You will fall passionately in love with trains in Japan.

Japanese people didn’t invent rail travel, but they arguably perfected it. Whether you’re on the newest shinkansen (bullet train) zooming across the country at 320km/h (199mph) or an elderly regional railcar, you can count on your train being scrupulously clean, safely operated, highly reliable, famously punctual and generally a joy to ride.

You can see almost the entire country by train, and with a wide variety of rail passes — including the iconic Japan Rail Pass — you can travel across Japan for less than US$50 per day, including the shinkansen.

Signs are in English even at the smallest stations, translation apps and devices are widely used for complicated questions, and staff are genuinely happy to help travelers.

Japan has an enormous number of train lines and kinds of train, but don’t be put off by the sheer volume: it’s surprisingly easy to navigate, even on your first trip, with your phone’s maps app and a sense of adventure.

A woman stands at a bank of electronic ticket machines. Above her head is a color-coded map showing train lines
Urban rail and subway lines are widespread in cities with color-coded maps and numbered stops © Tom Bonaventure / Getty Images

There are different services on the Japanese train network

Trains run almost everywhere in Japan. The main backbone of the network, and the fastest, is the shinkansen. These bullet trains run from Hokkaidō in the far north all the way to Tokyo Station, where you have to change for the shinkansen going to Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima and on to Kyushu. For travelers visiting Japan’s main sights, this will be the kind of train you take the most.

The next fastest are Limited Expess trains — “limited” as in “limited stops” — that run between cities and to rural areas on pre-shinkansen conventional lines (the non-high-speed ones). Many run through beautiful parts of Japan, so don’t count them out.

Local trains are the slowest and may even be as small as one single car. “Rapid” trains are fairly rare, and are essentially local trains that skip a few of the smaller stops.

Urban rail, commuter trains and subway lines are widespread in cities. These usually work very similarly to what you might be used to in your home country, although do watch out for limited-stop semi-expresses. The big picture transit maps can look a little intimidating, but most major cities now have a system of colors and station codes in place to help you navigate, and your phone's maps app is great for a quick idea of how to get from A to B.

Confident visitors outside major cities will love Joyful Trains, which are special tourist trains operated largely on weekends and holidays in rural areas. These might be renovated steam trains, or specially themed — JR East’s Koshino Shu’Kura is all about sake, including tastings, while the JR Kyushu A Train is jazz-themed.

Japan’s train stations are destinations by themselves, with larger and newer stations offering a huge range of restaurants for every appetite and budget, and shops ranging from high-quality handmade artisanal local goods to Japanese malls to 100-yen stores. Convenience stores and pharmacies are also often on hand.

Do look out for special local snacks in the omiyage souvenir shops (these are intended for Japanese travelers to take back to friends and colleagues as presents) and for ekiben, local specialty boxed bentō lunches.

A single-track train line heading towards the iconic shape of Mount Fuji
If you're not going far, it might be best to get a prepaid contactless card © Marco Bottigelli / Getty Images

Travel short distances with a prepaid travel card

Coming from overseas, traveling short distances on Japanese railways often feels very inexpensive, while traveling longer distances without a rail pass can feel more costly. Let’s start with shorter distances.

Taking subways and urban rail is simple if you get an IC card – one of the many prepaid stored-value contactless cards – that works in a similar way to Oyster in London or Clipper in San Francisco: just tap on and tap off. Most rail operators across Japan will sell you their version, which are almost all interchangeable when it comes to loading and spending them — you can use an ICOCA card from the Osaka region in Tokyo, or a Pasmo from Tokyo in Sapporo. You can also use iPhones to get a virtual Suica card (JR East's version of a prepaid card) via the Wallet app and load it with money using Apple Pay. If you're using an international Visa card, be aware that JR East has had issues processing those payments in the past, so you may need to use a different credit card.

A hand holds up a Japan Rail Pass in front of the rounded nose of a bullet train at a station
The JR Pass is a good deal if you're planning to explore beyond Tokyo, Kyoto and Hiroshima by bullet train © YingHui Liu / Shutterstock

Travel long distances with the JR Pass

Over longer distances, the Japan Rail Pass (¥50,000 or about US$335 for seven days – less than US$50 a day!) is generally a good deal if you are planning anything more than simply Tokyo–Kyoto–Hiroshima–Tokyo, and the flexibility it gives you to take an earlier or later train is an added bonus.

You can either buy the ticket online or from an overseas travel agent. Note that you don’t actually buy the pass itself from overseas — you buy a voucher called an Exchange Order, which you then exchange at a major station (including all international airports) for the pass itself. 

If you don’t have a pass, tickets cost the same no matter what time of day you travel, where you book, or how busy it will be — it’s not like airline tickets where that can change wildly. Most overseas travelers still use paper tickets for everything outside urban travel.

Long-distance travel fares are based on two elements:

  • Ticket price, essentially the distance you travel
  • Whether you want to reserve a seat or not, and in which class, if that’s available: Limited Express and Shinkansen trains will offer non-reserved seat tickets, a reserved seat in standard class, a reserved seat in the Green Car business class, or in some regions a reserved seat in Gran Class (first class).

Tickets can be bought at stations or at JR Travel Service Centers

Use Google Maps or the Japan Transit Planner from Jorudan to find fares, or for JR trains visit your local JR station (look for the “green window” ticket booking office or a JR Travel Service Center), where you can also reserve a seat. At major airports and in Tokyo, you can expect some basic train-related English to be spoken by "green window" ticket agents. JR Travel Service Center staff tend to be more multilingual. Elsewhere, if you speak no Japanese you may well get lucky with someone who speaks English, and you can always lean on your phone's translation apps. Write down (on a printout or even just on your phone's notes app) the dates, times, destinations and details of the train you want, for example: "12 April, Tokyo–Osaka, 12:00, window seat, Mt Fuji side please."

