Train travel in Japan: a complete guide

Hikari Shinknsen Bullet train

If you are planning a trip with the Japan Rail Pass, better be prepared! You will be riding Japanese trains quite often.

While visiting the country may be a dream come true for many, figuring out how to manage the Japanese transportation system might be somewhat of a challenge for others. This article will solve all doubts regarding riding the trains in Japan so keep on reading.

The Japanese train system

The railway system in Japan is so well developed, punctual, extensive and diverse that you can simply assume that wherever you plan to go – there is a train that will take you there.

The very first thing to know is that railway lines in Japan are not operated by a single company. National Japan Railways Group owns roughly 80% of the railroads, but the rest are privately owned companies.

Due to this, when reading the visual maps above any ticket-vending machine around Japan you will notice that some lines headed in the same direction have different prices. This is so because each company has its own price list.

You are free to select the company you wish. The Japan Rail Pass discounted multi-use ticket is part of the National JR Group.

For more information about the national, regional and local lines, please check our maps page.

Types of trains in Japan

Following are the intercity and suburban Japanese train categories explained:

Shinkansen (Super Express)

Also known as bullet trains, these are the fastest transportation modes in Japan with very few stops (if any) in comparison to the rapid or local ones.

The Shinkansen run on separate tracks and platforms since their track gauge is completely different from the others. This is due to the line’s high-speed capabilities and overall construction.

A Super Express fee is required when boarding any of the bullet trains, in addition to the regular base fee. The price is usually between 800 and 8,000 yen, depending on your final destination.

Note: Shinkansen bullet trains are included in the Japan Rail Pass*, which means that JR holders will not have to make any extra payments when boarding this train during the validity of their pass.

*With the exception of the “Nozomi and “Mizuho” privately owned trains.

Japanese bullet train - Shinkansen
E Series Shinkansen Bullet Train (© Tupungato via Shutterstock.com)

Limited Express trains

There are over a 100 different types of Limited Express trains, with a limited number of stops, so they only go to major Japanese stations. Similar to the Shinkansen, the Limited Express also requires an additional fee to be paid. The Japan Rail Pass does cover some of those trains, however not all of them. The extra cost can vary between 400 and 4,000 yens.

Express trains

Many of the Japanese Express trains have been stopped and upgraded to Limited Express or downgraded to Rapid. The JR Group operates the current Express trains, which means Japan Rail Pass holders can use them free of charge. All other passengers will be charged an additional fee.

The JR Pass also covers the main airport transfers, which are usually operated by express or limited express trains: Haneda International Airport (Tokyo Monorail), Narita International Airport (Narita Express), and Kansai International Airport (Haruka Express).

Rapid trains

Passengers will not be charged any extra fees when boarding a rapid train. A single train ride costs equally to one local train ride. The only difference is that rapid trains skip a few stops in comparison to the local one, which makes their time of arrival notably shorter.

Local trains

To ride a local train you will need to buy a regular ticket. No extra fee will be required. Local trains can either go from point A to point B or run at loop lines (like the Yamanote line in Tokyo or the Osaka loop line), stopping at all stations. It is recommended not to take these trains for long distances as they are some of the slowest and least spacious in Japan.

Special trains

While most trains are geared toward commuting or business travel, there are many trains that are designed for tourists. In Japan, this type of train is broadly referred to as joyful trains.

The most popular trains are the various steam trains that run on more scenic lines. These mostly run on weekends and holidays and many operate only in the summer months. Many of them called character trains have been given unique designs to attract visitors to scenic locations. This started with trains featuring characters popular with children, but more recently, prominent industrial designers have been recruited to design unique trains more appealing to adults.

Types of train tickets in Japan

Before explaining the ticket-buying process, let us focus on the train ticket options you will have with the different companies and services:

The Japan Rail Pass

You can choose between 7, 14 and 21-day pass, giving you access to all Japan Railways Group (JR) trains, buses and ferry services available throughout Japan. Read more.

