This is no exaggeration: Japan has one of the best rail transportation networks in the world. Compared to many countries, Japan boasts rail travel that is remarkably efficient, punctual, reliable, clean and in many cases cost-efficient. The country also has some of the world’s most technologically advanced trains.
Before you ride the rails in Japan, a little preparation will go a long way to making your trip as smooth as possible. This article will guide you through the basics of riding the rails in Japan and also tell you just about everything you need to know to make your trip smooth and pleasant.
When using Japanese trains, you’ll need to know where you’re going and how to get there. The quickest way to do this is if you have an internet connection to check your route and a prepaid card for the fare. For intercity travel including Shinkansen trips, you’ll need to buy paper tickets unless you have a rail pass.
To find the best route for your destination, use apps like Hyperdia or Google Maps, which will give you routes and fares when you plug in your start and end points.
Let’s say you want to go from Haneda Airport to Tokyo Station. Putting these terms into Hyperdia will give you the quickest route: taking the Keisei Line to Shinagawa Station and then transferring to the Yamanote Line before arriving at Tokyo. The app also tells you that the trip takes 37 minutes and costs 580 yen. Next, you have to pay the fare. If you’re going to take more than three trips locally, don’t bother with paper tickets. Get a smart card.
Prepaid transportation cards
In major cities in Japan, you can easily ride on local public transit systems by using prepaid transportation cards, also known as IC (integrated circuit) cards. After charging these smart cards with cash, you can ride on railways, buses and other forms of transportation, such as cable cars, as long as the operating company accepts them. The cards are also accepted at many shops, restaurants and vending machines. They are not valid for Shinkansen travel or travel between card regions.
If you’re starting off in Tokyo, you’ll want to get either a Pasmo or Suica prepaid card, both of which can be used on most major transport systems in Japan. If you’re in the Osaka and Kyoto area you’ll want to get an Icoca card, which can also be used on most transit systems in Japan.
Getting and using a prepaid card
Go to a bank of ticket vending machines at a station and look for logos for the local smart cards. Push the language button or menu option on the machine or its touchscreen and follow the prompts. You’ll have to put in 1,000 yen to buy a smart card, and 500 yen of that total will be a refundable deposit.
To use the card, just tap or wave it by a card reader on the ticket gates. In many cases, your balance will be displayed on the gate’s screen. When you need to top it up, just go to a ticket vending machine and select “charge.” For deposit refunds, go to a ticket office.
Japan Railways (JR) is a group of six regional passenger rail operators. The JR railways are important to remember because of the popularity and value of the Japan Rail Pass, which travelers can use on them.
- JR East covering the Tokyo region and the northeast part of Honshu Island up to and including Aomori Prefecture
- JR Central covering the Nagoya area and the central part of Honshu
- JR West covering the Kyoto and Osaka areas and the western part of Honshu up to and including Yamaguchi Prefecture
- JR Shikoku covering Shikoku Island off western Honshu
- JR Hokkaido covering Hokkaido, the northernmost main Japanese island
- JR Kyushu covering Kyushu Island, the southernmost main Japanese island
Other railway operators
Apart from JR, there are many railway operators that are great for touring Japan. However, they do not accept the Japan Rail Pass. The ones of greatest interest to travelers are:
Odakyu offers trains from Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station westward to Odawara and the hot springs region of Hakone. The Romancecar limited express train is a very popular way of getting to Hakone. Odakyu offers the Hakone Freepass, which is valid for two or three days for travel on Odakyu trains and other transport to and around Hakone. Departures from Shinjuku Station are 5,140 yen for adults and 1,500 yen for children for two days.
Keio runs trains from Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station westward to Mount Takao (Takaosan), a popular hiking day trip. It offers the Mt. Takao Round-Trip Discount Ticket, with 20% off train and cable car or chairlift fares. The Keio 1DAY Ticket allows unlimited trips on the Keio or Inokashira lines for one day, and is priced at 900 yen for adults and 450 yen for children.
Tobu offers trains from Tokyo’s Asakusa Station northward to Nikko and Kinugawa Onsen. Nikko is home to a beautiful complex of temples, shrines and UNESCO World Heritage sites. Tobu offers the two-day Nikko City Area Pass (2,670 yen) and the four-day Nikko All Area Pass (from 4,150 yen), which covers a larger region including Yumoto Onsen, for discount travel to Nikko and transportation around the area on bus.
Keisei runs trains from Narita Airport east of Tokyo to Tokyo’s Keisei-Ueno Station. Keisei has discount tickets available online, as well as discount passes for the railway and the Tokyo subway that are valid for 24, 48 or 72 hours.
Hankyu operates trains from Osaka’s Hankyu Umeda Station northward to Kyoto’s Kawaramachi Station, as well as westward to Hankyu Kobe-Sannomiya Station in Kobe. Hankyu offers the Hankyu Tourist Pass, the Kansai Thru Pass and other discount passes for two- or three-day validity periods.
