Train travel in Japan is easy. With one of the most far-reaching, efficient and punctual passenger train systems in the world, Japan is a paradise for travelers who like a bit of autonomy.
Train travel is also a wonderful way to see the country, with both urban and rural landscapes just outside your window.
However, with a vast network that involves more than 20,000 kilometers of track and more than 100 private rail companies that collectively carry more than 5 billion passengers a year, the system can be a bit daunting.
So we’ve simplified the most important information and here in a quick overview of the Japanese train system:
Shinkansen (Bullet Train)
The Shinkansen, or “bullet train,” is a network of high-speed railways that connect many major cities on Japan’s four major islands (Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku).
Launched in 1964 and operated by the transport giant Japan Railways (JR), the Shinkansen is known not just for its speed and punctuality but also its safety and comfort.
In the entire history of the Shinkansen, there have been no fatal accidents, and most trains depart on time to the second!
Shinkansen trains can travel up to 320 kilometers per hour and are a very efficient way for travelers to visit multiple cities in Japan. A convenient Japan Rail Pass will give you access to the Shinkansen.
Japan Rail Pass
If you’re planning a trip to see a lot of Japan, the Japan Rail Pass is a wonderful way to get around.
Designed especially for foreign travelers, one pass gives the holder access to all trains operated by Japan Railways (with just a few exceptions) for a period of up to 3 weeks.
This is a big deal because Japan Railways operates about 70 percent of all rail networks in Japan, including the Shinkansen, allowing you to visit many of Japan’s attractions in a very cost-effective way.
If your travels are limited to a specific region of Japan, regional passes are also available: JR East Pass, JR Hokkaido Rail Pass, JR Kansai Area Pass, JR Kyushu Rail Pass and JR Sanyo Area Pass.
Ten Useful Things to Know about Train Travel in Japan
- You MUST purchase your Japan Rail Pass before you arrive in Japan. You cannot purchase the pass in Japan. Once you’ve made your purchase, you’ll receive a voucher to exchange for a pass at any JR office. Offices can be found at most major train stations and airports. Show your passport and fill out the form, then choose a pass start date. This does not have to be the same day as the exchange, but it must fall within 30 days of the exchange. Your pass will start on this date and stay good only for consecutive days (you cannot break your pass validity into separate chunks of dates).
- Your rail pass can be valid for three different lengths of time: 7, 14 or 21 days.
- It is difficult to transport large luggage on trains? We recommend sending large luggage with a forwarding service to your next destination. Most hotels will have a forwarding service available at reception, and it means you can travel light on your train journey, and not have to worry about the weight and inconvenience of your luggage.
- Limited connection times: With extensive signage, navigating your way to the correct platform is usually easy. All platforms are equipped with signs that show the destination and arrival time in Japanese and English. Connection times can be as little as ten minutes, however, so don’t dilly dally on the platforms and pay attention to the signs.
- Trains come in two different classes, economy and first class: The economy class is quite comfortable and provides adequate legroom, although seat sizes vary from train to train. First class cars, called “Green Cars,” are very comfy with lots of legroom, larger seats and fewer people. We think it’s worth the upgrade.
- You can buy food and drinks on the Shinkansen: If you’re taking a Shinkansen train, don’t worry about packing a lunch—vendors walk through most trains selling snacks, drinks and boxed lunches.
- You can sit anywhere on non-reserved cars: Feel free to choose your seat! But if you’re in a reserved car with an assigned seat, please only sit in that seat.
- Wireless internet exists on the new trains between Tokyo and Shin-Osaka: If you’d like to use the wifi, purchase a subscription or 1-day pass before boarding the train.
- You can see Mount Fuji en-route from Tokyo to Kyoto or Osaka: For the best view, reserve seats on the right side of the train.
- There is a code of etiquette on the train. The Japanese value decorum, so please behave respectfully on the train. Please use quiet voices and set your mobile phone to silent, only talk on the phone in the standing area between cars. Lastly, don’t put your luggage on the seat next to you or in the aisle but, rather, place it in the baggage storage at the end of the car or at your feet.
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