Japan is famous for its trains –– and its trains are famous for being expensive, from the high-speed Shinkasen that everyone knows to the comfortable sightseeing trains that we covered before. Even with passes (like the 3-day JR Kyushu pass, the 3-day Wide Tokyo Pass or even bus passes like the SUNQ pass we wrote about), it is going to be on the expensive end of the public transport spectrum.
There is, however, a famous exception. Yes, in this article and the next, we’re going to write about the legendary Seishun 18 pass.

Seishun 18 Pass

At 11,850 yen, this pass allows five days (which need not be consecutive) of unlimited rides in the entire Japan, making every day roughly 2,300 yen. That is, however, subject to two important restrictions. First, you can only take the ‘ordinary’ trains. That means no express trains (including limited express), and certainly no Shinkansen. That is probably why the pass is named seishun, which roughly translates to ‘youth’ in English: they have a lot of energy, not much money but they have a lot of time (unlike the adult, who have money and energy but no time, and the elderly, who have money and time but no energy!).

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The ordinary train from Shimonoseki to Iwakuni that we took while going from Hakata to Tokyo. 
This single train took more than three hours!

That being said, the pass is not limited to the ‘youth’, nor to people of 18 years old: in fact, everyone can buy the pass. That brings us, though, to the second important restriction: the pass is only sold and usable during the three ‘school vacation’ periods in Japan: summer, winter, and spring breaks.
The pass is quite old, dating back from 1982. Over the years, there has evolved many, many possibilities and un-thought-of uses of the pass. Unfortunately, much of the Seishun 18 gurus are Japanese and their knowledge remains largely inaccessible to tourists –– well, not anymore!
In the rest of this article, we are going to talk about the pros and cons, general tips and advice –– in other words, the ‘know-how’. In the next one, we’re going to talk about our experiences going on trip with the pass, and special techniques to achieve inexpensive long-distance travels with the special Moonlight trains.

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Interior of an ‘ordinary’ train in JR Kyushu

Advantages and Disadvantages

The primary advantage, well, seems obvious: it is basically the cheapest way you can travel on the Japan Railway, almost one-third the price of the 7-day Japan Rail Pass. The primary disadvantage is also obvious: the slow speed. However, there are more that you should consider.
In terms of other advantages, first, the pass is very flexible. It is actually not a 5-day ‘pass’, but just five passes bundled together (which is why it is named kippu – tickets). So, if you are a group of five, you can use one Seishun 18 pass in one day! The flexibility is also easily reflected on trip-planning: if you are a foreign tourist travelling alone or in pairs around Japan, you can only use one (or two if in pair) a day and then stay there for a couple more day, before going on the next journey. In contrast, most of the JR passes require you to finish your journey in 3/5/7 days, which indirectly pressures you to keep moving in order not to waste the pass. But the flexibility also applies if you’re a foreigner studying or working here: you can easily use one Seishun 18 pass over several weekends, whenever a day (or two) seems to be clear!
Second, and especially for the reader that is not satisfied by superficial sight-seeing and interested in in-depth travels, the Seishun 18 pass affords a rare opportunity of travelling with the locals. Normally, the high price of express trains like the Shinkansen means that mainly businesspeople and tourists will use it. And remember the well-known Yufuri-no-Mori sightseeing train in Kyushu? It is so full of tourists walking around with their cameras and talking that a peace of mind seems difficult. On the local trains, you see high school kids in their uniforms, grandparents, and of course, the commuters during rush hours.

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Tourists around the Yufurin no Mori.

Further, from the writer’s experience, you get more chances of talking to other passengers on the ordinary trains. It may be because of the difference between the profiles of the passengers mentioned above. But it’s also about the atmosphere of the train – talking in the quiet Shinkasen to a stranger may feel somewhat odd. More importantly perhaps, it’s because the pass is used by many young people and backpackers, who are generally more willing to talk. We’ll elaborate on this in the next post.