Keihan runs trains from Kyoto’s Sanjo Station to Osaka’s Yodoyabashi Station. Keihan has the Kyoto Osaka Sightseeing Pass (one-day passes are 700 yen for adults and 350 yen for children; two-day passes are 1,000 yen and 500 yen) as well as the one-day Kyoto Sightseeing Pass (500 yen for adults, 250 yen for children).
Kintetsu operates trains from Kyoto Station to Nara and Yoshino in Nara Prefecture, Osaka-Namba Station in Osaka, as well as Ise, Toba and Kashikojima in Mie Prefecture. Kintetsu offers a range of passes starting from a one-day pass covering Kyoto, Osaka and Nara, priced at 1,500 yen for adults and 750 yen for children.
Hanshin runs trains from Osaka’s Hanshin Umeda Station to Kobe’s Motomachi Station and Sanyo-Himeji Station near Himeji Castle. The one-day Hanshin Tourist Pass (700 yen) can get you from Osaka’s Umeda or Osaka-Namba stations to Motomachi; extra fares apply for travel to Sanyo-Himeji.
Nankai has trains going from Osaka’s Nankai Namba Station southward to Kansai International Airport as well as Gokurakubashi Station, a gateway to Mount Koya (Koyasan) in Wakayama Prefecture. Mount Koya is a collection of monasteries, temples and shrines, including UNESCO World Heritage sites, in a mountainous setting. The Nankai All Line 2day Pass (2,000 yen) is valid for all Nankai railways. The Koyasan World Heritage Ticket (2,860 yen for adults, 1,440 yen for children) offers two days of discount travel from Namba Station to Koyasan Station as well as buses at Mount Koya and 20% off admission to attractions.
Nationwide Japan Rail Pass
Japan Rail Pass The famous Japan Rail Pass is a must-have for many travelers visiting Japan. It gives users access to all JR services throughout the country including Shinkansen (with the exception of Nozomi and Mizuho services) and limited express, express, rapid and local trains. The Japan Rail Pass, which can now be purchased in Japan as well as overseas, starts from 29,110/14,550 yen for adult/child with seven-day validity.
If you’re doing at least one return trip such as Tokyo-Kyoto, the Japan Rail Pass makes the Shinkansen quite affordable and basically pays for itself. Once you have your pass, you can reserve seats at JR travel offices. For more information on the Shinkansen, see our article here.
JR Seishun 18 pass Even though its name means “youth 18” in Japanese, the Seishun 18 is available to everyone. Priced at 11,850 yen, it’s valid nationwide for limited periods (July to September and December to January) on all local and rapid JR Group trains, but not express, limited express or Shinkansen services. Each pass can be used for five days and can be shared by two or more people.
Regional Rail Passes
There are rail passes available for each region in Japan, and they include:
JR Tokyo Wide Pass: Valid for three days on all trains in Tokyo and the surrounding Kanto region (except Tokaido Shinkansen services). 10,000 yen for adults, 5,000 yen for children
Alpine-Takayama-Matsumoto Area Tourist Pass: Allows unlimited travel on JR limited express and slower trains from Nagoya, Matsumoto, Takayama and Toyama to the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route, which consists of funiculars, buses and other modes of transport going over the Japan Alps. Valid for five days; 17,500 yen for adults, 8,750 yen for children. Must be purchased before arriving in Japan.
Shinkansen bullet train and other intercity trips
If you’re traveling from one city to another in Japan, rail is often the best choice. Led by Shinkansen bullet train services, long-haul rail travel is often surprisingly comfortable and enjoyable.
Shinkansen bullet train
Riding the Shinkansen is both a breeze and a marvel of operational efficiency. Bullet train lines extend through much of the nation from Honshu Island to Kyushu and Hokkaido. They connect cities such as Tokyo and Kyoto in as little as two hours and 17 minutes for 13,080 yen on Tokaido Shinkansen Line’s fastest service, the Nozomi; the Hikari and Kodama services take 27 and 35 minutes longer, respectively.
To ride the Shinkansen, you’ll need either paper tickets or a Japan Rail Pass. For each leg of travel, you’ll often get two paper tickets: one that is your base fare and the other that is your limited express fare.
Reserved seats and tickets
Shinkansen trains have cars for reserved seats and non-reserved seats. Reservation fees ranging from 320 yen to 720 yen will be charged depending on whether it’s high or low season. There’s also an extra charge for certain Shinkansen services such as Nozomi.
Unless you don’t mind lining up for a non-reserved seat on the platform, getting a reserved seat is wise, especially during peak seasonal holiday periods such as Golden Week (late April and early May), Obon (usually mid-August, but mid-July in some regions) and Shogatsu (the end of December and first week of January).
