Five Limited Express Trains for Exploring Areas Outside Tokyo

Did you know that the Shinkansen isn’t the only way to reach areas outside Tokyo quickly and comfortably? Limited Express trains can sometimes be the better solution, and cheaper if you’re not entitled to a JR Pass. However, unlike the Shinkansen, Limited Express trains are operated not only by JR East but also by a handful of private companies, which use different systems for running their trains. So, here is a quick guide to five convenient Limited Express trains for travelling outside Tokyo.

Why Travel by Limited Express Train?

If you are planning a day trip outside Tokyo, there are several ways to do so. The first is by a local train: it’s flexible and affordable, but time-consuming and less comfortable. The second way is to go by the Shinkansen: it’s fast and comfortable, but expensive and has a limited number of routes. The third way is to get a seat on a limited express train. Compared to the Shinkansen, the cost is only slightly lower and the speed is about half. However, the comfort level is the same: reclining seats, table trays, drink holders and food and beverage cart service (depending on the time of the day) are the norm.

Some Limited Express trains, like the Narita Express, can seem ? look? more comfortable than the Shinkansen (photo source: Flickr, Kentaro_Iemoto@Tokyo)

Since the limited express trains use the same tracks as regular trains, they can usually be boarded without passing through a second ticket gate. However, you need to buy an extra ticket called “tokyu ken(特急券 special express ticket). You can do this before boarding from the station ticket office (if there is one), from a ticket vending machine outside the ticket gates (the usual option), and sometimes from a ticket vending machine on the departure platform itself.

This ticket vending machine for the JR Chuo line Limited Express has a different colour and a logo, showing a comfortable seat (photo source: Wikipedia)

If the train has non-reserved seating or allows the use of empty reserved seats by passengers without a reserved seat, you can just board the train, find an empty seat, and buy your special express ticket on the train from the controller directly (they will come to you). There is no surcharge and you can even pay by Suica or Pasmo. The only risk with this option is that if the train is full you may have to stand. This should only happen when departing the capital on Saturday or at the start of a holiday period, or when returning to the capital on a Sunday or at the end of a holiday period. As a rule of thumb, if you aren’t allowed to board the train without reserving your seat first, an attendant will be there to prevent you from doing so.

All seats are reserved on the Narita Express and someone will check your ticket before you are allowed to board (photo source: Wikipedia)

Limited Express trains are known by the train lines they use but they usually have a nickname, sometimes several for the same line if they branch out further down and end at different destinations. Finally, you may be wondering why it’s called a limited express and not just express, or special express, as it’s called in Japanese. The limited part comes from the fact that it only stops at a limited number of stations. According to Wikipedia, it is the official name of this type of train although, as a European, I find it confusing since it feels like it is not a full express.

Go West to Fuji: The Chuo Line

Mt Fuji, a World Heritage since 2013, can now be reached via Limited Express Train

Heading West and linking Shinjuku with the central regions of Japan, namely Yamanashi and Nagano prefectures, the Chuo line, operated by JR East, is Tokyo’s getaway from the busy city to nature and fresh air. Crossing the mountainous interior of Honshu in a straight line and passing through several tunnels on the way, the “Kaiji” trains take the traveller to Kofu, and the “Azusa” trains to Matsumoto and Hakuba. The furthest station, Minami-Otari, is 200km away from Tokyo. Started in March 2019, the “Fuji Excursion” trains going to Kawaguchiko are probably the best way to reach the Mt Fuji area.

Until recently, the Chuo line had both non-reserved and reserved seats in separate cars. However since March 2019, there are only reserved seats. You can sit in any empty seat but you will have to change seats if someone reserves that particular seat at any of the (usually few) stations before your destination. Red-yellow-green lights above each seat indicate its current status.

The new Chuo line “E353” trains introduced in March 2019 (photo source: Wikipedia)

Since the Chuo line is popular for day trips, it can be very crowded on weekends during the peak season, which lasts from May to October. When leaving at the start of the weekend or returning at the end of one, reserved seats usually sell out quickly, and the non-reserved cars can be as packed as a Tokyo subway during rush hour.

