Using the train in Japan
The Japanese rail services are among the best in the world: they are fast, frequent, clean and comfortable. The services range from small local lines to the shinkansen super-expresses or ‘bullet trains’ which have become a symbol of modern Japan.
The ‘national’ railway is Japan Railways (JR; www.japanrail.com), which is actually a number of separate private rail systems providing one linked service. The JR system covers the country from one end to the other and also provides local services around major cities like Tokyo and Osaka. There is more than 20, 000km of railway line and about 20, 000 services daily. JR operates the shinkansen network throughout Japan.Shinkansen lines are totally separate from the regular railways and, in some places, the shinkansen stations are a fair distance from the main JR station (as is the case in Osaka). JR also operates buses and ferries, and ticketing can combine more than one form of transport.
In addition to JR services, there is a huge network of private railways in Japan. Each large city usually has at least one private train line that services that city and the surrounding area, or connects that city to nearby cities.
Train & subway
Several cities, especially Osaka and Tokyo, have mass transit rail systems comprising a loop line around the city centre and radial lines into the central stations and the subway system. Subway systems operate in Fukuoka, Kōbe, Kyoto, Nagoya, Osaka, Sapporo, Sendai, Tokyo and Yokohama. They are usually the fastest and most convenient way to get around the city.
For subways and local trains you’ll most likely have to buy your ticket from a machine. They’re pretty easy to understand even if you can’t read kanji as there is a diagram explaining the routes; from this you can find out what your fare should be. If you can’t work the fare out, a solution is to buy a ticket for the lowest fare. When you finish your trip, go to the fare adjustment machine (seisan-ki) or counter before you reach the exit gate and pay the excess. JR train stations and most subway stations not only have their names posted above the platform in kanji and romaji but also the names of the preceding and following stations.
Types of trains
The slowest trains stopping at all stations are called futsū or kaku-eki-teisha. A step up from this is the kyūkō (ordinary express), which stops at only a limited number of stations. A variation on the kyūkō trains is the kaisoku (rapid) service. Finally, the fastest regular (non-shinkansen) trains are the tokkyū services, which are sometimes known as shin-kaisoku.
The fastest and best-known train services in Japan are JR’s shinkansen. The shinkansen reach speeds of up to 300km/h and some experimental models have gone significantly faster. In addition to being incredibly fast, shinkansen are also incredibly safe: in more than 30 years of operation, there has never been a fatality.
The service efficiency starts even before you board the train. Your ticket indicates your carriage and seat number, and platform signs indicate where you should stand for that carriage entrance. The train pulls in precisely to the scheduled minute and, sure enough, the carriage door you want is right beside where you’re standing.
On most shinkansen routes, there are two or three types of service: faster express services stopping at a limited number of stations, and slower local services stopping at all shinkansen stations. There is no difference in fare with the exception of the super-express Nozomi service on the Tōkaidō/San-yō shinkansen line. There are, however, regular and Green Car (1st-class) carriages.
There are a limited number of kin’en-sha (nonsmoking carriages); request one when booking or ask on the platform for the kin’en-sha-jiyū-seki (unreserved nonsmoking cars). Unreserved carriages are available on all but the super-express Nozomi service, but at peak holiday periods they can be very crowded and you may have to stand for the entire trip.
For prices on specific shinkansen routes, see below.
Various surcharges may be added to the basic fare. These include reserved seat, Green Car, express service and shinkansen surcharges. You may also have to pay a surcharge for special trains to resort areas or for a seat in an observation car. The express surcharges (but not the shinkansen super-express surcharge) can be paid to the train conductor on board the train.
Some of the fare surcharges are slightly higher (5% to 10%) during peak travel seasons. This applies mainly to reserved seat tickets. High-season dates are 21 March to 5 April, 28 April to 6 May, 21 July to 31 August, and 25 December to 10 January.
Further surcharges apply for overnight sleepers, and these vary with the berth type, from approximately ¥9800 for various types of two-tier bunks, and ¥20, 000 for a standard or ‘royal’ compartment. Note that there are no sleepers on the shinkansen services as none of these run overnight. Japan Rail Pass users must still pay the sleeper surcharge (for more on the Japan Rail Pass, see below). Sleeper services mainly operate on trains from Tokyo or Osaka to destinations in Western Honshū and Kyūshū.