Japan rail passes

Standard train tickets

These are the regular tickets that will take you from point A to point B. For short distances, it is easier to purchase them from the ticket machines, which you can find easily on any platform.

IC cards

IC cards are prepaid rechargeable transportation cards, which can be used to pay your train or bus fare – similar to the London Oyster card, for example. Pasmo and Suica are the most popular transportation cards in Tokyo.

What is more, there is an increasing number of shops and restaurants where travelers can use an IC card to make a contactless payment.

Note: Please keep in mind that each Japanese city has its own prepaid travel card. The good news is that they are interchangeable, which means you can use your Tokyo Suica card on the Kyoto metro.

City passes

Many Japanese cities offer city passes that grant 24h unlimited access to any of the city transportation means such as trains, trams, buses, and metro. Such passes are also referred to as Day Pass. You can purchase them at a ticket counter in any of Japan’s big cities: Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Sapporo, Nagoya, Hiroshima and more.

How to buy individual train tickets

Tickets for short distance trips are sold at vending machines, whereas tickets for long distance trips can be purchased at ticket counters.

First-timers might be puzzled by the typical Japanese ticket machines as grasping how to buy a ticket right from the beginning is not always easy. Do not be scared! Here is our step-by-step guide to managing the Japanese ticket vending machines:

How to use the ticket vending machines

  • Locate the ticket vending area at your station. Typically there will be a big map above it.
  • Take a look at the map and find the name of your final destination.
    TipThe station you are currently at will be written with larger letters (usually red) and in some occasions indicated by a red arrow (“You are here” style). The map displays the names of the stations in both Japanese and English together with the price to get to each destination.
  • Once you know how much your trip will cost you, take a look at the machine screen.
  • Tap the “English” button on the top right corner of the screen for an English translation of the process.
  • One the left hand-side of the screen select the number of passengers.
  • If your final destination costs 200 ¥ (for example), select 200 on the screen (usually, you don’t choose the name of your destination but the price to get there).
  • You can also insert coins/notes first. If you have added 200 (¥), the screen will highlight in green the options for this amount.
  • Once you have selected the amount and inserted it, your ticket will be immediately printed and you will be given your change (if any).

Even though it might seem complicated or too unfamiliar at first, don’t be discouraged. The second try will already be easier!

Note: Keep your ticket with you until the end of your trip. You will need it to get out at your destination station.

How to reserve train seats on Japanese trains

All Japan Rail Pass holders are entitled to free seat reservations. If you are a JR Pass holder, you can simply go to any of the ticket offices located at the stations, specify which train are you planning to take and that is all. You will be given a confirmation of your seat reservation within seconds.

The procedure is the same for passengers with no Japan Rail Passes. However, they will have to pay an extra fee. The exact amount depends on the selected type of train and class.

Note: Always remember that Japanese trains are punctual to the second. If you have a seat reservation, make sure to be at the station in advance.

Getting around Japanese train stations

Japan Rail Pass holders enter the train platforms at the station from a different gate than those with standard train tickets. To enter, JR Pass travelers should go to the glass booth located next to the gates and show their JR Pass (and passport, if required) to the staff.

JR station ticket gate
Ticket gate at JR Station. The Japan Rail Pass gate can be seen at the end.

When at the station waiting for your train, there are a few things you need to keep in mind:

  • Follow the queue like the Japanese do.
  • Make sure to check which is your track before boarding, as sometimes more than one train leaves from the same platform.
  • All the indication you need will be displayed on the monitors in both Japanese and English.
  • Stand in a straight line. Personal space and waiting behavior matter to the Japanese!
  • Follow the example of the Japanese when entering the train by first letting everyone get out.

Note: for more information about stations, please refer to our complete guide about Japanese train stations.

Where to store your luggage

Riding the trains with large suitcases is not recommended as there is little storage space provided on most trains. This excludes the Narita Express, which will take you to and from Narita Airport to central Tokyo, and the Haruka train. Both are well equipped for large luggage, however, the rest of the trains are not.

Shinkansen trains offer overhead storage compartments for regular luggage. Also,  there is space behind the last row of seats of each car. However, this space is limited, and there is no guarantee it will be available.

