Japanese rail spoils you for options
January 27, 2024

Why does Japan do rail so well? Of course, part of it is government support. Part of it is that rail often makes more sense than driving or air. But also, rail in Japan is a private enterprise, and multiple corporations have found ways to co-exist.

This picture is a good picture of how this works. 

This is the town of Nikko. Nikko is a tourist destination but also a “gateway” to other great places. People come to Nikko, and they pass through on their way up into the mountains. I plan to take a JR train from Tokyo to Nikko and then switch to a line run by Tobu that runs to Kinugawa-onsen.

This picture shows both the JR line (Nikko Line) and the JR Nikko, as well as the Tobu-Nikko Line and the Tobu-nikko Station.

Two different train lines and two different train stations. 

The journey to Nikko from Tokyo is part of my five-day pass I’ll be getting. The train to Kinugawa-onsen has two options:

a 35-minute, two-train ride for about $8

a 59-minute, two-train ride for about $3

So, is 24 minutes worth $5? It might be.

How far is Kinugawa-onsen from Nikko? By car, 11 miles, under half-an-hour. The train takes longer because there’s a transfer involved; a tiny area like this, and multiple train lines running to multiple locations. A 20-minute “layover” isn’t enough to see much, but I can walk about Shimo-Imaichi for a few minutes; just another bit of Japan to enjoy while I can.

There’s also the option of switching to the Tobu line at Utsunomiya – Jerry recommends this because it’s a town known for its great gyoza – and not going up the line to Nikko and then back down again.


Depending on the time and trains, that would cost from $10 to $15. So I could pay more to get there sooner. Or less and spend more time on the train. Um, I think I’ll get more than enough train time. I want to get to the onsen and relax!

The point being: in the US, you can’t even go to most places by train. A few days in Bend? Newport? Pendleton? Ha. The bus is possible – and painfully slow – but mostly, it’s automobile. Expensive and dangerous and exhausting. 

In Japan, there are places only a car will go, although there tends to be bus service to most of them. But I’m going to be able to spend three weeks there and never need a car while still getting to see a lot of great places. Most of it will be on JR lines; they are the big dog, after all. But lines like Tobu exist when the route is a bit remote or if it’s not a line worth JR’s time. 

In the US, most of the country seems not to be worth Amtrak’s time.