Taking the train in Japan: the guide

Unavoidable mean of transportation on the archipelago, the train presents some characteristics that need to be understood and learned.

Since travelers ask themselves lots of questions about how it works, we chose to synthesis some good information to know, in order to approach quietly and with serenity Japan's railway system, and to use it in the best possible conditions.

Different types of trains

We can simply categorize Japanese trains according to their velocity. Below are listed the most common, from the fastest to the slowest:

  • Shinkansen (新幹線): high speed trains, bullet trains, they are called differently depending on the part of the world. Japanese bullet trains are operated and owned by JR, on exclusives railways with mandatory tickets or Pass
  • Limited Express (特急 tokkyû): an "under Shinkansen" way less fast but which, as well, only stops at the biggest stations
  • Semi Express (準特急 juntokkyû ou 準急 junkyû): only on some private companies
  • Express (急行 kyûkô ou 通勤 tsûkin at rush hours): one of the most common types of trains, practical to go outside the big cities without loosing too much time
  • Rapid (快速 kaisoku): not so rapid as its name says, it stops at numerous stations
  • Local (普通 futsû): the slowest of all, but offers a complete service as it stops at all stations

These distinctive types explain important diversity in duration, despite the same geographical distance.

Shinkansen apart, inside the cars above the doors, the diagram of the line shows the precise stations where stop the different types of train, from the fastest (on the top) to the slowest (on the bottom). Since we pay the ticket depending on the covered distance, it is often faster and smarter to ride a fast train on the longest part of the journey and then change for a local just before your arrival station.

Note that it's forbidden to eat or drink in trains, except in the Shinkansen and (usually) Limited Express trains.

Shinkansen: the Emperor

Since 1964, it's the star of Japanese trains.

A lot more expensive than the others, it happened also to be the fastest: its public velocity can easily excess 300km/h, while the latest magnetic tests powered it up to 600km/h / 375mph!

Using only its dedicated railways, its number of lines is carefully measured. Sometimes, full train stations are exclusive to Shinkansen, that you can recognize by the prefix “Shin”, just like Shin-Osaka which is 4 km North of Osaka station.

Here are the several regional Shinkansen, listed from North to South:

Line From To Distance Intermediary stations
Tohoku Shin-Hakodate 
Sapporo in 2035
Tokyo 714 km Shichinohe-Towada, Hachinohe, Ninohe, Morioka, Shin-Hanamaki, Kitakami, Mizusawaesashi, Ichinoseki, Kurikoma-Kogen, Furukawa, Sendai, Fukushima, Koriyama, Utsunomiya, Omiya, Ueno
Akita Morioka Akita 127 km Omagari, Kakunodate, Tazawako
Yamagata Fukushima Shinjo 149 km Yonezawa, Takahata, Akayu, Kaminoyama-Onsen, Yamagata, Tendo, Sakurambohigashine, Murayama, Oishida
Joetsu Tokyo Niigata 334 km Ueno, Omiya, Kumagaya, Takasaki, Jomo-Kogen, Echigo-Yuzawa, Urasa, Nagaoka, Tsubamesanjo
Hokuriku Tokyo Kanazawa
Tsuruga in 2025
451 km Ueno, Omiya, Takasaki, Nagano, Joetsumyoko, Itoigawa, Kurobe-Unazukionsen, Toyama, Shin-Takaoka
Tokaido Tokyo Shin-Osaka 553 km Shinagawa, Shin-Yokohama, Atami, Shizuoka, Hamamatsu, Nagoya, Gifu-Hashima, Maibara, Kyoto
Chuo (in 2027) Tokyo Nagoya
Shin-Osaka in 2045
- route map not yet known
Sanyo Shin-Osaka Hakata (Fukuoka) 644 km Shin-Kobe, Okayama, Fukuyama, Hiroshima, Shin-Yamaguchi, Kokura
Kyushu Hakata Kagoshima-Chuo 289 km Shin-Tosu (> Nagasaki in 2022), Kurume, Kumamoto, Sendai

From Shin Aomori (North of Honshu) to Kagoshima (South of Kyushu) there are about 2,200 kilometers of Shinkansen lines, completed by 200 additional lines in March 2016 from Hakodate (South of Hokkaido)

Click here on our map to show it bigger:

Map of Shinkansen lines in Japan

The Shinkansen also is declined in several types, whose fastest are those stopping in fewer stations. Here are the main types (names depending on the regions):

  • Nozomi / Mizuho / Hayabusa (equivalent to an Express), the first two not being compatible with a JR Pass
  • Hikari / Sakura (equivalent to a Rapid)
  • Kodama / Tsubame (equivalent to a Local)

A good piece of information: the journey between Tokyo and Kyoto lasts 2h20 with a Nozomi, 2h40 with a Hikari and 3h30 with a Kodama train. The Nozomi was inaugurated in 1992.

To celebrate the 20 years old birthday of theEvangelion anime, JR created a Kodama with the colors of the Eva-01, circulating from the 7th of November 2015 to March 2018 (more here and there).

The Shinkansen technology is recognized across the world since at the end of 2015, Japan announced developing high speed train projects in India and in the US (between Dallas and Houston) during the coming years.

