Japanese rail services are among the best in the world: they are fast, frequent, clean and comfortable.
The predominant operator is Japan Railways, commonly known as 'JR', which is actually a number of distinct rail systems providing one linked service throughout the country. JR runs the shinkansen (bullet train) routes. A variety of rail pass schemes make the network very affordable.
In addition to JR services, there is a huge network of private railways. 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. These are often a bit cheaper than equivalent JR services.
Japan's shinkansen ('bullet trains'), which run at a maximum speed of 320km/h, operate on separate tracks from regular trains. In some places, the shinkansen station is a fair distance from the main JR station (as is the case in Osaka), and a transfer is required to get into the city centre.
Even the bullet train has local and express routes; however, there is no difference in fare. Luggage storage is limited to an overhead shelf, which can hold a bag similar in size to what would fit in the overhead bin on an airplane.
Most long-haul routes run local (called futsū or kaku-eki-teisha), express (called kyūkō or kaisoku) and limited express trains (called tokkyū). Limited express trains have reserved seats, with comfortable reclining chairs, and toilets. All trains, save for a few shinkansen cars, are nonsmoking. Many different trains run on the same platforms, so be mindful of the signboards that note the schedule of departures.
Many long-haul trains have 'green car' carriages, which are akin to business class. Seats are a little more spacious and the carriages tend to be quieter and less crowded; they're also usually the last to sell out.
Japan used to have a number of overnight services, but these have been retired as the shinkansen network grows and cheap buses and flights have become more popular. As of 2016 only one remained, Sunrise Seto/Izumo, which runs between Tokyo and Okayama before splitting in two directions – one for Takamatsu on Shikoku (Sunrise Seto; from ¥15,750) and one for Izumo (Sunrise Izumo; from ¥15,070). Trains have private compartments and 'nobi nobi' berths (partitioned person-sized patches of carpet); the latter are free of charge for Japan Rail Pass holders, while the former require a surcharge.
Tickets can be purchased one month in advance at 10am from JR midori-no-madoguchi ticket counters; the 'nobi nobi' berths, in particular, sell out fast.
|kaisoku||快速||JR rapid or express|
|shin-kaisoku||新快速||JR special rapid train|
|wanman-kā||ワンマンカー||conductorless train (driver only)|
Tickets can be purchased from touch-screen vending machines in major train stations; most have an English function and those for shinkansen journeys often accept credit cards.
If you are booking a series of journeys, have questions or just want the reassurance of buying a ticket from a person, major JR stations have what are called midori-no-madoguchi, which function as JR's inhouse travel agency; these days most staff speak enough English to answer basic questions. Private line trains will have their own ticket windows.
Tickets can also be purchased from travel agencies in Japan, which can also often be found within train stations. Japan Travel Bureau (JTB; www.jtb.co.jp) has branches everywhere.
Reservations can only be made for limited express (tokkyū) liners and shinkansen services. There are also unreserved shinkansen seats; the policy on limited express trains varies by route and operator (some are all-reserved; others are not).
It is generally not necessary to make reservations in advance except on weekends and national holidays and during peak travel seasons – such as Golden Week (late April to early May), Obon (mid-August) and the New Year period.
Reserved-seat tickets can be bought any time from a month in advance to the day of departure.
Platt Kodama (www.jrtours.co.jp/kodama) This is a discounted ticket (around 20% off) for the shinkansen journey between Tokyo and Osaka (via Nagoya and Kyoto) on Kodama trains. These are the slowest trains on the line, which make many stops. Tickets must be purchased at least one day before departure and are nonrefundable.
Discount shops Called kakuyasu-kippu-uriba (格安切符売り場) or kinken shoppu (金券ショップ) in Japanese, these shops deal in discounted tickets for trains, buses, domestic flights, ferries and a host of other things such as cut-rate stamps and phonecards. Savings aren't dramatic, maybe 5% (or at best 10%) on shinkansen tickets. They're usually small kiosks plastered in signs located in the vicinity of train stations; your lodgings might know where to find one.
With time, a sense of adventure and an affinity for slow travel, the Seishun Jūhachi Kippu (www.jreast.co.jp/e/pass/seishun18.html) is the best deal around and can be a really fun way to see the country. It literally means 'Youth 18 Ticket' and is designed for students to travel cheaply, but there are no actual age restrictions.
