Japan overland travel guide

Kiyomizu Temple, Kyoto

Kyoto’s Kiyomizu Temple

Japan packs a hell of a lot in to its available space – hiking opportunities abound in the beautiful mountain ranges covering most of the country, the subarctic winter conditions in the north bring epic snowfalls which are the stuff of snowboarder fantasy, and the south boasts subtropical beaches and ‘best-kept-secret’ scuba diving.

Atmospheric temples and shrines can be found tucked away along hiking trails in the forest, commanding views from the hillsides above Kyoto, or hiding down the back streets of Osaka or Tokyo, while medieval castles and manicured gardens have pride of place at the hearts of many towns and cities – cities which offer up the chance to explore to your heart’s content and eat, shop, or drink till you drop.

Japan surely has something for everyone, and while the location means it isn’t the most obvious country to include on overland routes, with a little effort it’s perfectly possible to do so from any of China, Korea, or Russia:

How to travel to and from Japan overland (sea)

As an island nation with no land borders, overland travel to Japan is by sea. There is one weekly ferry each way between Japan and China, one weekly ferry each way between Japan and Russia via Korea (plus a summer-only route linking Hokkaido with Russia’s Sakhalin island – which may or may not still be possible, see below), and multiple daily sailings between Japan and Korea.

China – Japan by ferry

This ferry (the Suzhou Hao) does weekly runs each way between Shanghai and Japan’s Kansai region (alternating between the ports of Kobe and Osaka), taking two days. They have a good English website.

(You may read about other Japan – China routes e.g, Kobe – Tianjin, but they have all been discontinued; notably, the Wikitravel page is out of date in this regard)

Russia – Japan by ferry

DBS ferries runs a weekly ferry (the Eastern Dream) from Sakaiminato (Tottori prefecture) to Donghae (on Korea’s east coast) and Vladivostok. DBS has an English website, and this Japanese tourist site’s page (in English) is also useful. Passage between Sakaiminato and Vladivostok involves two overnight sailings, with a half-day spent in port at Donghae.

In the north, a ferry used to operate in the summer months (the sea is frozen in winter) between Wakkanai (at the northern tip of Hokkaido) and the Russian port of Korsakov, Sakhalin island. However, this ferry ceased operating in 2015; in summer 2016, a new passenger catamaran service had a successful 6-week trial period (with two runs per week in either direction) and this is supposed to be a full regular service from 2017. Of course, this can be by no means guaranteed; I’ll try to keep this page updated, but if you’re thinking of taking this ferry do seek up-to-date information from as many sources as you can before heading all the way to Sakhalin or Wakkanai. You can see their website here, with partial English; anyone who tries it, please send me a message to let me know if it was possible or not and whether there were any unexpected difficulties that future overlanders need to be aware of.

Korea – Japan by ferry

The main route (for those without vehicles) is the JR Beetle hydrofoil between Fukuoka and Busan, with several sailings per day in each direction. These boats are fast and get across in just a few hours, and it can be a pretty wild roller coaster ride if the swell is up. If seasickness is an issue, you may prefer to take the slow ferry (daily, 7-10 hours, Korea Ferry), or one of the overnight car ferries from Shimonoseki – Busan (daily, 12 hours, Kampu Ferry), Sakaiminato – Donghae (weekly, 15 hours, DBS Ferries; this is the same ship that continues on to Russia, see above), or Osaka – Busan (Panstar Cruise, 18 hours, 3 per week each way).

Panstar’s website is unfortunately only available in Korean and Japanese, but lists phone numbers for each country; if you don’t have the necessary language skills or a friend who can help, and don’t want to chance booking tickets on the day in person at the terminal, call the number and ask for an English speaker. It might take a few goes, but you should be able to make a reservation; if that fails, I’d suggest visiting the tourist information counter at one of the larger JR stations (if you’re already in Japan). The tourist desk at Kita-Kyushu station once booked the Shimonoseki – Busan ferry for me for a small service fee (though I’m pretty sure it would’ve been fine just rocking up at the terminal in Shimonoseki a few hours before departure), and they should be able to do the same for you with Panstar. Check out this blog report on booking and taking this ferry.

Fox guardians at Fushimi inari, Kyoto

Fox guardians at Fushimi Inari, Kyoto

Overland from Seoul to Osaka / Tokyo in one day via JR Beetle

Using the JR Beetle it’s possible to travel overland between Seoul and Osaka or Tokyo in one day. I’ve done so from Seoul as far as Osaka; for the KTX from Seoul to Busan, JR Beetle to Fukuoka, and then Shinkansen to Osaka, the total time was about 11 hours (including transfers to / from terminals and waiting times). Their English website doesn’t seem to have the schedule for some reason, but you can check it on the Japanese version here; Fukuoka is 福岡 and Busan is 釜山, and you should be able to work it out from there. When I did Seoul – Osaka I caught the KTX from Seoul station at 10am, reaching Busan with plenty of time to get to the terminal, buy a ticket, and grab some lunch, and take the 2pm Beetle to Osaka; on that occasion I taxied from the Fukuoka terminal to Hakata station (as I was meeting friends in Osaka that night), grabbed a snack and a ticket, and was soon on the Shinkansen, arriving around 9pm. You could of course carry on right through to Tokyo this way, arriving towards midnight; bit of a mission, timewise, but reasonably comfortable and hassle free and it can certainly be done, and great for winging it as you don’t need any of it pre-booked.

