INFO: How To Travel Japan By Train
Is there anything in the world more synonymous with Japan than trains? Yup, actually, there's probably a good number of things that come to mind before trains to be honest. But trains are up there somewhere, aren't they? And for good reason! When it comes to trains the Japanese are known the world over for building some of the fastest trains that run on a schedule you could set your watch with. Japan has the world's 12th largest rail network, which doesn't seem that impressive until you realize how small Japan is when compared to the vastness of some of the countries ahead of it on this list - places like the US, India, China, Russia, and Canada.
One of the reasons Japan has such an efficient and highly used rail network is the compact size of the country combined with a historic lack of low cost airlines connecting cities together. The last decade has seen the rise of competition within the air networks in Japan which for the longest time were essentially monopolized by the two major carriers (Japan Airlines and ANA). This left zero incentive for low cost fares for flights within Japan with only two carriers on some routes while others were operated by just one of the airlines. Recently carriers like AirAsia Japan, Jetstar Japan, Vanilla Air, and Peach (sidebar - I love that half of these airlines are named for food) have entered the market and brought fares down from the sky high offerings of decades past. Still, rail travel remains highly used and in many cases highly preferred by the Japanese public.
Consequently any visitor to Japan should highly consider using the extensive rail network crisscrossing the country to explore this beautiful Asian island nation on the edge of the Pacific. Was that last sentence a bit biased? Yup, I'm half Japanese so I'm pretty big on promoting how amazing Japan is a destination. But the extensive rail network and the consideration of using it to explore the country? That's genuine folks - you should do it!
As with most tasks that happen when traveling overseas, it's likely a bit daunting to consider stringing together a multi-stop trip on a transportation network you're unfamiliar with that uses a primary language you don't speak or read. Which is why I wanted to put this little primer together! Having lived in Japan, speaking and reading some of the language, and with extensive life experience riding the rails in the country of my birth, I hope I can give travelers some insight into how to get from Tokyo to anywhere else as easily as possible.
Contrary to popular belief, Japan's rail network is not a monolithic single entity. It's actually a mishmash of companies working in conjunction and sometimes in competition with one another to link the four major islands of the nation. The JR Group is by far the largest operator of rail services in the country and is a cooperative of companies that came about after the dissolution of the Japanese National Railways agency into six for-profit passenger rail companies. As JR Group is so dominate, when you're traveling by train in Japan chances are you'll be doing so with JR for all or at least part of your journey. There are sixteen other companies providing rail services in the country that are considered "major" transport companies by the Japanese government but their reach is relatively limited or isolated to specific regions.
There's some level of cooperation between many of the companies but you should be aware of the corporate differences when planning long distance travel as you may need to buy separate tickets for a journey or change train stations when making a connection as many train operators have the same name for two different stations which are in separate buildings, sometimes far apart.
The Japanese are culturally known for their punctuality so of course you can almost always count on your train departing and arriving at your destinations exactly on time. Unlike taking trains in some other parts of the world you have very little risk of property theft while on a Japanese train. You can comfortably leave your luggage or items at your seat with little fear of having anyone even consider stealing from you. On the other hand, while Japan is a very safe country, if you're a woman there is a very small risk of being a victim of groping on a crowded train. This specific type of sexual assault is common enough with the overcrowded public transit system in Japan that it's been given a name - chikan. Don't worry though, despite being well known enough to be named the chances of you falling victim to an attack like this still very small. It's also most common on crowded local subway and metro systems, not on longer distance trains between cities which are generally much more spacious and aren't crammed full of people.
The Japanese rail network offers a variety of services and types of trains, and it would be difficult to cover all of them in a single post. This one aims to address the relatively common intercity train options most tourists will find themselves on as they make their way between major cities and sights. There are overnight train options, luxury train options, scenic trains, etc .... that aren't going to be addressed in this posting but perhaps will be addressed in a future post if there's interest in such.
Now, on to logistics!
Japan Rail Pass - Yes or No?
When it comes to train travel in Japan, probably the biggest question people have is whether they should purchase the Japan Rail Pass or not. So let's address that right off the bat. Nine times out of ten the answer is likely to be yes - you should definitely get one! It's a great product that will reduce the cost of train travel in the country and make it very easy for you to hop around to numerous interesting locales across the country.
