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Beyond the brochure: JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area)

Beyond the brochure: JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area)

Snowy mountains, perfect for skiing. Vibrant nature reserves, beautiful in all four seasons. Secluded hot spring towns where even the monkeys take a dip. It’s hard to imagine that all of the above would be a mere stone’s throw away from Tokyo (東京), but that’s exactly how close to the city they feel, if you make use of the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area)!

If you’ve already read my prior article on the JR TOKYO Wide Pass, think of the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) as a bigger, beefier version of that. For ¥18,000, you can get five days of unlimited travel on nearly every JR East train not only in every prefecture in the Kanto Region (関東地方 Kanto Chihō), but in the prefectures of Nagano (長野県 Nagano-ken) and Niigata (新潟県 Niigata-ken) too! This coverage extends to every shinkansen line in the area as well, with the exception of the Tokaido Shinkansen Line (東海道新幹線) which connects Tokyo Station (東京駅 Tokyo-eki) to Shin-Osaka Station (新大阪駅 Shin-Ōsaka-eki).

 

The renewed JR EAST PASS has been upgraded to allow commuters to use the automatic ticket gates but also had to be changed to a consecutive day pass from a flexible one. (Image credit: JR East) 


Thanks to the extensive train and shinkansen coverage of this area, it is entirely possible for you to experience much of what the prefectures of Nagano and Niigata have to offer in the form of day trips from your Tokyo hotel. So, for this edition of “Beyond the Brochure”, I will be covering five different locations you can access via train—one trip for each day of the 5-day pass!

 

Day 1: Matsumoto 

While Himeji Castle is known as Heron Castle because of its whiteness, Matsumoto Castle is the Crow Castle due to its black exterior (Image credit: photoAC)

 

We’ll start off our trip with a visit to a National Treasure of Japan: Matsumoto Castle (松本城  Matsumoto-jō). Dating back to the Eisho Period (永正) in the 16th century during which it was first known as Fukashi Castle (深志城 Fukashi-jō), Matsumoto Castle is one of the only 12 original castles in Japan to have maintained its original building, and the oldest extant five-structure/six-storey castle in Japan. Its contrasting black and white exterior against the shining Japanese Alps makes for splendid scenery.



To get to Matsumoto Castle, take the Limited Express Azusa from Shinjuku Station (新宿駅 Shinjuku-eki) to and alight at Matsumoto Station (松本駅 Matsumoto-eki). Alternatively, you can also take the Hokuriku Shinkansen (北陸新幹線) to Nagano Station (長野駅 Nagano-eki), then transfer to the Limited Express Shinano and alight at Matsumoto Station. From there, the castle park is a short 5-minute bus ride or a 15-minute walk from the train station.

 

Matsumoto Castle (松本城)
Address: 4-1 Marunouchi, Matsumoto, Nagano 390-0873
Nearest station: Matsumoto Station (松本駅)
Access: 15-minute walk from the station
Opening hours: 8:30am–5pm (Last admission 4:30pm, closed on 29–31 December)
Admission fee: ¥700 (Adult), ¥300 (Students, ages 6-15), Free (Children ages 5 and under)
Tel: +81 263-32-2902

 

Additional trip: Kamikochi

A paradise for nature-lovers, Kamikochi is verdant in the Summer and dazzling in the Autumn. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

If spending an entire day in Matsumoto City (松本市 Matsumoto-shi) alone feels too little for you, then you need only look to the west, as Matsumoto is also the gateway to one of Japan’s premier nature retreats: Kamikōchi (上高地 Upper Highlands)! A highland valley nestled deep within the Japan Alps, Kamikōchi is the ideal power spot to visit if you want to experience some of the absolute best nature that Nagano has to offer!



To get to Kamikōchi from Matsumoto, take a 30-minute train ride on the Matsumoto Dentetsu Kamikōchi Line (松本電鉄上高地線 Matsumoto dentetsu kamikōchisen) to Shin-Shimashima Station (新島々駅 Shin-Shimashima-eki). From there, take an hour bus ride via Alpico Bus Kamikochi. For a deep dive into the sights and trails of Kamikōchi during peak shinryoku (新緑) season in mid-May to early June, check out my colleague Carissa’s article on the matter here!

