5 Things To Know About Trains in Japan


5 Things to Know About Trains in Japan

A beginner's guide to trains in Japan

If you're somewhat familiar with Japanese transportation systems, you've definitely heard that Japan has one of the best train systems. Ever. In the rare event that there is a delay, it's likely because something terrible has happened. 

NYC's MTA is absolute garbage in comparison. 

Even though trains are punctual, clean, and wonderful, there always comes the downsides. Sometimes hard to understand, confusing maps, a billion exits, and the train conductors hardly speak English.  Hopefully I can break this down a little easier for your next trip. Also this isn't a JR Rail Pass guide (but lmk if you're interested in one)!

Also, I'm taking blog post suggestions! If there's any guide/opinion/fashion/photos you want to hear about, let me know. :)


What are the trains in Japan?
There are MANY DIFFERENT train companies, the most popular being JR (Japan Railways). JR runs throughout the country. Other lines include Tokyo Metro, Hankyu Railway, and Keihan Line. JR and the subway are NOT the same.

What's the JR Pass?
Train pass with unlimited rides on the JR Trains. You purchase a 7 day/10 day/etc. pass for $300+ and have unlimited access (including 95% shinkansen) for that duration.

How do I buy a train ticket?
You can buy them from the counter (person wearing the hat behind the glass right by the enter zone, OR at the machine. When you're at the machine, punch in your FINAL destination even if it includes a transfer. Most ticketing machines have English options.
Alternatively, you can purchase an IC Card (like a metrocard) where you put in x amount of money and use it until you need to refill your card. I personally suggest this.

How much does a train ticket cost?
Depends on how many stops you're going, and can range anywhere from 100~1,500 yen. In Tokyo taking the train 2 stops over might be 170 yen, while 4 stops is 240 yen.

What if I buy the wrong ticket?
Because tickets aren't directly correlated with your destination, you can always add or subtract money at the Fare Adjustment machine in every station (before you exit).

How do I read the train map?
No different than the subway map. Stations that overlap are transfer points.

Japanese train sign (photo credit: @ meck_j._w._morco )

1. The Basics: Using the Trains

Using the train isn't much different from here, but here's a step-by-step.

  1. Don't freak out. Deep breath. Locate the ticket machines (usually to the side) of the kaisatsu, the ticket gate.
  2. Locate your destination on the map above the ticketing machines. Find the (usually 3-digit) numbers below. That is how much it will cost.
  3. Approach the machine. Insert money (no credit cards, big bills OK, you can also put multiple bills at once). 
  4. Press how many tickets you want to buy, 2 if roundtrip. Then press the button that shows the cost of your ticket that you located in step 2.
  5. Collect ticket. 
  6. Approach the kaisatsu and insert ticket into the scary mouth-eating thing. Gates will open. You enter. Your ticket will come up on the other side where you must retrieve the ticket.
  7. Place your ticket in a safe space because you will need to reinsert it into the kaisatsu when leaving the station.
  8. Find the platform number you want. There's always an elevator or escalator if you have lots of luggage (unless you're a shitty station like Shin Okubo).
  9. Wait behind the "form line here" signs on the ground.
  10. Enjoy!!

The machines and all are definitely intimidating, but it gets much easier with practice. If you're using the train a lot, I recommend buying an IC card (you might also hear Suica or Pasmo). They're the cards everyone is tapping against the kaisatsu instead of inserting a ticket. It also works for all trains, not just JR!

If you're a JR Pass or special ticket holder, you have to go through the "special entrance" which is where the Station Master checks your ticket. Also note that the Station Masters don't always speak English, so do your best to use Japanese! ;)


2. Understanding Train Etiquette

This is the #1 winner for the Mistakes-That-Make-Foreigners-Look-Like-Assholes list - train etiquette. Japanese are private people that respect space, etc. etc. etc... but seriously, please. Don't talk loudly to your friends. Don't take up an entire section of a train and yell at eachother across the seats. Don't eat on the train (unless the shinkansen). Don't listen to loud music on crappy headphones where everyone within a 5-metre circumference can hear. Don't hop into the train tracks to prove to your bros that "you're mad tall lmaooo."