Of course, the Beetle is also a nice fast way just to go from Busan to Fukuoka – both cities are well worth visiting in their own right and staying for a few days.

The Busan ferry terminal is a 20-minute walk from Busan’s main train station. If you have heavy bags, there is a subway station (Jungang) under the major intersection outside the ferry terminal from where it’s one stop to Busan station. I once got in a taxi because it was raining and he tried to refuse me due to the short distance; I told him “balibali” (my favourite Korean word, and many Koreans’ favourite word; essentially, “chop chop” or perhaps “hurry the fuck up man!”, depending on your tone), refused his attempt to negotiate an absurd fee, and finally had a laugh with him about the weather as he somewhat begrudgingly turned on the meter. But walking / taking the subway should usually be fine.

Update: the Busan international ferry terminal has moved to a large new port facility just behind Busan Station, about a 10-minute walk northeast.

Access to the Fukuoka terminal is well explained here; I’ve done both bus and taxi, the bus is easy enough but taxis are obviously easiest (if you’re getting straight on the Shinkansen, you need to head to Hakata station; if staying in central Fukuoka, that’s Tenjin).

Cherry blossoms along the river in Tokyo

Blossoming sakura bring a burst of life to a drab Tokyo street

JR pass banner

Overland travel within Japan

The classic way to see Japan, and the one I absolutely recommend, is with a JR Pass. This gives you unlimited countrywide travel on (most) trains operated by the Japan Railways Group (JR), including the Shinkansen bullet trains. A few services aren’t included, for example the Nozomi from Tokyo to Osaka which only makes a couple of stops and is therefore the fastest service; with a JR Pass you can ride the next fastest, Hikari. Apart from that and a couple of others, you’re good for all JR trains and can just rock up at the station, flash your pass at the manned ticket gate and get on the train; this is perfect for completely winging it if you’re so inclined, and you can also make seat reservations at the ticket office if you want to be sure of seats (this is required for some trains that are reservation only, such as the Komachi Shinkansen to Akita).

The price for a 7-day pass is roughly the same as a round trip between Tokyo and Osaka, so if you’re doing anything more than that it’s good value; if you really get your money’s worth and do, say, Tokyo to Kyushu, then back to Tokyo with stops in Hiroshima, Osaka, and Kyoto, then it’s absolutely amazing value.

These passes aren’t available to residents of Japan; you have to be there with ‘temporary visitor’ status (that’s the stamp you’ll get in your passport when arriving as a tourist). Also be aware that the JR Pass doesn’t work on the plethora of regional private lines operated by other companies (bar a few exceptions by special agreement), including the city subway systems. But apart from that, it’s a really convenient and affordable way to cover a lot of ground.

It’s now possible to buy the JR Pass in person at a handful of major stations in Japan, but it’s cheaper to pre-order it online e.g. a 7-day pass is ¥33,000 when purchased in Japan, but if you buy it online here it’s only ¥28,000 (and a small cut of that goes to 4corners7seas, so we both win!)

Lake Biwa from Mt Hiei

View of Lake Biwa from Mt Hiei

An essential site to be familiar with while travelling by train in Japan is Hyperdia. You just tell it your departure and arrival stations and date & time of travel, and it gives you a range of options – you can tell it to rank them by speed, price, or even by the routes with the best transfers, and you can also specify certain stations that you want the route to pass through. If using a JR Pass you can set it to only show JR trains, and you can block services like the Nozomi which aren’t covered on the pass. The only minor thing to be aware of with it is that sometimes the station name is slightly different on Hyperdia due to a hyphen being included, a space not being included, etc, for example Okutama is Oku-tama.

Trains aside, Japan also has excellent roads and buses run everywhere. Slower than the trains of course, but significantly cheaper and usually pretty comfortable; they tend to run overnight on long-distance routes which I basically hate but it is convenient and I used them many times, especially when living in Tokyo and volunteering in Tohoku. Outside Tokyo you can usually find bus stations attached to any major JR hub station, and it’s possible to just turn up and buy a ticket for the next available bus (but don’t try this during the three main Japanese holiday periods). Tokyo seems to be too packed for large central bus stations, so the situation is a bit more fragmented with smaller bus stations dotted around and some buses simply picking up from certain designated intersections. It’s best to book these online; Willer Express is cheap, comfortable, has good route coverage centred on Tokyo and Osaka/Kyoto, and is easy to use with a fully-functioning English website. They also have discount passes available (Japan Bus Pass) which are a pretty good deal.