For ¥11,850 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 (limited express) or shinkansen trains and each ticket must be used within 24 hours.
Purchase tickets at any JR ticket counter (midori-no-madoguchi). As they're geared for students, travel time is limited to school holiday periods. Sale and validity periods are outlined in the following table:
|Season||Sales Period||Validity Period|
|Summer||1 Jul–31 Aug||20 Jul–10 Sep|
|Winter||1 Dec–31 Dec||10 Dec–10 Jan|
Note that these periods are subject to change, so check online for the latest information.
Students enrolled in Japanese universities (including foreign exchange students with a student ID issued by a Japanese university) are eligible for 20% discount vouchers for shinkansen and JR limited express trains and some ferries; unfortunately students enrolled in universities abroad are not able to obtain the vouchers.
JR fares are calculated on the basis of futsū-unchin (basic fare), tokkyū-ryōkin (an express surcharge levied only on express services) and shinkansen-ryōkin (a special charge for shinkansen services). Note that if you buy a return ticket for a trip that is more than 600km each way, you qualify for a 10% discount on the return leg (within a limited period of time).
Fares for reserved seats cost, on average, ¥520 more than unreserved seats. The rate is calculated by the distance of the journey and the time of year (more for high season, less for low season). JR Rail pass holders can reserve seats at no extra charge; however, they must pay extra for a private berth in a sleeper car.
The following are some typical fares from Tokyo (prices given for shinkansen are the total price of the ticket).
|Destination||Basic (¥)||Shinkansen (¥)|
Rail passes are excellent value if you plan ahead. There is a huge variety on offer, from the classic, country-wide Japan Rail Pass to a growing number of passes that zero in on specific regions. In addition to train travel, many passes also cover bus and ferry routes that may be useful.
The country-wide Japan Rail Pass must be purchased outside of Japan; others can be purchased in Japan after arrival, but they will cost slightly more than if bought abroad.
Unless noted otherwise, these passes are only available to foreign passport holders entering Japan on a tourist visa (station staff will check). Children between the ages of six and 11 qualify for child fares, while those under six ride for free.
Note that JR passes are valid only on JR services; you will still have to pay for private-train services. However, as the JR network is the country's largest, the coverage is good. The value is in getting to ride shinkansen and limited express (tokkyū) trains, though of course you can use the passes on ordinary express and local trains, too.
Holders of the Japan Rail Pass, JR Hokkaidō Rail Pass and any JR East rail passes are eligible for a 30% discount off car rentals through JR's Ekiren agency, which has outlets inside or in front of many train stations. For details and promo codes, see www.ekiren.co.jp/phpapp/en/jr_pass.
New passes are being created all the time (and unpopular ones retired), so check websites for the latest information. Some passes carry restrictions about which trains, buses and ferries can be used, so read the fine print.
The Japan Rail Pass (www.japanrailpass.net) is a must for anyone planning to do extensive train travel within Japan; it's perfect for first-time visitors who want to zip around to see the highlights.
It covers travel on all shinkansen trains except for the very fastest ones: the Nozomi and Mizuho trains on the Tokaidō, San-yō and Kyūshū lines. A 'green' pass is good for rides in 1st-class 'green' train cars.
A one-way reserved-seat Tokyo–Kyoto shinkansen ticket costs ¥13,910, so you only need make one round trip between Tokyo and Kyoto on the shinkansen to make a seven-day pass come close to paying off (add a round trip between Narita Airport and Tokyo and you're already saving money).
|Duration||Regular (adult/child)||Green (adult/ child)|
The Japan Rail Pass must be purchased outside Japan. In order to get a pass, you must first purchase an 'exchange order' outside Japan at a JAL or ANA office or a major travel agency. Once you arrive in Japan, you must bring this order to a JR Travel Service Centre (in most major JR stations and at Narita, Haneda and Kansai international airports). When you validate your pass, you'll have to show your passport in addition to the exchange order.
When you validate the pass, you select the date on which you want the pass to become valid. You can choose to make it valid immediately or on a later date. So, if you just plan to spend a few days in Kyoto or Tokyo before setting out to explore the country by rail, set the validity date to the day you start your journey outside the city.
