Japan has an efficient public transportation network, especially within metropolitan areas and between the large cities. Japanese public transportation is characterized by its punctuality, its superb service, and the large crowds of people using it.

Rail travel in Japan is daunting. Sometimes, the stations become hectic places with multiple rail lines converging, meaning not only do you have to decipher the signs you also have to wade through the crowds. But train travel in Japan is simply a pleasure and its really wonderful. Nowhere on earth are trains as accurate, down to the second usually, and the staff is knowledgable and friendly. The most important thing that is to mention is, TRAINS IN JAPAN ARE THERE ON TIME.

The subways and rail lines in Japan use a color matching system. So even if you can’t read the characters as you rush through a station you can always match the colors. Second, most station names and information use the Western (i.e. English) alphabet, known as ‘romajii’ in Japanese. (Some small, rural stations might not have much information in English, but if you’re adventurous enough to hit the countryside this is a small obstacle!) Finally, there are abundant resources to help you get around, from Web sites to mobile apps that detail the rail systems, and the staff in the stations are very helpful.

Station signs in Tokyo contains names in alphabet

Station signs in Tokyo contains names in alphabet

Train categories

All types of Japanese trains, from local to shinkansen, are typically classified into the following categories:

Local (kakueki-teisha or futsu-densha)

Local trains stop at every station.

A typical Local train

A typical Local train. From Wikipedia

Rapid (kaisoku)

Rapid trains skip some stations. There is no difference in the ticket price between local and rapid trains.

A rapid train

A rapid train. From Wikipedia

Express (kyuko)

Express trains stop at even fewer stations than rapid trains.

Limited Express (tokkyu)

Limited express trains stop only at major stations. A limited express fee usually has to be paid in addition to the base fare. It is typically between 500 and 4,000 yen, depending on the distance. JR railway companies always charge this fee, but some other private railway companies do not.

Limited Express train

Limited Express train

Super Express (Shinkansen)

Shinkansen are only operated by JR. Shinkansen connects between major cities such as Tokyo to Kyoto, Tokyo to Osaka, Tokyo to Sendai. Shinkansen run along separate tracks and platforms. A limited express fee has to be paid in addition to the base fare. It is typically between 800 and 8,000 yen depending on the distance.

Seat categories

JR offers the choice between two classes, ordinary and green (first class), on shinkansen, limited express trains and a small number of slower trains. Most local trains carry only ordinary cars. Green cars are less crowded and offer more spacious seats, but are typically 30% to 50% more expensive than ordinary cars.

Most shinkansen and limited express trains carry non-reserved (jiyu-seki) and reserved (shitei-seki) seats, while a few carry reserved seats only. Seats in green cars are often all reserved. On most local, rapid and express trains all seats are non-reserved. Seat reservations cost roughly 300 to 700 yen, but are free with the Japan Rail Pass.

Reserved sheets of Narita Express

Reserved sheets of Narita Express

Smoking cars or smoking rooms are provided on only a small number of long distance trains. On all other trains, smoking is not permitted.

Buying a ticket

Tickets for short distance trips are best purchased at vending machines, while tickets and seat reservations for long distance trips can be purchased at ticket counters in train stations.

Purchase a ticket at a vending machine

Find your destination and the corresponding fare on the map above the vending machine. The map shows the train lines and stations of the region. Ticket prices are shown beside each station.

Insert the money into the vending machine. Most machines accept coins of 10, 50, 100 and 500 yen and bills of 1,000 yen, 5,000 yen. Many machines also accept larger bills.

Select the number of tickets that you wish to buy. The default is one, so if you are traveling alone, you can skip this step.

Press the button that shows the amount for your ticket.

Collect the ticket(s) and change.

Some machines contain feature to change the user interface to English language, so it will not be too much difficult to use the machines.

Ticket machine of JR

Ticket machine of JR

Sometimes the station names on the maps are written only in Japanese. If you are unable to find your destination and the corresponding fare, you can purchase a ticket for the lowest possible price, and pay the difference at a fare adjustment machine at the destination station.

Purchase a ticket at a ticket counter

In order to purchase a ticket, you need to provide the following information:

  1. Number of travelers
  2. Date of travel
  3. Departure Station
  4. Destination Station
  5. Ordinary or green car
  6. Preference of reserved or non-reserved seat

If you wish to reserve a seat, you need to provide the following additional information:

  1. Train name and number OR departure time
  2. Preference of smoking or non-smoking seat

If you do not speak Japanese and there is a lineup, it is recommended that you write the data on a piece of paper and present it to the salesperson in order to make the purchasing process smoother. Special forms for that purpose (some in English) are actually provided at some stations, but are rarely used by customers.

Entering the paid fare zone

After buying the ticket, you can proceed through the ticket gate. At automatic ticket gates, which are found at busy stations, insert the ticket into the slot, walk through the gate and pick up the ticket on the other side. If you insert an invalid ticket, the gate will close and an alarm will sound.

There are also IC card, which is rechargeable and called Suica or PASMO in Tokyo area. If you have got the IC card, just touch the IC card to the blue area.

Ticket gate

Ticket gate

If you have a Japan Rail Pass, you cannot use automatic gates, but must pass through a manned gate, showing your pass to the station staff.

In order to access shinkansen platforms, you need to pass through a second or separate set of ticket gates. They are usually well marked.

Station platforms

Find your platform by looking for your train line and direction. Most important signs are written in Japanese and English, and increasingly also in Chinese and Korean.

Platform signs are usually clearly written in Japanese and English

Platform signs are usually clearly written in Japanese and English

On many platforms, marks on the floor indicate where the doors of the arriving train will be located. Waiting passengers will line up behind those marks. Train drivers are trained to stop within centimeters.

Passengers waiting in lines on the platform

In case of long distance trains, additional marks will indicate car numbers and whether the car is an ordinary or green car, and whether it carries reserved or non-reserved, and smoking or non-smoking seats.

Note that some platforms are served by trains of different train categories (e.g. local and rapid trains). Displays indicate the next arriving train’s category and, at some stations, the set of upcoming stations served by it.

Riding the train

Wait for passengers to exit before entering the train. Be careful not to block the door at stations, especially if the train is crowded. Put backpacks on the floor or onto the baggage shelves.

Most passengers on Japanese trains are either reading, sleeping or using their mobile phones for sending messages, browsing the web or playing games. Talking on mobile phones inside trains, however, is forbidden, except in the entrance sections of shinkansen and limited express trains.

Upcoming stations and connecting lines are announced in Japanese. On shinkansen and some other lines frequently used by foreign visitors, the announcements are also made in English. Shinkansen and other newer trains have electronic signs in each car that display the upcoming station.

At the destination station

The station names on platforms are written in kanji, hiragana, and English. The previous and upcoming station names are also written.

Station signs are usually written in Japanese and English

Station signs are usually written in Japanese and English

At your destination, leave the paid fare zone through the ticket gates in the same way as you entered. When paying with a single ticket, the ticket is retained in the machine upon exiting.

If you did not pay the correct fare for your destination station, you have to pay the difference at a “Fare Adjustment” machine before leaving through the gates. If there are no such machines, you can pay the difference at the manned gate.