Transportation In Hokkaido (Part 1)

I think it really pays off to research about the transportation in Hokkaido, Tokyo, or Japan for that matter, before you fly over. It will save you time and money, and you will less likely be overwhelmed and be lost in the complex transportation system. A Singaporean friend living in Tokyo for a few years now remarked that she will still get lost if she’s not on familiar train routes.

Before I start, I like to highlight this word, “Access“. You will see this word often, it means transportation, how to get there, etc. If you are looking for directions to a particular place on its website, look for the ‘Access’ tab.

And if you are planning your train and subway journey, is a really good website! Their app is not available in Singapore, but key in ‘Hyperdia’ in your app store and you should get some good ranking apps! :)

IC cards: Suica vs Kitaca 

IC Cards are cards you can top up to use for public transportation and many other shops, vending machines, etc. Having an IC card will save you the hassle of buying a bus, train ticket every time you take it. It’s like the ez-link card of Singapore.

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IC cards in Japan can be used in different regions of Japan, within the region (check website for the specific areas). However, you cannot travel between two different coverage areas with an IC card. For example, You can use Suica while travelling around Sapporo, and Kitaca in Tokyo. However, you cannot travel from Sapporo to Tokyo using an IC card.

In any case, you cannot use the IC card on Shinkansen. 

You can usually buy this card from the train ticket office or machine. There’s a deposit of ¥500 included in the purchase price. That is, if you buy at ‎¥1,000, you only have credit of ‎¥500 to use.

Hokkaido Rail Pass

Hokkaido Rail Pass should not be confused with Japan Rail Pass, although they are similar. Japan Rail Pass has a nationwide coverage, while Hokkaido Rail Pass covers only the Hokkaido area. There are also other regional passes with coverage areas such as Central and Kyushu.

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What’s so good? Hokkaido Rail Pass allows unlimited rides on the JR Hokkaido Lines, with free seat reservations! But it’s valid for Ordinary cars only. This means you have to top up when you want to reserve a Green Car seat (business class of the train).

Who is it for? These Rail Passes are usually eligible for short term foreign tourist with “Temporary Visitor” entry status. Hence be sure to have your passport with you when you purchase the rail pass or when you exchange your voucher in Japan. Also, carry your passport with you when on the train and show it when requested.

Exchange voucher? If you buy your rail pass outside of Japan, you will be given a voucher. You will exchange this voucher for the actual rail pass when in Japan and then select a start date within one month from the day you exchange your voucher. You cannot change the start date after that.


Ordinary Car Adult Child (6-11yo)
3-Day ¥16,500 ¥8,250
4-Day Flexible* ¥22,000 ¥11,000
5-Day ¥22,000 ¥11,000
7-Day ¥24,000 ¥12,000

*For the others, the pass is valid for consecutive days of the period purchase. But for the flexible 4-Day, it can be used for any four days in a period of ten days, whether consecutive or not.

Hokkaido Rail Pass Website

Valid on Hokkaido Shinkansen? Not with this Hokkaido railway pass. But if you want to travel from Tokyo to Hokkaido on the new Shinkansen, you can consider getting JR East-South Hokkaido Rail Pass.

  • Priced at ¥26,000 for adults and ¥13,000 for children. This price increased by ¥1,000 and ¥500 if purchased in Japan (Narita, Haneda, and New Chitose airports). So if you know your travel plans early, get the passes in Singapore before flying to Japan.
  • The pass is valid for any six days in the 14 day period starting from your selected start date.

Purchase Suica and Hokkaido Rail Pass

Where to Purchase?

We were making a stopover at Narita airport to Hokkaido and we had some time to kill. So we bought the Suica card and 3-Day Hokkaido Rail Pass at the JR EAST Travel Service Center in Narita Airport (directions to the center). It was a fairly fast process, and there wasn’t a queue when we arrived.

You can also purchase Hokkaido Rail Pass at JTB Singapore, and other local authorised retailers. We almost got ours at JTB, but since we were leaving in 2-3 days time, we didn’t see any difference in getting it in Singapore or in Japan. Moreover the price is the same, and it’s based on prevailing exchange rates. So we were hoping the Japan dollar would weaken when we purchase in Japan later.

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Hokkaido Rail Pass: Making Seat Reservations

Thank God there wasn’t a queue, and hence was able to make seat reservations for 2 trips before the queue started to form. She told us to re-queue because it’s usually reservation for 1 trip. Anyway, we didn’t have time to queue and hence decided to go to Sapporo JR office to book.

My advice is to reserve the seats as early as you can. Making reservation is free of charge at any JR ticket office and you can reserve within one month prior to departure. You can still change your seat reservation once after that. We booked the seats on 26 and 27 Feb for 3 trips (1 trip per day):

  • 28 Feb: Sapporo > Tomamu
  • 29 Feb: Tomamu > Noboribetsu
  • 1 Mar: Noboribetsu > Niseko

Sapporo > Tomamu > Noboribetsu > Niseko

However, the seats were running low for the various timings we wanted from Tomamu to Noboribetsu, but somehow she managed to find two separated seats for us. Then we almost couldn’t get any seats for our longest ride, which is  from Noboribetsu to Niseko. If we didn’t get the seats, we would have to get a longer alternative route.

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Is it worth it to get Hokkaido Rail Pass?

It was cheaper for us to get unreserved seat tickets (first come first served) than a Hokkaido Rail pass. But we wanted to have the flexibility to change our train timings for contingencies (unlimited rides with the pass). And we did change twice for a trip! Once because of our own schedule, the other because of the snow conditions, more on that later!

Also, it’s more comfortable in reserve seats where people don’t tend to hover around. Because an unreserved seat ticket holder cannot sit in a reserved seat even if it is empty. So they tend to hang around more at unreserved cabin, though there were some who flouted the rule. Try not to because the train conductor is always walking around to check the tickets.

It’s also more worth it for us to buy a train ticket from Niseko to Otaru (or Niseko to Sapporo) than to top up and upgrade to a 4-Day flexible Hokkaido Rail Pass.

Why did we choose Suica?

It seemed to us that Suica’s coverage area is wider. Also, we mainly used the Hokkaido Rail Pass in Hokkaido and the IC card in Tokyo subway. We did use Suica in Hokkaido: the JR trains between New Chitose Airport and Sapporo, and the subways rides around Sapporo.

Continue to “Part 2: Our Winter Experience with Trains in Hokkaido“! Valuable tips you don’t want to miss! :)

Do you have other questions about the transportation in Hokkaido? Ask us below or on our Facebook Page or Instagram.

Related Posts: 
Overview Itinerary: Hokkaido and Tokyo (Winter/Spring 2016)
Tomamu, The Tower (Resort)
Pocket Wifi or Prepaid SIM Card in Japan?
Top 5 Things to Do in New Chitose Airport Sapporo

Bookmark this page >> Overview Itinerary: Hokkaido and Tokyo (Winter/Spring 2016) as I update it with links of useful tips and navigation around Japan.

Travelled in February/March 2016

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