The most common and most affordable form of transportation you will be taking in Japan is the train. If you are the average tourist just trying to get from point A to B then you will most likely find this guide handy. If you can afford a cab, private driver or you can drive yourself then this will probably be of no use to you.
What tends to scare people about the Japanese train system is the myriad of different lines that happen to intersect with one another. For example, when you look at the JR East train map it just looks like a deluge of different colors going over all over the place. It makes one wonder how they will ever get anywhere.
People who live in large cities with similar expansive transit systems will probably be more accustomed to the type of train system that Japan has. For those like me, whose rail transit system consists of 2 lines on the map? Well they might see taking the train in Japan as something of a huge mountain to climb.
Thankfully the perception and the reality do not mirror each other and once you start riding the train in Japan it really isn’t as complicated as it seems on the outside. Once you get used to it you may find the Japanese rail system to be a cleaner, safer and a way more reliable way of getting around compared to the public transportation system in your home country.
Basic Railway Information
So where do we begin? Well let’s go over the basics first. No matter where you go in Japan you will probably end up riding a Japan Railways (a.k.a. JR) line sometime during your journey. The JR group is made up of six regional companies:
They also are the operators of the famous shinkansen (a.k.a. Bullet train). There are also several private railway systems that operate in conjunction with Japan Railways in each region of Japan. Those lines may extend out to places that that the JR lines do not go to. It is likely you will be riding one of these private railways as well during your travels.
How to pay for train fare
JR Rail Pass
Now that you have a general idea of the different railways you may encounter it is time to tackle a question many folks going to Japan ask. Do you need a Japan Rail Pass or can you get away with using an IC card and cash for your transportation needs? What you get will depend on where you are going. This is especially important for the Japan Rail Pass since you currently cannot buy them within Japan.
There is a trial period starting in March 2018 where Japan Rail Passes will be sold at a limited number of stations within Japan. However, the pass may cost more than buying it ahead of time in your home country.
To make your life easier you can use Japan Guide’s Japan Rail Pass calculator to see if investing in one before your trip will make the most sense based on your itinerary.
For the sake of this article let’s assume that you have decided to buy a voucher for a Japan Rail Pass. How do you actually redeem it once you land? The simplest way is to turn in your exchange order at the airport exchange office. If you are pressed for time or don’t need to get it right away you there are train stations that have exchange offices in them as well. For a listing of locations where you can go to get your rail pass click here.
In order to complete the transaction of getting a rail pass you will need your exchange voucher (so don’t lose it on the way to Japan) and your passport. That also means your pass is non-transferrable once you receive it. Which means you can’t use it and then hand it off to your buddy to use it after you.
Once you have your pass in hand you can use it freely during the validity period stamped on it. It is valid to use on all JR railway lines across Japan with the exception of the Nozomi and Mizuho Shinkansen. You simply have to go to the manned gates at a JR station and show the pass to the staff to access the paid fare area. Once you arrive at your stop you go back to the manned gates and show the staff your pass again to exit the station.
The Japan Rail Pass is not valid on non-JR (a.k.a. private) railway lines and you may be required to pay a supplemental fee (either on board or at your final stop) for riding on a non-JR track.
Prepaid IC Cards
IC cards are rechargeable cards that can be used to pay fares on public transportation in Japan. There are ten major IC cards companies in Japan. All are compatible with each other and can be used on virtually all trains, subways and buses in Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka, Kyoto, Nagoya and Fukuoka:
The only things not covered by IC cards are travel outside or between IC card areas, travel on the shinkansen, limited express trains requiring a supplement fee and airport and highway buses. To purchase an IC card you can either go to ticket counter or a ticket machine in a station. If you are not one with a high level of Japanese you may want to opt to use a machine and select the option to display the menus in English.
The fees you will pay are a 500 yen deposit (refundable) plus the cost of the initial amount to be charged to the card. (typically 1500 yen) For Suica cards you may be asked to buy a normal card or a My Suica card that allows for some customization such as printing your name on the card.
A bit of a warning, if you choose My Suica be prepared to spend some time at the machine entering information and waiting for the card to print. If you don’t care about customization or are in a bind for time just get yourself a normal card.
To use your newly acquired card simply tap it on the reader at the gate for 1 second. A beep will sound off if your transaction was successful. Much like the JR Rail Pass, your IC card is non-transferrable and you won’t be able to pass it your cheap friend to use once you tap into a station’s paid fare area. Once you enter the paid fare area your fare will not be complete until you exit the paid fare area at your final destination.
