Last weekend, Hokkaido Shinkansen began operation, bringing travellers from Tokyo to Hakodate in 4 hours. Many readers have been asking me if it a good idea to use the shinkansen to get to Hokkaido in place of domestic flights. If you know me, every time I get asked the same question more than twice, I end up writing a long-winded post to address the question. So here is my long-winded answer to their seemingly simple question.
What you need to know about Hokkaido Shinkansen
Typically, travellers to Hokkaido arrive via New Chitose Airport which is near Sapporo. This is pretty much in the centre of Hokkaido, which makes it a good base for exploring just about any other part of Hokkaido.
Right now, the shinkansen from Tokyo only brings you as far as Hakodate, which is in Southern Hokkaido.
Image Source: JR Hokkaido
Why is this important to note?
Beyond Hakodate, there is no shinkansen in Hokkaido. So let’s say you want to go to Sapporo. From Hakodate, it will take another 4 hours to get from Hakodate to Sapporo by train.
Which means if your aim is to get to Sapporo, it will take you 8 hours by rail from Tokyo: 4 hours from Tokyo to Hakodate, 4 hours from Hakodate to Sapporo. That doesn’t sound very appealing to me versus a 1.5 hours domestic flight.
How about cost?
If it doesn’t save you any time, does it then save you money?
Domestic flights between Tokyo and Chitose are very competitive. There are a bunch of low cost carriers like Jetstar, Air Asia, Peach and Vanilla Air offering very cheap flights between Narita and CTS. Even for ANA, if you fly from your home country to Tokyo via ANA, you can get a domestic flight for just 10,800yen one-way via their ANA Experience Japan Fare.
How about the shinkansen? The ride from Tokyo station to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto station using Shinkansen Hayabusa with reserved seat cost 22,890yen one-way. That’s double the price of a domestic flight!
So what’s the point of the shinkansen?
Using the shinkansen will make sense if you were planning to do the following:
- Visit Hakodate
- Use the 5-Days or 7-Days Hokkaido Rail Pass
- Want to spend time in Tokyo
Suppose you already had plans to purchase a 5-Days Hokkaido Rail Pass which costs 22,000yen or the 7-Days pass which cost 24,000yen. What you can consider doing now is to top up a few thousand yen for the 7-Days Japan Rail Pass which cost 29,110yen. The Japan Rail Pass will cover your shinkansen ride between Tokyo and Hakodate and you do not need to take domestic flights. i.e. you are topping up less than 10,000yen for the return ride between Tokyo and Hakodate.
By using the shinkansen, you also have the freedom to spend some time in Tokyo before / after the Hokkaido trip. Sure, you can also spend time in Tokyo when you take domestic flights. But it is a bit of a hassle imo to keep moving to and fro between Narita / Haneda Airport and Central Tokyo. Whereas the shinkansen brings you right smack into central Tokyo.
So ideally, this is what I would do:
- Fly to Tokyo, spend a few days at say, Tokyo Disney Resort.
- Activate my Japan Rail Pass, take shinkansen from Tokyo to Hakodate, begin my 7 days tour of Hokkaido by rail.
- On Day 7 of my rail pass, take the shinkansen back to Tokyo. Spend another 3 days shopping, eating and sightseeing in Tokyo.
- Fly home from Tokyo.
This is an especially favourable option if your kids have a big problem with ear-popping on planes as it takes away the need for an extra flight.
The biggest disadvantage of this plan is that you are restricted to 7 days in Hokkaido, inclusive of the time required to get between Tokyo and Hakodate. This is not a very long time for a Hokkaido trip and you will only be touching the tip of the iceberg in terms of what Hokkaido offers. I typically spend 2 weeks in Hokkaido each time I’m there. But oh well, give and take. If you just want to experience a bit of Hokkaido as part of a Tokyo + Hokkaido trip, the shinkansen is a good option for you.
But it’ll still be much slower than taking domestic flights, wouldn’t it?
Remember my first point is that you want to go to Hakodate. If you don’t want to go to Hakodate, I would recommend sticking to domestic flights. However, if you want to go to Hakodate, let’s look at the time required to get between Tokyo and Hakodate.
You can reserve your seat on the shinkansen beforehand. When you reach Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto station, you can just hop onto the shinkansen, 4 hours later, you will arrive at Tokyo station.
By domestic flight:
You need to be at the airport at least 1 hour before your flight to check-in. The flight time is about 1 hour 30 min. After you arrive at Haneda or Narita, you still have to wait for your luggage. Then from Haneda Airport, it is a 30 minutes train ride to Tokyo station. From Narita Airport, you are looking at a 1 hour train ride.
So if you ask me, if you are trying to get between Hakodate and Tokyo, there is little time difference between using the train and flying.
(Update) JR East-South Hokkaido Rail Pass
There is now a new rail pass called the JR East-South Hokkaido Rail Pass.
How does this pass compare to the Japan Rail Pass?
In terms of pricing, compared to the 7-days Japan Rail Pass, it is about 3000yen cheaper.
In terms of coverage, Japan Rail Pass covers the WHOLE of Japan’s JR network. However, JR East-South Hokkaido Rail Pass only covers the shinkansen between Tokyo and Hakodate and the region of Eastern Japan in between and within Hokkaido, it only covers Southern Hokkaido – from Hakodate to Chitose / Sapporo / Otaru.
In terms of duration, unlike Japan Rail Pass that covers 7 consecutive days, the JR East-South Hokkaido Rail Pass is a flexi pass that covers 6 days within a 14 days period.
What is it good for?
As I mentioned above, the biggest disadvantage of using the Japan Rail Pass is having to complete the travel with 7 days. The flexibility of the JR East-South Hokkaido Rail Pass to allow you to stretch the travel up to 14 days is a HUGE plus! With this pass, it actually makes sense to consider replacing domestic flights with the shinkansen if Hakodate is part of my itinerary.
However, it is important to note that the pass does not cover Eastern Hokkaido. But I always say in the blog that self-drive is the best way to explore Eastern Hokkaido. So I actually like the idea of this pass a lot. I can do without domestic flight and use the shinkansen to get to Hakodate. From there, I would train to Sapporo. Then from Sapporo, I can rent a car to explore Central (Furano / Biei) or Eastern Hokkaido.
Have I answered your question?
If you have any other questions about using the Hokkaido shinkansen, leave a comment and I’ll try my best to help you. Please note that I have never actually taken the new shinkansen before and I can only base my answers on my experience with Japan rail travel in general.
Information on Hokkaido Shinkansen:
For more information regarding the Hokkaido shinkansen, visit JR Hokkaido’s Official Website.
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