The train system of Japan, especially in the Tokyo metropolitan area is a super-complicated web of dozens of train lines operated by several different railway companies with differing rules by train and by station. There are at least 15 railway companies operating just in Tokyo.
It’s become this way through decades of competing to optimize to local passengers’ needs and conveniences, and now only locals have a full grasp of what goes on at their local station and on their usual trains.
However, as the number of foreign tourists has tripled from 10 million in 2013 to almost 30 million in 2018, the whole railway industry has been taking drastic measures to improve the tourist-friendliness of its services.
1. Equip yourself with a navigation app
You shouldn’t expect yourself to navigate yourself smoothly if it’s your first time to Japan. But, with a little help of useful apps and the goodwill of train and station attendants, you’ll be able to overcome the complexity of Tokyo’s railway mess.
First off, downloading this app will supercharge your ability to not get lost wherever you are in Japan:
NAVITIME JAPAN, the developer of the app, is the provider of the most heavily used transportation navigation app by local Japanese residents for its usefulness and simplicity.
2. Get a pre-paid train pass
Buying train tickets at stations has become an obsolete practice in Japan (although it’s still possible) as pre-paid train passes have become so widely used. Generally called “IC cards,” these passes automatically calculate your fare and deduct it from your balance when you cast yours at the ticket gate. They can be used to get through any ticket gate no matter which railway company the station or train is operated by.
There are several kinds of these IC cards (such as SUICA, PASMO, ICOCA, etc.) and you may wonder which one you should get, but all of them are compatible with most transportation means, and besides, the cards themselves are free of charge – you just need to make a deposit of at least 1,000 yen to make one at a ticket machine (the action of depositing money on your card is called “charge” in Japan).
Basically, the card rids the need to figure out which ticket to buy to get to your destination. It saves a lot of time and brain cells.
You can redeem the remaining balance at big stations on the last day of your visit if you think you won’t be coming back to Japan for a while. So you won’t lose any money making an IC card.
Another useful pre-paid pass is the Japan Rail Pass, which can either be purchased online to be delivered to your home or purchased at a sales office nearest to where you live (you can also purchase it in Japan by showing your passport at a travel agency). It’s quite a pricey purchase, but makes a good deal if you plan to make stops at several cities in Japan (for instance Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka all in one trip).
The Japan Rail Pass allows you to take all trains in the whole country that are operated by Japan Railways for 7, 14, or 21 days, at a one-time fixed price.
An inter-city long-distance train ride (for example from Tokyo to Osaka) costs $120-$135, while a 7-day Japan Rail Pass costs around $250. So if you are planning to use more than 2 long-distance trains and several local train rides during your week-long stay, getting a Japan Rail Pass will make sense.
But do remember that the JRP is only valid for Japan Railways trains. *43% of Japan’s train lines and all long-distance trains are operated by Japan Railways, but none of the subways are. If you plan to travel only within a single city, just getting a hold of an IC card will do.
There are also cheaper versions of the Japan Rail Pass such as the JR East Pass which grants access to JR trains within certain geographic boundaries. But no one, including local Japanese, can tell which kind of pass will be the best buy for the itinerary he/she has in mind, so it’s best to consult a travel agency. Major JR stations have their own travel service centers (called View Plaza) set up near the ticket gates.
3. Seek help readily
Most railway companies in Japan have committed to using English in order to help foreign tourists out at stations and on trains. They have hired English speakers and have been investing in training their employees on the English language. At central stations such as Tokyo station, you can expect to find help from station staff competent in Chinese, too.
Also to be noted is that some major railway companies (such as Japan Railways and Tokyo Metro) have equipped their station staff with multilingual tablet devices which can be used in guiding tourists with visual aids.
Unlike some other parts of the world, railway employees in Japan are trained and willing to treat you like a guest. They are aware that their train system is not as simple as ABC, and that foreigners can use a little help during transits to make their trips even more pleasant ones.
So they are there to help. Seek help readily.
4. Riding short-distance trains
If you’re trying to move from one place to another within a city, you’re looking at short-distance trains. Trains above and underground that are shaped like rectangles are meant for short-distance travel.
Once you input the name of the station you are currently at and the station you wish to go to, your app will tell you which track you should wait for your train at and whether you should hop on a local or express train.
