Navigating Japan’s Train System: Tips for Traveling Japan by Train
Are you planning to take a trip to Japan? Do you find Japan’s extensive public transportation system more than just a little intimidating? No need to fear! Japan’s public transportation system can be a little overwhelming at first, but once you get the hang of it, it’s actually incredibly convenient and easy to use! I chose to divide Japan’s public transportation system into three categories: buses, trains/subway, and bullet trains. The focus of this post is around traveling Japan by train. Buses and bullet trains will be covered in future posts.
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Finding Your Route
There are many apps and websites that can help you find the best route to arrive at your destination. Below are some of the apps you can install:
- Hyperdia (iOS Hyperdia by Voice)
- NAVITIME for Japan Travel
- Google Maps
Each has their own pros and cons. For more details, check out my review of the various apps that are useful for travel in Japan and decide which app is the best for you.
How to Ride the Train in Japan
When it comes to riding the trains, there are three main methods to pay for your ride: rail and commuter passes, tickets, and IC Cards.
JR Rail Pass and Commuter Passes
If you are in Japan on a visitor’s visa, I highly recommend looking into the various JR rail passes. If you are moving to Japan (a.k.a. you won’t be entering on a visitor visa), you may qualify for a Commuter Pass.
Unless you plan on staying in the same spot for your entire trip, chances are you’ll be riding the train quite a bit. Paying for each individual ride will add up very quickly. With a rail pass, you typically pay a flat fee. Then, that pass will allow you to ride certain rail lines an unlimited amount of times. Even if you aren’t the type of person to plan trips in advance, I recommend at least getting a rough idea of where you want to go. Calculate how much it would cost to ride the train and then take a look at rail pass prices. In most cases the rail pass will save you a decent amount of money.
If you are moving to Japan to work for a company or go to school, you may be able to purchase a commuter pass. They are similar to rail passes in that they allow you to pay a flat fee in order to be able to travel between certain destinations an unlimited number of times.
For example, when I studied abroad in Japan, I lived in Asakadai but my school was in Ikebukuro. I was able to purchase a commuter pass for a flat fee. Then I could travel to Ikebukuro, or any of the stations in between Asakadai and Ikebukuro, however often I wanted.
In order to be able to purchase a commuter pass, you must have official documentation from your company or school.
Buying Tickets for the Train
Even if you have a rail pass, you may occasionally need to buy tickets (i.e. your rail pass doesn’t cover one of the rail lines you want to ride). You can buy tickets from the kiosks stationed right outside the gates to the rail line.
Before you walk up to the Kiosk (or get in line for one), take a look at the rail line map. You can usually find it hanging above the kiosk. The kiosk only allows you to select a yen amount (price) for your ticket, which means you will need to know how much your ticket will cost before you get up to the kiosk.
Fare costs are typically calculated by how far you are traveling. The map will typically have a big “you are here” arrow or some way of indicating which station you are currently at. Chances are, the map will have several different rail lines on it, each of them color-coded, so you’ll first want to find the rail line you are planning on riding. Along the rail line, it will have the names of the different stations it stops at. Each of the station names will have a number next to them. That number will indicate how much it will cost to get to that station from where you are currently.
Below is a map of the JR Yamanote line. According to the map, I am currently at Shinjuku station. If I wanted to go to Ikebukuro, it would cost ¥150. Going to Tamachi would cost ¥190.
Once you’ve figured out how much your ticket is going to cost, go ahead and get in line for the kiosk. If there is no line, just walk right up to it. Chances are the kiosk will be in Japanese when you walk up to it, but don’t worry. Most will have a button somewhere in the corner that allows you to switch to English. Select the price of your ticket, enter your money into the slot, and take the ticket that comes out.
