Japan’s railway system, regularly hailed as the best in the world, connects the country’s major cities, islands, landmarks, towns, and villages, and is undoubtedly the most convenient and affordable way to explore this incredible place.

Understanding how to navigate Japan’s railways is, therefore, absolutely essential to making the most of your time in this special country and having the very best travel experience. If you want to see as much of Japan as you can and make every second count, then we can tell you how with our pro tips for navigating the country’s fast, efficient, and clean railway system.

We’ll explain everything you need to know, from train types, seat classes, and buying tickets, to why a Japan Rail Pass is such a smart investment, in our comprehensive train travel guide.

Here’s an overview:

Get Your JR Pass

We highly recommend getting the JR Pass for unlimited train travel in Japan. Here’s why:

Unlimited Travel: Enjoy unlimited access to most JR railways, including high-speed Shinkansen, local trains, and buses.

Cost Savings: Save significantly on travel costs, particularly beneficial for long-distance and multiple journeys.

Simplicity: Avoid the hassle of purchasing individual tickets by using your pass to easily access trains.

Flexibility: Experience the freedom to explore spontaneously without worrying about extra ticket costs.

Additional Benefits: Benefit from extras like free reserved seat bookings and discounts on other JR transport services.

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Japan’s Railway System: An Overview

Fast, safe, efficient, and clean, Japan’s trains are everything you’ve heard and more.

They also connect the entire country, from the northernmost island to the southernmost, enabling travelers to reach everywhere they might want to visit in Japan. Of course, a train system this big and complex can seem a little daunting for first-time visitors and that’s where we come in.

How to Navigate Japan’s Railway System: Types, Tickets & Tips

Let’s start by giving you a quick overview of the rail system and a few key facts

  • Japan’s Railways are operated by the JR (Japan Railways) Group. The JR Group consists of six independent train operators (JR Hokkaido, JR Central, JR East, JR West, JR Shikoku and JR Kyushu). Together, these regional rail companies connect Japan’s six main islands. There are also smaller private companies who run additional services.
  • Want to see a map of the whole JR network? We’ve put together an interactive map of the network’s 4,800 train stations and 23,000 km of rail lines, which offers a brilliant resource for anyone planning to explore Japan by train.
Japan's railway system

Train Types

There are a number of different train types in Japan, from the famous and futuristic Shinkansen bullet trains to quaint local services.

  • Shinkansen
    The famous ‘bullet trains’ (the nickname comes from the bullet-shaped nose of their original design) connect Japan’s main islands, from the city of Sapporo in the north to Kagoshima in the south. In between those two stops, these incredible high-speed trains visit almost all of Japan’s major cities – Tokyo, Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, and many more. The Shinkansen are only operated by the JR Group and have separate ticket gates and platforms. Traveling on a bullet train is an attraction in itself for many visitors to Japan. Check out: The Complete Guide to Experiencing the Shinkansen High-Speed Trains in Japan
  • Limited Express
    The fastest non-Shinkansen trains in Japan. Limited Express trains are still very fast and only stop at major stations. There are more than 100 different types.
  • Express
    Another fast service. Express trains stop at fewer stations than Rapid or Local trains to reach main destinations faster.
  • Rapid
    Essentially a faster version of the local trains below. These trains skip some minor stations to achieve a faster service. No seat reservations are needed on rapid trains.
  • Local
    Regular trains that stop at every station. Local trains cost the same as rapid trains above. These trains also don’t have seat reservations.
  • Special trains
    These are generally known as ‘joyful’ trains in Japan and are special trains and services often based around characters, special events, or themes, from Mickey Mouse to restaurant trains and resort excursions. These often come with wide view windows, special comfort seats, beverages and food, and may also involve activities such as a mobile art gallery, local dancing, or even sake tasting.
A train in Japan

Seat Classes

While traveling on Japan’s trains, there are generally two main types of seat classes, although a third, gran class, is available on some Shinkansen trains.

  • Ordinary
    These are standard seats. Japan’s ordinary seats are comfortable, spacious, and clean.
  • Green Car / Green Class
    The equivalent of first class with more luxurious seating and extra space. Green cars can be identified with a four-leaf green clover symbol on the carriage. Extras include drinks, oshibori, hand towels and candy.
  • Gran Class
    Business-class style luxury seating with perks like eye masks, sake, sashimi, blankets and massage seats. Gran class is only available on certain Shinkansen trains.
Inside a train in Japan

Introducing: The Japan Rail Pass

The Japan Rail Pass provides unlimited travel on the entire national JR network, including the high-speed bullet train lines and transport to and from the country’s airports.

Whether you’re planning to explore the whole country or just travel from Tokyo to Kyoto or Osaka and back again (for example), a JR Pass can offer much better value than purchasing individual tickets – and it’s only available for international visitors.