Make sure you know how local trains and express trains are written in Japanese so that the train you take won’t be skipping your destination or taking too much time to get there. Here’s what the digital signage at station platforms will look like:
Express trains, which only stop at more important stations, are usually displayed in a watch-out-here-I-come red font, while local trains, which stop at all stations, are usually in a harmless white or green font (the choice of color depends on the railway company).
Of course train info is also displayed in English, but during transits you sometimes won’t have time to wait for the digital signs to switch from Japanese to English, so it won’t hurt to be able to recognize the Japanese characters for local and express trains.
普通 or 各停 = Local train
快速 , 急行 = Rapid train , Express train
5. Riding limited express trains
If your hotel is in the city but you want to visit a tourist site in a nearby countryside, chances are you’re going to take a limited express train (for example if you are staying in Tokyo and want to visit the hot spring resorts of Nikkoh or Hakone).
Limited expresses are medium-distance trains that are shaped differently from a local train – they are applied more curvature and look like they can go faster. They may either have a designated track or ride into a track used by a local train, and this all depends on the railway company. What you need to remember is that you need to have bought a special ticket and/or reserved a seat beforehand in order to ride them.
These train tickets can generally be purchased online, virtually making your smartphone a ticket, but signing up for each railway company’s online services can be a hassle and to be honest it’s a challenge to get it done right especially if you’re not accustomed to the train system in Japan. Your safest bet is to visit a ticket office or travel agency at a major train station and have an English-speaking clerk there make all the arrangements for you.
If you have only a vague idea of site-seeing in the countryside from Tokyo but have no idea how to or where to stay, visiting a View Plaza travel service center will be a good idea. If you already know which limited express train you want to ride, going to a JR ticket office called Midori-no-madoguchi will be a good idea. Here is a list of train stations that have a View Plaza and Midori-no-madoguchi.
Major JR stations in western Japan also have Midori-no-madoguchi offices, but do not have an equivalent to View Plaza. However there are many non-JR travel agencies set up there, so not to worry.
6. Riding long-distance trains
Long distance trains that transport passengers from one city to another are called Shinkansen and they come in all sorts of futuristic designs.
Japanese children (mostly boys) are obsessed with Shinkansen, collecting toys and watching anime about Shinkansen that transforms into Transformers-like robots to fight invaders from space.
So taking a Shinkansen ride can be an attraction in itself if you have kids, but riding a Shinkansen is slightly less simple than taking local trains.
6-1. Ticket-related complexities
This goes for limited express trains too, but buying a ticket can seem a little tricky (although it’s actually not. Not so much).
When you buy a ticket of any kind, you pay for the distance the train service transports you across. For example if you take the Yamanote Line from Shibuya station to Ebisu station (the very next stop), you pay 133 yen.
However when you take a long-distance train trip, for instance from Tokyo to Osaka, you need to pay for an express fare in addition to the distance you are to be transported.
So when you buy a long distance train ride at the ticket counter or machine, you are often handed two tickets:
- a ticket for the transportation (written as 乗車券 on the ticket)
- an express ticket (written as 特急券 on the ticket)
When you go through the ticket gate to board the Shinkansen, you stick both tickets into the automatic wickets.
But then, sometimes these two tickets come as one, which makes it all that more confusing, even for local Japanese. Here’s a picture of a two-in-one ticket.
JR, the operator of Shinkansens, is aware of the complexity, and so positions multilingual staffers at ticket machines and ticket gates. So don’t be afraid to ask if you’re not sure you got the right tickets.
6-2. Luxury options
FYI, there are some luxury options for seats. You can choose to buy a ticket for a seat in the “Green Cars” which are the business class of Japanese long-distance trains.
By paying an extra several thousand yen (the price depends on the distance you travel), you get wider seats and oftentimes a quieter train ride as not many kids get on the Green Cars.
Some trains run routes that are primarily taken for leisure purposes, and offer special meals and/or special seats designed to entertain passengers. Take this Izu Crail resort train as an example; it runs between Odawara and the tip of Izu peninsula, taking you to one of the finest hot spring resorts of Eastern Japan.
Izu Crail has a few cars housing special seats that come with Japanese/French boxed lunches to be eaten during the ride. By asking a tour agency for help booking these luxury seats, the 2 hour train ride becomes part of a memorable trip. However, as you can imagine, these seats are extremely popular and you’ll need to make bookings pretty far in advance. Izu Crail has regular (and boring) seats, too.
7. Entering the ticket gates
To enter the ticket gates into a station, simply cast your IC card over where it looks like it should be cast. When you get out of the ticket gates at your destination, do the same.