The Japan Railways regulations state the following:

  • Each passenger can carry two pieces of large luggage.
  • Each suitcase should not exceed 30 kg in total.
  • The total of the luggage’s three dimensions (length, width, depth) should add up to 250 cm maximum. The length should not exceed 200 cm.

Note: for more information about transporting luggage, please refer to our guide about luggage forwarding and coin lockers.

Interior of a shinkansen bullet train
Interior of a Shinkansen bullet train

Other travel tips

It is important to understand that the Japanese follow a strict etiquette in public and especially when riding a train or taking a bus. Always bear in mind that speaking on the phone is not accepted, as you are disturbing those who surround you.

Listening to loud music, placing your bags on the seat next to you or not giving it up to the elderly, sick or pregnant is practically forbidden.

A final recommendation will be to enjoy to the fullest your time in Japan but always to be mindful of those around you.

Cover photo – Local train next to Ueno Station (Tokyo) – By @chucknado (Flickr)

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24 thoughts on “Train travel in Japan: a complete guide”

  1. Hi,
    I’m planning to come to Japan to see Cherry Blossoms this April 2017. I’m going to stay near Osaka Park. My question is should I buy JR Pass to use from KIX airport back and forth and go to Kyoto? I know that I have to subways like Tanimachi Line, Nagahoritsurumiryokuchi Line, or Sennichimae Line. I have to pay those subways separately right? I’m going to stay for 8 days and the JR Pass is only good for 7 days.

    Thanks.

    1. Hi Cecilia,

      You can use the Japan Rail Pass from KIX Airport, taking the Limited Express Haruka train. You can take the Osaka Loop line and the Shinkansen bullet train line to Kyoto as well as other JR lines in the city. Please note that you will have to pay separately for all non-JR lines.

      For further inquiries, please contact our Customer Service department at: https://www.jrailpass.com/contact

  2. Hi, I will come to Japan on April 2017. My plan will go to Mt Fuji. I bought JR pass already. Can you tell me which JR train will me from Shijuku Station to Mt. Fuji? Thanks

    1. Hi Arlene,

      Yes, it is covered. From Tokyo Station, you can take the Tohoku Shinkansen to Hachinohe Station.

      Regarding the departure times and trip scheduling, please take a look at our Hyperdia page.

      Have a great trip!

  3. Aloha . I will be going to Japan in June. I am not sure which pass to purchase – a one week, two or three. I will be coming from Narita to Tokyo, Tokyo to Osaka in a week’s time, then Osaka to Hiroshima and back to Osaka, Osaka to Nara and back , then from Osaka to Kyoto, and in the third week stay in Kyoto and then return to Tokyo and then Tokyo to Narita. Of course, in between, I would like to travel around but am not sure where I will be traveling to. Your advice is greatly appreciated.

    1. Hi Sheri,

      Your Japan Rail Pass choice will depend mainly on your travel plans. We recommend you to check your itinerary in Hyperdia to see which would the actual cost with individual tickets be and then compare it to the cost of the Japan Rail Pass.

      However please note the pass covers all the mentioned trips:

      Narita Airport transfers to central Tokyo.
      Tokyo to Osaka and Kyoto, in any possible combination of from and to points, and unlimited in number of times you want to make the trip.
      – Transport from Osaka to Hiroshima (from Osaka’s city center, take the JR Haruka Express to Shin-Osaka Station, then transfer to the Sanyo Shinkansen line (westbound, Hikari trains).).
      – Transport from Osaka to Nara, by beggining your travels at the JR Osaka Station and taking the Yamatoji Rapid Train to JR Nara Station.

      We also recommend you to surf further through our blog for more recommendations on how to fill the time and possible daytrips from the main cities. Also please note transportation within main cities is also included (Osaka Loop Line, Yamanote Line in Tokyo…).

      Very happy travels!