But not every single travel itinerary benefits from the pass . So let's go a bit deeper into what this pass offers and how it works.
If you're unfamiliar with the Japan Rail pass, here's a quick crash course. The pass is a product sold by the Japan Rail Group (JR) that allows the holder to access a majority (but not all) of the consortium's transportation services. Here's a few key things to note about the pass:
The pass is only available to foreign visitors who enter on a tourist visa. This applies to most visitors to Japan. Immigration services will put a sticker in your passport which has "TEMPORARY VISITOR" on it - that's your proof.
Japanese citizens living overseas are eligible to purchase the pass if they have been living overseas in a foreign country for ten consecutive years or more. You'll need to provide proof of this when you pick up your pass. Acceptable proof will be listed by the seller.
There is a "test trial" being conducted where you can purchase your rail pass in Japan at a limited number of rail stations. The trial runs through the end of March 2018.
Otherwise the pass must be purchased overseas prior to going to Japan. You'll be mailed a purchase certificate which you will then trade in for the actual pass at one of several JR train stations in the country. These exchange office are located in all of the major train stations in the country and even some of the moderate sized cities. This includes both of Tokyo's major airports and Osaka's international airport, so you can pick up your pass within minutes of clearing customs and immigration.
It comes in two types - ordinary class and green class. Ordinary class is economy, green class is first.
Passes can be purchased to cover a period of 7, 14, or 21 days. These days are consecutive, so once you activate your pass you have the corresponding time frame to use it. It's not a punch card that you can use one day, go inactive for a week, and then start "day 2" when you start traveling again.
I'll be making a separate post about the JR Pass to go over all the specifics of the how, what, when, and wheres of using it. For now let's focus on how you can determine if it's a good option for your trip.
Train travel in Japan can be relatively expensive compared to trips of similar length and distance in other countries. The cost of a single ticket between two cities can often be much higher than a traveler would assume the cost would be since the trains move so quickly and the distance doesn't seem that far. For example a one way train trip from Tokyo Station to Shin-Kyoto station, a popular choice among visitors, would typically cost between $122 - $175 USD depending on when you purchase your ticket and whether you want an assigned seat or will take anything that's open (including standing room only). Considering the 7 day ordinary class pass costs around $250, you can see how the cost of train tickets can start to add up quickly if you are looking to visit multiple locations in Japan during your trip.
When looking at whether the pass will work out for your trip you should look at your planned itinerary and identify all necessary train travel. Once you have a good idea of what trips you'll be taking you can add up the potential cost of those trips (I'll show you how to look it up below) to get a rough estimate of the overall bill. If that bill is less than the cost of a pass covering your required time frame - considering skipping it. If the cost is at or above the cost of the pass you'd need - get it.
Even if the cost of the pass is slightly higher than individual tickets, I'd still consider getting the pass. They really smooth out the Japanese train process by simplifying your ability to get on trains without having to interface with staff who may have limited English-proficiency or ticket terminals that may confuse you. Also, the pass covers multiple local train lines in major cities, such as Tokyo's circular Yamanote Line, which can help reduce the costs you'd have getting around cities.
Long story short - don't assume the JR Pass is your best option, but for most itineraries in Japan that includes travel beyond one city it's going to be.
Regardless of whether you end up with a JR Pass or not, let's assume you've decided to travel Japan by rail. Excellent - you've made a great choice! Let's talk logistics so you can figure out how to get from Point A-omori to Point B-eppu.
When it comes to determining ticket prices and train schedules, my go-to website for research is HyperDia. You can use the website in a browser or opt to use their app on your smartphone with both iOs and Android. The web version is viewable in Japanese, English, and Chinese and unlike the app is 100% free. You can download the app and use it for a limited time without buying access though. There are a few places where you can get Japanese rail information but I prefer HyperDia because I think the layout is relatively easy to understand and I like the way the information is displayed.
The main page search tool is along the left hand side of the screen (pictured below). For the purpose of using this guide, just go ahead and click the "more options" button to unfurl the entire search tap.
Like most travel search engines it gives you the option of selecting where you're going to and from. Just type in the name of the destination and the website will start automatically offering cities that match your selection. So for example if you type in "KYO" it will bring up a list of cities that begin with those letters, allowing you to select Kyoto if that's where you're going to or from. Keep in mind that there are many cities with similar or identical names in Japan, so do a bit of research ahead of time so you know which station you need to select.