If you start to run low on yen on your IC card you can go to a ticket machine or special recharging machine found within train stations or strategic locations near a train station. The maximum that can be charged on your card is 20,000 yen.
If you are one who is willing to take a more challenging path to riding the train you can just pay for one-way tickets with cash. Doing this will require some skill in reading the train maps above the ticket machines to figure out how much you have to pay to get to your destination.
If you can’t read Japanese you should hope that there is an English version of the map somewhere. Otherwise, whip out that smart phone and get to looking at Google for images of the train map with English (or whatever your native language is) names for the stations. Once you figure that out it’s a matter of just putting money into the ticket machine for the amount your one-way fare is.
When you get your ticket you then go to the entry gate and slip the ticket in the small slot and then walk through. Remember to grab your ticket from the other side before you leave the gate. When you reach your destination repeat this process at your exit gate. Assuming you are not just transferring through the station the ticket will stay in the machine so there’s no need to stick around and wait for it as your fare is considered complete.
Your commuter train experience will mostly consist of using your IC card or JR Rail Pass as payment for your train fare. But there will be the odd time when neither will work or you have to pay cash so it is good to know how to buy a ticket from the machine or if you are more comfortable, from a ticket counter in the train station.
Can I Rides Train Now?
Now that you have survived the long winded explanation of how to pay your train fare. How about the actual experience of riding the train? As mentioned before, you have to enter the paid fare area either by showing a station attendant your JR Rail Pass, using your IC card to “check-in” to your starting destination by tapping your card at the entry gate or paying cash to obtain a ticket to enter the paid area by inserting it into the entry gate.
Finding the proper platform to catch your train might sound tricky at first but if you have access to data on your cell phone and/or tablet you can use the Google Maps application and HyperDia website to help you get around. Taking information from both applications should give you enough to figure out where you need to be to catch your train and which train you need to be on.
Using Google Maps is pretty self explanatory if you have ever used it to look for directions before. Just be sure to select the train icon so you get the proper route(s) for your trip. HyperDia is a bit more involved and its interface might be confusing. Click here for a quick guide on how to search on the site and how to interpret the results.
When you have all that information you can then proceed to the platform to catch your ride. The majority of signs in train stations are written in multiple languages so it won’t be too difficult to figure out where you need to be.
What you should also be aware of before you board the train is the type of train you are riding. Japanese trains from local to shinkansen are classified as one of the following:
- Local – Trains that stop at every station.
- Rapid – Trains that skip some stations.
- Express – Trains that skip more stations than rapid. JR trains charge an express fee on top of the base fare.
- Limited Express – Trains that only stop at major stations. JR trains charge a limited express fee on top of the base fare. Private railways may or may not charge the additional fee.
- Super Express – Applies to Shinkansen only. A limited express fee is charged on top of the base fare.
This information is important to know because if you are not riding a local train there is the small chance that the rapid/express/limited express train you are on may not stop at the station you want to get to. So just be aware of why type of train you are boarding when it arrives and plan accordingly.
Depending on where you are from you may find boarding the train in Japan to be a rather polite and orderly process. For example, where I live commuters bum rush the train cars giving passengers trying to disembark a wall of humanity to push and shove through. Japan was a God send of organization & proper etiquette compared to my local rail transit system.
When you are on board the train you will find it to be rather quiet. Talking on cell phones is forbidden except in the entrance areas of the shinkansen and limited express trains. Most of the people around you will either be playing with their phone/electronic device, reading or sleeping.
First time or anxious riders may want to stay near the exit doors. Above the doors of each train car you can usually find a map of the train lines route (sometimes with English translations for the station names) and in newer trains, electronic signs that display the name of the upcoming station. On lines that are used a lot by tourists and foreigners there are also audio announcements in English about upcoming stops.
When you arrive at your destination simply leave the paid fare area in the same manner you used to enter. If you have not paid the correct fare you will not be able to go past the automatic gates. You will have to go to a fare adjustment machine to pay the difference. Then you can go through the gate again to exit. If there are no fare adjustment machines or you have to pay a supplemental fee after using your JR Rail Pass then go to the manned gates & pay your fare difference there.
The only other things you have to be aware of are incidents that might cause delays on the train such as medical emergencies, suicides, or mechanical failures. You know, regular stuff that would happen anywhere else. Be prepared to call an audible and find an alternative way to get to your destination if something prevents you from completing your journey. To be honest, the odds of the train ever being late is going to minuscule but shit happens so it’s best to be prepared just in case.
And that is all there is in regards to the basic idea of riding the train in Japan.