But oddly enough, it's more common to see: strangers asleep on eachother's shoulders, drunk men sprawled across an entire row of seats, people rushing to claim their seat (like Musical Chairs), and not offering seats to older people unless in priority seating.

Bottom line: if you are sober, don't disturb the people around you or noise pollute and you'll be OK.

Also as common courtesy you should: step off the train and let others out if you're in the way of traffic, step off the train if you're right by the door of a packed cart, offer your seat to elderly (duh), silence your phones, not smell bad. 

Japanese train etiquette

3. Train Language Decoded

This has always been the most confusing part of Japan trains that I still haven't locked down. I'll try my best to help you out. I'm not going to say "There's express and nonexpress" because that's the easiest way to confuse you. Why? There's about 32 different express trains and 14 different nonexpress! And only listed the popular ones below! Lovely!!!!!!

  1. Limited Express (Tokkyu) 特急 - "The fastest train" that only stops at MAJOR stations. 
  2. Express (Kyuuko) 急行 - "Super fast train" that stops at major stations and some. 
  3. Rapid (Kaisoku) 快速 - "Fast train" that stops at fewer stations than the local train.
  4. Local (Futsu) 普通 - "Local train" that makes every single stop.

You'll be able to tell which train is which by (1) looking at the signs on each cart and (2) seeing how nice the trains are. Usually the crappier older looking trains are local, while the nicer brightly-lit ones are limited express. Also on your journey you may run into some really fancy lookin' trains on the track over. If they don't look like an average train, BE CAREFUL because you need a separate ticket to ride those. VIP Only-ish.

Women Only Cart (Jouseisenyousha) 女性専用車 - Women only carts. No men allowed. These carts are usually only apply during rush hour, but some are throughout the entire day. Check the floor stickers. If you get stuck in one, just move to the next cart over.

Photo credit: tubiwon

Photo credit: tubiwon


4. Train Schedules & Rush Hour

If you're running late to meet someone, you can't use "the train was delayed" as an excuse. If it actually was, snap a picture and show it as proof. I did this a few times for work. Trains run from about 4:30 A.M.-12:45 A.M everyday, and times vary depending on the station. Yes.... Fridays the drinking starts at 7pm and ends at 11pm, or it starts at 12am and ends at 4am.

HyperDia - Timetable and route search. Plan your train schedule in English.

Rush hour is unbelievable, especially on certain lines throughout the city. If you think the L at 9:00 A.M. is bad, you haven't seen anything yet. I used to ride the Midosuji Line (on Osaka's subway system) everyday at 8:25 A.M. and was packed into the very last cart. Pushed in and pressed against some stranger. I couldn't even use my phone. When you plan on starting your day early, be careful for rush hour! But I also recommend experiencing it first hand. It's awesome (until you have to do it everyday). 

Here's a good list of the most crowded train lines.

Photo credit: @fi_ha

Photo credit: @fi_ha


5. Riding the Shinkansen

Shinkansen, also known as the bullet train, is the really really fast train you're always hearing about. It's got a sleek shape with a tapered front. It's also really expensive. People commonly ride this train between Tokyo and Osaka, but is a great way to see other major cities throughout Japan. There are train trolleys that serve noribentos, which are "train lunch boxes" and you get really nice views depending on where you're going! 

Shinkansen from Tokyo to Osaka: is recommended if you're on a tight schedule and have the extra money to spend. It's a comfortable 2 hours if you have a seat, and cost 14000~ oneway. If not, you can fly or take a bus for less than half the price. 

Shinkansen from Osaka to Kyoto: is also a thing that people, for some reason, do. It's 1500~ yen for a 15 minute ride. OR you can take JR or Hankyu for 500~ yen for a 25 min ride. 

JR Pass works on all shinkansen EXCEPT the Nozomi (the "Limited Express" of shinkansen).

Hope this helped! Drop a comment if you have any questions. The JR Rail Pass is a whole different story, but feel free to ask about that as well. See you on the flip side.

- Emilia Liu, Champloo