  4. Hi

    This is our first time to Japan. We will stay in Tokyo mainly and visit Kyoto during our time and leaving from Tokyo. I wonder if I should buy a JR pass during my stay 21-30. Does the JR pass cover the Nozimi bullet train. Can the JR pass be used in the city for short trips. I am staying in Shinjuku area.

    Any information or help you provide will be greatly appreciated.

    1. Hi Patrick!

      Please note the Japan Rail Pass can be used within Tokyo on certain lines. The pass should translate into big savings when you travel within the whole country. It fully covers the trip to Kyoto as well as many other points in the country. We would recommend you to check the day trips you can make from Tokyo – you will for sure try to get to know amazing places!

      Regarding the Nozomi, these trains are not included in the Japan Rail Pass since they are owned by private companies. However you will always be able to use a Shinkansen Hikari that will cover the same itinerary.

      Very happy travels!

  5. I am going to Osaka in October, I will be travelling from Kansai airport to Osaka, and planning to do one or two Kyoto day trips, along with a weekend in Tokyo. I would prefer to go via Shinsaken as it’s quicker.

    Would the JR 7 day pass be worth this?

    Thank you

    1. Hi Natalie!

      All the mentioned trips are included in the Japan Rail Pass:

      – To travel from the Kansai Airport to the city of Osaka, board the Limited Express Haruka at the Kansai Airport Station using your Japan Rail Pass.
      – There are many day trips you can make from Kyoto. Among our favorites are Nara, Kobe and Himeji Castle, all of them included in the pass.
      – To go from Osaka to Tokyo, you can either take Hikari bullet train or Kodama to Tokyo or Shinagawa stations in central Tokyo. TTo go back you can just travel the other way around.
      – While in Tokyo, you are entitled to use some local lines such as JR Yamanote one.

      If you did all the mentioned trips travelling with the Japan Rail Pass would for sure be cost effective.

      Have an amazing vacation!

  6. Hi,

    I will be arriving and departing at Narita Airport and will be staying at Shibuya for 4 days explore around Tokyo and Disneyland and am planning to go to USJ, Kyoto, and Mt. Fuji for 2 days. My stay will be 6 days in total, can I use the JR Rail Pass for all of my trips? Also, may I have the detailed stations and trains to ride? Thank you! 🙂

    1. Hi DL!

      Yes – the Japan Rail Pass mainly covers all your scheduled trips.

      – While in Tokyo you can use the Yamanote Line, included in the pass, to discover the city. Since you will be staying at Shibuya and one of the stops of this line is there, it can be a great starting point for exploring Tokyo.
      – To go to Tokyo Disneyland, use your JR Pass to travel from Tokyo Station to Maihama Station, on the JR Keiyo line. Travel time is 20 minutes and the park is a mere five-minute walk from the station.
      – Universal Studio Japan is located nearby Osaka. To get there, from Osaka Station, take the Osaka loop line to Universal City Station. From Nishikujo Station, you can also take the JR Sakurajima line (also called Yumesaki line). The park is a five-minute walk from the station.
      – Getting from Tokyo to Kyoto with the Japan Rail Pass is easy. You should take the Shinkansen Hikari train from either Tokyo Station or Shinagawa Station in central Tokyo, and arrive at Kyoto Station.
      – And last but not least, to go from Tokyo to Mount Fuji take JR Tokaido line for Kozu from Tokyo Station, using your JR Pass; once at Kozu (Kanagawa), take the JR Gotemba Line for Numazu and get off at Gotemba Station.

      We hope you have an amazing experience in Japan!

  7. Hello Japan Rail Team,

    I am Prudence and I will be visiting Japan in December 2017 with my family. We will arrive in Haneda and stay in Tokyo for a few days and sightseeing around in Tokyo city. On 27 Dec we are planning to go from Tokyo to Osaka by bullet train and stay there for 3 nights. But we will also make a day trip to Kyoto (from Osaka) and do sight seeing. What do you recommend i should buy? JR pass or JR pass plus Kansai Pass ? Thank you

    1. Hi Prudence!

      The Japan Rail Pass will already cover all the mentioned trips.