Finally, ferries are an interesting option if you want to hop a long distance without flying and have plenty of time to do it. They’re cheap and comfortable, they give you the opportunity to take in the views of ocean and coastline, and you pass through random port towns that you’d otherwise never see but which are such a historically important side to this island nation. I’ve used Tomakomai (Hokkaido) – Sendai both ways, Niigata – Tomakomai, Maizuri (Kyoto) – Otaru (Hokkaido) both ways, and Naha – Ishigaki (Okinawa) continuing to Taiwan (sadly no longer possible). It’s a nice way to travel if the schedule suits, although I did once have an issue with a cancelled ferry (rough seas) from Tomakomai leading to an encounter with a scary woman wielding a pair of kitchen scissors and then a punishing 2-day local train journey from Hokkaido to Kyoto… in other words, ferry travel perhaps isn’t the best idea if you can’t be flexible with your dates!

Japan Guide has a great page on Japanese domestic ferries, with handy maps showing the routes, access information for the ports, and links to the various ferry companies’ websites. They’ve covered it so thoroughly there really is no point in me saying anything more; here’s the link!

Kyoto's Gion Festival parade

The Gion Festival parade

Some Japan Highlights

Japan has the best skiing I’ve done outside North America and Europe – the northern island of Hokkaido is especially good due to the amazing quality and quantity of the powder.

Go hiking – the country is mostly mountainous, and with the well-developed transportation network those mountains are very accessible; add in the rick folklore of forest spirits and mountaintop temples, and Japan is a bit of a hiker’s paradise. Fuji is of course the most famous, but my favourite hiking lies in the mountains around Kyoto which are steeped in legend. Despite being the largest city on Earth, Tokyo has some surprisingly good hiking too.

Festivals. Coming in all shapes and sizes, from bonkers shrine combat festivals to friendly local festivals to dance festivals to the solemn Gion Festival, matsuri are a brilliant way to see the living traditions of Japan. Often baffling (as in “why are naked men climbing poles and beating each other with sticks?”), usually lots of fun (though some are quite serious), and always fascinating, if you have the chance to attend one you should go for it.

Should you be lucky enough to visit while the sakura (cherry blossoms) are in bloom, you’re in for a treat; see my favourite cherry blossom spots in Tokyo and Kyoto.

Eat. You can blow hundreds of dollars a head on kaiseki ryori (fine dining) or the best sushi you’ll ever eat, or just a few dollars for a hearty bowl of noodles in a noisy little ramen joint with fogged up windows. The range and quality of the food should keep your taste buds happily exploring for as long as you’re there.

Drink. Whisky and beer have replaced Nihonshu (sake) as the main tipples; but whatever your poison, Japan likes to drink. A typical Saturday night itinerary might go izakaya, karaoke, then wherever the night takes you.

Explore Kyoto. Very possibly my favourite city; it can be a bit of a slow-burner and certainly didn’t grab me on my first visit, but over time it really got its claws into me. The city’s standout highlights, such as Fushimi Inari, can be rushed around in a few days; but you could spend your whole life there and never explore every last alleyway, see every little tucked-away neighbourhood temple, or visit every last mountain shrine. The longer you give it, the more she will reveal.

Get stuck in to Tokyo. Another amazing city, though in quite different ways. Something it shares in common with Kyoto is that there is just so much exploring to do that you could never exhaust it. From the cyberpunk cityscapes and neon lights of Shinjuku and Shibuya to the pokey little noodle stands under the railway tracks in Shitemachi, the old-time alleyways like Golden Gai and Memory Alley to the often quirky old neighbourhoods out beyond the Yamanote line, Tokyo will keep you entertained.

Visit the Yuzawa Snow Country.

Get a JR Pass and ride the shinkansen (bullet train) here, there, and everywhere. The islands of Kyushu, Shikoku, and Hokkaido are all gorgeous and justify thorough explorations in their own right. There’s no train to Okinawa of course, but a short flight (or long ferry!) from the mainland will get you to this subtropical island chain.

Visit Nagasaki and Hiroshima, two cities that have come bouncing right back from the rubble of the atom bombs but which maintain poignant memorials and museums to those events.

Tohoku, the mostly rural region of the main island (Honshu) to the north of Tokyo, is both a beauty and a treasure-trove of traditional Japanese culture. Tohoku got battered by the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster, they’re pulling through, and they’d love to see you up there.

Resources and Useful Links for Visiting Japan

All my Japan posts here.

Buy a JR Pass here.

Flexible travel insurance from World Nomads, especially useful if you’re already overseas (this is an important point, as I once learned the hard way in Bangkok). For those hitting the slopes, check out their winter sports cover.

Lonely Planet Japan

For hiking inspiration, check out my pages on hiking in Kyoto and Tokyo, see Ridgeline Images for some seriously awesome & in-depth hiking in the mountains near Tokyo (with great photos), and Hiking In Japan for the best mountain hikes nationwide.

For the ski bums, my skiing in Japan pages.

Japan Guide, a really thorough and useful website for destination & transport information.

Hyperdia for train timetables.

(This page contains affiliate links i.e. if you follow the links from this page to purchase travel insurance or a JR pass, 4corners7seas will receive a commission from them; this commission comes out of their profit margin at no extra cost to you. I’m recommending these services because they’re awesome, and thank you in advance should you choose to purchase them via the above links!)