Once you've selected your "from" and "to" stations, you can then identify the date upon which you'd like to travel and even the exact time you'd ideally like to leave. The "TYPE" dropdown option defaults to departure, which means that search date and time you've entered above is about when you'd like to depart. If you'd rather search for train options by when they would have you arriving in your destination, you can change this box to "Arrival" and the search will instead give you train itineraries that make sure you arrive around the date and time you specified.
The search box also gives you the option of noting you want to route through specific cities. This option is useful if you want to make sure you take a particular route for scenery or if you want to ensure that you take a specific train route since there are generally multiple options to get between two points in Japan by train. Simply add the connecting hub city you wish to use on one of the "via" lines. The "order" button allows you to select how search results are presented to you - shortest time, least number of transfers, and lowest cost. The default is shortest time. The Max Route button allows you to limit or increase the number of itineraries the search results will turn up. The default on this is five. While this functionality is nice keep in mind that's it's entirely optional - you can just search the basics and that's likely going to work best for 99% of people looking to plan train travel.
Finally there's the "Vehicle Type" option (blue arrow section above) which will allow you to remove certain types of transportation from being included in the search. HyperDia actually incorporates a variety of transit options into the mix, including air travel. For the purpose of this search you'll want to unselect the airplane button. Also, if you're using the JR Pass, you'll want to unselect the "Nozomi/MIzuho/Hayabusa (Shinkansen)" button since the Nozomi and Mizuho trains are exempt from use with the pass. The Hayabusa service IS eligible for use with the pass though, so if you're heading north from Tokyo to Sendai or Aomori just leave it on. Also, if you're using the JR Pass you can unselect the button for "private railway" if you want to avoid taking any itineraries that would cause you to pay out of pocket.
It's never easy, is it?
Now that we've gone over how to search, let's go over how to read the search results.
Honestly I think it's pretty self-explanatory but it doesn't hurt to go through it quickly! Depending on how many itineraries you capped the search at, you'll get a corresponding number of options that are labeled by the blue "Route" markers (red arrow above). The first column shows the departure time of each train plus the length of time of each segment of the journey while the second column lists the departure train station and the name of the train service you'll be taking (blue box above). The third column shows the fare for the route (red box), but keep in mind that this is not your final price. You need to add the amount listed under the fourth column, Seating Fee, to get the total cost of a ticket.
Long distance train fares in Japan are composed of a base fare plus an additional charge for your seating selection which is generally broken into three options - Green (first class), Reserved, and Unreserved. As discussed above, green class is first class and carriers a premium charge. Reserved class is exactly that - you get to reserve a specific seat for the duration of the trip. Unreserved class means you will be using one of the train cars were no seats are assigned, so you'll take whatever is open which can included having no seat at all. Despite having no reserved seat, there's still an additional seating fee cost you'll need to add to your base fare for this option.
I'll discuss the differences between green, unreserved, and reserved later in the post, but for now note that generally speaking unreserved is the way to go unless you're picking up the train somewhere in the middle of its journey, are traveling with people you cannot sit separately from, or if you're traveling during a holiday season when trains are likely to be crowded (avoid New Years, Golden Week, and O-Bon seasons).
I know this can seem a bit complicated but I promise that if you take a little time and just fool around with the system for 10 minutes you'll get the hang of it really easily. Take it for a test drive, you'll be fine.
If HyerDia isn't working for you another option would be the NaviTime by Japan Travels app, available on both iOs and Android. The Navitime app is run by Japan Travels and is largely a tourism promotion application, so upon downloading it you will be forced to answer a few vague questions about your interests in Japan. The app does include a tap called "Route" which allows you to search for transportation options similar to but not as in-depth as HyderDia. For example there isn't an easy way to remove Nozomi/Mizuho trains from the search results without also eliminating other fast long-distance trains which you'd want to see. The choice is yours!
So now that you've got the basics on finding out how to find train routes in Japan, you're probably asking how to buy tickets. Unfortunately despite the amazing technology coming out of Japan every day, it isn't always able to apply that ingenuity to every day things like getting a ticket. I once heard someone describe Japan as one of the world's most advanced technological societies that still operates everyday activities like it's the 1980s. Which is my way of saying that for many situations you will be unable to pre-purchase or pre-reserve train tickets for your trip within Japan with some exceptions.
