be cheaper, more convenient, or just fit your trip and lifestyle better. We’ve covered the Seishun 18 Ticket and rental cars in detail, but here are a few more alternatives to shelling out for a rail pass.

highway-bus - Japan rail pass alternatives
Photo by tsuda used under CC

Highway Bus

Highway buses are an economical way to travel around the country, and they have their own advantages. Travelers have a guaranteed seat, don’t have to worry about changing trains, and those who can sleep well on buses can even save on hotels costs when using night buses. Plus, you can discover the joys of Japanese service areas, which can range from uninspired to fabulous, with excellent food, local produce, and shopping opportunities. There are several companies that offer highway bus services, but if you’re after some kind of pass, Willer Express has a five-day pass deal. For ¥15,000, you get five non-consecutive travel days that can be used any time within a two-month period on their more than 20 routes. Overnight trips count for only one day. Japan Bus Online also has a Tohoku regional pass, which provides free travel for either 4 or 7 consecutive days in Tohoku for ¥10,000 or ¥13,000. If you’re in Tokyo, you’ll need to make your way to Fukushima or further north first before you can use it.

Japan rail pass alternatives
Photo by selena used under CC

Train Discount Vouchers

Sometimes you want to ride the shinkansen but you just don’t need a whole week’s pass. Perhaps you only plan on going one place, or you want to stay longer than the rail pass allows. There are a lot of package deals that can be booked with travel agents or travel sites, many of which require Japanese skills. JAPANiCAN, which has sites in English, Thai, Chinese, and Korean, has some great package deals for hotel and train or even just train alone. The hotel packages have greater savings, but buying train vouchers from them can still save you around 20%, and allows use of the Nozomi (fastest) train to Kansai, which isn’t true of, say, the Platt Kodama offered by a company called JR Tokai Tours.

Photo by selena


And sometimes you want to just get there quickly, or get to places that you actually can’t access easily by train or at all (Okinawa, Hokkaido). You will find that some air tickets are the same price or even cheaper than taking the shinkansen, and with some advance notice they can be very good deals indeed. At the time of writing, for example, Jetstar has one way flights from Tokyo to Matsuyama in Shikoku for only ¥6,500 (approx. $54 USD). Japan’s domestic low-cost carriers include: Airdo (flights to and from Hokkaido); Jetstar (hubs in Tokyo and Osaka, flights nationwide); Peach (hub in Osaka, also have several Asian destinations); Skymark (flights nationwide, this is a good choice for Okinawa; Vanilla (based in Tokyo, with domestic flights to Sapporo and Okinawa only, other flights are to Asian destinations); Solaseed (flights between Tokyo and Kyushu); Spring (currently flying from Tokyo to Hiroshima, Takamatsu, or Saga); and Starflyer (flying between Tokyo and Western Japan).

Photo by Su-chan used under CC


We have to start by saying that you should hitchhike at your own risk and take extreme care when doing so. We’ve had good experiences thumbing a ride, and Japan is a pretty safe country. Still, it’s a good idea to travel with a buddy, always use caution, and if anything seems off – don’t get in the car.

You’ll probably have better luck on the highways, so if you can get to one, start there. An extremely legible sign with your destination, in kanji if possible, will help your case, as will posting yourself at a PA (parking area) or SA (service area) on the highway. Hitchhikers are quite rare in Japan, so be ready to be seen as a curiosity and do some entertaining as a conversationalist (and be ready to throw in a free language lesson).

Travel safe!

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Filed under: Getting around, Transport
Tags: Airlines, Highway Bus, Rail Passes
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One Response to “Trains Are Not the Only Vehicles – Alternatives to the Japan Rail Pass”

  1. Avatar
    Frugal Couple Blog January 15, 2015

    Finally! I have been waiting for this post to come out:)

    We plan to fly into Osaka, go to Kyoto, Hiroshima, and then Tokyo. The JR pass is quite expensive, so we are thinking of going with the Willer Express pass. Probably try to take the night bus to save on a night accommodation too (hello, cheapo alert~!).

    Could you please do a post on traveling on high way bus? The Willer express site is in english and has quite a lot of information, but perhaps if you could give instructions on how to find the bus stops, things we need to know/prepare for, etc. that would be great! Thank you!

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