If you reserve a seat, your seat and car will be printed on your ticket. When you get to the platform, simply look for the car numbers painted on the platform and find the spot where you should line up. If you have a non-reserved seat ticket, look for the signs for non-reserved cars.
Just like Shinkansen trains, some limited express trains have reserved seats. Depending on the service, the entire train could be reserved seats (for instance, the Narita Express running between Tokyo and Narita Airport).
Paper tickets can be purchased at JR group vending machines, JR Ticket Offices (known as Midori no Madoguchi), Travel Service Centers (known as View Plaza) or travel agents including JTB. Seats can also be reserved online (JR East Train Reservation) before your arrival in Japan.
Limited Express, Express and local trains
The fastest non-Shinkansen trains, stops at major stations and requires a surcharge; long-distance limited express services have special names
Another fast service, stops at major and some secondary stations
Stops at all but the most minor stations
These trains stop at every station
Ordinary, Green Class and GranClass cars
On long-distance trains, some services offer both ordinary cars and Green Class (first class) cars. The latter will have more spacious seats, but tickets cost more. In addition, some Shinkansen services (including the Hayabusa running between Tokyo Staton and Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station in Hokkaido) feature GranClass cars, which are even more luxurious and spacious than green cars.
Tokyo has one of the most extensive rail and subway networks in the world, with Shinjuku Station ranked as the world’s busiest station. This makes getting around Tokyo very easy and efficient. Below are some of the main railways and subways of interest to travelers.
JR East lines in Tokyo
Yamanote Line One of the most famous railways in Japan, the Yamanote circles the heart of Tokyo, connecting the hubs of Shinjuku, Shibuya, Shinagawa, Tokyo, Ueno and Ikebukuro, as well as Harajuku, Ebisu, Shimbashi and Akihabara stations
Keihin-Tohoku Line runs north-south from Saitama Prefecture through Akihabara, Ueno, Tokyo and Shinagawa on to Yokohama
Chuo Main Line goes westward from Tokyo Station through Shinjuku, Mitaka, Takao, and eventually to Nagoya
Sobu Line runs east-west through Chiba Prefecture and Tokyo from Chiba to Mitaka
Keiyo Line runs eastward from Tokyo Station to Maihama (Tokyo Disneyland) and Chibaminato
Aside from the lines listed under Other Railway Operators above, Tokyo also has these railways of interest to travelers. They do not accept the Japan Rail Pass.
Toyoko Line links Shibuya with Yokohama in Kanagawa Prefecture, stopping at Naka-Meguro and with services to Motomachi-Chukagai in Yokohama’s Chinatown
Rinkai Line operates trains from Osaki on the Yamanote Line to Tokyo Teleport in the heart of Odaiba Island on Tokyo Bay to Shin-Kiba Station on Keiyo and Yurakucho lines
Tokyo Monorail: Connects Hamamatsucho Station with Haneda Airport
Yurikamome: Runs from Shimbashi to Toyosu, passing through the island of Odaiba, home to shopping malls at Odaiba-kaihinkoen Station and the Tokyo Big Sight exhibition space at Kokusai-tenjijo-seimon Station
Tokyo Metro operates 179 subway stations in the heart of Tokyo and the surrounding region. The lines are color-coded and stations have alphanumeric codes. Tokyo Metro has a variety of discount tickets for access to some of the capital’s major attractions via its nine lines, including:
Ginza Line (yellow): Runs from Shibuya to Omotesando to Ginza, all popular shopping districts, to Asakusa, home to Sensoji Temple
Marunouchi Line (red): Goes from Ogikubo to the major transport hub of Shinjuku to Ginza to Tokyo Station, which has bullet train services to Kyoto and Osaka, before continuing to Ikebukuro
Hibiya Line (silver): Runs from Naka-Meguro, an emerging hipster hotspot, to Ebisu and Roppongi, which have many eateries and bars, to Ginza and Akihabara, an electronics and manga/anime mecca, before stopping at the Ueno rail hub and terminating at Kita-Senju
Fukutoshin Line (brown): Has trains connecting the shopping areas of Ikebukuro, Shinjuku-Sanchome and Shibuya
Toei Subway runs four lines in Tokyo, including the following. It offers the Toei One-day Pass as well as the multi-day Tokyo Subway Ticket.
Asakusa Line (rose): Connects Asakusa with Nihombashi, Higashi-Ginza and Shimbashi. Through services on the Keisei and Keikyu lines allow access to Narita and Haneda airports
Oedo Line (ruby): Forms a loop under central Tokyo, stopping at Shinjuku, Roppongi, Shiodome and Ryogoku, home to the Kokugikan sumo wrestling stadium
Article by Tim Hornyak. All rights reserved.