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In Hokkaido, we have seen train gurus specifically taking an ordinary train (we know because they are holding special guide books) so that they can see how trains are separated in some local stations.

In terms of disadvantages besides the speed, it is also about the comfort. Remember the extra legroom, the recline chair, the silence, the polite train attendant who sells snacks and meals and bows before leaving the carriage, and the AC power socket for your mobile devices? You don’t have that in ordinary trains, and when it’s rush hour, it can be very crowded, which means seats are not guaranteed (because they cannot be reserved). That having been said, this is Japanese train after all, and they are generally comfortable enough for long-distance rides –– it certainly was for us. Pay attention to the tips below for the other points.
Another disadvantage is that it involves a lot of waiting. Of course, taking the slow ordinary train is in itself a form of waiting, but in addition to that, you need to wait in between trains (the ordinary trains can be more infrequent if you need to connect to different trains, especially if you are in places like Hokkaido), as well as inside the train (because they sometimes have to let express trains pass, e.g. when there is only one track). For those who don’t like to spend a lot of time in the train or in the station, our advice is No.

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The beautiful view from an ordinary train in Biei, Hokkaido.

Tips and Advice

There are several separate pieces of advice that we want to give.

First, you can plan your trip by online “ordinary” transit websites like Yahoo! Japan, the trick is that you basically need to unselect everything like express, airplane, etc. However, we advise you to go to the JR ticket office and ask for their assistance, too, as websites like Yahoo! can and do make –– not so much mistakes, but recommendations that are not the best.

However, second, do not plan your schedule too tightly and there are a couple of reasons. To start with, the trains can get delayed. Yes, JR is world-famously on-time and this is still the case. However, the effect on delay is especially felt on the ordinary trains compared to the express and Shinkansen trains. In winter, for example, snow can block the local trains but relatively less so for the Shinkansen. In fact, on the very first day that we tried to use the Shinkasen, there was a serious delay of two hours (two hours!) due to heavy rain in Kyushu. By the time the train started to move, it was already too late into the night, though we were pleasantly surprised that the JR Kyushu company paid for the taxi for the writer to get to his original station. Also, compared to Shinkansen (by which you can get from Kyushu to Tokyo in one train on the Nozomi), you need to change over 16 times using ordinary trains. One delay is going to cause big changes to your schedule, given the relative sparseness of the trains. In other times, it is not because of the delay, but because you somehow fail to get off at the right station. Sometimes it is not really your fault, because either the train broadcast does not work, or you do not understand Japanese, or your attention drifts after many stations have passed. In our case –– it was embarrassing but it did happened –– we overslept in one instance (on our way to Tokyo, mentioned later)! In any case, plan your schedule with room and prepare for a back-up plan.

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One time, in Hokkaido, the writer witnessed a bee invaded the carriage… eventually the conductor had to use insect spray and the train was delayed for 10 minutes.

Third, although there is no train assistant selling food and beverages, you can always buy the famous eki-bens (literally translated as station lunch boxes), but do also bring snacks, which are sources of pleasure themselves together with the scenery. You can always buy them at the station’s shops or (most of the time, and in the major stations) in the shopping complex on or near the station.

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The train ride from Shimonoseki to Iwakuni has been one along the sea, with the island of Shikoku visible at the background.

Finally, you want to pay attention to the special trains that can be used with the pass even though they are express trains, or not JR trains. Due to the space constraints here it is not possible to list all, we advise you to do more research on it (or consult the JR tourist or ticket office if you do not read Japanese). However, please be assured that those exceptions account for a very small amount, and do not affect ordinary use of the pass. That said, for some special trains like the Moonlight, reservation is necessary, which must be done as early as possible (one month in advance ideally).

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The “Special Rapid Service” in the Kansai area is still part of the ordinary trains covered by Seishun 18 but is significantly faster, comparable to express trains.

Now that you know the basics of the pass. In the next article, we’re going to talk more advanced skills and combinations, as well as write our actual trip with the pass!