      – The Tokyo Monorail from Haneda Airport will take you straight to Hamamatsucho Station in central Tokyo, on the Yamanote line.
      – To get from Tokyo to Osaka, you will need to take either the Hikari bullet train or Kodama from Tokyo or Shinagawa stations in central Tokyo. Both run on the Tokaido Shinkansen line, connecting the two cities.
      – To travel between Kyoto and Osaka just take the Hikari train on the Tokaido Shinkansen line. You will get between Kyoto Station and Shin-Osaka Station in less than 30 minutes.

      Enjoy your trip!

  8. This is Henry–There will be 5 of us travelling. We will fly into KIX and have reservations at the Remm Shin Osaka. We plan to spend 3 days in Osaka, then travel on the Shenkansen to Tokyo for a couple of days, then to Narita to fly back to the USA. I’m unclear about the Japan Rail Pass and costs. Can I buy 5 tickets for a seven day period and make all these trips with no additional costs. Or do I also have to purchase separate rail tickets. Can I do what needs to be done when I arrive at KIX or do I need to purchase passes in advance?

    Thanks

    1. Hi Henry!

      The JR Pass can be purchased online or through specialized agents, like this website. However, since March 8, 2017, and on a trial basis, the pass is also sold at selected stations inside Japan, at an increased cost. While you are now able to purchase the JR Pass in Japan, please keep in mind that it is only sold in particular stations, at a higher price and you are required to pay in Yens, as no other currency will be accepted.

      If travelling with a Japan Rail Pass, you can make the following trips at no additional cost:
      – Travel from KIX to Osaka city with the Haruka Express.
      – Travel from Osaka to Tokyo in either the Hikari bullet train or Kodama: both run on the Tokaido Shinkansen line and will take you to Tokyo or Shinagawa stations in central Tokyo.
      – From central Tokyo you will be able to easily reach Narita Airport through the Narita Express at no additional charge.

      Very happy travels!

  9. Thanks for the reply about the JP pass. I am still unclear about the Haruka Express to Shin Osaka (as opposed to Osaka city). It looks like from KIX that it goes first to Tennoji. Do we stay on the train or do we need to transfer to get to Shin Osaka (for instance, to catch the Tokaido Shinkasen line to Tokyo.

    Thanks,

    Henry

    1. Hi Henry!

      The Haruka Express stops at Tennoji Station before getting to Shin-Osaka as you state. However you won’t need any transfer to get to Shin-Osaka as it will take you there directly. Should you want to go to Osaka city center, once you get to Shin-Osaka Station you may want to transfer to a local train to Osaka Station. The trip from Shin-Osaka to Osaka takes only three to four minutes.

      Have a nice trip!

  10. This is Kathy,
    I am coming to Tokyo with my daughter and grand-duaghter on 1st November. My jusband will join us on the night of 8th and we want to go straight to Kyoto next morning as quickly as we can – then we will all return to Narita on 15th November.
    I am thinking of buying either the 7 day JR pass or the Japanican E-voucher for Nozomi Tokyo/Kyoto/Tokyo for all of us.
    My question is whether I will be able to buy our tickets to Kyoto on either Nozomi or Hikari before my husband arrives. I will have his E-voucher or JR pass with me but not his passport of course. I am concenred that in mid-November these trains will be busy and he doesn’t get in until quite late on 8th.

    1. Hi Kathy!

      To exchange the voucher all passengers are required to go to any of the JR offices in person, and to bring their passport together with the Japan Rail Pass exchange order. In our FAQ section you will be able to see all the JR Exchange Offices and their service hours to check if any of them would work for your husband.

      Have a nice trip!

    1. Hi Charisse!

      Yes – you will be able to travel from Tokyo to Nikko with your Japan Rail Pass. The trip is fully included in the pass. To get from Tokyo to Nikko, simply take the JR Tohoku Shinkansen (“Yamabiko” or “Nasuno Trains”) from Tokyo Station or Ueno Station to Utsunomiya; then, take the JR Nikko Line to Nikko Station.

      Very happy travels!

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