Japanese rail services are fast, frequent, clean and comfortable. Major stations are sign-posted in English and stops on long-haul trains are announced in English. The most challenging aspect of riding trains in Japan is navigating the sometimes enormous stations with their multiple routes. Give yourself plenty of time.
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 it and the surrounding area, or connects it to nearby cities. These are often a bit cheaper than equivalent JR services.
Intercity routes typically run local (called futsū or kaku-eki-teisha), express (called kyūkō or kaisoku) and limited express trains (called tokkyū). Most limited express trains, especially those travelling to resort areas, require seat reservations and a surcharge; in this case the trains will have comfortable reclining seats and toilets. All trains, save for a few shinkansen cars, are nonsmoking.
Intercity JR trains, including the shinkansen, 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.
Japan's shinkansen (bullet trains), which run at a maximum speed of 320km/h, connect almost every major city in the country. In some places, the shinkansen station is a fair distance from the main JR station (as is the case in Osaka and Hakodate), and a transfer is required to get into the city centre.
Some trains are faster than others, depending on how many stops they make en route. For example, the journey from Tokyo to Shin-Osaka on the Tōkaidō line takes 2½ hours on the Nozomi train, three hours on the Hikari train and nearly four hours on the Kodama train. There is no difference in fare.
Shinkansen passengers have the option of buying reserved seat or nonreserved seat tickets. Fares for reserved seats cost ¥320 to ¥720 more than nonreserved seats, depending on the time of year. If you purchase a non-reserved seat ticket and there are no seats in the allotted carriages, you will have to stand. JR Rail pass holders can reserve seats at no extra charge.
Travellers are allowed two pieces of luggage, but note that you'll have to put them up on the overhead racks.
|Shinkansen||Route||Key Stops||Train Names|
|Tōkaidō||Tokyo–Shin-Osaka||Shinagawa, Shin-Yokohama, Odawara (Kodama only), Atami (Kodama only) Nagoya, Kyoto||Kodama, Hikari, Nozomi|
|San'yō||Shin-Osaka–Hakata||Shin-Kōbe, Himeji, Okayama, Hiroshima, Shin-Shimonoseki||Kodama, Hikari (to Okayama), Nozomi, Mizuho, Sakura|
|Kyūshū||Hakata–Kagoshima||Kumamoto||Mizuho, Sakura, Tsubame|
|Hokuriku||Tokyo–Kanazawa||Takasaki, Karuizawa, Nagano||Kagayaki, Asama (Tokyo–Nagano), Hakutaka (Nagano–Kanazawa)|
|Jōetsu||Tokyo–Niigata||Takasaki, Echigo-Yuzawa||Toki; Tanigawa (Tokyo–Echigo-Yuzawa)|
|Tōhoku||Tokyo–Shin-Aomori||Utsunomiya, Fukushima, Sendai, Morioka||Hayate, Yamabiko (Tokyo–Sendai)|
|Akita||Tokyo–Akita||Utsunomiya, Fukushima, Morioka, Tazawa-ko, Kakunodate||Komachi|
|Hokkaidō||Tokyo–Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto||Utsunomiya, Fukushima, Sendai, Morioka, Shin-Aomori||Hayate, Hayabusa|
Sunrise Seto/Izumo 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|
Tickets can be purchased from touch-screen vending machines in major train stations; most have an English function and those for shinkansen journeys 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 in-house travel agency; there are also locations at Narita and Kansai airports where staff speak good English. 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.
Seat reservations can only be made for shinkansen services and certain limited express (tokkyū) lines (in which case they are required). 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 (20% to 23% off) for the journey between Tokyo and Osaka (via Nagoya and Kyoto) on Kodama trains. These are the slowest trains on this shinkansen line, and make many stops. Tickets must be purchased at least one day before departure and are nonrefundable.
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 24 hours each (starting at midnight) for travel anywhere in Japan on JR lines, which can also be shared. The only catch is that you can't travel on tokkyū (limited express) or shinkansen trains.
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|
|Spring||20 Feb–31 Mar||1 Mar–10 Apr|
|Summer||1 Jul–31 Aug||20 Jul–10 Sep|
|Winter||1–31 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) can obtain 20% discount vouchers for shinkansen, JR limited express trains and some ferries from their university; unfortunately students enrolled in universities abroad are not able to obtain the vouchers.
JR fares are made up of the basic fare – what it would cost to take a local or express train on an ordinary trunk line – plus surcharges for limited express, shinkansen and sleeper trains.
The following are some typical fares from Tokyo (prices given for shinkansen are the total price of reserved seat ticket during mid-season, excluding Nozomi and Hayabusa trains).
|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, some passes also cover bus and ferry routes that may be useful.
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.
Currently all passes can be purchased after arriving in Japan; as this may be subject to change, check the websites before you depart. Certain passes, including the Japan Rail Pass, are cheaper if purchased in advance of arrival.
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 some JR passes are eligible for a 10% 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.
For all passes, be sure to read the fine print as service exclusions may apply.