Passes are valid for 7, 14, or 21 days once activated and give you access to all Japan Railways Group (JR) trains, buses, and ferry services across Japan. This includes the famous Shinkansen bullet trains. One of the many benefits of the JR Pass – alongside unlimited travel on JR trains and the Shinkansen – is free reservations and seat selection. Having a pass means you’ll also be able to hop on and off trains as needed without having to buy a ticket, which gives you a huge amount of extra flexibility as a traveler. You can even upgrade your JR Pass to a Green Class JR Pass for unlimited first-class travel. 

Japan Rail Passes can be bought up to three months in advance and need to be activated on your arrival in Japan. Regional JR passes are also available if you’re definitely only visiting one area of Japan. Finally, you can also purchase individual tickets for single and return journeys from self-service ticket machines or ticket counters at stations, although it’s worth noting even if you’re only planning on using the train once or twice during your stay, it might still be better value to use a JR Pass. 

Related read: Traveling by Rail in Japan with JR Pass

A train in Japan

Top Ten Travel Tips for Japan’s Railways

Alongside the detailed information we’ve already provided, we’ve also put together a list of pro tips for Japan’s railways to help you have the best possible travel experience.

1. Planning makes perfect

The more time you spend planning your train journeys before you arrive in Japan, the less time you’ll waste on the ground. If you do your research in advance to work out the best and most efficient train journeys to reach the places most important to you then you’ll spend more time enjoying the destination and less time travelling. 

2. Arrive early, never late

Japan’s trains are incredibly punctual and almost always leave on time so it’s a lot better to be early than late. Arrive at the station in plenty of time and you’ll be fine. In fact, you’ll be amazed at how timely Japan’s trains are compared to the rest of the world!

3. Modern technology is your friend

The likes of Google Maps, Navitime, and Jorudan, can be extremely useful for live updates when you’re out and about. Be sure to invest in a PocketWifi device before you travel however to stay connected to the internet when you need it. PocketWifi rentals offer unlimited Wifi from any location, and on up to five devices, allowing you to navigate and check live timetable updates on the go. Read more about usual apps in our guide to Hyperdia alternatives

4. Find the right departure platform 

One quick tip that can be a lifesaver when in a hurry is learning to find the right departure platform. There can be a lot of information on both your ticket and the departure screens, like train name, stops, type of service and much more. A fast way to find the right platform is to look at the departure times first, then look at everything else. An alternative is to ask what platform your train will depart from when reserving the tickets and ask the staff to write this on your ticket.

A train station in Japan
How to Navigate Japan’s Railway System: Types, Tickets & Tips

5. Be aware of Japanese train etiquette

Japan is known for valuing good manners and its etiquette rules definitely extend to train journeys. Keep your phone on silent, try to avoid taking calls if possible, listen to music through headphones only, keep your voice down while talking, dispose of your litter, and store your luggage correctly, are all good basic tips if you want to stay in the good graces of Japanese commuters.

Related read: Japanese Etiquette: How to Act Like You’re Japanese

6. Check your luggage allowance

Luggage regulations on most of Japan’s trains are fairly relaxed. In general, you may bring any size or number of bags within reason, as long as it does not inconvenience other passengers. The one exception is the Shinkansen bullet trains, which do have more formal baggage regulations.

When boarding the Shinkansen, the following regulations apply: You may bring up to two pieces of baggage on board free of charge. For each bag the total of the length, width and height must not exceed 250 centimetres, the length must not exceed two metres and the weight must be no more than 30 kilograms.

  • Luggage pieces less than 160 cm (sum of height x length x width) can be brought aboard without prior reservation.
  • For luggage pieces between 160 cm – 250 centimeters, a prior reservation is required, which can be made for free. In case no reservation is made, then a 1,000 yen fine will be charged, and your luggage may be moved by the train conductor.
  • Luggage over 250 centimeters may not be brought on the train and will need alternative transportation. Reservations can be made for free through the Eki-Net App, at a ticket machine or in person at a ticket window.
  • Using the JR Pass, we suggest making your seat reservations and luggage reservations at the same time. JR Pass holders who upgrade to Green Class get an extra luggage allowance of two suitcases per person.
  • Finally, if you have especially large luggage, you may want to consider utilizing the lockers at stations or luggage forwarding services. 
Inside one of the trains on Japan's railway system
How to Navigate Japan’s Railway System: Types, Tickets & Tips

7. Reserved vs non-reserved

Depending on the type of train you’re traveling on, you’ll come across services with reserved and non-reserved carriages.

The latter simply means you can sit anywhere within these carriages if you have a non-reserved ticket. In reserved carriages, you will need to pre-book your seat reservation in advance. Reservations are free for JR Pass holders and can be made at ticket offices. We have more detailed information on reserving seats further below, so keep reading.

