In Japan, Japan Rail (JR) is a name that can be found across the country. It comes in many flavours. There’s the green JR East that most people will see in Tokyo, the blue JR West found in Kansai townships, the orange JR Central that serves everything between Kanto and Kansai regions, and more. In Hokkaido, there is the light green manifestation of JR known as JR Hokkaido.
In Sapporo, almost all the JR trains must go through Sapporo Station. This is probably the busiest train station in all of Hokkaido seeing about 90,000 passengers a day go through its doors. If you walk through the station around 6pm, you will feel the rush of 90,000 passengers a day.
If one must get to destinations beyond Sapporo or outside of the subway system, then JR is one way to do it. You can think of JR as a commuter rail system serving the “suburbs” of Sapporo. JR Hokkaido is more than just a suburban commuter rail, but for the purpose of getting around the outer areas of Sapporo, that’s the closest description that matches its services.
Almost the entire JR system in the Sapporo area is above ground, as opposed to the mostly underground system for the Sapporo Subway. There are three main lines out of Sapporo Station that fan out in four different directions. To the southeast runs the Chitose Line to the New Chitose International Airport (CTS). If you are flying into the Sapporo area, you will likely be flying into New Chitose. The Rapid Airport Express JR train starts directly under the domestic terminal and costs ¥1,070 to go to Sapporo Station. It takes only 37 minutes to reach Sapporo.
There’s the Hakodate Main Line that comes into Sapporo from the west and continues out of town to the northeast. Along the Hakodate Main Line in the West is the seaside tourist town of Otaru. By express, Otaru is about 40 minutes away. By the local train, it’s more like a 60 minute ride. The ride out to Otaru costs ¥640 one way. To the northeast the local trains go as far as Iwamizawa, but the line extends all the way to far-off cities like Asahikawa (famous for the Asahiyama Zoo).
Then the last line is the Gakuen-Toshi Line that serves areas north of the city extending out to Hokkaido-Iryodaigaku station where Hokkaido Iryo University can be found. The intercity trains along this line can continue past the last stop to places like Shin-Totsukawa.
Fares and Kitaca
There are regular fares available to all travellers at JR ticket vending machines at all JR stations. Just like the Sapporo Subway vending machines, you can use cash to pay for fares for multiple people. The system works about the same. Tickets look very similar too. [JR Hokkaido has this handy PDF that describes how to use their ticket machines]
For Sapporo area travel, JR tickets are reasonably priced, but not cheap. The trip out to Otaru is ¥1,280 round-trip on its own. A long distance trip out to other cities in Hokkaido are quite expensive. A 2.5 hour train ride out to Hakodate from Sapporo will cost a minimum of ¥8,310 one way. That’s almost C$85 one way which makes it C$170 round-trip by train! (For comparison, a 5-6 hour bus ride from Sapporo to Hakodate cost us ¥7,945 each for a round-trip. That cost less than half the price of the one-way train ticket)
The Sapporo Subway system has Sapica, which is their IC card or smart card, to pay for your transit rides on the subway, bus, and streetcar. However, JR Hokkaido has a totally different card called Kitaca. This is an IC card that allows travel on the JR Hokkaido system. It works similarly to the Sapica where you tap in when you enter a station and you tap out when you exit a station. The fare is then automatically deducted from your card. However, I don’t know of any collectible points system available on the Kitaca.
The initial cost for the card is the same as Sapica. You pay ¥2000 for the card. ¥500 is a refundable deposit and the remaining ¥1500 is used for payments. The card can then be reloaded in ¥1000 increments at any ticket vending machine.
I happened to use my Kitaca a lot for other purchases. Many retailers in the Sapporo Station complex take Kitaca as a form of payment. 7-Elevens can also accept Kitaca to pay for purchases. I think I used my Kitaca more for my daily onigiri (rice ball) purchases at 7-Eleven than for travel on JR trains. I also tended to reload my Kitaca with money at the 7-Eleven.
Also, because I was carrying both the Sapica and Kitaca IC cards at the same time and I carried them in the same card holder, I had to be careful when tapping in and out of gates. If both cards are close together when tapping a gate reader, then the cards interfere with each other and the reader doesn’t read the card properly. So when going in and out of gates, I had to separate my cards to ensure a “clean” tap in/tap out.
Kitaca can also be used nationwide on many other JR systems. Every region has their own branded IC cards, but some of these cards use the same technology as the Kitaca and are, therefore, compatible on each other’s systems. The best advantage here is that if you are in Tokyo, then you can use the Kitaca in place of the Suica card. The reverse works the same. Somebody with a Suica card can use it in place of the Kitaca in Hokkaido.
JR Hokkaido also has lots of special fares available depending on where and on how long you’re travelling. The big pass that people may purchase is the JR Hokkaido Rail Pass. There are 4 different multi-day passes available. They range in price from ¥15,430 to ¥30,860 depending on the duration of the pass and the kind of seat you wish to pay for. If you are travelling across Hokkaido by rail to many different destinations, then I think the pass is worthwhile. For us, we only had weekends free to travel around Hokkaido. So we didn’t have enough consecutive days free to make the pass worthwhile. However, for most tourists, this pass can save a lot of money.
There are also plenty of other discount tickets for different folks (e.g. students and working holiday workers) and for different destinations (e.g. Sapporo-Otaru Welcome Pass and Asahiama Zoo Ticket). Careful research and calculation will be needed to make sure you get the best deal on rail tickets in Hokkaido.
Most of the Sapporo area trains are all silver with a light green trim along the side. This colour scheme seems to be the couleur du jour on the JR system. Some of the long distance trains had more distinct engines at the head of the train and a different colour scheme. Seating inside tends to be bench seating similar to the Sapporo Subway. However, some of the express trains, like the Rapid Airport Express, actually has seats that face forward. These seats can also be switched to face the other direction for when the train turns around. The express trains also have special U-Seats that are more exclusive, more comfortable, and, therefore, more expensive.
Riding on JR trains can be simple for trips within the Sapporo area. Just buy the ticket at the ticket vending machine or use a Kitaca. However, if one plans to go for longer distances, do a lot of research and figure out what is the best balance of cost and speed that suits your travel goals.
- Hyperdia – This is an indispensable website for calculating fares and travel time for rail and air travel in Japan.
- JR Hokkaido English Page