Destinations and sights along the Chuo line are:

Matsumoto castle is known as the “crow castle” because of its black exterior

Go North to Nikko: The Tobu Nikko Line

There are two Limited Express Trains heading North to the small city of Nikko, famous for the Toshogu Shrine, a World Heritage site. The first one is operated by JR East, the “Nikko” trains, and departs from Shinjuku and Ikebukuro stations. The second one, run by Tobu Railway, a private railway company, the “Kegon” trains, leaves from Asakusa and Kita-senju stations. Both use the same Tobu railways tracks, the Tobu Nikko, on the last part of the journey.

Shinkyo Bridge at the entrance of the Nikko Toshogu Shrine

There is just one “Nikko” train leaving in the morning from Shinjuku and Ikebukuro stations, and one returning in the evening; there are however 3 daily trains to the closeby Kinugawa Onsen (“Kinugawa” and “Kinugawa Spacia” trains). All seats are reserved but you should be able to get an outbound seat fairly easily. I have found these trains to be pleasantly empty, maybe because there is a more frequent limited express serving the same destination. Also, it isn’t covered by the JR Pass (although it’s covered by the Tokyo Wide Pass), so it’s not used by overseas tourists.

The “Kegon” trains depart from Asakusa station frequently and throughout the day, and are a better choice if you need flexible departure and return times. All seats are reserved and I’d strongly recommend purchasing a seat in advance since this limited express is usually quite full. In 2017, Tobu railway introduced new train cars called “Revaty” so a “Revaty Kegon” It is the train bound for Nikko that uses these newer train cars.

A look inside the new Tobu “Revaty” train cars (photo source: Wikipedia)

Like JR East, Tobu Railway also operates a service to nearby Kinugawa Onsen: the “Kinu” train and the “Aizu”, which stops 2 stations further at Shin-Fujiwara and connects with the Aizu-Kinugawa that continues North into the Aizu region of Fukushima, a great area to explore and completely off the tourist trail. A useful thing to know is that JR East and Tobu Railway trains for Kinugawa Onsen separate from the Nikko ones at Shimo-Imaichi station, only ten minutes away, meaning that it’s always possible to take a local and then transfer to the Limited Express coming from Kinugawa Onsen. The same works in reverse when travelling from Tokyo.

Replica of the Pyramid of Giza and the Sphinx at the Tobu World Square

Since Nikko and Kinugawa Onsen are popular weekend getaways, return seats on Sundays afternoons on both JR East and Tobu Railway services can quickly sell out, and then you may need to wait for the next train or use a local line. Since both trains use Tobu Railway tracks for the last part of the trip, they end at Tobu-Station, a few minutes on foot from the JR Nikko station

The main sightseeing spots along both lines are divided between Nikko and Kinugawa Onsen:

  • Nikko Toshogu Shrine
  • Kegon Falls and Chuzenji Lake (Tobu bus from Nikko)
  • Kinugawa Onsen Hot Spring Resort
  • Tobu World Square (one (spot) stop? before Kinugawa Onsen)
  • Ryuokyo River Gorge (3 stops past Kinugawa Onsen, transfer needed)
View of Kegon Falls from the top of the Akechidaira Ropeway

Go East to the Beach: The Uchibo and Sotobo Lines

Operated by JR East, the “Sazanami” trains for Kimitsu and Tateyama, and the “Wakashio” trains for Katsuura and Kamogawa, depart from Tokyo station, run together till Soga station shortly after Chiba station, then split and go down opposite sides of the Chiba Boso peninsula. The extremities of each line, on either side of the Boso peninsula, are connected by a 40 minute ride on the Uchibo line by local train.

The “Sazanami” trains, meaning “little waves”, head directly South along the Uchibo line (meaning inner line) with nice views of Tokyo Bay to the right. Most trains run half-way down the Boso peninsula to Kimitsu city, a place that isn’t high up in the must-see destinations in Japan. I like to get off two stops earlier at Goi station and transfer to the Kominato line which takes you to the picturesque Yoro river valley, famous for its autumn colours but beautiful year-round.