You can see a demo of this in the below video by the JR East Japan Railway Company:
If you don’t have a rail pass, or find that you are often riding rail lines not covered by the rail pass, it might be worth looking into getting an IC Card. IC Cards are reloadable cards that can be used to pay for transportation. You load money onto the card, and when you exit the gates at your destination, the cost of your fare is automatically deducted from the card. IC Cards are incredibly convenient because you don’t have to purchase tickets from a kiosk every time you want to ride the train. Even some restaurants and shops will allow you to pay for things with the money on your IC Card.
You also usually get a small discount at train stations if you use an IC Card instead of a buying a ticket. For example, if you bought a ticket from Shinjuku to Asakusa, your ticket would cost about 350 yen (equivalent to about US $3.50), but if you use an IC Card, the fare would be about 339 yen. It may not seem like much, but it adds up over time.
IC Cards can be purchased from the same kiosks that you use to purchase tickets. When you purchase an IC Card, it is typical to pay about 2,000 yen (equivalent to about US $20). 500 yen pays for the card itself. The other 1,500 yen is loaded onto the card to start using to pay for your fares.
The below video from JR East Japan Railway Company talks more about purchasing an IC Card:
If you don’t remember how much is on your IC Card, I recommend checking before you anywhere, but if you forget, it’s not a big deal. If you go to exit the gates at your destination and they angrily beep at you, it means that you don’t have enough money on your card to pay the fare. Don’t fret. There are kiosks inside the gates as well where you can add more money to your card. Then you should be able to exit through the gates.
There are various types of IC Cards, and which card is available for purchase depends on where you are. It used to be that different IC Cards were necessary depending on where you were traveling. However, in 2013, all the cards were made compatible with each other, meaning you should be able to just use one card to ride most trains.
The exception to that rule occurs when traveling on trains between IC Card areas. For example, Suica is the IC Card for the JR Railways on the east side of the country, and ICOCA is the IC Card for the JR Railways on the west side of the country. While I can use a Suica within cities on the East side and within cities on the West side, I typically cannot use a Suica card to travel between a city on the east side and a city on the west side.
Types of Trains in Japan
There are a lot of different types of trains: local, semi-express, express, rapid, and more. I’ve found that knowing the names for the different types of trains isn’t really important. The important thing to know is which type of train stops at which station. Most train stations offer an easy to read map that shows which trains stop at which stations.
In general, the local train stops at every station, and typically doesn’t go very far. Semi-Express trains still stop at a majority of the stations, but may skip a few. Express trains stop at even fewer stations than Semi-Express trains, and so on.
Riding the Train
Finding the correct rail company
When you first walk into the train station, there should be plenty of signs that direct you to the rail company you are looking for, whether it be JR lines, the metro line, or any other rail line. If you can’t find the rail line you are looking for, don’t hesitate to ask a train station attendant. Some of the train stations are quite large and not always real easy to navigate (even after four months, I would still get lost in Shinjuku station). Most of the attendants are more than willing to go out of their way to help you out.
Going through the gates
Once you find the rail line you are looking for, head through the gates.
If you have a ticket, there will be a little slot for you to insert the ticket. The gates will open for you to walk through. On the other side, your ticket will be sticking up at the end. Make sure to grab it again, as you will need it to get out of the gates at your destination station.
If you have an IC Card, all you have to do is place your card on top of the IC Card reader and then gates will open. Most people will just keep their IC Card inside their wallet or such and set their wallet on the reader.
The videos above also show how to use tickets and IC Cards at the gates.
Getting on the right train
Once inside the gates, there may be only one rail line available, or there may be several. There should be plenty of signs to indicate what platform services which train. The signs often rotate between Japanese and English, so if the sign is in Japanese, just wait a minute for it to rotate to English.
Most of the overheard announcements that state a train is arriving are given in Japanese. If you are concerned about whether or not the train in front of you is the right one, talk to the train conductor. Most of them will not only tell you whether it’s the right train for where you want to go, they’ll let you know when to get off the train too.
If the train station isn’t real busy, it’s okay to stand wherever you want on the platform while you wait for the train to arrive. If it’s bust, you’ll see people getting in line, and you’ll want to get in line as well. There are spots on the floor that show where the train doors will be when the train is stopped, and that is usually where the line forms. Once the train arrives, it is common courtesy to stand to the side of the doors so passengers currently on the train can exit without issue. Once the passengers have gotten off, you can step onto the train.