Once you've validated your pass, you can make seat reservations from any midori-no-madoguchi ('green window' ticket counters) at JR train stations. You can also just show your pass at the ticket gates and hop on any unreserved train car (though you'd be wise to book ahead during peak travel times).
For more information on the pass and overseas purchase locations, visit the Japan Rail Pass website.
Slightly cheaper than the Japan Rail Pass, the Hokuriku Arch Pass (adult/child ¥24,000/12,000) is valid for seven consecutive days and covers travel on the Hokuriku Shinkansen, which connects Tokyo to Kanazawa (via Nagano) and the Sea of Japan coast, and JR limited express trains that run from Kanazawa to and around the Kansai metro area (for Kyoto, Osaka, Nara and Kōbe). Express train travel to and from Narita and Kansai airports is also included (but not direct shinkansen travel between Tokyo and Kansai), so this pass works well if you are flying into one airport and out the other and want to do a classic itinerary in a fixed amount of time.
JR East (www.jreast.co.jp) offers a few different rail passes that cover travel in different areas within eastern Honshū – a region that encompasses the Tokyo metro area, the Izu Peninsula, Nagano and the Japan Alps, and Tōhoku (Northern Honshū).
In addition to the routes outlined below, all of the following passes cover travel on JR limited express trains between Tokyo, Nikkō, Kofu (near Mt Fuji), Shimoda (at the tip of the Izu Peninsula) and Narita Airport.
The Tokyo Wide Pass is the only rail pass that can be used by foreign passport holders who are not on a tourist visa (foreign residents of Japan, for example).
Nagano & Niigata Area Pass (adult/child ¥18,000/9000) Flexible use for five days within 14 days; covers travel on the Jōetsu Shinkansen between Tokyo and Niigata and the Hokuriku Shinkansen between Tokyo and Jōetsu-Myōkō. As these are mountain areas, this pass is good for skiers and hikers.
South Hokkaidō Rail Pass (adult/child ¥26,000/13,000) Flexible use for six days within 14 days; covers travel on the Tōhoku and Hokkaidō shinkansen between Tokyo and Hakodate. While only slightly cheaper than the country-wide JR pass, the flexibility here is a bonus.
Tōhoku Area Pass (adult/child ¥22,000/11,000) Flexible use for five days within 14 days; covers travel on the Tōhoku Shinkansen between Tokyo and Aomori (on the northern tip of Honshū) and on the Jōetsu Shinkansen between Tokyo and ski resort Gala Yuzawa. Good for a tour of the rustic north (and some skiing).
Tokyo Wide Pass (adult/child ¥10,000/5000) Valid for three consecutive days for travel on the Jōetsu Shinkansen between Tokyo, Gala Yuzawa and Karuizawa. Good for sightseers with limited time.
JR Central (http://english.jr-central.co.jp/shinkansen/value/index.html) has a few passes, the most useful of which is the Takayama-Hokuriku Area Pass (adult/child ¥14,000/7000). Valid for five consecutive days, it covers travel on limited express trains that link Kansai International Airport, Osaka, Kyoto, Kanazawa, Takayama, Gero Onsen and Nagoya – a loop that takes in many major sights plus mountain towns and onsen.
JR West (www.westjr.co.jp) offers several different rail passes that cover travel in different areas within Western Honshū – a region that encompasses the Kansai metro area (Kyoto, Osaka, Kōbe and Nara), the Hokuriku area (Kanazawa and the Sea of Japan coast), the Okayama area (for Himeji and Kurashiki) and the Hiroshima area. Some also include Takamatsu (the northern gateway for Shikoku) and Hakata (the northern gateway for Kyūshū).
In addition to the routes outlined following, all Kansai area passes cover transport on JR lines to/from Kansai International Airport to Kyoto and Osaka.
Kansai Area Pass (one-/two-/three-/four-day pass ¥2200/4300/5300/6300, children half-price) Unlimited travel on all JR lines – except shinkansen lines – between major Kansai cities, including Himeji, Kōbe, Osaka, Kyoto and Nara. Perfect for exploring the Kansai region in depth. See www.westjr.co.jp/global/en/travel-information/pass/kansai/ for more.
Kansai Wide Area Pass (adult/child ¥8500/4250) Valid for five consecutive days; covers the same destinations as the Kansai Area Pass plus travel on the San-yō Shinkansen between Osaka and Okayama and JR limited express trains going as far as Kinosaki in the north and Shingū in the south. Good for Kansai and detours to Himeji (en route to Okayama) and the onsen of Kinosaki.