The Nozomi super express has higher surcharges than other shinkansen services and cannot be used with a Japan Rail Pass. As a guideline, the Nozomi surcharge for Tokyo–Kyoto is ¥300; for Tokyo–Hakata it’s ¥600 (seat reserve fee).
Passes & discount tickets
If you plan to do any extended travel in Japan, a Japan Rail Pass is almost essential. Not only will it save you lots of money, it will also spare you the hassle of buying tickets each time you want to board a train.
In addition to the Japan Rail Pass, there are various discount tickets and special fares available. The most basic is the return fare discount: if you buy a return ticket for a trip which is more than 600km each way, you qualify for a 10% discount on the return leg.
Japan rail pass
One of Japan’s few real travel bargains is the Japan Rail Pass, which must be purchased outside Japan. It is available to foreign tourists and Japanese overseas residents (but not foreign residents of Japan). The pass lets you use any JR service for seven days for ¥28, 300, 14 days for ¥45, 100 or 21 days for ¥57, 700. Green Car passes are ¥37, 800, ¥61, 200 and ¥79, 600, respectively. The pass cannot be used for the super express Nozomi shinkansen service, but is OK for everything else (including other shinkansen services).
The only surcharge levied on the Japan Rail Pass is for overnight sleepers. Since a one-way reserved seat Tokyo–Kyoto shinkansen ticket costs ¥13, 220, you only have to travel Tokyo–Kyoto–Tokyo to make a seven-day pass come close to paying off. Note that the pass is valid only on JR services; you will still have to pay for private train services.
In order to get a pass, you must first purchase an ‘exchange order’ outside Japan at JAL and ANA offices and major travel agencies. Once you arrive in Japan, you must bring this exchange order to a JR Travel Service Centre (these can be found in most major JR stations and at Narita and Kansai airports). When you validate your pass, you’ll have to show your passport. The pass can only be used by those with a temporary visitor visa, which means it cannot be used by foreign residents of Japan (those on any visa other than the temporary visitor visa).
The clock starts to tick on the pass as soon as you validate it. So don’t validate if you’re just going into Tokyo or Kyoto and intend to hang around for a few days.
For more information on the pass and overseas purchase locations, visit the JR website’s Japan Rail Pass section (www.japanrailpass.net/eng/en001.html).
JR East pass
This is a great deal for those who only want to travel in eastern Japan. The passes are good on all JR lines in eastern Japan (including Tōhoku, Yamagata, Akita, Jōetsu and Nagano shinkansen, but not including the Tōkaidō shinkansen). This includes the area around Tokyo and everything north of Tokyo to the tip of Honshū, but doesn’t include Hokkaidō.
Prices for five-day passes are ¥20, 000/16, 000/10, 000 for adults over 26/youths 12 to 25/children aged six to 11. Ten-day passes are ¥32, 000/25, 000/16, 000 for the same age groups. Four-day ‘flexible’ passes are also available which allow travel on any four consecutive or non-consecutive days within any one-month period. These cost ¥20, 000/16, 000/10, 000 for the same age groups. Green Car passes are available for higher prices.
As with the Japan Rail Pass, this can only be purchased outside Japan (in the same locations as the Japan Rail Pass) and can only be used by those with temporary visitor visas (you’ll need to show your passport). See the preceding Japan Rail Pass section for more details on purchase places and validation procedures.
For more information on the JR East Pass, visit the website’s JR East Pass section (www.jreast.co.jp/e/eastpass/top.html).
JR West San-yō area pass
Similar to the JR East Pass, this pass allows unlimited travel on the San-yō shinkansen line (including the Nozomi super express) between Osaka and Hakata, as well as local trains running between the same cities. A four-day pass costs ¥20, 000 and an eight-day pass costs ¥30, 000 (children’s passes are half-price). These can be purchased both inside Japan (at major train stations, travel agencies and Kansai airport) and outside Japan (same locations as the Japan Rail Pass) but can only be used by those with a temporary visitor visa. The pass also entitles you to discounts on hiring cars at station rent-a-car offices. For more information on this pass, see the JR West website’s San-yo Area Pass section (www.westjr.co.jp/english/global.html).
