Traveling by train in Japan is a culture unto itself. In large cities, like Tokyo or Osaka, the trains can seem frenetic.  Packed to bursting with a non-stop barrage of possible connections and transfers to buses, subway, and other trains. And it can get busy…  The jam-packed trains that occur during rush hour in Japan are almost common knowledge around the world. It’s true and it’s wild. Yet despite the hustle and bustle trains are almost always on time to the second.

Outside the cities train rides take on the impression of a quiet peaceful stroll through the countryside. Maybe the best way to take in the dramatic landscapes that make up the coast and mountainsides.

Why Take the Train

Whether you enjoy them or not, trains in Japan are extraordinarily convenient, clean, and widespread. Trains go almost everywhere in Japan and connect all the major islands either via bridge or tunnel. Ferries also make up parts of the train network where rail lines are unavailable.

You can also purchase many regional or local souvenirs and snacks from the train station shops.  Train stations tend to be the heart of the surrounding community and many of the main roads lead or connect there. So it’s another reason why travelling by train is so convenient. Buses or taxis, bicycle rental, and many shops are often located right next to the train station.  In Japan trains and train tracks find their way into almost every landscape.  Both urban and rural.

Trains and train stations are often the centre of any given neighbourhood or city. As such you'll often see train tracks crawling through both urban and rural landscapes.

Trains and train stations are often the centre of any given neighbourhood or city. As such you’ll often see train tracks crawling through both urban and rural landscapes.

Be Prepared

When you don’t speak the language the idea of using public transit can seem daunting. With one or two trips you’ll feel quite comfortable navigating the Japanese system. But there are a few things you might want to know before showing up at the station with a full day of travel planned.

You need to know where you want to go. Often true in life, but even more so when you’re getting on a train in Japan. Much like most transit throughout the world the further you go, the more you pay. To determine what your fare is going to cost, you need to check the fare board. The fare board is a map of the train line or network at your location indicating your starting point and the cost to travel to any of the connected destinations. Identify where you’re going and the cost so you can pay the appropriate amount at the ticket machine or counter. On many urban area train lines the fare board will provide the destination names in Romanized spelling.  But in smaller rural areas you’ll need to know the Japanese spelling for your desired stop.

Six students are lined up on the train platform waiting for the train to arrive. Their backs are to the camera in this black and white photo

Students are lined up waiting for the train they’ll take to get to school.


Buying Your Ticket

Once you know how much your fare will cost you need to buy your ticket. You can buy your ticket at a ticket machine or from the counter. In some cases you may only buy your ticket from a person at the counter.  But it’s not that hard even when you don’t speak the language! Either write the location or fare amount on a piece of paper or your phone and they’ll quickly know what you need. Give them your money and off you go. To purchase a ticket from a ticket machine you select the number of tickets needed, then the fare amount you want, insert your money, and take your ticket. Most ticket machines have an English language option.

Now the dreaded ticket gate…  An IC card makes this easy.  Otherwise insert your ticket at the front of the gate, it will be read, stamped, punched, and automatically passed through to the other side, the gate panels will open, you walk through, and at this point you try really hard not to forget your ticket. Truth be told, I had never used a ticket gate like this prior to moving to Japan and I had train station attendants chasing me down to hand me my ticket on more than one occasion.

Here’s another tip: don’t instinctively run when someone calls after you and is only trying to be helpful.

Train Etiquette and General Tips

Find your desired platform by checking the displays or signs posted and line up in the indicated area. Let people off before you get on and take off any backpacks or bulky bags you may be carrying. Feel free to use your phone for general texting, browsing, or whatever, but know that taking a phone call and speaking on your mobile are considered extremely rude. If you’re visibly foreign you’re unlikely to have anyone call you out on it but please know that you’re a jerk.

As an additional note the general train etiquette listed above isn’t exclusive to Japan. It’s supposed to apply everywhere. I’m looking at you North America.

If for some reason you lose your ticket en route, or say, run away from the person returning it to you – you know, like smart people do – then you will be required to pay the largest fare possible on the line when you arrive at your destination. Your ticket indicates where you’ve come from and the fare you’ve paid.  Without it you may just as well have come from the most distant stop and will be charged as such.

Pay attention to the stops and listen for yours to be announced. Once you arrive at your destination, hopefully with ticket in hand, insert your ticket at the gates and they will open allowing you to leave. At this point the ticket will not be returned to you.

An orange two car train is alone on the tracks at a rail yard.

This switch yard isn’t even one of the larger ones you’re likely to see during a trip to Japan.

Fare Adjustment

If you do overshoot your destination or decide to go further it’s not a big deal. There are fare adjustment machines you can use before exiting or you can pay at the ticket counter. To use the fare adjustment machine insert your ticket, indicate how much fare you’d like to add, pay, and then leave with your amended ticket.

It’s important to note that machine ticket gates may not be in use at smaller train stations or stops. In some cases you’ll simply hand your ticket to an attendant as you enter or leave. On a regular route I used to travel there was sometimes just a box and the honor system as you left.

Plan Your Trip

There you have it. If you read the above you’re set to ride the rails in Japan. The high-speed shinkansen trains are a bit of a different story. If you have a multiple stop trip or one with a number of connections I’d recommend using Hyperia or Google Maps to plan in advance. HyperDia has an easy-to-use English interface and allows you to make plans excluding the more expensive shinkansen or express lines if need be.