Kansai–Hiroshima Area Pass (adult/child ¥13,000/6500) Valid for five consecutive days; covers all JR limited express trains in Kansai, as well as the San-yō Shinkansen between Osaka and Hiroshima (via the castle town Himeji). Perfect for covering the highlights of Kansai and Western Honshū.
Kansai–Hokuriku Area Pass (adult/child ¥15,000/7500) Valid for seven consecutive days; covers all JR limited express trains in Kansai and Kanazawa (on the Sea of Japan coast), as well as the San-yō Shinkansen between Osaka and Okayama and the Hokuriku Shinkansen between Kanazawa and Jōetsu-Myōkō (in Niigata; good for skiing). The pass covers a good spread of well-travelled and less-travelled destinations.
Hiroshima–Yamaguchi Area Pass (adult/child ¥11,000/5500) Valid for five consecutive days; covers travel on the San-yō Shinkansen between Mihara (east of Hiroshima) and Hakata (Kyūshū), via Miyajima. Good for an in-depth journey through the less-explored areas of Western Honshū, and then onward travel to Kyūshū.
Hokuriku Area Pass (adult/child ¥5000/2500) Valid for four consecutive days; covers JR limited express trains running along the Sea of Japan coast in the Hokuriku region of Central Honshū, as well as the Hokuriku Shinkansen between Kanazawa and Kurobe-Unazuki Onsen. This pass can be combined with the Kansai Area Pass for slight savings and more flexible travel times.
San-yō-San'in Area Pass (adult/child ¥19,000/9500) Valid for seven consecutive days; covers all JR limited express trains in and around Kansai and to Takamatsu (Shikoku), as well as the San-yō Shinkansen between Osaka and Hakata in Kyūshū, via Okayama and Hiroshima. If you're skipping Tokyo and points east, this pass covers a good spread for significantly less than the classic JR Pass.
The Kansai Thru Pass (www.surutto.com/tickets/kansai_thru_english.html) is not a JR pass and is a good alternative to the Kansai Area Pass. Good for two (adult/child ¥4000/2000) or three (adult/child ¥5200/2600) days, it covers city subways and buses and private railways that connect Kyoto, Nara, Osaka, Kōbe, Himeji and Wakayama (including Kōya-san). It also entitles you to discounts at many attractions in the Kansai area.
Purchase it at Kansai International Airport or at any tourist information centres in the Kansai area.
JR Kyūshū (www.jrkyushu.co.jp) offers two passes, which are good for a deep dive into this often overlooked region.
The Northern Kyūshū Area Pass covers travel on the Kyūshū shinkansen between Hakata and Kumamoto and on JR limited express trains between Nagasaki, Aso, Beppu and Yufuin. The All Kyūshū Area Pass covers the same area as the Northern Kyūshū Area Pass plus travel on the Kyūshū shinkansen all the way to Kagoshima (via Kumamoto) and limited express trains to Miyazaki and Ibusuki.
|Duration||All Kyūshū Area (adult/child)||Northern Kyūshū Area (adult/child)|
Largely untouristed Shikoku doesn't have shinkansen lines, but the reasonably priced All Shikoku Pass (http://shikoku-railwaytrip.com/railpass.html) allows unlimited travel on the island's express train network, including non-JR lines and scenic trains.
The Hokkaidō Rail Pass (www2.jrhokkaido.co.jp/global/english/railpass/rail.html) covers all JR limited express trains on Hokkaidō (but not travel on the Hokkaidō shinkansen). As pass holders are entitled to 30% off car rentals through JR's Ekiren agency, if you're strategic and want to cover a lot of Hokkaidō, this pass is good value.
|4 days flexible||¥22,000/11,000|
The four-day flexible pass is valid for 10 days.
Japan's extensive rail network is run by multiple operators (with their own websites), which makes searching timetables a chore. Train stations will have them posted for the lines running in and out of that particular station. You can also use the website HyperDia (www.hyperdia.com) to search routes and times in English.
For enquiries relating to JR, such as schedules, fares, fastest routes, lost baggage, discounts on rail travel, hotels and car hire, contact the JR East Infoline. Information is available in English, Korean and Chinese.