Given the efficient transportation networks which exist between Tokyo and Osaka, be it using bullet trains or local trains, along with local budget airlines, it’s never been easier to travel between the two cities.
However, not all transportation methods are created equal, and flying to and from Osaka may end up being the most expensive, and, surprisingly, longest option to travel. We’ll discuss the reasoning for this later in the article.
Here, I’ve compiled the best possible ways I’ve found for both temporary tourists and residents alike to travel from Tokyo to Osaka and back. I hope this article will help you choose the best option for you and your travel companions. Read on.
1. Bullet Train or Shinkansen
The fastest and most efficient way for you to travel between Tokyo and Osaka is by taking the bullet train, or, in Japan, more commonly known as the Shinkansen. There are several different shinkansen trains to choose from, depending on a few different factors.
If you have JR Pass ticket
You should, of course, take advantage of it and ride the bullet train that is covered by your JR Pass ticket. The Shinkansen trains that are covered by JR Pass ticket are the Hikari and Kodama trains.
From Tokyo to Osaka or vice versa, it takes about 3 hours for Hikari trains, and 4 hours for Kodama trains, since it stops at all stations. The obvious best choice, of course, the faster train, which is the Hikari Shinkansen.
There are few points to remember in preparation for taking the bullet train with your JR Pass:
1. It is recommended that you reserve your seats in advance at least the day before to guarantee that you will have seating the entire train ride. Just go to any JR Ticket Office to reserve. This is recommended especially if you’re traveling with your family or with a group.
Seat reservation is free of charge for JR Pass ticket holders, where it normally costs 500 yen more for those who don’t have it.
2. If you weren’t able to reserve seats the day before, you can still reserve your seats on the day of your travel. Just don’t fret if there’s a long waiting line at the JR Ticket Office especially if it’s holiday or peak season.
Best and legit way to buy your JR Pass ticket is through Japan Rail Pass Official Vendor.
If you don’t have JR Pass ticket
Your best choice would be the fastest and most frequent bullet train — the Nozomi Shinkansen.
From Tokyo Station (or Shinagawa and Shin-Yokohama Stations) to Shin-Osaka Station (the gateway to Osaka), it takes about 2 hours and 20 minutes and costs about 14,250 JPY one-way for a reserved seat. For a non-reserved seat, it is 13,620 JPY.
You can also ride the Hikari and Kodama trains, both trains cost 13,940 JPY one-way for a reserved seat. I personally would not choose those bullet trains since it’s only 310 yen cheaper than Nozomi.
I’d rather pay the extra 310 yen and ride the faster Nozomi!
In fact, Nozomi Shinkansen was the train I took when I visited Universal Studios Japan in Osaka, and it was only a 2 hour and 15-minute ride from Shin-Yokohama station.
If you’re very cheap but still want to experience Shinkansen
There’s another cheap (but old) Shinkansen train option when traveling between Tokyo and Osaka — the Platt Kodama train.
It’s cheap and old, but a reserved seat is only 10,500 JPY. Just like the Kodama train, taking the Platt Kodama bullet train (Puratto in Japanese) has a travel time of 4 hours between Tokyo and Osaka.
The only difference obviously is that the Kodama train has more high-end comfort seats and is newer looking.
Another thing to consider is that, if taking the Platt Kodama train, you have to buy your ticket at least a day in advance at the designated JR Tokai Tours.
If you have more time
Maybe you should consider the 7-Day Unlimited Tokyo-Osaka Hokuriku Arch Pass.
I have not personally tried this train pass, but, from looking at their website, it’s basically traveling between Tokyo and Osaka via Kanazawa route using the Hokuriku Shinkansen and select railways.
Unsurprisingly, it will take you a couple of hours longer than the other Shinkansen mentioned. In addition, this route is quite an off-the-beaten-path thus they named the route (Tokyo to Kanazawa) as the “Golden Route”. It is also cheaper than the 7-day JR Pass.
Ways to Buy Shinkansen Tickets
Now that you have an idea of which Shinkansen or bullet trains to take, the next question you might ask is where to buy the tickets.
1. JR Ticketing offices or any JR Tokai Tours offices.
Shinkansen tickets can always be purchased at any JR Ticketing office, or at any JR Tokai Tours office, and can be purchased on the day of your travel (except the Platt Kodama ticket where you need to purchase it the day before).
