Three Ways to Travel Cheaply Within Japan

The days of intercity vacations, at least within Japan, appear to be back. The “Go To Travel” campaign, a voucher system under which the government subsidizes up to USD 90 per night of travel expenses, is scheduled to be reactivated in early 2022, pending further data on new COVID-19 infections in the coming weeks. 

The resumption of the official voucher system is bound to breathe new life into the country’s battered tourism sector. The previous rendition of “Go To Travel” was much maligned after causing a surge of new COVID-19 infections and unceremoniously shut down in December 2020 only months after a ballyhooed nationwide rollout. The country’s closed border policy has seen a dramatic decline in overseas tourists, notably a whopping 99.2% decrease from September 2019 to September 2020.

But beyond the government’s financial measures to prod people to travel more within Japan, some ways to travel on a shoestring have been in place for many years. Combined with the “Go To Travel” campaign, when it gets the go-ahead in 2022, these cheap travel methods can make travel within Japan much more affordable.

1. Intercity Night Buses

When foreigners think about how to move between major cities in Japan, the first thing that they think of is the Shinkansen or domestic flights. In particular, the Shinkansen, the vaulted Japanese bullet train network, is modern, fast, frequent, and safe, but can no doubt burn a sizeable hole in your wallet. The two-hour journey from Tokyo to the historical capital of Kyoto on the Shinkansen, for instance, will cost you JPY 14,170 one way for a designed seat. That price rises to JPY 23,390 one way for the five-hour journey to Fukuoka, the main city on the southern island of Kyushu. For those simply looking to get from Point A to B, Shinkansen prices are simply too high.

Enter the night buses. Plying the country’s expressway system when traffic is the thinnest, these buses provide the cheapest ways to cross the country by sacrificing some of the comfort and speed of the Shinkansen. For instance, night buses departing past 10 pm from terminals near Tokyo or Shinjuku Station pull into Kyoto before 7 am, for as cheap as JPY 2,800 one way. Even the long journey from Tokyo to Fukuoka, lasting from 9 pm to 11 am, can be had for JPY 11,800 one way. 

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Given the increasing competition among various companies offering night bus services in recent years, the buses have become increasingly luxurious even as the prices stay low. To make up for long journey times, the bus operators are trying to up their game in terms of onboard amenities. Restrooms, power outlets, and free Wi-fi have already become industry standards. Some companies are going as far as offering private rooms with reclining seats, soothing background music, and complimentary toiletries, geared toward a good night’s sleep. Night buses are rapidly becoming a much more comfortable way to travel across the country even as they stay cheap.

2. The Seishun 18 Ticket and Other JR Train Passes

Still, plenty of people refuse to give up the romance of train travel. After all, night buses, for all their low prices, do not give travelers any opportunities to see the sights of provincial Japan whizzing by outside their windows, despite spending hours onboard. For those insisting on taking trains during the day on the cheap, national railways operator Japan Railways (JR) have a few options.

One is the Seishun (“youth”) 18 ticket. Despite the name invoking a young backpacker just out of school, the ticket is available for anyone to purchase in any JR tickets office or travel center. For a fixed price of 12,050, the Seishun 18 ticket allows the purchaser to use any JR-operated local and rapid trains an unlimited number of times in any five consecutive person-days. In other words, one person can use it for five days or five people for a single, with multiple combinations in between. Since Seishun 18 is not usable for the Shinkansen and other express trains, it is an option only for those who have some extra time to enjoy the scenery and change trains multiple times on the way to their destinations.

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For those who have less time, JR also has other unlimited train passes available. Those based in Tokyo, in particular, can take advantage of a range of unlimited travel passes ranging from a day to a week, allowing them to use all trains, including the Shinkansen, in a particular region near the capital. Averaging less than JPY 4,000 per day of travel, these passes are perfect for those who are seeking to cram as many destinations as possible within a limited amount of time while limiting their travel budgets.

3. Visit Your Local Ticket Resellers

The downside of both the night buses and train passes is that, to maximize savings, travelers need to be sure where they are going and when, sometimes weeks before the planned ticket purchases. For busy people who want to figure out where they can go on the cheap at a short notice, such meticulous planning can be difficult. They may prefer to simply see what realistic choices for cheap travel are available whenever it becomes convenient for them.

For these flexible travelers, one resource may be their local brick-and-mortar ticket resellers. Ubiquitous throughout major Japanese cities, these little shops, usually called kinken (“gold ticket”) shops, do a roaring trade buying in bus, train, and even flight tickets at low prices and then selling them at a markup. They can keep prices low because they buy from people who do not need the tickets, such as shareholders of major transport service providers who received discounted tickets in place of dividends on their shares.

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As people move online with their travel bookings, many nationwide chains of ticket resellers are also establishing an online presence. Those who can read Japanese no longer need to trudge out to the physical shops to see what cheap tickets are available for them to buy. They can simply browse the latest offerings from the comfort of their homes and offices. 

Intercity travel in Japan is fast and convenient, but often expensive on the surface. But dig a little deeper and even foreigners can find ways to limit their travel budget as they travel around this beautiful country. A little more time spent researching and transiting can go a long way in seeing more places by leveraging various budget options.

Written by: Xiaochen Su, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Tokyo and the Managing Director of the Study Abroad Research Institute, a non-profit organization seeking to promote study abroad in Japan.

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