It is a good idea to reserve a seat if you can. Seat reservations without a rail pass can cost anywhere between 200 and 1,000 yen each, but they are free with the JR Pass, which is another good reason to consider buying one for your trip.

Making a reservation not only saves money, it also saves time, as there’s no need to queue for a seat at the station platform. You will also have the assurance that you can sit together with your fellow travelers. All reserved seats are guaranteed.

8. Book ahead (or avoid traveling) during busy periods

On a daily basis, you may want to avoid commuter rush-hour periods, which are similar to those in other countries (8 am-9 am and 5 pm-7 pm). Otherwise, you’ll also want to be aware of holiday periods when trains might be fully booked. These include New Year, Obon, and Golden Week, which are popular holidays in Japan. The famous Cherry Blossom season is another busy time of year in Japan for tourists.

Key dates to watch out for are 28 December to 6 January (New Year), 27 April to 6 May (Golden Week), and 11-20 August (Obon season). The same goes for festivals, like the Gion Matsuri in July, the Takayama Festival from April 14-15 and Tokushima Festival August 12-15.

Generally speaking, booking ahead and making seat reservations is a good way to ensure you have a seat whatever time of year it is. 

Orange train in Japan

9. You’ll need a prepaid travel card for Japan’s subways

Alongside a JR Pass for countrywide travel, a prepaid travel card for inner-city journeys is a must! These IC cards – similar to London’s Oyster card system – are the easiest way to get around Japanese cities using excellent public transportation.

As such, you’ll definitely want to invest in a prepaid travel card such as an ICOCA, PASMO or Suica card. IC cards like these can be topped up and refunded as needed and they work by tapping or waving them over the card reader as you pass through the ticket gates.

As a bonus tip (and not just for train travel), be sure to carry cash where you can in Japan as physical cash is still used a lot across the country.

10. Take a moment to enjoy Japan’s trains and train stations

Both Japan’s trains and stations are unique, state-of-the-art, and full of things to see and do. They aren’t just transport hubs or means of transport to get from A to B, they’re an experience in themselves.

Make sure you take a little time to stop, look around, and enjoy both the stations and trains themselves as part of your journey. Some stations are major complexes packed with shops, restaurants, and facilities, for example, while others are picturesque, quaint, and nostalgic.

You’ll also find the world’s best train food at stations – Ekiben. Pronounced ‘air key ben’, the Japanese word ‘Ekiben’ is a portmanteau of the kanji symbols for ‘train station’ and ‘boxed meal’ i.e. ‘station-bento’. Its name perfectly describes what it is – a lunch box sold at train stations for eating during your rail journey. Read our Guide to Ekiben for more.

Similarly, Japanese trains, particularly the Shinkansen, come with features such as onboard drinks and snacks services, power outlets for phone charging and laptop use, seats that can rotate 180 degrees, and more.

When it comes to getting around Japan’s train stations, buying tickets, and boarding trains, you may be pleasantly surprised to discover it is a lot easier and less daunting than you may think. You might be surprised to know that Japanese train stations have signs and departure boards in English as well as Japanese. You may also see signs in Chinese and Korean, reflecting the country’s status as a global travel destination. 

Getting tickets at a train station in Japan

How to Reserve Seats & Board the Train

Japan’s trains have both non-reserved and reserved seats in separate cars. Certain services are fully reserved, and others may be switched to fully reserved during national holidays like the New Year, Obon, or Golden Week, so be sure to check before you travel.

If you are traveling with a Japan Rail Pass then one of the many advantages of this is that you can make advance seat reservations for free. Seats can be reserved free of charge at Midori no Mado Guchi ticket offices, recognizable by their green sign, or at Travel Service Centres and JR-associated Travel Agencies.

For several years, JR East trains have been the only service that has offered an online English language reservation system, which could be used to make bookings from outside of Japan, with all other lines requiring in-person reservations once in Japan. To reserve a seat, simply take your JR Pass to the Midori no Mado Guchi, specify which train you wish to reserve a seat on, stating smoking or non-smoking. You will then receive your reserved seat ticket and simply need to show your JR Pass at the ticket gate and go to your platform.

Be sure to keep hold of your ticket as you may have to present both your JR Pass and seat reservation to the ticket inspector. 

As far as boarding a train goes, it’s relatively simple – after arriving at the station, you will need to go through the regular ticket gates into the paid fare zone and head to the platform. Please note if you’re traveling on a Shinkansen train there will be a second set of ticket gates. Shinkansen also has its own dedicated platforms.

You’ll find your carriage number on your ticket. Carriage numbers can also be found printed on the ground and hanging from signs (non-reserved carriages are usually numbered 1-5). Line up behind the white line and wait for your train. Once the train arrives, enter your carriage and find your seat (seat numbers are indicated above the window). Otherwise, you can sit in any seat if it’s an unreserved carriage.

After that, simply sit back and relax!

Shinjuku Station in Japan

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