Now if you’re getting on a Shinkansen from a major station, it’s likely that you’ll go through two ticket gates, as the gates to Shinkansen tracks are often located within the ticket gates for local trains.
So you may end up shoving the two Shinkansen tickets you bought into two gates (ticket gates can take two tickets at once). Of course if you got a two-in-one ticket, that ticket is enough.
8. Shopping in the station
At major stations where Shinkansen and limited expresses stop at, you’ll find shops, delis and cafes set up within the ticket gates. Because chances are you’ll wait several minutes for your long-distance train to arrive, these shops provide entertainment for the eyes and reasons to carry your purse.
To get the full Japanese railway experience, you MUST buy “Ekiben,” or boxed meals meant to be eaten during your long train ride. These are sold at Ekiben shops, and here’s a picture of the busiest one located inside Tokyo station.
Tokyo station is itself a department store where you will find an impossibly wide variety of Japanese foods and confectionery that you can bring into long distance trains to feast. Stop by.
9. Finding the right track
Finding the right track for your train is not really a problem because your navigation app will tell you the track number. There are a few cases where the track number will not be shown, but that just means there are only a couple of tracks at that station and it won’t be rocket science to find the one you’re looking for.
Although trains in Japan are super punctual, there are minor delays caused by various reasons like overcrowding, sick passengers and someone trespassing onto a rail, almost on a daily basis. So chances are your app will say you’re supposed to get on the 4:13 train towards Tokyo, but you’ll see a train come in at 4:17 and you won’t be 100% sure if it’s the right train.
But not to worry – train stations will have electronic signs saying which tracks the next few trains will be coming in, in both Japanese and English. Just wait a few seconds for the sign to switch between languages.
10. Riding the train
Trains are the primary public transportation of Japanese people living in metropolitan areas of Japan, and because everybody uses it and nobody wants to ride with assholes, there are certain mannerisms that are expected of passengers to observe.
10-1. Do’s and Don’ts on the train
More often than not, people need to sit and stand right next to each other, and this is when not observing good manners will quickly turn yourself into a nuisance to other passengers.
The rule of thumb is to keep in mind that the goal of the train manners that are to be mentioned soon below is to split the available space and comfort equally among all passengers. So the more crowded the train is, the more strictly these manners need to be observed, and vice versa.
Here are some Do’s and Don’ts.
1. Don’t have a loud group conversation
Human beings by nature cannot resist the fun of chattering, but do resist on trains in Japan. It’s of course OK to converse with a friend sitting or standing next to you at a controlled volume, but if the whole car can hear you speak, it’s guaranteed that several other passengers are mentally ready to stab you to shut you up.
If you’re traveling in a party of three or more, you might be tempted to sit across the aisle from each other, which itself is fine, but once you fire up a group conversation across that aisle, yes, the whole car can hear you. And yes, people want to stab you.
You will never see a group of Japanese people doing this (unless it’s a group of super-naive Japanese teenagers), so if you see an Asian group doing it, it’s most likely the Chinese. I’m not trying to be mean to Chinese people. I’m just stating a fact.
2. Keep the volume down on your device
You’ll see everyone whipping out their cell phone on the train, but will almost never hear any ringtones whatsoever. Everyone, except really old ladies who haven’t and will never figure out how to change their settings, have their phones on vibrator mode.
If your ringtone, music or portable game is audible for a duration of over 3 seconds, that’s immediate frowned-upon material. There is a high chance someone will actually confront you and tell you to stop. Silence is not just a virtue but rather an expectation on Japanese trains.
3. Maximize space for others
If you’re taking up more space than you need to, you’re most likely annoying passengers around you. This doesn’t mean you don’t have the right to ride the train if you’re horizontally wide – that’s not the point.
If you’re throwing your legs out in front or spreading your legs wide, you’ll be considered a douchebag because you’re taking up more train space than you need to at the cost of other people’s space.
Also, if you’re carrying a huge bag on a rush hour train, take it off your shoulders and put it on the floor between your legs. Rush hour trains look like (and are typically worse than) the picture below, and passengers need to cooperate in order to fit in as many commuters as possible.
An extra person would be able to stand behind you if your gigantic bag wasn’t there. Carrying your bag in front of you is another good idea because people wouldn’t want to stand right in front of you anyway due to the awkwardness that situation would bring.