Note: Kamikōchi is inaccessible in the Winter and will usually re-open to visitors the following Spring. Please refer to their website for specific dates.

 

Day 2: Karuizawa

Besides its glitzy premium outlets and glamorous shopping streets and lodges, Karuizawa is also home to spectacular sights of nature. (Image credit: photoAC

 

Karuizawa (軽井沢) is an ever-present stop in many of our rail pass articles, and for good reason. It’s a really easy recommendation of a town to visit because it caters to everyone. If you’re the outdoorsy type, the Shiraito Falls (白糸の滝 Shiraito-no-taki) are a 25-minute bus ride away. Got a shopaholic in your group? The Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza (軽井沢・プリンスショッピングプラザ) has you covered. If you fancy a dip in a hot spring or a museum visit, then head on over to Naka-Karuizawa (中軽井沢). Kyu-Karuizawa Ginza Street (旧軽井沢通り) is perfect if you wish to abandon activity altogether and just vibe at a cafe or walk down a nostalgic, rustic street.

Karuizawa Station (軽井沢駅 Karuizawa-eki) is slightly over an hour’s ride from Tokyo Station via the Hokuriku Shinkansen.


Additional trip: Kusatsu Onsen

For hundreds of years, Kusatsu Onsen has held a spot as one of the most visited hot spring towns in the country. (Image credit: photoAC


If you really want to up your onsen game for this trip, I highly recommend a detour from Karuizawa to visit Kusatsu Onsen (草津温泉), one of the most famous onsen towns in the whole country. Noted for its iconic yubatake (湯畑) situated in the centre of the town, pumping out 32,000 litres of hot, sulphuric water a minute, Kusatsu Onsen is chock-full of a variety of different inns and public baths to soak in at your leisure.

If you want to get to Kusatsu Onsen from Karuizawa, you can take the Kusakaru Kotsu Bus from Karuizawa Station to Kusatsu Onsen Bus Terminal for ¥2,450. If you want to maximise your usage of the JR EAST PASS, however, there is an alternative route to get there entirely covered by the pass. Travel to Takasaki Station (高崎駅 Takasaki-eki) from Tokyo Station via the Joetsu Shinkansen, before transferring to the Agatsuma Line (吾妻線 Agatsuma-sen) to get to Naganohara-Kusatsuguchi Station (長野原草津口駅 Naganohara-Kusatsuguchi-eki). From there, you can board a JR bus to Kusatsu Onsen (30 minutes, ¥710), which is also covered by the JR EAST PASS!


Day 3: Echigo-Yuzawa


Echigo Yuzawa is incredibly popular in the Winter thanks to its many ski slopes and easy access from Tokyo (Image credit: photoAC)

 

Travelling in autumn or winter? A popular getaway nestled in the mountains of Niigata Prefecture, Yuzawa (湯沢) is an ideal destination if you have an affinity for onsen, ropeways and mountain scenery. If you’re travelling in the winter, then you’re in luck, because Yuzawa is also home to several popular powder snow ski resorts. Most well-known among them would be the GALA Yuzawa Snow Resort, which has its own personal shinkansen station platform which opens only during winter, making it easily the most accessible ski resort from Tokyo! Holders of the JR EAST PASS, JR TOKYO WIDE PASS, and other JR Passes valid within the area will also be eligible for special discounts at the snow resort for the 2023 Winter season.

 

Getting to Yuzawa is as simple as boarding the Joetsu Shinkansen (上越新幹線) from Tokyo Station (東京駅 Tokyo-eki) for slightly over an hour, and departing at Echigo-Yuzawa station (越後湯沢駅 Echigo-Yuzawa-eki). Many of the town’s popular attractions, like Yuzawa-Kogen Ropeway (湯沢高原ロープウェイ) or the Ponshu-kan (ぽんしゅ館) sake shop, are only a brief walking distance from the train station platform, making the town an ideal place to spend a day walking around exploring.



