Skip the Shinkansen and savor the journey with Japan’s ultra-affordable unlimited-use one-day rail passes.

One of the bet travel bargains in Japan is the Seishun 18 ticket, which gives you unlimited access to Japan Railways local and regular express trains for an entire day. Sold as a five-ticket bundle, each ticket works out to costing just 2,370 yen (US$21) (and yes, you can split the five tickets among multiple users).

Last summer we went all the way from Tokyo, at the east end of Japan’s main island of Honshu, to the island of Kyushu in the southwest, on a single ticketThis year, we once again set out on a Seishun 18 Ticket journey, but this time we pointed ourselves north. Craving some of Hokkaido’s famous miso ramen, we charted a course from Tokyo Station to Sapporo, Hokkaido’s prefectural capital.

▼ Our Seishun 18 Ticket

▼ Our itinerary

Looking at the timetable, we wouldn’t be able to make it quite all the way to Sapporo in a single day, but by taking an overnight ferry to get from the northern tip of Honshu to Sapporo, we still wouldn’t need to book a hotel for this two-day rail odyssey. Even then, we needed to get an early start, and so we were standing on the platform of the Yamanote Line at Tokyo Station at 4:44 in the morning.

▼ This early in the morning is just about the only time the Yamanote downtown loop line isn’t crowded

It was only an eight-minute ride to Ueno, still in downtown Tokyo, but from here on out our time on each train was going to be much longer. At 5:13 our train pulled out of Ueno, bound for Takasaki in mountainous Gunma Prefecture.

Hungry as we were, we resisted the urge to fill up on convenience store rice balls. That’s because Takasaki is famous for its special breakfast ekiben (station bento boxed meal), the Joshu morning rice porridge. One of the most popular ekiben in Japan, it’s only available early in the day and in limited quantities, so we didn’t want to pass up this chance to try it for ourselves.

Stomachs growling, we hopped off the train at Takasaki at 6:55 a.m. and made a beeline for the bento stand. Since they’d just opened at 6:30, surely they’d have plenty of rice porridge bento left, right?

Wrong. In less than 30 minutes, the rice porridge bento were entirely sold out. Still, we can’t complain too much. The shop’s second-most popular boxed meal, the 1,000-yen Daruma Bento, is also delicious, and honestly probably more filling than the rice porridge one.

▼ Aside from the cool-looking box, the star of the Daruma Bento is the chicken stuffed with gobo (burdock root), which is accompanied by bamboo shoots, shiitake mushrooms, and sweet chestnuts.

From here, our trains made their way towards the Sea of Japan coast on the northern shoreline of Honshu. Leaving Takasaki at 7:12, our next transfer was at Minakami, after about an hour on the train and a seven-minute wait at the station.

From Minakami, it’s two hours to Nagaoka in Niigata, making this the longest single train ride of our trip so far. There aren’t too many passengers riding the rails in this sparsely populated part of Japan, though we did spot a number of rail fans carrying fancy looking cameras on their photo safaris, and this route also took us through Doai, often said to be the deepest (and scariest) rail station in all of Japan.

Once at Nagaoka, we were back into the light and somewhat back into civilization, as there were more passengers on the 10:20 train to Niigata than we’d seen on the last few legs of our journey. We were still in a beautifully bucolic part of Japan, though, with Niigata Prefecture’s lush rice paddies stretching out to the horizon.

We had more time to admire the rural vistas on our hour-long ride from Niigata Station to Murakami. Or at least we admired them until we dozed off, soothed by the sound of the now falling rain tapping rhythmically against the glass of our train’s windows.

After a 30-minute nap, we awoke to see the rain had stopped, and we weren’t far from Murakami Station, where we’d transfer for a train to Sakata. Once again moving farther away from any major cities, the trains also got more retro in style.

Running close to the sea, we got to take in the beautiful Sasagawanagare coast.

However, as we were staring at the waves, ran started to fall once again, and the downpour was so strong that the conductor came on the P.A. system to tell us he’d need to reduce the train’s speed. This had us worried because we didn’t have much time to make our connection at Sakata for the train to Akita, and if we missed that it would back up our whole schedule and we wouldn’t make it to the dock in time for our late-night ferry to Hokkaido.

It was out of our hands, though, so all we could do was it back and enjoy the ride. Then, to our relief, the conductor came on the P.A. system again several minutes later to inform us that he’d gotten word that the train to Akita would wait to depart until we’d arrived at Sakata Station and those needing to transfer had done so.

Seated safely on the train to Akita, we looked around and saw a number of sleepy-looking kids on their way home from after-school activities. With the rain continuing to fall, there wasn’t much to see looking out the windows, but we were happy just to have made the transfer, and once again found ourselves dozing off (we had almost two hours until we were scheduled to arrive at Akita Station). When we opened our eyes, it was just about six o’clock, and night had fallen.

We’d originally planned to hop right on the next train for Odate, but since the train had left Sakata later than scheduled and thus arrived later, we now had about 30 minutes to kill before the 7 p.m. train. We spent the time exploring Akita Station, which was decorated with Akita Prefecture’s traditional Namahage masks and lantern poles.

There were also banners saluting local high school Kanaashi Nogyo’s second-place finish in this summer’s national high school baseball tournament, and handwritten messages of congratulations from fans.

Feeling hungry again, we stepped into a noodle restaurant in the station called Shirakami-an and ordered the 380-yen Shirakamai green onion soba, made with crisp, flavorful local produce.

We also picked up an 880-yen torimeshi (chicken rice) ekiben to eat later, then boarded the train for Odate.

Train service is a lot less frequent in rural Japan after the sun goes down, and we had plenty of time on our hands at Odate. We started by eating our torimeshi bento, which was a delicious mix of sweet and savory flavors.

Odate Station’s distinguishing feature is its Hachiko Shrine, which has a statue of Japan’s famously loyal Akita dog who was born near Odate City. We dropped a coin into the collection box, which played a recorded sound of a dog barking as a cute thank-you for our generosity.

Finally, at 9:21, it was time for our last train of the day, which took us to Shin Aomori Station.

We were scheduled to arrive at Shin Aomori at 10:45, and our ferry didn’t leave until 11:30. However, passengers are asked to check in at the port 30 minutes prior to departure, and so we’d called ahead and asked a taxi to meet us at the station, which whisked us to the dock for a pre-determined rate of 850 yen.

▼ Traditional Nebuta lanterns at Shin Aomori Station

▼ The ferry check-in counter

There are shower facilities on the overnight ship, so we washed ourselves off and settled into a spot in the open carpeted area of the budget-priced 2,000-yen ferry tickets (though you can opt to sleep in one of the above-pictured seats too).

We lay down, closed our eyes, and went to sleep. When we woke up, we’d be in Hokkaido, but not yet in Sapporo. How many more scenic trains rides ad delicious meals were waiting for us on the northern island? Check back soon for the conclusion of our Seishun 18 Ticket journey.

Photos ©SoraNews24
Note: This trip was completed prior to the September 6 Hokkaido earthquake.