~ To travel Japan by train a very easy way to discover as much as you can of the land of the rising sun, without paying expensive domestic flights. It is the land of the Shinkansen, the high speeds trains that are frequent and can take you anywhere you want ~
The best way for us for travelling easy and efficiently by train, is having a Japan Rail Pass. I will try to explain all about this pass and how taking trains really goes as well as a bit more about the stations itself so you don’t get Lost in Trainslation.
What is a JAPAN RAIL PASS?
It is a travel pass for unlimited use of the JR limited express trains, express trains, rapid or local trains AND the high speed trains SHINKANSEN. It also has some JR bus lines and one ferry (the ferry to Miyajima) that are included in the pass.
Japanese people can not buy it. It is specially created for foreigners to explore Japan. So ordering it before you leave is a must! The JRP is available for 7 – 14 or 21 days and in normal and in green class (a more comfortable class, but really not necessary in my opinion).
So depending on your itinerary, plan it so you can have full use of the pass. For more detailed regulations and info you can read it here.
How does that work?
After buying it, you will only get the vouchers on your name that has to be validated in the next 3 months. So you can not buy it way too early upfront.
It needs to be validated first at a Japan rail pass office. You can do it at the airport if you want to take the train immediately like we did or you can do it later at any station that will be your starting point.
Once validated, you will have unlimited access to the JR trains/ shinkansen. There are exceptions that I will give to you as well, so you can keep those in mind. All you have to do is show your pass to the person working at the booth instead of passing through the ticket gates. So always pass through the sides where you will find the train staff. They only look at the dates (if they really look at all) and let you pass.
Where can you get it?
You can order it online or you can search for the JRP distributor/travel agent that sells it close to you. You probably have to pay some handing fees, which are usually higher than the delivery costs. So we chose to order it online. The site we picked and are very pleased with their service is this site here. They also give you some maps and a train guide that can be helpful.
*Tip alert: If you are preparing your holiday long upfront, you can get the JRP cheaper. How so? Just keep track of the fluctuation and prediction of the yen. The JRP has a fixed price in Yen. So the period that the yen exchange has higher value for your own currency, the price will be lower for you.
Where to reserve tickets for the Shinkansen?
Every JR station has a ticket office to reserve your seats. You can recognise them by the green icon of the sitting person in a seat. In smaller stations you can just go to the general ticket office. In bigger stations they have separate offices for Shinkansen reserved seats like in the picture. With the JRP you can make seat reservation for the Shinkansen for free. They will give you the separate tickets with your seating details and give a stamp on your JRP.
Do you have to reserve seats all the time?
No. You can also queue up to the lines of the non-reserved cars. Usually it is the first 3 or 4 cars, depending on how many cars in total that Shinkansen has. What we did is reserve seats for longer distance Shinkansen, during times we thought it was going to be busy. But for short rides (example: Osaka- Kyoto), we just queued up.
It also happend that we reserved seats for a later one, because the earlier one was fully reserved and we just queued up on the non-reserved for that earlier and we got in. So if you want to be sure, get a reserved seat ticket. But lining up in non-reserved ones is also very possible. Just come in time to line up and not the last 10 minutes.
Now HOW DO WE TAKE THE TRAINS?
I never took the train as easily as in Japan. I must admit I was pretty scared before leaving because we had to take so many and I didn’t want to mess up my itinerary. But let me tell you: don’t worry too much and just pay attention to the easy signaling they provide.
Taking the Shinkansen is very easy. You follow the shinkansen sings to the shinkansen gates, and the boards will show you the names, their number and the platform (also in English , so just wait it to flash in Enlgish for you). Getting to the platform you just go stand at the right car number, usually they are displayed with signs on the top and also on the floor.
Taking regular trains is also easy but at some busy stations it gets a bit intense so you have to keep your mind focused. Every line has a name, a color, and a direction. If you keep these 3 things in mind, it can’t go wrong. Usually the platforms stays the same for these lines. So when you are at a station, look first for the line name and color. Follow the signs until the platforms. Then double check the direction you have to go to take the right platform. And that is all really.
You will see that most platforms has marked stripes on the ground for the lines. So please respect these as it maintains ther order to get into the trains. There is no need to rush. Try to get in if possible, if it is really SO PACKED you can always take the next one.
