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18 til I Die

Introducing the Seishun 18 Kippu: the cheapskate’s way to see Japan

You can say what you like about traveling in Japan, but one fact remains unavoidable: it’s bloody expensive. Consider this – assuming you aren’t going during the peak seasons of Golden Week, Obon and New Year, it’s cheaper for Tokyo residents to fly to Korea for the weekend than hop the shinkansen to Kyoto. Even the expense of going further afield quickly pays off once you’ve got there: you could live it up for a week in Laos or Cambodia for the price of a night’s stay at a decent ryokan here. Sure, all that jet-setting might leave an ecological footprint the size of a small country, but who cares if you’ve still got beer money left over? I’m sure I’m not the only foreigner living here who’s seen a lot more of mainland Asia than I have of my adoptive home.

Don’t despair, though, for there is another way – albeit one likely to appeal mainly to people blessed with the patience of a saint and the sturdy posterior of a hardened traveler. The Seishun 18 Kippu, aka the Youth 18 Ticket, was introduced in the 1980s as a means to encourage people other than sweaty salarymen to embark on long-distance rail trips. The name itself was a misnomer from the start: you don’t actually have to be young – let alone under 18 – to use the ticket (indeed, it seems to be just as popular with penny-pinching pensioners as it is with the kids). In its current incarnation, the Kippu, available during periods that coincide roughly with the school holidays, offers bearers 5 days’ worth of unlimited rail travel for ¥11,500. This works out as just ¥2300 per day, less than a return trip from Osaka to Himeji or a single ticket from Tokyo to Nikko. The catch? You can only travel by JR local (futsuu) and rapid (kaisoku) trains.

If you’ve got time to play with, though, the ticket offers a dirt-cheap way to see a bit of Japan. The JR network sprawls and straggles its way across the length and breadth of the country, from Wakkanai to Kagoshima, placing most – though by no means all – potential destinations within reach of the eager traveler. Getting to grips with it takes some time, mind you: service can range from frequent to virtually non-existent depending on where you are, while the JR lines may sometimes stubbornly refuse to take you even close to where you actually want to go. When traveling a long way, it’s a good idea to check the timetables in advance, either using a site like Hyperdia (www.hyperdia.com) or by pinching an itinerary off the Japanese-only Seishun 18 Kippu Sakana no Page (www2s.biglobe.ne.jp/~sakana/). Well, it’s either that or an 8-hour stopover in the wilds of rural Kyushu – you decide.

Japanzine attempted a couple of reasonably lengthy trips with the Seishun 18 Kippu, starting with a 9-hour journey from Tokyo to Kyoto, then trying a 12-hour overnighter to Akita. There are far tougher routes out there, of course – the day-long odyssey from Tokyo to Nagasaki is the stuff of legend – but it takes a special brand of maniac to attempt that kind of thing. Just remember that you’ll have to get back somehow, too.

What was immediately striking wasn’t the trips themselves – although they certainly had their moments – but the reaction of other people when I told them what I was doing. “You’re going by local train…?” Sure, in less developed Asian countries, we’re perfectly happy to endure such painstakingly drawn-out expeditions; often, they’re accompanied by a slightly patronizing expression of our desire to “travel like the locals do.” But that doesn’t really work here: no-one in their right mind, Japanese or no, would ever take the local train from Tokyo to Nagasaki were it not for the Seishun 18 Kippu. It simply doesn’t make sense otherwise. Hell, even with the ticket, it doesn’t make all that much sense.

Indeed, clambering bleary-eyed onto a 5:20am train out of Tokyo as I tried to get to Kyoto in time for a late lunch, I briefly caught myself wondering: why the hell am I doing this? The same thought occurred again as I struggled to make my peace with one of the cramped seats on the Moonlight Echigo night train to Niigata, a dated contraption that makes your average economy class flight seem like the lap of luxury. And then… well, I wouldn’t say I reached any kind of epiphany, but I did at least manage to doze off.

Such dark moments aside, there’s actually a lot to be said for the slow option. And not just that it’s cheap. For starters, traveling by JR trains for 12 hours is an altogether less painful experience than spending the same length of time in a rickety old bus, wedged between an opium smuggler and someone’s prize goat as you hurtle along some pot-holed excuse for a dirt track in the Thai jungle. Since you’ll often be getting onto a train at its point of origin, too, it’s generally easy to get a seat and, if you’ve brought a good book or your Nintendo DS, the time passes surprisingly quickly.

Working through the countryside at a plod rather than a canter, you can better appreciate the little details that get smudged into an indistinct blur when you go by shinkansen. If the spirit takes you, you could even alight at random stations along the way and have a wander around. Just try not to do it on one of those lines in Tohoku where they only have, like, four trains a day or something – you’ll probably regret it.

