Without question, the train is the best way to travel in Japan. The entire country is covered with an extensive and reliable railway network, the trains are punctual, and the service is superb.
Photo by shibuya246
The majority of the network is operated by Japan Railways (JR), the successor of the national Japanese National Railways (JNR), privatized in 1987 due to debts and mismanagement. The JR Group is divided into six local railway companies: JR Hokkaidō, JR East, JR Central, JR West, JR Shikoku, and JR Kyūshū, but most JR rail passes are compatible across the network and even with private railways which makes for a very unified experience no matter where you decide to travel.
Trains are often busy, especially during the rush hours (which are usually between 7:30–9:00 and 17:00–20:00). Also, try to avoid train travel during Japan’s national holidays, where trains are often totally booked up. If you must travel, it is essential to reserve.
Most Japanese train services are classified in one of the following categories:
普通電車 (futsudensha) or 各駅停車 (kakuekiteisha) in Japanese, these are the slowest trains stopping at every station.
快速電車 (kaisokudensha) are high-speed trains skipping some of the stations. There is no price difference between local and rapid trains.
急行列車 (kyūkōressha) are express trains, both faster and more expensive than rapids.
特急列車 (tokkūressha) are stopping only at major stations and are generally substantially more expensive than slower trains.
新幹線 (shinkansen) are the world's fastest bullet trains in service. They are operated only by Japan Railways and come at a premium price, but the speed, convenience, and experience as a whole render it very good value for money.
Seats on most JR trains are divided into cars and classes: ordinary and green (first class, グリーン車). Seats in green cars are generally 30–50% more expensive and must be reserved in advance, but they are less crowded and offer more spacious seats—these are really the only two advantages, however, so it’s not a luxury that is necessarily warranted.
Note that with rare and clearly marked exceptions (most often long distance and shinkansen trains), smoking is forbidden on Japanese trains, and so is talking on the phone.
Buying your ticket
Buying a ticket is quite simple. All stations, except for the local, small ones, have automated ticket machines with English options, and if you turn up to a ticket office with your journey written down on a piece of paper, you’ll more than likely get the ticket you need. If you’re really unsure, for shorter routes, you can simply buy the cheapest ticket, get off at the station that you require and then pay the difference in a ticket adjustment machine (which will be calculated automatically) before exiting.
To compare prices and times of shinkansen and other JR trains, visit Hyperdia, or if you speak Japanese, Jorudan is the most comprehensive place to go. In addition to tickets, there are also a number of rail passes which allow you to travel across Japan at discounted prices and avoid the need to decipher complicated vending machines in order to purchase a ticket.
Note that upcoming stations, with the exception of shinkansen and a few other lines used by tourists, are announced in Japanese only so remember the name of your destination well and listen closely.
Don’t make the mistake of heading to the wrong station! When the shinkansen track was being built, it became apparent that large parts of the existing rail infrastructure and stations were not capable of sustaining the wider trains and increased thoroughfare. This is why many cities will have a station following the pattern [city name] + [eki] (eki meaning station), and additionally stations with the prefix ‘shin-’ (from the character 新 meaning new).
Tōkyō is connected with most of Japan’s major cities through an extensive network of ultra high-speed trains called shinkansen (新幹線), operated by the Japan Railways. The Tōkaidō Shinkansen connecting Tōkyō, Nagoya, Kyōto and Ōsaka, inaugurated in 1964, was the world’s first high-speed train service, and the recently introduced N700 Series train is the world’s fastest bullet train in service reaching speeds of up to 300 km/h.
Note that the shinkansen train tickets are substantially more expensive than regular trains and nozomi, the fastest trains reaching Ōsaka from Tōkyō in about two and a half hours, are one of the few lines that cannot be used with the Japan Rail Pass.
Photo by oimax
While their number has been recently decreasing due to the competition by cheaper highway buses and low domestic airfares, there are still ten regular and several seasonal night trains in operation which can be a good way to travel over longer distances.
Japan’s night trains are usually equipped with chouchettes (two or three stories high bunk beds in compartment shared by four to six people) and private rooms (single or twin) which come in two classes, A and B, the latter being the more basic and less costly. A few trains also carry cars with seats and some offer luxury “Special A Class” suites.
Have you ever taken a train in Japan? What was your experience like, and how did it differ to your country?