(UPDATED thanks to info from @jmmcarthy2002 on Twitter)
You can pre-purchase tickets on JR East, West, and Central for the period one month prior to your travel date using a newly released app (JR West & Central) or a relatively unhelpful website (JR East). Unfortunately tickets on other lines remain inaccessible through online means without using a third party travel agent to assist you.
The JR West & Central app is called SmartEx and is currently functional in the United States, Australia, Hong Kong, and Singapore though I would suspect over time more countries will be added to this list since the app is only about three months old. Purchasing through the app even gives access to discount pricing if you purchase in advance, to travel on weekends, or if you're purchasing tickets for more than one passengers. You'll pay by credit card and will have to use that same credit card to pick up your ticket in the station from machines. You can even purchase tickets with specific seat reservations! The app is available on both iOs and Android.
The JR East company offers pre-purchase/reservation of tickets through an online portal which honestly is quite clunky and outdated. The one month prior to departure limitations are still present on the website and sadly it does not allow you to pre-reserve specific seats like the JR West & Central app does. You'll also need to present yourself at the train station at least one day prior to departure to pick up your physical ticket from the ticket office. As mentioned above these are separate companies working in conjunction with one another which is why you see different services offered depending on which region of the country you're looking to travel within or between. If you're looking to use a train service other than the ones outlined here, unfortunately your only option to pre-purchase your tickets online are through a third party travel agent as mentioned above.
If you are using the JR Pass you won't be able to secure tickets till you're in country because you'll only receive an "exchange order" when you purchase the pass. You'll then take that exchange order and turn it in once you arrive in Japan to receive the actual pass. One exception to this rule - the JR East company allows you to use the online website linked and discussed above to reserve seats prior to arrival. For all other lines, you can only start reserving and getting tickets once you have the pass and you've officially activated it for use within the country.
Confused and daunting? Sure. But as I mentioned the good news is that for the most part you absolutely do not need to reserve tickets ahead of time. Japan's rail network is massive and operates trains on most routes with a high level of frequency. There's generally a lot of capacity moving around the country for you to utilize. Most Japanese will walk into the station 15-20 minutes prior to the departure time of the train they want to use and purchase their ticket at a kiosk right then before hopping on immediately to head off. You absolutely should not stress yourself out about securing tickets ahead of time unless you're traveling during one of the major Japanese holidays or if you absolutely need to be on a very specific train.
The peak travel holidays in Japan are Golden Week (late April/early May), O-bon (mid-August), and Shogatsu (New Years). Japanese travel wisdom is to avoid this time period but I've traveled in Japan several times during these dates and while there's a noticeable uptick in passengers over your standard days it's not impossible to travel during these times at all. You'll likely need a bit more pre-planning when you first arrive in japan to secure tickets ahead of time (which can be done through the ticketing office at any train station). The bigger concern in my opinion is the skyhigh hotel costs.
One last thing for this logistics section - here's a guide to reading a Japanese train ticket. Once you have your ticket in hand it's probably a good idea to understand how to read it! It lists your departure station, arrival station, seat number, car number, etc. Everything you need to know. It's not overly complicated but as a visitor to a country where you likely are unfamiliar with the transit network, better to know than assume you know.
On Board Service, Comfort, and Class of Service
So above I've made mention to two different classes of service on Japanese trains - green (first) and ordinary. Let's dig a little into the differences between the two and which one is best for your trip. Long story short though, in my humble opinion - green class is a waste of money. Do with that what you will.
What does green class bring to the table that you won't get with your ordinary class ticket?
Space - Ordinary class cars will features five seats per row in a 3-2 configuration. Green class is four seats per row, 2-2 configuration. Green car class also has more space between the rows which means more leg room.
Comfort - Both green and ordinary class cars feature recliner airplane-style seats, however, green class cars have plusher and wider seats. Green car seats often also come with a foot rest.
Less Crowded - Green car class comes at a premium so fewer people purchase seats in these cars. It's generally sparsely peopled and dead silent.
