Flying around Japan

Many visitors plan to use trains to get around Japan, often spurred on by the desire to get the most out of a rail pass. While train travel is very efficient and comfortable in Japan, there are times when flights are worth considering instead of trains.

Travel time

Japan is a long narrow country and distances can be greater than people first think. Let’s compare travel times by rail and by air from Tokyo.

From Tokyo to Rail (from Tokyo station) Air (from Haneda airport)
Fukuoka 4 hours 55 minutes 1 hour 55 minutes
Hakodate 4 hours 30 minutes 1 hour 20 minutes
Hiroshima 3 hours 50 minutes 1 hour 25 minutes
Kagoshima 6 hours 50 minutes 1 hour 45 minutes
Kanazawa 2 hours 30 minutes 1 hour (to Komatsu airport)
Kyoto 2 hours 15 minutes 1 hour 10 minutes (to Itami airport)
Osaka 2 hours 30 minutes 1 hour 10 minutes (to Itami airport)
Sapporo 7 hours 35 minutes 1 hour 30 minutes (to New Chitose airport)

For some destinations, such as Fukuoka and Sapporo, the flight time is much less than the train time. One advantage trains have over planes is that train stations are located in or near the centre of the city. Airports can be some distance away and travel time can be as much as an hour or more, therefore you need to factor this time and cost into your decision about whether flying is worth it.

Let’s look at a couple of examples

Tokyo to Fukuoka

Travel time to Haneda Airport from Tokyo station – 25 minutes.

Travel time from Fukuoka Airport to Hakata station – 5 minutes

Flight time – 1 hour 55 minutes

After allowing for check in time and collecting baggage, the time to travel from Tokyo station to Hakata station in Fukuoka is around 3 hours by air, whereas it’s 4 hours and 55 minutes by train. Flying is definitely worth considering as a travel option.

Tokyo to Kyoto

Travel time to Haneda Airport from Tokyo station – 25 minutes.

Travel time from Itami Airport to Kyoto station – 1 hour

Flight time – 1 hour 10 minutes

After allowing for check in time and collecting baggage, the time to travel from Tokyo station to Kyoto station  is over 3 hours by air, whereas it’s 2 hours and 15 minutes by train. This makes flying a less attractive travel option.

Cost

The potential cost of flying may be off-putting, particularly if you’re contemplating a rail pass which would cover the long train journey.

If you are looking at getting a rail pass, it’s worth thinking about possibly getting a shorter duration rail pass and flying the longest leg of your journey. It depends on your overall itinerary of course, but sometimes flying to a destination, spending a few days there, and then starting the rail pass can work out well. Although it’s tempting to think the rail pass can be used for day trips too, check out how expensive these actually are. The transport costs may be cheap enough to pay as you go for these.

If you are concerned about the possible costs of flights, then look at budget airlines, such as Skymark, Vanilla, Peach and Jetstar, among others. Some airlines, including JAL, ANA and Air Do have special fares for foreign tourists, although there are often closeout periods for these. For special discount airfares for foreign visitors, check the following.

JAL Japan Explorer Pass

ANA Experience Japan Fare

Air Do Welcome to Hokkaido Fare

Once you have an idea of likely costs for flying, you can compare with other options, bearing in mind your complete itinerary. Your overall transport costs for your trip can vary according to methods of transport, deals available, and how you schedule your itinerary.

How to book

Booking domestic flights within Japan is fairly straight forward. These can be reserved in a similar way to airlines elsewhere, via the airline’s website, a third-party website such as Expedia or Webjet, or a travel agent. Flights on JAL and ANA can be booked up to a year in advance, but the advance booking window for flights on low cost carriers is less, as little as two months ahead. Tickets for late March to late October go on sale in late January, while tickets for late October to late March go on sale in late August.

Ensure you understand the conditions of tickets, particularly when buying promotional fares aimed at foreign tourists. Some of these require passport details and are restricted to people holding return international tickets to and from Japan. You may be asked to show passports and international tickets at check-in.

Travelling by plane

If you are taking a domestic flight to get between cities during your trip, it is a good idea to check terminal and airport details carefully. Tokyo and Osaka both have two airports some distance from each other and some airports have multiple domestic terminals.

Checking in half an hour before the flight is the general requirement, but at busy holiday times it is worth allowing extra time. Check in may be done at check in counters or at self-service machines, depending on the airline and airport. You may be asked to show some form of identification, depending on the airline and the type of ticket, so have your passport in an accessible place. After check in, you will need to go through security into the domestic departure area. This can be busy at certain times of the day and over holiday periods, so allow some extra time for this.

Dealing with luggage

Check ticket conditions carefully with regard to the amount of luggage allowed. If you have a greater quantity of luggage than allowed by your ticket, either purchase extra luggage allowance from the airline before you go to the airport, or send your extra luggage via luggage transfer service. Excess charges at the check in counter can be steep.

There are very efficient luggage forwarding services in Japan which make travelling much easier. Although your accommodation is generally able to organise luggage transfer, the following links will help in situations where you need to do it yourself.

Hands free travel

Yamato Transport

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For further information, the ebook Japan Just for You is a practical step-by-step guide to planning your trip to Japan, starting with developing your own personal trip concept. It’s now available on Apple, Amazon and Kobo, with other ebook stores to come soon.