Trains, trains, and more trains in Japan

You may be planning your trip to Japan and wondering how will I ever figure out those trains? No need to worry. Japan has the most efficient and cleanest public transportation systems that I’ve ever experienced. You can do this! Here are 10 important tips to get you well on your way to train and subway travel.

  1. Get the JR Pass – The number one question on the Trip Advisor forum are those asking for help figuring out whether or not their trip plans justify buying this pass. The quick answer is if, at minimum, you plan to travel from Tokyo to Kyoto and back within 7 days – buy it! The pass costs ~$250pp for 1 week pass and must be purchased prior to your arrival in Japan. JR Pass can only be used by those visiting from another country. The pass allows unlimited access to all JR trains – this includes most of the high speed shinkansen trains, Narita Express from Narita airport into Tokyo, certain city trains such as the JR Yamanote Line in Tokyo and buses/trams/ferries as long as their are JR. We used JR Pass for our first week where we traveled from Tokyo -> Kyoto -> Nara -> Osaka -> Hiroshima/Miyajima (ferry included) -> Tokyo. When arriving in Narita airport and clearing customs, our first stop was the JR Station inside the airport. We brought our JR Pass vouchers (Sent to us via FedEx within 2 days of ordering online) which were exchanged for the JR Pass card and booklet. You should also use this opportunity to reserve a seat for your train travel that day – no need to reserve for future travel days to allow much appreciated flexibility.
  2. Flash the Pass – One of the best benefits of the JR Pass that few told me about in advance, was how easy it was to use for immediate train travel. There is no need to buy tickets in advance. To use the pass, you show up at the JR train station and go through the line where there is a JR employee and simply flash the pass to get through. You can then walk on to any train and enjoy your ride. For longer rides, such as the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto, I advise 1 extra step, when you are at the ticket window to flash your pass, ask the JR employee to give you a reserved seat on the next train. They will print you a ticket with a car and seat number. Upon arrival at your destination, you will need to flash your pass again as you exit the train station.
  3. Hyperdia app – Easy to use phone app to provide real-time train schedules. There is a great button in this app to select ‘JR Trains Only’ so that you are only shown the options that are covered with your JR Pass.
  4. Google Maps – This app was more useful to understand your entire trip from the hotel to the station, the train ride and then from your destination train station to where ever you plan to go.
  5. Food and drink on the train – In Japan it is considered rude to walk and eat/drink It is however, perfectly fine to eat and drink on the train. The train station is filled with many stores and restaurants that sell ready to eat meals and drinks that you to buy and bring with you on the train. Beer and alcoholic products are also fine. You can purchase beer from vending machines as you wait for the train to arrive. The longer train rides will have a food cart you can purchase from, but keep in mind that credit cards are not accepted.
  6. Speed – The high speed Shinkansen trains allow you to travel half way across Japan in just 2-3 hours. This will allow you to plan for day trips between cities where you will have enough time to get to your destination, explore and then have enough time to return back to your home city hotel. We were able to explore Nara, Osaka and Hiroshima/Miyajima as day trips, returning to our Kyoto hotel each night.
  7. Subways – The best way to figure out how to get there on the subway is to use Google Maps. Subways in Kyoto were easy as there were only 2 lines, Osaka with 8 and I believe Tokyo with 13. Tickets may also be confusing to buy as there are multiple subway companies. My advice is to purchase the Pasmo/Suica card in Tokyo (ICOCA card works the same in Osaka). You can purchase the card at any automated ticket machine and simply load money onto the card (cash only). There is a 500y deposit that you will get back, along with any remaining balance, when you hand the card in at the train station. Note that Suica card can be returned to JR station for refund, while Pasmo is to be returned at any non-JR station for refund. Any of these cards will work at any station. You can also use the cards for purchases at the train/subway station. With this card, you will not need to buy any tickets just press the card for the gate to open in any subway station. You will see the charge display on the screen and your remaining balance.
  8. Taxi – Subways tend to stop operating around 11pm or midnight. We had to use the taxi a couple of times to get back to our hotel. The taxi’s were very clean and all have automatic opening doors. The drivers were very friendly and were dressed in business suits with white gloves. It can be costly, but will be a safe, comfortable ride.
  9. Uber – You can use the popular app for limo service, but standard UberX is not yet available in Japan.
  10. Clean is an understatement. These train stations and the trains themselves are spotless. Tokyo is the biggest city in the world, with millions of people a day riding the trains and there is no trash anywhere. This is the biggest difference between public transport that you may have experienced in other parts of the world. Enjoy the experience. You got this!

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