2. Online travel agencies.
The JR Ticketing Office does not have a website to sell tickets in advance.
So for tourists who have not yet arrived in Japan, your best option is to purchase your tickets from online travel agencies. There are discounted roundtrip Shinkansen tickets that can be purchased from JAPANiCAN.
Another official seller of Shinkansen tickets is Voyagin but they only sell one-way tickets either to or from Tokyo-Osaka.
The difference between these two travel agencies is that with JAPANiCAN, you need to exchange the printed voucher from their website to JR Ticketing office to get the real Shinkansen ticket and then reserve for a seat.
With Voyagin, they give you the real Shinkansen tickets that are already seat reserved but you need to pick it up from their office near Shibuya Station or have it delivered to your hotel.
Comparing the prices between the two, JAPANiCAN is actually the cheapest as the price turns out to be 11,500 JPY each way (if bought round trip) on Nozomi bullet trains.
AUTHOR’S TIP: It is important to remember that when traveling during the holidays or during peak seasons, it is recommended that you buy your tickets a couple of days in advance and a reserved seat. You don’t want to be changing your seat at every stop when new passengers come in only to take your seat because it was reserved for them. Even worse, when it’s holiday or peak season and train is packed, you will have to stand up or sit down on the floor the entire ride. Good luck with that.
Shinkansen Table Summary
2. Highway Buses
Travel time between Tokyo and Osaka using the highway buses is between 8-10 hours as it frequently stops for breaks.
Most of these buses leave from the major stations in Tokyo or Yokohama.
If choosing this option, taking the nighttime bus is the recommended way, which departs between 9 and 11 p.m., as you can just sleep the whole ride so the time isn’t really an issue. Plus, when you wake up you’re already in Osaka, ready to explore!
For foreign travelers, the most popular among these buses is the Willer Express, since they have an English website where you can book and pay using your credit card. They offer a variety of options with discounted fares. Their lowest price starts at 4,100 JPY, but the travel dates need to be offseason.
Price varies per type of bus, generally, the newer the bus the more you will have to pay, such as those premium buses that have Sci-Fi looking seats which can cost up to 10,800+ JPY.
There are two more bus companies that travel between Tokyo and Osaka — Kintetsu Bus and Kosoku Bus, which are both cheaper than Willer.
However, the official websites of Kintetsu Bus and Kosoku Bus only accept reservation through phone call which may cost you a bit if calling internationally.
In addition, not seeing the photos of the bus and its features is also a downside when doing this way. Kintetsu Bus to or from Osaka starts at 4,000 JPY and only leaves at night.
UPDATE ABOUT KOSOKU BUS:
For Kosoku Bus, they now have a new website where you can book online for Osaka or Tokyo and the great thing is: It is cheaper than the two other buses mentioned.
They have a night bus that starts as low as 2,900 JPY, and again, these low prices are for travel dates during the offseason.
Some buses are equipped with toilets and some aren’t. Some have WiFi and some do not. Just make sure to take a look at what kind of features (like relaxed seats) that the bus offers, and if it matches your needs.
Flying from Tokyo to Osaka only takes 1.5 hours. There are two airports to fly into when going to Osaka — Kansai International Airport (KIX) and Itami Airport (ITM).
Flying into Itami Airport is preferable because it’s between Kyoto and Osaka, so you’ll land closer to your destination. However, given the convenience of its location, flight tickets are a little bit more expensive when you choose that airport, but the end cost is still cost-effective and beneficial compared when arriving or departing from Kansai Airport.
Another thing to take into consideration which is often overlooked (we certainly overlooked it) is the actual travel time to and from the airports.
Most people see the 1.5 hour flight time offered by planes as being faster than simply driving the 4-5 hours to Osaka.
What they (we) didn’t consider was the 2-3 hours spent traveling to Narita, or the 1.5-2 hours of travel to Osaka from Kansai. And that doesn’t even take the cost of the train tickets per person to reach the airport.
Add that all together and you end up spending 1-3 hours more traveling by plane than by car, and 1-2 hours more than by shinkansen. So, just remember to consider this while traveling by air. If you live west of Narita, it may be faster and cheaper to simply drive.