GALA Yuzawa Snow Resort (GALA湯沢スキー場)
Address: 1039-2 Yuzawa, Minamiuonuma-gun, Niigata 949-6101
Nearest station: GALA Yuzawa Station (ガーラ湯沢駅)
Access: Directly connected to the station
Admission fees and opening hours of the Ski Center will vary based on the season, please refer to the website for the full details.
Tel: +81 80-3703-7795

 

Day 4: Tokamachi

The Hoshitoge Rice Terraces are a perfect illustration of the harmony between man and nature—a beautiful landscape through which the locals carry out their way of life while also protecting the land itself. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

For the fourth day, we’ll be making a return to Echigo-Yuzawa Station to transfer to the Joetsu Line bound for Tokamachi (十日町). As an extension of the “Snow Country” of the Yuzawa area, Tokamachi also experiences a large amount of snowfall annually, but is more renowned for its landscapes rather than for skiing. Perhaps the most iconic of these would be the Hoshitoge Rice Terraces, a sloping hill covered with hundreds of rice paddies which shimmer in the light of the setting sun.


There are few other places in the world where you can see a hill of rice terraces frozen over with ice and snow. (Image credit: Niigata Prefecture Tourism Association)

 

To get to the viewing spot of the rice terraces, take a 50-minute train ride to Matsudai Station (まつだい駅 Matsudai-eki) from Echigo-Yuzawa Station on the Joetsu Line. When the train passes through Muikamachi Station, it switches over to the Hokuhoku Line operated by Hokuetsu Express. Although it's a private railway company, this trip is still covered by the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area). You can take a 20-minute car or taxi ride from the station to get to the Hoshitoge Rice Terrace Viewpoint (星峠の棚田 Hoshi-tōge no tanada).



Hoshitoge Rice Terraces Viewpoint (星峠の棚田)
Address: 1513 Toge, Tokamachi, Niigata 942-1351
Nearest station: Matsudai Station (まつだい駅)
Access: 20-minute taxi ride from the station
Admission: Free
Tel (Matsushiro/Matsunoyama Onsen Tourist Information Center): +81 25-597-3442 

 

Day 5: Izu

Stop by the Izu Peninsula in February to catch some of the earliest sakura blooms in all Japan. (Image credit: photoAC)  

 

While there is certainly more than enough in the prefectures of Nagano and Niigata for you to make full use of your JR EAST PASS, let’s not forget that it is also valid for trains in the Kanto Region as well! This even includes a little stretch of Shizuoka Prefecture (静岡県 Shizuoka-ken) called the Izu Peninsula (伊豆半島 Izu Hantō), popular amongst Tokyoites as a quick onsen getaway from the city and an early viewing spot for cherry blossoms.

 

The highlights of the Izu Peninsula include Shuzenji Onsen (修善寺温泉), accessible from Ito, the Kawazu Cherry Blossom Festival  (河津桜祭り Kawazuzakura Matsuri)  in Kawazu (河津町 Kawazu-chō), and the historical city of Shimoda (下田市 Shimoda-shi), all the way at the end of the Izu Kyuko Line (伊豆急行線 Izu-Kyuko-sen). These locations are all accessible using the JR EAST PASS (with the exception of Shuzenji Onsen), as the Izu Kyuko line is covered despite being a private railway.

 


Travel the Izu Peninsula in style onboard the SAPHIR ODORIKO. (Image credit: JR East) 

 

The Izu Peninsula is also accessible by a luxury train called the SAPHIR ODORIKO, which offers stunning views of the coastline as you dine on exquisite, posh cabins. As the train only contains Green Car seats and above, the JR EAST PASS only covers the base fare, and you would need to pay extra to ride this train, but it's definitely an experience you should try out if you have the chance! You can read more about how a trip on the SAPHIR ODORIKO is like in our article here.

How much do you save?

Information based on Hyperdia, prices and timings may vary accordingly.

 

Total cost: ¥35,730 x 2 (round trip) = ¥71,460
- JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) price: ¥18,000
= Savings: ¥53,460!

 

Admittedly, going for five consecutive days of train-based day trips in a row is a herculean feat, but with the low price of the JR EAST PASS even going on a single day trip for the entirety of the validity period would be enough to break even, and then some. Anyone who is willing and ready to optimise their itinerary and take full advantage of this pass would have the potential to see massive amounts of savings on their train ticket fees.



The prefectures of Nagano and Niigata contain all the ingredients necessary for a perfect winter trip, so keep this pass in mind the next time you’re planning a winter wonderland holiday!

 

Header image credit: Niigata Prefecture Tourism Association

 

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