Where can I check for the train times?
The local trains usually comes very regularly. So like I said before if you miss one , you can take the next. But it is better to be too early than too late, right?
A good site that helped us a lot is Hyperdia. You can get detailed information about trains, times and which platforms they will be. You can use this is a good guideline to follow and it is a perfect tool to plan out your train travels.
An other thing we used daily was good old Google Maps that worked just fine, specially for inner city movements.
If you have pocket wifi or a data sim both are very easy to use. If you don’t always have internet, just take print screens of Hyperdia and double check at the station. I also used a phone app called Tabimori that also provides train info offline. It doesn’t give the times, but it does give the route which is very helpful. Also many other practical info for Japan can be found on this app like practical phrases in Japanese.
Other practical station info
Prepaid IC Cards
Japan has different types of chargeable cards for train use like SUICA, PASMO, ICOCA… You can buy one and charge for the amount you want and when you are done they will give back the deposit of 500 yen.
As you have the JRP you don’t need it for tickets of trains. It can be used to buy tickets for other lines or subway lines that are not included in the JRP.
But it is also very practical to buy food in some restaurants, snacks in shops or drinks in the vending machines everywhere, as well as the use for coin lockers. So if you pass through stations often like we did, it is nice to just swap and go.
The bigger the station the more coin lockers they will have. If you are struggling with your luggage and need to leave it somewhere behind, you can leave it in the coin lockers.
There are different sizes: small, medium and large. In some stations you can pay by card or the IC card , but in older systhems you can pay by coins only. Depending on the rules of the lockers, you can store your luggage up to 3 days. In some places even more and you will have to pay the extra charge when you take it out again.
Food and drinks
Bigger stations has so many options to eat and drink! You can eat some ramen before taking a train, or if you prefer bread, they have it.
If you are short on time you can grab an eki-bento (those are famous station bentos, wher eyou have have a meal in a box, with many options to pick from).
Or you can grab drinks and snacks like riceballs (onigiri), sushi, bread, cakes, etc.. at the 7 eleven or Family Mart. These small supermarkets are so convinient and everywhere to be found. For people struggling to find an ATM that accept your card: Just look for a 7 eleven and they will probably have an ATM machine that accepts all types of foreign cards.
Unlike Belgium and other European places: toilets in Japan are free! The type of toilet varies alot though…
In some stations ( and places in Japan in general really) you will have the ultra modern and fancy Japanese toilets with flush sounds, water pressure regulation for bidets (but washer) and warm toilet setas! These are just heaven!
But you also have regular toilets like we know, yeah the cold ones.. and you have the old old version: the hole in the floor where you will have to squat. Most toilets have a sign of which type you will find inside, so if you rather wait for a regular one, just let people after you pass. But as you are in Japan, the land of the weird… just try it! If you are lucky the one you pick has a bar to hold on to while you squat.
Exceptions of the JRP
Basically: all JR lines are included in the JRP. Sometimes though, the JR line uses a part of a private railway. For these parts you will have to pay a charge. But it is all very clear and you pay when you come out of the station and pass the station staff at the booth.
Subway lines are also not included. So for these lines in the big cities: buy the tickets seperately. To be honest: we didn’t take many subway lines. Usually JR lines got us anywhere we wanted to go. We tried to use JR lines and then if really necessary we took the one ride tickets for subway lines for 180-220 yen. Only in Kyoto we prefer to take the bus a few times. You can buy day cards for buses for 500 yen which the bus driver.
There are some rapid lines/expresses which also has an extra charge. For example the ones we took on our route: The express to Yudanaka (Snow monkey spot). Also these ones were pretty clear to me, as you literally walk out the JR station and enter the private railway station. So the easy way to remember: if it is not an JR entrance, it will probabbly cost you something.
And the last ones: the Shinkansen NOZOMI and MIZUHO are also not included. So you can tick them off athe the “more options” when searching on Hyperdia.
You arrived at the terminal…
I hope you liked this guide and that it also helps get rid of the fear I had taking so many trains. If you have any extra questions or want to hear more from my experience, just contact me on the contac page.
Now that you have all the information you need on taking trains, you can go explore Japan to the fullest. Check out my Japan itinerary if you need more inspiration.