And ... that's about it folks. There really isn't too much of a differentiation other than that. And honestly most of these improvements are minimal at best. The ordinary car seats are already fairly spacious. I almost always travel in ordinary class when I'm in Japan and when my 6 foot plus fiance is with me he doesn't struggle with space or leg room at all. He's able to ride comfortably. I've also taken multiple groups of friends through japan and not once has anyone said "wow, these seats are small". As for noise levels, the Japanese are a very polite and courteous people so even in ordinary class you won't find people talking loudly on their phones or even carrying on conversations. It's generally just as silent as the green car.
In fact, green class actually has one major downside - it's mandatory that you get an assigned seat. Unlike ordinary class which has cars that are reserved and require seat assignments (shiteiseki) and more casual unreserved cars which are on a first come first serve basis (jiyuseki), green class is reserved only. So if you're the type of person who likes to jump on a train whenever they feel like it without having to plan ahead of time or avoid hopping into an office and wait in line to speak with someone for a ticket, green class can actually be cumbersome. You'll need to spend some time securing your seats ahead of time vs. getting to the station and just walking onto a car and sitting down in any available seat.
Again, the choice is entirely yours but I see relatively little value/return on investment for a green class upgrade.
So what can you expect on board? Not much to be honest. Japan Rail is largely focused on getting you to your destination on time and safely. And they're going to do just that, you can almost bet your life on it. Timeliness is a religion to Japanese trains so the chance of your train being delayed or arriving behind schedule is extremely minimal. If you do end up on one of the rare delayed trains it's likely to only be delayed by a few minutes and will come with profuse apologies from the train and station staff. A story made the rounds recently where a Japanese train left a few seconds early which resulted in a transit scandal!
Generally speaking announcements will be made in both Japanese and English on major train routes that are used by tourists and even many of the smaller route networks crisscrossing the islands. Each car will have a scrolling marquee with next station and speed information posted, also in Japanese and English. The Japanese are aware they have visitors using these trains so they aim to make the information accessible, and for better or worse English has become the international language of travel. This includes signage in most train stations - posted in Japanese and English. The only real speed bump you might come across on the language front is speaking with actual train and station staff. Unlike other cities in Asia like Hong Kong or Singapore, the use of English in Japan is not excellent and you may encounter some language barriers. Staff working in the station's ticket office will likely have a solid grip of English, but on-board staff and station staff at ticket gates and on the platform might be more difficult to interact with.
On board staff will interact with passengers in two primary ways - conductors checking tickets and concession staff making their way through the aisles offering snacks and beverages for sale. Concession sales are not offered on all Japan Rail services but they are offered on most that tourists are likely to find themselves on while getting between some of the major sights and cities in the country.
Sales are generally offered from a cart wheeled down the aisle with a small selection of bento (boxed meals), sandwiches, chips, ice cream, tea, bottled beverages, and coffee. As discussed above Japan is still a relatively cash-based society so expect to pay with currency and not card.
Even on routes where the concession cart is available, your best bet is going to be self-catering. Japanese train stations always have a handful of businesses offering an assortment of ekiben, which are specifically train station bento boxes. In the larger stations in Tokyo or Osaka you can select from dozens of businesses within the stations. Many businesses specialize in offering ekiben unique to the local area so feel free to shop around a bit and see what's on offer. If a boxed meal isn't to your liking there's always the ubiquitous conbini (7-11, Lawson, or Family Mart) where you can pick up sandwiches and other ready-to-eat options. The concession cart is limited in its offerings in ways that the conbini or ekiben shops in the stations won't be. You're much better off bringing aboard what you want vs. hoping the cart has something you'll enjoy.
All This And More
So there you have it, my little run down on Japanese train travel. While it might seem like a simple topic, Japanese train travel is actually quite complicated. As mentioned above, there's a variety of services that aren't even really addressed here in this guide. Luxury trains on select routes now offer "Gran Class" which is much more like old school airline business class with plush recliner seats, blankets, slippers, and catered Japanese kaiseki meals. There are also overnight train options and scenic routes which require more specialized booking and service information. This guide is designed to give the quick and dirty on the typical Japan Rail experience most visitors to Japan will need to know to get to and from major cities and sights within the country.
As always if you have any questions or comments about this post, feel free to leave me a comment below or use the "Contact Me" page to send me a note.
Thanks and happy travels!