It’s typically frowned upon to eat or talk on the phone while riding the train, so try to avoid these the best you can.
If there is an elderly, pregnant, or disabled person, it is common courtesy to offer your seat to them. They may or may not accept, but you should at least offer.
If you are by the door and somebody behind you needs to get off, step off the train onto the platform to allow the person to get off, and then step back onto the train. You typically will not loose your spot, and you may even get a better one.
This may seem obvious, but do your best to keep your hands and feet to yourself (although that can be hard during rush hour). Japan has an unfortunate problem with chikan, or perverts (typically refers to those who grope on trains). Accidental contact can lead to awkward and unfortunate scenarios.
Getting off the train
Depending on the train you are on, there may be a scrolling announcement bar, or a light-up map, or something similar that indicates which train station is next. The train conductor will also announce upcoming stations. The announcement is quite loud (unlike other train systems I’ve ridden), so you don’t have to worry about missing the announcement. The maps and scrolling announcements almost always have an English version, and the more popular trains will have English versions of the announcement.
Most people will head towards the door before the train comes to a complete stop at the station. This allows for a quicker transition between people getting off and people getting on. However, it’s not absolutely necessary for you to wait by the door.
What to do if you get off at the wrong stop?
If you get on the wrong train or get off at the wrong station, don’t worry. It’s not a problem unless you walk through the exit gates. If you walk through the exit gates, you will be charged for the ride. Instead, locate a station attendant and ask for assistance locating which train and station will get you to your desired destination. It may take some extra time, but as long as you didn’t exit through the gates, the cost of your fare will be the same.
Going out of the gates
Once you arrive at your desired station, locate the signs that point toward the exit. There is often more than one exit gate. They are usually labeled by the direction (north, south, east, west) or numbered. If they station is quite large, you’ll find that exiting out of one gate may be more beneficial than exiting from another, so I recommend looking at a map before your trip. Some apps will even tell you the best exit to go through in order to arrive at your destination in a more efficient manner.
Other Things to Know About Traveling Japan by Train
Be on time
The train will not wait for you. You often see people sprinting through the station trying to make it in time for their train, especially for trains that don’t run real frequently.
Give yourself ample time
While there is a stereotype that things and people in Japan are very punctual, there are various reasons why a train might be late. Mechanical issues do occur. It is also unfortunately common for people to commit suicide by jumping in front of trains (Japan has a rather high suicide rate), and that will also cause trains to be late. If trains are late, they usually offer excuse slips that you can give to your boss, school, or anybody else who might need written documentation for why you are late.
Sleeping on the Train
Lots of people will sleep on the train, and I don’t just mean resting their eyes. There are people who will be fast asleep and magically wake up when it’s time for them to get off the train. Don’t be surprised if you find that the person next to you has fallen asleep and their head has landed on your shoulder. I’ve never had it happen to me, but I’ve seen it happen to other people.
Dealing with Rush Hour
Have you ever videos on social media of the train system in Japan? If not, check out this youtube video. There are train station attendants whose job is literally to push people into the train so that the doors can close. That is how packed the trains can get at rush out. You will be squished so close to other people that you won’t be able to move. You can’t turn your head, can’t lift your arm, nothing.
If you’re not in a major city, you may not have to deal with rush hour, but if you do, make sure you are either the first or last person on the train, preferably the first. If you are the first person on the train, head inwards, away from the doors. Depending on the train, you can usually fit three rows of people between the seats. You may not get a handle to hold onto, but you should at least have a bit of breathing room.
If you can’t be the first person, try to be the last. Once the doors close and people get their spots, you’ll usually find that you at least have room to breath. If you get stick in the middle, there is a good chance you’ll be pushed to the back (towards the door on the other side) and that’s where you get majorly squished, so much so you can barely breath.
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