The next Shinkansen in Japan (serie N700S "Supreme") will be inaugurated in 2020 and its 16 cars will weight 11 tons less than the current trains. It will not be faster (300km/h) but will consume less and offer individual electrical plugs. The Green Car passengers will benefit of 15% more space for their legs.

How to purchase a train ticket in Japan

We can not say it too often : for all information about schedule, hours, prices and stops, the Hyperdia website or application is your best friend. However, it's not possible to order a train ticket online.

Before purchasing a ticket, it is advised to first choose which company you want:

  • Japan Railways / JR (national, sometimes privatized) which covers the most used journeys, cut in several regional parts from the North to the South : Hokkaido, East, Central, West, Shikoku and Kyushu
  • Tens of private companies, on specific regions. We can cite among the most famous ones : Hankyu, Keihan, Keikyu, Keisei, Kintetsu, Odakyu, Sanyo, Tobu, Tokyu…

Note that it's not possible to book a seat (and there are not ticket inspectors) apart from the Shinkansen and the Limited Express. It is useless, therefore, to try booking a seat in less rapid trains.

Without Japan Rail Pass / All companies

In all train stations in Japan you will find some electronic tickets machines.

Above which you will see a poster showing the price of each journey, between the current station (shown in bold or red) and the one of your destination.

Pay at a machine the precise amount corresponding to your journey to obtain your ticket. You will have to punch it in the entrance *and* exit automatic doors, where it will be swallowed. It is therefore important to keep it during all your ride in the train.

As usual, the most practical will be to use a Suica card to:

  • avoid the duration, difficulty and potential mistakes while purchasing individual tickets,
  • save from few tens to thousands Yens (5% on each travel).

With a Japan Rail Pass / on JR lines

If you own a JR Pass (solely valid on JR lines), you chose the most comfortable option since you do not have to bother carrying train tickets.

Simply cross the entrance doors, not the automatic doors while showing your JR Pass at the JR staff.

In the concerned trains (Shinkansen and Limited Express), present your JR Pass to the ticket inspector: 

  • by itself if you are in a non-reserved car;
  • with your reservation ticket if you have a specific seat (see below).

Reserving or not your seat in the Shinkansen

The Shinkansen presents a reservation system very specific, with a particular pricing:

Total price of the ticket = cost of the ride (distance) + eventually the price of a reserved seat (指定席)

The latter is not mandatory because in each Shinkansen, up to 5 (often 3) non reserved-seats cars are in the head or tail of the train. Designated like 自由席 non-reserved, it's possible to get in without paying the price of reservation.

However, here are some non-exclusive cases where it's advised to reserve a seat (which is possible up to 6 months in advance):

  • by possessing a JR Pass (the reservation price is already included);
  • during the most frequented hours (7-9am / 6-8pm / weekends) or in holiday seasons (Silver and Golden weeks / Obon / New Year season) during which trains are more busy, even crowded;
  • if you want to be sure to have a seated space, especially in the longer rides, or to do the ride next to somebody in particular (children for example);
  • to travel quietly (there are less people in reserved cars and often a more "business" population);
  • if the Shinkansen does not have non-reserved cars (which is rare).

 In the case where you would choose a non-reserved seat, it's advised to arrive in advance to be at the beginning of the line for entering the car: first arrived, first served !

Some reserved cars are "silent cars" in which it's forbidden to talk louder than whispering: please do respect this rule if you travel inside one of them.

Reservation process

Only one address: go to the green JR counters in train stations みどりの窓口 "Ticket Office" (sometimes JR全線きっぷうりば ).

If you do not speak Japanese, and because most of the staff does not understand English, write on a paper the desired information, especially stations and hours of departure and arrival, places on the train (window side is 窓側 madogawa). It is possible to reserve all your rides at once if you already have a planned itinerary. However, you will need your JR Pass in hand to book for free.

Tickets will be printed out in Japanese or in English. Usually, the JR staff does it in the international version for foreigners. The dedicated agent will systematically reserve seats next to each other if possible. The number of the reserved seat is composed of the number of the car, one figure (the row) and one letter (the seat, from A to E in most trains).

Note that it is extremely hard to book you tickets on the Internet for foreigners: Japanese people can do it on the not glamorous JR Cyberstation, from 6:30am to 10:30pm Japanese time! However, for those possessing a Japan Rail Pass, JR East (Tokyo region) only gives a possibility here in English, mostly for trains going from and arriving to Tokyo. Due to regional division, the Tokaido journey (towards Kyoto and Osaka among others) is unfortunately not among the given possibilities.

In the train, the ticket inspector will ask your ticket only once, even if he comes back later during the ride.

Discounts on tickets prices

There are several classes for traveling, but mostly only on Shinkansen:

  • "ordinary": equivalent to a second class in the pricing but first class in comfort and practicity;
  • "Green Car", the Japanese first class which requires a specific JR Pass;
  • "Gran Class" (on only few Shinkansen, not compatible with the JR Pass), the luxury range with large seats, that can be tilted up to 145°, with free drink and food.

Often times, the best discount (without counting it numerous other practical aspects) consists in traveling with a JR Pass, offering the free train rides with JR during the total chosen period.

Recently, JR Tours (JR travel agency) offers a small discount on individual tickets, for the non-carriers of JR Pass: Platt Kodama. As its name says, the promotion is valid only on this Shinkansen type, the slowest of the Tokaido. But it still allows to save from 20 to 30% off the public price.

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