Unless you’re visiting during a major Japanese holiday or want to take a specific Joyful Train, there’s little need to book before arriving in Japan. You can in some cases book online, but it’s pretty complicated and I wouldn’t recommend it to first-time visitors. If you’re confused and want English-speaking advice, head to one of the stations that specializes in Japan Rail Passes. Only a few trains outside the JR network allow prebooking.

Three different trains cross bridges near each other in a city
There are many different companies running train services in Japan and a range of passes to choose between © Champhei / Getty Images

There are many rail passes to choose from

Japan has a wide variety of rail passes available to overseas visitors, from the JR Pass valid across the JR network (with a few exceptions like the very fastest trains west of Tokyo) to regional and commuter passes.

The most useful is the Japan Rail Pass in its six variants: 7/14/21 days and standard car or Green Car business-class versions. This is probably what you should get your first time in Japan if traveling outside Tokyo.

Adventurous travelers and long-term visitors, or anyone wanting to go deep in a particular region, could also consider:

You’ll usually need to be visiting with the “temporary visitor” stamp in your passport, and there may be a small discount (a couple of thousand yen or US$5–10) for buying it online or outside Japan. Otherwise, check out the details online or visit a large station, including those at airports: the bigger, the better, and the more likely to have English-speaking assistance.

Train etiquette means not disturbing fellow travelers

Japanese urban trains can be famously crowded during rush-hour, but by and large even Tokyo is no worse than any major global city.

Even if crowded, the etiquette on a Japanese train is to be as quiet as possible and disturb others as little as possible: headphones on quiet, very little chatting, backpack on your front, give up your seat to anyone who needs it more than you.

There is something of a stereotype of loutish tourists yapping away to their traveling companions on long-distance trains. Try not to contribute to it. Separate your trash according to the recycling bins, and always leave the seat as clean and tidy as you found it.

Eating and drinking is fine (even encouraged!) on longer distance trains. General rule: if the seats are subway-style along the sides of the car facing inwards then don’t, but feel free if the seats are airline-style facing forwards. If in doubt, follow the lead of the nearest senior Japanese person.

A beautifully presented box of food with each element separated into its own square
Almost all stations have convenience stores selling bentō, perfect for eating on a long-distance service © Lozzy Squire / Alamy Stock Photo

On-board facilities vary depending on the service

With the exception of the Joyful Train tourist excursion services, Japanese trains don’t have buffet cars any more, although you can see what they used to look like at several of Japan’s excellent railway museums. A shrinking number of trains still have a trolley service offering snacks, sometimes bentō and a variety of drinks.

Good news, though: any station smaller than the tiniest rural halt will have a convenience store inside or nearby, which will offer bentō, hot meals, snacks, drinks and essentials. Many larger stations have restaurant complexes, while some smaller ones will have delightful smaller options like a soba or ramen shop.

Long-distance trains will usually have toilet facilities, with newer ones (including all shinkansen and some Limited Expresses) having excellent facilities for disabled passengers, people with reduced mobility and often ostomy facilities too.

Shinkansen and newer Limited Expresses offer two-pin US-style 110V charging ports, while wi-fi is also increasingly available and easy to use.

Most Japanese trains are not set up for luggage bigger than a small carry-on — and “small” here does not include a US-sized rollaboard or anything like a bicycle. On some trains you have to pre-reserve anything bigger. Take advantage of the nationwide luggage shipping services like Yamato – known as Kuroneko Yamato for its black (kuro) cat (neko) logo – that ships larger bags for US$10–20.

These are the best seats for great views

Always take a window seat, whether you’re gazing out on Japan’s sprawling megalopolises from an urban train, watching the country fly by at 320km/h (199mph) from a shinkansen, or enjoying picturesque views from a slow rural train.

On the shinkansen, if you want the best mountain views — including the iconic Mt Fuji between Tokyo and Shizuoka — select a window E seat in standard class and a D seat in the Green Car.

Limited Expresses are wonderful for countryside views, with the Hida from Nagoya to Toyama through the Japanese Alps and the Inaho from Niigata to Akita just two great examples.

Ask for help when navigating busy city networks

Urban trains, commuter rail and subways may have a set of complicated and confusing names with different stopping patterns, especially during rush hour, but this is no worse than figuring out what a “Watford Semi-Fast” is on London’s Tube or how skip-stop works on the subway in New York. As a visitor, just ask station staff or, in a pinch, a fellow passenger — and be prepared to get on the wrong train with a confident smile and a sense of affable adventure.

The majority of trains are wheelchair accessible

A significant majority of intercity, urban rail and subway stations in most major cities (80–90% in Tokyo according to official numbers) are accessible for wheelchair users, with elevators, stair-climber lifts, and ramps widespread. 

Older stations, such as the main Tokyo Station, may be complex and accessible only from certain entrances. Tactile strips to assist blind people or those with reduced visual acuity are almost everywhere. 

Accessible Japan is an excellent resource for information, while the very detailed For Safe and Convenient Accessibility website offers route and station search as well as contact details for further assistance. Station staff are keen to help wherever they can.

Many trains offer wheelchair positions, level boarding, with ramps available if you need them. Urban rail and subways have priority seating, and Japan developed the Help Mark badge system for people with invisible disabilities to easily signal their needs. The badge is free from a number of locations in Tokyo, under US$10 from Amazon Japan (consider having it delivered to your first night hotel), or you can DIY your own before leaving home.

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