Plane vs. Train: Getting Around Japan on a Budget
Japan is one of those countries that travel writers dream about. Each little town, village and city seems completely unique and different from the last. With each new area we explore, a whole new realm of stories, legends and fables are waiting to be revealed. It may be something of a cliché, but Japan truly is one of the few places on Earth were no two towns are ever the same.
As someone who has spent an extended period in both the Kanto (Tokyo) and Kansai (Osaka) regions, I have had the privilege of experiencing and parting in these different cultural norms first hand.
This is perhaps the main reason why of the millions of tourists and travellers who visit Japan each year, very few of them base themselves in just a single town or city. Instead, they tend to spread out their schedule.
A few days here, a weekend there. For both European and American holiday makers, a trip to Japan is a serious commitment. Even with the most fortuitous of connections and following the most expeditious route, one is looking at a minimum of a 24 hour round trip.
Considering this, for many, visiting Japan on holiday may be a “”once in a lifetime” experience, though hopefully they will enjoy their time here enough to become regular visitors!
So, one can’t really blame these tourists for wanting to fit as many different locations as possible into that 2 or 3 week itinerary.
The much vaunted Japan Rail Pass has long served as the main “go to” source to meet the needs of these travellers. Competitively priced, granting access to almost all JR trains the length and breadth of Japan, and available to buy in your own country, the Japan Rail Pass would seem to be the veritable “Holy Grail” of the tourist wishing to navigate this great country.
However, in recent years a “new kid on the block” has stepped up to challenge the mighty Japan Rail Pass for the hearts and minds of budget-concerned travellers. Lacking the comfort and finesse of the Shinkansen bullet train, or the supreme interconnectivity of the local JR trains, this awkward little upstart excels at just one thing, being ridiculously cheap.
I refer of course to the new best friend of cash-strapped travellers the world over, the budget airline!
First, in the interests of fairness, I should declare a vested interest here. In Europe, I can’t stand budget airlines. With all their penny pinching and stealth charges, I often found the much lauded “huge savings” that they professed to offer to be nothing of the kind.
In Japan, the two main budget airlines currently in vogue are Peach Airlines and Jetstar.
I was shocked to discover recently that a friend of mine was able to fly up to Tokyo from Osaka last week for as little as ¥4,000 each way. Now, this was a Wednesday morning, hardly a peak time for people to take a short break, especially in a country as work conscious as Japan, but considering that a one-way ticket on the Shinkansen comes in at more than 3 times the price (prices start at around ¥14,000), it certainly seems like a bargain.
Even on peak times like Friday evenings and weekends, provided you book far enough ahead, and aren’t too fussy about carrying a lot of baggage you can still get flights to Tokyo from Osaka, and vice versa, for as little as ¥10 to ¥12,000 each way.
There’s also the added incentive of a 90 minute flight versus a three and a bit hours train ride. This is especially useful for those of us who want to get the most out of those bank holiday weekend short breaks.
In fact, these flights are so cheap, it almost makes a day trip to Tokyo from Osaka seem viable.
Of course, unless you live right next to the airport then these travel time savings could be seen as a little disingenuous.
Kansai International Airport
Even on domestic flights, we have to check in at least 1 hour before flying, Kansai Airport is located about an hour away from Osaka and even further from Kyoto and Kobe, with Tokyo’s Narita Airport being similarly isolated from civilisation!
Suddenly that 90 minute flight has become a 3 or 4 hour odyssey, similar in length to the aforementioned Shinkansen ride from Osaka to Tokyo, though still considerably cheaper.
The last time I checked, the Japan Rail Pass was retailing at around ¥29,000 for 7 days, ¥46,000 for 14 days and ¥59,000 for 21 days. So in other words, if you are planning to make two or more trips per week, equivalent in cost to travelling from Osaka to Tokyo, then the pass has already saved you a lot of money.
For those who are planning on visiting at least 4 or 5 different locations across Japan during their time here, I would have to say they, despite the great prices being offered by these budget airlines, the Japan Rail Pass is still your best bet.
However, as residents of Japan will know, the Pass is available only to foreign visitors to Japan, not to people who are actually living and working here. So for people like me who actually live here I would have to say that the budget airlines are the best way to go. Just be sure to carefully check over all the potential hidden costs before you confirm the booking and be careful not to over-estimate your baggage allowance. One of the main ways these airlines generate additional revenue is via excess baggage fees. Be sure to clarify not just the weight but also the number of bags you are allowed to carry onto the flight. As in all ticketing and such contract based transactions, always read the small print, and defer to one of your Japanese friends if there is anything you don’t understand.
Ok, I’m off to book a flight to Tokyo. Happy travelling!