There is an overhead baggage space above the seats, but I personally do not recommend placing your luggage there, although it will be a nice gesture that frees up train space for everyone else. Why? Because you’ll forget your belongings there. I regret not having statistics to back up my point here, but I insist there is a 50% chance you’ll get off the train without your stuff.
When you violate these guidelines on the train, you will probably not be told to stop by anyone because one, it’s not part of Japanese culture to confront people directly no matter how disagreeable he/she is, and two, not many Japanese have a good-enough command of English to tell you that you’re a dick.
But having stated all this, sometimes local Japanese people themselves turn into train-assholes that ruin the day for fellow passengers, so don’t feel too bad if you do notice yourself being frowned upon. After all, who can remember all these rules on their first visit to Japan?
These guidelines have all developed over time, and from a cultural standpoint, I personally think it’s interesting how a population has collectively come up with and shared ways to cohabitate as stress-freely as possible under an environment where people need to go about in such close proximity.
10-2. Women-only car during rush hour
During rush hour (which is generally between 7AM to 9:30AM on weekdays) you’re not supposed to step into the women-only car if you’re male. The car (there is only one per train) becomes available to any sex before and after rush hour.
You may wonder why Japan has become Muslim here all of a sudden segregating men and women, but this is to protect both sexes from crime. Although the number of cases has been on the decline, men molesting women on rush hour trains is a serious problem in urban areas of Japan.
Also, there have been cases where innocent men had been accused mistakenly by women who were molested by another man, or by girls who thought it was funny to try and ruin a middle-aged man’s life by accusing him of sexual assault.
The women-only car lowers the chance of these outrageous cases to occur. I’ve hopped on one of these cars by mistake when I was in a hurry, and a lady boldly told me I was out of place. If you find yourself in a similar situation, kindly apologize and move to the next car, and you won’t get in trouble.
10-3. Reserved seats and non-reserved seats
You need to buy a special ticket(s) in advance to get on long-distance express trains (AKA Shinkansen). Like airplanes have different seat classes, there are a few types of seats you can choose from. Different Shinkansen routes offer different seat options, though. Here’s a list of all the seat options:
|You may seat yourself in any seat in the Non-reserved seat cars. The most budge seat option.|
|You will have a designated seat for yourself in one of the Reserved-seat cars. Your ticket will say your seat number. Costs several hundred to a thousand yen more.|
|Green car seats|
|You will have a designated seat for yourself on one of the cars labeled “Green Car.” You get a wider seat with an advanced reclining function, and is much quieter as kids rarely ride on Green Cars. Costs several thousand yen more than the fore-mentioned seat options. The business Class of Shinkansen.|
|Gran Class seats|
|The First Class of Shinkansen. You’ll be designated an even bigger and more luxury seat. Comes with a gourmet boxed-lunch, Japanese confectionery and free drinks (including alcohol). Costs an extra several thousand yen more than a Green Car seat.|
Some seat options are not offered depending on the route. For example, Gran Class is only offered on Shinkansen traveling within eastern Japan.
If you get in the wrong seat (i.e. you have a Non-reserved seat ticket but seat yourself in a Reserved seat), an attendant will find you and nicely tell you to move to the seat you have paid for, or pay the difference up right on the spot, in which by the way you will be charged more than you would buying the ticket beforehand.
The attendants have a digital device that keep track of where passengers are supposed to be seated, so you won’t get away with secretly upgrading your seat.
11. Getting out of the ticket gates
After you step out of your train at your destination, you’ll carry yourself to the ticket gates.
At mammoth stations such as Tokyo and Shinjuku, there are literally more than 7 gates that lead to different fronts of the town, and getting out of one leading to the opposite direction from the place you mean to visit can lead to significant loss of time trying to get back on track. So if you’re not sure which ticket gate is closest to where you’re heading, don’t hesitate to ask a station staffer or show him/her your Google map.
To go through the ticket gate, you’ll either slide in a paper ticket (if that’s what you purchased) or cast an IC card above the gate.
If your IC card runs out of money, the automatic ticket gate will stop you and notify that you don’t have enough on your card. And then all you need to do is go to a nearby ticket machine and deposit some more money onto your card. You should be able to find one within a few seconds-distance from the ticket gates.
So there you have it. Those are all the basics you’ll need to know to not look devastatingly lost on trains and at stations in Japan. Bear in mind that many train conductors, attendants, drivers and station staffers are trained (and motivated) to help foreign guests like you. Seek help! And have a great time.