JR West Kansai area pass
A great deal for those who only want to explore the Kansai area, this pass covers unlimited travel on JR lines between most major Kansai cities, such as Himeji, Kōbe, Osaka, Kyoto and Nara. It also covers JR trains to/from Kansai airport but does not cover any shinkansen lines. One-/two-/three-/four-day passes cost ¥2000/4000/5000/6000 (children’s passes are half-price). These can be purchased at the same places as the San-yō area rail pass (both inside and outside Japan) and also entitle you to discounts on station hire-car offices. Like the San-yō Area Pass, this pass can only be used by those with a temporary visitor visa. For more information, see the JR West website’s Kansai Area Pass section (www.westjr.co.jp/english/global.html).
JR Kyūshū rail pass
This pass is valid on all JR lines in Kyūshū with the exception of the shinkansen line. A five-day pass (the only option) costs ¥16, 000 (children’s passes are half-price). It can be purchased both inside Japan, at Joyroad Travel Agencies in major train stations in Kyūshū, and outside Japan, at the same locations as the Japan Rail Pass. It can only be used by those on a temporary visitor visa. If you purchase an exchange order overseas, you can pick up your pass at major train stations in Kyūshū. For more information, visit the website of JR Kyūshū (www.jrkyushu.co.jp/english/kyushu_railpass.html).
Seishun Jūhachi Kippu
If you don’t have a Japan Rail Pass, one of the best deals going is a five-day Seishun Jūhachi Kippu (literally a ‘Youth 18 Ticket’). Despite its name, it can be used by anyone of any age. Basically, for ¥11, 500 you get five one-day tickets valid for travel anywhere in Japan on JR lines. The only catches are that you can’t travel on tokkyū or shinkansen trains and each ticket must be used within 24 hours. However, even if you only have to make a return trip, say, between Tokyo and Kyoto, you’ll be saving a lot of money. Seishun Jūhachi Kippu can be purchased at most JR stations in Japan.
The tickets are intended to be used during Japanese university holidays. There are three periods of sale and validity: spring – which is from 20 February to 31 March and valid for use between 1 March and 10 April; summer – from 1 July to 31 August and valid for use between 20 July and 10 September; and winter – from 1 December to 10 January and valid for use between 10 December and 20 January. Note that these periods are subject to change. For more information, ask at any JR ticket window.
If you don’t want to buy the whole book of five tickets, you can sometimes purchase separate tickets at the discount ticket shops around train stations.
For more on the Seishun Jūhachi Kippu, see the JR East website’s Seishun Jūhachi Kippu section (www.jreast.co.jp/e/pass/seishun18.html).
Shūyū-ken & Furii Kippu
There are a number of excursion tickets, known as shūyū-ken or furii kippu (furii is Japanese for ‘free’). These tickets include the return fare to your destination and give you unlimited JR local travel within the destination area. There are shūyū-ken available to travel from Tokyo to Hokkaidō and then around Hokkaidō for up to seven days. A Kyūshū or Shikoku shūyū-ken gets you to and from either island and gives you four or five days of travel around them. You can even go to Kyūshū one way by rail and one way by ferry. These tickets are available at major JR stations in Japan. For more information on these and other special ticket deals, see the JR East website’s Useful Tickets and Rail Passes for Visitors to East Japan section (www.jreast.co.jp/e/pass/index.html).
Discount ticket shops are known as kakuyasu-kippu-uriba in Japanese. These stores deal in discounted tickets for trains, buses, domestic plane flights, ferries, and a host of other things like cut-rate stamps and phone cards. You can typically save between 5% and 10% on shinkansen tickets. Discount ticket agencies are found around train stations in medium and large cities. The best way to find one is to ask at the kōban(police box) outside the station.
Schedules & information
The most complete timetables can be found in the JR Jikokuhyō (book of timetables; available at all Japanese bookstores; written in Japanese). The JNTO, however, produces a handy English-language Railway Timetable booklet which explains a great deal about the services in Japan and gives timetables for the shinkansen services, JR tokkyū (limited express services) and major private lines. If your visit to Japan is a short one and you will not be straying far from the major tourist destinations, this booklet may well be all you need.
Major train stations all have information counters, and you can usually get your point across in simplified English.
If you need to know anything about JR, such as schedules, fares, fastest routes, lost baggage, discounts on rail travel, hotels and car hire, call the JR East Infoline (050-2016-1603; www.jreast.co.jp/e/info/index.html; 10am-6pm, closed during the year-end/new-year period). Information is available in English, Korean and Chinese. More information can be found on the website.