Domestic low-cost airlines such as Peach, Vanilla, and Jetstar occasionally run promos and their price can be as low as 3,500 JPY one-way for flights between Tokyo and Osaka.
But here’s the tricky part:
These budget airlines’ hubs are at Narita Airport and Kansai Airport which are far from the city’s center (as mentioned above). That cheap flights may be appealing to most of you but note that it will take you longer to navigate your way as they are away from the city’s center and additional expenses for the transportation.
Just take it from our experience.
We flew from Narita Airport to Kansai Airport via Jetstar. And boy, we will never do it again!
The flight was cheap but the transportation to and from the airport was a hassle, expensive, and defeated the purpose of “the budget way.”
I should have known better and conducted due diligence for the costs of everything.
Again, if you choose to fly, it’s important that you fly from Haneda Airport and arrive in Itami Airport (or vice versa) as both are close to the center of the city.
Not only the transportation costs are cheaper but also faster and more convenient compared to flying to Narita Airport or Kansai Airport.
Airlines that fly from Haneda and Itami airport are All Nippon Airways (ANA) and Japan Airlines (JAL). The cheapest that I saw was from ANA at 7,290 JPY one-way from Haneda to Itami Airport.
4. Local trains
Another option is to take the local trains. Since Tokyo and Osaka are well connected with series of different transportation networks, traveling by local trains is relatively easy, but very long when compared to other options.
Local trains, commonly known in Japan as kakue-teisha or futsu-densha, are different from the Shinkansen because they stop at nearly every station, and are obviously much slower.
From Tokyo to Osaka, the trip will take you between 9 and 10 hours, with about four train transfers. This is not ideal for tourists visiting for very short periods, particularly if you have tons of luggage with you.
You should also know that you’ll most likely be standing for most of this time.
The cheapest ticket to get when traveling with local trains is the Seishun 18 Kippu, which translates to something like Youthful 18 Ticket.
It is a seasonal ticket that is available only at a specific season and is a popular choice for Japanese students.
With this ticket, you can have an unlimited 5-day nationwide access to local and rapid JR trains for only 11,850 JPY and can be shared by two or more people but they must be traveling together.
5. Drive or Car Rental
Driving between Tokyo and Osaka takes about 5.5 – 6 hours and costs about 11,000 JPY tolls each way. Perhaps, this is the mode of transport that we should have done instead of flying.
If you are renting a car, it is usually equipped with ETC card and price may be as low as 7,600 JPY each way for tolls.
NOTE: If you’re active duty military or a retiree, either stationed or visiting Japan, you can rent a car from a base (if their limited stock is available) and the tolls are covered for free. So you’ll only be paying the price of the car and fuel which you should buy on base whenever possible.
Depending on the car rental company, a reasonable price for car rental starts at 5,900+ JPY per day for a compact car excluding insurance which is usually an additional around 1,300+ JPY.
I would say that car rental is the best and cheapest way for travelers with three or more people.
It’s also probably a wise idea to consider the costs of the gas here in Japan (perhaps ask the car rental company) since it’s dispensed in liters rather than gallons. So while you may see a station advertising their fuel between 120-200 yen, realize that means you’re ultimately paying 4.50-7.50 USD per gallon.
Many car rental websites in Japan are all in Japanese, but this rental car company reached out to me demonstrating that their page supports English speakers. Their price seems reasonable with a range of 5,900-10,000 JPY per day.
Verdict: Cheapest and Fastest Way
Having presented you with five different options of traveling between Tokyo and Osaka, let’s discuss which is the best for you. I created a table where you can see which is one best for each profile:
As you can see from the conclusion presented above, there are a few ways to travel between Tokyo and Osaka, each with their own pros and cons. Personally, if you were to ask me since I travel with my husband and a toddler, we would choose to drive (we’ve tried flying and we would not do it again). If we are not driving, our next option would be either Nozomi Shinkansen or a Night Bus with a toilet and relaxed seating.
As for you, just choose whichever mode of transportation you want to based on your time, budget, and group size because at the end of the day the most important thing is that you enjoy the ride and make the most of your Japanese trip in both wonderful cities of Tokyo and Osaka.