The Yoro River Valley

On weekends during peak periods, some “Sazanami” trains will run all the way to Tateyama in the Southern part of the Boso Peninsula. The whole area is an interesting place to visit and is completely off the beaten track. Recently, the number of “Sazanami” trains has been reduced due to increased competition from buses using the Aqua line tunnel running under Tokyo bay. Although it’s a cheaper option, traffic jams are pretty bad on the weekend so you might end up with a longer travel time.

The Sazanami or “Boso Express” stopping at Akihabara station (photo source: Wikipedia)

The “Wakashio” trains continue East after Sogo, before curving South along the Sotobo line and the Pacific side of the Boso peninsula, with good views of the Pacific on the left side. Most trains run all the way to Awa-Kamogawa station in Kamogawa City. Like Tateyama, Kamogawa has lots to offer for the adventurous tourist, for example the Oyama Rice Terraces. One stop before Katsuura is Onjuku station, a popular beach during the summer.

The “Sasanami” and “Wakashio” trains use comfortable and spacious cars divided into reserved and non-reserved seating. I find them less crowded than average, perhaps because it’s mainly used by local tourists, and it should be fairly easy to snag unreserved seats heading out and heading back. On the weekends, there is also one train a day running from Shinjuku and Akihabara stations.

The mains sights are are divided between the Uchibo and Sotobo lines:

  • Yoro Keikoku Station: Yoro River valley (transfer in Goi)
  • Hamakanaya: Nokogiri Ropeway and Nokogiri Mountain
  • Tateyama: Gateway to Southern Boso
  • Awa-Kamogawa: Oyama Rice Terraces
  • Onjuku: Beach in the summer
The top of this cliff on Mt Nokogiriyama is called a peek into hell

Go South to Hakone: The Romancecar

The “Romancecar”, run by Odakyu Electric Railway, is one of the longest running train services in the Tokyo area, although the current trains cars themselves are fairly new and comfortable. The name comes from the fact that there are no elbow rests between seats in most trains, although taking the train by oneself is perfectly fine.

 The “Hakone” and “Super Hakone” (stops only at Odawara) trains end in Yumoto-Onsen, at the edge of the Hakone area, and the “Mt Fuji” trains end in Gotemba, another starting point for visiting Mt Fuji. All seats are reserved so when buying your ticket, make sure to get seats on the right side. Soon after crossing the Tama river and leaving Tokyo, Mt Fuji should be visible between the gaps in the buildings.

The Hakone experience on Lake Ashi

There are several models of limited Express trains in operation at the same time, since Odakyu introduces new ones (and retired old ones) every few years or so, but they probably have the nicest interior design of all limited trains. Riding the “Romancecar” is always a pleasant experience. Unfortunately it isn’t covered by JR East trains passes, and if you have bought the highly recommended Hakone Freepass, you’ll still need to buy a Special Express ticket to use this train.

The Odakyu series 60000 MSE, one of the latest models to be introduced (photo source: Wikipedia)

Despite the fact that Hakone is a major tourist destination, I can usually get a seat on the “Hakone” trains just before departure, and the train cars are pleasantly empty, especially early in the morning. This may be because this Limited Express runs fairly frequently. Another reason may be that many Japanese tourists like to stay overnight at one of the many hot spring inns that dot the area, so they tend to leave later in the day.

The main destinations and sightseeing spots are:

  • Odawara: Odawara Castle
  • Yumoto-Onsen: Gateway to the Hakone Area
  • Gotemba: Gateway to the Mt Fuji Area
Most seats on the Romancecar do not have a middle armrest (photo source: Wikipedia)
Odawara Castle is one of Japan’s top 100 castles

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Writer / Translator

I’ve been in Japan for over 10 years although it feels shorter because I am constantly discovering new things and new places. Sometimes it can be hard to get the full Japanese experience because of cultural differences and linguistic barriers. For that reason, I want to share what I have learned in order to enhance your experience in Japan. Having said that, figuring out stuff on your own can also be fun. In any case, I hope you can find here whatever you need in order to make your stay a success.