You can spend a whole day on the Tokyo rail network for just 90p. Here’s how

Your carriage awaits: a Japan Rail train. Image: Getty.

Let’s cut to the chase: you’re here, reading this website, so you probably like trains. Trains are cool. Rail network maps are cool. Spending a day on trains is cool.

But the cost of travel can add up, especially if you venture far afield. So here’s the part that’s going to blow your mind: there’s a way to spend all day on trains for about a pound.

Have you ever, just for larks, gone the long way round on a rail or metro network? Travelled between Cowcaddens and Buchanan Street in Glasgow, but via Govan? Between Mornington Crescent and King’s Cross in London, but via Kennington instead of changing at Euston? Got the lower fare on London Overground travelling between Clapham Junction and Highbury & Islington?

There’s a name for this in Japan: 大回り乗車 which is pronounced “oomawari jousha” and literally means “big ride”. It means you can buy the cheapest ticket available and travel round the whole network, and staff will nod at the practice. (Hopefully. If they don't, do your best stupid foreigner face, say “oomawari jousha” and point out your route on a map. Should work.)

Like everything brilliant in this world there’s a catch, though, and here it’s that you can’t leave the rail network and explore. But why would you want to do that? You like trains, remember?

We first learned about this practice from excellent website Tokyo Cheapo, which you should absolutely check out if you’re ever planning a trip. (Full disclosure: I occasionally write for sister sites Japan Cheapo and London Cheapo.) It works like this.

  • Buy a ticket for the metro. The cheapest on the Tokyo Metro is 140 yen, which at the current exchange rate is about 90p.
  • You can only travel on Japan Rail (JR) lines. You can ask about oomawari jousha on a private line, but your language skills probably aren’t up to that and anyway, JR has the most extensive network.
  • You can’t travel on the bullet or express trains. You’re paying a pound, come on.
  • You can’t go beyond the gate line until you’re finished or you’ll have to pay the full fare. You also have to be back by the end of the day else your ticket won't be valid.
  • You have to start and finish your journey within the paid-for fare zone. So in Tokyo you would, for example, start in Shibuya and finally exit at Ebisu, one stop along the Yamanote line.

That’s the basics over. Where can you actually visit? You’re limited to the suburban networks but in reality that means you can go miles out of the way. Here’s a map:

Let’s look at some potential routes.


Go west

Start at Shinjuku station, partly because it’s the busiest station in the world and you might as well join in. Pick up some food for the journey – some larger stations have shops and restaurants within the gate line, but you don’t want to be caught out. Buy a 140 yen ticket and head for the Saikyo line and catch the 09:46 train to Akabane. From here, catch the Takasaki line to, well, Takasaki and enjoy the view as you travel into the mountains of Gunma prefecture.

At Takasaki, switch to the Joetsu line to Minakami, which is the technical limit of how far you can go – the line continues, but it’s at your own risk. So far you’ve travelled 161km and it should take around 200 minutes to get here.

Let’s go back a different way, because we can. You should have got into Minakami at 13:07, so take an hour to admire the view from the station platforms before catching the 14:19 train to Shim-Maebashi, then hopping on the Ryomo line to Oyama. Congratulations, you’re now entering Tochigi prefecture. At Oyama, change for the Mito line to Tomobe (in Ibaraki prefecture, you’re really racking them up now).

At Tomobe, catch the Joban line back towards Tokyo, changing at Nippori for the Yamanote line (Tokyo’s version of the Circle line) before getting out at Shin-Okubo – one stop down from Shinjuku.

Your return journey from Minakami takes six hours and covers 295km. You have paid 140 yen to travel 456km. You are the train monarch.

Go south

If mountains aren’t your thing, how about the coast? The Boso Peninsular juts out to the south-west of Tokyo, with the Pacific to the east and Tokyo Bay to the west. Railway lines hug the coastline. So let’s eyeball all that scenery for 140 yen.

Start at Tokyo station (that’s the specific station called Tokyo in Tokyo, because nobody ever said Tokyo was easy). Buy your 140 yen ticket and catch the 09:43 train on the Sobu line to Chiba, where you change to the Sotobo line. (Actually, I suspect this is the same train, as there’s a one minute transfer window and the arrival and departure platforms are the same.)

Anyway: you’re now headed to Kazusa-Ichinomiya, where you switch to a train for Awa-Kamogawa. This section takes around an hour, and you’ll start to get an ocean view. At Awa-Kamogawa, catch a train to Tateyama, which will carry on down the coast before cutting across the bottom of the peninsula after Chikura.

So far you’ve travelled 166km and it’s taken 200 minutes, assuming you catch all the connections. Now you need to travel back up the west side. Get on the Uchibo line to Kimitsu, where you switch to a rapid train to Chiba. At Chiba you’re getting back on the Sobu line (again, pretty sure you just stay on the same train), where you can either go straight back to Tokyo or make a couple of changes via Kinshicho and Akihabara.

But you can’t get out at Tokyo! You have to exit one stop along, so get on the Yamanote line and leave the network either at Kanda or Yurakucho.

The route back is 130km and takes 160 minutes. The whole journey is 296km and gets you back in time to enjoy your evening.

Go Osaka

Tokyo’s not the only city you can do oomawari jousha in. Osaka is perfectly positioned as a hub for many fascinating Japanese cities, so let’s see how many you can hit up in a day.

