Using the Trains in Japan

There are few things more impressive in Japan than the efficiency of their transportation systems. I’ll admit, when planning the trip, this was one of the most nerve-wracking things for me. Typically, I book my transportation and accommodations prior to arriving in a new country. It gives me the peace of mind that I won’t get stuck in a city at the last minute with no place to stay because I have a hotel booked somewhere else that I can’t get to. In researching the trip to Japan, however, it became evident that pre-buying my train tickets from one city to another would be impossible. The only thing I could pre-buy was a Japan Rail Pass, which is additionally restricted to tourists outside the country. You can’t buy a Rail Pass once you arrive in Japan.

So I did some math to figure out whether getting the pass would be worth it. There’s an extremely helpful website/app called Hyperdia which allows you to see train routes from any station in Japan to any other station including the fares. Our trip included three long train rides, from Tokyo to Osaka, from Osaka to Kyoto, and from Kyoto back to Tokyo. The individual fares for each of those were by and large cheaper than the cost of the Rail Pass. So I took my chances and waited until we arrived in Japan to worry about getting from one city to another.

It was clear, from the second we arrived, why it’s unnecessary to pre-book train tickets for travel in Japan. The trains run constantly in every direction and route you can imagine.  Whether you’re waiting for a city train or a regional Shinkansen (bullet) train, you will never have to wait longer than five minutes for the next one. And there is no such thing as a train delay. Everything runs so smoothly that you can count on the train arriving exactly at its scheduled time.

Arriving from Narita Airport

There are a lot of options available to get you from the airport to Tokyo central. One of the fastest is the Narita Express train. You can buy tickets from a machine or from a counter, both of which take cash or credit. Since we knew we were going to be taking the train back to the airport at the end of our trip, we got a return ticket from a counter at the airport. A note about return tickets, they must be exchanged at a ticket counter for a ticket with an assigned date, time, and seat. You don’t have to pay anything for the change. Your voucher will state that you already purchased a return ticket valid through a range of dates.

Getting Around in the Cities

Train station in Japan

Each city has a variety of ways to get around depending on where you need to go. In some stations, you’ll notice there are several different lines run by different companies. This was another reason I decided against the Japan Rail Pass, which is only good on JR lines. The machines for each of these companies tend to be relatively similar to each other. These only take cash, so make sure you have plenty handy. In some cases, you can select your destination and the machine will calculate the fare. That option is not available on all machines/lines, but worry not – if you insert the wrong amount, you can still get on your train. You will just have to adjust the fare at your arrival destination before you can leave the station.

A helpful tip, if you are using the Hyperdia app, remember that the fare total might be split up between two separate companies. I learned that the hard way in Kyoto. On the way back to city center from the Arashiyama bamboo forest, I had a fare estimate of about 480 yen. I paid the full amount at the starting point, not realizing that half the trip was on the JR line, but the other half was on the subway. I overpaid to get halfway back to the hotel and then I had to buy another ticket to get on the subway.

Getting from One City to Another

Getting from one city to another in Japan is a lot like taking a subway in most major cities. There is no additional hassle, with the exception of having extra bags on you. You can buy tickets a few days before or the day of the trip. If you’re traveling from Tokyo to Osaka or Kyoto  (or vice versa) and you want to catch a glimpse of Mount Fuji, you can ask the person at the counter to put you on the Fuji side. The earlier you do that the better, as that side of the Shinkansen tends to fill up quickly. The good news is Mount Fuji is just as big as you think it is and if the weather is clear, you’ll have a good view for at least 10 minutes, so even if you’re not sitting on the Fuji side, you can get up and walk to the end of the train and see it from that window.

The view of Mount Fuji from the Shinkansen train.

Another good thing to know about city to city train travel is that you can change a JR ticket free of charge once. So if you arrive at the station early, and there’s another train leaving to your destination, you can stop by the ticket office and have them bump you up to the earlier train as long as there are seats available.

If you’re moving between nearby cities, you may have several options. Kyoto and Osaka are about 15-20 minutes away from each other on the bullet train, but you also have the option of taking cheaper local trains from a station closer to you (instead of Kyoto Station/Osaka Station) and the trip still clocks in under an hour.

One final word of caution, be very mindful of the number of your train before boarding. On the trip from Kyoto to Tokyo, we were waiting at the platform for our train. Unbeknownst to us, another train arriving 5 minutes before ours was using the same platform. We saw that train pull up and assumed it was ours. The train was already moving by the time we realized why there were people in our assigned seats. Luckily, the train was also Tokyo-bound. Even more lucky was the fact that the attendant on board was able to switch our tickets and find us available seats for the train we had accidentally boarded. You don’t see service like that every day.

Train Etiquette 

  • Despite sometimes being very crowded, stations tend to be very well-organized and passengers waiting for a train line up along floor markings that indicate where the doors will open when the train arrives. 
  • Train cars are usually fairly quiet. If you are having a loud conversation, you will stick out like a sore thumb.
  • During some hours of the day, some trains have women only passenger cars. Be mindful of that when boarding.
  • In some crowded stations, the flow of foot traffic is dictated by signs to avoid congestion. Follow the markings and go with the flow.
  • And a final warning from the Japanese Rail System:

2 thoughts on “Using the Trains in Japan

  1. Well this is good information seeing as I struggled a bit with a much simpler rail system in Chicago. Sounds confusing to me but then again with trains running so frequently I suppose it wouldn’t matter if you got on the wrong line(as long as you have enough money to get back). Now for a weird question. I had seen a video of people having sex on crowded trains there and was told that it was “not uncommon” because young people have no home or car where they can hook up as teenagers do here so that sex in public is something that is accepted and ignored(they were ignored in the video)by the masses.True or not?

    1. I actually did get on the wrong train at some point and the ticket taker just rebooked me a seat on that one.

      As for the sex, I definitely didn’t see anything like that. People on trains are very quiet and respectful actually.

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