The Japan Rail Pass (www.japanrailpass.net) is 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 Tōkaidō, San-yō and Kyūshū lines. A 'green' pass is good for rides in business-class 'green' train cars.
A one-way reserved-seat Tokyo–Kyoto shinkansen ticket costs ¥13,600, 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).
Regular (¥, adult/child)
Green (¥, adult/ child)
Until recently, the country-wide Japan Rail Pass needed to be purchased outside of Japan prior to arrival through an authorised travel agency; it is currently available for purchase in country, but at a mark-up (a seven-day pass, for example, would cost ¥33,000). Note that the ability to purchase the pass within Japan is subject to change, so check online in advance.
If you purchase a pass outside of Japan, you will get an 'exchange order' that you should bring along with your passport to a JR Travel Service Centre (located at Narita, Haneda and Kansai international airports and at major train stations) to receive your pass.
When you validate the pass (at the same office), 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 ¥25,000/12,500; http://hokuriku-arch-pass.com/en) 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. Purchased online for a ¥1000 discount.
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 – Tōhoku (Northern Honshū) and southern Hokkaidō (up to Sapporo).
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). With the exception of the Tokyo Wide Pass, the following can be purchased online ahead of time for a ¥1000 discount.
Nagano & Niigata Area Pass (adult/child ¥18,000/9000) Flexible use for five days within 14 days; covers travel on the Jōetsu Shinkansen and the Hokuriku Shinkansen between Tokyo and Jōetsu-Myōkō (including Nagano). As these are mountain areas, this pass is good for skiers and hikers.
South Hokkaidō Rail Pass (adult/child ¥27,000/13,500) Flexible use for six days within 14 days; covers travel on the Tōhoku and Hokkaidō shinkansen lines. While only slightly cheaper than the country-wide JR pass, the flexibility here is a bonus.
Tōhoku Area Pass (adult/child ¥20,000/10,000) Flexible use for five days within 14 days; covers travel on the Tōhoku, Akita and Yamagata shinkansen lines 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) has a few passes that are good for tackling mountain areas, including Takayama, Shirakawa-go, the Kiso Valley and the Kii Peninsula, without a car. Purchase online ahead of time for a ¥1000 discount. For more pass details, see http://touristpass.jp/en.
Takayama-Hokuriku Pass (adult/child ¥15,000/7500) Valid for five consecutive days; covers travel on JR trains between Kansai International Airport, Osaka, Kyoto, Kanazawa, Takayama, Gero Onsen and Nagoya, plus buses around Shirakawa-go.
Alpine-Takayama-Matsumoto Pass (adult/child ¥18,500/9250) Valid for five consecutive days; covers travel on JR trains between Nagoya, the Kiso Valley, Matsumoto, Toyama and Takayama, including the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route.
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 here, all Kansai area passes cover transport on JR lines to/from Kansai International Airport to Kyoto and Osaka. Pass holders can rent bicycles free of charge at Ekirin rental shops located at train stations covered within the scope of each pass.
Purchase online ahead of time for a ¥1000 discount. For a full list of currently available passes see: www.westjr.co.jp/global/en/ticket/pass
Kansai Wide Area Pass (adult/child ¥10,000/5000) Valid for five consecutive days; covers travel on JR intercity trains (excluding the shinkansen) between Osaka, Kyoto and Nara, plus travel on the San-yō Shinkansen between Osaka and Okayama (via Kōbe and Himeji) and limited express trains going north to the Sea of Japan coast (including Kinosaki Onsen) and south to the Kii Peninsula. Good for exploring the Kansai region in depth.
Kansai–Hiroshima Area Pass (adult/child ¥14,500/7250) 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) and the ferry to Miyajima. Perfect for covering the highlights of Kansai and Western Honshū.
Kansai–Hokuriku Area Pass (adult/child ¥16,000/8000) 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.
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 the best deal for hitting the highlights of the Kansai region. Good for two (adult/child ¥4000/2000) or three (adult/child ¥5200/2600) days, it covers city subways and buses and private railways (excluding JR lines) that connect Kyoto, Nara, Osaka, Kōbe, Himeji and the Kii Peninsula (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 centre in the Kansai area.
JR Kyūshū's (www.jrkyushu.co.jp) All Kyūshū Area Pass (three-day adult/child ¥15,000/7500; five-day adult/child ¥18,000/9000) covers travel on the Kyūshū shinkansen between Hakata and Kagoshima (via Kumamoto) and limited express trains around the island, including routes to Nagasaki and the onsen towns of Beppu, Yufuin and Ibusuki. There are also cheaper passes covering just the northern or just the southern half of the island.
The All Shikoku Pass (http://shikoku-railwaytrip.com/railpass.html) covers unlimited travel on the Shikoku intercity train network, including non-JR lines and scenic trains, and the ferry to Shodoshima.
Regular (¥, adult/child)
The Hokkaidō Rail Pass (www2.jrhokkaido.co.jp/global/english/ticket/railpass/index.html) covers all JR limited express trains on Hokkaidō (but not travel on the Hokkaidō shinkansen).
Regular (¥, adult/child)
|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.