After a couple of train changes, you might start to notice that the same faces keep reappearing amongst the suits and school uniforms. Your fellow Seishun 18 Kippu adventurers: a motley bunch of students, foreigners, grannies and trainspotters, all apparently clutching the same itinerary you felt so clever preparing yourself. They’re an oddly comforting presence, not least because they often look just as out of place as you do. They’re also sometimes incredibly hard to shake off: despite making 5 changes, I spent the entire trip from Tokyo to Kyoto within spitting distance of the same pair of geeky Japanese gents. Fortunately they didn’t bite.

Finally, at the end of the day there’s the added sweetness of arriving at your destination on the back of a long, soul-stirring (and ass-numbing) journey, well aware of quite how far from home you’ve come. It’s what psychologists refer to as the principle of justification of effort, of course, but I’ll be damned if it didn’t taste good when, after a total journey of 18 hours and more train changes than I could remember, I slid into the best onsen in the world and gazed up longingly at a crystal-clear Akita night sky. Bollocks to the shinkansen, thought I: this is the only way to travel.

The Nitty-Gritty

The Seishun 18 Kippu gives you 5 days’ worth of travel during the validity period. Note that these days don’t have to be consecutive.

The ticket is typically available during the following periods: July 20th – September 10th (on sale July 1st – August 31st); December 10th – January 20th (on sale December 1st – January 10th); March 1st – April 10th (on sale February 20th – March 31st).

The ticket is valid from midnight until midnight (or, in Tokyo and Osaka, until the last train).

Spread some Seishun lovin’ and take a friend or two: up to 5 people can share the same ticket. A day will get stamped for each person.

The Seishun 18 Kippu won’t work in standard ticket machines. When using it, show it at the window to the side of the ticket gates.

The ticket is valid on the following night trains: Moonlight Echigo (Tokyo – Niigata), Moonlight Nagara (Tokyo – Ogaki), Moonlight Kyushu (Shin Osaka – Hakata), Moonlight Matsuyama (Kyoto – Matsuyama), Moonlight Kochi (Kyoto – Kochi). Note that the last three only run on selected days. Reservations are required for all trains; these can be made up to a month in advance and cost ¥510.

When traveling by night train, you can either use 2 days’ worth of your Seishun 18 Kippu, or else save 1 day by buying a separate ticket to the first station the train reaches after midnight.

Mad Trips

Two seriously long journeys for people with more ambition than sense. Just be sure to take a good book (or two)…

Tokyo to Nagasaki

12:33 Tokyo > 14:07 Atami
14:14 Atami > 15:18 Okitsu
15:28 Okitsu > 16:55 Hamamatsu
17:08 Hamamatsu > 17:42 Toyohashi
17:50 Toyohashi > 18:33 Kanayama
18:46 Kanayama > 20:09 Maibara
20:21 Maibara > 21:38 Shin Osaka
21:59 Shin Osaka > 7:18 Hakata (Moonlight Kyushu)
8:11 Hakata > 8:44 Tosu
8:48 Tosu > 9:34 Hizen-Yamaguchi
9:38 Hizen-Yamaguchi > 10:39 Haiki
10:58 Haiki > 12:09 Nagasaki
Total Time: 23 hours 36 minutes

Osaka to Aomori

21:00 Osaka > 22:22 Maibara
22:33 Maibara > 23:04 Ogaki
23:19 Ogaki > 5:05 Tokyo (Moonlight Nagara)
5:12 Tokyo > 5:19 Ueno
5:49 Ueno > 7:28 Utsunomiya
7:37 Utsunomiya > 8:28 Kuroiso
8:37 Kuroiso > 9:56 Koriyama
10:08 Koriyama > 10:54 Fukushima
11:03 Fukushima > 12:16 Sendai
12:45 Sendai > 13:30 Kogota
13:46 Kogota > 14:33 Ichinoseki
15:27 Ichinoseki > 16:56 Morioka
17:04 Morioka > 18:58 Hachinohe
19:12 Hachinohe > 20:43 Aomori
Total Time: 23 hours 43 minutes
Note: train times subject to change.

Heading North

Sadly, it’s no longer possible to go all the way from Tokyo to Sapporo on the Seishun 18 Kippu: there’s a pesky stretch of track between Honshu and Hokkaido that’s now only covered by limited express trains. If you’re really up it, get the Hokkaido & East Japan Pass (?????????) instead. This ticket, available at roughly the same times as the 18 Kippu, is valid on JR local and rapid trains from Tokyo all the way up to Hokkaido, plus the line connecting Honshu and Hokkaido, the Hamanasu night train from Aomori to Sapporo, and local railways in Iwate and Aomori prefectures. It costs ¥10,000 for five consecutive days’ worth of travel, and can’t be shared between people.