The limit in Osaka is almost, but not quite, the blue section on this JR West map (you can compare it with the Osaka map, second one down, on the Japan Rail website). Your ticket is even cheaper than in Tokyo too, at 120 yen.

Start at Osaka station by catching the 08:59 train to Kyoto, where you change for a train to Nara, famed for its ancient wooden temples and free-roaming deer. Not that you’re going to see any of that (though if you really want to get out, the fare for the journey so far is only 800 yen, you cheapskate).

Now you’re heading further south. Catch the 10:41 train on the Manyo Mahoroba line heading for Wakayama; looks like the train turns into the Wakayama line at Takada, after which you get a nice two hour trundle through Wakayama prefecture.

At Wakayama it’s time to head north again. Get on the Kishuji line for Hineno, where the train will magically turn into a Kansai Airport train bound for Osaka. Back at Osaka, catch a train to Himeji. This is a famous castle town, and lucky for you it can be seen from the station.

There’s about an hour waiting at Himeji, so watch the shinkansen whizz through and eat the food you hopefully bought before setting off. At 18:11, take a brief hop to Kakogawa where you change for a train to Nishiwakishi, because we’re taking the long route back to Osaka. At Nishiwakishi, take the Kakogawa line to Tanikawa, where you change onto the Takarazuka line back to Osaka. Now you just need to hop one station on the Osaka loop to Temma or Fukushima to finish at 10pm.

This route covers 496km. If you paid normal fares it’d cost 6,460 yen (roughly £43). Haha, suckers.

For more details on route planning, use HyperDia and JR’s suburban maps for Tokyo, Osaka, Fukuoka, Niigata and Sendai, which are the cities oomawari jousha works in. The maps are in Japanese and image-only so you can’t even copy and paste the city names into Google Translate – but the regional train companies will have English language network maps that you can spend ages flipping between the two trying to compare and contrast.

And if this isn’t how you like spending your evenings, this whole article has probably not been for you.

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Vanilla Skybus: George Romero and Pittsburgh’s metro to nowhere

A prototype Skybus on display near Pittsburgh. Image: BongWarrior/Wikimedia Commons.

The late director George A Romero’s films are mainly known for their zombies, an association stretching from his first film, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, to his last as director, 2009’s Survival of the Dead.

But many of them are also a record of Pittsburgh, the city he lived and worked in, and other locations in the state of Pennsylvania in the late 20th century. Martin (1978), for example, isn’t just a movie about a kid who thinks he’s a vampire: it’s a moving portrayal of the post-industrial decay of the Pittsburgh borough of Braddock.

Though born in New York, Romero studied in Pittsburgh and stayed in the city after graduation, shooting commercials as part of the successful Latent Image agency. It was in collaboration with advertising colleagues that he shot his debut Night of the Living Dead. On both that movie and subsequent films, Romero and his colleagues used their experience and connections from the agency to secure cheap and striking locations around the city and state. 

It’s in Romero’s little-seen second film, 1971’s romantic drama There’s Always Vanilla, that a crucial scene touches on a dead end in the history of urban transport in Steel City.

In the scene Vietnam vet Chris, only recently returned to town after a failed music career, sees his father off on a train platform, after an evening where Chris got his dad stoned and set him up with a stripper. (It was the early 1970s, remember.) An odd little two-carriage metro train pulls up on an elevated concrete platform, Chris’ father rides away on it, and then Chris literally bumps into Lynn, whom he then both gaslights and negs. (It was the ‘70s.) You can see the scene here.

A screenshot from There's Always Vanilla, showing the Skybus through a chain link fence.

If you don’t live in Pittsburgh, you might assume that funny little train, still futuristic forty years on, is just an everyday way of getting around in the exciting New World. Who knows what amazing technology they have over there, right?

In fact, the Transit Expressway Revenue Line, more snappily referred to as the Skybus, not only doesn’t exist today: it hardly existed at all, beyond what we see in that short scene. In the 1960s there were plans to replace Pittsburgh’s street car system with a more up to date urban transit system. The Skybus – driverless, running on rubber tires on an elevated concrete track with power provided with an under rail system – drew enough support from the Port Authority and Federal Government for them to fund a short demonstration track at the Allegheny County Fair, at that point a local institution.

It’s this demonstration track and train that appears in There’s Always Vanilla. Film makers love isolated systems like this, or the UK’s many heritage railways, because they allow for multiple takes and a controlled environment. So it made sense for Romero to use this local curio rather than seek access to an in-use station.


The sequence in Vanilla shows that the Skybus system worked, and as a potential metro system it looks quite striking to this day with its curved windows and distinctive logo. But the proposed system wasn’t popular with everyone, and cost concerns and political wrangling stalled the project – until it was finally rejected in favour of a more conventional steel wheel on steel rail transit system.

The demonstration track was pulled up in 1980, although the small station and platform seen in the movie remains: Romero expert Lawrence Devincentz narrates a photo tour of the building on the blu ray of There’s Always Vanilla.

Vanilla was renamed and barely seen on release, but is now available as part of a boxset of Romero’s early works from Arrow Video, in ridiculously pristine 2K digital transfer. The Skybus is there too, a curio of Pittsburgh history caught on a few short minutes of film. Neglected back then, both seem considerably more interesting now.

‘There’s Always Vanilla’ is available on blu ray as part of Arrow’s ‘George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn’ box set, and will receive a standalone release later this year.

Mark Clapham used to work in rail regulation, but now writes things like this. He tweets as @markclapham.