Beginner’s Japan Rail Guide

Beginner's Japan rail guide: tips and tricks to make travel in Japan stress-free

Japan’s rail system is one of the most efficient and extensive in the world.  The rail system crosses all four major islands.  If you like, you can travel from Kyushu to Hokkaido via rail.  However, using the Japanese rail system can be confusing for tourists.  Use this Japan rail guide to make your trip more enjoyable.

Railway Companies

Japan Railways (JR) is the largest rail conglomerate.  Japan Railways is actually six companies: JR East, JR Central, JR West, JR Kyushu, JR Shikoku, and JR Hokkaido.  JR East covers the Tokyo area and the northern part of the largest island, Honshu.  JR West covers the southern part of Honshu which includes Osaka and Kyoto.

Along with JR, there are several other major railways including the Keikyu railway company which connects Tokyo International Airport (Haneda) to downtown Tokyo.  The Kintetsu railway company covers large parts of southern Japan including the Osaka/Kyoto/Nara.

Japan Rail Pass

You can visit most of the major destinations in Japan using the JR lines.  Japan Railways offers a special tourist pass for visitors called the Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass).  The JR Pass allows visitors unlimited use of JR trains (with certain few exclusions) for periods of 7, 14, or 21 days.  The pass is designed for tourists and Japanese citizens can’t purchase the pass.  Normally, the JR pass can only be purchased outside of Japan.  From March 2017 to March 2018, JR is offering the JR Pass on a trial basis inside Japan.  However, the pass will cost more inside Japan.  You’ll save money by purchasing the pass ahead of your trip.

As I mentioned before, there are restrictions on the JR Pass.  Nozomi and Mizuho class bullet trains (shinkansen), which are the fastest class of trains, are excluded from the pass.  Pass holders can use Hikari and Sakura class shinkansen which operate on the same lines.  The Hikari and Sakura class trains reach the same speed as the Nozomi and Mizuho, but have more stops.  Your trip will take longer but will be less expensive and you still get to experience  bullet train speed.

Photo of a train seat on an express train in Japan. For more tips on train travel in Japan, check out this post on Not So Lost in Translation

Benefits and Drawbacks of the Japan Rail Pass

One major benefit of the JR Pass is free seat reservations.  While reserved seats aren’t required for most trips, reserving a seat means that you can pick the seat that you would like.  If you’re traveling with a group, you will be more likely to be able to sit together.  You can reserve seats easily.  In most cases, you should be able to reserve your seat 30 minutes to an hour before your trip.

The JR Pass is expensive.  Depending on your trip, the paying the cost of the pass may not be worth it.  As a general rule of thumb, if you are planning to travel round-trip on the shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto, then it’s worth it to pay for the seven-day pass.  However, if you plan to stay the Tokyo area for your trip, paying for the JR Pass will probably cost you more money.

Basic Train Etiquette

Rules for train etiquette in Japan are easy to follow:

  1. Keep your cell phone on silent.  The announcements will remind you to silence your phone several times during your trip.
  2. Mind your volume when talking.  Keep your voice low to not disturb other passengers.
  3. Don’t eat on normal commuter trains.  As a general rule of thumb, Japanese consider it rude to eat in front of strangers.  Shinkansens and longer train routes where the seats are facing forward are the exception.  In fact, many stores at the major train stations sell special Shinkansen bento featuring regional specialties.
  4. When waiting for your train, get in line behind other passengers at the designated markers on the train station floor.  When the train doors open, step to the left to allow passengers to exit the train.

Keep quiet on trains to not disturb sleeping passengers. For more Japan train etiquette tips, check out this post on Not So Lost In Translation.

Basic Train Vocabulary

Train
電車
でんしゃ
densha

Station

えき
eki

I am going to [X].
[X]に いきます。
[X] ni ikimasu.

I am going to Tokyo.
東京に いきます。
とうきょうに いきます。
Tōkyō ni ikimasu

I used Google maps and Hyperdia to plan my train routes.  When booking a reserved seat, I went to the ticket office and showed them the train information on my phone.  A reserved seat is 指定席(shiteiseki).

Excuse me. Reserved ticket for shinkansen to Tokyo please.
すいません。東京までの新幹線の 指定券。お願いします。
すいません。 とうきょう まで の しんかんせん の していけん。 おねがいします
Sumimasen. Tōkyō made no shinkansen no shitei-ken. Onegaishimasu.

Reserved seat please.
指定席でお願いします。
していせきで おねがいします。
shiteiseki de onegaishimasu

Aisle seat please.
通路側の席をお願いします。
つうろがわ の せき の せきを おねがいします
tsuurogawa no seki wo onegaishiamsu。

Window seat please

窓側の席をお願いします。
まどがわ の せきを おねがいします。
madogawa no seki wo onegaishiamsu。

For more train vocabulary, check out this article from Japan Info.  Tofugu has a general cheatsheet for travelers.

When Should You Avoid Japan Railways?

Depending on your trip, using JR lines could cost more and take more time.  If you have the JR pass, using as many JR lines as possible makes sense.  However, factor in the amount of time that it could take to get to your destination.  Instead using the JR lines, I use the Kintetsu railway to travel to Nara.  Kintetsu-Nara Station lies on the same street as Kofukuji and Nara Park.  Using the Kintetsu railway saved me several minutes of walking.  Since  I happened to visit Nara on a rainy day, I appreciated the extra time out of the rain!

If you have limited time, flying to your next destination could cost less and save you time.  Japan has several low cost airlines which fly to Hokkaido and Okinawa.  Vanilla Air and Peach Air are affordable options.  ANA also runs several promotions for tourists for domestic flights.

If you have a low trip budget, traveling by night bus will save you train costs as well as hotel costs.  Willer Express has several night buses which travel throughout Japan.  Night buses are safe and fairly comfortable.  As a bonus, Willer Express has a tourist pass When booking a night bus, take care to pay attention to the departure place.  Buses may depart from store parking lots or other locations outside of stations.  Be sure that you can find your departure point before your trip!

Your Turn:

Have you been to Japan?  What are your train tips?  Let me know your questions and comments below!

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